In Coalition Britain an extreme neoliberal consensus is forming around permanent austerity, worsening living standards, and privatization of the few public assets that have thus far evaded liberalization. With the three largest UK political parties all backing further cuts in 2015, a bleak future stretches before us. The late Joel Lane and Tom Johnstone’s Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease (Gray Friar Press) is an anthology that explores the dark depths into which twenty-first century disaster capitalism is dragging us. Twisted Tales, Manchester Metropolitan University and Waterstones Deansgate are teaming up to run Twisted Tales of Austerity as part of the Gothic Manchester Festival later this month, an event featuring readings from authors who contributed to Horror Uncut, followed by a panel discussion about austerity horror and a chance for the audience to participate in the debate. Here is Twisted Tales’s David McWilliam in conversation with Johnstone about the politics of Horror Uncut.
DM: In 2014, we find the financial crisis still being used as the pretext for massive welfare cuts in order to pay for lowering the taxes of oligarchs and multinational corporations. How important do you consider stories to be when selling the austerity narrative?
TJ: First of all, it’s interesting, isn’t it, that in recent years the word ‘narrative’ has taken on a specifically ideological meaning, as in your use there: the ‘austerity narrative’, suggesting that the proponents of a particular world-view want to tell a story, and make that fiction into reality. However, it would be foolish to suggest that fiction can change things by itself. On the other hand, popular resistance often draws on popular narratives, as a source of both inspiration and imagery. As an example, take the use of the mask from the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta by the Occupy and Anonymous movements, though the Situationist-inclined among us might be tempted to see a cynical marketing ploy in this, the Spectacle recuperating and commodifying dissent. Sometimes, though, those facing particularly repressive regimes use it as a kind of code to communicate ideas that people can’t express openly. Recently, there were reports of protestors against Burmese military rule using the three-fingered salute of the rebels in The Hunger Games. As we don’t live under military rule and can express things a little more openly, I like to think of Horror Uncut as more of a two-fingered salute to the powers that be! In general, there is a history of fiction and drama acting as a means of challenging authority and discussing suppressed or subversive ideas. Those in power also know the potency of popular narrative and get rattled when it’s used against them: take the Tory outrage at Hilary Mantel’s story ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’. George Osborne’s paraphrasing of Trainspotting’s ‘Choose Life’ sequence at the Tory Party conference shows what can happen when they fail to subvert fiction for their own ends…
DM: Horror has been labelled by some as a conservative genre that punishes transgression. How do you see Horror Uncut as challenging that perception?
TJ: As a committed socialist, my late co-editor and author of the story ‘A Cry for Help’, Joel Lane, could hardly be accused of conservatism. Indeed, his work on the anti-fascist anthology Never Again (also Gray Friar Press) was his way of challenging the very perception of horror fiction that you describe. However, he wouldn’t have felt the need to do this, if there weren’t a strong current in horror suggesting that those who step out of line suffer hideous fates. I don’t know if it’s that simple though. Take Frankenstein, usually seen as putting across the moral that ‘there are some things that Man was not supposed to know or meddle with’, but written by the daughter of a radical and a feminist, married to the poet who called on the workers to ‘Rise like Lions after slumber, … Ye are many ― they are few’. You could see Victor Frankenstein’s creation as a metaphor for the newly emergent industrial proletariat, ‘created’ by the expropriation of the landed peasantry. Certainly, the narrative punishes Frankenstein for his transgression, but if this seems conservative, the narrative is radical in showing us the world through the eyes of the dispossessed monster. Frankenstein the character also represented the Enlightenment ideals that Mary Shelley and the Romantic poets she mixed with rejected, ideals that informed the birth of European capitalism.
Stephen King has noted that a key, though not always acknowledged, theme of horror is ‘economic unease’, and this is certainly true of many of the stories in Horror Uncut, such as ‘The Ballad of Boomtown’ by Priya Sharma. The narrator of this story suffers for her transgression, while her ill-starred affair with a property developer mirrors the collapse of the Irish property market. Other stories suggest the opposite of the ‘punishment of transgression’ paradigm, as playing by the rules won’t save the protagonists from the cruelty of austerity measures, and their narratives also challenge the demonization of migrants and benefit claimants in much of the media. David Turnbull’s ‘The Privilege Card’ shows what happens once we start going along with the Coalition’s austerity ‘narrative’ and blindly following orders. Rosanne Rabinowitz’s tale, on the other hand, shows someone transgressing by fighting back against the cops when he gets caught up in a riot, suggesting that (Shock! Horror!) he might even get away with it…
DM: Do you see the publication of Horror Uncut as a form of political activism, an intervention in the debate about what sort of a society we want to live in, or a meditation on the current trajectory of UK politics?
TJ: Well, hopefully all three, with reservations. I’m suspicious of the term ‘activism’, which implies to me a false separation between politics and everyday life. I’d certainly love it if people started reading out some of these horror stories at rallies and picket-lines though! I doubt that’s going to happen, but it would be kind of fun. These stories aren’t sermons. What drew me to Joel’s stories was that he was able to put politics in them in a very clear way, without being preachy, as you’ll see from his story in the book. Some of the other writers in the book don’t see themselves as political, and I hope that it will be read by people who don’t either, but will recognize something of their daily reality in the stories.
DM: With references to radical politics in the collection, does Horror Uncut suggest that the anger generated by austerity measures is leading to a politicization of the dispossessed and a growing appetite to challenge the neoliberal consensus?
TJ: It varies according to the story. Some, such as Rosanne’s story, ‘Pieces of Ourselves’, which was inspired by the student unrest in 2010, seem to be suggesting this. In others, such as Alison Littlewood’s ‘The Ghost at the Feast’, the supernatural acts as a metaphor for the way in which politicians seem to ignore popular protest. This has been the story of the past few years, when mass struggles by students, public sector workers and others have gradually faded into the background, wilfully marginalized by the media (although there is a small resurgence in public sector strikes at the moment over the miserable pay offer, despite the union soft cops’ efforts to dampen the flames of discontent). In general, I’d say Horror Uncut suggests a more negative picture, I’m afraid (but then it is after all a horror anthology!). Many of the acts of resistance shown are desperate, isolated, individual ones. There’s definitely more emphasis on the suffering of the vulnerable than in the politicization of the dispossessed. If there’s an appetite to challenge the ruling consensus, it’s that of the editors, possibly the writers and, hopefully, the readers, who may wish to translate their horror at what they read into some kind of collective action.
Twisted Tales of Austerity will run from 12-2pm on Friday 24th October 2014 at Waterstones Deansgate. Tickets are on sale in store and via the dedicated Eventbrite page.
October 22nd, 2014 - 13:34pm