Below is the PDF version of “Head in the Could of Unknowing: A Deliriant Noir Manifesto” by Justin A. Burnett.
Below is the PDF version of “Head in the Could of Unknowing: A Deliriant Noir Manifesto” by Justin A. Burnett.
B. R. Yeager’s novel Negative Space (Apocalypse Party, 2020) caught me utterly unprepared this year and easily maintained a spot in my top ten “Best of 2020” list. Ever since putting it the book down, I’ve been aching to pick the mind behind the novel. I genuinely can’t thing of a better way to inaugurate yet another season of SMM author interviews than by alerting you to this book. Weird fiction and horror fans, particularly those of you with your ears to the ground, waiting to catch a glimpse of possibility on the bleeding edge of genre fiction: you can’t afford to miss this one. Stop by Apocalypse Party’s website (pick up a title there. They’ve got some good ones), visit Yeager online, and for god’s sake get a copy of Negative Space.
“Lately I’ve been seeing this sentiment tossed around a lot: ‘True horror fans don’t read horror to be scared. They just like the tropes. They think it’s funny that regular people could be scared by a book.’ I think that attitude kind of sucks, and is even kind of sad. Like, maybe I’m just a normie, but I’ve absolutely read some books that have scared the hell out of me! And it’s been exhilarating! That’s a big reason for why I read and why I write. To me, horror is an emotional response. I want a horror novel to fuck me up.”
Justin A. Burnett: Negative Space is a dizzying novel, and it’s difficult to spot a clear lineage of influence from the outside. It seems to have a bit of everything: near Less Than Zero-levels of teenage decadence, the hallucinatory vibe of contemporary horror films like Mandy (sans the cheese), vivid occult horror in the vein of, say, Richard Gavin, and multiple narrative voices that, somehow, actually work. In short, I’d be interested to know your central inspirations for this novel.
B. R. Yeager: I forget who it was, but there was a musician who suggested that those starting out use all of their influences–not just one or two, but all of them. Throw them all together, and what will come out will most likely feel fresh and unique, because no two people will have the exact same influences. A great example could be a band like EyeHateGod–Mike IX said “I want to be in a band that sounds like Black Flag and Black Sabbath at the exact same time.” This is obviously an oversimplification of their sound, but by combining all these unique and sometimes contrasting elements, they were able to create something unique to their character, and is still unique to their character. There still isn’t a band that quite sounds like EyeHateGod.
My Negative Space melting pot largely consisted of: Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies, The Gate (1988), Pig Destroyer, Khanate, Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps, Blake Butler’s 300,000,000, early Bret Easton Ellis (plus Lunar Park), Dennis Cooper’s My Loose Thread, Stephen King’s IT, Kathe Koja’s The Cipher, Jennifer’s Body, Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, David Wong’s John Dies at the End, Silent Hill 2, Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Antichrist, Clive Barker, The Kybalion, Sunn o))) & Boris’s Altar, Boogiepop Phantom, The Maxx—the list goes on and on.
But above all, I was inspired by my experiences, and my friends experiences, as teens. Lots of our memories and experiences made it into this book. And New England in general was an enormous influence–Kinsfield is largely a composite of towns I’ve spent time in and around.
Burnett: I love that you packed music and video games in there. We’ll circle back around to Negative Space, but while we’re talking music, you mentioned at some point on social media that Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s album, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennae to Heaven, changed your life. Do you mind sharing that story? I love hearing details about pivotal moments like that.
Yeager: I don’t mind at all. I was either 16 or 17, so this was early to mid 2001. Up until then I’d been a fairly strict metalhead, and pretty naïve about any music outside of metal (and to be honest, pretty naïve about metal too). But I started hitting a wall with aggressive music in general, getting bored with it. At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command was a huge turning point, because it was still aggressive and there was the Ross Robinson connection, but it wasn’t a style of music I was familiar with at all, so it acted as a bridge between the nu-metal that had dominated my life and the music I’d become enamored with going forward. It helped me realize there was a whole world of music I didn’t know anything about. So I started seeking this stuff out–lots of indie rock like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and Modest Mouse. Lots of emo and screamo, because it was still aggressive but not in a boneheaded way. I was just soaking up as many different styles and sounds as I could. I was buying zines so I could learn as much as much as I could about underground music.
That’s how I found out about Godspeed. I can’t remember the zine’s name, but they had a review of Lift Yr. Skinny Fists. The way they described it–20 minute songs, 9+ members, field recordings, “the soundtrack to the apocalypse”–I’d never heard of anything like that before. I went out and bought it that week. It absolutely blew apart any of my pre-conceived notions about what music could be. Which–not to take any credit away from them–was mostly a product of my naivete at the time. But the atmosphere and emotion, the textures, the scope of their music–I’d never heard anything like it. And the whole Coney Island monologue–I was used to bands putting cheesy snippets from horror movies or Boondock Saints at the beginning of their songs. It was like “What the hell is this recording and where did it come from?” No one knew. It was all so mysterious and evocative–it captured my imagination in a really fresh way.
I got my friends really into them too, and we linked up with these other guys after we found out they were into them (they’re still some of my best friends to this date), and we started this godawful post-rock band. We just didn’t have the dynamics or the ability to pull it off. We were still teens. It was very much “You like this riff? Good, because you’ll be hearing it over and over for the next 10 minutes!” We shot for hypnotic but ended up with monotonous.
How about yourself? What’s your Godspeed story? Ha ha.
Burnett: mine’s actually pretty similar–there was a review of …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead’s album Source Tags & Codes in Guitar World at some point, wherein they were compared to Pantera. Totally inaccurate, but I was a nu metal goth kid myself and when I came across the album in a massive CD store that sadly no longer exists, I snagged it. The album’s a dynamic indie/shoegaze thing, and it led me to checking out At the Drive In, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Modest Mouse and all that. Soon, I saw GY!BE mentioned in Amazon “best of” lists along with those other albums, and I snagged it.
Long story short, I got the album and cranked it up in the car with friends, having no clue what I was in for, but expecting traditional song structures. Everyone was like “wtf?” We were all extremely high and one guy started freaking out. I was bummed and a little embarrassed at the time, but I got around to listening to it alone several months later and it blew me away. It also earned me a reputation as liking weird music, which eventually led to me seeking out Primus albums to troll my friends with, and THAT led to a whole new dimension of revelation, ha ha.
Alright, next question: Was there a book that did something similar to you? At what point did you decide to write what I’ll just loosely call “horror” here? Which book made you think “that’s it… that’s the direction I’d like to go?”
Yeager: Woah! Source Tags & Codes was also a huge record for me (still a great record–that first half is totally unfuckwithable).
I don’t think it was a particular book. I know it’s cliché, but horror is just a part of who I am. I’ve loved the genre since I was a little kid–reading lots of R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, the Scary Stories books, Scholastic children’s horror anthologies, etc. Edgar Allan Poe was a revelation for me (this was still grade school), and it was my first encounter with the classic macabre and gothic tropes–unreliable narrators and cursed families and the past coming back to haunt. I remember being thrilled by “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the paranoid, anxious style of the narration. I had no idea you could do tell a story that way. So that had a really profound impact.
I have a very broad definition of horror, and at the end of the day I consider myself a horror writer, even if a lot of my work is on the border of what many people would consider horror. Regardless of my subject matter, I skew toward a desire to horrify.
Burnett: Cliché or not, I absolutely understand that response. “Tell-Tale Heart” was exactly the one that cracked it all open for me as well, and it’s been lurking somewhere in my brain ever since.
The horror aspect definitely comes across strong in Negative Space. One remarkable thing about that book is how many motifs you play with–there’s the coming of age aspect, with all the ennui that entails and substances galore, there’s the voyeuristic presence of the Internet, there’s the occult–all of it, however, has a depth that feels… well, true, like your ideas and themes are very lived-in before they get on paper. Nothing is a prop, and one thing in particular that appears to have carried over from your earlier work is the concern with online culture and its apparent tendencies to bring out the worst in humanity, but even this is tempered with a sort of curiosity that keeps the whole thing from feeling too condemning. If you could condense how you feel about “the horrors” of online culture on one hand and its redemptive qualities on the other (if there are any), what major points would you want to make?
Yeager: It’s difficult to pin down. I’m not entirely convinced that online culture brings out the worst in humanity–it just makes it visible, and enables communities to form, sometimes around virulent behavior.
I think that’s what I found so compelling when I was writing Amygdalatropolis–less the anti-social behavior itself, but that there were communities centered around anti-social behavior. Even when people only wanted to destroy others, there was still this desire for connection, for validation by another human. I think that’s a fascinating tension, and tragic in a lot of ways. So there’s the surface horror of the violence these people are describing (or actually committing in some cases), but the deeper horror is occurring at a personal, internal level.
Thinking in terms of monsters and transformation–how does that transformation occur? Many of the people in these spaces describe histories of being abused, and that’s their explanation for monstrous behavior. Others are just there because they find it entertaining–they have an active desire to become monstrous, to destroy in themselves the ability to empathize with others. I don’t really have an answer for why this is, but I felt it was worth documenting.
But that book has a very narrow view of online cultures, which I wanted to rectify in Negative Space. I wanted to depict an online community that wasn’t centered around malice, and was instead centered around dealing with an ongoing tragedy. It’s a form of coping. That may strange when we’re talking about a forum where people try to predict who’s going to commit suicide next, where people post photos of dead bodies, but ultimately I think it’s a method of trying to make sense of this pattern of nebulous violence, that no one understands. It’s gallows humor.
I see it a lot of it on social media, this gallows humor, and COVID has only accelerated it (hell, I often engage in it). It’s cynical, but it isn’t cruel or insensitive–I actually think the opposite is true. The present and the future look like a nightmare in so many ways that are out of our control on an individual level, and people are just trying to figure out ways to deal with that. It’s a form of commiseration, and I think that’s ultimately a positive one. Even when the ship is sinking it’s nice to have someone by your side.
Burnett: That actually nicely fleshes out the ambiguity I was trying to indicate–I think the aspect of “concern” surrounding the message board in Negative Space distinguishes itself a lot from other writings on violence and the Internet. To say it again, it gives the theme depth.
Let’s talk about Tyler, the protagonist of Negative Space–the Void himself. He’s one of those charismatic individuals who tend to draw others into their destruction. Did the impetus to write about someone like this come from lived experience or from an interest in cult-like leaders? Where does Tyler come from?
Yeager: He comes from lived experience. None of my characters are surrogates for real people, but real events and relationships inspired his creation. As you suggest, I imagine everyone has known someone like Tyler: incredibly charismatic, but destructively narcissistic, who doesn’t even realize he’s being predatory, or harming others–someone who just goes so far into their own world, there’s really no coming back from it.
Burnett: I know you’ve cited more than a few inspirations, but if you were asked to prepare a lecture on a single writer, who would it be? What are the points you’d want to cover in this lecture? What makes this writer worthy of a lecture?
Yeager: That’s a good question. It would probably be on one of two rappers, either Ghostface Killah or billy woods [sic]. Fiction writers could learn a lot from rap in general. The rhythm of sentence structure is an obvious one. And there’s a rigidity to the form, so there’s a lesson in economy there: you only have so much space to get your point across. Ghostface and woods each accomplish so much with such limited space. It’s easy for writers (myself included) to get caught up in over-explaining an image, or an environment, or a character, but these two show how you can evoke an entire world with just a line or two.
It’s the minute details that make a piece of fiction feel real, and Ghostface’s records are a masterclass in minute details. His characterization is next level: “Nice like Van Halen, seen him at the tunnel with his skin peelin’ / Did two days, thought he was jailin’ / You get close, look at his hands / That’s the same kid that cut his wrists, talkin’ bout ‘The cuffs did it.’” It’s so vivid. And there’s a unique, natural surrealism at play in his work. I could go on and on. I think he’s one of the most important living writers/poets.
billy woods has only been on my radar for little over a year, but he’s probably my favorite rapper right now. Again, it’s all about the details, and the massive pictures he paints with so few words. “No Christmas this Christmas, kitchen frigid / Space heater in the room, Chinese delivered / Watched the Knicks, every shot missed / Like airplane bottles out mini-fridges / I washed dishes, I’m an isthmus / My arm’s length is quite the distance / Once distant future now day to day existence / My ex-wife is my mistress / Your woman on a pedestal but this Ruby Ridge shit.” Again, so vivid. You can see this guy’s Christmas evening playing out while you’re listening to it. Just an unbelievable writer. One of favorite new podcasts, Call Out Culture, did episodes on each of them, really delving into their lyrical qualities, the methodology that I highly recommend, especially to writers. [episodes: billy woods, Ghostface Killah]
Burnett: Once again, what an excellent response! woods is phenomenal, but I haven’t gotten around to Ghostface. I’ll have to check him out.
This also slides things nicely into my next question: you mentioned Silent Hill and several movies earlier. I take a lot of inspiration from horror games myself. I watch playthroughs or play short indie horror titles as a break between projects–in a lot of ways, I think horror games tend to probe the bleeding edge of horror concepts. However, video games and movies are undeniably different entities from writing. I can generally tell when a horror writer is thinking in cinematic terms, and it just doesn’t go well. My question is: what exactly can horror writers learn from movies and video games? What specific aspects of these media do you walk away with feeling impacted by, and in what ways do they manifest in your writing?
Yeager: That’s awesome. I was very lucky–woods was the second to last live show I saw before the pandemic, in a very small venue and maybe 15 other people, and it was incredible.
It’s generally useful to pull ideas and techniques from mediums outside your own, because those mediums can offer a unique take or approach to well-trod subject matter. You can then take that approach and further modify it to fit back inside your working medium. Ideally, the outcome will be something original, or at least possess the appearance of originality.
Film–more so documentaries–can be useful for writing dialogue, or figuring out how to include exposition into dialogue, though this can be a bit dangerous, as it’s easy to make characters who sound like Hollywood caricatures. Again, documentaries (particularly older ones, before we all got used to talking on camera) can help you avoid this. But if you’re looking to fictional source material to study for dialogue, plays are probably more useful.
I’m frequently influenced by films and video games, but more on a conceptual level than a formal one. I agree that writing that attempts to replicate the formal traits of film often falls flat. The great thing about cinema is that it’s a condensed medium, and sometimes a film will brush over a very fascinating topic, and I’ll end up spending the rest of the run-time expanding upon it in my head.
It’s similar with video games, but for the opposite reason, since video games are frequently sprawling. My favorites tend to be the one that immerse you in a vibe–FromSoft games (Dark Souls/Bloodborne/etc.) is an example I often use. Their approach to environmental storytelling has been a huge influence–they really excel at the whole “show, don’t tell” principal, allowing their stories to be ambiguous and interpretative, and much of Negative Space was an attempt to apply that technique to literature. Silent Hill 2 also does a phenomenal job of environmental storytelling and ambiguity–there’s huge portions of that narrative that aren’t directly explained, just left to the player to piece it together if they want to. That’s how I try to approach my storytelling.
Game writing is also improving. I played Disco Elysium earlier this year and was floored. I keep saying it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. I love fractured narratives, and this game has such a compelling approach to that. Not sure if you’ve spent any time with it, but throughout the game, different aspects of the protagonist’s body and personality are in conversation (and sometimes conflict) with each other, to a stunning effect. That’s something I’d like to play around with in the future.
I’ve always been fascinated by video games, on a formal level, aesthetic level, narrative level, etc. I had wanted to design them for a long time, but I just don’t have the patience for coding. One thing that games do better than any other medium is convey movement through space, and if that space is compelling enough, it can be exhilarating. It’s one of the few things I wish literature could do that it isn’t really equipped to accomplish.
One last little thing—there’s this indie game Discover My Body by a dev called Yames that is one of the eeriest things I’ve encountered. Terrific writing, and the sheer vibe of this thing. I’d love to one day write something that feels like this:
Burnett: I haven’t tried Disco Elysium yet, but I went over to itch.io for Discover My Body [available to play for free] and man, it was a good one. I have a serious soft spot for simple, lo fi games that manage to be creepy or thought provoking (this was definitely both).
Yeager: Oh totally, those are some of my favorites, and resonates with what you were saying about horror games often being at the bleeding edge of horror.
Burnett: I feel like it’s the same sort of thing with movies–you mentioned Tetsuo 1: Iron Man on social media as being a movie that made you sad because it represented a possible “alternative history” to cinema–one that is pure will and creativity without the fetters of the shit that destroys freedom (i.e., focusing on a mass product engineered to appeal to the lowest common denominators). These little games are the same thing to me. So is indie writing.
In that spirit, have you read any indie horror authors that you feel don’t get enough attention who you’d like to shout out here? Also, feel free to add anything to the topic leading into that, or to correct any mischaracterizations about your feelings regarding Tetsuo.
Yeager: You characterize of my thoughts surrounding Tetsuo perfectly! I dream of a film landscape where every piece of CGI is replaced with janky stop-motion. I just think it would be beautiful. Have you seen Dawn of an Evil Millennium? It’s like if someone tried to remake Blade Runner with a $20 budget. Absolutely incredible. That and Tetsuo just feel so fucking alive.
Apologies for the tangent, but this brushes up against something I find really interesting. We’re at a strange point of such overwhelming media saturation that has severely impacted the creation of art. What I’ve always appreciated about indie and underground art is its divergence from (or explicit opposition to) the aims of mainstream mass-appeal. Lately, that seems to have turned around, in that we’re getting a lot of art that is independent only in terms of success or distribution (or lack thereof), rather than on an aesthetic or philosophical level. In other words, there’s a glut of indie art identical to what’s already in the mainstream, or that aesthetically and philosophically aspires toward the mainstream.
Parallel to that, there seems to be a flush of art that is primarily inspired by other mass media, rather than lived experience, or even unmediated thought in general. This can become stifling, to any form and any genre, so I think it’s important to be conscious of it. I’m obviously not exempt from this–looking back at your first question, I named off like a million pieces of media I count as influences. But I’m not convinced anyone can create anything remotely original unless they put a significant chunk of their self, their being, into what they’re creating, in one form or another. You can’t just be taking and replicating bits of media you’ve consumed, no matter how varied and diverse the source material is.
This is a problem for any genre (including “literary,” whatever that even means), but since we’re talking about horror we can use horror as a lens. Lately I’ve been seeing this sentiment tossed around a lot: “True horror fans don’t read horror to be scared. They just like the tropes. They think it’s funny that regular people could be scared by a book.” I think that attitude kind of sucks, and is even kind of sad. Like, maybe I’m just a normie, but I’ve absolutely read some books that have scared the hell out of me! And it’s been exhilarating! That’s a big reason for why I read and why I write. To me, horror is an emotional response. I want a horror novel to fuck me up. I want to be ruined by it. Not necessarily in a shock-value, splatterpunk way, because I usually find that stuff really cold and boring (a story needs warmth and feeling to be truly devastating), but work that pushes the boundaries of what I’m even capable of conceiving.
When somebody reads your book or story, you’re hijacking their consciousness. It’s your consciousness invading theirs. It’s a form of mind control, and it’s so important not to forget how powerful that is. A focus on tropes rather than emotional response runs in opposition to that. I loathe the idea of horror being defined by familiar tropes and familiar monsters doing familiar things in a tidy prescribed way. I think that’s fallout from an out-of-control consumptive culture, and as I was saying above, it seems to have become just as prevalent in indie spheres as it is in the mainstream. There’s an excess of reverence for what’s come before, recycling the hits, hewing to imagined boundaries and abiding by the rules. Nothing against those who enjoy reading or writing “cozy horror” and stories that are defined by tropes and familiar signifiers, but if the genre becomes defined by that it will stagnate.
Which I think finally gets around to your question, ha ha! Some indie horror I’ve read in the past year that I do think pushes the genre in new and powerful directions:
Sam Richard’s To Wallow in Ash & Other Sorrows absolutely wrecked me. There are passages in there that I think about on a weekly basis
I haven’t gotten to the entire thing yet, but what I’ve read of Charlene Elsby’s Hexis is absolutely phenomenal and damaging.
I recently read a short story by Kealan Patrick Burke in the Lullabies for Suffering anthology that was very cool–I need to check out his novels.
Jane Unrue’s Love Hotel is supremely wild and disorientating.
Gary J. Shipley is a favorite, and not just because he’s published me.
Maggie Siebert writes beautifully vicious short stories.
And of course there’s Matthew Bartlett, who operates in a style I don’t typically gravitate toward, but he pulls it off so well that it doesn’t matter. I admire his dedication to original mythmaking, and his approach to imagery is just so unique and evocative.
I need to finally get around to C.V. Hunt and Andersen Prunty, and dive into Grindhouse Press in earnest–they seem like they’re doing some really exciting things.
Oh, and David Leo Rice! His work is incredibly eerie and unique. Another person who squeezes whole worlds into his text.
Burnett: Your response to the “readers don’t read horror to be scared” thing reminds me a lot of David Foster Wallace. Have you read him?
Yeager: I’ve only read his essays, and that was a while back so I don’t remember too much. I know he was also concerned with hyper-mediation, and understood firsthand the addictive nature of commercial culture. It’s funny because he was primarily talking about network television, which feels quaint in comparison to the present landscape.
I’m not a very disciplined person, and am very much addicted to media and stimulus. I refuse to get a smart phone for this reason, because otherwise I’d be plugged in all the time. Working from home, spending the majority of my waking day on the computer, I’m already about as plugged in as you can be. I’m constantly craving stimulation though I realize it’s a destructive urge. COVID has naturally exacerbated that.
I think the greatest danger of hyper-mediation is the limit it puts on our imaginations, in what we can conceive of and dream. Paired with the hyper-commercialization of the arts (primarily the outcome of the people having too little, stuck in work that pays too little, is inconsequential, and is often literally destroying their bodies), they’re the ideal conditions for creative stagnation. I’m seeing this in many (not all) indie writers’ circles, where there’s an extreme emphasis on following prescribed rules for success, around writing what sells, reiterating upon past commercial successes etc. Ironically, I’m not entirely convinced these rules/strategies are that effective. Strict adherence can actually cause an author’s work to just submerge and drown beneath the ocean of content that’s already out there.
All that said, I realize I’m in an insanely fortunate position to have lucked into employment that enables a relatively comfortable and stable existence, where my writing is separate from my livelihood. That spares me from needing to commercialize my art, and I realize most people are in positions where they can’t justify creative endeavors unless they’re able to derive money from it. It’s an awful condition. When art is only valued when it can turn a profit, it’s such a powerfully stagnating force.
Burnett: This is the last question: are there any upcoming projects of yours you’d like to highlight? What can readers expect from B.R. Yeager over the next few years?
Yeager: I’m presently working toward finishing my piece for Hymns of Abomination. I’m excited about it. It’s been fun trying to reinterpret Bartlett’s style and setting, especially since I’m from the town Leeds is based on. It’s letting me look back certain memories with his tint.
I have another couple short stories scheduled for anthologies that haven’t been announced yet. This has been the first year I’ve written short stories in four or five years, and it’s been good getting into the swing of them, working on compact projects that require lots of minute tinkering. It’s practice for the next novel, which is too early to talk about, and will probably take another two or three years.
B.R. Yeager reps Western Massachusetts. He is the author of Negative Space (Apocalypse Party), Amygdalatropolis (Schism Press) and Pearl Death (Inside the Castle).