8 Eighties Exploitation Films That Could Never Be Made Today

By Bob Freville


Brenda: Sounds nice and kinky to me. Too bad you’re not double-jointed.


Fargo: Why?


Brenda: Because if you were, you’d be able to bend over and kiss your ass goodbye!


—Actual dialogue from Savage Streets (1984)


Much has been written about sex and violence in motion pictures, but few bother to mention how much on-screen sex and violence have changed over the years. One could argue that things that used to be unacceptable in entertainment, such as homosexual protagonists or simulated sodomy, are now acceptable (see: FX’s American Horror Story, A Serbian Film, etc.), but it is also evident that things that were once acceptable are no longer considered appropriate.

If we look back at the Seventies and early-Eighties, we can see that the rape-revenge sub-genre was massively popular. From Clint Eastwood’s seminal Play Misty for Me (1971) to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, audiences were enraptured by tales of female empowerment against male brutality.

You would think that these kinds of narratives would be more popular than ever what with the #MeToo movement, but one could also argue that real-life female empowerment and the recent leveling of power, especially abuse of power, has led to a relative dearth of such dreary subject matter.

Maybe shit is just too real and people don’t want to watch renderings of that reality anymore. There is also the matter of PC culture; in the 80s, it was perfectly okay to casually call a character a “fag” while today it would be grounds for expulsion from the entertainment industry.

In fact, that is just what happened to a cast member of TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, a show that is every bit as graphic as any horror movie. Don’t believe me? Just watch the Season 5 finale and tell me there’s any air left in the room when you’re done.

The current sociopolitical landscape is such that it would be tough to get most so-called exploitation movies made today, if for no other reason than there’s too much brutality going on in viewers’ daily lives.

A relevant example would be Eli Roth’s remake of Death Wish. Completed in early 2017 and intended for theatrical release, it was ultimately pulled from MGM’s theatrical line-up after the movie’s trailer caused public outrage.

The trailer, which depicted the kind of indiscriminate violence one would expect from a revenge picture (the closing moments see Bruce Willis dropping a car on a greasy-haired white dude), was flagged by sensitive audience members who saw that Willis’ character guns down a black man.

Consequently, the flick was accused of being an Alt-Right fantasy aimed at inciting whites to attack black people. At the time, the film’s director, a veteran of grindhouse fare, thanked critics for the free publicity, but he probably wasn’t smiling when the movie got an unceremonious DVD release on June 5th of the following year.

It seems more than coincidental that Roth’s 2018 follow-up to Death Wish was an adaptation of a children’s book that falls neatly into PG Goosebumps territory. It’s simply easier for directors to get their movies made if they embrace the widest audience possible and offend as few demographics as they can.

What Roth’s experience with Death Wish illustrates is just how unlikely it is for the films of yesteryear to be considered up to snuff by contemporary standards. Today, we’ll take a look at eight other examples of past motion pictures that couldn’t possibly work in 2018.

Some, you will notice, actually have been remade in the last ten to twelve years, but you’ll quickly notice just how different said remakes were from their source material. Let’s have a look!


1. MOTHER’S DAY (1980)

This “Tromasterpiece” by Troma head honcho Lloyd Kaufman’s younger brother, Charles, is an unflinching and, oftentimes, bizarrely hilarious horror satire. When it’s not focused on the preternatural trio of murderous Mama and her two co-dependent hillbilly sons hacking off people’s heads or raping young women, it is brutally sending up the cultural trends of the late-Seventies.

Nothing is sacred in Kaufman’s film, whether it’s high society, cheesy self-help seminars, posh pool parties or the prevailing music trends of the day (Addley: Punk sucks! Ike: Disco’s stoopid!). The movie, which filmed right across the lake from where Sean S. Cunningham was simultaneously shooting the first installment of Friday the 13th, even manages to make fun of the tropes inherent in films like the Jason Voorhees franchise (see: the old man who warns the girls not to go in the woods).

What makes 1980’s Mother’s Day especially shocking, even today, is the seamless way in which it segues from a sort of comedy of grotesquerie to unadulterated horror. Few films can have you laughing at its villains one moment and then cringing at their actions the very next.

Now, Mother’s Day is one of those rare rape-revenge flicks that actually got a reboot (or reimagining) in the 21st century. In 2010, Saw franchise director Darren Lynn Bousman gave us his watered-down take on Kaufman’s classic, casting Rebecca De Mornay in the role of “Mother” and replacing the rotten-toothed hilljacks, Ike and Addley, with two fit young TV actors with chiseled pretty boy features.

Not only was the cast too fay to seem truly menacing but this rape-revenge flick dropped the rape in favor of the odd scalping and a lot of wanna-be alpha male posturing. Essentially, all we get is a lot of grab ass, a rip-off/reversal of Mr. Pink from Reservoir Dogs and male-on-male torture.

It almost seemed like Lynn Bousman was trying to comment on the homoeroticism of home invasion or something. Whether this was his intention or not is moot. The point is, Mother’s Day just ain’t Mother’s Day without hillbillies in gunny sacks who brush their teeth with cheap beer.


2. MS. 45 (1981)

In this early Abel Ferrara gem, our mute protagonist is raped not once but twice on her way home from work. This is another early example of how talented filmmakers could use the exploitation genre as an opportunity for social commentary.

The film, which was shot in the derelict apartments of a crumbling and filthy New York City, had a lot on its mind and Ms. 45’s double-rape is clearly a statement about just how rampant grime and crime were in the bowels of the Big Apple.

Like Ferrara’s other early effort, Driller Killer, this one is unlikely to appeal to a modern audience who have been weaned on terms like “trigger warning” and “trolling.” And it’s not just the so-called “snowflakes” that would have a problem with this flick and many others in the rape-revenge vein.

The Alt-Right is unlikely to even believe in rape, seeing as how they are in love with a man who thinks he can go around grabbing women’s genitals at will. These same people are of a generation that grew up hearing stories like the one that appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine, stories of college campus rapes that were later proven to be untrue. For these individuals, the notion of a woman deserving of vengeance is laughable.

You won’t find the misogynistic white power crowd enjoying the climax of I Spit on Your Grave. Of that much I am sure.


3. VIGILANTE (1982)

Best known for 1980’s Maniac and the cult Maniac Cop series, William Lustig followed up the success of the former with this bad-ass flick whose name tells you everything you need to know about its plot.

Inspired by the high crime rate in 70’s NYC, Vigilante concerns the actions of a group of men who get tired of being pushed around by street gangs and ignored by an ineffectual police force. The film was an unbridled look at drugs, prostitution and murder that even managed to shed a light on male objectification.

The notion of male objectification seems virtually absurd in 2018, right?

Maybe not.

When one considers Brooklyn Nine-Nine actor Terry Crews’ testimony about his sexual assault at the hands of a Hollywood agent, it becomes obvious that this is a problem facing people of all genders.

Still, you are unlikely to see a movie about it any time soon. Hollywood ain’t about to feel sorry for men, especially when the men running it are rats on a sinking ship due to their objectification of the fairer sex.


4. ANGEL (1984)

Described in the film’s synopsis as a “baby prostitute,” Angel’s eponymous female lead is exactly that, unsettlingly young with cherubic features. This adds to the grit that’s already pervasive in Robert Vincent O’Neill’s film.

Even the film’s tagline seems like something you would be unlikely to see on a movie poster in the 21st century: “Honor student by day. Hooker by night.”

The hard R film focuses on a fifteen-year old protagonist who must endure a constant onslaught of pervs as well as lines from companions like, “The men use their dicks as oars” and, “Hey! All’s I wanted to do was borrow it, not buy it!”

It’s not hard to imagine a Hollywood studio greenlighting a movie about a young call girl (The success of The Girlfriend Experience immediately comes to mind), but you won’t find a movie made in the last five years containing dialogue such as, “When I was a kid my father warned me. He said, ‘Rachel, don’t ever play cards with a Jewish dyke. They cheat!’”

5. COMBAT SHOCK (1984)

Buddy Giovinazzo (Buddy G, for short) is a celebrated author and directorial gun for hire in Germany today, but in 1984, he shook up the grindhouse circuit with this sleazy Staten Island horror-drama about the mental fallout from the Vietnam war, and the tolls that poverty and drug addiction take on our veterans.

Much of the film’s acting is typical Troma quality at best, but the decaying production design and harsh imagery hold up, as does the soul-sucking skull-fuck that is its main character’s plight. Frankie returns from war to find only unemployment and acrimony waiting for him. His wife is an incessant nag and his child is nauseatingly deformed from the effects of Agent Orange.

In the ensuing years, we’ve seen plenty of movies about the squalor of the junkie lifestyle and the perils of war, but none of them packed a punch like the last ten minutes of Combat Shock. If infanticide and oven cremation sound like something you can stomach, this is the flick for you. You better scoop up a copy because you’re not gonna see anything else like it from here on out.



This might seem like a more mainstream example, but at the time, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a sterling, obsidian example of the revenge picture. Whereas its sequels turned Freddy Krueger into a Vaudevillian trickster, the original kept him cloaked in shadow, slimy and enigmatic.

The revenge here belongs to the villain as much as it does to his would-be victims. Krueger attacks the teenagers of Springfield in their dreams to get even with their parents for murdering him years earlier.

This is another one that received a mostly lackluster remake in the early-Aughts, and it’s debatable whether the remake was more or less disturbing than Wes Craven’s first entry in the franchise. For instance, Fred Krueger’s pederasty is made more explicit in Samuel Bayer’s 2010 iteration, but the mystery and brutality are definitely toned down.



Danny Steinnman’s rape-revenge flick might be the most perturbing on this list as it involves the sexual assault of a deaf mute (scream queen Linnea Quigley) and the wave of violence that this assault leads to.

Horror royalty Linda Blair plays the buxom babe who avenges her handicapped sister’s rape, wielding a crossbow decades before Darryl Dixon (The Walking Dead) and contending with everyone from a gang of hardened punks to a tyrannical high school principal (John Vernon) who says things like “Fuck an iceberg!”

There is no shortage of movies featuring women in tight leather clothing kicking major ass (see: Charlie’s Angels, Catwoman, American Mary, et al.), but there aren’t too many movies being made lately that offer laughably gross dialogue and uncompromising ferocity.




Millennials may only know her as the MILF wife of Saw’s criminal mastermind John “Jigsaw” Kramer, but Betsy Russell was once a tomcat of Eighties sex romps and slasher films. In 1985’s Avenging Angel, the stunning Russell replaced Donna Wilkes as Molly “Angel” Stewart and wrought wrath on downtown LA after her law enforcement mentor was murdered in cold blood.

As sequels go, Avenging Angel isn’t at all groundbreaking, but it is impressively gritty considering how slick and polished most sequels usually are. If Angel were allowed to be made in this day and age, it would be highly improbable for the filmmakers to do what they did here (,i.e.: take a sympathetic jail bait character from the first installment and replace her in a sequel with a curly-haired sex pot).



The early-2000s saw a number of exploitation movies made, from 2009’s grindhouse throwback Run! Bitch! Run! to 2010’s torture porn remake of the rape-revenge classic I Spit on Your Grave, but it would seem that the trend towards this kind of content is coming to a close.

10 Weird Writers to Save Us All in 2018


Here is our highly-anticipated list of “10 Writers to Save Us All in 2018.” “Save us from what?” you ask. We’re not entirely sure. What we do know is that an unexpected number of writers and readers alike sent us impassioned demands to recognize writers across the independent and small-press spectrum, and that the Silent Motorist Media Street Team voted for the finalists you’ll find listed below. Without further ado, we’d like to recognize these exceptional writers for their tireless effort to brighten our lives with their incredible work. We thank them, from the bottom of our hearts, for keeping the world of words alive and screaming.

An additional thanks to all the readers and writers who nominated someone. We couldn’t have made this list without your enthusiastic support for the writers you enjoy.

This list is in no particular order. We put one of our favorites at the very bottom just to prove this.

-Justin A. Burnett

Jon Padgett

Since a strong beginning is always advisable, Jon Padgett, the author of The Secret of Ventriloquism, seems an obvious choice to head this list. While many of us have happily stumbled across The Secret of Ventriloquism at some point in our reading lives and consider Padgett an obvious example of quality fiction, the rabbit hole goes much deeper than we ever expected. From editing magazines to professional narration, Padgett’s diversity certainly calls for recognition.

Jon Padgett is a professional–though lapsed–ventriloquist who lives in New Orleans with his spouse, their daughter, and a rescue dog and cat. He is the Co-Editor-In-Chief of Vastarien, a source of critical study and creative response to the work of Thomas Ligotti. Padgett’s short story collection, The Secret of Ventriloquism, was named the Best Fiction Book of 2016 by Rue Morgue Magazine. He has work out or forthcoming in Weird Fiction Review, PseudoPod, Cadabra Records, Lovecraft eZine, Xnoybis, and the anthologies A Walk on the Weird Side, Wound of Wounds, Phantasm/Chimera, and For Mortal Things Unsung. Cadabra Records recently released two albums narrated by Padgett: The Bungalow House by Thomas Ligotti and 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism by Padgett himself. His novelette, The Broker of Nightmares, will be published in a signed, illustrated edition by Nightscape Press later this summer. He will also appear in the Ashes & Entropy anthology, also from Nightscape.

Padgett is also the creator and co-administrator of Thomas Ligotti Online, which just celebrated its 20th birthday. He recently narrated Laird Barron’s novella, “Mysterium Tremendum” on PseudoPod. This is only one of multiple stories on Pseudopod he has produced and/or written. There are also quite a few recordings available on YouTube including his own work, work by Thomas Ligotti, and a story by Conrad Aiken. His work is additionally featured on SoundCloud.

Padgett can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Madeleine Swann

Madeleine Swann braids punch-drunk humor with a spritz of strange storytelling to create fun, entertaining stories that aren’t easily forgotten. Check out her interview with us for a glimpse of yet another talent more than deserving of a special honor this year. Check her out! We’re sure you’ll enjoy her work just as much as we do.

Madeleine Swann’s interconnected short story collection, Fortune Box, was released by Eraserhead Press in June 2018. It’s about a mysterious company called Tower Ltd Surprise Packages, who send gifts to random strangers throughout The City. Swann’s second novella, 4 Rooms In A Semi-Detached House, was published by Strangehouse Books, and her first was part of Eraserhead Press’ New Bizarro Author Series in 2015. Swann’s short stories have appeared in various anthologies and podcasts.

Check out Madeleine’s website, and follow her on Twitter and YouTube.

Christopher Ropes

Christopher Ropes caused quite a stir among the writers and readers alike who made nominations for this list. Each nomination made on his behalf insistently demanded that Ropes deserves more recognition in the writing world. His name continually surfaces on social media, unanimously attached with a passionate encouragement by those in the know to give Ropes a well-deserved read. We are certain that Christopher Ropes is a force to be reckoned with, and that he will continue to find the weird and wonderful readers he deserves.

Christopher Ropes lives in New Jersey with his partner, their kids, and an assortment of pets. He writes weird fiction and poetry infused with the lived experience of mental illness and occult practice. He believes in the Devil, the Night Primeval as explicated by Richard Gavin, all forms of true Art, the redemptive power of loving someone more than oneself, cats, cockatiels, and that mental illness is survivable and must be alchemically transmuted into artistic creation or wisdom.

His work has appeared in Turn to Ash Volume 3, Nightscript 2, and he has a piece that reviewers seem to truly love in the first volume of Vastarien: A Literary Journal. Dunhams Manor published his quickly sold-out novelette Complicity, and Dynatox Ministries published his poetry collection, The Operating Theater. He’s currently looking for a home for another novelette and contemplating a small short fiction collection. He also occasionally writes book reviews for the journal, Dead Reckonings.

Betty Rocksteady

Betty Rocksteady has been on our radar since the release of her debut novella, Arachnophile, in 2015 as part of Eraserhead Press’ New Bizarro Author series. Since then, Rocksteady has grown into a palpable presence in the wild world of bizarro fiction, diversifying into illustration in addition to writing. Yet again, another Rocksteady release looms on the horizon, and it’ll arrive just in time to save us from running out of excellent books to read in 2018.

Betty Rocksteady is an author and illustrator made of 1920s cartoons, cats and phosphorescent muck. Her writing blends surreal nightmares with character-driven conflict. Her short fiction has appeared in Looming Low, Lost Films and Eternal Frankenstein. Arachnophile, her first novella, was released by Eraserhead Press and describes the romantic relationship between a previous arachnophobe and a giant spider. Like Jagged Teeth, from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, is a claustrophobic story about a young woman, saved by what appears to be her dead grandfather. Her new alien novella, The Writhing Skies, is being released this fall from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing and includes 20 illustrations.

Check out Rocksteady’s website and follow her on Twitter.

William Tea

William Tea created a stir with his haunting story, “I Am Become Death,” in Planet X Publication’s anthology, Test Patterns. Now that he has a novel in the making, we’re gripping the edge of our seats to see where this Pennsylvanian frequent flyer of the anthology world will take us. We’re certain it’ll be one hell of a ride.

When William Tea was a boy, he thought monsters lived in the dark. So when the lights were out, he snarled and spat and twisted his hands into claws, trying to blend in with the things that went bump in the night.

He’s been friends with the monsters ever since.

Today, William Tea lives in the Northeastern Pennsylvania Coal Region. His work has been featured in anthologies published by Muzzleland Press, Wildside Press, Planet X Publications, StrangeHouse Books, and CLASH Books. He is currently working on his first novel, tentatively titled Mother of Sorrows.

Check out William’s website and follow him on Facebook.

Kyle Rader

Kyle Rader made quite an appearance in 2018 with his novel, KEGGER, from NihlisimRevised. The novel is about metal, and SMM readers know how we feel about our metal. We’re hoping do dive deeper into Rader’s fiction soon on SMM, and we can’t wait to see what he’s up to next!

Kyle Rader doesn’t like to color inside the lines, and thinks the greatest sin a writer can commit is to bore his or her readers. His writing career began at the tender age of nine when he received his first rejection letter from the Nintendo Corporation of America. They didn’t care for his video game idea, but they were kind enough to let him down gently.

2018 has been a rough one for a lot of people. Kyle spends his days listening to Chainsaw Gutsfuck on repeat or randomly screaming the theme song to Frasier at his wife. Rader hopes that his brand-new novel, KEGGER, will bring people some happiness or, at the least, some laughs. If you like heavy metal, transgressive/bizarre comedy, and good, clean, stupid humor, then Rader hopes KEGGER will help you get through 2018.

Rader’s short fiction has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, including Masks, Between the Cracks, and And Death Shall Have No Dominion: Tales of the Titanic. Rader’s short story, “The Countess and the Bard,” was the recipient of the Readers’ Choice award on Fiction Vortex. Rader’s latest novel, KEGGER, and debut novel, Four Bullets, are available on Amazon.

Rader lives in New England (in the state where they’ve got all the opioids. Seriously, opioids as far as the eye can see) with his wife and dog Scrambles the Death Dealer. He’s currently hard at work at multiple novels of varying genres, including horror, sci-fi, and more bizarre comedy featuring Satan and an undulating tentacle monster named after John Cusack who loves to play board games. If KEGGER is a success, Rader hopes to finally start work on his dream project where Jean-Claude Van Damme and a talking squid save Thanksgiving by learning how to parallel park.

Check out Kyle’s website, follow him on Twitter, and read “Only the Names Have Been Changed,” a bizarre freebie for new cult members! JOIN THE CULT OF KILE!

S. L. Edwards

Readers and writers alike swarmed our inbox to nominate S. L. Edwards, not only for his writing, but for his “tireless work in the scene promoting other writers and sharing opportunities. A rare beacon of light,” as one nominator put it. We love nothing more than passionate writers who go out of their way to lift up their colleagues. The heartfelt eagerness of his nominators inspired us, and we are thrilled to give Edwards the special mention he deserves in 2018.

S. L. Edwards is a Texan currently residing in California. He enjoys dark fiction, dark poetry and even darker beer. With Yves Tourigny, he is the co-creator of the webcomic “Borkchito: Occult Doggo Detective.” His debut short story collection, Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts, will be published in 2019 by Gehenna & Hinnom.

Daulton Dickey

Daulton Dickey has been one of our favorite writers since Flesh Made World released last year with Rooster Republic Press (check out our review of the book here), so we jumped at the opportunity provided by multiple nominations to include him on this list. Dickey’s website, Lost in the Funhouse, provided much of the inspiration for Silent Motorist Media, and we believe he is a truly underappreciated talent in the small press world. Check out Lost in the Funhouse and read Flesh Made World; you’ll see what we mean.

Symbolist and surrealist, absurdist and pataphysician, Daulton Dickey specializes in fried eggs. You can find his musings, writing, and art at Lost in the Funhouse.

When he’s not working, Daulton lives with his wife, kids, and pet human-lizard hybrid in a universe he created. He’s the author of Elegiac Machinations, Bastard Virtues, and Flesh Made World. Contact him at lostitfunhouse@gmail.com, and find him on Facebook.

Christine Morgan

Christine’s prose is magnetic whiplash—it’s swift, clever, and precise. Reading her work is an ass whooping you’re thankful for, and one that also deserves special attention in 2018. If you haven’t already, give Christine Morgan a read! She’s certainly one writer to save us from boredom this year.

Christine Morgan grew up in the high deserts of California but headed for water and trees as soon as she was able. A resident of the Pacific Northwest ever since, she now lives in the Portland area amongst the bizarro and weirdo-creatives community.

Her stories span many eras and genres, with a particular focus on combining horror and dark fantasy with ancient or medieval cultures. She’s best known for her Viking-themed tales, a collection of which — The Raven’s Table — came out in 2017 from Word Horde.

As a reader, she’s a regular contributor to The Horror Fiction Review. As an editor, she’s responsible for the Fossil Lake anthologies as well as a few other projects. She also enjoys baking, and modifying Barbie dolls into custom strange creations.

Christine’s most recent projects include the modern thriller Murder Girls, the pioneer blizzard horror novel White Death, and her extra-gooshy Deadite Press debut, Spermjackers from Hell. She’s had short stories in many anthologies and is currently at work on a book called Lakehouse Infernal, with the kind permission of Edward Lee.

Nicholas Day

Who could pass up a writer like Nicholas Day, especially when he has a new novella, At the End of the Day I Burst into Flames, on the way? We absolutely adored Necrosaurus Rex and Now That We’re Alone, and we can’t wait to see what else this creative and dexterous talent has in store. If any weird writer can save us all from whatever it is that weird writing saves us from, we’re pretty certain it’s Day.

Nicholas Day writes within the horror, science fiction, and crime genres. He studied creative writing at Southern Illinois University and at Seton Hill University. He co-owns Rooster Republic Press with Don Noble. Necrosaurus Rex, a novella, and his collection of short fiction, Now That We’re Alone, are both available through JournalStone and Bizarro Pulp Press.

His latest novella, At the End of the Day I Burst into Flames, is slated for release in December 2018. A second short-story collection was finished in May of 2018, and is currently being shopped around.

His current work-in-progress, Grind Your Bones to Dust, is a horror-western set in the Oregon desert during the 1950s, and features a quartet of man-eating donkeys. The title should be available sometime in 2019.

Don’t forget to check out his website.

Your Happy Life: Day Five

What is the Your Happy Life series?

Day One

Day Two

Day Three

Day Four


I once met a 40-year-old man who had obliterated his own heart with a 12-gauge shotgun. Incredibly, he remained alive. Happy people seized him and worked ceaselessly to further this miracle of sustained agony. To their disappointment and his relief, they failed after three days.

Wasps, as you’ll notice, sting themselves through the face when injured. Dogs voluntarily dash themselves onto rocks from Overtoun Bridge in Scotland. Who can blame them? The urge to destroy one’s own organism is a natural inclination. Death, you imagine, is preferable to pain.

But you are wrong. You are seduced by the magic of death. You watch in awe as others die; the things they say, their sacred “last words,” are suffused with a golden light of divinity inaccessible to those of us firmly in the realm of life. Every gesture of the dying is imbued with meaning; a feeble cough reflects the gradual dissolution of a decaying cosmos.

Don’t be fooled by the dying. It is merely the mystery behind a distant death of your own that casts this artificial glow. The death of others is a play, a game, pure theatrics. Your own death will not be a mystery. Yes, it will mystify your friends and family, if you are lucky enough to have them. You, for once, will not be fooled. There is no relief in death. No ecstasy will surge through your body as the tension of existence relaxes. You will cease. You become nothing. Even the reward of watching in scorn as others grieve over your corpse is denied you. There is no final magic, no finale to the roiling opera of daily pain. Death owes you nothing, and you will receive nothing. There is no escape.

-C. M. Bartolomeo

Seriously, what is this?

Reading in the Age of Trump: the Danger of Low-Hanging Fruit

Reading in the Age of Trump

The first time the Trump presidency seemed serious to me was when Slavoj Zizek half-heartedly endorsed Trump for the 2016 election. Zizek’s reasons for supporting such an outrageous candidate were, in a truly Zizekian fashion, complicated. His stance was similar to David Lynch’s: that Trump, while a problem himself, could disrupt US political norms just enough to leave the door open for real change in the future. Zizek’s “endorsement” was enough to make me realize that Americans don’t have to support Trump to vote Trump; Trump, for some, could be a symbol of renewal, despite the man’s obvious incompetence, while Hillary resembled too closely the quintessential politician.

Zizek’s endorsement must’ve bothered me, because I quit working on the novel I had been writing to scribble a few speculative vignettes about a world after Trump. The most substantial piece involved the end of American democracy in favor of a dynastic era based on the Trump family. It was tentatively titled “The Drumpf Dynasty” and featured things like internment camps, mass burials in public parks, the utter erasure of intellectualism, and a protagonist victimized by an inverted process of evolution worthy of Mike Judge’s movie Idiocracy. Apparently, I was fully convinced that the cultural nightmare liberals worried about had the potential to turn real.

Or, perhaps, I was just doing what I always do when faced with unsettling circumstances. Perhaps I was simply exorcising my concerns by pushing them to logical extremes in writing. You certainly don’t have to believe the situations you create in fiction. Often, depicting private and social concerns in gross caricature is strangely therapeutic to both readers and writers. In fact, around the time of Zizek’s statement, I happened to be finishing one of the most extreme American caricatures ever printed: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

As someone who remains socially isolated due to anxiety, the opening scene of Infinite Jest, during which Hal Incandenza faces a group of university administrators while attempting to hide his own utter inability to communicate, struck an all-too-familiar key with me. For readers unfamiliar with Wallace’s masterpiece, the passage is impossible to summarize, as great passages always are. Although it won’t suffice, let’s just say that when Hal is finally driven to speak, he erupts into a series of wild movements and inhuman sounds, despite the fact that he thinks he is communicating “normally.” The university directors are horrified. Only this vastly exaggerated portrayal of isolation, this caricature of real anxiety, could accurately capture the living experience of anxiety in fiction.

If caricature is one of the functions of fiction, what happens to fiction when living caricatures invade our public sphere?

My second strong whiff of Trump came with the first presidential debate. The event was streamed on Facebook live, and I was required to watch it and take notes, since treating it to a discourse analysis was a requirement of a graduate class I was taking at the time (I probably wouldn’t have watched it otherwise). During the live stream, I paid more attention to the outbursts of obscenities and the surreal blend of angry-faced and “heart” emoticons parading across the screen. The debate, I realized, was a fully interactive public event, at least in the context of social media. What I watched was an unruly crowd worthy of the stereotypical public executions of the medieval and Renaissance periods. Vegetables filled the air, carried by outrageous curses or countered by unfettered outpourings of love. Strange, I thought, how little the human heart has changed.

The debate itself was, as I discovered later, unassailable proof of Trump’s infallibility in the eyes of the public. He bungled through Lester Holt’s questions with inconsistent and largely improvised responses that any other candidate would’ve been embarrassed to offer. Clinton, while employing a rhetoric of evasion common to high-profile politicians, was definitely better prepared. Although I left the debate bewildered that so much time could set aside for two adults to say absolutely nothing to the world, it was clear that Hillary had won.

Except, as we all know, she hadn’t. On election day, I followed the results well into the night. As the terminus drew near and Trump held the lead, I posted my bemused realization that “this guy’s actually going to win,” on Facebook.

What seemed like Trump’s weak qualities during the first presidential debate (I watched half of the second and opted out of the rest) turned out to be his strengths. Trump’s “shoot from the hips” attitude, his lack of an identifiable ideological essence, and his blatant preference to speak in strictly financial terms on issues traditionally deemed ethical, were endearing elements in the eyes of his supporters. Above all, Trump had proven the liberal caricature of conservatives inaccurate: if they were just a bunch of dumb bigots, why did they now represent the free world?

I didn’t cry, tie myself to the University flag pole, or contemplate suicide as the media gleefully reported liberals doing in the wake of the election. Instead I shrugged, resumed work on my novel, and consoled myself with the assurance that the system of checks and balances was still securely in place. In short, I pretended that nothing had happened.

But the TV and the Internet loudly insisted that something had happened, something big, dangerous, and potentially inimical to a peaceful coexistence with our domestic and foreign neighbors. My virtual community of authors proclaimed this with a vigor matching that of many major televised media outlets. The more outspoken writers urged their colleagues to rally around the word. “Writing has always proliferated in times of political oppression,” their line of reasoning roughly went, “and now is the time to fight the good fight.” I swelled with a sense of purpose, and even went so far as to include a Trumpish POTUS in my novel. I scoffed at Trump’s paranoia of the Deep State, went into rages against his racist characterizations of minorities, and even embarked on lively debates with my largely conservative family. In short, I became a good liberal.

But something felt wrong. Something still feels wrong. All the while I had continued reading. The popular cry for “literature as resistance” lost its flavor quickly; I thought of the novels of explicit “political resistance” I had read. 1984, Brave New World, and Petals of Blood came immediately to mind. While these are decent novels and worth the read, I simply couldn’t convince myself that they stand next to works like Don Quixote, In Search of Lost Time, and Infinite Jest. I concede that reading literature resists something, but to tie the novel explicitly to politics seemed to undermine the whole artistic enterprise. Even if we attempt to say that reading resists the general culture of anti-intellectualism rather than a specific political agenda, the sense of being short-changed doesn’t vanish: So reading makes us what, intellectuals? Is that the reason we read? Even the most incautious defense of reading would shy from such brashly elitist posturing.

Let’s briefly consider Dante’s Inferno, a masterpiece every bit as political as it is artistically sublime. In nearly every edition of the Inferno published within the last half-century, from Everyman’s Mandlebaum translation to Anthony Esolen’s Modern Library Classics edition, English readers are treated to roughly the same format: the translated text accompanied by copious notes detailing the political and historical context of Dante’s more obscure references. The casual reader can appreciate Dante for the sheer brilliance of his vision, his fearless choice of subject matter, and his agonized rendering of the human capacity to suffer, but if the reader wishes to delve into Dante’s politics, a second Virgil is required. In short, as every Dante scholar knows, the Inferno is a classic despite its political dimension. The humane consolations of reading the Inferno have long outlasted its political counterparts. The Inferno’s footnotes mark, like gravestones, the passage of a dimension of knowledge into the dust of professional scholarship. The Inferno of resistance is dead; the Inferno of literature lives on.

The Danger of Low-Hanging Fruit

There’s an undeniable element of similarity between hard drugs and YouTube. During the early Trump years, I exhumed a passion for rap music that had been buried after exhausting Jurassic 5’s album Quality Control in 2002. I would look up Sway in the Morning “freestyles” by rappers I admired, then proceed with cocaine urgency to associated links of YouTube “reaction” videos. One reaction to Chris Webby’s 2018 Sway “freestyle” (it was clearly a “written,” like most are, although advertised as a “freestyle”) unexpectedly made me stop and think.

Chris Webby had made fun of “mumble rap” through the course of his performance, criticizing artists like Lil Yachty and Lil Pump for their unintelligible lyrics. The YouTube reviewer paused the video in disgust at the first mention of “mumble rap.” He said something like “y’all know I don’t condone picking on the mumble rappers. Y’all know they can’t defend themselves. It takes no talent to call these people out.” This was a surprising departure from the usual vitriol of traditional hip-hop fans against the newer generations of rap, and frankly, it seemed a bit unfair to me. “If they’re going to call themselves ‘rappers,’” I might have replied, “then they should be prepared to defend their claim.”

In a sense, however, the reviewer was right. It is easy to grab the low-hanging fruit. Extreme cases of absurdity are simple to identify; they stick to our memories and lend themselves to ready representation. Low-hanging fruit is the stuff of the viral phenomenon; it spreads like a flame set to a dry field of grass, since, like fire, it’s bright, beautiful, and exciting. Like most exciting things, however, it’s mixed with an element of danger.

The success of Trump is due in no small part to his showmanship. It is no wonder that Trump, presenting himself willingly as low-hanging fruit, possesses all the tenacity of a viral YouTube video. Trump is the ultimate meme, a living caricature, an appeal to the instinctive thrills of unthinking paranoia similar to Alex Jones. No wonder he is a perfect subject for fiction; he arrives with his own parody half-written.

It is all too easy, however, to attribute Trump’s qualities to his supporters. What reading does in the age of Trump is the same thing reading has always done: it facilitates the crossing of interpersonal boundaries. David Foster Wallace parodies social anxiety in Infinite Jest so that readers may experience, as close to first hand as possible, the terrors of communication. Caricature, in the case of Infinite Jest, nuances the relationship between reader and character rather than simplifying it. In a political context, caricature does the opposite; it solidifies misunderstanding and encourages discriminatory practices on both sides of the divide. In times when television and our leaders alike concern themselves primarily with the essentially fictional construct of “image,” we must work diligently to distinguish fiction from reality. Ironically, fiction helps us do exactly this.

The danger of low-hanging fruit is exactly the danger facing the Whiskey Priest in another book I read early in the Age of Trump: Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory. The repression of the Catholic clergy in the Mexican Cristero War was the result of caricature, as are all instances of repression and human injustice on a massive scale. In The Power and the Glory, the fictional Lieutenant’s vehemence against religion is called into question by the presence of the rounded character of the Christ-like priest. The Whiskey Priest’s “realities,” his flesh-and-blood weaknesses, regrets, and loves, puncture the Lieutenant’s caricature of the clergy, leaving his rancor to whither to regret by the novel’s end.

If my purpose here seems simple and obvious, that’s because it is. But media culture, with its unyielding insistence on sensationalism, would gladly have us forget our empathy in favor of outraged responses which tend to inspire shares, views, and “likes,” and we can no longer doubt the powerful sway of ubiquitous media. The age of Trump is rapidly becoming yet another age of thoughtless caricaturization, and we need fiction now more than ever, not for its potential as a political soapbox, but for the same reason that literature has remained important throughout history: its unwavering insistence on our shared humanity.

-Justin A. Burnett

Psychedelic Flapper: An Interview with Madeleine Swann

Madeleine Swann is a psychedelic flapper, weird fiction writer, creepy stuff lover, and hideous face puller. And she’s a lot of fun to interview!

-Austin James

“I wanted to be a writer, an actress (but not a famous one), and every single animal in existence.” -Madeleine Swann

Austin James: First off, thanks for chatting to me… I’m excited to get to know you a little better through this interview. Now let’s cut the crap and get down to the real, deep, issues: where do you stand on the Marmite spectrum of lovers/haters?

Madeleine Swann: Basically, Marmite is the devil’s eye boogies.

James: It seems to be the consensus that it’s generally horrible shit.

Swann: I know people who absolutely love it. I don’t trust them. One of them is my best friend Steve. I’m waiting for the day he reveals his true form as some ungodly being.

James: You’ll have to defeat him with a sword made of lightning in order to advance to the next level.

Swann: I’ll probably just look away, embarrassed, and pretend I didn’t see anything.

James: If you don’t fight him, who’s gonna stop him?

Swann: I can’t see that he’ll do any real damage, he gets confused very easily.

James: Ah, so a lower level boss. Makes sense.

Swann: Yeah, he’d probably wander towards the village, bent upon destruction, then worry he’d left his phone in the car and turn back.

James: As an American, I know everything (like I needed to remind you), and I’m not even sure Marmite isn’t just #fakenews…

Swann: I wish it was. Do you have Nutella? It’s just as bad. Also, Twiglets.

James: We do have Nutella. I have not partaken, but I will keep your warning in my pocket for future use.

Swann: Make sure you do, although I think marmite might be the worst.

James: So, changing pace, I hear you’re a writer?

Swann: Oh yes! I try.

James: In fact, you’ve had a book release just recently.

Swann: I did! Fortune Box in June, with Eraserhead Press.

James: Tell us about it?

Swann: Ok. Tower Ltd Surprise Packages is a mysterious company sending packages to strangers throughout the city. Each package is a different story and they all contain a magical object that either helps or proves disastrous for the recipient.

James: Oh cool! So, it’s like a collection of intertwined and loosely related short stories?

Swann: Yes! They’re different stories with the same premise.

James: That sounds fun. Where’d you find the inspiration for this idea?

Swann: A section of The Red Tower by Thomas Ligotti has a creepy tower sending gifts to people in the nearby town that contained spooky items, and I wondered what kind of items a tower of mine would send, and it went from there.

James: I’ve read the first story/chapter in Fortune Box, which (by the way) I loved. Tell me about Seed Man?

Swann: Oh, glad you liked it. Before I met Bill, I was single for about six years, because I’d had such a succession of terrible relationships, and I was determined not to get involved with anyone unless I was completely sure it was right. It led to a lot of awkward dates which was the basis for that story.

James: This is my favorite line: “They’d talk politics, films and art, and maybe she’d allow him a boob to touch on the first night.”

Swann: Haha! I was really proud of that one.

James: Moving on to the real issues, what relation are you to the James Bond character of the same name?

Swann: Zero, although I’m not sure if she has some Proust connection. I don’t know, I read somewhere that her name is a Proust reference and it made me feel intellectual.

James: Bullshit. You work for MI6. You heard it here, folks!

Swann: Shhhh, you’re not supposed to tell people.

James: Don’t worry, no one but the hundreds of thousands of people reading this interview will ever know. Your secret is safe with us.

Swann: Phew!

James: What’s it like working with Eraserhead Press?

Swann: Good. I like being part of a group of writers weird enough to be accepted into the weirdest publisher; it’s a nice feeling.

James: How involved were you, as the author, in approving cover art, etc. (I ask out of ignorance)?

Swann: They did the cover and I thought it was brilliant. They asked what I thought, and I said, “yes!”

James: Well, I happen to agree. It’s a sweet cover!

Swann: Thank you, I love it too!

James: How did working with Eraserhead this time around differ from when you released Rainbows Suck through New Bizarro Author Series (one of their imprints) back in 2015?

Swann: The first time around we were all placed in a Facebook group and assisted each other with promotion etc.. I found that quite stressful because I’m not great in groups. This time around I’ve kind of just been doing it myself.

James: How has that been? You have any readings or anything lined up?

Swann: I’ve managed to get most of the copies I bought into bookshops, told people online to ask me questions which I’ve answered in videos, and I did a giveaway. Not sure about readings but I’m sure I will at some point.

James: Nice. Getting books into bookshops is an important aspect of the game, even in the age of Amazon and social media. Maybe even more so in this age.

Swann: Definitely! I was really pleased when Blackwell in Oxford said they wanted ten copies.

James: How’d you go about setting that up?

Swann: I emailed them with links to my book and my website and they seemed to like it!

James: Do you find “the UK” to be generally accepting of Bizarro/weird fiction?

Swann: I think there’s a lot of weirdos here, so I think we’re generally open to weird stuff yes. Haha. Not everyone, but there’s always some.

James: How long have you been writing weird fiction?

Swann: Oooohh… erm, I think to be honest I was experimenting with weird stuff in primary school, I was writing surreal comedy stories that made sense to no one but me, and no one else found funny, but I thought they were hilarious, so I kept doing them and making people listen to them.

James: That’s awesome! How did you learn about the bizarro movement?

Swann: I found out about it probably around 2014. I was searching for the weirdest books ever written because nothing was satisfying my weird needs anymore, and I stumbled on Eraserhead Press.

James: And then?

Swann: I read a few and wasn’t sure. Then I kept reading and started to get into it, and submitted some stories to things, and it went from there.

James: Which Bizarro authors do you think helped you “start to get into it”?

Swann: I think probably The Haunted Vagina, I thought it was a genuinely sweet story, by Carlton Mellick III. Also, A Million Versions of Right by Matthew Revert. And Autumn Christian’s work.

James: Yeah, I can definitely see why you were lured in. Okay, so other than Eraserhead, where else have you been published?

Swann: Got a collection with Burning Bulb and a novella with Strangehouse Books, and short stories on The Wicked Library Podcast, Clash Books magazine (issue 1), and various other places. For transparency, I’m answering this question on the toilet.

James: Do they have toilet paper in the UK?

Swann: No, you use tea cups.

James: Ah. Well, at least you’ve all been upgraded to indoor plumbing (I assume)?

Swann: We have now, thank goodness. I used to have to sit in a field.

James: How relevant are broadswords in England nowadays?

Swann: I don’t know about anyone else, but I carry mine everywhere. Also, I’m now hiding because Bill’s got in from work, I’m going to jump out at him

James: Use your broadsword…

Swann: Good idea!

James: If you accidentally kill him I’ll help feed his body to the hogs by documenting each aspect for our viewers.

Swann: I’d probably try Necromancy. I don’t know how I’d handle day to day life without him.

James: Have you successfully necromanced before?

Swann: A couple of times, mostly just old people who popped off again ten minutes later.

James: Makes sense. So, which of your books are you most proud of?

Swann: Definitely Fortune Box. I’m so proud of it, I feel like I’m getting to where I need to be as a writer.

James: Where’s that?

Swann: It still very much has my sense of humor all over it, but I wanted to say more about my thoughts on the world, and people, and things like that.

James: What’s next? Any current projects you can talk about?

Swann: I’m working on a weird middle grade book right now.

James: That sounds awesome. Can you share any details?

Swann: Not sure at the moment because it’s not finished, but I think it will be quite dark for a kid’s book. Hopefully still funny though.

James: Have you talked to any publishers about it? Is there a market for weird YA books?

Swann: I hope there is! Not yet. I’ll do the looking when it’s finished.

James: You mentioned that you’re getting to “where you want to be” as a writer. What’s the next step?

Swann: I’d really like to get an agent. The next thing I’ll do is send this new one out to them and hope for the best.

James: In your opinion, what is the advantage of having an agent?

Swann: I’m not good at promoting myself and such. Agents help you with those things a bit more.

James: Makes sense. How many hobbits live in your town?

Swann: 17, all named Harry.

James: What did you want to be when you grew up?

Swann: I wanted to be a writer, an actress (but not a famous one), and every single animal in existence.

James: How are the actress and animal careers going?

Swann: I kind of abandoned those but I do a good impression of a napping cat.

James: Tell me about your book out from New Kink Books?

Swann: Oh yeah! It’s a novelette of surreal erotica set in a wonderland world of kinky things. It’s another set of linked short stories.

James: Talk about a wide range of audience appeal! Weird porn to Bizarro YA…

Swann: Ha! My interests are vast but they’re always weird.

James: What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?

Swann: I’m probably either watching a weird film, terrible TV or YouTube.

James: What are some of your favorite weird films?

Swann: Guy Maddin is probably my favorite director, he loves the 20s, surrealism and daft humor like me. Also, I quite like Cat Soup, Freaks, A Page of Madness, Pandora’s Box, lots!

James: I’ll have to check some of those out. Don’t make fun of me for having not seen any of them.

Swann: I wouldn’t make fun of you!

James: Do you have a routine you follow when you write?

Swann: I usually write in the morning, then finish around midday.

James: Do you people have coffee on that side of the world, or are you forced to drink tea whilst writing?

Swann: I’m hooked up to a tea drip 24/7. Bill does prefer coffee, though.

James: Mainlining earl tea is supposed to be good for your liver.

Swann: That’s what I tell myself.

James: Haha. Well hey, this has been a great chat! Is there anything else you want to get out there before we finish up? Any links or opinions or #fakenews?

Swann: Sure!
(website) http://madeleineswann.com
(Twitter) https://mobile.twitter.com/MadeleineSwann

And fake news: if you look deep into a shark’s eyes, you’ll probably die.
Austin James writes obscure and uncomfortable fiction.