A necrophile hero is something to be
By Alan Kelly.
1. matthew stokoe
Author of the incredibly disturbing and visceral novels Cows and High Life. An underground phenomenon of the literary world, Stokoe’s name has become synonymous with some of the most graphic imagery and poetically offensive writing since the French surrealism movement.
“Since I read Cows by Matthew Stokoe, I haven’t been able to eat beef because I’m afraid of the semen levels I might be digesting.”
Source: Urban Dictionary
3:AM: Stylistically High Life has the brutal elegance of Raymond Chandler combined with a Bret Easton Ellis visceral punch to the throat. Did you live in L.A.?
Matthew Stokoe: Yes, I lived there, mostly Santa Monica for a while in the early 90s.
3:AM: Jack is never likeable but remains captivating, even when he is screwing corpses. I got the impression that he would stop, that he would pursue the ideal that is celebrity into the darkest, murkiest, most sadistic corner of hell, that nothing was too horrific, cruel or even stupid enough to stop him?
MS: Well, Jack is a product of these media/celebrity obsessed times. In both Cows and High Life I thought a lot about the warping influence certain levels of society/lifestyles can have on individuals who, for whatever reason, aren’t strong enough to resist them. So Jack, in another situation, might have been a pretty normal guy, living a pretty normal life, but under the constant celebrity pressure he’s exposed to every second of the day his ideals, goals and self image become warped to the point where he believes a person (himself included) has no value unless he’s a celebrity. That said, Jack does have his limit. He will do almost anything, but he still has limits (admittedly they are way, way out there) – as his actions at the end of the book show.
3:AM: There is that binary of the wealthy/poor people and the wealthy/poor places, what I mean is there are the high-up and the low-down – every person existing in their own wretched back alleys of activity. When it comes down to it, the rich and famous thrive on a sense of secrecy, so Bella and Powell are almost as hidden as characters like Rosie or the homeless guy who Jack tortures and humiliates. You discover they are as faceless as everybody else.
MS: I don’t think that the rich are faceless in the sense that poor people are. The poor are disenfranchised in many, many ways, while the rich are empowered. This dichotomy is important in High Life but it’s illustrated more in the separation between celebrities and non-celebrities. However, the rich, in the form of Powell, and more so, Bella, are trapped by their own desires just as much as the poor. These desires imprison them in a murky, enclosed world. So, yes, as you say, they exist in a wretched back alley of activity.
3:AM: High Life is possibly one of the most disturbing but exhilarating novels I’ve read in a very long time. It has all the staples of classic noir yet some parts of it took me back to the Splatter punk era i.e. the writing of David Schow, Poppy Z Brite and other writers who would use violence without there existing the excuse that their work is satirical. High Life is satirical, to a degree – the cult of celebrity, the person who can only find validation with the sun of an adoring gaze on his shoulders. Why the emphasis on the depraved do you mind me asking?
MS: I assume you’re referring to the explicit sex and violence. Well, a) it just came out of me when I was writing – believe it or not I did start out to write a book that was much more mainstream than Cows – kinda didn’t happen. b) at the time I wrote High Life I was so sick of authors glossing over reality, of smoothing off the edges, and so in one sense High Life is a protest at this. I’d lived for a long time among the dregs of society in London and I knew that life really is a horror show for many people – it’s not like they just have one or two bad months then everything is ok again – these people exist in a world of constant violence, ignorance and deprivation. I wanted to show this in as unambiguous way as possible – hence the emphasis on the “depraved”.
3:AM: Jack is close to our generation in believing that a sports car, a house in the hills and a beautiful woman with a lot of money are enough to save him. He begins the novel as someone who is beyond that. Did you always want to create a character that is symptomatic of a cultural disease, say it begins with the germ of celebrity and grows into Jack…
MS: Actually, Jack starts the novel having played by the rules for a while – he’s had a job, worked hard etc. – but he’s ended up with a wife who was a hooker and a shitty, unhappy life. We join him at the point he says fuck it, he’s not going to play by those rules any more, living “normally” doesn’t lead to happiness and, more importantly, isn’t validated by society, because society, in the form of the media, validates only those who achieve celebrity. Jack is very much symptomatic of a cultural disease – he’s a good man who has been twisted out of shape by this insane celebrity worship the media subjects us to today.
3:AM When I said why the emphasis on the depraved… I wanted to ask what is the depraved in High Life? Is it the violence or the façade that fronts it?
MS: Depraved is the destructive effect the media can have on the individual, or as is the case today, vast sectors of the population.
3:AM The only notable victim in High Life is Karen, or at least that is what you’re led to believe as you navigate the twisty narrative until a revelation from Ryan. Where did he come from?
MS: Ryan is my favourite character. Initially I hadn’t even planned to use a policeman in the story, but as I wrote, the story called into the black nightmare of its genesis and Ryan came bounding out. I see him as a great vehicle for all the impotence a man can suffer after a life of battering against the world, of trying but failing. Also, for me, he’s a man who knows how disgusting he is and wants to make some sort of amends. Karen…eh. I didn’t feel she was a victim so much. In a small way she reflects what Jack turns into – he’ll do anything for celebrity – she’ll do anything for a buck.
3:AM There is a Gothic element to your writing, especially in the creation of Bella and Powell. I haven’t read it but Cows have been led to believe it’s Gothic horror in the same vein as Iain Banks‘ Wasp Factory (a favourite childhood novel of mine). Are there plans to reprint it?
MS: The history of Cows is a troubled one. Basically the publisher, Creation Books, illegally sold the Russian language rights to a Russian company called Astrel AST. At this point, as they’d breached contract, they lost all rights to sell any editions of the book, the English version included. They, however kept selling it (without paying me royalties) until I got a lawyer involved. After that, mysteriously, a whole load of new copies, which should have been destroyed, found their way onto the market. Coincidentally, one of the main sellers of Cows now is a friend of James Williamson, the head of Creation Books. Go figure. To answer your question though, Cows will be republished this year (at a reasonable price) – exactly who will release it is still under discussion – it certainly won’t be Creation Books.
3:AM: I know very little about Matthew Stokoe – describe yourself, your working day, your inspirations and influences?
MS: Bios and synopses are my least favourite things to write – so you ain’t going to get much. I’m English by birth and have lived in Australia, New Zealand and the UK in about equal measure (with a stint in the US). I’m actually from NZ to Sydney in a couple of months. I’ve done the usual writer thing of working at many different jobs and I recently finished a third novel called Empty Mile – this one, amazingly, has much less sex and violence.
My influences…Chandler, Selby Jr, Nelson Algren.
3:AM: Are you still filmmaking? Could you tell me a bit more about past and future projects? And what you plan on writing next?
MS: Film writing is the first sort of writing I did. I started off with two feature length screenplays – neither of them got anywhere as I hadn’t learned the form at that point (15 yrs ago). It’s something I like to do when I’ve got sick of novel writing – it makes a nice change from all those words! But it has its own problems – it’s a very strict form. The first film I wrote which got made was a short film called Rock – a beautiful script that got completely ass fucked by the film makers. The next was Dog – a half hour short that was, in contrast to Rock, a brilliant experience. Shot by a really talented New York director called Paul Kwiatkowski it turned out fantastically – I still find it a very moving piece. At the moment I’m working on a screenplay of High Life for a Los Angeles director – it remains to be seen, of course, whether the world is ready for a necrophile hero….
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Alan Kelly is the contributing editor to Dogmatika. He has worked for a number of specialist magazines, Film Ireland, Pretty Scary, Penny Blood, Bookslut et al. He lives in Wicklow and is partial to pulp, noir, hardboiled, brainy erotica and horror fiction.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 17th, 2009.