Thursday, 28 January 2016

Illness and Ghost Stories

Funny things happen to your consciousness when you're not very well. As the gabble and rush of everyday life fades, and your mind is quieter, ordinary consciousness frays, creating doorways to other places.

Gradually, the lights go down and your consciousness retreats into the dark. And however unlikely the supernatural might seem in the Apollonian daylight, it seems far closer to reality in illness.

Having been ill -- again -- over the last week, and stuck inside, I've been in the mood for ghost stories. I've been poring over a couple of albums of Simon Marsden, photographs of spooky mansions, always Gothically inspiring.

And unlike the Romantics, I haven't needed to stuff myself with meat just before bedtime to have weird dreams. The weather has helped: a grey, gloomy, if unnaturally warm January, and when I popped my head out, briefly, there was a storm of rooks above me. It almost felt like a portent.

 I'm also halfway through a very 21st century satire/horror novel, Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix, set in an Ikea knockoff called Orsk ("If you're not sure, just Orsk"). It's hard to decide what's more horrific; the ghost story elements of the tale, or the totalitarian nature of total immersion retail.

The protagonist, Amy, an Orsk 'partner,' works around the clock, is (thankfully) deeply uncommitted to the Orsk ideology, and is living hand to mouth. The Orsk store is a huge retail box, including a showroom presenting probably unattainable ideals in home furnishing. There's also something going wrong. A lift doesn't work, people are receiving odd texts at work, there's some rather strange graffiti in the toilets, and a nasty smell on one of the showroom sofas.

Then her least favorite manager asks her and a colleague to do an extra night shift, to find out exactly what been going wrong, and of course, all hell breaks loose.

The reason I like reading books like this is because the supernatural is presented as a disruptive force that upsets ordinary, rationalized, routine, deadening, suburban life. Stephen King has commented that this is a basic horror trope. This disruption is normally dealt with, fairly brutally; King also notes that the morality in horror is essentially conservative (See his Danse Macabre)

I don't know, through: maybe I'm on the side of the spooks. Maybe we need our routine lives disrupting from time to time. I think that we pay a price for order. Everyday life is often maintained by a kind of passive violence that seems to me to drive people nuts at times, perhaps in part because it excludes the wondrous, the numinous and the sublime.

But people cannot live on elaborate and mostly beige home furnishings alone. and the price for doing so might be worse than the most horrific supernatural manifestation you can imagine.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Green Eyed Monster

At Christmas, I received the biography of an author whose work I’ve loved for over twenty years. The bio was great, but it also left me with terrible feelings of envy, reading about all the wonderful projects he’d already completed by my age.

I suspect that a lot of writers feel like this at times.

I’ve always been a little ashamed of these emotions, because they run counter to my values, which are egalitarian. But I think they spring from feeling forced by circumstance, and socio-economic conditions, into competition with other writers. In other words, they're a survival response.

The problem is that, in writing, an element of competition seems to me unavoidable. When you submit a short story you are competing in quality and marketability against all the other people who also want to see their work in print. And this competition can be fierce: at the Guardian Masterclass I attended recently, they told us that the ‘Comment is Free’ section of the paper received 200 pitches a day.

At times this can seem like a dog eat dog world of social Darwinism, where everyone's fighting for scraps. This also runs counter to my values; it’s also the default mode of what Oliver James calls ‘selfish capitalism,' an ideology that erodes wellbeing and happiness, and rewards very few.

Instead of a world where few people ‘win’ and a lot of people ‘lose,’ the ideal should be win/win. Everyone has something in which they can excel, and the best aspects of the writers' communities of which I've been a part is mutual aid and cooperation, not hostile competition.

As for envy, Dennis Palumbo, in his Writing from the Inside Out, admits that it was 'the dirty little secret’ of his own writing life, and notes that while for some, it’s a spur, for others envy can result in ‘a crippling paralysis.’

I’m without doubt in the latter party. All envy has ever done for me is to freeze up the creative process and destroy peace of mind. But twinges of it seem unavoidable, especially in a competitive situation.

Palumbo concludes that if nothing else, envy ‘informs us of how important our goals are’ to us and suggests that the emotion is a consequence of doing ambitious things. My own solution is mindfulness; to acknowledge the envy, but not to let it dominate things, and in response, to change focus to the everyday, creative process. Usually, this works quite well. Usually….

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The Starman's Waiting in the Sky.

I'm what you might call rather backward, musically. I probably owe what musical tastes I have to two friends of mine (brothers) from sixth form who had a massive vinyl collection and an eclectic taste in tunes. But David Bowie was one person who didn't pass me by.

Much of the footage of Bowie has been of his glam-rock phase, or the duets with Freddie Mercury or Bill Cosby, which were probably his tamest moments. But there was another Bowie, a weirder Bowie (if that's possible) that the teenage me thought was just, well, amazing. Take the following cameo in David Lynch's Fire Walk with me:

Also see Bowie's concept Album Outside, which  I found in a second hand record shop in Brighton and which was also very weird but in some way, great. (Lynch used one of the best songs from the Album, "I'm deranged," on the soundtrack of his 1997 movie, Lost Highway). 

Someone said to me yesterday  that he liked Bowie's earlier stuff, but he was not so hot on his post-80s work. I beg to differ. What he did might not have always worked, but he could be a daring and original songwriter, right up to the end; I was delighted with the album the Next Day

I spent my free time yesterday listening to Bowie tracks and was quite surprised to see how many of his albums I had. I hadn't realised, either, what an impact he had. I'm not really a great fan of the media rhapsodizing of him (and I DON'T think his death 'was a work of art,') but I will miss him, and I'm sad he'd not around anymore, on this plane of reality, anyway....