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Black Static


Nicole Cushing Interviewed

24th Jun, 2013

Author: Peter Tennant

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In the current issue of Black Static I review Nicole Cushing's novella Children of No One (DarkFuse) and by way of a follow up to that I asked her to do an 'identikit interview', with half the questions posed by me and the remainder chosen at random from a 'crowd sourced' pool.

Here's the result:-

PT: The old saying goes that there's a fine line between madness and genius. Susan Sontag wrote that the artist's 'principal means of fascinating is to advance one step further in the dialectic of outrage' and the 'exemplary modern artist is a broker in madness', phrases which could very well apply to your character Thomas Krieg. Where do you feel the line can be crossed?

NC: I'm not certain I agree with Sontag. For example, she has also said of the artist: "He seeks to make his work repulsive, obscure, inaccessible." Yet, I think the best outrageous art succeeds because the horrors it depicts are all too accessible in the memories of the traumatized (or on the nightly news, for everyone else). For every Shiny Happy Person who finds outrageous art to be an upsetting intrusion, there's a traumatized and/or alienated person who finds that it brings the solace of community; the comfort in knowing that he or she is not alone in judging life itself (or, at least, many aspects of it) outrageous.

Perhaps the exemplary modern artist is actually a broker in a kind of sanity which only seems like madness to those with limited perspectives.

In Children of No One, the decidedly un-exemplary Thomas Krieg crosses the line because he kidnaps, tortures, and essentially murders dozens of children by trapping them in a completely dark maze and brainwashing them into forgetting light ever existed this side of heaven. (The notion of art coming into the picture by virtue of the fact that he charges hefty admission to a spectator.)

This is, of course, an extreme example. But I think it can serve as a springboard for a more nuanced discussion. Perhaps we can extrapolate backward from Krieg to say that any piece of art that dehumanizes those engaged in its creation crosses the line (which would suggest Tod Browning's film, Freaks, may have crossed the line with its use of actual microcephalics in the cast). If we say Freaks crossed the line, what about the early twentieth century carnival freak shows themselves? Does it make a difference if a so-called "freak" consented to performing as such? Were the microcephalics capable of consent? What about the bearded lady or the little people?

Leaving the confines of the freak show, what about something like the film Gone with the Wind, in which all the black actors had to recite lines that made them sound like simpletons, all in the service of a plot that revised history to idealize a literally dehumanizing institution?  What about Gunther von Hagens' traveling Body Worlds exhibitions (in which actual donated, flayed human bodies are displayed in a variety of poses, after having gone through a preservation process called plastination). Is this dehumanizing the donors? What if they consented to be posthumously dehumanized? At this point, the line becomes gray.

All of this, so far, is focused on one variety of "crossing the line": harm to those engaged in art's creation. Let's look at the other side: the sort of crossing the line that dehumanizes those who consume the art. Does a director filming a military recruitment commercial cross the line when he aspires to convince some kid from Indiana to enlist in a questionable war that ultimately kills or maims him? Is such a director not the true "broker in madness"?

This is a complicated question. Whole books could be written about such a topic. But I think it's definitely an issue worth engaging and revisiting throughout an artist's career.

PT: What are your thoughts on art as outrage? What purpose is served by alienating huge sections of your potential audience? Are there any artists in this vein whose work appeals to you and how?

NC: To me, outrage is low-hanging fruit. Yes, it's an intense audience reaction - but it's also a fleeting one. What was outrageous in horror fiction thirty years ago, for example, is now downright boring (or worse, unintentionally funny). That's the risk an author takes when he or she seeks to outrage. It's too easy for outrageous work to end up trivializing its subject matter. The more extreme the violence, for example, the more difficult it is to maintain emotional realism.

That having been said, I do admire the work of several authors who worked in that vein - it's just that I enjoy them despite the outrage they provoked, not because of it. For example, I admire the work of Hubert Selby, Jr. His fiction certainly triggered outrage at the time it was initially published (including legal efforts in the U.K. to prevent the publication of Last Exit to Brooklyn). But now that whole debacle is almost forgotten. The outrage was transitory. What we remember about Selby's work isn't the outrage it triggered, but rather its skill in putting marginalized people in the spotlight and its skill in using understatement to convey the way horror saturated the social interactions of those people, day in and day out.

I also admire the fiction of the Holocaust survivor Tadeusz Borowski, along with better-known folks like Poe - particularly the Poe of "The Black Cat". I enjoy some (but not all) of Clive Barker's work. I found "The Forbidden" to be a strong story, and enjoyed the play The History of the Devil.

So I think we have to differentiate between "good outrageous work" (for lack of a better phrase) and "bad outrageous work". Selby's work, for example, may have initially alienated audiences, but in the course of a generation or two it was adapted into multiple films. Poe has a firm place in the canon of American literature (not simply the canon of American horror fiction). It's too early to speculate on the ultimate standing of Barker's work. But, in any case, strong work transcends outrage - probably because it has something compelling to say.

PT: I believe I read somewhere that you researched chaos magic for Children of No One. Can you tell us a little bit about this?

NC: At the start of the process, I knew very little about the occult. I wasn't (and still am not) a wiccan or pagan. I had, however, watched the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore and found Moore's take on magick to be a fascinating one. That was the foundation I was working from.

When, in the course of writing the book, I realized I needed to know more about the occult, I posted to Facebook and asked if any of my friends knew someone who might be helpful. One of my friends referred me to Nathan Drake Schoonover (who, it turns out, has made multiple television appearances as an expert in the area). I told Nathan a little about the book and the plans of one of the characters, an occultist named Mr. No One.  He said I might want to look at Theyyam ritual to find the sort of magick Mr. No One would use to incarnate the God of Nothingness, the Great Dark Mouth. So I went to YouTube and watched a few clips of Theyyam rituals. Those videos helped me get a sense of how Mr. No One might dress and act.

From there, I based Mr. No One's ritual on my experience with ritual, elaborated on by my imagination. I was raised Episcopalian (i.e., in the U.S. Branch of the Church of England), so I had a deep reservoir of experience with ritual. At least now I can say that all those Sundays reading from The Book of Common Prayer weren't a complete waste because they helped me craft a dark ritual for a horror book.

PT: What similarities do you see between art and magic? Are they both at bottom attempts to influence reality through representation? How do they differ in their aims and methods?

NC: I'm afraid I lack the necessary experience with magick to be able to make that determination. I'm an atheist and a skeptic about all things paranormal. So I've never practiced magick (although, after listening to Alan Moore, I'm tempted). So, as an outsider to the whole thing, I can only offer a few thoughts.

I think both magick and art can result in immersive experiences which induce altered states of consciousness. As an author, I aim at making my stories as spell-like as possible. I want the reader to forget that they're reading and experience the narrative as another reality - sometimes this is merely gratuitous (another reality can offer escape). But often this other reality can lead the reader to question the nature of reality, itself. If there is more than one reality, then there is - in fact - no reality.

To create an immersive, spell-bound experience for the reader, I focus on each and every word. Everything (style, characters, plot, setting) has to contribute - if only in some small way - to the creation of an inescapable mood which surrounds (possibly, even, engulfs) the reader for the space of the book.

PT: Do you ever test out actions in your fiction by trying or simulating them yourself?

NC: No.

If I were writing fiction that relied on realistic gun play or hand to hand combat, it would probably behoove me to go to a firing range and shoot a weapon or take martial arts classes. But I'm not that sort of writer, so I can pretty much piece scenes together using a combination of imagination and life experience.

PT: Does music inspire your work?

NC: Not on a regular basis. I will say this, though: in the last year or two, my husband has introduced me to classical composers like Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke. I've listened to some of Shostakovich's better symphonies (the Fourth and the Fourteenth, in particular) and admired those pieces for their ability to stir a complex, multi-layered array of thoughts and emotions. At times, I've thought such complexity would be a good fit for my fiction, too. (But I'm ambivalent about that - do people really want or need such complexity in their fiction? Maybe, maybe not. To date, I've not consciously tried to incorporate such elements in my work.)

Lest I come across as a total egg-head (which is just about the worst thing for an American writer to be), I'll also mention that when I was writing The New God - a novella set in the late '80s - I listened to some of the popular music from that time just to retrieve my own memories of the era and what it was like.

PT: Why do you write horror?

NC: When I was six years old, my grandfather died. I remember approaching his casket at the funeral and patting his hand (as if trying to comfort him). I remember how damned cold his skin had become.

Even though I didn't sell my first story for another two decades, I like to think that that was the moment I became a horror writer. That was the moment I had a dark story to tell.

I experienced other troubling times in childhood and adolescence, too.  Suicide and domestic violence were two issues my family faced. And that's just the stuff I feel comfortable talking about. That's not even the bad stuff. Suffice to say, I had my nose rubbed into the unpleasantness of the world from an early age.

It probably also helped that I grew up in the late '70s and '80s - the era of the so-called horror boom in pop culture. This is going to sound bizarre, considering what I just shared about my childhood, but my family forbade me from reading horror books. Death was in our face, but wasn't allowed on the page. Also, I was only rarely allowed to attend movies (and when I did, they had to be family-friendly). But my parents were less-successful in censoring my television viewing (especially once I got my very own black-and-white TV, complete with "rabbit ears" antenna). So I grew up addicted to '80s horror anthology shows like Tales from the Darkside, Freddy's Nightmares, and Friday the 13th: The Series. In retrospect, the shows are - at best - charmingly hokey. But, these all fed the passion.

So, given all of these factors, the more appropriate question might be: "How could I not write horror?"

PT: What can we expect to see from you in the near future? What work do you have in the pipeline?

NC: Just a week or two ago, I signed a contract with DarkFuse for a novella due out in April 2014 entitled The New God. This novella is about twice as long as Children of No One. I'm pleased to be gravitating towards more complicated stories. (I see it as part of my development as a writer, growing towards writing novels and eventually obtaining the services of a literary agent. I'm currently unagented.) In September of this year, a micro-press called Dynatox Ministries will be publishing a limited edition chapbook of my work titled The Choir of Beasts. This is a 10,000 word collection of three previously-unpublished, interconnected short stories. I've also recently pitched another new project - a full-length story collection - to an editor and it seems to have a good chance of moving forward, but it's far too early to discuss in detail at this time.




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