Between the click of the light & the start of the dream
By Alan Kelly.
3:AM: John Haigh wrote of a dream he’d had: “I see before me a forest of crucifixes which gradually turn into trees. At first there appears to be dew or rain dripping from the branches, but as I approach I realize it is blood. Suddenly the whole forest begins to writhe. The trees, stark and erect, ooze blood. A man goes to each tree catching the blood in a cup. When his cup is full he approaches me. ‘Drink,’ he says. But I am unable to move.” Tell me about a dream which paralyzed you?
D. Harlan Wilson: I write about a paralyzing dream I had as a kid in my novel Dr. Identity, or, Farewell to Plaqudemia. From what I recall, the dream took place almost exactly as I recounted it … I was five or six years old. I slept on the bottom mattress of a bunk bed with about six inches of space between the mattress and the wall. I awoke in the middle of the night and began to pick my nose. I added my findings to a constellation of snot that I had been constructing on the wall over the past week. Time passed. I couldn’t get back to sleep. As I stared at the snot on the wall, something popped up beside the bed, as if spring-loaded. It made this sound: “Uhuhuhuhhhh.” It was a brown lady. She was thin, old, about a foot tall, wore spectacles, and had a bun in her hair. I lay there — paralyzed. At some point I started yelling for my mom. She came in the room and leaned over the bed and pushed the brown lady back down, locking her into place. She kissed me and left. I calmly went back to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, I asked my mother about the “Uhuhuhuhhhh,” the onomatopoeic name I still use to refer to the brown lady. Of course my mother had no recollection. That was the scariest dream I have ever had.
3:AM: Jeremy Bryan Jones said of his killing spree: “It was like a nightmare, I was in a movie.” When you write, would you rather be in a movie or a nightmare?
DHW: Both. Definitely both. In fact, most of my novels are deliberately set in nightmarish dystopias and either read like a screenplay or function according to the laws of cinema. In other words, I employ the techniques of screenwriting and the machinery of celluloid to represent the horrors of everyday hyperreal life. I do this a lot in the novel I’m writing now, The Kyoto Man, the third and final installment in my Scikungfi trilogy, which combines different kinds of written and visual media. One chapter, for instance, is a comic book called “The Nightmare of Reality.”
3:AM: In the Victor Erice film Spirit of the Beehive, Isabel asks her father: “Papa, have you ever picked a bad mushroom?” Can you remember the first question you ever asked someone and what his or her answer was?
DHW: I don’t remember my first question. I suspect the answer was no, though.
3:AM: Jeffrey in Blue Velvet says to Sandy right before he sneaks into Dorothy Vallans apartment: “There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience. Sometimes, it’s necessary to take a risk.” Whenever you find yourself confronted by a blank page, does it feel like you’re taking a dangerous risk?
DHW: It used to feel that way, sometimes. I remember that when I started writing seriously I experienced a kind of dangerous feeling, although not because of my subject matter. The catalyst was my insecurity as a neophyte writer. I guess we’d call this feeling anxiety. Anxiety is the natural product of risk-taking, for non-sociopaths at least. But I didn’t really feel like I was taking a risk. I just felt stupid, uninformed, vaguely hollow. Which I was. And the blank page confirmed it. But I kept writing. Now I’m not-so-stupid, not-so-uninformed, not-so-vaguely-hollow.
3:AM: “One is always considered mad, when one discovers something that others cannot grasp,” said Ed Wood in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Do you think he could have been talking about Bizarro? Had it been hanging around back there?
DHW: Bizarro is an umbrella term that encompasses many different styles of speculative fiction. The term was created by a collective of small presses for marketing purposes — just as, for instance, surrealism was coined by André Breton as a marketing tool. It’s not a terribly unique or original formation. Nothing is, of course. Bizarro is merely a venue for writers of very weird shit to publish their work in a market that, for the most part, does not like very weird shit, because very weird shit doesn’t sell. The point is, there have been plenty of writers (and filmmakers and artists) who are quantifiably Bizarro. Ed Wood is certainly one of them.
3:AM: Oscar Wilde is cited as saying: “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” Do you find your work punishing? Working through your own fictions, is that more punishing than it is rewarding?
DHW: It used to be more rewarding. There was a time when I romanticized the act of writing and held it in higher regard. Now I just kind of do it. Over the years, I’ve realized more and more how un-special I am and how writing of any kind, no matter how profitable, no matter how beautiful or genius or whatever you want to call it, is utterly ordinary. Everybody’s trying to get published, right? Everybody’s writing something, right? And if they’re not writing something, they’re planning on writing a memoir, or a novel, or a children’s book, and so on. This isn’t to mention the millions of writers who have been published and are being published. BFD.
In terms of punishment, I don’t like looking back on stuff I’ve written in the past. Especially my early work, which is laden with flaws. It hurts to re-read it. As with many writers, I want to revise just about everything I’ve published to varying degrees. That said, given the opportunity, I’d revise this story or that novel to my liking, and then, down the road, I’d just want to revise it again. So there’s no point, really. Once again: BFD. The best an author can do is to try to perfect a piece of writing to the best of his or her ability at that point in his or her life. Then admit that it isn’t perfect and let it go.
3:AM: Porn star Jenna Jameson says: “Making eye contact during rough sex is roughly the equivalent trying to read Dostoyevsky on a rollercoaster.” Where do you not like to read and why?
DHW: I don’t like to read at coffee shops and bookstores, although I wish I could, but whenever I get my coffee and sit down at a table, some loud-mouthed asshole breaks the silence, a guy with a 2-pack-a-day voice orders a latte at the top of his lungs, or some old Willy Loman sets up shop and starts talking to clients on the phone, or there’s two chubby housewives gabbing and laughing and shoveling down scones. I can’t stand it.
3:AM: “That’s much too vulgar a display of power,” spits the possessed child from The Exorcist. What was the first major exorcism of your life — or as a writer do you feel that exorcisms are an ongoing process?
DHW: Exorcisms are definitely an ongoing process for me and take many forms. Writing, of course, is one form. Teaching is another — preparing and running lectures and discussions in class consistently purges me of intellectual lethargy. Meditation exorcises pent-up aggression. Lifting weight does the same. My days arguably consist of moving from one subjective exorcism to the next.
There’s a formative experience I had when I was about fifteen years old that I would quantify as, for lack of a better phrase, an exorcism of youth. I was an awkward, uncoordinated kid and used to get beat up a lot. One bully was this dickhead Kevin Pratt, who used to kick my ass on a regular basis and embarrass me in front of my friends. Around this age I hit a growth spurt. It was winter. Somehow I ended up in Kevin’s back yard and he attacked me. Usually he overpowered me without incident. To my surprise, though, I was able to deflect him. He came at me, and I tossed him aside. He came at me again, and I tossed him aside. I waited until he had tired himself out. Then I beat the shit out of him and left him face-down bleeding in the snow. That was one of the best moments in my life. It changed me forever.
3:AM: “Familiarity with evil breeds not contempt but acceptance.” You navigate a dark terrain. Are we better off with the devil we know or burying our skulls in the sand?
DHW: I certainly wouldn’t advocate burying our skulls in the sand. In spite of the devil, or rather because of the devil — do like Martin Sheen says at the end of Wall Street: create. Better yet, create something that works.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Alan Kelly [centre] is 3:AM‘s Film Editor. He has worked for a number of specialist magazines, Film Ireland, Pretty Scary, Penny Blood, Bookslut et al. He lives in Wicklow, Ireland, and is partial to pulp, noir, hardboiled, brainy erotica and horror fiction.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 4th, 2010.