Demonized by Christopher Fowler

John Sears

All this is in the way of arguing that, in the hands of a writer like Fowler, the short story affords space for the exploration of contemporary fears.


Publisher: Serpent's Tail
Length: 256
Price: £10 (UK)
Author: Christopher Fowler
UK publication date: 2004-01

by Christopher Fowler
Serpent's Tail
February 2004, 256 pages, £6.99 (UK)

by John Sears
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The Worlds of Darker Fiction

Hell is a city much like London.
— Shelley

Christopher Fowler's short stories cut slices of reality out of a grim, predominantly dark fictional universe. Their postmodern Gothic feel, subdivided into a category their author calls "urban dread," is as convincing as it is unsettling, as if we were glimpsing a variety of likely futures, none of them particularly reassuring, none particularly distant.

Fowler has written numerous novels and short story collections, and is an accomplished screenwriter, directing a company with a formidable track record in contemporary cinematic projects, including Lord of the Rings and many James Bond films. The stories collected in these two anthologies, one (The Devil in Me) a reissue of a book first published back in 1998, display all of the leanness, tension and structural qualities worthy of such pedigree. They are often themselves deeply cinematic in style and dialogue.

Fowler isn't quite a horror writer in the manner of Stephen King or James Herbert, despite the semiotics of Serpent's Tail's covers for these books (reminiscent of early Jesus and Mary Chain record sleeves). He works more in the Roald Dahl tradition of suspense with a twist, the kind of stories Alfred Hitchcock used to collect together and, occasionally, dramatize. Alongside refreshing elements of comedy and satire, there's always a Frederick Forsyth-like desire to authenticate, to wear the research on his sleeve in order to legitimize the possibilities the narrative explores.

Both collections are prefaced with short discussions in which Fowler notes his reading, his favorite authors and, by implication, his influences. Both Forewords contain sentences arguing to the effect that "the true picture of anything lies in its barely registered peripheries" (note that careful juxtaposition of "true" with "lies" in the same sentence). Such "peripheral vision" suggests an abiding concern with the marginal, the excluded, the subterranean.

In Demonized the peripheral concerns itself with marginal characters and their experiences. A Tourette's syndrome sufferer visits Hitler in his Austrian retreat. An insanely jealous boyfriend gets himself entangled with a troop of apes in Malaysia. A paranoid Jewish man, still believing the Third Reich rules the world, is taken to the United States, where airport security takes over his life. The first woman to break through the glass ceiling of business management finds that she's joined a bizarre men's club. In each case, it's the centrality of the characters to their own marginal experiences that gives the narrative an edge of steely truth.

The Devil in Me presents stories located more firmly in a more familiar world, tinged with elements of science fiction in places ("The Torch Goes Out" offers a dystopian view of future English class relations) but, on the whole, set in realities more related to ours. Fowler's running commentary between stories ("I don't think this story will be my last on the subject", "This story is a fictional variant on the subject" -- that sort of thing) is either highly amusing and informative or grates in the way the animated narration of Creepshow grates.

The real character in most of these tales, and the recurring scenario and backdrop to the action, is the city of London, linking Fowler to modern London writers like Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair (Michael Moorcock's Mother London seems to lurk in the background of several of these tales). Like many Londoners, Fowler loves his city with a passion bordering on hatred, and various narrators offer versions of this emotion. Malcolm, in "Come On Then, If You Think You're Hard Enough" (in The Devil in Me), tells us his own "peripheral vision" of London's dark fiction:

To me, London was the devil I didn't know. I had always thought of the city as a mysterious, rather sinister playground that only existed for clubbing on Saturday nights, off the edge of our local maps and far beyond the lonely motorway lights that bordered our town.

In "Seven Dials": "London was looking shabby, for all its much vaunted newness," with "graffiti scrawled into every available space, sickly plants sprouting from aged brickwork, monstrous ugly supermarkets jammed into high streets, litter, drunks, angry faces." In Demonized the description is similar if, perhaps, more deftly written:

He ran past the rancid kebab stalls, sex shop windows filled with bald mannequins and cheap red nylon fetishwear, past the beer-sticky entrance to the Astoria blocked with queues of dead-faced teens. A vast illuminated poster hoarding showed a tropical beach, impossibly idyllic, heavily retouched. The tramps, slumped against this paradise in unruly symmetry, seemed unaware of their intrusion.

Fowler's world is typically paranoid, full of threats to the individual that are perceived as threats to the social order ("the real threat to their lives eventually came not from muggers, but from fast-food outlets"; "This whole neighborhood has fallen on hard times"). The horror / thriller dimension offers, in these tales, chances for a rather pessimistic social diagnosis, largely fearful of the parlous state of the modern urban world, finding the "peripheral" spaces both inevitable and menacing.

"Personal Space," in which an elderly lady's house is taken over by teenage drug dealers, epitomises such anxieties. "Crocodile Lady" combines the London Underground, staple of metropolitan Gothic for the past century, with contemporary anxieties about staffing levels in schools, the trustworthiness of teachers, the safety of children and the potential of every man to be a paedophile. "Emotional Response" expresses a paranoid male-centred world-view, and its alarming consequences.

All this is in the way of arguing that, in the hands of a writer like Fowler, the short story affords space for the exploration of contemporary fears. All the signifiers of hostile postmodernity are present in these two books, from the internet to statistics about the proximity of rats and humans. At his best, in stories like "The Look" (as vicious an attack on the fashion industry as you'll find, and the most gory here), a kind of cultural criticism is offered. Whatever his theme, Fowler writes with a lucidity and a command of the form that make sojourns into the world of his "darker fiction" pleasurable in discomfiting ways.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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