The brilliant and informed Nerine Dorman is a versatile and talented South African horror and fantasy writer.
She is a sub-editor at a newspaper and runs a guild for science fiction, fantasy and horror writers in Cape Town.
She’s also modelled for photographers and is a musician.
Her novel ‘Khepera Rising’ is about black magician James Edward Guillaume. It deals with drug abuse, religious intolerance, violence, magic, alternative cultures and sexuality.
She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about horror writing and the modelling industry.
Do you think horror writing is a literature of subversion?
To me the horror genre has always been about transgression of some sort. When I was a kid, I found myself repelled by and attracted to the genre in equal measure, perhaps mainly because there was something magnetic about the awfulness. People can’t help but seek it out, the same way we are almost incapable of looking away when passing the scene of a terrible road accident. My attraction to dark literature could also partially be ascribed to my strict Calvinist upbringing, where certain damnation awaited those who consistently dismayed a higher power.
And it is this twisting of that which is wholesome that caught my imagination. I mean, really, what sort of person would knowingly plunge him or herself into the kind of situation that would take them far from safety into uncharted waters? Here be leviathan, and all that.
To a degree it’s also the act of rebellion, of being unnatural. I knowingly seek out the tales of ghosts, demons and madness, perhaps because the sunlight seems that much sweeter if I’ve tasted bleak horror.
Do you think that horror writers are inherently Promethean?
If you’re considering the term Promethean to mean that an author is a bit of a maverick, then yes, I’d say that the spirit of creativity in horror needs to be bold lest it slips into cliche-ridden theme. But the thing is, horror plays with that which is familiar to us. Take a look at Rosemary’s Baby, for instance. Motherhood is something that is central to the human condition. To give birth to and nurture the anti-Christ is the epitome of transgressions, according to some. And therein lies horror for a parent, who is forced to place themselves in that situation and ask, “What would I do if this were me?”
True horror holds up a dark mirror for viewers, leading them to uncomfortable places within the self.
A savvy horror author will deliver social commentary relevant to the time in which he or she creates a written work. What scared people during the 1960s, when creature features had their heyday may not necessarily frighten us now. These days the creatures have become defanged
and collared, while the fiction that frightens us right now focuses on apocalyptic settings.
Hence the current incredible popularity of zombie-pocalypses and the like.
Do you believe that we inhabit a predatory universe?
I must admit I’m quite partial to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. It’s eat or be eaten, in my mind. If it weren’t a dog-eat-dog kind of world, we’d probably not possess the collective oomph to go about our business and get things done. A little fear of failure is a great motivator.
Do you think that the modelling industry is controlled by patriarchal perceptions of female beauty?
It’s a two-way street that one. So long as women pander to the hyper-reality portrayed in contemporary media, they reinforce the gender stereotypes. This question was actually posed to me last night, ironically. And it’s not an easy one to answer. Throughout the years we’ve had women who’ve challenged these perceptions, who end up standing almost outside of society, and definitely not as fashion models. Diamanda Galas springs to mind, as does Lydia Lunch and Nina Hagen.
It’s my feeling that for every one woman who rejects the norms established by contemporary standards, there are a dozen who will starve themselves to conform. We know in our heart of hearts that we should see beauty in every expression of human form but it’s been drummed into us that only certain characteristics–some very unhealthy–are considered to be “true” beauty.
To a degree, even though we don’t readily admit it, we want men to find us beautiful. And therefore conform.
I know for a fact that I’m at my happiest when I don’t wear a stitch of make-up and sloth around in a pair of old tights and a baggy T-shirt, but I’m sure as hell not going to go out for a night on the town unless I’m wearing something that accentuates what nature has given me.
At what point do you think erotic writing turns into pornography?
Pornography is in the eye of the beholder. I used to take a dim view on erotica until I encountered authors such as Storm Constantine and Jacqueline Carey, who write plot-driven novels featuring highly charged sexual encounters within the story arcs. I believe each reader has his or her measure for what they consider pornography. For me when a novel devolves into gratuitous sex that does not progress a plot, or it has a coat-hanger of a plot and is little more than a boink-fest, it is porn.
But porn is not bad, in my opinion. It has its place to titilate readers who are into that genre, but I’m the kind of reader who requires a strong sense of narrative to back up the sex. I feel I don’t connect with the characters unless I’ve been part of their struggles. Sexuality is part of who we are. I believe it’s important to include the depth and breadth of the human experience within a story. A well-plotted novel makes the characters’ eventual release within a sexual context all the more effective. Sex for sex’ sake just doesn’t blow my hair back.
William Burroughs posited the theory that a curse is a word virus what do you make of his view?
If you consider words as being carriers of ideas, yes, I totally agree with him. I think day-to-day people aren’t aware how they allow themselves to be programmed by words, which bring across highly subjective meanings. I think it’s always important to have a consensus about what words define.
In contemporary society there are certain phrases that we use, that we don’t think about. Buzzwords, like “lifestyle” or “sexy” … just page through a magazine or newspaper to see which words or phrases jump out. I work with a lot of advertorial. I can weave a whole lot of spin.
Likewise, if you listen to a street preacher, he’ll tend to overuse certain religious phrases that, when you analyse them and break them down into their constituents, they don’t really mean a whole lot. Yet they bring about a certain state of mind in people who are prone to using them.
We can curse ourselves with the language we use or we can use it to bring about a desired state of being. For instance, I am bilingual, and I can say with honesty that when I speak Afrikaans I think differently than when I’m in English mode. I have a world of respect for mathematicians. the language they speak is so arcane I can only begin to wonder how their minds work. Ditto for musicians, though I do number among these. It’s a language of tones, words in themselves though not in a verbal sense.
Writers are, in my mind, magicians. They know which words to use to bring about changes in people’s mental states.
Tell us about your novel ‘Khepera Rising’.
Khepera Rising is an urban fantasy romp following the misdeeds of a bad boy black magician who attracts the attention of a pack of Christo-militants while trying to solve the mystery of a demonic entity he has accidentally unleashed. It was incredibly fun to write as the entire novel is set in Cape Town, where I grew up. I’m a great fan of “write what you know”. While some would point fingers and say the novel isn’t recognisably African, this is the Africa I know. People often don’t realise that South Africa’s larger cities are a fusion of global cultures where first and third world mix.
The novel is peppered with pop culture references in a setting where the lines between reality and fantasy overlap. The initial concept of the novel had been about subverting readers’ concepts of what is traditionally considered good and evil. I wrote the story from the point of view of someone who’d traditionally be considered evil. I know I’ve done a good job because I’ve had so many readers write to me to tell me they ended up cheering for Jamie though at times they’d have liked nothing more than to throttle him.
What do you make of JM Coetzee’s portrayal of South Africa in his novels?
I read one of JM Coetzee’s books and vowed to never touch his writing again. He’s a great writer but Disgrace portrayed such a hopeless, horrible vision of the New South Africa, and his main character was such a victim I’ve been totally put off. Granted, I’ll dip into Andre P Brink or Max du Preez from time to time if the mood fits for socio-political commentary. They have much more to offer readers, in my opinion.
Perhaps Coetzee’s story is a bit too close to the bone but while I acknowledge there’s a lot that is dismal about our country, I try to maintain an attitude that things can improve, that there is some way forward offering reconciliation. Maybe it’s because I’m part of the generation that grew into adulthood during the time of transition, I just don’t dig focusing on the dross.
What role does music play in your life?
Music has always been my dark twin. I was raised on music from a young age, my mom starting me on the likes of Beethoven’s symphonies and Bizet’s Carmen. At school level I studied music all the way through until matric. I played piano and classical guitar and sang in a chamber choir. But best of all I loved alternative music, influenced by bands like Nine Inch Nails, Type O Negative, White Zombie and others, and played bass in an assortment of grunge, black metal and goth bands.
For a long time I was convinced I was going to be a professional musician but in South Africa back then the music industry was only recovering after years of socio-economic sanctions, so I studied something sensible and embarked on a career in the media industry.
But I can only live without music for so long and still play my bass almost daily. It’s not so much now about being famous and on stage as it is about nourishing some vital part of myself. By equal measure, I have my soundtracks I listen to when I write, and the spirit of the music infuses the stories I weave.
Do you think the supernatural is palpable in South Africa?
I think there’s a lot of superstition doing the rounds here in South Africa. Granted, we have a very rich cultural heritage with all manner of supernatural elements, but it becomes a bit frightening considering that a large percentage of our population is still living in the dark ages. People regularly get accused of witchcraft and burnt or stoned to death in our rural areas.
The Satanic panic that gripped the US and the UK during the 1980s is still alive and kicking among religious fundamentalists, so if one has any interest in esoteric matters, one has to tread very carefully.
But all things considered, and while I don’t believe in anything that goes bump in the night, I’ve seen hints at things existing at the edge of my awareness that suggest there’s more to the waking world than we think. I never quite know what to expect and I’m comfortable admitting that I don’t know enough about my world. It makes life far more exciting.
Thank you Nerine for giving an informative and stimulating interview.
‘This Is My World‘ blog
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