Worse than Racist

Earlier this month, elsewhere online, I was following and sometimes entering a discussion about poppies. There had been a story or two about why celebrities or politicians were not wearing them, or were wearing them, and someone in one of the lefty papers typed a piece saying that poppies were racist now. Or something like that. I have one or two minor opinions about poppies and Armistice Day itself, so I joined the discussion.

I do not think it’s wrong to wear one, as some humans do, though I don’t see why anyone should be attacked for not doing so, either. It’s unimportant. But one person in the discussion said the following to someone who said he wouldn’t wear a poppy because the 1914 – 1918 war was ‘the most stupid thing this country ever got involved in [..]’

I quote his response to that exactly:

‘What might be your attitude toward the birthday of an illegitimate child, the result of his parents’ wrongdoing, but who bears no responsibility for either his existence or his condition?’

I was surprised that humans still manage to think like this. Only a significantly unpleasant and poorly informed mind could describe a child as ‘illegitimate’. But what kind of human mind is required to think a child whose parents were unmarried when he was born has for that reason a ‘condition’?

The idea of ‘bastardy’ is an example of religious bullying; religious bullying which tried to force parents to conform lest the ‘moral majority’ stigmatise their children as punishment for not conforming. Of course, those who choose to conform then become the most vicious in the name-calling themselves, because they hate themselves for being cowards, so most need to protest too much.

‘Illegitimacy’ and ‘bastardy’ do not exist and never have existed: they are to be found only in the warped imaginations of horrible, child-bullying humans. This is easily shown.

There is no blood test for ‘illegitimacy’, no biopsy a scientist can perform to detect traces of ‘bastardy’ in the blood. There is an irony at the expense of the religious bully. To have a ‘belief’ about the ‘illegitimacy’ of children, one which relies on the existence of a supernatural dimension, with a supreme supernatural being running things to make sense, means it’s the ‘belief’ which is illegitimate, not the flesh and blood child.

In point of fact, the person who manages to believe in ‘illegitimacy’ and ‘bastardy’ holds opinions which are demonstrably worse than racist. The argument is simple.

If the racist bully wants to bully a child, say because the child is black, then he can point his finger at the child and call it racist names so the child is in no doubt of its different status. If a man did do this – no matter how nasty and demented he’d have to be to want to do it – the child actually is black.

The religious bully does the same, but the reasons for which he does this do not exist in reality, they exist only in his horrible imagination. Therefore the religious bully is one step worse than the racist bully.

I kindly (and for free) pointed this out to the religious bully in question. He hasn’t responded yet.

Advertisements

Christian Slaves, Moronic Masters

If some silly humans get their way, the Colston Hall in Bristol will be renamed. The excuse for this that the name, Colston, has ‘become toxic’ and because Colston was a slave-trader, the music venue needs a different name. Changing the name doesn’t benefit anyone, but it will give some single-issue merchants a rush of blood to the head for a few moments.

Changing the name doesn’t change the facts.

One of the defenders of this pointless excercise is David Olusoga. He says in the idea’s ‘defence’ that

‘Those who want to rename Colston Hall, like the students who want to topple Cecil Rhodes (not that I agree completely with them or their tactics), are campaigners for a fuller, more honest remembrance of history, not its erasure.’

That paragraph shows its typer simply doesn’t care. You do not get a ‘fuller, more honest remembrance of history’ by erasing the names of historical figures from public buildings.

In addition, you help nobody.

I promise you that, in removing the Colston name, no hungry children will be fed; no murderer will be caught; no teenage girl, trafficked from Eastern Europe and locked into sex-slavery, will be freed from her misery.

These campaigners are people without a grievance, looking to make themselves feel happier about their lives by claiming they did something good. They will have done nothing good. Nobody alive in Bristol suffered because of Colston’s business. Nobody alive in Bristol should apologise for the slave-trade because nobody alive in Bristol was responsible for the slave trade.

To campaign for the removal of the name is a form of narcissism, and I suspect these silly people are just a bit bored.

The musician, ‘Daddy G’ from ‘Massive Attack,’ was quite pleased with the name change. I have no idea why.

That ‘Massive Attack’ have for years ‘refused to play at Colston Hall’ is to fall for posing and gesture politics of the shallowest kind. If it were the case that ‘Massive Attack’ – upon learning of their city’s history – left the city in protest, refusing to spend their money here, or even enter the city because of it’s links with slavery, then I might believe they had principles. They are simply posing by picking an easy topic to decide to have principles about, one which causes them no inconvenience.

Muslim pirates enslaved white Europeans for centuries. As a white man, I managed to get the fuck over it about half a second after finding out about it.

Julius Caesar enslaved over a million white Europeans during his time in Gaul, helping to make Rome massively wealthy. I wonder if ‘Massive Attack’ has ever played a show in Rome?

Selective principlals are always fake principals.

Image result for christian slaves muslim masters

 

 

Fighting the Inevitable

Many of us thinks that the ‘I’ they use to refer to themselves is separate from their physical self, and perhaps takes the form of a little person who sits inside our head, looking through our eyes the way Captain Kirk looks through the screens of the Enterprise. Those who think this way are likely to be mistaken, but the mistake is a common one, and many people make it without knowing they’re doing so.

Many persons are more religious than they realise.

A person said to me recently, on the topic of what some call ‘gender reassignment’, that some of us are ‘born into the wrong body’. This is a common expression, used by persons to explain what causes a person to want to change their gender.

The idea that a person can be ‘born into the wrong body’ is physically, chemically, biologically, and philosophically illiterate. What makes the expression an interesting one has nothing to do with the ‘truth’ it contains, but rather what the expression presupposes.

The following isn’t perfect, but it will do. Imagine a factory, in which bodies are on a conveyor belt: robot arms insert the conscious mind into each head. Now imagine a fault in the celestial software which makes the belt lurch forward, throwing the bodies out of synch to their mind-inserting arms, and what is presupposed becomes clear.

Persons are not ‘born into’ their bodies at all. It is impossible, therefore, for a person to have been born into the wrong body. Every person is as nature ‘intended’.

(I marked the word out because I’m aware that ‘intention’ presupposes agency – which is obviously nonsense – but the expression is another good example of how our thoughts are saturated with the idea that consciousness can exist without the brain.)

Under ‘born into the wrong body’ is that very idea – that consciousness can exist without the brain.

What is under that idea?

Under that is the belief that we survive death.

And what is under that?

Under that, motivating everything else, is the fear of death.

Could it be that, a person can make a ‘throwaway’ remark on a topic about gender surgery, and what motivates it is a fear of death – something we weren’t talking about?

Image result for a fear of death in everything

Trumpton

On the morning we knew that Mr Donald Trump had won the election, I overheard part of a conversation on the bus, going to work.

An amusing woman was talking to her friend about the American election result. She claimed to be “shocked” that a sexist, misogynist (etc.) had won the election, and wasn’t it a tragedy Obama wasn’t going for a third term?

(This was what amused me the most that morning, until I read – a few moments after she’d said this – Philip Larkin describe Christmas shopping as the ‘conversion of one’s indifference to others to active hatred’, a comment so sweetly sour I thought it hilarious.)

The woman’s comment seemed to exemplify two problems.

One was the parroting of the media-line that Trump is a (insert bad word here) which he might be, but since when was stating the obvious worth doing?

The other, and the worrying thing about the Trump circus, is that nobody seems to want to acknowledge that no person is actually one-dimensional, nobody is asking ‘can he really be that bad?’ ‘Is he playing to the gallery?’ Obedience to the media is more that repeating its line, it’s refusing to think or question that line for yourself. Silence, then, is obedience.

This is a question of safe seats.

Consider some of the “safe seats” in our small country. In some parts of the north-east, say, a three-legged donkey would be duly elected so long as it had a red-rosette pinned to it. We the people are to blame for the third-raters who get into office.

Trump and Billary is what happens when the majority of voters are witless Kardashian fans who don’t care about who rules over them.

This latest “choice” shows America has become one huge safe-seat.

Image result for bread and circuses

You’re My Next Victim – Stephen King’s It

Late one night Stephen King woke me up. I was perhaps nine or ten. At first I had no idea I was lying awake, then – when I realised I was staring into darkness – I realised I had no idea why I was awake. I heard soft chuckling – just a gentle laughter in the darkness – that I couldn’t place in space. It could have been coming from under my bed. I lay still for several moments, a little nervous, wondering if I had heard what I thought I’d heard.

Then I heard it again.

I got out of bed and put an ear to my door, hearing nothing. I opened it and walked out onto the dark landing. I saw my parents’ bedroom light was on so went in to ask if either of them had heard the chuckling. My mother wasn’t there, but my dad was sat up reading It, and it was his laughing which had woke me up. He said he was laughing because the scene he was reading had some kids who were squatted down lighting each other’s farts. I told him his chuckling had woke me up and that it was a little creepy hearing giggling in the darkness, but it was alright now I knew what was going on. I went back to bed and slept without trouble. That was the first time Stephen King disturbed my sleep.

I didn’t know then that the scene in which those bullies light their farts – and it certainly is funny – is followed by a wonderful scene in which a twelve year old boy, Patrick Hockstetter, is half murdered by a swarm of flying leeches. One leech pierces his eyelid and sucks the eyeball until it collapses, and another lands on his tongue, sucks blood until it’s bloated, and then explodes in his mouth. Young Mr Hockstetter passes out as he’s dragged into the sewers by the entity called It, and he awakens only when, in the dark somewhere under the city, the creature begins to eat him. That might be gross, but here’s the thing: Patrick Hockstetter had it coming.

Stephen King’s It was published in September 1986. Thirty years later many fan-polls and blogs still cite the book as either his best or the fans’ favourite. Sometimes fans confuse a writer’s best work with their favourite work from that writer. Defining a writer’s “best” work is trickier than it sounds. It is probably not King’s best work, but it’s one which has its popularity secured by a collection of characters the reader easily sympathises with. The depth to which King thinks his characters into existence is remarkable.

Consider this for instance. Claudette Sanders – the first character mentioned in King’s Under the Dome – is taking a flying lesson, paid for by her wealthy husband, Andy. We are told of her that, although not exactly spoiled, she “had undeniably expensive tastes which, lucky man, Andy seemed to have no trouble satisfying.” At the end of the next page (page two) the control panel of the plane dies, and eight lines of prose later, Claudette’s body parts are falling on Chester’s Mill. Here’s a character created to be killed to open the novel, but King still gives her a whiff of backstory when he mentions her “expensive tastes”. Such a small detail begins to show the character’s character. Yet by the end of page three she’s dead. This is mildly extraordinary. We are forced to ask ourselves, if King thinks this much about a character who doesn’t last even two full-pages of prose, to what extent did King think about his Loser’s Club of kids?

Each of the seven children he creates to battle the entity are losers for different reasons. Bill stutters; Richie can’t keep his mouth shut, and has what might now be called “hyperactivity disorder” – or some other similar nonsense. Ben is fat and a loner; Eddie is the wimpy kid; Stan is Jewish; Beverly is poor and Mike is black. All these circumstances make the kids unpopular in 1958, not part of the “in” crowd at school. This is something which most of us can relate to, either by not having been one of the cool-kids, or remembering some unfortunate kid whose mum sent him in wearing Hi-tech trainers. (When I was a young teenager wearing Hi-techs was more or less a death sentence. Some parents are criminally fucking stupid. And here’s a darker thought: perhaps some parents secretly hate their children?) Thus we recognise something of our past selves in the kids King creates to face the creature. The Loser’s Club has something for everyone’s memory.

Many of us enjoy the regressing to childhood. We look at pictures and video from when we were kids and indulge our sadomasochistic side by going to the “school reunion”. Childhood is idealised in our memory and children, especially babies, are cooed at and fawned over.  This might be why so many of us are wet and feeble weaklings when we grow up. The Romans, not fond of children, thinking them rather gross and needy creatures, used childhood as the time to train and prepare for adulthood, without the cooing and fawning. Who would argue Roman men weren’t made of “sterner stuff” than us males are today?

Although we have a tale in which children are murdered and eaten, the book is pitched at the place where most adults are vulnerable: in our desire for nostalgia and our moist-eyed attitude to childhood. We can be pulled into the novel, let’s say, by Ben falling in love with Beverley Marsh because he sees her ankle bracelet, but we don’t need to understand what he feels precisely; to understand the ache in his belly  we need only to have some memory of our own for comparison.

It’s too easy to decide that King – or part of him at any rate – is to be found in the character of Bill Denbrough. King would have been the same age as the Losers in 1958, and Denbrough is the character who becomes a horror writer, his books inspired by his childhood experiences. Perhaps the Denbrough / King thing is too obvious on purpose? If King – allowing the nostalgia power to work on him as well as through him – puts himself in the book, perhaps he’s split between Bill and Richie. Bill stutters – so can’t express himself properly, while Richie expresses himself too well, yet hides behind characters who find expression through the voices Richie uses throughout.

Bill and Richie, working together, go to the House on Neibolt Street to kill It with Bill’s father’s gun. While in the basement, the creature comes down the stairs to get them in the form of the werewolf from the 1957 movie I was a Teenage Werewolf. Richie has recently seen this movie and it made an impression on him. It made an impression on King, too. Writing in Danse Macabre, King talks of the film and mentions the change from boy to monster. ‘For a high school or junior high school kid watching the transformation for the first time,’ King says, ‘this was baaad shit.’ He then points out the basics of the matter: the unfortunate teenage boy

grows hair all over his face, produces long fangs, and begins to drool a substance that looks suspiciously like Burma-Shave. He peeks at a girl doing exercises on the balance beam all by herself in the gymnasium, and one imagines him smelling like a randy polecat who just rolled in a nice fresh pile of coyote shit.

(For completeness, that teenage girl in the gymnasium was a twenty-two year old woman called Dawn Richard – a Playboy centrefold.)

Richie and Ben might be confronted by a werewolf because that represents what they’re most scared of at that time, yet the werewolf – the one from the movie, and the one in the novel, because the one in the novel is the one from the movie – symbolises something else: a fear of puberty and the sexual awakening which turns pleasant little boys into ravenous monsters. (Beverly – the only girl in the gang – recounts how It appeared to her as spurts of blood from the plughole in the bathroom. This is what she’s most afraid of, perhaps, for similar reasons to Bill and Richie; or because once her father knows she’s bleeding, he might want to take their relationship to the next level.) These fears are wrapped into a colourful package of classic American popular culture – the monsters from the movies – and might be dismissed for that reason as nostalgia for King, or for Americans generally of a certain age, but those hooks are universal, they lurk under the surface and will pierce the psyche somewhere of anyone old enough to read the book. (The cover of Detective Comics 671 has Batman protecting a screaming woman while surrounded by Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Werewolf – all monsters used by It – and that issue, from February 1994, was not aimed at people who were kids in 1955. Perhaps it’s fair to assume that teenage boys, from different eras, have the same preoccupations?)

The novel is pitched directly at the child you once were. In that way, it’s a shameless pitch, and too much of the book force-feeds us on the topic of “the magic of childhood”. This isn’t a vague term, interchangeable with “the best days of your life”, or something similar. King’s childhood magic is exactly that: a force which is somehow aware of the kids and uses them (and helps them) to battle the ancient entity under the city.

For example, Beverly – hiding from the boys lighting their farts, yet watching them closely – is attacked by one of the leeches which punches holes in Patrick Hockstetter. Beverly is the crack-shot of the gang; she’s armed with a Bulleye – a catapult which fires ball bearings. She loads it, aims at the leech she’s just pulled off her arm, and as soon as the metal ball leaves the pouch, she knows she’s missed her target.

But then she saw the ball-bearing curve. It happened in a split second, but the impression was very clear: it had curved. It struck the flying thing and splattered it to mush. There was a shower of yellowish droplets which pattered on the path.

The power the creature has is worth wondering about. It seems to have omnipotence and omniscience when it needs it, but these powers fail It when it suits King. Does the creature have powers or not? Two scenes with the Bullseye allow the reader to wonder.

Patrick Hockstetter is a child-psychopath, easily the most demented character in the book. His dementia means he isn’t scared of anything and this lack of fear makes things tricky when It comes out of hiding after sending the flying leeches. Hockstetter sees the creature come out from behind a junked car. He notices that

its face was running like wax. Sometimes it began to harden and look like something – or someone – and then it would start to run again, as if it couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be.

It says only ‘hello and goodbye’ to Patrick in a “bubbling voice”, yet Beverley hears her father say ‘hello and goodbye’. On the surface we understand this. Al Marsh is the person (thing) she is most afraid of (and had Beverly seen what had happened, not just heard it, she would have seen her father drag him off.) But this small scene actually poses problems for the novel’s logic. The creature can’t settle on what image to appear as to Hockstetter because it’s getting nothing from Hockstetter. It seems to be trying to “get a reading” but Patrick’s mind is blank of fears. Now on the novel’s logic, had Mike Hanlon been hiding with Beverly he would have heard It squawk ‘hello and goodbye’ like the giant bird; Richie would have heard the words in the sound of a werewolf’s snarl. So either It can broadcast on all frequencies or it relies on its victims to interpret one signal. Yet if it relies on its victims to interpret one signal, why is It bothering to shape-shift ‘as if it couldn’t make up its mind’? It implies the creature’s shapeshifting runs on some sort of evolved instinct – like an animal changing its colouring to suit the surroundings. This poses questions about the creature’s will, and therefore its abilities. What seems a way of demonstrating just how deranged Hockstetter is, actually dilutes the horror a little because it suggests the creature is simply feeding, rather than being actively wicked. We can get all gooey when the lion tears the baby antelope apart, but we don’t think the lion is doing anything bad. Yet we’re told It uses the tactic of appearing as whatever its victim is scared of deliberately. The fear is what ‘salts the meat’ for the entity. King seems to want things all ways, here.

Another curious scene with the Bullseye occurs back in the house on Neibolt street. The kids are there, armed with the silver-slugs they have made, to confront and kill It. Beverley almost wastes one silver-slug on a rat before Bill roars at her not to fire.

‘It wanted me to shoot at it,’ Beverly said in a faint voice. ‘Use up half our ammunition on it.’

    ‘Yes,’ Bill said. ‘It’s l-l-like the FBI training r-range at Quh-Quh-Quantico, in a w-w-way. They seh-send y-you down this f-f-hake street and pop up tuh-targets. If you shuh-shoot any honest citizens ih-instead of just cruh-crooks, you l-lose puh hoints.’

 This makes surface sense. But this scene, like the one in the junkyard with the leeches, poses questions about the will of the creature. The children believe the silver will kill the monster because that’s what the movies and comics say, and it seems the creature is damaged by what the children believe. Once It knows it’s the werewolf which scares them, it takes on the appearance of the werewolf, but also the monster’s weaknesses. Doing this strongly implies a lack of choice on the part of the creature. This scene is like a portal into the novel’s subtext. The novel’s creature is forced to have weaknesses because the novel’s subtext is that the fears the children have are of their own making, and are strong enough to manifest into reality: fear of bigger kids, of bullies; fear of illness and of monsters from the movies; fear of coming sexuality and the perils of puberty.

This is best shown when Beverly pulls back the Bullseye to fire, knowing very well she’s out of ammo. The creature believes they have another slug because the Losers act as if they do, yet a few pages before the creature was trying to get them to waste ammo on a rat, seemingly knowing what they were armed with.

Here the subtext actually breaches the surface into the action. (Another example is when It chases Mike Hanlon at the derelict ironworks: why doesn’t it morph into a smaller bird, or anything else small enough to get into the smoke-stack Mike hides in? One can only assume it doesn’t because it can’t. This is partially explained on page 990, when, from It’s point of view, we’re told that ‘all living things must abide by the laws of the shape they inhabit. For the first time It realised that perhaps Its ability to change Its shapes might work against It as well as for It.’)

One has to ask if the creature has the ability to change shapes when it chooses to do so or not? If yes, why doesn’t it do so? If no, then this really is where a portal into the subtext could actually be a rip in the dimension between the fiction and its subtext. One must remember that the characters do not know they are characters in a novel.

Most kids are scared of spiders and many adults remain scared of them. So when the empowered kids get under the city and discover the thing’s form – the closest approximation to its real form the human mind can see – is a giant spider, there isn’t much shock in that. Indeed, the spider’s appearance was foreshadowed. On page 404, there’s this exchange between Beverly and her mother, discussing the spider she pretended she saw when the blood spurted from her bathroom sink. She asks her mother if she had seen the spider, and her mother replies

‘I didn’t see any spider. I wish we could afford a little new linoleum for that bathroom floor.’ She glanced at the sky, which was blue and cloudless. ‘They say if you kill a spider it brings rain. You didn’t kill it, did you?’

    ‘No,’ Beverly said. ‘I didn’t kill it.’

It’s a nice touch that King has the mother note the sky is blue and cloudless before she worries about rain. The exchange clearly foreshadows hundreds of pages (and thirty years in time) later when the grownups think they kill the spider and downtown Derry is destroyed in a downpour, flooding the place and destroying the standpipe. The spider is again foreshadowed just prior to Mike Hanlon meeting the Losers for the first time during the scene in which Henry Bowers (possessed by It, as are the adults such as Beverly’s dad and Eddie’s mother) chases him. This drives Hanlon to the Losers, where he becomes their final member and they attack the Bowers gang in The Apocalyptic Rockfight. While chasing Mike, Henry throws a cherry-bomb (an extraordinarily dangerous firework banned in 1966) and in panic, Hanlon scales a fence and Henry follows; he stops on the way up to order his cronies to keep going, and was ‘hung there like a bloated poisonous spider in human shape.’ It’s a safe bet that if you’re not actually scared of spiders, you probably won’t be picking them up and stroking them like you would a puppy. Spiders are a scare catch-all. Spiders lay eggs, and King’s spider lays plenty.

Ben saw something new: a trail of eggs. Each was black and rough-shelled, perhaps as big as an ostrich-egg. A waxy light shone from within them. Ben realised they were semi-transparent; he could see black shapes moving inside.

He has Ben stamp on them and kill the spidery things inside as they squeal while trying to escape. In 1986, this image should have been familiar to horror fans. One month before King published It, James Cameron released Aliens, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien from 1979. In one early scene from Aliens, Ripley is talking to a collection of suits who have been trying to get her to justify detonating her ship. She tells them ‘Kane who went into that ship said he saw thousands of eggs there. Thousands.’ Nobody who has seen Alien will forget those eggs, and the spidery, face-hugger things which come out of them. The imagery in Aliens – the humans strung-up, ready to be hosts for the face-huggers; the semi-transparent eggs with something inside; the deadly female creature which lays them – are all repeated in It when the Losers chase the spider, and who would argue the Queen in Aliens isn’t a little spider-like? Even Bill’s wife, Audra, is strung-up in the spider’s web, a morsel to be eaten later, just like the colonists found by the Marines in Aliens. This isn’t a coincidence.

Like the alien Queen in Aliens, King makes his monster female, and there’s something nauseating about that image: a female spider laying eggs. Alien and Aliens tap into this directly with the idea of a human being a host for another living thing; though in King’s novel the spider doesn’t use humans as hosts – and only eats its victims because its victims expect it to – there’s a connection the films share with the novel, and the similar imagery is striking. Entire papers could be written on our fear of spiders and the identical images which the novel shares with the two horror films.

The story is a “coming-of-age” tale and nostalgia trip buried under popular horror wrapped in classic American pop-culture and movie history. The journey, from child to adolescent and then to “grownup” is a hard and depressing one: full of fear which sits in a belly which aches for different reasons. The battle the children have under the city, in the tunnels, is an important one, and those dark, scary tunnels are important, but the most important tunnel in the story is on the surface: the tunnel between the children’s library and the adult library. This tunnel is mentioned several times, and after the destruction of Derry, explodes for a reason which is not explained, leaving both libraries as separate buildings. It is suggested that the trip from child to adult is always going to be a hard one, with no shortcuts:

if you wanted to get from the Children’s Library to the adult library, you had to walk outside to do it. And if it was cold, or raining, or snowing, you had to put on your coat.

There’s no escape for any child; there’s no easy path from kid to grownup, and the truth is that while we happily skip about as a kid, telling everyone we’re doing fine and hoping they believe it, there’s terror going under the surface.

Image result for detective comics 671

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Graceful Monstors

In the genre of horror fiction, many authors have touched upon the same subject matter and populated their works with similar characters. Serial-killers, Cop-killers, Child-killers: they have featured in hundreds of novels and films over the years. The same is true of Lovecraftian demons and spirits. Stories of haunting and possession are as old as history, and the deformed, shape-shifting and deceitful entities that are responsible for those haunting tales, have themselves featured many times across the work of authors whose lives have been separated by centuries. There appears to be nothing original under the sun.

Some writers do have an original take on an old story or character type, though. For example, in his novel, Cell, Stephen King has battalions of flesh eating zombies doing some nasty things to the population of Boston.  Zombie tales and movies tend to keep to a standard pattern: zombie eats you alive, you then become a zombie yourself, and you eat your mum or another dispensable support character. No explanation tends to be offered why the dead have decided to rise – or why they are so hungry – and the main plot of these stories revolves around the survival attempts of a few desperate groups of humans. Some of these elements are true of Cell, but there is one remarkable and original difference to King’s Zombies: they are alive.

The un-dead – or phoners, as King calls them – have received a mysterious signal through their mobiles which sends them violently insane. Their behaviour is similar to run-of-the-mill un-dead flesh-eaters from books and movies of the past, but only up to a point. King soon takes his readers away from the conventional as his story unfolds.

The movie Wolf Creek is another example of giving a tired format a decent revival. A serial killer, roaming at his leisure across Western Australia, kills tourists visiting the Wolf Creek meteorite crater. The psycho-is-chasing-you format has been done in dozens of movies – hundreds, more likely – though in this film we have a refreshing change. The psycho is a decent bloke. There are no funny facial ticks, no talking to voices in his head; the killer is played straight by John Jarrett, and is much scarier for it. Even at his most violent, Mick Taylor, Jarrett’s character, never falls into parody: Jarrett plays the part as if he was influenced by no other performance on stage or screen – a remarkable achievement, actually.

Wolf Creek has another piece of originality going for it: there is no double-take used by the director. This shock technique features in so many horror films that its effectiveness has been diluted. We all have seen this at work. The camera stands behind a scared character; they look left, and the camera looks with them. There is never a baddie to be seen. Then, they look right – again the camera follows to show the madman is nowhere around. And then – guess what – they look left again and the psycho’s face is inches from theirs. You never saw that coming.

Actually, there was a time when cinema audiences were scared to death by that now much over-used technique. The double-take was first used by director David Lean in his version of Great Expectations (1946). It was used to introduce Pip to Magwitch, and, famously, to introduce Magwitch to the audience. It worked brilliantly. So much so, less original directors still use it

Murderous psychopaths belong to no-one – they can’t be copyrighted, so there is no quality control in place. The same is true of all types of horror villain and monster. If you get lucky, you watch or read something that catches the attention because it breaks the normal way of telling that story or presenting those characters.

Richard Matheson’s Vampire novel, I am legend (1954) has a protagonist who is considered a terrorist – an outcast, because he is in a minority (a minority of one, as it happens) and the rest of the population of Los Angeles is a blood-sucker. The novel offers the theory that vampires are the next evolutionary step for mankind. This is better than presenting them as Satan’s disciples on earth, who avoid garlic and drink virgins’ blood. That version of vampires has been overdone.

But then vampires are the one of the most popular horror novel or movie creatures; it is not surprising there is so much pap printed on paper and celluloid about the fictional blood-suckers; but, there are writers who offer an intriguing and original take on this type of story.

Anne Rice is one of them. Her novel, Interview with the vampire, (1976) was a best-seller, and the first of eleven novels collectively known as The Vampire Chronicles. The series tells of the adventures of Lestat De Lioncourt, a French aristocrat and actor, who was kidnapped and turned into a vampire in 17th Century Paris.

Lestat is posh but penniless. He ventures into the big city with Nicholas, his companion to expand their horizons and make their fortune. Nicholas, a talented violinist, takes work in the orchestra pit of a theatre while Lestat, ever the show off, treads the boards. Life is perfect. They take-in the sumptuous city: the people; the wine; the food – they indulge their passions, but Lestat becomes un-easy at the sight of a curious white face in the audience each night. Someone is stalking him.

Rice offers a mix of Dickens blended with Dorian Gray. There is the overpopulated metropolis with the detritus-ridden underbelly, and slopping about upon its surface are the beautiful people; drowning in decadence and drunk on wine and passion.

Lestat, for all his foppish, Wildean extravagance, has a killer’s blood pumping through his veins. Before eloping to Paris, he killed a pack of wolves that had been slaughtering people from his home village. On horseback, with his beloved Mastiffs by his side, he hunted and killed them. Doing so cost him his horse and his dogs, but the starving villagers and their cattle had a chance to make it through a cruel winter. He was a hero, but the folly of setting off alone demonstrated his maverick side. It is that – along with his physical beauty – that captures the attention of Magnus, the vampire with the ghostly white face who has been stalking him.

It is here that Rice begins to deviate from the norm as far as tradition and popularity in vampire stories go. Vampires in her world are capable of love and passion, they are capable of guilt and sadness – they are monsters, they are un-dead – but why should that mean they must be mindless demons, automatically slaying any human they spot? Rice’s vampires choose how they behave. Too many times in horror fiction vampires are portrayed as being enslaved by the insatiable thirst for blood; they kill because of it. It’s their addiction and their food. Not so with Anne Rice.

The thirst is nothing more than a demonic craving, leading to madness if not slacked, but not required for continued existence. Her monsters are a human / spirit hybrid; the spirit element craves the blood, but the human side – the physical body – no longer requires nourishment. As her vampires age, slowly the thirst subsides until the ancient ones, those at least a thousand years old, no longer need it at all. And with age comes ever increasing powers.

Magnus is one of the ancient ones. He chooses Lestat as his heir after murdering hundreds of similar looking victims. Lestat has the perfect balance of beauty and aggression and Magnus, after taunting him in his dreams – calling him wolf-killer – takes him to his lair and turns him, and does so, much against Lestat’s will.

Rice’s hero continues his life, but as a vampire. He still visits his favourite places and enjoys the culture of the time. He is frequently found in the theatres, cafes and strolling along the banks of the Seine. The circumstances of his existence have changed, but his tastes, and his entire thinking mind, have not. It makes her characters far more engaging than the one-track-mind demons that meander from one virgin neck to another. It also demonstrates Rice’s skill as an author. A lead character needs to elicit sympathy from the readers of a novel or the audience of a movie. Rice’s Lestat is a mass murderer, and she still makes him engaging and sympathetic.

Play it straight and tell the truth, that is the safest way. It is too easy to make a murderer lose credibility by getting carried away with the killer’s dark side. Even a murderer has a sense of humour. John Jarret played it this way in Wolf Creek, but he’s not the only one to get the portrayal of a killer spot-on.

Harrison Ford did a similarly grand job in What lies Beneath (2000). He gives, possibly, his best performance as Dr. Norman Spencer, an academic who puts his research first. In one scene, Ford’s character is explaining to his wife how her death will bring him and her daughter closer together. It is clear he means it; he will look after his step-daughter, and provide the very best for her. As he explains this to his wife, he is filling the bath to drown her. It is the incongruity written into the scene, topped off with Ford’s delivery that gives the scene its power. Even allowing for Dr. Spencer’s insanity, he never once comes across as dangerous. He is a graceful monster. And where is it written that madness has to be dangerous? Who decided insanity must lead to murder?

One film comes to mind with a lead character so psychologically damaged that it is remarkable not a single member of the cast gets slaughtered; a movie with the most deranged protagonist: The King of Comedy (1983) is that film.

Robert de Niro plays the psychopath, Rupert Pupkin, a stand-up comedian with delusions (literally) of grandeur. It is one of the most disturbing movies I have seen. Not a single murder, hardly any violence, yet the impression left by this film lasts long in the mind. It is very uncomfortable viewing. It proves dead bodies and gore will always come second to a quality script and decent actors in the race to disturb an audience. To creep under the radar requires no trickery. It requires you pick the lock of their critical shields and slip inside using truth. This is why gore-sodden celluloid like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) will make an audience squirm, will make them jump, but will never get access to the place where humans are truly vulnerable.  Movies such as Saw and Hostel – and many others, of course – will try and batter their way in using boring tricks and double-takes.

Those blades are blunt.

It’s Hip to be Square

Let’s get one thing clear, American Psycho is a comedy. That needs to be understood before you read it. It’s a comedy about yuppies and how empty-headed and shallow they are: it’s about how far too much money and far too little imagination can cause you to begin to shrink your world, until you live in such a self indulgent cocoon, you cannot even spot the raving, murdering lunatic in your midst. That is what Easton-Ellis is telling us: yes, yuppies are that shallow.

This is a well-constructed work because it causes the reader to suffer from the same syndrome that grips the minds of most of its characters – only in reverse.

We have the self-obsessed city-boys, interested in the correct clothing labels and getting reservations at the right restaurant, and us, the readers, obsessing over the violent scenes of rape and murder, and – both us and them – missing the point entirely. The violence and murder are simply incidental to the plot, they are not the point. They serve the same purpose as a piece of misdirection performed by an illusionist. Just as you look the wrong way, the conjurer pulls a stroke.

Patrick Bateman is as hilarious as he is twisted: a perfectly tanned, toned and attired Metro-Sexual killing machine, drowning with pleasure in the very selfish excess that he despises, and yet must conform to the rules of. He maintains the required trophy girlfriend and adheres religiously to the latest men’s fashion, has membership of the most exclusive fitness club, styles his hair with a surgeon’s precision and forces rats into the vaginas of his victims.

There’s no accounting for taste.

His circle of co-accused are just as lacking in any sort of meaningful mental programming, treating the New York they live in as one huge private boys’ club, with membership relying on ticking certain financial and fashion based boxes on an ongoing basis. Most of the men in this work are successful, rich and stupid, and that is the point. A second point – which feeds the previous one – is that they never step out of the world in which they consume space, therefore never catch a glimpse of their own vulgarity, and, consequently, are unable to change for the better or want to. They are the small, obnoxious building blocks, whom together, make the impenetrable wall of arrogance and snobbery that protects their false, built-on-sand world.

Even between themselves, in packs of their own kind, these men are only half aware of each other. Do they even know who each other really is? They all have adopted the habit of addressing each other by their surnames, at least a large majority of the time. This is not so worrying until a particular character is introduced, and he starts referring to Bateman by the wrong surname. Why should this be worrying? Because Bateman responds to the surname as if it were correct, unable, due to the particular etiquette at work in their society, to offer a correction. This small, comical component offers to the reader some very disturbing questions about – if you will – the depths of their shallowness. When Bateman addresses an acquaintance, does he use the correct name himself? Are they just humouring him, shackled by the same etiquette? Is any of the group of friends Bateman surrounds himself with the people he thinks they are?

This question is thrust at the reader, when after killing Paul Allen, a man he has been obsessing over for sometime, Bateman learns that the same man has been seen in a restaurant in London. This is a confirmed sighting because Bateman is told by his victim’s dinner guest. So who on earth has he killed?

This particularly gruesome murder offers Easton-Ellis the chance to have another subtle kick at the world he is ripping to pieces. The killing happens in Allen’s own plush apartment. Upon returning to clean up the mess, Bateman – armed with a surgical mask to cope with the smell – has a brief conversation with a real estate agent who is re-selling the expensive property. The agent spots the surgical mask, and Bateman spots the mysteriously clean apartment. Their brief exchange involves the agent saying she doesn’t want any trouble and that Bateman should just go. So he does, walking away from the scene of his crime utterly bewildered, his fragile mind ever more confused.

It is exchanges like this that allow us to wonder if Bateman has actually been created by the world he lives in. Is the “greed is good” culture causing his psychosis? What could happen to a person’s view of what’s acceptable, when that person lives in world which lacks substance and any shred of morality; a world where even murders can be cleaned up if there’s a possibility of profit? Is Bateman the ultimate avenger for the self-indulgence of the slick-haired city boys and their air-head women? It’s possible, though I believe that Easton-Ellis lets Bateman loose on this world because he simply thinks they deserve it.

It was people of this kind that Brett Easton-Ellis was mixing with during the second half of the Eighties; he saw their world from the inside, the celebrity and credibility of being a writer allowing him rare access. He has stated that the time spent mixing with New York’s yuppie elite convinced him that they were the sort of people he would hate to be like; though they certainly left a lasting impression on the man, and this work demonstrates that impression.

He didn’t like them much.

I said this book is a comedy, and so it is. Consider this scene. Finally snapping and deciding to kill a chap whose attentions our psycho is sick of, he strides into the men’s room to confront his intended victim, his black-gloved hands ready to strangle the life out of this irritating man. As Bateman’s hands grip the man’s throat, the victim starts to smile, feeling the first stirrings of sexual desire. The victim is secretly gay (and must enjoy his own dark pleasures behind closed doors, it’s implied, if strangulation turns him on), and Bateman’s hands gripping his throat confirm Bateman must be as well. At last, the façade is dropped, now they can be together!

The comedy runs throughout this book. A urinal cake, taken from a men’s room, coated in chocolate, and then offered as a present, provides hilarity as the trophy girlfriend attempts to eat it. Bateman dropping his veil of normality and telling people directly what violent acts he’d love to perform on them (no-one really listens to each other, so he gets away with it), whilst the empty heads just nod along, paying no attention. Yeah, yeah, man. Sounds good, let’s touch base, oblivious that Bateman is telling them he wants to dig out their eyes.

The laughs are there, just so long as you don’t allow yourself to be tricked into paying too much attention to the violence. There’s plenty of it, and most is incredibly graphic, but it’s there to catch your eye – to keep you from the seeing reality: just like the soulless drones that populate the book can’t see it either. They’re too busy obsessing about designer labels to be able to.

Murder of the Soul

“..from top to bottom the whole system is a fraud, all of us knows it, labourers and capitalists alike, and all of us are consenting parties to it.”

 Henry Adams, 1838 – 1918

 Hierarchical structures are the support beams to the systems which are responsible for our financial, behavioural and ideological delusions. Some of these systems exist in the day to day world, they can be seen and heard, while others exist only in our heads, but are no less effective for that. Human beings are trained to obey masters, and while we obey those masters – some obvious, some invisible – we are failing ourselves.

One need only to glance at the way corprations, the Armed Forces, the Police, government departments and many other institutions are structured to see the system they have in place – hierarchy – is responsible for creating greed in the humans who toil within it. It is a mistake or laziness to believe hierarchies are natural and necessary. To come to see the truth of how hierarchies work, how they maintain themselves, requires one to unplug oneself from the Matrix. It is not always easy to do: some delusions offer security and comfort, and absolve one from the responsibility of acknowledging the horrors of the world; but to acknowledge the subtle oppression and manipulation which controls us is to make the first tentative steps toward freedom of mind.

There will be people who will argue that hierarchies exist to reward ‘hard-work’, ‘effort’, ‘commitment’, ‘dedication’ and ‘duty’. These naive and abstract labels would not exist without the basic human behaviour which makes them possible: obedience.

There will also be those who maintain the animal kingdom offers proof conclusive that hierarchies are natural and necessary. One usually hears mention of, say, Gorillas, in defence of hierarchies and how ‘pecking orders’ have been around for millennia and are, therefore, perfectly natural and necessary. Such arguments are laughable and those who make them prove their own argument false. It is language which offers such an argument, and it is the primitive species – such as Gorillas – which have no language, and therefore rely on primitive instinct to run their social group. Language makes hierarchies unnecessary. I have yet to see David Attenborough filming Gorillas, or Lions (or any other animal) offering bonuses and perks in return for obedience, or written warnings if they don’t get it.

Hierarchies within the animal kingdom exist for one reason only: basic survival of the living beings within the hierarchy.  The hierarchical structure for animals is redundant for the most part unless another group move closer. Only then is the Gorilla, as an example, required to do something, which is to say, have a fight for supremacy. The hierarchies humans belong to exist to allow the continuance of the hierarchy itself. It is a self-perpetuating monster. Humans, their thinking damaged by consumerism and greed, fail to see the true nature of the system that controls them.

A basic human hierarchy must create greed. In an office for example, a new starter may be called ‘an administrator’, and that title is understood to be the ‘first rung on the ladder’, and where there is a ladder there is something which needs to be climbed, because – just look around! – everyone else is doing it, and who wants to be the odd one out? (It’s worth mentioning that to write ‘everyone else is doing it’, is to touch upon one psychological phenomena of manipulation, explained by Robert Cialdini in his book: Influence: the psychology of persuasion. It is what he calls ‘social proof’ and it can be summed up thus: where all think alike, no one thinks very much.) An ‘administrator’ is tugged toward ‘working their way up’ or ‘getting on’ to keep their ego happy against their co-workers’ advancement. The claws of the hierarchy pierce the psyche here – and don’t let go.

When one makes the move from ‘administrator’ to the dizzy heights of ‘senior’ administrator, it is more than the job title which changes. On documents and emails, and name badges and things like that, the promoted person can inform those interested that they push paper in a ‘senior’ capacity, thereby giving other lowly ‘administrators’ something to look at to distinguish one paper pusher from another.

A visible difference is vital.

Visible perks – from a change in job title to a huge corner office – are as important as the private financial perks which are offered in return for obedience. (They may be more important, actually, but are certainly no less so; either way, the basis of advancement is obedience.)  I offer the following from someone who has been safely unplugged from the Matrix:

 ‘We have team spirit stamped upon our heads by managers whose noses are all the same shade of brown. And hardly do the managers work alone in their subjugation of the spirit, this assault on individuality; there are the managers’ obsequious lap-dogs – the senior administrators – with their slobbering mouths and hungry tongues. They whisper, gossip and report back, hoping to curry favour in return for a detestable brownie point, a faecal treat, peeled from the nose of their master and licked off the fingers with glee.’

 The military is one of the worst offenders when it comes to offering money and perks – along with gross pomp and ceremony – in return for the obedience which maintains its existence. A Private soldier is the military’s ‘administrator’ and will be paid more money – and maybe win the perk of private sleeping quarters – if he can make it to Lance-Corporal. Do consumer goods increase in value if one is a Lance -Corporal? Must a pay-rise be offered? Can not a human being whom other humans simply refer to as ‘Lance-Corporal’ survive on the wages of a private soldier? It must be possible, because one would have thought that is exactly what the Lance-Corporal did when he was a Private soldier. A Lance-Corporal is thrown a few extra financial scraps – the private perk – and gets to wear a V shaped piece of cloth on his arm – the visible perk. Some of the people who are still comfortably plugged into the Matrix will argue the extra money is offered because the newly promoted has additional responsibilities, and an increase in salary must reflect that. This point is meretricious. The promoted does not have ‘additional’ responsibilities; rather, the promoted has ‘different’ responsibilities. Not that this distinction matters, really, the question to ask is this: is it possible for a person newly promoted to carry out their new tasks in return for the same money and perks they received at their previous level within the hierarchy? The answer, without doubt, is yes. It is possible. Therefore, the system runs, not to reward, but to entice – to keep humans within it – and allow the subtle enslavement to continue. The same questions apply at the top of the military hierarchy – with the senior officers.

There must be reward for obedience because obedience murders individuality. The reward for selling one’s soul to the system of hierarchy is the opportunity of advancement within a system that needs to crush the soul to dust in order to self-perpetuate; and the money offered – and the value of the perks, combined – will always be less than the value of the labour and obedience offered in exchange for them. It has to be or the hierarchy will die. This is achieved, simply, by making people greedy by showing them the higher wages and perks available if they can only win that promotion.

The two hierarchies mentioned, corporate and military, are obvious examples; there are many others. Some of the others, I stated earlier, are invisible – existing only in our heads – but are still able to control our thinking, and, therefore, our behaviour.

These are the hierarchies to which we subscribe. The ‘property ladder’ is a perfect example of this type of hierarchy. Take a moment to ponder: what is the property ‘ladder’ made of? Is it wood? Is it aluminium? I mention these materials because I have seen ladders made of both. The ‘property ladder’ is an abstract notion which is designed to do one thing: manipulate as many people as possible into selling their homes every few years to buy something bigger (and bigger is better, isn’t it?), take on larger levels of debt (the bankers must laugh themselves to sleep each night), and increase their own dependence on their employment hierarchy of choice, because their debt to the bank needs to be met; therefore – you guessed it –  greater levels of obedience are required at work.

Don’t underestimate the use of the word ‘ladder’, either. One may hear the argument that the term, property ladder, is a convenient way to describe a harmless thing – people using free choice to choose where they live and in what type of property. If they can afford a more visibly impressive house, why not buy it? What’s the problem? The problem is the manipulative language which coerces people into doing it in the first place. How about referring to people on the property ‘path’, or the property ‘journey’? No, that would never do. ‘Ladder’ does the trick splendidly. As I stated before, where there is a ‘ladder’ there is something to climb; after all, what else are ladders for? And when those of us who are yet to be freed from the Matrix walk around and see these trappings of wealth, the cycle of greed and obedience is reinforced.

I have made several references to the film, The Matrix, and have done so because that film is the perfect metaphor for what I am describing: recognising the truth of the system, seeing the world as it really is, and, one hopes, starting to care a little about being treated like an irritating farm animal by the state.

Of course, the question remains: if what I say is true, what is to be done? Whatever the future holds for human beings, we control it; or, rather, we have the power to control it, but we – ordinary people – need to free our minds before we can free anything else.

When you are next sat in your car, stuck in traffic, becoming agitated because another driver has made you feel as if you must prove you are not as inadequate as you sub-consciously know you are by ‘cutting you up’, spare a thought for your fellow serf, and rather than wanting to become violent, instead, look at the thousands of obedient people sat in their obedience pods – all stuck in the same congestion – all travelling, heads down, to serve their hierarchy of choice.

A Ragged Review and an American Beauty

In the late 1980s Thames television made a documentary about a young chef whose restaurant – ‘Harvey’s’ –  in Wandsworth, London – was considered one of the best in the country. The head chef, Marco Pierre White, was only in his twenties but considered a genius. The man’s philosophy was simple: less really is more; let your ingredients speak for themselves and don’t clutter up your plate trying to be clever. One dish demonstrated this philosophy perfectly. His ‘panache of foie gras with pan fried sea scallops and carrots’ was exactly what it claimed to be – just three ingredients.

Restraint requires confidence.

If The Rag were served to me on a plate then I could believe that the chef really knew what he was doing, for The Rag has but three ingredients: prose, poetry and art.

Issue 5 – Winter/Spring 2013 comes with a cover featuring a bloodied rendition of Carlos the Jackal: the blood around the mouth suggestive of his taste for it – though there’s more going on inside his head if you look closely. In another picture there is a human figure, cuddling a rabbit, though the figure is sporting a wolf’s head; another human figure, this time with a cheetah’s head, is doing the same.

The notion that a human has, perhaps, his savagery restrained by societal expectations, while just under the respectable surface there is lust, blood-lust and a truly carnivorous sexual desire, is one which could well be suggested here; though perhaps such an interpretation is too close to the surface meaning of those mentioned images to have much worth.

There is no fuss to this magazine – no unnecessary garnish. After Carlos’s cover, there’s a contents and credits page, then we are into the work – the main ingredients.

The first bite offered is a story, Momemto Mori, written by Stefanie Demas, and if the first bite seduces the taste buds, then one knows the dish is right. So what can one say about Memento Mori?

It is a remarkable piece of work. The narrator is a complicated creation. Innocent, charming – and therefore probably friendly; intelligent, intuitive and utterly, hopelessly – yet beautifully – deranged.

Our narrator is driving to a funeral home to steal a body and spirit it away to secluded spot for sex. However, grim and ghoulish this is not. And it is that which makes the story so wonderful. It must be no easy task to have a narrator describe sexual feelings towards corpses and have that narrator sound quite so reasonable.

‘I was five years old when I remember seeing death for the first time,’ we’re told. ‘I knew even then I was interested.’

We’re given a scene in which the young narrator watches a bird hop about before being set upon and quickly killed by a cat, and this sight captivates her and there begins a healthy interest in death.

The narrator seems to have rare access to those considerations of beauty reserved for the high-brow and the aesthete, but with reservations:

‘I will not say that it was beautiful. Beautiful wouldn’t be the wrong word, necessarily, but it would give you the wrong idea about me.’

Could that wrong idea be the notion that our narrator’s interest is purely aesthetic? That could be the case because her interest is definitely physical. Here we have a synthesis, a merger between the low and the high, the closed-eye humming to classical music while the fingers get sticky.

Death, to this narrator, however, is more than an aphrodisiac.

When considering a corpse one might see the sinking of the cheeks or the new prominence of the bones as the signs of a person transforming into a cadaver – the new physical status: the first stage on a journey which sees a person’s atoms return to the universe.

‘I could see that his shoulder blades had begun to form themselves into wings.’

In that we have the aesthetic, the optimistic and the deranged – all brought together in a simple, beautiful line.

I don’t much care if this is an example of Demas showing her own art through her character, or – as a student of Stanislavsky could appreciate – a form of method-writing, either way it is beautiful. Death: the invisible chrysalis.

Of course, ultimately, there is no hope for this narrator. No reader could sympathise with one who harbours such exotic tastes, so removed as they are from regular experience. Such people are disturbed. Or are they?

Consider the following:

‘What about the widow who kisses her husband’s waxy face, clenches his frigid hands, as he lies in his cushioned box? How do we define that kiss, those touches? As love. As nothing unusual. And never, never would we call it by that name. How can we name-call and persecute when the distinctions are so shaky?’

This is clever because it sounds exactly like a person who has thought about their tastes and wondered what they might say under questioning. What we have here is the tip of a philosophical iceberg, a logical argument. And who can argue with the logic? Step by logical step we can unravel the argument for ourselves. Doing this leaves us unsettled because we are forced to answer a new formulation of ‘the paradox of the heap’ – and who can answer that?

It is some feat of creativity to have a narrator who is a rarefied aesthete; gentle; logical; and also one we can sympathise with. Yes, this is a caring narrator. The evidence is in the prose.

While driving to her final destination, her cargo stowed in the back of a stolen hearse, our narrator is passed by trucks on the highway:

‘The trucks sounded like whales as we passed them in the night. With the radio off, we could hear that their deep rumbles were accompanied by low, mournful cries – a searching call through the dark ocean expanse. My heart wanted to break for those trucks, my eyes wanted to cry for them. Whom had they lost? Whom did they need to find?’

What skill, yet again, it takes to synthesise the sympathetic with the gently deranged. One wants to kiss the narrator on the cheek, to stroke her hair. How could anyone have anything but affection for such a kindly soul?

Before reading this story I was reading Mailer’s Fire on The Moon; today I have just started Philip Knightley’s biography of Kim Philby, and after that I have the collected works of Nathanael West. But now my reading is disturbed. Now I want more from Stafanie Demas. I want more from this American Beauty.

And what skill it takes the editors of this magazine to select ingredients such as these and to let those ingredients speak for themselves.

I’ve given The Rag five stars.

Michelin would have given them three.

Sexcrime

I have made two attempts to read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, succeeding on the second attempt. I gave up the first time (about a third of the way in) because there was ‘something’ wrong with the book, though I could not identify it. About half way through, on the second attempt, I realised what the problem was and identifying it brought a thought about what is wrong with Orwell’s 1984. The problems with these books are different, though caused by the same thing and I will explain what that is.

The Communist Manifesto calls for the abolition of the family. The communists want this because the family fashions bonds which are stronger than patriotism; and traditional, life-long heterosexual marriage is the sealing bond which keeps the family together. A communist state cannot have its subjects living like this because their first loyalty will not be to it, but to each other. This will never do. But a stroke of a bureaucratic-pen cannot abolish the family, as the manifesto demands. No matter how great the state apparatus is, abolishing the family can only happen in slow-motion, and it takes decades.

The first way to start the slow-motion change is to introduce sex ‘education’. Sex education was the idea of a man called George Lukacs. He was an education commissar during the Hungarian revolution. The point was to debauch the minds of children who were religiously brought up. That is why sex education exists. Do not swallow the pathetic and weak excuse about preventing unwanted pregnancy; the truth of sex education is the other way about.

Huxley made sex one of the key ways in which persons are conditioned in Brave New World. Babies and small children are encouraged to indulge in ‘erotic play’ and learn that sexual promiscuity is natural and normal. The exact opposite is true of 1984, in which females are coerced into the ‘anti-sex league’ and chant enthusiastically for the abolition of the orgasm.

Huxley understands that sex leads to children and that means continuing the existence of the family. He sorts this by having humans not born, but decanted, and this further allows the state controllers to tinker with the growing humans to determine their intelligence and class and so on.

Orwell’s proletariat simply live under tyranny and ludicrous intrusion into their lives by the big-brother bureaucracy; and, remember, the thought-police kick the doors in when Winston and Julia are together. No illicit love-making permitted in Airstrip One.

The methods of the two tyrannies are exact opposites of each other, in other words. The thought-police will torture and batter you with clubs, but the authorities of Huxley’s book play soothing sounds from loud-speakers and spray the rioting crowds with soma to deal with mass disorder.

I don’t think Orwell missed the connection between totalitarianism and the destruction of the family by encouraging sexual-freedom, but he was pushing the bureaucratic tyranny to it utmost, and that meant that sexual conduct had to be monitored and controlled, along with everything else.

I am unsure which regime is worse. Orwell’s slaves do not resist because they dare not – the power of the state is total; but Huxley’s slaves do not realise they are slaves to begin with. Both societies are horrid in different ways but for the same reasons, arrived at by different methods. And both writers make a mistake (in terms of story telling) which makes their societies less awful than they might have been.

Orwell’s mistake is to make his society a circle, not a pyramid. There is nobody at the top, living in luxury while the lower orders suffer. It is such a vast state-machine that it seems to function for its own sake; but there needs to be a hierarchy, a pecking order, because it is that which keeps those closest to the top loyal. They are waiting for their turn in the chair, and each person, on each rung, is doing the same, waiting to move up one place. That is how a hierarchy works. Orwell is honest enough to follow his logic and take things right to the edge, but in pushing it so far he reduces the horror slightly. The world of Winston Smith would have been worse if there had been man at the top, keeping power and devising ever more twisted ways of keeping it.

Huxley does the same thing, follows his start-point to its logical conclusion and reduces the purity of the soft-horror he envisioned. Some call Huxley’s book a utopia, or a negative utopia. You can call it whatever you like but it may not be called a dystopia; and it may not be called a dystopia for the very reasons Huxley tried to make it one: The abolition of the family.

Without love and loss, without heartbreak there can be no human tragedy. If everyone belongs to everyone, and can take whoever they like as a sexual partner whenever they fancy it, then no-one is special, no one is loved, and without those things, when persons have no family or emotional ties, there is no horror because there is no loss. Without horror there can be no dystopia.

Huxley, like Orwell, honestly followed his thinking to its conclusion and the book is certainly worth it for that reason, but the Alphas in Brave New World don’t have much to complain about it seems to me. The book is neither a dystopia or utopia, it is a work of social and science fiction theory.

Both could have been more horrific than they are; that they are not shows the authors were dealing first in testing ideas (and remorselessly driving those ideas forward until they ran out of road) and were writing fiction second, not for its own sake but as the medium of delivery for their thought experiments.