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Unhinging Horror: An Anxious Response to the “madness” of Hereditary (2018) and The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

By Sean Moreland

This post is, in part, a personal and very tendentious review of Ari Aster’s film Hereditary and Mike Flanagan’s Netflix mini-series The Haunting of Hill House. As such, it contains a number of spoilers for, and potentially disturbing images from, both. Caveat lector.

My response to both is shaped by broader concerns with the long and troubling history of representations of “madness” and “mental illness” in popular horror fictions (literary, cinematic, and televisual). In this respect, it is motivated in part by a panel I recently participated in at CanCon 2018, Ottawa’s s annual speculative fiction convention, titled “Horror and the Problematic Portrayal of Madness.”   On this note, keep your eyes on this space for a forthcoming continuation of that discussion with my co-panelists, Nathan Caro FréchetteTonya LiburdDavid Nickle, and Derek Newman-Stille.

This post is also in part a personal discussion of the relationship between anxiety, depression, grief, and the pleasures and problems of horror spectatorship from the point of view of a lifelong “horror fan.” My fandom (or, to use my colleague Aalya Ahmad’s preferred term, “fan(g)dom”) has, for better or worse, shaped my work and interests as a literature and film scholar, professional educator, and occasional writer of poetry and fiction.

It should be noted that throughout this piece, I mark out both the terms “madness” and “mental illness” (which often mean very different things) in quotation marks. In doing so, I do not intend to erase the realities, struggles, joys, sufferings, or triumphs of those who identify with these terms, or who have had these terms forced upon them. Rather, to mis-paraphrase a silly song, I want to hold these terms closely in quotation marks, while signalling that they do not, and probably cannot, have a neutral, transparent, cross-cultural or trans-historical meaning.

First, Hereditary.

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I saw the film during its theatrical run with my wife and a friend. My wife enjoyed it, jumped at the jump-scary scenes, and was untroubled by it otherwise. It was, in her estimation, a “good horror film,” although not a great or especially original one. My friend and I, on the other hand, who both live with levels of anxiety that sometimes become difficult to manage (or function socially and professionally through) and who both consider ourselves to be horror film “connoisseurs,” began having the prodromal symptoms of an impending panic attack by the mid-point of the film. When we discussed it after the fact, we both used the words “deeply disturbing” and “powerful” to describe it.

These pre-panic symptoms, for me, peaked during the family dinner scene. The tense, unbearably emotionally fraught conflict between the members of the Graham family too closely resembled and amplified some of the most painful and confusing conversations I’ve had with family and loved ones over the years.

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The guilt, resentment, helplessness, and next to total breakdown of effective communication between the Grahams massively spiked my anxiety. In light of the film’s conclusion, it becomes clear that none of the characters are talking about primarily what they think they are talking about during this scene; the entire conversation only expresses their thoughts and feelings insofar as it foreshadows the plot and structure of the film. This is technically impressive. It is also part of the film’s deliberate erasure of any agency its characters may, at first, appear to have.

This retrospective dramatic irony encapsulates how Hereditary ultimately unhinges its own apparent representations of “mental illness,” an unhinging echoed by much of the critical conversation around the film, much of which tends to break down into highly polarized comments such as, “it’s ridiculous to criticize a film’s representation of mental illness when it is ultimately about demonic possession!” or “to say anything positive about this film is literally to attack and erase those who live with mental illness!”

During this scene, I was on the verge of having to walk out of the film to try to get my heart-rate down, my circulation to extremities going again, and my mind from buzzing with a shit-tonne of awful anxious ideation.

Shortly after this scene, things started to slide seamlessly into spectacular and undeniable malevolent supernaturalism. Corpses in the attic becoming re-animate, spontaneous human combustion, menacing apparitions blossoming like spring flowers, acephalic ritualistic tableaux… an eruption of Grand Guignol that gave me a crashing, cathartic sensation of relief as my panic transmuted into a far more pleasurable feeling of weird familiarity – “right, I’m watching an over-the-top supernatural horror film, OK, I can just enjoy this for the delirious spectacle that it is becoming,” and my desire to walk out of the theatre ended.

That feeling is pretty much what I experience any time I am able to re-direct my rising anxiety and evade an impending panic attack (by vigorous exercise, long walks, meditation, pet-bonding, self-medication, absorbing my attention in a film sufficiently to ease the circulation of my thoughts around the painful rapid pace of my heart and strain of my breathing, or some other means.) As my heart-rate lowers, warmth returns to my extremities and my vision stops whiting out at the edges, a kind of quiet elation sets in; some kind of psychic disaster has been averted. My reaction to Hereditary emphasized for me that part of my life-long attraction to horror films stems from their ability to create this kind of catharsis, which, when it works, is hugely helpful to me in managing and transmuting my anxiety. Indeed, one blogger has written of understanding the film as being “about” anxiety itself, and therefore useful in understanding their own experiences living with it.

Because of the degree to which the first half of the film, with its cultivation of the “horrors” of “mental illness,” emotional trauma, and excruciatingly dysfunctional family relationships generated anxiety for me, its sudden and inevitable slide into flamboyant supernaturalism was anxiolytic. For many viewers, however, the moment this kind of dread dissipates is the moment the film either loses much of its power, or becomes unforgivably problematic. It has elicited what I think are some of the most incisive criticisms of the film. As one blogger puts it, Hereditary

“is ugly. At its core is a journey of abuse, grief and mental illness which posits that there is no good way to cope when one’s world is torn apart by any of these things. And as it goes on it morphs into a visceral, soul-crushing experience merged with  bits of genre conventions that will have horror geeks patting themselves on the back  while others will be left unsure how to feel about the whole thing.”

There is some truth in this assessment of the film. Given how heavily reliant, and lovingly referential, Hereditary is toward its horror-cinematic and literary inspirations (as opposed to the lives and fate of its characters) there is something to the idea that it fetishizes its conventions at the expense of its characters.  However, I’m troubled by this writer’s characterization of the film’s reception being polarized between “horror geeks” (there is a long history of pathologizing Gothic and horror fictions, and those who create or consume them, in particularly gendered and classist ways that lurks behind a statement like this) and the rest of humanity (who are, presumably, more “humane,” or “sensitive,” or “sane” than those “geeks.”)

Lena Wilson puts it in a way that doesn’t automatically pathologize anybody who enjoyed or appreciated the film, while still underlining its most crucial problem:

“The literal destruction of their grieving family unfolds with dreadful inevitability, as both Annie and Peter ultimately die by their own hands. Their deaths, despite paranormal influences, can be interpreted as suicide, in light of the film’s overt references to mental illness. Despite ever-evolving diagnoses and new forms of therapy, the stigmatization of mental illness in our society is alive and well.”

Many critics have responded to the commercial success of and considerable critical praise for Hereditary by pointing out its lack of “originality.” As a review in The Economist puts it,

“Viewers may not guess every specific—because the specifics are wonderfully bizarre—but the sinister conspiracy plot is far less surprising than the one in “Get Out”, for instance. It is less original and resonant, too. The film sometimes pretends to be a classical tragedy about bereavement, motherhood and mental illness, but with its regular scares and its rudimentary plotting, “Hereditary” is fundamentally a hokey Halloween haunted-house chiller, complete with spooks, séances and people who are foolish enough to run upstairs rather than out of the door when they’re being chased.”

I wouldn’t argue with the claim that Hereditary is less original than Jordan Peele’s Get Out (that masterful film sets a tremendously high bar!) On the contrary, I think its relative lack of originality is part of what makes it so disturbing; it uses its generic precursors to produce a sense of fatalistic inevitability. That’s one aspect of Freud’s otherwise-superseded theory of the uncanny I think still holds water – that the feeling of the uncanny is always rooted in a disturbing familiarity.

Often the most disturbing films are the ones that do all-too-familiar things, just a little differently. I didn’t find Hereditary especially “original,” but I sure didn’t find it “hokey.” Had more of its audience felt this way, it would surely have disturbed, unsettled, or disgusted far fewer of them, myself included, and would clearly be a less divisive topic for discussion.

But it is certainly much more concerned with using its narrative and effects to create a sense of dreadful fatalism than in exploring in an open-ended and psychologically dynamic way the lives of its characters. The unfortunate members of the Graham family are all, ultimately, revealed to be little cogs in a massive sensory-affective machine designed to do nothing so much as generate a feeling of inescapable doom. This unflinching, relentless focus makes it both a powerful horror narrative, and a dangerous and distressing (non)portrayal of “mental illness.”

Nor does Hereditary “pretend” to be a “classical tragedy.” It’s pre-texts are not primarily Oedipus Rex or The Bacchae. They are, rather, classic psychological Gothic tales, from Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Maupassant’s “L’Horla,” through to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. In each of these fictions, a particular psychological disposition or state is inextricably linked to the inevitable destruction of a character or characters. In short, Hereditary‘s strengths, like its “sins,” are practically constitutive of this mode of horror.

Poe’s  “Usher” is, I think, an especially apt point of comparison for Hereditary. It is a story that incorporates many phrases and images and ideas from earlier work, using them to create a sense of excessive familiarity and mechanistic inevitability. It banks on its readers’ prior familiarity with the conspicuous tropes of Gothic fiction  to achieve its effects. The crumbling ancestral mansion, which will collapse at the conclusion, in an obvious echo of Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, as the “crack” emphasized throughout the tale reminds its readers, bringing the Usher family, prey to neurotic afflictions and phobias, crashing down with it.  The symbolism in Poe’s tale between the haunted house, cracked and irreversibly collapsing, and the “mad” mind is forceful, and intricately interwoven into every sentence of the story, each element setting up the inevitable doom of its conclusion. Its “human” characters are automata, parts of its fatal machinery.

Given the massive scope of the tale’s influence, “Usher” is a crucial text for any consideration of the role “madness” plays in modern horror, and its influence is in no way limited by the lack of originality in its elements. For “Usher” is a Frankenstein’s monster of  stitched-together parts. As I detail in the article “Ancestral Piles: Poe’s Gothic Materials,” Poe lifted elements from a hundred prior sources for it, many of them Gothic fictions; including Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (which similarly marries “madness” to both heredity and fate), Sir Walter Scott’s translation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Das Majorat,” the structure and conclusion of the Grandfather of the Gothic, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and even Mary Shelley’s novel itself. The work he designed this re-organized engine to perform is the production of a singular effect; a powerful, intricate sense of passive wonder and horror in the face of inevitable doom.

Richard Ingram, who is credited with coining the term “Mad Studies,” writes that “mad studies–written in the lower case–has existed in many different times and places. For example, I see Nietzsche as a forerunner of Mad Studies. I think he was one of the people who was continuously writing about his own struggle with madness in his philosophy, before eventually being psychiatrized.”

The same could certainly be said (and has been said) of Poe, who was posthumously translated into a “madman” by Rufus Grisworld, romantically valourized as a martyr of madness by Baudelaire, and treated as a posthumous subject for literary-clinical investigation by Freud’s pupil Marie Bonaparte, among countless others. To what extent did Poe’s tales “problematically appropriate” the “madness” of others for commercial exploitation? To what extent did they codify and propagate the proto-clinical ideas of James Cowles Pritchard and other Victorian psychologists by embedding them in a hugely influential and highly compressed literary form, casting even contemporary mad-perceived or mad-identified folks (including viewers of Hereditary) under the vampiric shadow of long dead physician-philosophers? And to what extent are they, instead, in Ingram’s words, products of and testaments to Poe’s own “struggle with madness” (which need not mean Poe’s struggle with “insanity,” or with “mental illness,” or with “latent dementia praecox,” or “sublimated psychopathy” resulting from “sexual inversion.”)

Hereditary similarly exploits its own generic over-saturation to generate and/or discharge tension in (many members of) its audience. Like “Usher,” it synthesizes this generic determinism (the tendency that unifies all of its cinematic influences and conventions) with the idea that “madness” is a fatal sentence (whether it is understood through the lens of “mental illness”, or fatal supernatural machinery.)

Horror writer Thomas Ligotti, who often works in this mode, has described his own fictions as “a matter of personal pathology,” expressive of, and possibly therapeutically related to, his own lifelong experience of debilitating depression and anxiety. He describes this mode in his essay, “Consolations of Horror.” Speaking of “Usher,” he asks, “Did you ever wonder how a Gothic story like Poe’s masterpiece can be so great without enlisting the reader’s care for its characters’ doom?”

Ligotti contradicts analyses that cast empathy and emotional mirroring as the primary basis for horror fiction’s appeal – such fictions “work,” some would have it, because we “identify with” and “believe in,” and therefore feel alongside, their characters (for elucidations of this idea, see, for example, Noel Carroll’s classic study The Philosophy of Horror, 1990, and more recently, Mathias Clasen’s evolutionary psychological account of horror’s appeal in Why Horror Seduces, 2017.)

Ligotti proposes instead, “Unlike a horror story whose effect depends on reader sympathy with its fictional victims, this one doesn’t want us to get involved with the characters in that way. Our fear does not derive from theirs.” Despite its fundamental violation of this widely touted explanation of horror’s appeal (has any reader, with the exception of Antonin Artaud, strongly identified with and seen themselves accurately  reflected in one of Usher’s characters?) “Usher” is widely recognized as among the most effective and influential horror tales ever written.

Ligotti suggests that “Usher” is so effective because:

“we don’t look over any character’s shoulder but have our attention distributed god-wise into every corner of a foul factory which manufactures only one product: total and inescapable doom. Whether a given proper noun escapes this doom or is caught by it is beside the point. Poe’s is a world created with built-in obsolescence, and to appreciate fully this downrunning cosmos one must take the perspective of its creator, which is all perspectives without getting sidetracked into a single one.”

Why are readers (at least, readers like Ligotti, and to some extent myself) drawn back to Poe’s tale, then? What kind of “pleasure” does it offer? Ligotti claims “the consolation” that “Usher” offers readers “is that we are supremely removed from the maddeningly tragic viewpoint of the human.”

This was also a large part of the weird aesthetic and emotional catharsis of Hereditary for me. At a certain point, I was freed from identifying with its human characters, their traumas, griefs, emotional sufferings too recognizably close to my own, and therefore generative of almost-unbearable anxiety.

Perhaps this sort of pleasure is more likely to be experienced by those with certain depressive and/or anxious tendencies?  While I’ve never been labelled with a clinical diagnosis beyond depression and general anxiety,  I experience many of the tendencies associated with a schizoid personality ( as a therapist once repeatedly pointed out to me, though “a personality style and a personality disorder are not the same thing.”). So, seemingly, do most of the strange, nebulous personalities that narrate Ligotti’s fictions. So do many of Shirley Jackson’s literary characters, including Eleanor of Hill House, with whom I have closely identified since first reading the novel at the age of 12.

Both Ligotti’s fictions and Hereditary seem to offer particularly schizoid resolutions to the anxieties of trying to negotiate emotional suffering through the fraught and confusing complexities of too-intimate interpersonal relationships.

Are these tendencies in me part of what made Hereditary‘s hinge so anxiolytic? Might it make sense to talk about such fictions as “schizoid horror” (extracting that term from its more restricted clinical use, which seems to be on the wane in contemporary psychiatry, while questioning the authority and consistency of its clinical conceptions themselves)? Or is this instinct to label and categorize likely to tend back toward pathologization?

Some viewers didn’t think Hereditary “owned” or “earned” the hinge whereby its “madness” swung from “mental illness” to “demonic occultism.”  I think, narratively and structurally, it did.  Nevertheless, Hereditary‘s hinge, its shift from “a family history of mental illness,” “DID,” “schizophrenia,” and “trauma” to “PAIMON!” and Phallocentric Goetic theurgy involves a very literal erasure of “mental illness,” along with the (illusory) psychological autonomy of its characters.

This is especially troubling to me because that hinge was the one on which my anxiolytic catharsis (as opposed to my appreciation for its ability to build and maintain anxiety and grief) depended. But I’ve been, in part, conditioned by many prior fictions to recognize, and appreciate, the smooth swing of that hinge, for it is hardly unique to Hereditary.

It is closely paralleled by many films that “bait” the audience with apparent representations of psychological alienation, and then switch them out for a paranormal reality, whether wonderful, horrible, or somewhere in between (from The Return to Oz through The Sixth Sense to Donnie Darko, it’s a common device.)

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Mike Flanagan’s Haunting of Hill House series uses a similar hinge, although to different effect.

I have a lot of admiration for Flanagan’s series in general; it is in so many ways a beautiful, aptly haunting thing. Where Aster’s film is a love-letter to many different horror films (probably none more so than Polanski’s  Rosemary’s Baby, however), Haunting is clearly a loving email (a sometimes meandering and sentimental one) to both Shirley Jackson herself, and to Stephen King (whose own early literary tributes to Jackson are marked by similar meandering and sentimental tendencies.)

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It resects and re-stitches aspects of Jackson’s novel in fascinating ways. It also, ingeniously and defiantly, uses the expectations of viewers (like myself) who know and love the novel to mislead and re-direct attention. Where Hereditary uses its allusions to foreshadow and reinforce its viciously fatalistic vision, Hill House uses them to expand upon while departing from its source material. Their respective temporal structures emphasize this difference. Hereditary traps viewers claustrophobically in the present perception of the Graham family, while revealing that present to be merely an illusionary ignorance of how the past has already determined the future.

Hill House draws heavily on the analeptic structure King is so fond of using to explore the relationship between “adult” and “childhood” experience. It’s a structure especially evident in his novel It, which seems an important source for Flanagan’s series. The series uses this structure, entirely different from that of Jackson’s novel, to distance itself from the plot of the novel, and to displace its chilling conclusion, even while having Steven Crain’s (the homophony is no coincidence) character directly quote from it. In the series, the unhinging of the main characters from mental illness, and their suspension instead from the supernatural threat represented by the house (a threat redolent of King’s revision of Jackson via Lovecraft in Salem’s Lot and The Shining,) contains at least the possibility of freedom. Heredity, here, either familial or generic, need not be fatal.

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Initially, the series’ nominal echoes of, but characterization and structural departures from, the novel bothered me. But it unfolds its differences from the novel with increasing fluency and impact as it proceeds, opening spaces clearly suggested by many of Jackson’s writings (and, of course, King’s). For example, one of the scenes that initially irritated me involved Eleanor’s famous “cup of stars” dialogue being transposed so that Mrs. Dudley delivers it to Nell, who is still a child. Up to that point, Mrs. Dudley (portrayed with impressive rigidity, which even more impressively dissolves later in the series, by Annabeth Gish) has seemed very much like the character of the same name in the novel, and it made no sense to me to place that quintessential speech in her mouth. But, like all the characters in the series, Mrs. Dudley is a far cry (in the night, in the dark) from herself in the novel, and the series eventually “earns” this transposition in a very poignant way.

However, as well as cultivating a Kingly expansivity quite removed from Jackson, the series strays too far into soap operatic, gothic melodrama for my tastes.  So many scenes of women in long, flowing night-gowns wandering, imperilled, through the palatial house at night! Daphne du Maurier, get thee behind me!

Yes, there is an aspect of that in Jackson’s novel (and yes, it was amplified by the novel’s marketing and most of its covers in the 60s and 70s) but part of what makes her novel stunning is its stark paring-back and exposure of the underlying psychological mechanisms of the gothic romance.

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The Internet is rife with responses to the series that emphasize, earnestly or otherwise, its fright-factor, ability to induce fainting, vomiting, etc. Some of these seem more like a William Castle-esque viral campaign than “authentic” self-reported responses to the series, but I have no doubt that many viewers were truly disturbed or triggered by some of its scenes.

I didn’t do any of those things (although I did cry a few times, and got some solid startles.) But there were a few moments in the series that had my anxiety rising into concerning territory (one advantage to Netflix being that I can turn the thing off and come back to it when I’m calmer; I had to do that while watching Flanagan’s earlier film Hush, which came close to causing me a panic attack.)

All of these moments in the series centred around Nell’s character. As I’ve already said, I’ve felt a kinship with the novel’s Nell, a lonely, longing, somewhat schizoid and Quixotic character since childhood. Her counterpart in the series (skillfully portrayed by Victoria Pedretti as an adult, and Violet McGraw as a child) really resonated with me.  Her distraught phone calls to her family the night of her death, their belated realization that they weren’t there for her when she called, their guilt that they didn’t do enough to help her…. I had trouble sitting through that. It’s the kind of thing I dread having to face on a daily basis.

Strangely, though, it was the series’ portrayal of Nell’s sleep paralysis that most disturbed me.  Those scenes very closely resembled by own experiences of sleep paralysis, particularly those that occurred when I was in my teens, before I had any idea what I was experiencing. I was terrified to talk about those experiences with anybody, because I was convinced they were indicative of either impending death or “going crazy.”

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I experienced such “hag attacks” occasionally for many years, generally during periods of acute anxiety. The first episode occurred when I was 17. It wasn’t until I took an undergrad psych course 2 years later that I read about the phenomenon.  The relief was overwhelming. “O THANK THE GODS, IT’S JUST SOME KIND OF MINOR NERVOUS SYSTEM GLITCH, I’M NOT EXPERIENCING DEMONIC OPPRESSION OR HAVING A SERIES OF STROKES OR DEVELOPING A PSYCHOSIS!”

The scene in which Nell describes her symptoms to a sleep technician (who later becomes her husband) who reassures her that they are normal, and normally harmless, really resonated with the relief I found at that revelation.

Sometimes, I take comfort in thinking about my nervous system, and my personality, as simpler and more mechanically reducible things than they are, things that could be “fixed” by some kind of minor “tweak” (thus my fondness for claiming that my most cherished literary works “pare back and expose” various “underlying psychological mechanisms,” a phrasing grounded in a particularly functionalist, and therefore probably ableist, conception of the mind, and one I often find it difficult to think outside of.)

But I want to come back to that narrative mechanism, that structural hinge, whereby throughout the series, most of the characters (and to a lesser extent, the audience) are led to believe their strange and tragic experiences result from a familial tangle of, probably hereditary, “mental illness,” “cognitive disorder,” or “emotional dysfunction…” all of which is ultimately explained by the cosmic threat presented by the soul-hungry house they had the misfortune of moving into (at least it isn’t a giant child-eating space-spider.)

Where in Hereditary, this hinge swings into a closing scene of delirious grotesquerie, in Hill House it opens the door on a curiously triumphant celebration of love’s posthumous persistence that clashes sharply with the resounding final paragraph of Jackson’s novel: “Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

King’s voice rings clearly in Flanagan’s revision, although the series resists the almost Tolkien-esque moral ontology that informs much of his supernatural fiction. In the series, as in It, love has a redemptive power. None of the Crains are, ultimately, alone, and none of the Crains are, ultimately, “mentally ill.” The narrative reinforces their father’s insistence that what they had come to believe were delusions, hallucinations, and paranoiac invasive thoughts were merely mis-interpretations of their relationship with a reality in which there are “more things than are dreamt of” in bio-medical psychiatry. More things, and more hungrily dangerous things. “Mental illness” ceases to exist; the only “madness” was in denying that such preternatural (to use Steven Crain’s preferred word) threats were real.

Despite this supernatural King-ification, there’s a way in which this is also a response to the role of “madness” in Jackson’s work itself.

There are many distinct parallels between Jackson’s textual representations of psychological alienation and the ideas of contemporaneous anti-psychiatric writers including R.D. Laing. Laing interpreted a wide variety of conditions, including notably schizophrenia, as being caused by social (and, with typical casual misogyny, especially maternal) influence. To reductively simplify, Laing thought insanity was a sane response to insane social pressures, including those imposed by “schizophrenogenic” mothers. This is a concept evident throughout Jackson’s work, and that of many of her horror-writing contemporaries, including Robert Bloch (Psycho) and Charles Beaumont (“Miss Gentilbelle.”) Laing’s views have been largely rejected by neurobiological psychiatry, although some of his therapeutic experiments arguably influenced contemporary socialization-focused approaches. But they were influential in Jackson’s time, and probably inform the way that both mother-figures and traditional societal influences function as an external menace, very much like a supernatural threat, in so many of her stories (as, certainly, does her own troubled relationship with both her mother and husband.) The series arguably culminates in a supernatural reification of this theory, as it is by first maddening mothers that the hungry house is able to claim many of its victims (most of whom are women.)

This leads me to the importance of sociologist Kathryn Church‘s caveat that “Mad studies doesn’t reject medical models of madness [but it puts] them into a historical trajectory, one that shows that psychiatry isn’t an absolute interpretation of human mental states.”

I think fiction can play an important role in delineating those trajectories, and that the way “madness” functions in the work of particular writers, film-makers, and artists (often quite removed from any supposed clinical or psychiatric “reality”) can be very revealing of this.

But it is unclear to me where fantastic, and especially horrific, fictions that darkly mirror certain “human mental states” fit into this crucially important historical and political examination. Is transforming the phenomenology of a deeply troubling “human mental state” into a fictional world in which it is the expression of very different conditions and physical laws ever NOT troubling, and potentially dangerous? Is it potentially a useful way of challenging the de-historicized absolutism of medico-psychiatric diagnosis? Are these prospects always, or ever, mutually exclusive?

Hill House’s closing scenes were, for me, hugely cathartic, but in an entirely different way from Hereditary‘s. The latter left me giddy and disturbed. The former left me crying, but somehow comforted, despite my reservations.

Hill House is “sad horror,” surely, but also loving, humane, hopeful horror. My experience of it, my appreciation for it, is no doubt in part because I’m grieving the sudden loss, a couple of months ago, of my mother, who first invited me in to Jackson’s Hill House.*

The feeling of loss, and of the felt presence of an absent, and much-missed, loved one (unmoored from any religious or metaphysical belief in an afterlife) is fertile ground in which the desire for the supernatural can grow. It’s a large part of my emotional reality these days, and may have made me especially responsive to the series. Hill House gave me an aesthetic outlet for grief, one intensified somehow by transient fright. But does that change its troubling transfiguration of “mental illness” into supernatural menace?  Does that unhinge it in a potentially revelatory way? Does that necessarily make it less effective as a work of “horror?”

These are, at least to me, open questions, open doors, and I’m not even clear what kind of hinges their answers might swing on.

 

* I was about 12 years old when I read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, with its high praise for Jackson’s novel. I was talking to my mother about it, and she realized she owned a copy as part of the abridged Reader’s Digest book series she subscribed to, which we both read and talked about, so the novel is caught up in my memories of my Mother in stark contrast to the way Eleanor’s, and Jackson’s, mother’s shadow hangs over the text.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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PSTD AUTHOR INTERVIEW: GEMMA FILES

Gemma Files began as a film reviewer, and now writes the sort of things she’d like to see at the movies. Overwhelmingly, these narratives are dark in slant, ranging over a spectrum that includes everything from classic M.R. Jamesian ghost stories and nihilistic body horror to what may or may not be the only queer-positive Weird Western novel series featuring random black magic and bloodthirsty Aztec gods (the Hexslinger series, from ChiZine Publications). Critics have called her work both poetic and pornographic, which she’s fine with. Her most recent book, the stand-alone horror tale Experimental Film, won both the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2015 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel. She has three new collections of short fiction coming out in 2018, two (Spectral Evidence and Drawn Up From Deep Places) from Trepidatio Publishing, the other (Dark Is Better) from Cemetery Dance. She is currently hard at work on her next novel.

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Gemma Files

 

You can read the reprint of her story “Gabbeh” that accompanies this interview here.

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On the subject of Shirley Jackson, can you talk about the importance of her work to your own writing?

I don’t know any female horror writer who doesn’t acknowledge they owe a pretty huge debt to Shirley Jackson, even if they’ve only encountered her work as that section of The Haunting of Hill House quoted by Stephen King in Salem’s Lot. (This is, oddly enough, exactly where I first encountered her. I then went on to read Richard Matheson’s Hell House before I actually read Hill House, which is a little like watching the porno version of a movie before you watch the movie it’s parodying.) I think I reacted a bit badly to her shorter work when I was younger, because so much of it appeared to be about social anxiety and I was like: “Fuck that crap! I don’t care what anybody thinks about me!”

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1972 Bantam cover of Matheson’s Hell House. The “porno version?”

Then I got older and realized that, heigh-ho, the expectations of others could indeed be indeed kind of horrifying, especially if what you were socially anxious about was the possibility that your friends, neighbours and family might stone you to death if you drew the black spot in your town’s annual Lottery. But the true lesson Shirley Jackson is her absolute mastery of the unreliable narrative voice and her ability to render the domestic/familiar uncanny—she was both witch and homemaker, in that respect. Those are definitely two things I’ve tried to incorporate into my own work.

Can you talk about some of your favourite Jackson fictions and why they continue to fascinate?

We Have Always Lived in the Castle remains a startlingly accurate portrait of a female sociopath, which is always appealing for me—Merricat Blackwood is a person whose patterns of thinking are literally magical, who lives her life by a set of OCD superstitions that remind me of the work of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine—derail her rituals, puncture or threaten her world-view, and she’ll slip you a poison mushroom without thinking twice. Her sister Constance, on the other hand, has convinced herself that the best thing she can do for Merricat is to take responsibility for her actions, which is a beautiful example of toxic femininity at work. Hill House remains my favourite of her novels, though, which is why when I accepted my award for Experimental Film, I told the audience that I, like the little girl Eleanor observes on her way to the titular haunted mansion, had finally gotten “[my] cup of stars.”

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Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle; a “startlingly accurate portrait of a female sociopath.”

Any thoughts on the greater recognition and visibility Jackson’s work has been getting in the last few years? The previous or forthcoming film/TV adaptations of her work? The homage paid to it by the Canadian Netflix-original film, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

I was inclined to like Oz Perkins’s work from the get-go, considering my youthful obsession with his father Anthony and my love of his brother Elvis’s music, so it’s no surprise I find I Am The Pretty Thing fascinating on a bunch of levels—I like its formalism, its slow burn, its oddity, not to mention Ruth Wilson’s and Paula Prentiss’s central performances. I also very much look forward to Mike Flanagan’s version of Hill House, since I love his stuff generally; I have no doubt that no matter what he does or doesn’t do with it, it’ll be a great adaptation.

That said, I think that in a way, Shirley Jackson is finally having her Sylvia Plath moment—the recent biography A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin reveals the way she was consistently undercut by her mother, how she battled depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug addiction, raising her kids virtually alone in the boring, annoying wilds of small town Vermont while juggling her Bennington professor husband’s academic pomposity and constant infidelity. In a lot of ways, she’s a cautionary tale from the very beginning of Betty Friedan-style feminism, so this is a perfect post-Weinstein moment for current horror fans and writers to rediscover her, whether female or not. But she remains a classic, either way.

Like much of your work, Experimental Film plays powerfully with myth and folklore in creating a world of wonder and terror. In this case, the folklore of Lady Midday plays an especially predominant role. How did this folkloric figure come to your attention, and how did she come to play such a central role in the novel?


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Experimental Film won the 2015 Shirley Jackson award.

I’ve always loved creepy fairytales, which would be a lot of them, at least in their earliest and purest forms. I particularly love a sub-set of fairytales involving authoritarian female mentor/witchy godmother figures like Mother Holle, Mrs Gertrude and (of course) Baba Yaga—they set our protagonists impossible tasks, demand complete obedience and politeness no matter how badly they treat them, then reward or punish them according to their own spiteful, inhuman standards. So when I accidentally tripped across Lady Midday while Googling obscure demons, I immediately became obsessed with making her the monster in the middle of Mrs A. Macalla Whitcomb’s mental maze.

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Ivan Biblin’s 1932 illustration of King Frost from Lang’s Yellow Fairy Book

What I liked about her immediately is that she seemed like the inverse of King Frost, another wonderful figure I first discovered in Andrew Lang’s Yellow Fairy Book, a Victorian collection of fairytales from around the world; King Frost is a Russian winter-spirit who demands polite lies from the people he’s essentially freezing to death, mockingly asking them over and over: Are you warm, maiden? Are you warm?, to which the maiden in question must always answer: I am very comfortable, King Frost, or suffer the consequences.

So the first part of Experimental Film I ever wrote was the fairytale starring Lady Midday, which I got to make exactly as creepy as I wanted; instead of cold, she’s all about heat, a stark and terrible light, the smell of burning blood. I still love the idea of her appearing only “between the minute and the hour,” at the very crack of noon, having such an incredibly tiny window of opportunity but ruling it so completely…and naturally, I was also very energized by the idea of her carrying these sharp blades, a pair of scissors or a brazen angel’s sword, with which she snips off the heads of all those who dare to disrespect her. It’s everything I like best, ie exactly what scares me most.

While I knew on first reading Experimental Film that the novel’s narrator Lois, shares a great deal of biographical material in common with you, her author, it wasn’t until I listened to this epic audio interview for the This is Horror podcast  that I realized how extensive some of the parallels were. Is it safe to say this is the most autobiographical piece of fiction you’ve ever written?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I don’t think I’ll ever write any other character who’s as close to me as Lois Cairns is. I mean, even though the book I’m working on right now—Nightcrawling—also comes directly out of personal experience, I’m trying my best to distinguish my protagonist/narrator from both her and myself as much as I can: instead of it being a story told from the POV of someone who’s a version of me, it’s a story told from the POV of someone my current age who’s obsessed with the disappearance of a person she knew in university who’s a younger version of me, who in turn was once toxic best friends back in elementary school with another person who’s an even younger version of me, who also disappeared. Which I guess sounds kind of Gillian Flynn, but don’t worry, there’s a fair amount of supernatural shit in it too…ghosts, evil Narnia portal dimensions, etc. It’s complicated and kicking my ass right now, but I have high hopes it’ll turn out well.

In the same interview, you describe Lois Cairns as being “yourself at your worst.” Are you worried about your readers’ perception of you being distorted by reading the novel?

Well, I must admit that I never exactly assumed my readers thought I was a nice person, so.;) On the other hand, I’ve heard a lot about Lois being boring, whiny, self-obsessed, unkind, etc., as well as a lot of: “Holy shit, exactly how much talk about Canadian and experimental film does she expect us to sit still for?” (Half a chapter/roughly ten pages out of roughly 300, in case you’re wondering.) One reviewer said he didn’t believe anybody could live with the sort of insomnia and chronic pain problems she has and still be functional, which made me laugh because those are very much my own insomnia and chronic pain problems, and I kind of played them down. Another reviewer complained that he actually wanted more obscure experimental film references, and also accused me of writing about film “like a film reviewer,” to which I can only say: hey, guess what? There’s a reason for that. Dislikers gonna dislike, in other words.

What were some of the (dis)advantages you encountered writing a character who is in many ways so close to yourself? What were some of the most emotionally difficult scenes or moments in the novel for you to write? 

I said things about Lois’s Mom that I knew were going to piss my Mom off, and did. But universally, the hardest stuff to write was the stuff about Lois’s son Clark, who is at best a very pointed sketch of my son Cal at a much earlier stage in his development. He’s thirteen now (wow!), and while he still twiddles things in front of his eyes, sings almost constantly and likes to watch YouTube while jumping around in his underwear, you can have a genuine conversation with him, and I don’t doubt that he loves me. The stuff about Clark is from the part of my life where that wasn’t quite as clear, and it was hard to write, because it was stuff I felt ashamed of ever having thought or felt. That story I tell about sitting in a coffee shop writing the first pass through Chapter One and crying while I did it is absolutely true. And even now, I mean…I love Cal desperately, he’s quite literally the love of my life, but man, he’s a lot of work. And on good days I like that, but on bad days, it’s still kind of hard to take.

Have you gotten any notable responses (praise, criticism, or otherwise) from readers regarding Experimental Film’s portrayal of Lois’s autistic son, or her relationship with him?

I got a very interesting review from Ada Hoffman’s site Autistic Book Party, here ( that refers to Lois as “an unlikeable autistic protagonist, done right.” (They talk a lot about her internalized ableism being at the root of her difficulties with Clark, which is a bit painful, but pretty much a fair cop.) What was particularly interesting about it was that I’d been increasingly flirting with the idea of identifying myself as someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, because I truly believe that if the adults around me had been looking for that in A) kids and B) girls when I was between nine and eleven years old—the hands-down worst part of my life—then I would have gotten a diagnosis, because back then I fit the established range of symptoms for Asperger’s so closely that just looking at a list of those symptoms was startling to me.

Of course, that was before I was socialized to behave as much as I could like the people around me, or at least to stop myself from behaving the way I actually wanted to, as happens to most women who fit that profile. It also doesn’t help that Asperger’s only became a standard diagnosis in 1992, when I was already out of university, and was folded back into the Autism spectrum by 2013. These days I test about two points out from a diagnosis, though it’s well-known that 20% of people with Asperger’s may not meet the diagnostic criteria by adulthood, even when some social and communication difficulties may persist. So to be recognized like that by a bunch of (other) autistic people as “oh well, yes, of course she reads as autistic”…that meant a lot. I’ve also gotten a lot of very moving responses from other parents of autistic children, who often say they recognize some version of themselves or their own situation in Lois and Clark, which makes me happy.

Again in the This is Horror interview, you speak critically about the kinds of tropes that popular fiction often imposes on autistic characters. Were you worried about doing this yourself in Experimental Film given the ways the novel weaves Lois’s and her son’s respective neurodivergences into the supernatural framework of the story?

There were three big things I didn’t want to do in Experimental Film, and the first was that I didn’t want Clark’s autism to destroy his parents’ relationship with each other—I wanted Simon, Lois’s husband, to both stick around and be extremely supportive, because the opposite happens all too often in horror (and in real life, sadly). Secondly, I didn’t want to treat Clark as some sort of “magical autistic kid”…I didn’t want him to be a savant on the one hand, because most of us just aren’t, but I also didn’t want to treat him like a ghost-whispering human ouija board, either.

The third thing I didn’t want to do, meanwhile, was treat Clark being potentially “cured” as a happy ending, because I don’t think of neurodivergence as any more of a disease than, say, having brown eyes or being tall. My own son’s neurodivergence, like mine, is a foundational element of his entire being; make him suddenly neurotypical, and he wouldn’t be him anymore. So if that opportunity came up, I wanted Lois to utterly reject it, no matter how much “easier” it might supposedly make life for either of them—and (spoiler alert) she does. One reviewer apparently thought that wasn’t enough of a climax, but seriously, screw that dude.

You’ve often spoken about the importance of fanfiction, and the role it played in your development as a writer. What is it about fanfic that makes it so important?  

Fanfiction taught me to write a chaptered narrative, which was very useful when I finally decided to make the jump from short fiction to novels—how to chunk a long-form story into roughly 5,000-word sections and let each lead into the next, creating an overall pattern of constant forward motion. This may seem pretty rudimentary, but when you’re faced with producing a 100,000-word document, it’s really important to realize that you can break it into bite-sized pieces without scuttling it.

But better yet, I think that writing fanfic teaches you that even your most specific obsessions are valid rather than weird and unpalatable—that whatever happens to come out of your id is entirely fine to concentrate on for as long as you need to in order to groom it into a story other people could respond to with equal enthusiasm, without censoring it or disguising it. I mean, when I was a kid I would literally tell myself stories in which I reduced the love interest’s pronoun to “e” so that people wouldn’t be able to tell I was thinking about two dudes together—and thanks to fanfic, those days are long gone.

I also like the fact that you can use fanfic logic to jump-start an idea: cast the premise with characters or actors you like, rough out the central relationships, mix and match in terms of plot, style, etcetera. Remix culture is wonderful for that sort of creative short-handing, and it works just as well for fiction as for fic (so long as you always remember to file off those pesky serial numbers, that is).

Can you talk about any of your fanfic pieces that evolved directly into pro work you later published? 

All the 3:10 to Yuma (the James Mangold remake, not the original) fanfic I wrote over the year Cal was diagnosed led directly into the dynamics of the Hexslinger series, so if you want to think of Chess Pargeter as a version of Charlie Prince who actually knows he’s gay, then feel free. A lot of the research I did for writing Gangs of New York fic was also very useful, because it was set in roughly the same era. And back in the day I wrote a lot of fic for HBO’s Oz (the prison show), which informed stuff like my neo-Nazi shapeshifter Queer Fear story “Bear-Shirt.” But there’s also a lot of stuff I wrote instead of writing fic, and I guess you might be able to trace those patterns if you tried—my story “When I’m Armoring My Belly” is about Renfields in general and that harbinger guy from 30 Days of Night in specific; my Hammer Pirates story-cycle (“Trap-Weed,” “Two Captains,” “The Salt Wedding” and “Drawn Up From Deep Places”) is literally called that because it grew in part out of my desire to see Peter Cushing, Sir Christopher Lee and Tia Dalma from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies interact. I like to think they stand on their own, though.

 

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3:10 to Yuma, dir. James Mangold.

Any pieces of your own fanfic that you are particularly fond of?

I’ve written two incredibly long pieces of fic that apparently managed to convince people who’d never thought too much about it of the viability of Beecher/Schillinger (from Oz) and The Governor/Rick Grimes (from The Walking Dead) as actual ships, so that makes me happy. The titles in question are “My Wife and My Dead Wife” and “This Old Death,” and they’re both up at Archive of Our Own under the name handful_ofdust.

 

Your extensive knowledge of horror film and your insightfully broad taste in genre pictures make you a regular go-to for me in terms of film recommendations. Do you have any thoughts on how horror films in Canada have evolved since the “Tax Haven nasties” of the 70s and 80s?

Well…the cycle that’s developed that used to sustain production companies like New Line and now sustains ones like Blumhouse is one that Canadian directors would seem particularly qualified to take advantage of—horror movies tend to work best when made on really low budgets, mostly because that allows them to reap big box office for not a lot of outlay, like flipping a house. Unfortunately, however, they still tend to be assessed by their ability to perform within our own comparatively tiny box office, which essentially consigns them to making films to prove they can make TV. (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers totally monopolized the Canadian box office the year it was released, making just over $30 million; if that had been the way the world reckoned his professional worth, he’d never have been able to make Return of the King.)

So if you sometimes wonder where all those great Canadian horror directors go, it’s often to working on runaway TV productions—people like Vincenzo (Splice, Cube, Haunter) Natali, for example, who did most of the second season of Hannibal, or John (Ginger Snaps) Fawcett, who co-created Orphan Black. Back in the 1980s, people like David Cronenberg were making the very conscious decision not to go to Hollywood—he shot The Dead Zone and The Fly with American stars and money, then made Videodrome and watched those deals collapse, fairly happily; he’s never really wanted to make movies with much bigger budgets than Eastern Promises or A History of Violence, and it’s easier for him to get that money from the U.K. and/or France, just like David Lynch. Bruce (Pontypool) MacDonald seems to operate in much the same way, and while Quebec is the one place in Canada that has a truly self-sufficient film industry, they don’t seem all too interested in making horror films.

What we need overall is a better delivery system—multi-platform releases would work really well, just like they do in tiny markets like Japan, with an emphasis on streaming. Of course, we also either need film quota legislation like the kind that revived the South Korean film industry and keeps the French and U.K. film industries alive, or we need to accept that if the government won’t fund genre films on bullshit moral grounds then the best way to get what we want done is to make co-production deals with corporations like Netflix, who already fund and host horror films from South America, Japan and India, apparently without requiring them to pretend they were shot in the U.S.

Any films from this period that have continued resonance for you, decades later?

I’ve become really fond of Black Christmas, not least because an argument could be made for it being the first slasher film to use maniac’s-eye-view steadicam shots—it pre-dates Halloween, after all. And I love all of Cronenberg’s tax shelter films, especially The Brood and Scanners. They remind me of my childhood, particularly the night that Michael Ironside came over and changed my fuses after the power went out in my house (he’d been attending a class with my Mom, also a Canadian actor).

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Cronenberg’s sci-fi/horror classic, Scanners, reminds Files of Michael Ironside’s late-night electrical assistance.

Are there any recent horror films you’d especially recommend to our readers?  

Stuff I’ve seen and loved this year includes Julia Decourneau’s Raw, It: Chapter One (obviously), and Jordan Peele’s Get Out. I loved Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, but it’s basically a fable rather than a horror film per se—kind of an anti-Lovecraftian vision of self-definition through literally loving the alien. I also really liked The Void, which apparently puts me in opposition to a lot of people I respect, and I finally saw Marcin Wrona’s brilliant last film Demon, in which the true horror is about otherwise “good” people’s willingness to forgive and forget little things like genocide. It’s really neat to see politics seeping back into horror, especially when it comes to intersectional issues; given the way things are going, social commentary is rapidly becoming a necessity, if horror is to remain relevant.

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Loving the alien – del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017).

 

(How) Did your own experiences as a writer of screenplays/teleplays affect your approach in Experimental Film? How did it shape your fiction in more general terms?

 

Film hangs over a lot of my stories, either overtly or covertly. I’m fond of tricks like wipes, dissolves, cuts to, switches in perspective; I like to start things in media res, to come in late and leave early. But then again, I also just like to talk about how film shapes our own perspective on things, how it can give us the impression we’ve already had experiences we’ve really only seen cinematic versions of. I think it’s all part and parcel of the fact that contemporary horror writers don’t live in a vacuum; we’re just as much a part of the larger spread of horror culture as anyone else, as much fans as we are creators—it helps us to not stay static, to continue to grow, to cobble together a lingua franca of references we (hopefully) share with our readers.

Of your numerous stories, are there any that you’d especially like to see adapted for film or TV? Any directors, screenwriters or actors you’d especially love to work with (even if in the realms of pure wish-fulfillment fantasy!)?

My experiences on The Hunger were A) nearly twenty years ago and B) interesting but not entirely satisfying, so yeah, I’d love to see other stuff of mine adapted to the screen, be it big or small. Filmmakers I’d love to work with include Floria Sigismondi, Kathryn Bigelow, Mike Flanagan, Guillermo del Toro, Mary Harron, Sarah Polley and Karyn Kusama.

As part of our author feature, we’re reprinting your short story “Gabbeh” on the site. Can you tell us a little about the story’s origins, inspiration and publication history?

When I was a film critic I reviewed a 1997 Mohsen Makmalbaf film called Gabbeh that’s a fable about the story told by the pattern on an extremely non-representational kind of rug; it’s meditative and romantic and odd, full of primal colour, driven by the struggle between faith and desire. One thing I took away from it was an enduring interest in iconoclasm, the idea of making up a sort of geometric visual code that would allow you to make pictures of things without offending God. So when I was asked to contribute a story to the 2012 World Fantasy Convention Programme Book by Barbara Roden, I spun the theme of Toronto Urban Fantasy into a tale I thought might somewhat represent the level of inherent diversity and multiculturalism that I’ve always loved about my home city. Haunted objects are also very much my jam, and I’d never seen a story featuring a haunted rug before. So there you go: one from column A, one from column B—it really does work, at least for 2,000 words.

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Mohsen Makmalbaf’s Gabbeh  (1997)

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PSTD INTERVIEW: MADELINE ASHBY

Hello Madeline, and thanks for agreeing to the interview. While many of our readers will likely be familiar with your fiction and work as an anthologist, could you begin by telling us a little about who you are, what you have written and are writing, and your work as a futurist and consultant?

Thank you for inviting me!

To summarize, I’m a science fiction writer and a futurist. I’m the author of the Machine Dynasty series from Angry Robot Books, and I have a novel called Company Town coming out from Tor this year, and another novel, tentatively titled Upstart, coming out from Tor next year. I also have a column in the Ottawa Citizen, although I live in Toronto. I’ve written what are called science fiction prototypes for Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, and others.

 

What was your initial impetus for writing speculative fiction?

I had always been a consumer of genre material — my parents were big nerds who encouraged me to watch ST: TNG and The X-Files and stuff like that. My dad also had a bunch of genre fiction around the house; I read his copies of the Dune novels when I was in high school. And I also read a lot of my mom’s Stephen King novels and short story collections long before that. So in a way it was very natural that I turned to spec fic. But I made a conscious decision to go for it after attending an Ursula K. LeGuin reading in Seattle, when I was doing a departmental honours project on her work. She read from “The Wave in Mind,” and I was lost.

Which came first, your career as a writer of spec fic or your career as a professional futurist? How have the two shaped one another since?

The former. I was already in a writers’ workshop, the Cecil Street Irregulars, when another workshop member, Karl Schroeder, suggested I get my second masters’ degree from the Strategic Foresight & Innovation program at OCADU. And it was there, thanks to Cory Doctorow, that I started working with Brian David Johnson and Genevieve Bell at Intel Labs. And the rest is history!

In your work as a professional futurist, what emerging technologies have
 recently awed or terrified you the most?

I could tell you, but I signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Your Machine Dynasty novels, set in an indeterminate, but seemingly not-too-distant, future focus on synthetic, self-replicating human(oid)s called von Neumann machines (vN), and their vexed relationship with the human society that created them. The first novel, vN, is largely from the point of view of a young vN named Amy, who is part of a mixed organic-synthetic family unit, her mother being vN, but her father an organic human. Why did you decide to use this “blended family” structure as the jumping-off point for the novel?

The prologue to vN, which is told from an organic human perspective, started out as a short story. It was going to be a story about this guy discovering that his wife and daughter were actually machines, and what that meant about him as a person. Then I realized that was sort of a Twilight Zone plot, and the really interesting story was about the robots themselves, interacting with other robots, and cutting the humans out of the conversation. So even after I decided to expand the story into a book, I maintained that original nucleus of the blended family structure.

As a reader of vN, in the early chapters of the novel I often found myself (like Amy’s father, and at least initially, Amy herself) having to resist a tendency to think about Amy in all-too-human developmental and cultural terms as “a child.” What inspirations, and difficulties, did you encounter in capturing Amy’s particular voice and psychology?

It was actually really tough. I didn’t quite love Amy until my third pass on the book. I wrestled with how “childish” she should be, how she should express herself, what she would know about the world, how she would see it. It was important to me that she be clever and resourceful, but also innocent. Until the events of the novel, Amy’s inhabited a fairly privileged position in society. She’s been insulated from a lot of the prejudices humans have against vN. But then she goes on the run, and experiences the wider world for the first time, and discovers how other vN are being treated. So I started thinking about innocence. And I tried to maintain Amy’s sense of innocence throughout. She’s a very naive person who shares headspace with a very jaded person. And that innocence means she doesn’t quite think through the consequences of her actions, sometimes.

You’re not a writer of horror fiction in a generic sense of the word, but some of your short fiction, as well as both vN and ID feature tremendously disturbing material – scenes of harrowing violence, unsettling grotesquerie, and an interrogation of cultural taboos and ontological limits, aspects often associated with horror fiction. How would you characterize your work’s relationship with horror as a genre, or its use of horror as a mode? Are there any horror writers, or fictions, that have made a particular mark on your own writing?

Wow, thanks! I’m glad you found it tremendously disturbing. People tell me that, but I like seeing it in writing.

I’m actually a fairly avid fan of horror. I’ll watch horror films for comfort. I read horror novels fairly regularly. (I read both of Michael Rowe’s novels last year, and I’m currently reading Gemma Files’ Experimental Film. I also think you can classify Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series as sort of pop-adventure-horror, and I love those books.) This all started when I was an infant, and I chewed on my mother’s paperback copy of Stephen King’s Night Shift collection. (The one with the eyes.) “I cut my teeth on that book,” I told my husband, before we were together. “So did I,” he said, smirking. He’s a horror writer. For our wedding my mother gave us her first-edition illustrated copy of The Gunslinger.

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“The one with the eyes.”

I started reading King more seriously (and not literally eating his books) when I was in Grade 5. This other girl in my class told on me to the teacher and said I was reading things I shouldn’t. This was America, where they’re more concerned about that kind of thing, I guess. (Also she just hated me.) But the teacher didn’t have a problem with it, so that year I read The Shining and a bunch of other things. Mom drew the line at The Stand, for some reason, so I only read that when I hit fourteen.

But in terms of my own work, I think what horror brings to the table is a focus on emotion. It’s the only genre that’s named for the feeling it creates in the reader. And I think that ability to reach right inside the reader and grab her guts and twist them in your fingers, that’s priceless. Horror cuts through all the bullshit of daily life in a really important way. It wants to focus you, to strap you in and slap you around and get you to live in the moment. And that’s not just the sensation of terror that does that. Horror is mostly despair. If you read Straub’s Ghost Story, for example, that’s a novel about despair. Sure there’s a scary monster, but the heart of the book is really the friendship between these four elderly men, and how it’s changed over decades, and the bittersweet beauty of watching them age together but die alone. It’s a heartbreaking novel. The best horror fiction is always heartbreaking on some level. There’s always some tragic streak running through it, some element that reminds you of the transience of life, of all the things undone and unsaid. Real monsters never just devour a life. They devour the potential for a good life, well-lived.

Clowns are staple figures in horror fiction, as they cause unease in many people. Reading ID caused me to once again consider the reasons for this. The novel’s vN protagonist Javier, faced with a man clad in a Mump and Smoot t-shirt, justifies his hatred of clowns, thinking “They really threw the Turing process into all kinds of hell.” Can you elaborate on this? How do you, personally, feel about clowns? Were you, too, ever totally fucking weirded out by a Mump and Smoot performance?

I don’t really feel one way or the other about clowns. I think the creepiest thing about them is their stated mission to cheer you up no matter what. I think anybody that tries to force happiness or cheeriness on you is creepy. As for the t-shirt, my husband has one, and he told me about the performances, and it seemed like a good fit. So to speak.

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Editor’s note: I saw a Mump and Smoot show in Calgary in 2008, and thought I’d fallen into Ligotti’s story “Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech.”

One of the conceptual touchstones of the series is Mori’s hypothesis of the uncanny valley. How accurate do you think Mori’s theory is? How “hardwired” do you think our emotional response to synthetic humanoids is, and how malleable do you think it will prove to be with cultural and technological change?

As animals we have a real knack for picking out other animals that move and sound different from the way we do. And that’s caused a lot of prejudice: in the West, we used to see scoliosis — or indeed, any kind of physical difference — as a punishment from God, instead of a basic quirk of biology. But it’s really because we as a species have optimized ourselves to pick up on subtle differences that might tell us something vital about the people surrounding us, like whether they’re sick or healthy, or if they might suddenly attack us, or if they’re staring at us, or what have you. And part of the Uncanny Valley idea relates to that, that subtle differences can actually feel more important than big ones. We don’t despise robots that try to look like dogs, for example, but we do when they try to look like us.

But I do think it’ll end up being more malleable as humanoid-seeming interfaces become more common. No one cares that Siri and Cortana aren’t “humans.” No one cares that the algorithms that decide your day trades or your traffic flows aren’t humans.

It struck me as I read both vN and ID that the referentiality of the writing, and the culture of this speculative near-future reality, depends on a high degree of genre-competence from the reader. Would you say you are writing primarily for an already genre-savvy audience? Does the risk of losing or alienating readers who are not already well-versed in speculative fiction concern you?

I didn’t really worry about it. I mean, maybe I should have, now that you mention it. But I suppose I was also, in my first book, trying to establish my nerd cred. I wanted to show readers that I’d done my homework. I worry about that a little bit less, now, but it was a concern of mine with vN especially.

In a commentary on the io9 website, you’ve said your work is often described as “hard s-f with characters in it,” but that you think the distinction between hard and soft sf itself is an unhelpful one. You go on to say:

And when you look at other genres, they have a far wider spectrum of descriptions for sub-genres. High fantasy. Low fantasy. Epic fantasy. Grimdark. Noir. Psycho-thriller. Psycho-sexual thriller. Gothic. Gaslight. Those are just a few. I would argue that the rich array of descriptors is one of the reasons fantasy and other genres outsell SF on a consistent basis. Those genres have a bunch of avenues to offer an audience. SF has only a binary system. What reader doesn’t want more choice?

First, do you think that term “hard sf” is less useful now than when P. Schuyler Miller coined it nearly 60 years ago primarily because of the pace at which scientific knowledge and technological development have increased since then, or do you think it has more to do with changes in literary culture and the readership of sf, or other factors altogether?

It’s both. I do think it has to do with the fact that we live in a science fictional present. Technology is developing so quickly, and is so thoroughly enmeshed and embroidered into our daily lives, that it no longer feels like a whiz-bang McGuffin from a story about the future. So to make ideas about the future carry more weight in a narrative, you need to incorporate tropes and gestures from other genres. At the same time, readers are more familiar than ever before with those other genres.

Second, a question that likely reflects my curmudgeonly bias against literary labels like those you list above, which seem like little more than marketing brands to me, why do you think the diversity of such labels has such an appeal to readers? Do you think that the circulation of these terms actually corresponds to a greater literary diversity in the more fantastic realms of speculative fiction than in those grounded in a scientific and technological realist approach?

Well, I think in general we live in a saturated media environment where aggressive filtering is necessary. Think about how granular and specific Netflix can learn to be about your preferences. “Dark Mysteries With Strong Female Lead.” “Teen Reality Dramas.” And so on, and so forth. We live with huge bookstores both online and off, and cable packages with hundreds of channels, and streaming content for our eyes and ears, and the only way to sort through all that is to label and organize things. (Search engine optimization wouldn’t be the big deal that it is if this weren’t the case.)

As to whether that leads to actual diversity in terms of content, that’s another thing. I think one of the problems with that aggressive filtering and organization is that it slots readers (and all consumers) into a very narrow place. The market doesn’t care if your tastes are diverse, or if you feel challenged as a reader, or if your mind is expanding. The market cares only that you keep buying, and the easiest way for you to keep buying is to keep giving you a version of the thing you bought before. Amazon works this way, and so does most everyone else.

At the same time, there’s a growing trend toward curation at all levels. You see it in those subscription boxes full of samples of things. People very much want surprise and serendipity. They want to discover something new. But the act of discovery is almost impossible in a world where all knowledge is available at the tips of your fingers. So we have to plan for serendipity. We have to create it as a line item on the budget, or a tick-box on the agenda. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a “book of the month” clubs come back, via Amazon probably, for exactly this reason. Kindle Unlimited is halfway there, but there’s no curation and it’s not very user-friendly. (It’s also unavailable in Canada.)

Third, in terms of your own fiction, given that “hard sf” is characterized by close attention to technical detail and scientific plausibility, I wonder to what extent these criteria universally inform your fiction? What kind of research did you undertake toward achieving these goals, especially in the Machine Dynasty novels? Does your fiction ever deliberately depart from these criteria? How critical do you think fidelity to existing scientific principles and technology are for socially conscious speculative fiction in general?

We live in a very anti-intellectual era. Sure, our leaders carry phones that could run an Apollo mission, but the actual application of the scientific method to everyday life is lacking. We still have to convince legislators that global warming is a thing, and that we’re responsible as a species. So I try to stick to science in my fiction that’s at least plausible. I tried to get a little weirder in my latest book, Company Town, but that was a conscious decision — I wanted to talk about weird futures. I wanted to get more “Phildickian,” if you will.

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Ashby’s fourth novel, forthcoming from TOR later this year, is a more Phildickian fiction.

The Machine Dynasty novels carry on a critical dialogue with many earlier speculative imaginings of artificial intelligence and synthetic humanoid life. One example that struck me was the novels’ portrayal of the vN’s failsafe. This aspect of the book is, in many ways, a contemporary re-imagining of Asimov’s positronic brain. How centrally did you have Asimov’s fiction in mind while writing these novels? What kind of technological, philosophical and cultural developments in the intervening years were most important for your pretty radical re-conception of the relationship between the machines and humans?

I thought about Asimov’s work a lot, and the total absurdity of the Three Laws. Asimov’s stories about the Three Laws are basically programming story problems. They’re riddles. And I never really connected with them emotionally or aesthetically.

Another sci-fi touchstone for the Machine Dynasty novels is, of course, Philip K. Dick, especially his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which provides the name of an important machine-friendly bar in the novel, which also features machinic beverages named after other Dick novels.) How important has Dick’s work been for you personally? More broadly, why do you think it continues to have so much significance for contemporary speculative fiction?

I think Dick ended up nailing the future. Part of the reason his work endures is that a) he was a better prose writer than his contemporaries, and b) his worlds still feel like they could arrive tomorrow, and c) his characters feel like actual people. They’re small and petty and they get scared and they feel lust. They’re quotidian. And his futures feel really quotidian — they feel lived-in. So that aspect of realism helps you buy into the weirdness of what he’s selling.

But there’s also that weirdness. And I think the weirdness is crucial. I think what Dick did better than anybody was push into how weird the future can feel, how tomorrow can feel uncertain, not to mention five years or fifty or five hundred years from now.

Ridley Scott’s cinematic adaptation of Dick’s novel as Blade Runner remains a major cultural locus for the relationships between the machines and humans in this fictional world. Why did you decide to make the film such a central reference point, especially in VN? Was this decision based on its greater prominence in contemporary popular culture, or do you think the film stages questions of identity and artificial intelligence more powerfully than Dick’s novel itself?

Blade Runner is just really important to me. I saw it for the first time in the third grade, sitting in my basement with my dad, because my mom wouldn’t let me see Batman Returns. So it was a special occasion, and maybe I imprinted on it for that reason. But every time I see it I see something new. I wish Ridley Scott were still making really slow, meditative films like that. It has these great moments of visceral violence, so people think it’s an action film (in the same way they think Alien is an action film, when it’s really a horror film), but it’s this really thoughtful character study about the nature of humanity and empathy.

Your exploration of the way human sexuality informs the VN, and the way their own sexuality, largely divorced from reproduction, develops in response to this is worlds apart from both Asimov’s and Dick’s fiction. The novel’s focus on the often disturbingly predatory dimensions of human sexuality evoked the work of James Tiptree, Jr. for me. How important has her work been for you as a writer? What are some of the other influences (whether literary or social) that fed your imagining of the cultural and technological consequences of human sexuality with these novels?

I didn’t discover her until much later, actually. I was already at work on the book when I read my first Tiptree story. (At least, my first story of hers outside of a classroom environment.) But I read a collection of hers at a really difficult, chaotic time in my life. And her rage became a source of strength for me. I really grabbed onto it with both hands. It was something real at a time when nothing felt real.

But our language for describing sexuality has evolved a great deal, as well, so that I could find the words I needed to tell that story far more easily than I might have in other years. I think women are freer now to talk about things like micro-aggressions or other predatory behaviours, and how the world has geared itself to view us (and having sex with us) as a prize to be won (or even just a trophy for participation). So I felt perfectly justified telling the story of what it feels like to be vulnerable that way, and also to discover one’s own vulnerability. I think that’s part of the loss of innocence theme in the first novel. The first thing you lose as a girl growing up is the sense that your body is your own. You discover it’s not. You thought it was yours, but it wasn’t. It belongs to everyone else. It’s there for everyone else to comment on, or to touch, or to judge. And I think Amy’s discovery that the world thinks she’s just a doll to be played with is a good metaphor for that.

Sexuality is also vitally important for the vN, for whom it is largely divorced from both the reproductive process and from natal sex, and yet vN sexuality remains in certain respects conditioned by the sexuality of their human engineers. The phenomenology of vN sexuality is explored with startling intimacy and vividness, especially in ID. What can you tell us about how you conceived of this parallel sexuality? What were some of the greatest difficulties and inspirations you encountered in exploring this aspect of the vN protagonists’ experiences?

In vN I wanted to talk about that loss of innocence, but in iD I wanted to explore a sexuality that was already fully-formed. Part of Amy’s journey in vN is realizing that she’s queer for other robots. She doesn’t love or even like humans the way she’s supposed do. She may fall for a boy-shaped robot, but the fact that she even enjoys other robots is far more disturbing to the humans around her. It means she’ll choose her own kind over the humans that built her. So there’s a bit of the novel that’s her examining and accepting that “broken” piece within her.

Javier is on a different journey, though. He loves humans. But he also loves them without having any choice in the matter. We none of us can choose who we love, but we can choose how we deal with it, and Javier doesn’t have that latter choice. He’s just trapped in this loop of toxic relationships. And I wanted to explore what it’s like to see those relationships for what they are, and how tempting it can be to fall back into your old patterns. I think the robots in my stories have always been “self-aware,” to use an AI term, but what Javier gains in iD is true self-awareness. He’s always been conscious, but he becomes conscious of himself and his own choices. He stops running on auto-pilot and starts making meaningful decisions for himself.

You’ve commented elsewhere that the third Machine Dynasty novel is going to take place from the perspective of Portia, “the evil grandmother robot who gets eaten alive by the protagonist in the first novel.” Portia’s a fascinating, and frightening, character. Can you tell us a little about your inspirations in creating her, and perhaps give us a little teaser in terms of the directions Portia’s story will take in the third and final novel in the series?

Portia was actually quite simple for me to create. Her voice flowed from me all too easily. When I thought of her, I thought of Sian Phillips’ performance as Livia in I, Claudius. She’s that same devouring mother figure who views her children as extensions of herself rather than as their own people. So she’s also a bit of a Joan Crawford/Mommie Dearest figure. In general I tend to think of her as a kind of diva. She’s a Norma Desmond, for sure — controlling, vicious, needy, delusional. She just isn’t as glamourous. Then again, I don’t think she feels the need for glamour; she already knows she’s more beautiful than humans can ever be, and she knows she’s stronger. So she’s profoundly vain, but she also doesn’t feed that vanity with, say, clothes or jewelry. She feeds it by killing humans.

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Sian Philips as Livia in I, Claudius (1976), an inspiration for Ashby’s Portia.

Reading ID, it struck me that the architectural style of Holberton’s home, retrofuturism, works as a kind of metonym for the technological and cultural aesthetics of the Machine Dynasty’s setting as a whole. But it is a retrofuturism completely different from the Golden Age nostalgia that William Gibson evocatively captured in his early short story “The Gernsback Continuum.” My impression of the world of Machine Dynasty is one in which a 1980s and 1990s retro-craze is in full effect. Am I projecting my own youthful nostalgia, here, or is there more to this impression? If so, why these cultural epochs, specifically?

I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but it’s possible. Certainly we’re seeing that nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s now, as people who were kids at the time have some buying power to invest in the Doc Martens they could never afford back then. And we’re seeing it in media, with the return of things like The X-Files and Twin Peaks. So on some level that’s already happening. As for how I felt while writing the books, I was definitely influenced by things like mid-to-late 90’s cyberpunk anime. Stuff like Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain, Ghost in the Shell. They were all these stories about identity and technology and the relationship between the two, with really well-defined, memorable female characters who steered their own course throughout the story.

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Late 90s cyberpunk anima was a major influence on the Robot Dynasty novels. A still from Ghost in the Shell (1995.)

You’ve mentioned in previous interview that a viewing of Cronenberg’s film A History of Violence with your husband, Canadian horror writer David Nickle, led you to completely re-think vN’s opening. Can you tell us a little more about this?

A History of Violence has a great opening. It’s this very sweet, pastoral, small-town scene that explodes into terrible violence. It’s sort of like Twin Peaks, in that way — that juxtaposition of Gothic secrets against small-town life in America. The opening of vN doesn’t take place in a small town, but it does take place in a smallish community, where everybody knows each other — or they think they do.

This description of small­town reality brings back to mind the title of your forthcoming novel, Company Town. You’ve mentioned that it is something of a different, weirder, and more “Phildickian” kind of fiction. What more can you tell us about it, by way of giving our readers a teasing sense of what they can expect from it?

Company Town is the story of Go Jung-hwa, a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada Local 314. She lives in New Arcadia, a city of autonomous towers floating around a dead oil rig 500 km NE of St. John’s, Newfoundland. After she kicks the right guy in the face, she winds up working as a bodyguard for the heir apparent of the company that buys her city. The kid has been getting death threats from the future. So Hwa has to escort him everywhere he goes, including physics class. Hwa isn’t sure which is worse: posthuman nightmares intent on killing her and her client, or going back to the high school she dropped out of years ago. Until her friends start to die.

That’s just the story, though. The book is a hard-bitten noir on the one hand, and on the other it’s a deeply weird SF story, and also it’s sort of a bildungsroman of this young woman having to confront a lot of issues she’s grown up with. It’s also a big critique of corporate Singulitarianism. At least, it pokes fun at that kind of thinking. Hwa is one of the most profane, violent, funny characters I’ve ever written. I love her.

During the course of this interview, the international speculative fiction community was crushed by the sudden loss of genre-defining editor extraordinaire, David G. Hartwell. Had  you  worked with David at TOR on Company Town? Can you tell us a little about his role, his importance for you?

Actually, I didn’t work with David on this book. My editors were Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Miriam Weinberg. I was lucky enough to have met and hung out with David a bunch of times, and I was featured in one of his Year’s Best anthologies, as well as 21st Century Science Fiction. I also worked closely with Kathryn Cramer on Project Hieroglyph, and on a narrative hackathon at ASU’s Centre for Science and the Imagination. (The results of that hackathon later on went to become a WorldBank project.) So while I never worked with him very closely, I got to know him a bit, and I’m very grateful for that. He was so welcoming to me, even at the start of my career. He always had time to listen. He was gracious, in a way that people these days often aren’t.

This interview accompanies PstD’s publication of your original short story, “Dreams In the Bitch House.” Can you tell our readers a little about the impetus that led to the story, the context in which you wrote it, and the relationship between this context and the story that finally emerged from it?

For the Institute for the Future, I had written a story called “Social Services,” which was a take-off on The Haunting of Hill House. It was about the future of networked matter and IoT. So when Chris Speed at Design in Action approached me about coming to Scotland and telling a story, I thought this would be a great opportunity to follow that up. (He also told me he really liked “Social Services,” and wanted a slightly creepy story to talk about the haunted-ness of IoT.) So I started thinking about uncanny architecture, and Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” came up, and I’d wanted to do a story called “The Dreams in the Bitch House” for just ever, and this was the best possible opportunity.

Beginning with the title itself, the story involves some very striking and inventive allusions to Lovecraft’s fiction. How did Lovecraft suppurate into this piece?

Oh, it was entirely intentional. I set out to do a pastiche very deliberately. I had done one earlier based on Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for the Institute for the Future, in a story called “Social Services.” And so I wanted to follow that up. It meant reading Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House,” which is just a slog to get through. But it was also a way for me to write about an apartment I had in Little Italy once.

Like vN, “Dreams in the Bitch House” features an inter-generational power struggle between an amoral matriarchal figure and a young female protagonist who must resist this figure in trying to maintain her own individuality and authority. Why is this conflict such a central concern in your fiction? Does this conflict have particular autobiographical, social, or literary roots?

Well, I think that dynamic is at the root of a lot of fairytales, really. The pure princess supplants the evil queen. That’s why Gaiman’s story “Snow, Glass, Apples,” is so amazing — it subverts that tradition so beautifully. It’s also something that plays out in one of my husband’s most popular stories, “The Sloan Men,” which is in his first story collection. But really it’s everywhere — hell, it’s the central plot of The Devil Wears Prada, for goodness’ sake.

Because of this conflict, one of the things that kept coming to mind for me while reading both vN and “Dreams in the Bitch House” is Jackson, especially The Haunting of Hill House – tonally, stylistically, worlds apart, but that resonance seems no less powerful for it. (How) has Jackson’s fiction been important for you?

Jackson is enormously important to me as a writer and a feminist and as someone living at the intersection of those two modes. I think Jackson deserves a lot of credit for acknowledging how hard it was for her to be a writer and a mother at the same time. She didn’t sugarcoat it. She made it funny, but I think that was as much a survival mechanism as anything else. (It was also a way for her to make money. If you’re going to suffer, at least get paid for it.) As with Tiptree, I think there’s this well of anger at the core of her work. It comes out more slyly; I think she had to be more careful, because of her time period and because she wasn’t behind a pseudonym. But it’s there. You can feel it informing all her observations of the world around her.

Thanks for your insightful responses, Madeline Ashby!

Readers, if you haven’t already done so, you can read “Dreams in the Bitch House,”in print for the first time, here.

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