Matthew C Funk is a horror writer, among other things. He writes dark, menacing and psychologically incisive horror that cuts to the core of the genre. His stories are hard to forget. They get into the reader’s head. He is also the author of 8 novels, 2 screenplays, 2 plays, and nearly 100 articles.
He is a scholar of contemporary defence issues and of World War II and works as a social media consultant for Corporate America in Southern California.
He holds a BA in political science and graduated from the University of Southern California with a Masters degree in professional writing, where he studied with Hubert Selby jnr. He met me at The Slaughterhouse and we discussed horror, politics, terrorism and psychology.
How would you define horror?
Horror is power.
Horror is being confronted by our vulnerabilities. Our vulnerabilities compel us – they inform our appetites on the most basic level, whether they’re fear of harm, fear of being alone or fear of hunger. Practically all we do, as nobly as we might attire our reasons, derives from these fears. Consequently, horror is what directs those appetites. In many ways, that’s why satisfaction is relative: An extremely successful, wealthy and secure person can still be miserable if they fear the consequences of failure or emotional solitude. Conversely, someone forced to do with little can be content if they come to terms with their fears.
Horror in storytelling boils down to externalizing those vulnerabilities. That’s why horror, as a genre, can be so diverse. There are comedic horrors like the ‘Goosebumps’ series, low-intensity horror like many of the gentler works by Stephen King such as ‘Under the Dome’ and high-intensity horror like the Splatterpunk movement’s authors, notably Edward Lee, Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon. We tell stories about these disquieting things – whether they’re spooky, alarming or disgusting – because we’re fascinated with our fears and somehow need to come to grips with them.
But all storytelling distills to the element of horror, regardless of genre, because all storytelling distills to conflict. Conflict is a matter of “what will happen,” and if we’re truly engaged by a story it’s because we have an emotional investment – a concern – for the character. We literally fear for them: We fear that their true love will never come about; that they will not solve the mystery in time; that they will not overcome their inner demons. That fear is a horror, no matter how mild. And we keep bound to a plot because that concern has a power over us.
And, of course, the best stories – the best horrors – are the ones we cannot turn away from and do not want to end.
Appetites drive our horses, but it’s horror that holds the whip.
Do you think the most effective horror uses the hidden part of the psyche for its effects?
Yes, in that I believe horror must be grounded in the subconscious in order to truly resonate. It has to inspire the anxieties of our thanatic or erotic identity – our death and sex interest, respectively. Horror is most effective when it touches the parts of us that influence our basic selves and inform our primal fears and desires.
H. P. Lovecraft famously declared that the greatest fear was the fear of the unknown, but I think this is only true in part. Yes, there has to be some element of the unknown for horror to have impact. But even Lovecraft’s writings, which primarily focused on the legacies of alien deities and extradimensional forces, were rooted in the material and played with human anxieties over sex and death. His prehistorical or outer space evils were scary because they could do harm to us – either by driving us mad, devouring us physically or assaulting us sexually. So, even when a horror writer employs the power of cosmic vastness to scare us, he or she has to focus that power on afflicting our sex-death fears.
It’s for this reason that, much as I have a pre-occupation with horror, I best enjoy writing and reading stories of the noir, war or thriller genres. Horror at its more fantastical is not nearly so abhorrent as the horrors that surround us: Criminal deeds, vicious insanity and casual cruelty. Again, I think of the Horror genre writing of Jack Ketchum, who usually spins his yarns right out of the headlines or from human history, turning the real-life deeds of people like Gertrude Banizewski and Sawney Beane into horror fare. We’re most afraid – most revolted and disgusted by – what humans do to one another. In that regard, I believe that most Thriller genre novels are just horror by another name: The predation and depravity of a serial killer uses the same dramatic elements and plays on the same Id fears as the horror story employs.
It’s no mistake or anomaly that the most unacceptable, most horrific stories are those that involve humans engaged in abuse of other humans – particularly sexual abuse. It’s easier to read a story about a sentient wolf eating a little girl, as in Red Riding Hood, than it is when it’s a human being eating her.
The most potent horror – so potent many can’t bear to read it – comes from what humans do to other humans. It strikes us, unvarnished and undeniable, in the base of our identity.
Tell us about your work in contemporary defence issues and what do you think of Chomsky’s observation that we are living in a culture of terrorism?
I’ve always been dedicated to becoming a professional writer, but I went to university to learn something to write about.
No offense to English majors, but I wanted to acquire more than an attention to the craft. I figured that as much fiction and non-fiction that I read, and as close attention as I paid to it, I didn’t have to devote an official undergraduate course of study to it. I also wanted a broad view of the world, to pick up knowledge of different cultures, histories and personal dynamics.
So the question was, what to learn? I wanted scholarship that had its teeth sunk into the themes that fascinated me – human extremes, madness, agony, dreams and deceit. Politics seemed a perfect fit. I went into Political Science and gravitated toward the brutal and heroic, winding my way into an International Relations Minor with a focus on defense studies. It wasn’t that I so loved the ‘shoot ’em up’ action; the psychology of people in combat, civilian or soldier, was what entranced me. The grand strategies were also so gripping, because as much as it might be varnished with patriotic polish and wrapped in the solemn nobility of service to the country, war-making and political victory came down to mass manipulation.
You’ve really axed the keg here, Richard, so prepare for me to pour forth at length. See, war for me came down to horror and fear, too. Yes, the argument could be made that resources played an enormous role – both as a motivator for a state to go to war and for a state to sustain that war effort. However, it boiled down to poker game dynamics; has throughout history. It was about making the other side fold first, and that took bringing horror to bear against the adversary. Even before the guns started firing, relations between adversarial nations was a staring contest. And once the bombs were falling and pieces of human beings were suddenly bursting through the air, all it meant was that the ante was upped in the fear quotient.
Dig me: Von Clausewitz, a Prussian military thinker during Napoleon’s time, had it right when he said that war came down to destroying the enemy’s ability to fight. The ability to fight is psychological as much as it is physical. The most successful war tactics and weaponry are the ones that make the enemy despair and fear. That’s been various things throughout history – cavalry charges, tanks, cruise missile strikes with laser-guided accuracy. But it all comes down to making the enemy look at the carnage around him or her – the shredded friends, the smoke and shock and sound, the grim invincibility of the perpetrators – and having them think, “Aw fuck it; I surrender.”
There are exceptions, but they’re few and arguable. The Mongol invasion of Arabia comes to mind – they wiped out about 80% of the population in Baghdad after warning them not to resist. That’s a good example of “total warfare,” where the enemy is literally killed into submission. But even still, it can be argued that the Mongols did that not so much as to defeat the Arabs but to scare future adversaries into giving up without much of a fight.
The pre-eminent role of fear in war is brilliantly illuminated by recent warfare. In World War II, the Germans – and later the Soviets and Allies – used blitzkrieg operations to gain many of their big victories. Blitzkrieg is a kind of warfare where your objective isn’t to stand and kill the enemy, but to get behind them, encircle them and make them too afraid to fight on. Then we have Vietnam, a true staring contest, where the will of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong prevailed over immense American resources. It’s the same in the “war on terror”. The times things have gone well for the Americans overseas is when they can really get a handle on the minds of the adversaries, and twist them to be more afraid of fighting the US than they are of allying with it. Famously, this is what happened in Petraeus’ surge strategy, which had a lot of similarities to the strategy Pompey Magnus, Caesar’s mentor, employed in suppressing the factious and bandit-ridden states of Mithridates’ Asia Minor empire. Basically, it came down to paying off and manipulating the guerrilla fighters while presenting such a formidable military force that it seemed more profitable to switch allegiances.
So, war is about psychology – the abyss and the heights of human psychology; the most ruthless and monstrous fears and the most self-sacrificing, transcendent passions. I was fascinated with warfare for many years and my fiction reflected it. I wrote mostly about the World War II-era Germans and Soviets, as they had brilliantly depraved characters and settings, and committed the vastest and vilest inhumanities history has ever seen.
To bring this lengthy ramble back to Noir and to Chomsky’s “culture of terrorism,” it’s important to note that what I wrote on – what mesmerized me – was how banal evil was in these grand tragedies. Monstrosity was less a matter of the cryptic dementia of solitary psychopaths or nefarious plotters as it was born of laziness, pettiness and pedestrian fears. Whether the subject is the Holocaust, the Soviet Great Terror or the atrocious slaughter of the Eastern Front, the wellspring of that darkness was usually callow and common. I wrote on the soldiers, slaughterers and victims of Nazis and Soviets because they weren’t demonic – they were, as Christopher Browning titled it in his genius examination of a battalion of Holocaust perpetrators, “Ordinary Men“. I wanted people to understand this.
Whether the villains are death camp guards or mass murderers or the kind of frontline grunts who had to contend with butchering civilians or running human waves, these were guys who had families and histories of non-violence. And at this point, readers might nod their heads thinking, “yes, we get it, but war changes people.” But what I wanted to expose went beyond that. I wanted to relate, from the oral histories and accounts I studied, that even when it came to pulling the trigger on women and children, the men were usually just afraid to speak up. They didn’t want to look weak, or lose their jobs, or seem different from the others in the squad. Or, in the case of combat, they wanted to retaliate to the constant fear and anxiety and horror they felt. And once that trigger was pulled, it was a step into darkness: Into shame, into justification, into all the maniacal self-loathing and transformation that turns people into casual monsters. At the top of it all, you find the easy abuse of the bureaucrat, who issues orders for “pacification operations” – read, mass murder of civilians – or “transportation programs” – read, death camp slave labor – and then goes home worrying more about his kids’ grades or his wife’s griping about needing a vacation or his angina than he does about the fact that he’s consigned thousands, even millions, to agony and death.
Evil is so very easy and so very dumb most of the time.
And that’s what I take from Chomsky’s “culture of terrorism” – that nations, specifically the USA in his study, so readily accept the destruction and agony that their state commits. You had me pegged right as the kind of grim political analyst that would endorse Chomsky’s observations. For those not familiar with the term Chomsky advances – the “culture of terrorism” – it’s basically the notion that citizens of powerful countries get incensed at the enemy’s terror but hardly pay a thought to the terrorism their own country, the one they have direct influence over, engages in.
I believe that wholeheartedly. My Noir tries to reflect that. I write, usually, about conditions of severe poverty and injustice, and how it warps minds and grinds lives down. And that is a “culture of terrorism” – a culture wherein, despite our riches and political power, we allow people to starve and be ruined by a bizarre and cruel justice system.
Now, I’ll be clear, I’m a big-time patriot. That having been said, some facts to support my perception of a culture of terrorism: America has the largest prison population in the world. “The Land of the Free” locks up more people than Russia and China – just over 2 million, I believe. That’s a quarter of the people behind bars in the world, in a nation with 5% of the world population. And once a US citizen becomes a convict, their lives are wrecked. Employment is terribly difficult, as are basic freedoms like mobility and voting. Most of this is from drug crimes and petty offenses. We also have terrible conditions of poverty. We tolerate terrible conditions of poverty in other countries too, when it comes to the sweat shop labor that our manufacturers routinely employ overseas – all of which means less American manufacturing jobs. And, of course, there’s the issue of our actual warfare.
It all adds up to people not really caring much at all about the suffering that they could change, if they took political action – suffering and terror inflicted in their name. Chomsky’s use of the term “terrorism” relates to the low-intensity wars that the US was advancing during the 80s, using CIA support. It could be applied to the war on terror though.
To wrap it up, my opinions on the subject vary somewhat from the logical moral conclusion of the analysis. That’s a fancy way of saying, I’m not anti-war, nor am I anti-intervention. I am also greedy and lazy. I want cheap clothes and I want cheap gas. However, that means I want the American people to really, really think about the cost-effectiveness of what their country gets involved with and their role in endorsing it by political consent.
What bothers me is the irrationality that many citizens apply to America’s war-making. The War on Terror’s an excellent example. The American people lusted for payback and security after 9/11, and that’s entirely logical. Where the moral and logical premise jumped the tracks is when the U.S.A. took a “pre-emptive” strategy toward threats.
Many would argue, “Shit, we have to nail them before they do us.” But think of the cost of that. Afghanistan is a historic sinkhole of resources that empires from Alexander to the British tried to “pacify” or “enlighten” to ridiculous lack of success and terrific squandering of lives, pain and cash. If one makes the argument, “Well, America can do it – we’re wealthy and clever,” then, okay, just check out the price tag. Don’t get into a mess like Afghanistan or Iraq without realizing that to actually win would take more than a credit card and a pep rally. It’d take brutal counter-insurgency operations, a tremendous enlargement of the military and decades of commitment to not just taking lives in Afghanistan but improving them vastly.
But people don’t think logically or economically. They just see burkhas and honor killings and think we have to intervene. They see evil and want good to win. Well, the sad news is that evil is all over the place. And if a nation changes strategy from “we have to pursue our political and economic interests” to “we have to hunt down evil and destroy it,” then there are a lot more threatening evils than where we’re involved: North Korea, Uganda and Myanmar just to rattle off three monstrous nations.
So that’s the point of war and horror: That we have to understand it to engage it. That’s what my writing is about and that’s what I’d like to see change in political awareness. It won’t happen, though. People have too much other shit to worry about than thinking about who stitches their Nikes or whether fighting Al-Qaeda, a Saudi-based outfit, in Afghanistan, a nation that’s not even Arab let alone Saudi, makes any sense.
Chomsky uses the term ‘Manufacturing Consent’ when referring to the notion that mass media is prejudiced in its coverage of politics by its economic interests. What do you think of this and the implication that we inhabit a fictional landscape sold as fact which is aimed at manipulating us and supporting political agendas most civilians have no idea about?
I think it’s dead on. I’ll put it concisely as I can:
Sex, sleaze and shock sell, and if the media can’t find that kind of news, it’ll make it.
We inhabit a world entirely manufactured – not just in terms of being given doctored news, but being peddled a product designed to be saleable. Whether it’s cable news, talk radio or podium propaganda, the message we’re given is carefully massaged for marketability. That’s because all of these things – whether it’s running for office or selling a story – come down to having to make a buck. Same rules apply to fiction writers – your story’s only so successful as its ability to reach a market.
This means that we’re being told what we want to hear and manipulated into knowing what we want. It has to come down to dollar value – it has to – because you have to sell ad space to stay on the air. That means messages have to be carved to fit the common audience, or warped to play on the fears and desires of a market. It’s this force that powered the rise of cable news and talk radio. FOX News defined itself by creating a “culture war” against the “liberal media” and MSNBC responded by pandering to the liberals. With all these channels springing up on the TV, radio and Web, people no longer need to hear news they don’t like. They can tune in to their favorite talking points.
And all of the major talking points are cautious about offending their real sponsors: The corporations that power their stations, link their satellites and buy the ad space. Anybody who deviates from a palatable portion between car and beer commercials is derided as a lunatic or blatherer. That means that reforms that would really shake up the system – really change things – like actual tax reform, non-intervention or drug legalization are smeared as fringe ideas. They may be perfectly logical, but if they don’t sit well with General Electric, pharmaceutical companies or the defense sector, they get only enough air time to get blasted as batshit.
So is that “manufactured”? Undeniably. Anything constructed for a profit motive is, by definition. And is it “consent”? Absolutely. None of the significant political players are shaking things up, and most citizens are happy to point fingers at the other side as the result of the worsening quagmire. What they fail to realize is that there really are no “sides” – just a fixed fight between two branches of corporate tools. That’s not just the nature of political compromise. It’s that the media will always go for the balls when they tell a story, to keep the scandal going. Heroes are only built up so that they can be torn down. Our news runs on bloodshed and stained sheets, so that corporations can sell diapers. We eat it up, whether with apathy or gusto.
As for whether we have no idea about it, I doubt that. I just think most people don’t care. They hear about the conditions behind bars or the way drug crimes ruin lives or the failure of borders or abuses in a war zone. They just sigh about it then go back to watching Jersey Shore and worrying about the mortgage.
Given what you mention about economics, much of it is controlled by the pharmaceutical industry.
You are an admirer of William Burroughs’s fiction and he showed addiction as extending from drug users to those addicted to sex and violence. He used it as a metaphor for social control programs. Do you believe that this is still relevant and that the real solution to the drug problem is to legitimise it so that it can be regulated?
It is not only relevant, it has become a principal character in our society. Burroughs’ dystopia is alive and well in the pulse of the First World, and that pulse is heavily medicated. The only futurist writer from the turn of the century who truly nailed the vision of our times would be Alduous Huxley – the citizens of his “Brave New World” gobbling down fistfuls of Soma to get through lives overstimulated by banal, sensationalist crap.
That’s where we are: Burroughs’ boogeyman, heroin, has nothing like the reach of big drug companies. People devour medications in order to take the edge off of conditions that, much of the time, wouldn’t even exist if not for lifestyle choices. Once the pills put their hooks in, the cure often becomes a disease – anti-anxiety drugs screw up your sleep, so you pop sleeping pills, then need a boost from something else. And yet we can understand why, in this modern world where multitasking is as necessary as breathing and advertising blisters our brain from every direction, why people resort to these medications. For tens of thousands of years, we evolved to live the simple – if occasionally really freaking edgy – routines of foragers and hunters. In the last hundred years, a bombardment of mental stimulation and economic demand has splashed across the civilized world. Our brains are being rudely used constantly, so why not hold on to the anchor of a good, even high? As my moody poet ex-girlfriend from Kenyon College used to say, she was glad to be addicted to smokes because it gave her something she could count on.
So, no, given that the real problem is that mad-cap profit motive will continue to gorge us on stimulation and then sell us the dope to handle it, legalization isn’t the solution. Yeah, it’ll go a long way to fixing some other extremely severe problems – prison conditions, a paroled criminal population unable to assimilate, gangs and cartels with Hulked-out funding from illegal drugs. It’ll also be a huge boon to the economy. But it won’t save people from being junkies of our own device. The linked-in, cracked-out existence is here to stay. We need our fix to get us through the hysterical work day, get the processed food through our kidneys, help us cope.
The same goes for sex and violence – the volume is getting turned up on that, too. That’s nothing new, though. There were no “good old days” when it came to what entertainment gets humanity’s rocks off – just periods of smug, hypocritical propriety like Victorian England. Otherwise, we’ve always been thirsty for donkey shows and dog fights. What’s new is that, like with drugs, we need more and more stimulation to actually feel it.
The cure compounds the disease.
Do you think that the most horrifying thing to the readers of fiction is the darkness of humanity, and how would you distinguish terror from horror?
Yes, I believe the most horrifying monsters for readers are found in the darkness of humanity.
Fantastical monsters – wolfmen, vampires, aliens – are just Halloween masks for the actual elements of horror in a story. It isn’t the power of whatever creature featured that’s horrifying, but what that power can do to the victim. We can cite two particularly fantastic specimens as examples: Stephen King’s “IT” and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.
“IT” is about a shapeshifting entity that assumes the form of human fears in order to feed on terror and flesh. That shapeshifting power and appetite is horrific, but only because it does to us what we already fear might happen. If “IT” fed on our love of music, that would seem benign. It is because people are troubled by the notion of the sins and terrors of their past harming them that “IT” is a horrifying entity. Similarly, Cthulhu is a colossal immortal alien who invades our dreams and might, one day, become strong enough to stride the world with his many tentacles, ravaging us. Again, this is scary not because of Cthulhu’s objective qualities, but because we already fear the harm he might inflict.
Stories that invest those fears in human characters are even more horrifying because it makes it more tangible, more realistic, that such things could happen. We’re more afraid of Richard Ramirez than we are of the Wolfman, even though they essentially do the same thing. This isn’t to say that stripping away those masks makes for a better story. Some readers need those masks – that sugar on the pill that makes the horror palatable. There is no universal rule for a successful horror story because there is no universal taste among readers.
There is, however, an essentially greater horror to human beings perpetrating horrific acts. Any horror writer who’s ever scanned for submission guidelines is aware of this, as many publishing venues flatly announce that they don’t want to touch material involving torture, rape or child abuse. Those are three evils epidemic in human deeds, but they incite such revulsion that the story becomes too unpleasant. Whatever pleasure is won from externalizing and confronting a horror becomes too personal and too real. The excitement becomes disgust. There is a reason to why there are ‘limits’ to what is acceptable in mass-market horror, and that reason is that stories can come too close to what humanity is really like.
In light of this, I would be reluctant to differentiate ‘horror’ from ‘terror’ in a general sense – they’re the same integers in a tally of unpleasantness – but I can draw a distinction in fiction’s elements and effects. In fiction, ‘horror’ would be a visceral shock and ‘terror’ would be a more psychological offense. ‘Horror’ is the gruesome, the disgusting, the obscene – the sensory experience that assaults the reader. ‘Terror’ is the disturbing, the twisted idea, the scare that plays purely on the mind. To draw examples from my own work, ‘horror’ is discovering the ribs you’re eating came from your girlfriend (“Smoke and Fire“), and ‘terror’ is hearing how a serial killer equates love with murder (“All In My Head“). It’s important for writers to differentiate these qualities because they are distinctive charms to work on the reader: Horror without terror lacks suspense, mood and atmosphere – it’s merely a brief affront. Terror without any horror can lack impact because it lacks physicality, being too abstract.
Both amount to ingredients in a recipe though, and ultimately the proof of the blood pudding is in the eating. A writer can go too heavy on the horror for some, not heavy enough for others. I would counsel any beginning writers to find encouragement in this: That we are chefs, and the dishes we create are subject to an audience’s tastes.
There is an appetite out there waiting to devour any well-written story – it’s just a matter of finding it.
Horror literature is an offshoot of the Gothic revival that accompanied the Romantic movement in the nineteenth century. If you view it as part of the body of fantasy literature there are recurrent themes, such as doubling or multiplying selves, mirror images, metamorphosis and bodily disintegration from Dickens and Dostoyevsky, through Joseph Conrad and R.L. Stevenson, to Franz Kafka and Thomas Pynchon. It sits within mainstream literature and at its root seems to be the sense that the self is indeterminate. What is more frightening, the loss of self to madness or some force that is alien and inimical to humanity?
As a general rule, I would say that the loss of self to madness is a loss to a force alien and inimical.
At least, that is how the sufferer typically perceives it. Whether that madness is an obsession, a perverse lust or a symptom more phantasmagorical, the ‘host’ often feels beneath its invasive control. Even in the works you cited above, at least those I’m familiar with, the forced transformation of the self occurs by the pressure of an outside catalyst – whether the claustrophobic callousness of the 19th century city or the yawning darkness of the Congo. Madness may spread to full flower feeding on the corruption and angst of the human interior, but that flower hatches from a planted seed.
However, I take your meaning – “inimical to humanity” being the key qualifier there; suggesting supernatural forces. I could only guess which is more frightening overall. My guess would be that the loss of self to madness is more frightening, as droves of work deal with that, whereas the loss of self to truly alien, anti-human forces is a niche of the Horror genre.
That isn’t to say that it’s the case all the time. I think which kind of fright trips the right triggers comes down to personal experience. I have friends who’ve led harrowing lives, and their nightmares are populated by psycho-stalkers with clear, human faces. Meanwhile, my dreams swarm with zombies, reflections of my anxieties over a callow, carnivorous society out to devour me. The same principal applies to which breed of madness – the human or the inhuman – alarms us. I find Lovecraft to be extremely unsettling, but then I tend to have an overactive imagination and a tendency to worry about things like extradimensional brain worms. Someone who has a different upbringing, with a different taxonomy of fears, might feel differently.
What do you think the political role in the mental sanitation of female homicide is?
Same as it has been since the age of Ishtar’s temple priestesses – fear of female sexuality.
In short, the political spin whenever a women gets murderous is that she’s truly a freak of nature. It gets billed as a P. T. Barnum oddity, cast as monstrous and unbelievable. Society doesn’t even like to conceive of women as capable of harm. Being harmed is a different matter; domestic abuse and sexual exploitation usually inspires little more than a shrug, if that. But when it comes to actually having the will to end another life, society’s lens is foggy when it comes to women. That’s why “lady killers” get so much play in the media. It’s like a UFO discovery. It has to be debunked at first, then if it’s accepted, it’s stamped with lunacy.
This isn’t to say that to cram female killers into the context of madness is inaccurate, but only to the extent that any homicide takes a dose of crazy to happen. There is a gender bias, though, because that context isn’t applied equally. Whether male killers are Mafia soldiers or trigger-happy armed robbers, society seeks some logic in their actions. And on the flip side, the actions of female killers are always explored to find illogical qualities.
Now, granted, it is far less common for women to kill. In that regard, instinctively analyzing them as anomalies makes sense. But if we’re to consider homicide itself anomalous to a healthy society, it seems like a lot of twisted male motives get off the hook – many are even romanticized, like when it comes to hard-nosed hitmen willing to take lives out of loyalty to their Capo.
What this has to do with sexuality is that lot of socialization, when it comes to gender, boils down to sexual anxieties. It may be a man’s world, but male sexuality is preoccupied with sexual contest. This biological drive can be externalized into plenty of abstract aims – work, wealth, exercise – but they come down to libido. That we use the term, “Just jacking off” to define someone not seriously motivated to succeed is not a coincidence.
Back in the days of yore – and we’re talking cave-painting days – this obsession of the aggressive male with female sexuality manifest itself as Goddess worship. Again, not a coincidence that our earliest civilizations crafted phalluses, vaginas and voluptuous female forms when they were first inspired to create objects of reverence. But as civilizations cohered and collective male ego swelled, that sexual obsession inverted: Men began treating women less like holy objects, and more like holes. Like property. Evidence of this abounds, but I’ll name a few from classical civilizations: The shift from Great Goddess worship to a supreme – and very slutty – male deity, Zeus, in the Mediterranean. The classification of women as property among Middle Eastern tribes, as in the Tenth Commandment. The institution of numerous female body deformation customs, from infibulation in Africa to clitordectomy in the Middle East to foot-binding in China.
So what was the shift? It’s hard to say, but until the industrial era, seeing women as weak and instituting customs to prove it was the norm. I would argue that it was resources that tipped the scale – ultimately, it was better for the economy if women had more power to wield cash and the vote. Societies where this isn’t the case tend to have dismal economies, given that they have a literally captive population denied to the work force. But whatever changed it economically, we’re still trying to figure it out culturally.
We still steep our culture in sexualized females, from ‘Girls Gone Wild’ to Vogue to pornography. We still criminalize prostitution – a fact that may make someone think, “Yeah, well, so? Of course”, but makes absolutely no sense if we accept the premise that women can do what they want with their bodies. And whereas in some professional sectors it may even be slightly easier for a woman to succeed, in many – particularly big business, whether it’s oil or the film industry – it is fiercely difficult. And, to bring it back to your point, we make a homicidal woman into a freak. We are still uncomfortable with female soldiers after all, even though women warriors date back to the dawn of civilization.
All that oppression of women has its origin in the insecure male urge to control what he desires, manifest in perverse collective.
Do you think it is harder for a judge to be lenient on a man accused of something the judge himself feels capable of committing?
I think it’s quite the opposite. I think it’s easier for a judge to be lenient on a defendant accused of something he is capable of.
There is the adage about “We hate the evils we see in ourselves,” but it doesn’t apply to sentencing. In sentencing, considering the volume of cases that the judge sees, it comes down to sympathy rather than self-loathing. The more the judge identifies with a suspect, the less likely he or she is to harshly punish them. Instead, he or she forms opinions on the case within the dynamic of his or her own redemption.
Case in point, the justice system of the South as it’s been related to me. I’m in regular contact with people from the South who’ve had brushes with the justice system, and those stories suggest that bias is in full-effect. Every demographic step between a judge and a defendant increases the harshness of the sentence. It’s a very basic mentality – David Wong, a brilliant writer for Cracked.com – calls it “the monkey sphere,” a reference to a test done on primates that determined there is a biological limit for profound compassion; a “sphere” of people we identify with. That identification may not come from qualities like gender or race or politics. But the key element is that identification.
We are far more lenient when it comes to condemning ourselves than when it comes to sentencing those that are strange to us.
What drew you to writing, and noir writing in particular?
I was always energetic and introspective – not to mention self-indulgent – but it was my childhood that compels me to apply those qualities to writing. My mother took ill with cancer very early in my life, and it was deemed terminal. It was by will, grit, fortune, positivity and the phenomenal aptitude of my father to manage a family in perpetual catastrophe that the terminal nature was delayed over a decade.
It’s a direct result of that experience that made me want to be a writer on dark subjects. It changed me from introspective to introverted, seeking refuge in books, particularly fantastic stories and tales of extremes. It gave me a fascination with suffering and with overcoming suffering. It fostered in me a fascination with how people – particularly women – endure and prevail over hardship. It developed an aptitude to see beneath the veneer of happiness or woe to the underlying causes beneath, considering I had witnessed my fair share of false smiles, agonizing accommodation and complicated compromise. And it instilled in me an overriding desire to engage these forces and to express them to others so that they could better engage with them too.
As I said earlier, I didn’t always write noir. I wrote horror stories, dark fantasies, gritty superhero sagas and tales of people swept up in warfare. Discovering that my outlook and expression fit so well with the noir subgenre was practically accident. I had written part of the Bella Vista mythology that Pamila Payne dedicates herself to – a series of stories set in a haunted motel in rural Texas run by Mafioso – back in the early ’00s. Last year, Pamila told me about Paul Brazill, and his dynamic participation in the ‘net noir scene inspired me to get involved. It was because of Pamila and Paul that I came to a real habitat for my writing to grow.
I grew up in the shade, so I’m at home in noir. Thanks for letting me bring that to light.
Thank you, Matt for giving a wonderfully in depth and stimulating interview. Good luck with your novel.