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Scorpio Rising: Gothic Hybridity and the Occult – A Discussion Between Laura Joyce and James Pate

In the late summer of 2017, Johannes Göransson suggested that James Pate and Laura Joyce interview each other about their work. As co-director of Action Books (along with Joyelle McSweeney), and Montevidayo.com, Johannes has supported both James and Laura by publishing and championing their work. He felt that they both had similar critical and creative interests, and that this would lead to a fruitful discussion. Before this discussion they had both read and admired and taught classes on each others’ work. James has just finished a month-long guest editorship at Burning House Press, which offers a good overview of the work that he is interested in, and which he supports and promotes. James has also written poetry and fiction, and hybrid work. Laura has just completed a short critical book, Luminol Theory (Punctum, 2017), which uses bioluminescence as a form of critical theory. Laura has written critical works on contemporary poetry, and creative works that explore the tension between experimental and genre writing. James and Laura started this discussion during fall semester, which meant achingly slow progress, but for both participants it was a joy to be able to consider and reflect on their most sacred interests: Hieronymous Bosch, Kenneth Anger, Shirley Jackson, Catholicism, experimental poetry, death rituals, and horror films. This discussion is the result of that process.  

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James Pate: First of all, I wanted to mention that I am a really big fan of your work. The Luminol Reels is an incredibly intense collection, and Luminol Theory is, I think, really insightful in the way it examines Noir and the Gothic in their contemporary forms, seeming to suggest both relate deeply to our current times.

When reading the books, I wondered about what it was about the luminol realm, so to speak, that drew you to write two books with two different approaches, one being aesthetic/poetic, and the other being theoretical. Also, did you set out to write about luminol in such different ways, or did it come about through the writing process itself?

Laura Joyce: I think (hope) that both sides of the luminol realm (as you so astutely describe it) bleed into each other across the texts. Though it’s absolutely possible to read them separately, and though they might appeal to different audiences, I hope that they might be tackling the same issues by operating in different modes.

For example, both books are deeply concerned with violence against women, deadly landscapes, religion and obsession. The two books came about as the result of a single piece of research which formed the basis of my Ph.D. thesis. The full title of the thesis was (somewhat pretentiously) Luminol Theory and the Excavation of Narrative & Dead Girl Scrolls: Unearthed Apocalyptic Fictions. Both sides of the thesis, the theoretical and the creative, were intended to reveal, unearth and excavate violent histories. I always knew I wanted to write about crime scenes, because they have always fascinated me. The charge of a banal, homely setting or an idyllic landscape degraded by violence has always held a dark fascination for me. Luminol felt both materially and metaphorically significant as a way to reveal hidden or previous violence even in an ostensibly untroubled location. I wanted to extend this idea out to think about culture (especially US culture), in order to reveal what has been occulted and to illuminate the contemporary United States as a crime scene. Luminol can help to provide a dystopian account of contemporary culture, a culture that is haunted, that is characterised by injustice and brutality, and that reads bodies as disposable. The idea of The Luminol Reels was to demonstrate Luminol Theory in practice.

The collection performs an empathetic and creative response through offering dead women a central position that refuses to reify, objectify or fetishise them or their bodies.

You have recently written a Noir novel. What does Noir mean to you? Is it to do with atmosphere and setting, or is it more technically specific than that? Would you see your work as belonging to the filmic or literary noir tradition? You are clearly interested in the slippages between the cinematic and the literary, and your poetry collection The Fassbinder Diaries collapses those boundaries in a really productive way. How influential has cinema been on your writing? Finally, how important is your ‘fallen’ Catholicism to your work? I could talk a lot about how integral it is to mine…  

JP: I tend to think of Noir in terms of atmosphere and setting, and especially the way the atmosphere in Noir seems to often exceed the circumstances of the narrative. There’s the surface level mystery of a particular occurrence, a particular case, but my favourite Noir writers also suggest a greater mystery out there, something that can’t be solved, that maybe can’t even be articulated. Everyday experiences, everyday things – doors, windows, lakes, hotel rooms, corridors, beaches – become invested with a kind of unnervingly unknowable quality. To a certain extent, I like Noir for the same reasons I like the Gothic. I’m much more interested in what I don’t know than what I do know.

Many of my favourite Noir writers have that quality, at least implicitly: Tana French, Megan Abbott, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith, David Goodis, Dorothy B. Hughes.

When I was writing Speed of Life, I was mostly thinking of the literary tradition, but film is a major influence, too. The book started with an image from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising that morphed in my mind – I imagined one of the bikers in that film as a young woman with a terrible backstory who turns to violence for catharsis. Everything else in the book, from the seventies setting to the glam/punk environment, fell in around that initial image. Writing Speed of Life seemed very similar to writing The Fassbinder Diaries. One is a novel and other poetry (more or less), but with both the rhythm of the language, the construction of certain images, what’s left unsaid at the edges – that’s always my focus. To me, those small details are everything – the difference between the generic and something much more particular.

The Fassbinder Dairies was especially influenced by Catholicism. It wasn’t something I was aware of when I wrote it – I only noticed it in hindsight. I’m currently writing a poetry manuscript called Sister Midnight that also contains Catholic themes/imagery. The part of Catholicism I’m fascinated with is the more corporeal, visceral aspect: Bosch, Caravaggio, Baudelaire, Huysmans, certain churches in southern Italy and Mexico with their contorted crucifixions and sculpted skulls. I guess that for me, Catholicism in this context is not so much a set of beliefs as a sensibility.

How about you? A certain strand of uncanny Catholicism seems to hover at the edges of The Luminol Reels especially. Also, I’m teaching a class on the Gothic next semester, and I was going to bring in your discussion on the suburban Gothic in Luminol Theory, relating it to Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything.  I find the idea of the suburban Gothic really intriguing. It seems to be at play in the film Get Out, too. 

LJ: I love The End of Everything — teenage girls are such a compelling subject, and in Luminol Theory I explore the idea that the teenage girl is on a continuum with the dead girl in the cultural imaginary. I think you’re so right about Get Out, and also the other recent ‘post-horror’ horror films like It Comes at Night and It Follows each of which deal with the intersection of race, class and gender and which demonstrate that for the marginalised and the oppressed, our world is already a deadly and brutal landscape or horror scenario. I’ve recently revisited Ira Levin’s work, which is much better than I remember, and is also in the suburban Gothic category. There is such crossover with the outsider figures in his novels, men who have social ambitions and are willing to murder and abuse to obtain social standing, and other mid-century novels by Highsmith and Hughes. Tom Ripley, Dix Steele, Guy Woodhouse, Bud Corliss are all plausible psychopaths who believe that they can do whatever they want to get the recognition they deserve. They don’t feel entirely without sympathy, especially if considered in socio-economic terms, but the violence against the vulnerable, often against women, makes it impossible to maintain that sympathy. But these dramas all play out in decidedly mannered social settings, absolutely suburban Gothic. I definitely share some (all) of your favourite Noir writers. Tana French is such an inventive writer, and I’ve found her series a real joy. I think some of the novels are better than others, and I particularly liked the underrated The Likeness for true uncanniness. 

I wonder if you would consider David Peace to be a Noir writer? I see the Red Riding books as contemporary Noir, in that they operate in such a bleak, amoral, desperate world where nearly every character is implicated in the violence and horror. 

Catholicism is this dark, glowing mineral at the centre of everything I write. I, too, love the aesthetics of Catholicism, the excess and horror and glory of it all. I think of something like Santa Sangre alongside all of the things you describe. I guess I’m stuck somewhere between the drama and the quotidian. My grandmother, for example, had a coffee table which had a reproduction of The Garden of Earthly Delights pasted and varnished on to it. As a child, I was obsessed with it. What was something so creepy and erotic doing in my nan’s house? I don’t think I realised that the same Catholicism that was about being good and respectable and kind and having deference to priests was also full of violent sexual imagery. The passion as a story had a huge influence on me as a very young child, and I think I’m still working through that story, and all of the mysteries of the rosary: sorrowful, joyful, glorious. I inherited the coffee table, and still have it in my bedroom.

I also tend to start with an image, a tone, an atmosphere or a setting. The novel I’m working on now started with an image of an austere house being shuttered up because of something terrible that happened inside. So far, so typical, but I couldn’t shake it and I’ve been rewriting that work for several years now, I think I might finally be somewhere close to pinning it down. Your idea of taking ideas across forms appeals to me very much, especially visual art forms, and I find experimental cinema extremely productive to think through writing with. I ran a module a couple of years ago that paired an experimental film with an experimental written text each week and it was a lot of fun. Kenneth Anger is such an interesting figure for Noir, not least because of these extremely suggestive images, but also his other work as cultural historian of the dark side of Hollywood. I love that your work blurs the boundaries between poetry/ fiction and I have taught The Fassbinder Diaries to creative writing students, along with his films, in order to have them produce cinematic writing. 

I feel similarly, that Noir is all about excess. Excess of emotion as well as excess of content/plot narrative. I think I am drawn to Noir in the same way that I am drawn to horror, melodrama and the Gothic: they all seem to be able to get closer to the horror of reality than realist novels do. I think this is also why I am drawn to astrology and the occult — the idea that chance is so relevant to what happens to us, the good and the bad. Highsmith said in her essay on plotting, that she liked to rely on almost impossibly unrealistic coincidences that set off a chain of events. She gives the example of Ripley being the person chosen to go and bring Dickie Greenleaf home, and she also offers the example of the pact made in Strangers on a Train which is on the face of it an extremely unlikely thing to happen. I like stories that strip away the need for background explanation, and which focus on the horror of that moment, and which take that horror seriously. I think this is why I am drawn to experimental writing — poetry, prose and somewhere in-between — that uses genre tropes and conventions without the necessity for scaffolding. Perhaps this is an example of the excess being freed from narrative form entirely. I’m thinking of Olivia Cronk, Johannes Göransson, Joyelle McSweeney, your work, Aase Berg, Lara Glenum etc. I love what you say about the banal being imbued with meaning: I think this is partly what I was getting at with the idea of the Polyester Gothic, in Luminol Theory

JP: It’s funny you should mention the passion had an influence on you as a child. I remember being obsessed with Good Friday as a child, and the way Catholics are asked to re-live that experience. Freud talks about the uncanniness of repetition, or repetition with a slight difference, and Good Friday had that effect on me – that idea of a day out-of-time, a Friday (a trauma) lived over and over. And the ritualistic pattern of it, too – the stages of the cross, the last words on the cross. I think the paganism that is so near the surface in some aspects of Catholicism is interesting – for example, the way Good Friday is linked to spring, to violent death/rebirth. There’s something almost Dionysian about it, even if there has been an institutionalised effort to bury that aspect. 

LJ: I really agree that the Dionysian aspect is always there. I was at mass yesterday, and it was noticeable that so many of the hymns and prayers are about the erotics of blood and death. I think it’s no surprise that I have been trying to work out these rituals in my writing. The constraint of ritual often frees individuals from more mundane responsibilities and moral duties. Mass always feels like that to me, to some extent. The drama and exhilaration of declaiming loudly in public that you are a sinner, not worthy to receive the body and blood of Christ, begging to be washed in the blood of the lamb, these actions are cathartic and freeing, and almost transgressive.

JP:  About Bosch, who you brought up earlier – he had a major impact on me as well. I didn’t see any reproductions of his work until my late teens, but I remember being struck by the blurring of the human and vegetable and animal. And in a strange way, I feel like the work really speaks to contemporary times. There’s always the argument that works of art should only be read in the cultural context of their moment – that art is a historical artefact only, and should be treated/interpreted as such – but I’ve always felt really powerful works of art flow past their context, and that Bosch’s work could be experienced in ways that might well be counter to his own intentions. Those paintings speak intensely of the extreme materialism found in writers like Eugene Thacker and Ben Woodward – writers who argue “the human” really isn’t very human at all when we take materialism seriously. Which is a worldview close to the Gothic, I think. Mary Shelley’s creature, the way he attempts to understand experience and consciousness as a nonhuman being… from a radically materialist standpoint, we aren’t so different. I think secular humanism, for all of the great things about it, is about forty years behind what the sciences are telling us about what it means to be human today. Approaching the world, inhabiting it, from a truly non-teleological point of view is incredibly difficult, but the Gothic provides certain lenses for doing so.

LJ: I loved playing the guessing game Animal, Vegetable, Mineral when I was younger. These classifications always fascinated me. I’m very drawn to work by Thacker, Woodard and Lisa Downing who show the teeming, dynamic nature of that which might seem to be merely annihilatory. I just read Paul Preciado’s Testo Junkie, as part of my ongoing binge on memoir and and hybrid writing. I thought it was really interesting on what it means to be human, as well as a dissertation on the fantasy of essentialism. Marina Warner’s book Fantastic Metamorphoses which takes The Garden of Earthly Delights came to me at a moment when I was trying to evaluate why that painting had been so important to me as a child. I think part of the interest I have always had in taxonomies came from early exposure to Bosch: What is this? Why are they naked? Why are the plants cannibalising the humans? Why is Jesus there?

JP: I really need to read Testo Junkie – the reviews I’ve read make it sound amazing. In an alternative life, I wish I had the time to do nothing but sit around, reading. When Merricat talks about living “on the moon” in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, that doesn’t sound so bad to me. 

LJ: I wish this too. My friend sent me an article to read about neuroplasticity and reading, and the terrible reality that we can untrain ourselves to get lost in a book in the same we we learned to do it in the first place. She has been using daily reading as a form of meditation and I have started to find time to do the same. It’s shocked me how much joy I can feel in that hour or half an hour, the simple remedy to anxiety and burnout and everything else. I’m reading creative nonfiction, and especially crime memoirs right now for a course I’m planning, and for a book I’m researching. The immersion has been so therapeutic. I can feel myself learning, grasping, understanding, instead of skimming or glossing.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Laura Ellen Joyce

Laura Ellen Joyce is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Coventry University. She is interested in bioluminescence, death rituals, eco-horror, ancient lit and experimental writing. Her recent monograph Luminol Theory (Punctum, 2017) uses bioluminescence as critical theory. She has written two experimental genre novellas: The Museum of Atheism (Salt, 2012) and The Luminol Reels (Calamari, 2014). The Ovidian Locus Terribilis in Contemporary Rural Horror will be published by Bloomsbury in 2019. Find her at lauraellenjoyce.com

James Pate

James Pate is a poet and fiction writer. He has had work published in Black Warrior Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, storySouth, and Occulum, among other places. His books include The Fassbinder Diaries (Civil Coping Mechanisms), Flowers Among the Carrion: Essays on the Gothic in Contemporary Poetry (Action Books Salvo Series), and Speed of Life (Fahrenheit Press). He teaches creative writing and philosophy at Shepherd University, in Shepherdstown, WV.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 17th, 2018.