A Spark In The Background Noise, The Rebel With A Clue :
An Interview With Richard Calder
by Michael Lohr
“The Devil really does have all the best tunes.”
Roger Cardinal originally coined the term “outsider art” in 1972 to describe Jean Dubuffet’s eccentric but excellent work, but it should have been coined for Richard Calder. Richard has made a career of providing us with a super-surging, neuron burning, paradigm shift when it comes to ground-breaking genre fiction. Legendary genre writers like Michael Moorcock and Norman Spinrad have sung his praises on the public record and with good reason. Calder is a literary maverick. He started off normal and boring enough as an English Literature professor at the University of Sussex. But being born in the same place as the Ratcliffe Highway murders and the infamous Jack the Ripper murders, Whitechapel, London, something dark and loathe like the ghost of Egyptian outcast god Setesh or Johnny Rotten crept into his psyche at an impressionable age. Something began calling to him, moving him to paint previously unexposed wordscapes of unparalleled diversity and peculiarity.
Puddle jumping around from London to Nongkhai, Thailand to the Philippines he absorbed many influences from around the world. From his debut novel Dead Girls, to the sequel Dead Boys, to such astonishing novels as Cythera, Frenzetta, Impakto and Lord Soho, Richard always seems to grasp the sense of the alien. He finds a way to expose the remote and uncomfortable. He forces us to stare into the sun until the penumbra of predictable culture and bland behaviour is forevermore burned away.
ML : Does the muse ever surprise you in unpleasant ways ? In other words, are you one of those people that have notepads and pens scattered about the house and car because you must be prepared for those moments when you are suddenly struck by the muse ?
RC : My muse is my doxy. (She’s my heterodoxy, too, of course.) And she belongs to me and no one else. That’s partly because she’s the jealous type, but also (I wipe a tear from her eye as she hears me say this) because no one else will have her. We first met when I was about, what ? Five years old, I suppose. At that age I didn’t quite know who or what she was or where she had come from. I still remain largely ignorant of her origins. But we grew up together. And what I do know is this : she is something of an outcast : a street-girl, an errant gypsy, a marvellous minx on the run from a reform school for delinquent muses - a ‘lost girl’, perhaps. (I sometimes think of her as an exquisite mélange of Candy Darling and Wendy Darling.) I took her in and she chose to stay, evolving from childhood playmate to seductress to criminal accomplice, offering creativity in return for the things that constitute ‘normal life’. It’s been a long engagement, a scarlet betrothal that - since her aim is to utterly possess me - can, alas, only end one way.
It follows that I have never been surprised - either pleasantly or unpleasantly - or indeed ‘struck’ by her. Manifest, she is no proverbial flash of lightning. Rather, she is the familiarity of the unfamiliar ; the constant weirdness that walks by my side ; the shadow that I see going before me when the black sun that illuminates the worlds of the infernal imagination is directly above my head.
But if she lends herself to metaphor, she also has a more literal existence. Difficult as it is to explain - and for obvious reasons I have not been in the habit of trying ; a writer may wish to sound insanely fascinating, but not plain, barking mad - I have sometimes encountered her while in a state of liminal gnosis. And at such times she is as uncompromisingly physical as she is real.
It remains the case, however, that whatever poetic, psychosexual or preternatural nomenclature I might employ to describe or explain my muse, the central fact for me as a writer and a man is that she possesses a reality greater than that of anything, or anybody, I have ever known. When I was a child, she opened doors, offering me visions of people and places radically different from the grey, oppressive world around me ; moreover, she shaped my central thematic concern - amour fou - and largely through unabashed personal example. I can’t tell you her name. She would surely protest. (Besides, she so often changes it.) I can’t describe her either. (She makes public appearances, but hides her coy eyes behind the domino of fiction.) But she is probably the sole reason I write. And so I do what she commands, since I owe her everything.
One must be mindful of the caprices of little princesses of death.
ML : What is your opinion on the disappearance of the midlist and is there a chance it will ever return ?
RC : The disappearance of the midlist seems to be one element in a more general trend involving the gradual undermining of diversity. Despite talk of the ‘New Weird’ and the ‘British Boom’, there’s not much new, or indeed weird, out there in SF or Fantasy if we take ‘new’ and ‘weird’ to mean genuinely original, difficult, bloody-minded, or even painful and upsetting. That’s not to say there’re not good authors writing good books. But part of the problem is that a good book can so easily mean a safe book : one that is competently written and fits easily into a slot, finds a ready audience (rather than creating one, which all genuinely original books do) and rocks the cradle rather than the boat.
I come down, with some vested interest here, I suppose, on the side of eccentric vision. But with more and more money going to fewer and fewer authors, a reluctance by publishers to nurture talent, committee-ism rather than individualism and the belief that blandness is a safe bet - all in all, a general pusillanimity of approach - eccentric visionaries will undoubtedly find it harder to survive under the aegis of corporate publishing.
The problem, as I’ve suggested, is a general one. That means that asking if the midlist will return is rather like asking if we can expect other kinds of diversity - linguistic and geo-biological, for instance - to hold out against the threat of cultural homogenization. As we all know, globalization’s more insidious effects are creating a standardized world, a banal unity of peoples, languages, economies, customs and ultimately, perhaps, affect. We may expect a concomitant standardization of the imagination - a consensus that we will all come to be judged by. Those found wanting face greater dangers than not being published ; they face social marginalization, with those who define the consensus displaying an increasing willingness to criminalize non-conformity in terms of disgust and terror.
ML : The Lord Soho series held some rather dark and acrid views of your fellow Englishmen. Now that you have returned to your East End roots, has your opinion of your homeland changed ?
RC : I’ve been back in London for a few years now, and I often feel as if I’m living in two worlds. In one, reality has become what we are shown by cameras or otherwise experience through the agency of the mass media. The other - a secret world - is my refuge. I own to a morbid fascination with the hyper-London that constitutes the former reality, or post-reality - its noisy, euphoric, but paradoxically empty spaces that people try so desperately to fill with equally empty quests for personal fulfilment. Narcissism, celebrity, emotionalism, self-pity, hysterical forms of hedonism, panic and gross levels of self-esteem - all aspects, of course, of the postmodern writ large - for me possess a strange and seductive pathological splendour. But that other, secret world is my temporary home. I’m an inveterate flâneur and when I’m not writing, reading, watching movies or doing the things necessary to survive, I spend my time pacing the streets of London, East and West. London is a beautiful and very mysterious city, and in its nooks and crannies I find that I leave the shallow, glossy surfaces of the twenty-first century and descend into other, quite alien depths. And that, I suppose, is how I perceive my country these days : a place of surface and plane whose interstices contain stairwells and galleries leading into a subterranean world that I tend to think I can make my very own, personal space. For wherever I live - whether in England or abroad - I am first and foremost a subterranean.
ML : One of your favourite novels is Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Within the science fiction genre whose work first influenced you to write and whose writing do you still find the most fascinating now and why ?
RC : I was certainly quite influenced by the New Wave. Individual writers like Ballard and Moorcock were, and remain, important to me, but the most lasting influence was certain ideas that the New Wave ‘movement’ promulgated or which surrounded it. The idea, for instance, that SF could do anything, go anywhere and appropriate the stylistic and cultural concerns of writers like William Burroughs. SF, it followed, had more in common with the counter-culture than the bourgeois novel ; it was more ‘zeitgeisty’. In other words, the New Wave encouraged a belief that SF could be a radical and experimental literature.
For quite a few years I lost interest in SF completely. I then began reading Interzone and became switched on to the whole cyberpunk phenomenon, particularly the work of Gibson, Jeter, and Rucker, writers who seemed to mirror so many of my own influences, from Burroughs to The Velvet Underground. Like the New Wave, cyberpunk implied that SF could be a visionary literature and absorb and freely use modernist and postmodern techniques.
ML : What writer from outside genre writing do you find the most fascinating ?
RC : I’m a kind of serial monogamist in this regard : I fall in love with many writers, and have desperate little affairs with them (so to speak), and then - irredeemable cad that I am - pass on to someone else. Over the years there’s been William Burroughs, Vladimir Nabokov, Angela Carter - all of whom I’ve had babies by, so to speak (Burroughs somewhat appropriately gave birth to Dead Boys). At the moment I’m reading Zola, a writer whom I have conceived an immense passion for. I also seem, of late, to be fascinated by books on fashion, such as Caroline Evans’ Fashion at the Edge, and - since I am writing a series of stories set in an erotically charged and extremely perverse alternate late nineteenth-century London - books on Victorian corsetry, such as Valerie Steele’s The Corset, Leigh Summers’ Bound to Please, and David Kunzle’s Fashion and Fetishism. The 1870s-1880s - a temporal cornucopia of whalebone, tight-fitting gloves, trim ankles and artificial hair - was a period far more perverse and fetishized than our own. And it provides a suitable mirror for my own imaginative obsessions.
ML : Your characters seem to always be longing for a sense of place, be it a metaphysical, spiritual or material much like W. Somerset Maugham’s characters. Is this a reflection of your own personal longing for elsewhere ?
RC : I can’t think of a time when I haven’t longed to be elsewhere. But all outsiders are, perhaps, engaged not merely in perpetual escape attempts, but in a search for a place they can call home. I’m an only child, and I think all only children quickly develop a sense of themselves as different. By my mid-teens, this sense of difference was compounded by the fact that the milieu I was growing up in was antithetical to my increasingly bookish concerns. I became aware that - when suburban habit is stripped away - a mean-hearted, petty, spiteful and often violent world bubbles to the surface, like pus from a lanced boil. I mentioned in another interview what a revelation Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party was. (A television drama first screened in 1977 which satirized England’s lower middle-classes, and which is funny, embarrassing, but ultimately quite shocking.) As a protective mechanism, despising my surroundings became something of an addiction and - aware as I am of the element of ridiculousness in all this - a pose. I withdrew into imaginary worlds that, later in life, I seem to have tried to superimpose on places I have run away to, such as Thailand. This sense of rootlessness persists. And I still seek, not so much the foreign - I am not in love with the alien per se - but a place that can accommodate me and give my sense of alienation some respite.
ML : Pop culture question alert ; have you ever attended an American rodeo or the Burning Man festival in Nevada ? Oh, and have you ever considered entering the International Air Guitar Championship held in Finland every year ? I think they pay $25,000 to the winner.
RC : There’re a lot of festivals, masquerades, Derby Days and works’ outings I haven’t attended, including all of the above. I must say though, that the thing I most regret never having attended is a bullfight. A considerable gap in my education, I feel, for I am sure that I am an aficionado manqué. My imaginative engagement with symbols - the poetry of the corrida - means that I put moral questions regarding the fate of the poor old bull to one side and embrace instead the Catholic eroticization of death.
Of course, it’s cruel. But we’re all killers, in regard to the animal kingdom, at least. The meat that we buy in supermarkets once belonged to chickens, cows and sheep kept in horrendous factory-like conditions and condemned to a short, miserable life. The corrida, in contrast, is bloody but beautiful, and I think it brings us into a better, nobler relationship with killing, and indeed death.
The female bullfighter is for me particularly appealing. There’s a Mexican matador by the name of Cristina Sanchez. She says : ‘The only thing you feel is fear because you know that any minute now, he can get you, and you won’t be able to do anything about it ... The bull, the danger, death, (it’s) all that I need.’ The bull, with its bulk and phallic horns, obviously symbolizes brute masculinity : man as murderous beast. In the ancient world the temple prostitute, or sacred whore, used the arts of love to civilize this brute masculine force. Somewhat differently - but perhaps not too differently - the female matador, that is, the matador as dominatrix, engages in an erotic ballet with bestial man, or rather the animal that symbolizes him, during which she plays, taunts, tortures and then slays him : a killing sanctioned by art, ritual, and dark passion.
I am, then, chiefly interested in bullfighting because of the potent symbols and archetypes it evokes, that is - it’s eroticism.
ML : I heard that in your youth you found inspiration in The Velvet Underground. Is there any other particular music that you find inspirational that helps you write and allows you to tap into your muse ?
RC : For a while, I was listening almost exclusively to classical music, particularly opera. An important piece of background music for Babylon - to be published later this year - was ‘Caro mio ben’, performed by Cecilia Bartoli. Recently, I’ve started to listen to pop and rock music again : Nick Cave and Thea Gilmore, for instance. Cave’s ‘The Ship Song’ brings to mind the closing scenes of Dead Girls, and Gilmore’s ‘Holding Your Hand’ might well have been performed by Primavera.
ML : You characterize yourself as a libertine writer, please explain ?
RC : In the eighteenth century libertinism was a freethinker philosophy, though now, of course, the word tends to simply imply moral dissolution or sexual excess. For me, the eighteenth century definition and the more modern one merge in the writer who focuses on and employs sexual themes to critique society and its often hypocritical mores. ‘Art is vice,’ as Degas said. And I would have to agree, since I want to write books filled with evil - that is, the taboo-confounding, Dionysiac excess that underlines all significant works of art. What is more, I want those books to offer a slap in the face to convention and conformity.
My protagonists are not libertine artists, but they belong to a similar sort of Hell Fire Club, absorbed as they are in quests that take them towards some point of limit experience, a place where the ego’s boundaries and sexual identity dissolve in a non-genital, self-shattering jouissance. The self-abandonment I’ve often hoped to achieve in my fiction - and which my characters seem to be voyaging towards - is an abandonment to bliss, a desire to surrender, to vanish, to be annihilated by a reality greater than one’s own.
ML : What is your fascination with Japanese pop culture like kayokyoku or anime and how has that influenced your writing ? Have you ever had the opportunity to read the novels of Japanese science fiction writers like Chohei Kambayashi or Koji Suzuki ?
RC : I used to listen to quite a lot of Asian pop in Thailand and the Philippines, and I’ve always enjoyed anime, particularly films like Ghost in the Shell (I’m eager to see its sequel, The Innocence), and the compilations Animatrix and Memories. I know of Chohei Kambayashi and Koji Suzuki only through the films based on Yukikaze and, of course, the marvellous Ring.
Japan is a country that exerts tremendous cultural influence, of course, being at once alien and strangely familiar. I thought Kill Bill I & II a very exciting and amusing homage : I loved the high-velocity pacing, manic action routines and the stylish use of anime sequences. Japanese popular film - say, Takashi Miiki’s Ichi the Killer and Battle Royale often does things Western film-makers would not dream of, embodying a psychosexual bravado that I applaud.
ML : Terry Pratchett and Storm Constantine are two British writers who come to mind, who have sold millions world wide, yet have found it difficult to break into the US marketplace. Do you think your novels are a little too cutting edge for American readers in general, or is some other factor hindering your growth beyond cult status in the States ?
RC : My books have always polarized the readership. There are those who enthusiastically embrace them, and there are those who regard them with an unremitting enmity. I am philosophical about this. Books that possess an idiosyncratic temperament are often faced with an uphill struggle. As suggested above, theirs is the classic dilemma of having to create an audience rather than find one. For instance, the ‘Dead’ trilogy has obvious antecedents, but is usually perceived as a thing apart, and as such, difficult to assimilate. It has been the book’s nature, however, to force itself upon people. ‘Art is vice,’ said Degas, and added : ‘You don’t marry it legitimately, you rape it. Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.’ I like to think that, if my books are brought into being by acts of imaginative ravishment, then they themselves - perhaps merely to wreak vengeance - set out to ravish. Suffice to say, they do inflict themselves. They seek to impose their will. And whatever delight they communicate is allied to violence. It follows that, if those who enjoy them are to some extent converts, even apostles, then they are victims, too ; those who howl in protest - not liking, perhaps, what they have been made to see - take my books to a place of lawful execution and stone them before, perhaps, being stoned themselves, like women taken in adultery.
ML : Speaking of Storm Constantine, you both continue to break the narrow-minded mold of sexual myopia that still exists in most genre fiction today. Is this something that you sat out to deliberately do, or did this evolve naturally out of your storytelling abilities ? In other words, was it a natural byproduct of your need as a writer to break new ground.
RC : It has never been a conscious strategy. It has simply been something of a natural thematic focus. I rather grew up pondering issues of sexual identity. Such issues, along with questions of power relationships predicated by gender roles and erotic theatres of domination and submission, have always seemed to both mirror and offer themselves up as interpretations of power relationships enacted in the politico-economic sphere and on the international stage. Genet captured this brilliantly, I think, in his play The Balcony, in which a brothel sells illusions of power in a city convulsed by revolution until the customers assume the true-life roles of army general, judge and prelate that they had previously only fantasized about. The brothel is the world - a microcosm of the world - and the world is a brothel.
But the fact that the world is a brothel - will always, perhaps, necessarily be a brothel, given humankind’s hard-wired predilection for acting out dark fantasies of sex and death - is not I think the crucial issue. Rather it is the question : What kind of brothel ? Or more pertinently : What kind of brothel do we wish to live in ? My own fictional project is increasingly engaged with attempting some kind of answer by trying to understand how history intersects with the more secret history of our hidden desires. In so doing I hope to appropriate and translate the theatrical machinery of authoritarianism into an imaginative game where authoritarianism is subverted by eroticisism and, finally, love.
I’ve seen a few productions of The Balcony, the most recent being the rather odd film version by Joseph Strick. The oddness lies in the cast : Shelley Winters (rather good as the Madam), Lee Grant and ... Peter Falk and Leonard Nimmoy. In other words, Lt. Columbo and Mr Spock !
ML : I’ve heard that your writings have been compared to fellow Englishman William Blake. Do you feel comfortable with such a comparison ?
RC : It’s absurdly, almost grotesquely, flattering - and on that level, it makes me distinctly uncomfortable. Blake was a giant. But he was also something of an outsider artist, too : eccentric, untutored, a little mad, perhaps. He was an obsessed man - and I empathize with all things obsessive. His whole life was spent delineating a very personal, idiosyncratic vision. And if I too am doomed to sweat away at creating my own mythography, and one similarly concerned with a marriage between Heaven and Hell, then I only hope that I die singing, just as he did. There has to be some compensation !
ML : Have you ever seen a UFO or been abducted by aliens ? What is the strangest experience that you have ever had other than the inexplicable assaults by the Kirkus Review ?
RC : I’ve always been interested in mass hysteria, panics - that whole slew of late twentieth-century phenomenon that covers recovered memory, multiple personality syndrome, satanic ritual abuse, and numerous other intellectual pathologies - and equally fascinated by the unquestioning credence it often inspires. I sometimes think we are all living in a Chinese-box fantasyland constructed of ever more paranoid and outrageous conspiracy theories.
I haven’t, not do I expect to be, abducted by greys, small, large or of dimension indeterminate. (If for no other reason than that abductees seem to be preponderantly female !) It would be fun, however, to assume the role of an abductor. (Some years back a cartoon in the New Yorker depicted a middle-aged woman accepting a bouquet from an alien and peevishly commenting ‘I understood there were going to be bizarre sexual experiments.’) If I had a nice little spaceship I could imagine inviting some suitably depraved friends on board and then hovering over Buckingham Palace, the Vatican, the White House, the Kremlin, or some other choice bordello, and fixing my tractor beam on the pimps and whores who run this world, thereafter to subject them to the indignities of my laparoscope and fill the corridors of power with human-Calder hybrids.
Strange experiences ? I suppose I’ve had quite a few. But to dredge up just one : In 1990, shortly after I’d moved to Thailand, a few young men in my neighbourhood had inexplicably died in their sleep. The word swiftly went about that a pee-bop - a kind of female vampire that is all head, chest and exposed entrails, and that floats through the night draining human males of their life essence - was at work. Up and down the street, the local men changed into women’s clothes and started putting on make-up. The rationale was to confuse the pee-bop so that it would pass over them while they slept. After a while, the pressure fell on me to conform. I rather resisted ; for a while, I must admit, I thought I might cut quite a dash in one of my wife’s London-bought dresses and a dash of lipstick. We were so radically mismatched in size, however, that I put the notion out of my head and simply conceded to having my fingernails painted a rather gorgeous shade of plum. I was damned for my foolhardiness ; every night, my in-laws issued a stark warning (and when I look back on it, I cannot help but think they did so with a measure of glee) : I was about to die. But the strategy worked. There were actually several more deaths, but the vengeful female spirit left my farang hide alone. The nail polish did indeed prove wondrously efficacious.
ML : Do you believe your writing has had an impact on popular culture ? Which of your novels do you feel has had the most cultural impact ? Why ?
RC : The extent to which my novels have impacted on the readership seems to be something of an unknown. The comment they have received has always been so mixed. I’m always gratified, and I must say, a little surprised, when I receive emails from people who have been influenced by my work. Fundamentally, writing is quite a lonely business : one doesn’t have that much contact with people while engaged in the creative process, or even after, when a book is published and read.
Over the last fifteen years, I’ve covered cyberpunk, far-future fantasy, alternate history in the form of the Western, and contemporary horror/fantasy. My latest work is an alternate history set in Victorian London. Looking back, I think my most radical and experimental work - the ‘Dead’ trilogy, in other words - may have impacted most deeply. In some sense, I am recreating the ‘Dead’ trilogy in the projects I’m currently working on, but treating its themes - or so I hope - in a more considered and disciplined way.
ML : How does the microcosm of the British literary scene differ from the rest of Europe or the US ?
RC : I’ve never really been much involved in any ‘scene’ and actually know few other writers. That insularity is personal, but it may, perhaps, also reflect a more general sense of British insularity. I rather admire writers who are islands and whose domestic and foreign policy is underwritten by rigorous self-determination. Such a stance sometimes touches a chord in the wider readership, be it SF/Fantasy or mainstream. K.J. Bishop, for example, is a new writer whom I am sure will carve out her own, personal, and fearless path - she has a captivating and rather fearless mind - but who will also go on to win a bigger and bigger audience. An André Gide quotation adorns her website, and with a tip of my hat in her direction, I reproduce it here, since it sums up my own vision of a writer’s necessarily lonely path : ‘Look for your own. Do not do what someone else could do as well as you. Do not say, do not write what someone else could say, could write as well as you. Care for nothing in yourself but what you feel exists nowhere else. And, out of yourself create, impatiently or patiently, the most irreplaceable of beings.’
ML : Who was your primary inspiration, either style, trend or person that influenced your writing in your formative years ? What is it about Vladimir Nabokov’s writing and Baudelaire’s poetry that you admire ?
RC : During my teens I was greatly influenced by the Symbolists and Decadents. And I enjoyed the sword-and-sorcery novels of Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber because of a congruence of influence in that respect : they evoked the atmosphere of perfume and poison that I discovered in Huysmans, Wilde, Verlaine and Baudelaire. Baudelaire - and of course, you mention Nabokov, too - possess a quality I perhaps admire above all things : elegance - a dandiacal elegance, that is, exquisite propriety married to impertinence, outrageousness, and an ironic detachment from the world.
I often enjoy strolling along London’s Jermyn Street. (It’s dedicated to bespoke suits, shirtmakers, shoemakers and the like, and has a statue of Beau Brummel at its Burlington Arcade entrance.) In the days before I became an impoverished scribbler, I’d often shop there. (Church’s, which make my favourite brogues, were a favourite port of call.) If I’d been a young man in the early sixties, I daresay I’d have been a Mod. These days I aspire only to be a thrift-shop dandy. A hand-me-down swell. A dispossessed masher. A charity-case Lord Muck.
I’ve always had a festishistic interest in clothes. In my writing - and words for me are themselves fetishistic - people and places possess artificial, sartorial personalities, thus my penchant for dolls, automata, cybernetic organisms, animal-human hybrids, and, yes, dandies. My writing is, in some ways, a masquerade - an exercise in ‘dressing up’. It’s a form of childlike play, I suppose, and as such - translated into the adult world - an adjunct of world-building.
Dandyism in modern mass culture has evolved into camp. And I like to think of myself as a somewhat camp exponent of linguistic dandyism.
ML : You’re probably the only science fiction writer I know of, with maybe the exception of Robert Rankin, that has been influenced by Punch & Judy. How so and why not Benny Hill ?
RC : I am Mr Punch. Or at least, I become him when I write. He’s always been a hero of mine : a black comedian who rejoices in his own, dark energy and wickedness. I have always appreciated black comedy and romps. And Mr Punch is the high priest of the black romp. (He hangs the hangman. He defeats the devil. He’s the worst of the worst and the best of the best.) If Mr Punch had put aside his club and taken up a pen (and for once tried to forget about throwing the baby out of the window) he would have assumed the nom de plume of Richard Calder.
British people are often puzzled at Benny Hill’s popularity in the States. We tend to think of the U.S. as a nation that creates urbane sit-coms, like Frasier and Friends. Personally, I’ve always quite liked end-of-the-pier comedy, particularly the ‘saucy’ seaside-postcard variety complete with appalling double entendres. I like word play and am a bit of a sucker for puns. And I can appreciate jokes that are funny simply because they’re so awful. But I must count myself as another Brit who finds someone like Benny Hill decidedly passé.
ML : You once made the statement that science fiction is the province of literary outlaws and to an extent I agree, though I would digress from that opinion only in relation to those writers of the horror genre. Writers such as John Shirley, Ed Lee or Poppy Z. Brite are the true black sheep of the literary world. Is this a fair assessment to make ?
RC : SF should be the province of outlaws of all kinds. It is, after, a genre readers come to in the expectation of encountering alienness and unusual, or plain bizarre, ideas. So often, however, SF merely feeds on itself, reiterating exhausted tropes, or serves to reinforce the chauvinistic and conservative notions that underlie, say, the sub-genre of Space Opera. It’s true that Horror is often more challenging. Think of David Cronenberg’s work, for instance. SF seldom has the visceral gusto and attack of films like Shivers, Rabid, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, and Naked Lunch. What is interesting about Cronenberg, of course, is that he so often combines SF with Horror. And that is what I believe identifies the true black sheep : that they work within expanded parameters that ultimately defy genre. Cronenberg’s films are not so much Horror or SF, rather, they’re Cronenbergian. We think of them first and foremost as works of personal, idiosyncratic vision, the work, in other words, of an auteur.
ML : Are you talented in any other artistic mediums, such as painting or sculpture ? I heard that you were a jazz musician when you were younger. And what’s this about Gesamtkunstwerk ? Did you ever study Sun Ra’s tripping movements ?
RC : I stopped painting a long time ago. And I haven’t picked up a musical instrument since my mid twenties. (And since that time I don’t recall having listened much to Sun Ra, either.) The Gesamtkunstwerk ? I mentioned my interest in a ‘total’ artwork in a previous interview, of course - an indication perhaps of longstanding megalomania. Writing, one seeks to create worlds, and I’ve often entertained the idea - somewhat fantastically - of creating a ‘real’, three-dimensional world. I’m fascinated by installations and I love the idea of some large-scale counterpart to the universe of my imagination made out of brick, wood and steel, complete with frescoes, photographs, mannequins, sculptures, bric-à-brac, objets and music. This would be a structure you could enter and explore : corridors, secret chambers, mysterious stairwells - and all filled with the archaeological evidence of another, alien world. I would call it something like ‘Elements of a Dead Nymphenberg’, ‘The Ravishment’, or ‘Epigrammatic Fragments Unearthed from the Recent Excavations on the Planet Known as Mlle Violetta X’.
ML : Many of your novels, somewhat unjustly so, have been called misogynistic by some critics. What is your response to this rather brusque classification ?
RC : That it is indeed a brusque and knee-jerk reaction and, what is more, a wholly simplistic way of dismissing an important area of discourse concerning power relationships, whether interpersonal, societal, blatantly sexual, or sublimated.
Power relationships between the sexes, and a concomitant refusal to read power as fate or destiny, is a theme that underlines all my work. Power (in the Calderian universe) is both arbitrarily (and fascistically) imposed from the outside, and subverted - through acts of erotic will - from within (by the appropriation and contradictory exercise of the theatrical machinery, costumery and scripts of institutionalized violence and control for the purposes of pleasure, or even that greatest of liberating forces, love). When social power is scripted, then the possibilities of rewriting, or corrupting, that script - of détournement - present themselves as imaginative possibilities. The narratives of oppression are converted into narratives of rebellion and freedom.
If I’ve been called misogynistic, then it’s been in the context of a perception that some of my work is in some way pornographic. Pornography is not a thing, however, or even a collection of things. It is an interpretation. But if people will argue that we all know what it is when we see or read it, despite the fact that opinions on what is pornographic or obscene change from country to country and from decade to decade, then at least this offers the possibility of a revised and somewhat more useful definition : pornography is that which is excluded from present discourse. It is recognizable as the language of the outside. Pornography is that which is left out, the unsaid. It is the Other, when the Other constitutes all that we cannot acknowledge in ourselves.
ML : Have you ever written a script for either movies or television ? Have any of your novels had their movie rights opted ?
RC : Dead Girls is optioned to an Australian film production company, and I hope to be writing a script. Negotiations are currently underway.
ML : So, what the hell is a nanofash pygmalion ?
RC : The Japanese critic, Takayuki Tatsumi, used that phrase. It refers to the ‘Dead’ trilogy and the fact that the dolls, or gynoids, that feature so prominently in it are constructed by the use of nanotechnology.
ML : Your novels are haunted by the touch of Lilith, the goddess of outsiders et al, in multiple guises. Do you have a particular spiritual bent (Pagan, Deist, Buddhist, Christian et al) or are you purely of the rational and secular ? Do you think there is a place for religion in an advancing society ?
RC : Living in Thailand, I became familiar with Buddhism. (I used to enjoy sitting in temples listening to the hypnotic chanting of the monks.) But I think of myself as an agnostic, and not just in religion, but in so many things. There’re very few things I feel sure of. T.S. Eliot once said scepticism can become a vice. It’s one of my vices, certainly - one amongst many, of course. When I’m in the Far East, however, I simply call myself a Christian. It’s simpler, and people are less likely to turn me away from their hearth and home with a whispered malediction against the Evil One.
The attractions of religion are similar to those of art and eroticism. In my online essay on ‘Sumuru’ I quote George Bataille : ‘Following upon religion, literature is in fact religion’s heir. A sacrifice is a novel, a story, illustrated in a bloody fashion. Or rather a rudimentary form of stage drama reduced to the final episode where the human or animal victim acts it out alone until his death.’ I think of that statement as underlining my artistic project. I want to construct a narrative that will - to paraphrase Foucault - transform unreason into delirium of the heart.
Organized religion is so often repressive. Here in Britain, fundamentalist Christian pressure groups have started flexing their muscles. Television programme makers have been threatened. And there have been calls for the blasphemy laws to be extended. I am against all censorship and reserve the right to criticize, satirize, disrespect or otherwise offend religion and its adherents as I see fit. However, at the same time I’m aware that my country - and the wider world - is devoid of any genuine spiritual life. In its place, we don’t have art, but a blather of emotionalism that takes the form of false tears, panic and a persistent fantasy life founded on consumerist greed.
ML : You once said that “the sacred marriage, or hieros gamos, of the Babylonians, the bloody sacrifices of the Aztecs, the naked Christ nailed to the crucis lingam, all represent a nexus of sex and death.” Would you please explain in detail that statement ?
RC : Blasphemy somehow not merely stands in opposition to religion, but paradoxically embodies the religious impulse in that it seeks to transgress, break taboos, rupture boundaries, and celebrate the petite mort that is akin to the sacred loss of self. Blasphemy is the religion of the artist who instils in his or her congregation the worship not of sex but death, or rather, sex-death. In the narratives I’m currently working on, I’m trying to explore what I see as the necessary link between transgression, or evil, and beauty, or art. For me, this involves a dark hieros gamos, or sacred wedding between a priest-king and sacred prostitute (who traditionally represents the Goddess, but in Calder’s case, the muse). It’s a vision of the alchemical wedding - the marriage of opposites - that is encapsulated in the sexual union between Heaven and Earth ritually enacted by the Babylonians. The dark version is adumbrated in the marriage between the sacred and profane symbolized by the Aztec blood sacrifice, in the vision of Christ self-sacrificed on the phallic cross of his own sexuality, and, more personally, in the iconographic tradition of ‘Death and the Maiden’.
ML : Your novel, The Twist, was influenced by the music of The Cramps and French film director Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece, Orphée. Are all your novels influenced by such wildly diverse sources ? Has the music of Reverend Horton Heat, Hawkwind or the Mars Volta influenced you in any way ?
RC : My novels are indeed influenced by a wide variety of sources - art both high and low. (I’m concerned with perfecting some kind of weld between high and low art.) You mention Hawkwind : I used to listen to them when I was in my mid-teens and reading Moorcock’s sword-and-sorcery sagas. But a more important influence was punk : not just the music, but its ethos.
ML : If you could listen to just one song before you die, what song would it be ?
RC : Something that moved my heart, I suppose, and I am moved most profoundly by things bittersweet. I’ve already cited Cecilia Bartoli’s rendition of ‘Caro mio ben’. Something bittersweet and perverse, too - extremely perverse - might be in order, such as Salome’s Libestod from Strauss’s opera. If I were to choose a pop/rock song using the same criteria : Bowie’s ‘Absolute Beginners’, perhaps, or Siouxsie and the Banshee’s ‘Melt !’
ML : Would you please tell us a little about your new novel, Babylon, forthcoming from PS Publishing this year ?
RC : Babylon is an alternate history. Much of the narrative takes place in the Victorian Babylon of Whitechapel, London, during Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror. But the story also concerns another Babylon : a Mesopotamian Babylon that exists in a parallel dimension, a world populated and ruled by Ishtar’s sacred prostitutes. It’s a story about obsession and ravishment : the call of love and the call of death. And finally, perhaps, it’s a story of death as religion. The novel takes up many of the themes that I’ve focused on in previous novels, but is, I hope, a new exercise in world-building. I hope to write other stories set in the Babylon universe. And with them, I hope to go places I’ve only explored the peripheries of before.
I would like to thank Richard for taking the time to answers these many probing questions. So long until next time, when we will be joining Richard on a holy quest, of sorts, into the cheap and greasy dins of Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Tokyo on the hunt for Betty Boop memorabilia. Also, watch as television cameras record our attempts to smuggle one of those Japanese girl’s panties vending machines through customs. “Why yes indeed officer, we are garment salesmen from Wyoming.”
“The abbreviated version of this interview originally
appeared in Interzone
TTA press Interzone website :
Michael Lohr is a professional, international journalist. His work has appeared in such diverse magazines as Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Economist, Southern Living, Men’s Journal, ESPN the Magazine, Outside Magazine, Caribbean Travel & Life, to name a few. He also happens to fancy genre fiction in particular science fiction and adventure.
His webpage can be found at :