Seasons of horror – John Clute interviewed about Darkening Garden

John Clute‘s Darkening Garden is one of the finalists of the Locus Non-Fiction book awards and has been nominated by the International Horror Guild for the best Non-fiction book award. As ever, he has created a thoughtful and thought provoking book.
What made you come up with Darkening Garden? Is this a prelude to a larger work?
—For about 15 years, ever since Paul Barnett and I began work on what became The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), I’ve been creating grammar models for what one might call the discourse of story in various “realms of the field of the fantastic in literature” — which is a long phrase I’ve recently been reducing for convenience to one word: fantastika — and the 1997 book does of course includes quite a few entries on the shapes of story in fantasy. Some of this has been sophisticated in later essays and things, but the basic four part breakdown of the movement of Fantasy discourse — Wrongness; Thinning; Recognition; Return — is pretty much the same now as when it got articulated back then.
(When I distinguish discourse from story, it is according to an accepted practice whereby the term discourse refers to analysable elements of story, without much heed being paid to the order in which these elements actually appear in any one story, and the term story refers to the particular ordering and flow of those elements of discourse in a particular text. In the end, I think story is far more important than discourse, which means I think my reviews are more to the point of things in the long term than any speculation not tied directly to actual texts — in this, of course, I kind of run counter to the way thematic criticism is done by industry academics, who also, I think, get story wrong. That is another subject.)
To answer your question. The model for fantasy kept itching in my head after 1997, and when I got into some terminological discussions with Neil Gaiman a couple of years ago about how to describe the moves of horror, the penny dropped that I needed for my own modest clarity of mind to do some overall modelling. So I started making sketches of a discourse of horror model. In the meantime, I’d signed a contract with Scarecrow Press to do a short historical dictionary of horror (Brian Stableford has published two dictionaries, of SF and of fantasy, in the same series) and about 2004 or so began to try to draft some horror entries this book. I soon found I was incompetent to do the job as contracted for — I was compulsivelly incorporating all sorts of “discourse of horror” material into my author entries, material that came out of my discussions with Gaiman and others and that had no place in a “short dictionary” — with the result that the entries I did manage to write were 5 times too long, and kind of autodidactic: which is of course like where I come from.
At the beginning of 2006 I cancelled the Scarecrow contract — I think they were rather relieved I did — and sat on the material, like a vast hen. A few months later, Brooks Peck and Jacob McMurray, who run the small press, Payseur & Schmidt, from Seattle, asked me if I had any ideas for a short book. I told them I was sitting on maybe 30,000 words of rough draft essay/entries for an abandoned dictionary of horror, and that I could perhaps rewrite the useful ones — there were about 10,000 words of theme or motif entries in the mix — into shape for a short glance at horror. They said this sounded fine. We worked to an original guess that I’d rewrite the 10,000 words into about 18,000 words of material; in the end this hatched out at about 26,000 words (and I only stopped because we had reached final deadline, and the 30 illustrations were already commissioned; this is why there is no entry, for instance, on AMNESIA, one of the central things to think about if one wants to understand horror, far as I’m now concerned).
The Darkening Garden: a Short Lexicon of Horror is basically standalone, though it could and should be expanded. But it’s not anything like a draft for an encyclopedia of horror.

How did idea for the illustrations come about?
—I think the idea for the illustrations may have been Jacob McMurray’a, as he’s the visual side of things in Seattle. I don’t know whether Jason Van Hollander was also the instigator here, as he and Jacob certainly clearly worked very closely together (though physically far apart: Jason doesn’t tend to stray far from Philadelphia). The game plan for the illustrations very luckily kept me from going all over the map as I wrote — Jacob and Jason needed to know well in advance, so they could assign illustrators, the exact number and title of each of my 30 small chapters. Which meant I couldn’t fart around 3 days from deadline with Brand New Cunning Schemes….

Where does Horror fit into the fantastic?

—In The Darkening Garden I laid down a pragmatic distinction between FREE FANTASTIC, the literature which incorporates a chance of escape from prison, ie fantasy and much SF, and BOUND FANTASTIC, in which the truth to be revealed is that our freedom can almost defined as the GLEE (a missing entry) that one feels when the terrible truth is known. This is the GLEE of Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness.” GLEE is the exhilaration of knowing the truth — even if the truth is that we are here, on this planet, with no escape from prison in view.
These terms come out of a conviction that fantastika is the planetary fiction of the world storm we have been inhabiting since 1750: that that history — the turning of the planet, the flensing of our own human lives into shapes designed (see AMNESIA) to slide futurewards without remoras of our old selves entangling us — may constitute what we escape from (fantasy), fix the carburetor of (SF), or open our eyes to (horror), but that our planetary history is always there: under the skin. As for horror, what I say at the end of a long passage about this in the book is that Horror is that category of stories set in worlds that are false until the tale is told.
That’s one answer.
A more technical answer is to say that — in accordance with the four-part discourse of story model I mentioned above with regard to Fantasy — Horror can also be described as a four-part discourse. I won’t rattle on about that here, as it takes a while to make much sense of, but diagrammatically it fits neatly alongside the Fantasy model: Wrongness in Fantasy being Sighting in Horror; Thinning in Fantasy being Thickening in Horror; Recognition being Revel; and Return being Aftermath.
The final answer is that in the 21st century fantastika as a whole is divided into three parts (for convenience, and because it seems to make sense): Fantasy, SF, and Horror (if I’d had my wits about me a year ago, I’d have insisted on calling it Terror, but it was probably too late to get away with that, even then). And that discourse modelling, which I think of as particularly important in Fantasy and Horror, can also be applied to SF, though SF is so much constructed out of argument that it has less need of decipherment. I’ve cobbled together a four-part model for SF, therefore, just to keep things order, taking my terms from Darko Suvin and Peter Nicholls and (finally) Moi: the full model, for what use it might be out of this context, is as follows: Wrongness, Sighting, Novum; Thinning, Thickening, Cognitive Estrangement; Recognition, Revel, Conceptual Breakthrough; Return, Aftermath; Topia (U- or Dys-).

You have been defining the language and grammar of criticism, in concert with other critics, to best think about the fantastic genres. Do you feel that you are getting closer to a stable language or is it constantly shifting from instant to instant?
—Mutabilitie Is Us. There are bits of all of this which are moderately stable — I’ve for instance been using my Fantasy model for over a decade now. Some of the more descriptive terms (like Polder, or Wainscot) from 1997 seem to be fairly stable. And Edisonade, from the 1993 edition of The Encylopedia of Science Fiction, seems to have become a fairly wide used descriptive term. But the heavy stuff (that is, autodidactic models that break thousands of works down into four-part gavottes) is unlikely to stay still, either in my mind, or in the minds of anyone else inclined to use (and transform) bits of them.

Do you feel that your own definitions shift with your understandings?

—I think I’ve answered this already, in the affirmative….

You comment in the book that the fantastic genres can only understand themselves once the world understands itself whilst also betraying the falseness of the ambitions to control the world. Is the fantastic, and especially the horrific, the dark side of the Enlightenment, that we need to constantly question and undermine our perceived stability?

—This relates to comments I made above about fantastika being the planetary form of fiction for our times. Our awareness that we are living on a planet (the planet we are destroying) feeds into the stories of fantastika that we write and read, whose nature it is to respond to planetary life, to utter that condition, even in the shape of caricature and DENIAL (another missing entry).

Authors such as China Miéville and Jonathan Lethem have grown up with genre as a fact in their cultural lives. Do you feel that this ease has aided the idea of recombinant genre, something to which we appear to be heading back towards?
—I know that Lethem’s new book — the one he is now writing as of late 2007 — is intended to reoccupy, as far as he’s concerned and as far as his own work is concerned, some of the mode and matter of horror. We exchanged some emails recently on AMNESIA as an inherent element in the discourse of THICKENING in Horror. I’ve talked a lot with Mieville, several times in public, about all of these issues; the sense I get is of a mind absolutely flexible but muscular about anything to do with genre use.

Where does the idea of the Four Seasons of Horror emanate from? Something at the back of my mind remembers something similar from 1940s and 1950s literary criticism about the four seasons of the novel.
—-It probably comes from Northrop Frye; it also comes, as I think I hinted in the book, from the fact that anyone living in one of the two temperate zones of this planet is going to find it hard not to think in terms of seasons. The idea is meant to add versilimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

Can so-called “mainstream” literature and literary criticism ever deal with the fantastic on its terms or are these artificial barriers, created by some critics and academics? (I’m thinking of the spat about the NYRSF reading of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road here as the most recent example).

—To speak of mainstream literature and criticism and to speak of artificial barriers is to speak of the same thing, frankly. I do find the attempts of mainstream critics to “discuss” the adult literature of fantastika severely unrewarding. And the authors who (as Gary Wolfe once said of Margaret Atwood’s churchy flounderings on the subject) natter on about not really writing SF because their agents have told them they have market share to defend, and who therefore (cf the utterly ineffable Jeanette Winterson a few days ago) lift their skirts at any thought that their charabanc sci-fi might be treated as adult SF, should not worry. The bad sci-fi they write (the kind of sci-fi you go slumming in) is not adult SF, or any other form of adult fantastika that describes the real world, and there is little chance of any competent critic thinking so. What they should really fear is that, in those passages of their fictions in which they briefly attain the level of bad adult SF, it will be noted by those competent to judge that the bad SF they do write remains essentially touristic. As far as their relationship to the real world goes, and to the literature that describes it, their books are Hiltons in Venice.

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4 Responses to Seasons of horror – John Clute interviewed about Darkening Garden

  1. John Clute says:

    In the interview above, when I refer to my cobbling together of an SF model from various sources, I could have mentioned for its intrinsic interest Farah Mendlesohn’s similar assembling of material , in an article I saw some time ago, from the same general sources. Her four-part breakdown reads DISSONANCE, RUPTURE, RESOLUTION, CONSEQUENCE, which in fact, by introducing a set of terms of her own devising, conveys a sense of the seriousness of the task for her. I think that both sets of terms are both clearly compatible with the writers she cites extensively in her piece (and whom I cite in an essay on the subject), and that both sets of terms can be modeled into each other, though I’d tend to think of DISSONANCE as enveloping rather than preceding RUPTURE . Her article is:
    “Is There Any Such Thing as Children’s SF: A Position Piece” in
    The Lion and the Unicorn, A Critical Journal of Children’s Literature.
    Vol. 28, no 2, April 2004, 1080-6563. pp. 284-313

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  3. Brilliant interview!

    I laughed out loud at the quotation excerpted from “Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.” — W. S. Gilbert (1836 – 1911) . Could not help but recall the scene in which this is corrected in rehearsal in the play within the film of “Topsy-Turvy.”

    Needless to say, I’ve been reading John Clute at every opportunity, attending all his panels at Worldcons, corresponding now and then by email as encyclopediasts, and having the pleasure of his company at times. This is clearly a “must buy” book — and the fact that a Major Publisher didn’t snap it up is further corroborative detailing of how badly broken is the Publishing industry.

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