Interview with John Shirley

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By Patrick Schabe

John Shirley is one of contemporary fiction’s true Renaissance Men. His work in science fiction, horror, and general fiction is complemented by his work as a musician, screenwriter, essayist, and Internet icon. Among his latest work is the recently published work is the collection of short stories, Darkness Divided, from Stealth Press. Shirley graciously offered the following email interview to PopMatters’ Patrick Schabe:

Patrick Schabe:

I’ll try to get the obvious questions out of the way first. I first encountered your work in Bruce Sterling’s Mirrorshades cyberpunk anthology. I’ve been both a fan and critically interested in cyberpunk fiction for a long time, and knowing the history of the genre a bit, I know that your early fiction work was a pre-cursor to and huge inspiration for cyberpunk fiction from Neuromancer on. Yet at the same time you’ve worked in a number of genres and with various themes. How do you feel about labels and categories like “cyberpunk writer” or “horror writer” being applied to your work? What place do you see for yourself either in or outside of these genres?

John Shirley:

I assume a historical place especially because of City Come A Walkin’, Eclipse and stories like “Wolves of the Plateau” (which has been in some textbooks on ‘urban postmodern fiction’ etc). William Gibson’s introduction to the current edition of City Come A Walkin’ (Four Walls Eight Windows press) confirms its importance to cyberpunk. I was part of Bruce Sterling’s ‘Cheap Truth’ circle and corresponded with him and Gibson in the early days. Having said that — just for the record — I identify with no genres of any kind. I have written some horror stories but many of the stories I’ve published in horror venues are not horror stories, they’re just (to some extent) horrific, like “Cram” or “19 Seconds”. Some stories I’ve written for my story collections in order to balance them out with new material — and those are often, I think, sui generis. The story “In the Road” in Darkness Divided is in a book sold as ‘horror’ but it’s simply about a girl who is trained by ordinary society to lose her compassion and empathy as she grows up. It could be in a literary mag, I daresay, without making anyone think “why is there a horror story in here”. My work has characteristics—e.g., it tends to be somewhat didactic, message oriented, to greater or lesser extents. To a fault, I’m sure. But I don’t think it has a genre.

PS:

For a number of years I lost contact with the contemporary science fiction field because of contact with an epic that is somewhat mislabeled as science fiction: Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus Trilogy. I found myself moved to look into non-fiction fields that served as the background for Shea and Wilson’s work, and also into the “real life” movements which they sprang from and spawned, the Discordians and the SubGeniuses. Therefore, it was pretty exciting for me to discover, and now have a chance to talk to, you as a writer who is affiliated with both the cyberpunks and SubGeniuses. Do you see a connection between the two? What interested you in these ideas initially and how have they fit together in your own life?

JS:

There’s a connection between cyberpunk and Texas and a connection between “The Church of the SubGenius” (‘The first truly industrial, tax paying, for-profit church… salvation guaranteed after death or your money back’) and Texas. The former partly obtains from Bruce Sterling and Lew Shiner, Austin-Texans, and the latter from Ivan Stang and Philo Drummond, Dallas-Texans. Both are by temperament anti-authoritarian. Both sometimes employ satire—arguably, SubGenius is pure satire (Make up your own mind, readers, at www.subgenius.com). Both have intensity and an energy that outrages some people. Probably drugs were involved in the genesis of both. I no longer take drugs but most SubGeniuses partake of the sacred herb fropodipulops and other sacred natural mind-wreckers. The cyberpunks also grew past partying — and various artificial accelerations. But in one’s youth…

PS:

One fascinating element to Discordians and SubGeniuses for me is the creation of identity and taking on assumed names. Is it a similar feeling for you to have the identity as John Shirley The Writer to also maintain, or do you generally put your own personality out through your books? How much of your writing takes inspiration from your association with groups like the SubGeniuses?

JS:

I have written a few SubGenius-oriented short stories, to be found in my story collections Really Really Really Really Weird Stories (Night Shade Books) and Darkness Divided, (Stealth Press), along with other sorts of stories in those collections, but I prefer to be influential rather than influenced. As for the John Shirley identity — I remember Lou Reed on stage saying “want to see me turn into ‘Lou Reed’ before your very eyes?” There is something of that. But it’s not in my fiction. It’s in the presentation of the fiction maybe. And in the music I sometimes do.

PS:

In Darkness Divided, you drop a few references to Discordian/SuGenius ideas: “Jayarr Dobbsus” in “Your Servants in Hell,” “23 Wilson Drive” in “Sweetpite Point” and, of course, the whole story “Abducting Aliens.” Yet, with the exception of the latter, the references are linked to “bad guys” in the stories (“Dobbsus” as a demon of Hell, 23 Wilson Drive as the home of a telepathic murderer). Is this just an ironic in-joke, or is there a reason that you’ve referred to them as dark forces?

JS:

It’s an ironic in-joke.

PS:

I’m also a fan of both the James O’Barr comic book version of The Crow and the Brandon Lee movie. I know that you were the initial screenwriter for the movie, and Darkness Divided contains a short story (“Wings Burnt Black”) based on the Crow character. You obviously have a lot of sensitivity to the Crow. How did you get involved in this character and the movie?

JS:

Jeff Most, the producer, and I found the comic book when it was an obscure black and white offbrand-published thing. It just seemed cinematic to me. And I have a persistent 12-year-old boy in me who identifies with characters like the Lone Ranger and Batman and Zorro and the hero of High Plains Drifter and Darkman, and The Crow has all of that in him. Plus I think the story archetypically acts out the dream of an adolescent traumatized by the realization of mortality, and an angry quest to overcome universal mortality and the loss of true love that comes with the loss of innocence. And in my mind I live in the Crow’s city. In real life I live in a comfortable, sunny, flower-spangled suburb. But deep in my brain…

PS:

What about your interest in UFOs? “Abducting Aliens” is a funny and ironic role-reversal using UFOs. Then there’s always Stang’s JHVH-1. Yet you also spend some time in your “Skeptical Believer” column debunking UFO myths. Is your interest similar to that of Bill Barker and the whole Schwa Corporation thing, where aliens are simply a modern version of displacing our fears, as religion was in the past, or do you have a more personal reason? I guess another way of asking that is, are you an X-Files fan?

JS:

I like some X Files episodes. Some are lame. The show has begun to irritate me with its patchy continuity and lack of real human responses to the things that happen in the story. I prefer the Sopranos. As for UFOs, it’s been a sort of hobby, trying to figure out if there was anything to it. I recommend a book called Scientific Ufology by Kevin Randle for those who want an intelligent look at the issue. I have seen no convincing evidence that aliens are here. There are indications of some authentically strange things having happened especially in interactions with the military, but no evidence as to what those strange things really are. Some UFO reports relate to disinformation efforts, some to experimental craft, most are misreadings of ordinary aerial phenomena, especially planes seen at times when they don’t seem to be planes but really are, ditto with stars. I don’t think there’s anything to Roswell, or Kenneth Arnold for that matter. I have never seen an alien abduction story that hung together when closely examined. I agree with the late [Carl] Sagan that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. So-called physical proofs of abductions, e.g. ‘implants,’ are utter bullshit. Bits of bottle glass and such. The field is rife with charlatans and opportunists and liars and paranoids. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if we were being discreetly observed… In my “UFO novel” Silicon Embrace the aliens are, for me, metaphorical, though I do use many extant tropes of the UFO mythology in that book, for fun.

PS:

In Darkness Divided, you’ve collected stories that span the history of your career, presented in no particular chronological order. Yet there is a consistent presentation of exploring the black depths of humanity. What keeps you coming back to these themes?

JS:

Humanity’s black depths keep me coming back. 200,000,000 people have been sold into slavery — many of them children — in contemporary times, mostly in the ‘third world’. Real slavery—I’m not talking about sweatshops, which are like Club Med in comparison. American politicians are bought and sold. Manufacturers knowingly spread toxins that kill people and they just don’t care. They don’t believe their own ‘science’. I believe these industrialists are murderers (as in the story “Where It’s Safe” in Darkness Divided).

Children are brutalized, traumatized by inbred scum without the brains to tie their own shoes, people dumb as a glass box of hammers, are allowed to have children. May as well give a loaded pistol to a toddler. It’s a dark world, and writers must reflect that. In order to find your way out of the darkness, you first have to peer closely into it,...

PS:

Speaking personally, I found the stories in the first half of Darkness Divided, which are based in more contemporary times, to be a little bit more frightening than the stories in the second half, which are science fiction oriented. How do you feel about this? Are they different but equal in terms of meaning to you? Is it easier for you to present and/or accept the ugly side of humanity when it’s removed by imagination from the easily recognizable?

JS:

Maybe it’s easier for you to read them that way. It’s easier for readers to think ‘this isn’t so scary because it hasn’t happened yet and it might not’. Harder to be in denial about stories set in one’s own time. Then again, these are all dark stories, not necessarily designed to be scary per se.

PS:

It just happens to be that the day I’m writing these questions to you (4/20/2001) is the 2nd anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. School shootings, workplace shootings, and the like might be one of the indications of things getting worse, heading down the dark road to these possible futures. I found a chilling parallel between these acts of societal violence and your story “Jody and Annie on TV,” which is a decade old. Perhaps Oliver Stone picked it up as inspiration for Natural Born Killers. Do you treat these things as signs, social indicators, and what’s your take on the way media have a role in these events?

JS:

More than once people have speculated that Stone read “Jody and Annie on TV”. The producer of The Crow, Jeff Most, is trying to get it set up as a movie, though. Low budget, one which he will direct. Columbine not only won’t go away, it is being replicated, imitated. Kids feel helpless, lost, overwhelmed by the scale of society and confused by distorted social values. Here’s a society that makes a hit of a show like Weakest Link, or whatever it’s called, where people are ritually humiliated and expelled from participation. The slogan for the show is “Cruel rules!” The show extols bullying — the bullying state of mind, translated into a civilized ritual. This is the Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire society. Marriage is not meaningful, except as it’s negotiable. MTV promotes Jackass no matter who gets hurt. There is no real center to contemporary society. It’s not that previous societies were better — in some ways they were, in some ways they weren’t. But we’re suffering from disconnectedness, in ourselves, in our world, more than ever. There’s no intelligent sense of scale, socially or cosmically. And the primary product becomes, finally, dreams: movies, videogames, computer games, television, MTV. I contribute to all that too — I try to justify it by putting messages to awaken in it. Like the movie Fight Club — I wish I’d written that. That one was an entertainment but also a protest on a theme, like the movie American Beauty. Same theme. Even The Matrix has the same theme. The idea that we’re trapped in dreams, in sleepwalking, lost, and we’re being manipulated, used, and real anger and real commitment is necessary to break out. Obviously the Columbine kind of anger is wrongheaded, misdirected. Obviously guns are too available to irresponsible people (and I say that as a guy who likes guns). But ultimately it’s about the lack of a social center, a spiritual center, a rootedness in real Being.

PS:

Speaking in terms of cyberpunk visions of the future, the norm for many writers, including yourself, seems to be to paint a vision of a dark, semi-apocalyptic future that we could readily be heading towards. Technology continues proliferating without adequate knowledge about human alienation, the State and nationalism are still rampant, and we’re seeing a continuing trend of corporate consolidation already today. Yet we seem to keep pulling ourselves back from going over that edge as a society. Do you think these futures are inevitable, or do you think these visions offer cautionary tales which we can use to hedge against impending decline?

JS:

The only negative trends that seem to me to be inevitable are overpopulation (for a generation or two), global warming, massive terrorist attacks (especially biowar type), some other harsh environmental effects, sprawl, and even more trauma and famine in the third world. Other dangers like world war might come to fruition and might not. There is a movement toward more consciousness to social injustice and environmental irresponsibility — despite the slacker, ‘like, I’m all, whatever, dude’ attitude, and the astounding ignorance of much American youth. There are also a great many concerned and well-informed young people. Also the human race is incorrigibly mercurial, flexible, prone to experiment. And there are a great many human beings to experiment and try other things, alternatives. I think people are in denial about the inevitability of world government. Whine about New World Orders if you like but because of the dangers of terrorist nations and groups in the new globalism, because of the fragility of our house of cards civilization, there will be a world government arising in the 21st century out of the armature of NATO and UN Peacekeeping forces and the subtle (and virtuous) designs of the very excellent current Secretary General.

PS:

If I were to cull one theme out of this collection of stories, it would be that human indifference is the most “evil” darkness inside of us. Would you say that this is true? Also, while some of these stories have depressing elements, there is a sense of hope, potential, that finally resolves many of them. Is getting this idea of hope out of a general environment of darkness the most important “message” to you, or do you concentrate on getting readers to reflect on our inherent darkness as the primary lesson?

JS:

It’s true that theme comes up a lot especially in Darkness Divided. The numbing of compassion, the increase of our “skills” in dehumanization, the destructiveness of unmitigated selfishness. (Ayn Rand’s objectivism has been shown to be little more than a reaction to communism — and is just not feasible.) The book is called Darkness Divided for various reasons but one reason is that darkness is not simple, it’s got light in it, it has hope in it, it has self-knowledge in it. One of my goals as a writer is to push myself and other people into the direction of uncomfortable self-knowledge. If self-knowledge isn’t uncomfortable we haven’t learned much — it’s like muscle building, it’s got to hurt a little. So all that’s there, it’s not ‘man, life sucks and people suck big time’. No. I was accused of that by one reviewer of my admittedly hyper-grim The View From Hell. But in fact that book is a protest — not a wallowing. And it has its own ‘light’.

PS:

That last question is tied to an email exchange you have posted online with film-maker Ethan Wilson on the movie Fight Club. I found two things interesting about your analysis. One, that you saw a Discordian-esque element to the way the story plays out as The Narrator/Jerry’s club becomes a revolutionary movement, and two, that you thought Wilson’s indictment of the movie as perpetrating blind violence was off-base. You conclude your piece by saying, “Pointing out that we’re all asleep, that there is too much overlooked suffering, that we’re sunk much deeper in “The Matrix” of consumer culture than we realized is very important to do. It is a significant contribution in itself. And look what an effect the film had on you! Could that be bad film making? Maybe it’s up to other film-makers to make a statement about what can be done constructively. But you have to wake a person up before they can go about their business in the waking world.” While I can see some parallels between Fight Club and the Discordian movement (excepting that Fight Club was infinitely more organized), the Discordians didn’t advocate violence at all, but rather absurdity over mind-numbing rationality. Even in some of the Darkness Divided stories, “The Prince” and “What It’s Like to Kill a Man” in particular, you indict violence as a solution as well. Is perhaps the answer that these movies and stories serve as mirrors to illuminate our condition, but also leave it to the audience to find their own solution beyond dead-end violence? Is that what’s at the heart of Darkness Divided?

JS:

I think I offer, at times, some clues, some breadcrumb trails. I think there is a way out of the maze. I’m conflicted, as it were, about violence — I am an angry person, and am also quite capable of killing in self-defense or in defense of my family. I recognize the need for an army, and I think we had to participate in World War II and the Civil War. I dislike cops but can’t see any way around them now (I just wish the job didn’t attract so many assholes — and of course sometimes you need a program to tell the cops from the criminals). But there is a rational use of some measure of violence, and there is idiotic violence. In the story “What it’s Like to Kill a Man” I’m saying that society as a whole is a mob, society has a bloodlust, society has group psychosis, and society can lapse into that behavior if you give it an excuse. With just a little encouragement, “human beings” show their animal nature. We should enjoy our animal natures as a man enjoys riding a horse. But he doesn’t enjoy riding that horse unless the horse is tamed.

PS:

You’re an extremely prolific creator. What’s next in your immediate future?

JS:

I just finished the sequel to Demons, which will be published in the same volume as Demons, as Demons, Book 2: The Undercurrent by Ballantine/Del Rey books in February. A big hardcover mass-market book. I have a story coming out in Horror Garage magazine — the most interesting ‘dark fiction’ mag in many years — and stuff coming out from Subterranean Press and Cemetary Dance. I’m writing a novel called And the Angel with Television Eyes. I’m doing some script rewrites for someone. I have a proposal for a children’s book called Stardogs I’d like to publish (Young adult). My lyrics for the Blue Oyster Cult are in the album Heaven Forbid and their forthcoming album. I’ll be adapting a role playing game (can’t name it yet) as a movie script. Probably. The website — created by darkecho, not me, but I approve — www.darkecho.com/johnshirley — has all the latest dirt. I collaborated on stories with Rudy Rucker and, also, with Marc Laidlaw recently. Doing one with Bruce Sterling soon. I have a charity anthology I created, edited by Paula Guran, called Desperation Street, which raises money to rehabilitate drug addicted mothers and pregnant women (when you help them you help more than one person at a time). Kathy Koje and Marc Laidlaw and I and others are in it. We may have to get a new publisher, the one we have may crap out. All the writers’ and editors’ money goes to the charity. Stories about people on the street. I’m putting together a John Shirley compilation CD, songs and spoken word. I’m going to appear at the Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco May 20. There’s more but that’s way enough. Yet it never seems to be enough, God help me. I hunger, I hunger…

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PopMatters and Patrick Schabe would like to thank John Shirley for his time and agreeing to the interview, as well as Paula Guran at Stealth Press for making the necessary arrangements.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/darkness-divided-int/