Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Charles Gramlich

Capone02 from orig askmen photo Capone02fromOrigaskmen.jpg

.
Charles Gramlich is a versatile author who can write in most styles.

He has an MA and PhD in experimental psychology. He is a member of REHupa, The Robert E Howard United Press Association, and is one of the editors for The Dark Man, the Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies. He teaches psychology at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Charles is the author of several novels and short stories. Most of his work is science fiction or horror, although he goes beyond these genres. He is a writer who resists categorization because of the individuality of his thinking.

His first novel in paperback form was Cold in the Light, a horror thriller with science fiction elements that drew comparisons with the early work of Dean Koontz. His most recent novels in paperback, Swords of Talera, Wings Over Talera and Witch of Talera, are Sword & Planet works in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series.

Charles also writes poetry, fantasy and non-fiction. In August, 2008, Charles had his first poetry chapbook published, a collection of vampire haiku entitled Wanting the Mouth of a Lover, published by Spec House of Poetry.  And in May of this year, a collection of short fantasy stories called Bitter Steel was published by Borgo Press.

Have a look at Charles’ blog for links to all his works and for a guaranteed interesting and informative read.

Charles met me at The Slaughterhouse and we talked about psychology, and the uncertainty of self within horror fiction.

.
.
Do you think that crossing the threshold of consciousness into the core of the psyche is analogous to crossing the event horizon that surrounds a black hole?

That’s a very interesting analogy and not one I’ve particularly thought about before.  One difference is that we know much more about the core of the psyche than we know about what lies beyond the event horizon.  And another difference is that, while very little escapes a black hole back across the event horizon, what’s in the core of the psyche escapes constantly and interacts prominently with the outside world.  We just have a hard time seeing it in ourselves, although we can often detect it easily in others.

Here’s my opinion:  What’s in the “core” of the psyche is animal.  Freud called it an “id,” although there are some subtle differences.  Rationality lies outside the core, outside the event horizon if we go with the analogy.  But we detect the core all the time, primarily through emotions and spontaneous behaviors rather than through thoughts.  Sudden rages, petty jealousies, seemingly irrational desires, are all evidence of something escaping the core.  Most people, however, so strongly reject the core impulses with their rational mind that they won’t even admit that they’ve experienced them and will look at you like you’re crazy if you bring it up.

Sometimes, I think the most important field in psychology is comparative psychology, the attempt to explain or understand human behavior through study and comparison with animal behavior.  I’m talking particularly about mammal behavior.  There’s where we’re most likely to ferret out the secrets of humanity’s personal “black hole.”
.
.
.
Continuing with the analogy, some physicists believe black holes may be pathways to parallel universes. When you consider the body of literature about doppelgangers, could what Carl Jung called the shadow be a form of psychological parallel universe, given the threat that those repressed energies and thought forms constitute to some individuals?

Stories about doppelgangers have always evoked a sense of Jekyll and Hyde for me, but that story in itself suggests the Jungian “Shadow.”  Hyde is very much such a being.  There’s a theory that says that primitive humans often saw their thoughts as originating outside of themselves, and that this is the genesis of our concept of gods and demons.  It may well be the origin of doppelgangers as well.

The very idea of a psychological parallel universe is a fascinating one.  Given how resistant most people are to really analyzing the baser emotions that surge up from our animal core, I can see the analogy working.  We usually think of the “animal” as living inside us, but it makes as much sense to think of it as living “beside” us.  According to the theory, parallel universes can be as close as a whisper to us and yet go unseen.  Our animal core, from which the “Shadow” derives and from where doppelgangers might reasonably come, is closer still.  It shambles along at our shoulder, but no matter how often we turn our head we are unlikely to catch a glimpse of it.  Maybe some folks do catch a glimpse, and it must be a terrifying experience.  I know I’m going to feel weird about looking over my shoulder for a while.
.
.
.

Given the fact that most people are resistant to analyzing their base and repressed instincts, do you believe that this repression is necessary to the narcissistic function of the socialized ego and that religion has served the purpose of sanitizing the self as we understand it to exist?

Absolutely.  Anti-theists today tend to want to abolish all organized religions and they point, rightly in many cases, to some of the serious damage that supposedly religious individuals have done and are doing to other people.  However, I think it’s pretty clear that without religion in the past there would be no civilization of today.  For civilization to exist, human impulses had to be curbed and controlled.  Religion has proved to be very successful at that, which is why so many of them still exist and still have so many followers.

Although most religions acknowledge the existence of the baser impulses (at least the less abhorrent of them), they generally do not examine them very closely.  They’d prefer to believe that those impulses can be curbed by a “just say no” approach.  The primary techniques that religions use to curb the impulses are fear and guilt, which are quite powerful forces and often work.

Even people in our society who were not raised overtly in a religious environment are still shaped by religious ideas and ideals.  You’ll often hear people say that they simply cannot “imagine” certain crimes.  That very statement is a clear sign of successful repression, and it generally arises from a level of religious indoctrination.
.
.
.
Do you think that most people are engaged in enacting a fantasy version of themselves and if so what is the self?

Most people clearly do not have a very realistic view of themselves.  Evidence shows that folks engage in systematic patterns of distortion.  Most people evaluate themselves more positively than others evaluate them, or than objective reality would support. For example, most people will indicate that they vote more frequently than they really do, that they give more to charity than they do, but that they drink less than they do.  Most people will say they were more popular in high school than seems to be true, and that they even scored more points in sports than the stats reveal.  It’s like a fisherman exaggerating the size of his fish.  A key point is that, while people initially understand that they are exaggerating a little, they will eventually begin to believe the exaggeration to be actual truth.  Thus, the “fish” actually becomes as big in memory as it was exaggerated to be initially.

One very interesting thing is that people prone to depression tend to do the opposite.  They evaluate themselves less positively than others do, and remember themselves as being less popular and as scoring fewer points that in reality.  Some suggest that depressed individuals actually have a more “realistic” view of themselves than do other people, but both are distorting their memories in service to their psychology.

As for what the “self” is, I’m fond of saying: “Objective reality is nothing.  Subjective reality is everything.”  I tend to think of self as being a psychological construct of the individual, which in some cases is pretty close to the objective reality and in other cases far removed.  I do believe it is important for people to generally have a positive view of themselves, because it energizes them to work toward their goals and to believe they can be successful.  However, the self-esteem movement in the United States has backfired in some cases by producing individuals who have such high positive self-esteem that they won’t accept responsibility for their own weaknesses and failures.  That is definitely not a realistic view of self.
.
.
.
If we move this into horror, to what extent is horror driven by the uncertainty of self?

For many writers, not just horror writers, their craft is driven by an attempt to define themselves in relationship to others and to their world.  Much of this is unconscious.  The writer wonders, “what would I do if faced with a specific situation,” and the writer’s characters are the surrogates that are used to answer that question.

For horror writers, the question is, “what would I do if faced with pain and death and decay?”  Because these experiences will come to us all, they are some of the most critical questions any human can ask, and readers also ask them.  They are also such intense experiences that the “self” can easily shatter when confronted with them.  In horror fiction, the characters must always shatter, at least to some extent.  This is a difference between “horror” and “thriller.”  In a thriller, the character will be pushed right to the edge and then come back.  In horror, the character will break.  The self will splinter and, if the character survives, a new self will be hammered back together from the shards.  This is one way that writers, especially horror writers, explore the uncertainty of self.
.
.
.
Do you think that powerful geographical locations such as valleys and mountains are symbolic to the psyche?

I think that what is “symbolic” to modern humanity are often things that were “salient” to our primitive ancestors.  Essentially, something is salient if it is attention getting, if it stands out.  A red car among more drably colored ones.  The loud noise of a gunshot among the quieter noises of a suburban neighborhood.

Mountains are definitely salient.  They jut up from the surroundings; they draw the eye.  And they are tough to explore, which means they are often mysterious.  Humans seem always to have had a tendency to assign the “strange” to unexplored places.  Old maps sometimes simply labeled unexplored places with “here be monsters.”  Mountains, being highly visible and yet hard to explore, were ideal places for the human imagination to populate with “gods” and “demons.”  Their salience and their remoteness led them to become powerful symbols for modern humans.

Valleys are salient in a different way.  They can provide protection, hideouts from the dangers of the outside world.  And because valleys tend to have rich soil deposited by flood waters, they may be a rich source of food.  It is probably that valleys became the first places where humans settled permanently.  No doubt they are the first places where agriculture thrived.  In the human psyche they become forever linked with wealth and the birth of life.  However, because valleys were rich, they often became battlefields, too, and they sometimes presided over large scale destruction from floods. In this way, valleys became symbolic for modern humans as places of both great promise and great peril.
.
.
.
Who are your main literary influences?

I’ve always been an eclectic reader so my influences come from many different genres.  The big five for me would be:  Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Louis L’Amour, John D. MacDonald, and Ray Bradbury.  These were all writers I discovered at a relatively young age and whose works I devoured. Their relative influence depends on the genre I’m writing in.  For example, my fantasy work is influenced most by Howard, Burroughs and L’Amour, my horror by Howard, MacDonald and Bradbury.

A little later in life I discovered H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Chambers, Dean Koontz, Joe Lansdale, Karl Edward Wagner, and Kenneth Bulmer.  All of these put their stamp on my writing.  The first four had big effects on my horror, while the last two influenced my fantasy more.

I think of myself as a “genre-baby,” a “pulp-baby,” so I don’t think I’ve been much influenced by the authors of the classics.  There are two exceptions.  I’ve read most everything Hemingway ever wrote and I greatly admire the man’s ability with words.  He has definitely been an influence.  The other influence from the more literary side of the writing world is Peter Matthiessen, whose book, The Snow Leopard, is, to me, the greatest work ever written in the English language.
.
.
.
Do you think that fantasy literature is attempting to undermine reality as we see it?

Well, I suppose we could first discuss the whole idea of “reality,” of what it is.  I tend to think that reality is far more subjective than many folks would feel comfortable with.  I do believe that many things have an objective reality.  A tree that falls in the forest makes a sound, whether or not humans are there or not.  To believe otherwise smacks of immense arrogance to me.  But, what about an argument between two lovers over feelings?  Where does any objective reality lie in such a case?

In a world where imagination and emotional perceptions are important, I believe fantasy literature does exactly the opposite of undermining reality.  I think it teaches us that the standard concept of reality is far too simplistic and restricting.  It expands our notion of reality, and it is from such an expansion that breakthroughs in science and society come.  “Reality” is made to be bent.
.
.
.
The family is the building block of society, as an experimental psychologist do you think the family is more pathological than other forms of social conditioning?

I wouldn’t say ‘more’ pathological.  Humans are rife with pathologies and the family isn’t any exception.  But at least in the family one often (if certainly not always) gets love along with the pathology, and love can make up for at least some harm.  Political states are rife with pathologies of their own, and there’s certainly no love in them to mitigate the harm. Even good governments can scarcely have any real interest in helping the troubled underclass of their people.  Schools tend to reflect the pathologies of the states, but despite that a lot of good can be done in them when they encourage a love of learning and an open mind.  In too many schools, however, there is an indifference to or an actual distaste for the “free” mind.  Schools not only teach conformity on their own, but provide breeding grounds for the stronger kids to force conformity on their peers.  And religions have their own pathologies.  Some of them are spectacular, as when they encourage violence against others in the name of the religion.

As for my own social conditioning, give me a family first that loves me, give me a school that encourages me to question and explore, give me a religion that practices the charity that they often teach, and give me a government that doesn’t try to use me as either a cash cow or as cannon fodder.  I think they call such a place Utopia.
.
.
.

What’s the one goal that you have in writing that is a bit unusual?

I’ve always wanted to publish at least one of every kind and genre of writing.  I’ve published SF, fantasy, horror, thriller, western, children’s, mainstream, pastiche, and erotica in fiction.  I’ve done print books and ebooks.  In nonfiction I’ve published scientific articles, book reviews, personal essays and columns.  In poetry I’ve published free verse and haiku.  I’ve published a few stories that combined elements of other genres so I tend to count both of those things.  For example, I have a horror story that has a very strong romantic subplot so I’ll claim that I’ve published romance too.   I did a Robert E. Howard pastiche that featured a boxer so I can claim I’ve written a sports story.

But there are a lot of things I haven’t published.  I’ve never published any poetry in any kind of “formal” form.  I’ve never written a mystery, even of the noir detective kind.  I’ve never done a comic or graphic novel script.  I’ve never published a play.  I’ve never written an animal story, although I have one about a third done.  I haven’t really published an urban fantasy.  I’ve never done an actual ghost story, although I came pretty close.

And since new subgenres form pretty frequently, it’s likely that I’ll never quite achieve this goal.  But I still keep plugging.  And I really appreciate you giving me a chance to ramble on like this about all the weird ideas that churn through my brain.  Thanks.
.
.

Thank you Charles for giving a unique and stimulating interview.
.
.

CharlesGramlich.jpg picture by Richard_Godwin

This entry was posted in Author Interviews - Chin Wags. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Charles Gramlich

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.