Friday, August 31, 2018

Historical Anatomy: Composing Bodies and Representing the Invisible Soul

Note this is Part of a series:



#3:  Historical Anatomy: Composing Bodies and Representing the Invisible Soul (you are here) 

#4) Weird, Dark Art Design: Implicit vs. Explicit Gore and Horror

Historical Anatomy: Composing Bodies and Representing the Invisible Soul
Sixteenth century apothecaries sourced both medicine to physicians and raw materials to artists; the former treating souls with medicine, the latter manufacturing their own paint so they could portray the divine (as there were no art supply stores then, nor industrial means to mass produce it).   Artists, alchemists, and early physicians would also convene within the dissection chambers.  Anatomical artists had to grapple with documenting macabre scenes of opened bodies while remaining 'artistic'.  For the dignity of the specimens and to satisfy the surgeons' needs, artists often found harmony by posing their subjects.  Many artists captured or imparted a bit of the lost soul into their dead subjects.  Perhaps most famous are Johannes de Ketham's Fasiculo de Medicina (1491), Andreas Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), and Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks (~ 1452-1519).   Recent compilations like The Quick and the Dead and Spectacular Bodies ii are fantastic resources on this subject.
 
The prevailing Church did not permit the dissection of innocent believers, so criminals or 'sinners' were often used.  Then, the notion of the four humors prevailed.  Bodies were considered divinely sacred and were thus difficult to obtain and dissect; those corpses deemed acceptable could not be refrigerated, so one had to work fast!  Nor were there cameras or video to capture the observations!  Artists and alchemists partnered to explore, and document the microcosm of life.  Leonardo Da Vinci provided detailed notes along with his drawings:

"I have dissected more than ten human bodies, destroying all the various members and removing the minutest particles of flesh which surrounded these veins, without causing any effusion of blood other than the imperceptible bleeding of the capillary veins.  And as one single body did not suffice for so long a time, it was necessary to proceed in stages with so many bodies as would render my knowledge complete; this I repeated twice in order to discover the differences.  And though you should have a love for such things you may perhaps be deterred by natural repugnance, and if this does not prevent you, you may perhaps be deterred by fear of passing the night hours in the company of these corpses, quartered and flayed and horrible to behold; and if this does not deter you, then perhaps you may lack the skill in drawing, essential for such representation; and if you had the skill in drawing, it may not be combined with the knowledge of perspective; and if it so combined you may not understand the methods of geometrical demonstration and the method of estimating the forces and strength of muscle; or perhaps you may be wanting in patience so that you will not be diligent." iii
How brutally, and beautifully, clear he was in describing what was necessary to follow his muse.   Corpses were given personality, soul if you will, through artificial poses and theatrical, emotional countenances.  Da Vinci determined through his dissections that the senses were linked to a 'common sense' that led to the brain.  But no actual soul was discovered. He yielded the goal of managing the soul to religion.   Below, from his treatise on painting, he spoke how the artist must deal with this and impart the soul into its subjects otherwise:
"A good painter has two chief objects to paint, man and the intention of his soul; the former is easy, the later hard because he has to represent it by the attitudes and movements of the limbs. "iv 

Interactive Book Link
With the most promising connection to our souls being the senses, it follows that the next great promise of discovery came when the technology of optics allowed scientists to see, and draw, new worlds.  Astronomers were anxious to probe the heavens and documented the heavens; for instance, Galileo's Starry Messenger (1610).  Pioneering microscopists had to capture their views with pen and parchment.   In 1664, Robert Hooke published a large treatise entitled Micrographia, containing an encyclopedia of detailed drawings of his microscopic views.   To have these reproduced in print, each drawing had to be converted into an engraving!  From this, Hooke is credited for coining the word 'cell' to describe the pores in cork.   In his preface, he explains to the reader that optics have enabled a spiritual quest:

The next care to be taken, in respect of the senses, is a supplying of their infirmities with instruments, and, as it were, the adding of artificial organs to the natural; this in one of them has been of late years accomplished with prodigious benefit to all sorts of useful knowledge, by the invention of optical glasses.  By the means of telescopes, there is nothing so far distant but may be represented to our view; and by the help of microscopes, there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible world discovered to the understanding.  By this means the heavens are opened, and a vast number of new stars, and new motions, and new productions appear in them, to which all the ancient astronomers were utterly strangers.  v
There are two key points: one, the spiritual creative process occurs when artistry, science, and spiritualism coincide; and two, the soul has never found.  Despite how far we see into space with telescopes, or how well we resolve structures with microscopes, the soul still eludes us.  

Ernest Haeckel (1834-1919) was a famous artist-scientist fascinated with the aesthetics of nature and the elusiveness of the soul.  His 1904 set of lithographs Art Forms in Naturevi  brilliantly exhibit his obsession with the symmetrical beauty of biological microstructures, and his extensions into comparative embryology brought him controversy.   He argued this in his support of his own monistic religion that scientific adventures continually uncovered the beautiful designs inherent in nature (monism generally supports that "body and soul" are one connected entity, not separate as many dualistic religions profess):

The remarkable expansion of our knowledge of nature, and the discovery of countless beautiful forms of life, which it includes, have awakened quite a new aesthetic sense in our generation, and thus given a new tone to painting and sculpture.  Numerous scientific voyages and expeditions for the exploration of unknown lands and seas, partly in earlier centuries, but more especially in the nineteenth, have  brought to light an undreamed abundance of new organic forms...affording an entirely new inspiration for painting, sculpture, architecture, and technical art.  vii

In 1900, Haeckel published his scientific, spiritual book Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century in which he explains his monistic philosophies.  Within this he has elegant discussions about the soul's lack of participation in the "Laws of Substance" (conservation of mass and energy); below, he discusses how many related the nonexistent soul to that which is tangible:
Thus invisibility comes to be regarded as a most important attribute of the soul.  Some, in fact, compare the soul with ether, and regard it, like ether, as an extremely subtle, light, and highly elastic material, an imponderable agency, that fills the intervals between the ponderable particles in the living organism, other compare the soul with the wind, and so give it a gaseous nature; and it is this simile which first found favor with the primitive peoples, and led in time to the familiar dualistic conception.  When a man died, the body remained as a lifeless corpse, but the immortal soul "flew out of it with the last breath." viii
Many beautiful rituals evolved since souls could not be truly located or measured after a body died; many myths persist that cannot be readily falsified.  The notion of relics is common across cultures and time. It assumes that the soul is a contagion remaining attached to the body postmortem.  Hence, the power of a Saint could be absorbed if one obtained his or her bones; this gave rise to the theft and desecration of many crypts and catacombs.  Many crypts remain with the bodily relics are on display:  the crypt of Saint Munditia of Munich and the Vienna Imperial Crypts are fine examples.

More bizarre, and beautiful, is the notion that souls could be deified by creating architecture with the bones of the deceased.  Here the artist would convene with the spiritualist in a funerary chamber and temple.  Famous examples include: the shrines of Capuchin monks in Rome and Palermo, Sicily (these catacombs contain 6,000 to 8,000 bodies); and the Kostnice 'Church of Bones, Kutna Hora, Sedlec Ossuary, Prague, (containing remains of forty thousand people); lastly, the impressive catacombs of Paris (l'Ossuaire Municipal) in which several condemned cemeteries were collocated in the 18th century and countless skulls comprise the walls.  
If one can make architecture from our bodies, can one make pigments or paint from them?  Organic matter played a strong role in the history of art technology.  Parchment, vellum, was manufactured from the hides of animals before wood based paper was available.  Size, a gluey substance used to prepare surfaces or harden gesso, was made from boiling skin and bone.  Many medieval pigments were iron based (blue, red, black iron oxides) or were derived from living material (dried blood, sintered black bone, and many binders were protein based (milk casein, egg yolk).   Calcined bone is used as a white pigment.  Gallstones were sometimes used as a source of yellow color in the Middle ages.  Bile was used for some greens.  Caput mortem was a mysterious pigment that may have been just iron oxide or, if the ghoulish rumors are true, powder from pulverized mummies.

If the sourcing of material was a spiritual motivation of alchemical artists, as the Mappae Clavicula indicates, would the sourcing of material for a self portrait be most genuine if the elements to manufacture it were provided by our ancestors?   This notion was in the inspiration for the Inheritance Rite of the Picts in Lords of Dyscrasia.

Petherbridge, D. J., Ludmilla (1997). The Quick and the Dead Artists and Anatomy. Los Angeles, University of California Press.
ii Kemp, M. W., Marina (2000). Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now. Los Angeles, University of California Press.
iii Da Vinci, L., Ed. (1998). The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Oxford World's Classics New York, N.Y., Oxford University Press.  p151
iv Da Vinci, L., Ed. (1998). The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Oxford World's Classics New York, N.Y., Oxford University Press.  p178
v Hooke, R. (2007). The Preface, Micrographia or Some Physiological Description of Minute Bodies. New York, NY, Cosimo, Inc. section d-e
vi Haeckel, E. (2008). Art Forms in Nature - the prints of Ernst Haeckel. New York, Prestel.
vii Haeckel, E. (1900). Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (Die Weltraethsel). New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers. p341
viii Haeckel, E. (1900). Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (Die Weltraethsel). New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers. p199


Saturday, August 25, 2018

Sept-Oct 2019 Groupreads: KANE and BLACK COMPANY

The Sword and Sorcery Group on Goodreads invites you to discuss and read (and listen) this Sept-Oct on these two topics:


1) Cook's BLACK COMPANY Groupread Discussion Glen Cook's Black Company.... with a keen eye toward Port of Shadows, the new episode due out Sept-11th 2019. All Black Company books are fair game.

2) KANE Group Discussion . It is always a good time to read Kane, but now we can do so with this group, and a fine podcast already in progress on The Dark Crusade Podcast

It is always a goo time to read Kane, but now we can do so with this group, and a fine podcast already in progress: This Summer/Fall 2019, Jordan Douglas Smith and F. N. York chat about a different story on the Dark Crusade Podcast. The Dark Crusade is a podcast dedicated to the fiction, life, and influences of writer, editor, and publisher Karl Edward Wagner.The goal is to read through the works of Wagner, learn more about him, and reignite interest in his work.

 They already started with:

Masthead Banner: Credits

Glen Cook's Black Company: Port of Shadows, Cover art by - Raymond Swanland 2018

Karl Edward Wagner's Gods in Darkness: The Complete Novels of Kane
2002 by Ken Kelly

Port of Shadows (The Chronicles of the Black Company, #1.5) by Glen Cook Gods in Darkness The Complete Novels of Kane by Karl Edward Wagner 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Richard Lee Byers - Interview by SE

It is not intuitive to seek beauty in art deemed grotesque/weird, but most authors who produce horror/fantasy actually are usually (a) serious about their craft, and (b) driven my strange muses.  These interviews engage contemporary authors & artists on the theme of  "Art &Beauty in Weird/Fantasy Fiction".

Today we host author Richard Lee Byers, known for his Forgotten Realm contributions. He holds a Master's degree in Psychology and worked in an emergency psychiatric facility for over a decade, then left the mental health field to write. He is the author of more than fifteen books, including the lead book Dissolution (first book in the War of the Spider Queen series). Follow him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/rleebyers) and on Twitter (https://twitter.com/rleebyers).

Richard Lee Byers has recently participated in interviews with (a) GdM Grimdark Magazine #12 and (b) one focused on his recent Sword & Sorcery release: This Sword For Hire. Other recent releases include The Shadow Guide, which is another and rather darker heroic fantasy book, and TheHep Cats of Ulthar and Other Lovecraftian Tales. You can findthose and all his work on Amazon. Here we’ll focus on his approach to making horror pleasing, reveal his muses for creating beautiful dark fiction.

RICHARD LEE BYERS

1) SEL: Geographical Muses: One of my favorite Clark Ashton Smith tales is Genius Loci (1933) in which an artist, Amberville, turns mad when he paints a landscape that happens to embody the effigy of the land's deceased owner. Ghosts, and muses, can be geographic in nature. Noting that you were born in Columbus OH, which many Sword & Sorcery authors have roots (i.e., Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild ofAmerica members Andre Norton, John jakes, Roger Zelazny…), is there any evidence you have to support the crazy notion that Ohio localizes S&S muses? [sidebar: SEL has lived in OH since the 1980's and wishes for such a genius loci]. Perhaps you have memories of Ohio has haunted or inspired you? If not Ohio, another geography?

RLB: Alas, no. To the best of my recollection, there was nothing notably swashbuckling, barbaric, or eldritch about Ohio when I was growing up there. But I was fortunate enough to find a circle of friends who shared my enthusiasm for fantasy, SF, and horror. I imagine that played a role in my ending up as a genre writer.

2)  SEL: Early weird fiction masters like Edgar Allen Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft wrote letters and essays on “Beauty,” and they all generally espouse that beauty is not necessarily within art (i.e., a book or poem), but it is the conveyance of a feeling. Is there beauty in horror/weird fiction? Is there beauty in the repulsive?

RLB: Sometimes the repulsive is simply that. Realistic images of slaughter, torture, etc. sicken me as is, I imagine, the creator’s intention. But I think that when a horror story is based in the supernatural or some SF premise, there can be beauty even when something monstrous in being depicted. That’s because our curiosity, fascination, and sense of wonder are being engaged at the same time as our sense of dread.

3)  SEL: Do you have any “dark muses,” i.e., things that terrify/repulse you but you feel compelled to write about them.

RLB: I don’t know. Maybe not. I’m not fond of heights, and some of my more popular characters frequently fly the skies on griffon-back, but that experience isn’t portrayed in a way intended to scare. I am quite conscious of the dark side of human nature, our capacity for cruelty, selfishness, bigotry, fanaticism, etc., and many of my stories try to comment on that on one level or another, but my concern there is so general that I don’t know that it indicates I have a “dark muse.”

4)  SEL: You have a degree in psychology and worked in the mental health sector; how has this informed your writing (psychology of characters...and or readers expectations)?
RLB: I’ve been out of the mental health racket for a long time now, and today I seldom consciously think of personality theory and such when writing if, indeed, I ever did. But back in the day, I did interact with psychotic and sociopathic people on a daily basis, and I’m sure that getting a sense of who they were and how they viewed the world provided insights I still draw on when creating characters.

5)   SEL: Rorschach Test: What do you see? Ok, bear with me since this is question a game/gimmick of sorts. I wanted to reinforce your mental health background in a fun way. As a scientist who performs image analysis on data, I apply math on photos to quantify microstructure of materials. I took the liberty of processing two images you should be familiar with the content. Figured it would be interesting if you commented or interpreted this abstract version, and described what you see. There is no intention for any real psychological test, but figured this exercise may also reinforce your feelings on different perspectives.

RLB:
Image 1: Guys hanging around the brothel parlor waiting for their turns.
Image 2: The faces of somewhat thuggish-looking twin brothers.

[See bottom for the image reveal! Very funny]

6)  SEL: Do you practice other arts beyond writing? If so can we share them (i.e., images of fine or graphic art) or mp3s (of music). Guess you could mention martial arts too.

RLB: I don’t paint, play music, etc. I did put in 25 years as a fencer (epee, mainly, although I fenced foil and sabre, too) and still think of myself as a fencer even though I haven’t been inside a salle in a while. I miss it, but my right knee is showing the wear and tear of catching my weight and momentum through 25 years of lunging. So, sadly, the more prudent course may be for me to just keep going to the gym three days a week.

7a) SEL: Forgotten Realms (a):  Writing dark fantasy that is acceptable for the young adult crowd requires balance; how does you go about presenting scary settings/events in fun ways?

RLB: Honestly, no editor ever said to me that Realms fiction was targeted at the YA market, and I didn’t think of it that way. I did have an understanding that the publisher didn’t want writers to go all XXX-rated or splatterpunk, so I didn’t. When it came to generating a sense of dread, I don’t think it cramped my style all that much.

If you look at the masters of classic horror, they depicted terrifying and even grisly events, but they rarely if ever went on for pages with detailed descriptions of torture, dismemberment, and what have you. Appeals to the reader’s sense of the uncanny and the depiction of the viewpoint character’s emotional response to the strange and threatening saw them through. I guess I tried to achieve similar results via similar methods.

7b) SEL: Forgotten Realms (b): If you were a Zulkir (master magician) what discipline would you practice (Evocation, Transmutation, Abjuration, Enchantment Illusion, Conjuration Necromacy, Divination)? Perhaps you have an RPG character for this.
Now that I’m not doing Forgotten Realms fiction anymore, I haven’t looked at my reference material in a while. Is Evocation the one where you throw fireballs and lightning bolts? Whichever one that is, that’s my pick. I don’t see how you can go wrong throwing fireballs and lightning bolts.

I’ve run some magic users in RPGs over the years. I don’t think I ever had one who specialized in one particular school of magic. But you can bet they all threw fireballs and lightning bolts.

7c) SEL: Forgotten Realms (c): Can you comment on Szass Tam's artistic flare (the necromancer character in the Haunted Lands Trilogy) and/or comment on the muses you drew upon for him?

RLB: I don’t recall thinking of Szass Tam as an artist per se, but in the trilogy, his goal is to destroy the universe and replace it with something better. I guess that would be the ultimate act of artistic creation if you want to look at it that way.

As far as how I portrayed him, well, he was a preexisting character in Forgotten Realms lore, which indicated he was a wily skull-faced undead master of the dark arts. To that, I added the idea that his ultimate goal was the destroying and rebuilding the universe thing.

If you look at all that, a skeletal undead villain out to kill everybody, you realize the potential for cliché, one-dimensional characterization, and portraying a guy who comes across as a virtual parody of the evil mastermind archetype. I tried to avoid that by resolving that Szass would never feel what a standard arch-villain would feel or do what a standard arch-villian would do unless the plot required it. So in the story, he doesn’t gloat or fly into rages and isn’t needlessly cruel. Rather, he forms friendships and shows mercy. He’s someone you might enjoy hanging out with if you didn’t know he was planning to obliterate you and everyone and everything you cared about.

7d)  SEL: Forgotten Realms (d): Please comment on the creative process when writing for shared worlds (Forgotten Realms) vs your individual work (i.e., featuring your character Selden in This Sword For Hire or Billy Fox in Blind God's Bluff).

RLB: To my mind, there are two main differences:

The first is expressed in the adage (if I knew who originally said it, I’d give credit, but I don’t)  “Don’t blow up the moon.” That means people other than you are working in the shared world and the owner of the IP intends it to generate product and revenue for a long time to come, so you can’t tell a story that would mess things up for everybody else.

Such a story doesn’t have to involve blowing up the moon, sinking a continent, etc. The issue can be subtler than that. Many shared worlds are built around fundamental conflicts and mysteries. If you’re already a fan of the shared world, resolving one of those conflicts or solving one of those mysteries may be the first story that occurs to you and one you’d be thrilled to tell. But it’s one you probably can’t tell because doing so would close out a part of the franchise that people like and would otherwise generate future products.

Now, occasionally, you can tell a story like that if the IP owner has decided it’s time for the franchise to move on to a new phase in its history. I’ve done those world-changing epics a couple times in the Forgotten Realms. In my experience, if the publisher wants a story like that, they’ll ask a trusted writer with experience in the shared world to write it. You won’t get such a gig if you’re a newcomer.

Now if you’re writing in your own universe, you can do anything you want anytime you want. Although if you’re writing a series, you too may want to be careful about writing something that’s apt to make future stories less interesting or maybe even superfluous altogether.

The second difference is that to do shared-world work, you need to be flexible. You could go to your editor with a great idea and be told, “Sorry, we already have an elf-centric book for this year” or “So-and-so is already going something set in the Red Kingdom.” If that turns out to be true, it won’t do you any good to argue or sulk. You just have to come up with a different idea.

Obviously, if you created the universe of the story and are the only one working there, you won’t have such a problem. I think, though, that it still behooves you to be open to feedback. You don’t want your editor to decide you’re a pain in the ass to work with.

Rorschach Image Sources:


Image (1) RLB’s “brothel line” is actually a tribute to his “Ape of the Day”, a long occurring tradition of RLB on Facebook. Follow him (or on twitter) and you’ll enjoy the flippant posting of “apes” in various media. Image is in public domain.

Image (2) RLB’s “thuggish brothers” is just an abstracted mirror-image of himself



Friday, August 10, 2018

Witch of the Sands - Review by SE


The Witch of the Sands
by Peter Fugazzotto
SE rating: 4 of 5 stars

Peter Fugazzotto's The Witch of the Sands is a solid novella. Very much like Glen Cook's The Black Company, this features a band of hired warriors (Hounds) set on quests/errands that once aligned with Shield's personal goal (kill all warriors and witches since they, namely the Warlock King, killed his father).

Here the Celtic/Viking-like Hounds deal with a Roman-like leader named Cassius (a nod to the "lost" IX legion) to (a) murder a magic-less chieftain (reasons unknown) and then (b) seek out the titular witch of the sands. The author handles the group well, assigning simple but effective names: Shield, Harad, Hawk, Patch, the Brothers Bull, Night (my favorite stealthy fighter),etc.. It's a fun squad with decently involved backstory and tension. Fugazzotto's martial art experience influences the fights, with just the right amount of descriptive positioning and movement.

Plenty of sorcery and undead horror here, and the final battle is compelling--delivering a mix of betrayal, music-based magic, and bloody melee.

Without spoiling, not all is answered about Cassius's intentions. I would have have enjoyed a clearer tie-in between missions. I suspect that may be answered in subsequent installments. The characters and writing style serve as a solid introduction to the Hounds of the North. Shield carries his team and the story... and the readers. You'll undoubtedly follow to book 2, Black River.

An obvious must-read for Grimdark readers and fans of Glen Cook.

View all my reviews

Free Helen's Daimones Kindle Version

Helen's Daimones is free for two days (Kindle promotion).


Helen's Daimones its the gateway novella for Dyscrasia Fiction. Helen and Sharon are orphans haunted by supernatural diseases, insects, and storms. They are your tour guides in this entry-way novella into Dyscrasia Fiction which explores the choices humans and their gods make as a disease corrupts their souls, shared blood and creative energies. In Helen’s Daimones, guardian angels are among the demons chasing the girls. When all appear grotesquely inhuman, which ones should they trust to save them?



 

  • "Helen is one of the stranger heroes to feature in swords & sorcery. Is she delusional, mad, gifted? I was never quite sure — she is only a little girl — but I was never able to take my eyes off her. With a cast as strange as this novel has, Helen remains the focus throughout. Even when she’s off stage, the question of what she is doing always seems to rise to the fore.""Too much of what’s called grimdark is little more than sex and gore splashed over a standard epic fantasy story. True horror — and at its heart, Helen’s Daimones is a horror story — unsettles, disorients, and makes you feel like the world will fall out from under your feet at any moment. Lindberg’s novel does all those things." 

  • The Dyscrasia novels by S.E. Lindberg are deep, intricate reads that harken back to the pulp days of Lovecraft, Howard, and others...  Helen's Daimones is weird fantasy, weirdly told, for weird readers. As the strongest of the three stories to date, it makes for a great introduction to Lindberg's world, and creates more than enough interest for a fourth entry.What this chapter did for me was breathe real life (no pun intended) into Lord Lysis. He becomes a sympathetic character here, especially in his encounter with a tragic young woman (buried alive so many years ago), the ghosts of her children (hung for their corruption), and their army of dolls (crazy, dangerous dolls). He's still a monster, a fearfully powerful being, but he's also a personality here. As for Doctor Grave, he was already a full-fledged character, but he becomes a little more chilling here as new layers of mystery leave us to question his deeper motives.---  Bob Milne 2017

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Aliya Whiteley - Weird Beauty Interview by SE

"They were found in the graveyard, springing from the decaying bodies of the women deep in the ground, and they were found in the woods, spreading themselves like a rug over the wet earth. The Beauty were small at first but they grew and took the best qualities of the dead. They sucked up through the soil all the softness, serenity, hope, and happiness of womankind. They made themselves into a new form, a new north, shaped from the clay of the world and designed only to bring pleasure to man.
But the Beauty knew form the many experiences of the women that had gone before, that men did not always love what was good for them. Men could attack, hurt, main and murder the things that came too fast, too suddenly, like love..."  -- excerpt from ‘The Beauty’  

It is not intuitive to seek beauty in art deemed grotesque/weird, but most authors who produce horror/fantasy actually are usually (a) serious about their craft, and (b) driven my strange muses.  These interviews engage contemporary authors & artists on the theme of "Art & Beauty in Weird/Fantasy Fiction."  

Aliya Whiteley has written over thirty novellas and short stories in a range of genres. Her excellent novella The Beauty offers a compact dose of weird fiction in which humanity is evolving into mushrooms. It is entirely unique, but could be described as a mashup of Kafka’s body horror (The Metamorphosis), Golding's social dynamics (Lord of the Flies), and James' infertile dystopia (The Children of Men). “The Beauty” is an action-packed tale saturated with philosophy on "what is beautiful?" and "what is humanity?", a true must-read for those who enjoy intellectual meat (shrooms?) with their adventure fiction. Let’s learn more about Aliya Whiteley and her muses.

  • SEL: You were born in and raised in southern England. Are there fungal horrors in the sea-side town of Ilfracombe that haunt you? Perhaps, you have a different muse from the area.


AW: I don’t remember finding many mushrooms in Ilfracombe, but certainly I grew up feeling that it was filled with strange events, from a ghost in a decaying hotel to the tall, triffid-like plants that grew in an old explorer’s garden. These things have appeared many times in my fiction, and I’m still writing about it now.

The Beauty is set in the Valley of the Rocks, which is a real place close to Ilfracombe with an almost volcanic landscape; it’s a few miles from where I grew up, and I remember visiting it and feeling that its bare, rocky ground was more suited to a horror story than any romantic tale (the most famous novel set in that area is RD Blackmore’s Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor, first published in 1869). Spooky things always seemed to happen in Devon – but perhaps that’s down to my teenage imagination, which liked to find monsters and darkness in every situation.

  • SEL: Early weird fiction masters like Edgar Allen Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft wrote letters and essays on “Beauty,” and they all generally espouse that beauty is not necessarily within art (i.e., a book or poem), but it is the conveyance of a feeling. Is there beauty in horror/weird fiction? Is there beauty in the repulsive?

AW: These are the kind of questions I think about a lot, and haven’t found any answers for! I suspect that beauty is one of the really big concepts in human existence that deserves a lot of interrogation. What is it? When and how does it come into existence? Does something have to be universally considered beautiful to deserve the description? If one person finds it hideous, does it forfeit that idea? Perhaps everyone has different thoughts about this area, as well as having different definitions of beauty.

There’s a moment in The Beauty where the narrator, Nate, comes across a glossy women’s magazine from a time before the death of all women. He doesn’t recognize the pouting figure on the front cover as beautiful because that stylized version of beauty has now disappeared from the world. Nathan then goes on to find things that we would consider grotesque, even horrifying, to be beautiful. It’s all connected to his perception of what life is about. He finds beauty in growth and change. I wonder if uncovering our own personal ideals of beauty rests somewhere in better understanding the concepts that underpin it. So, on those terms: yes! There can be beauty and horror in many things, simultaneously, including weird fiction.
  • SEL: Do you find “The Beauty” repulsive, beautiful, or both?

AW: Do you mean the fungal creatures that erupt in the book? I find them to be both. And also upsetting, and horrible, and challenging, and reassuring. They mean that life goes on, whether we want it to or not. I’m interested in the idea that nature will find a way, but possibly that way doesn’t have to fit any human morality, or concept of beauty. There’s a tension between humanity and nature in the book. So often nature is described by humanity in terms of its beauty to our eyes. I found myself wondering, while writing this book, how much of that is another method of survival. Are we less destructive to those things we find aesthetically pleasing? (Yet more questions I don’t have an answer to! But I think I write to explore these questions, not to answer them.)   

  • SEL: Do you eat mushrooms?

AW: I eat lots of mushrooms, and I’m a bit perturbed when people tell me that I’ve put them off mushrooms! I love them. I make a brilliant mushroom stew with cheese and walnut dumplings. Although I have occasionally found non-edible mushrooms when walking my dog in the nearby forest and felt a bit disturbed by them, if I’m honest. Particularly if they’re yellow and strangely solid, or growing in large clumps to take on monstrous shapes. They are fascinating, aren’t they? I remember reading an article about the mass extinctions of life that have taken place on Earth, and how fungus thrives afterwards, with so much decaying matter to feast upon. I think that must have been lurking in the back of my mind when I started writing the book.
"When [William] told me of his journey, that was how he finished it--he fitted there. I find this to the strangest of expressions--how does one fit in with other people, all edges erased, making a seamless life from the sharp corners of discontent? I don't find anything that fits in such a way.  Certainly not in nature. Nothing real is meant to tessellate like a triangle, top-bottom bottom-top. The sheep will never munch the grass in straight lines."  -- character Nathan speaks in 'The Beauty' 

  •  SEL: Your body of work is eclectic, so you seem to defy the limitations of a single genre. What are our muses then? Where do you “fit”?

AW: I don’t think about fitting anywhere, really. I’m very interested in exploring genre, so many of my books have horror, science fiction, crime or fantasy elements mixed in with commercial or literary approaches to prose. Another way of putting it might be to say that I like to write whatever I want to write, and let other people worry about the definitions when they’re trying to sell it or explain it. That suits me fine.

  • SEL: Voronoi / Rorschach test: What do you see? Ok, bear with me since this is question a game/gimmick of sorts, but it may be fun. I wanted to reinforce your “fitting-in” tessellation-metaphor in a fun way. As a scientist who performs image analysis on data, I apply tessellations on photos to quantify things like particle size, or effective densities of microstructures. I took the liberty of using some Voronoi methods (typically applied on images of dispersed points) on an image you should be familiar with (I grabbed it online).  Figured it would be interesting if you commented or interpreted this abstract version, and described what you see. There is no intention for any real psychological test, but this exercise may also reinforce your feelings on different perspectives.

 

AW: My first thought was that I was looking at a map of some strange outcropping of land, surrounded by psychedelic seas. It looks like my kind of place! I bet they tell good stories there… My brain also wants to turn it into a sideways view of a face, perhaps a child’s face, with an upturned nose and a chin resting on one finger. Lost in thought. Can an image be a map and a person? And a mushroom, of course.  

**** SIDEBAR: See follow up and image reveal at end. ****

My name is Nathan, just twenty-three and given to the curation of stories. I listen, retain, then polish and release them over the fire at night, when the others hush and lean forward in their desire to hear of the past. They crave romance, particularly when autumn sets in and cold nights await them, and so I speak of Alice, and Bethany, and Sarah, and Val, and other dead women who all once had lustrous hair and never a bad word on their plump limps...Language is changing, like the earth, like the sea. We live in a lonely, fateful flux, outnumbered and outgrown." -- From 'The Beauty'

  •  SEL:   Love of Language: “The Beauty” and “Peace, Pipe” (provided as a pair in the 2018 edition) both had protagonists with storytelling/journalistic roles which affected greater society. Given your degrees in Theatre, Film and Television Studies. any other media Other Arts, you clearly like the subject matter. Your prose is rhythmic and begs to be read aloud like poetry. Explicitly having your characters take on your persona seems telling. What about language and storytelling compels you so?


AW: You’re right that I was influenced by theatre first, and started out by writing stage plays before deciding to switch to novels. It was all about the concept of voice. A lot of my writing is in first person for that reason. I love being able to capture and sustain a person’s voice, and I haven’t found any form that allows me to do that so completely as the novel/novella/short story. It can be an immersion into somebody else’s head, for the writer and the reader, and I find that so powerful. 

Also, the subjectivity of it is so involving. The Beauty was so much fun to write because nobody viewed these mushroom creatures in the same way, and therefore refused to accept them into their own narrative in the way that the storyteller figure wanted to present them. There’s such great tension in that. Which story do we choose to accept about our own pasts and futures? We’re all telling stories and perfecting our own voices all the time by subtly rewriting our own experiences and feelings. That was brilliant territory to explore.

  • SEL:  Beauty and attraction need not be about gender roles, but sexual attraction certainly involves beauty.  There are no women in The Beauty, so you literally switched gender-perspective to write on behalf of your characters.  You could have reversed the situation and had all the men die instead. Please discuss the creative process while switching gender voices, and the role of beauty in relationships.

AW: I don’t plan in advance. I sit down with my notebook and pen and start putting words down on paper. I’d just finished writing a novel with a female protagonist that had a repressed, strict tone to it and so I picked up a fresh notebook and started writing and the first paragraphs of The Beauty, in Nate’s voice, came out. I loved his voice straight away, and I kept going, really enjoying the freedom to let the words flow. 

As I started to get a sense of what the story was about I was nervous about the subject matter and getting the voice right but early on in the process the thought came to me that Nate could barely remember a world without women, so he wasn’t going to hold a lot of set viewpoints about gender. That helped me to let go of the idea that I had to write a man. I wrote a person trying to make sense of new things, changing things, and finding beauty by embracing those changes.

I think it’s really interesting to consider how the book may have been different if I’d imagined all the men dying and the women being left behind. What decisions would they make differently, as individuals, as a group? But Nate’s voice cropped up first, and that’s the voice, and the story, I told. Maybe I’ll try it the other way around some time.


  • SEL: Can you recommend past and/or future works of yours that would appeal to the weird-fiction crowd?

AW: For US readers, my novella The Arrival of Missives will be published by Titan in November 2018. That’s another story which uses the natural world in surprising ways and doesn’t belong to one genre. It’s set in England in 1920, and begins as a coming of age story about a girl who adores her teacher, and becomes – I don’t know, maybe science fiction? The Arrival of Missives is already available in the UK from Unsung Stories.

For UK readers, my new novel The Loosening Skin will be published in October 2018 by Unsung Stories, and that contains similar elements of body horror, but intermingled with a detective story and an examination of love in much the same way as The Beauty examines our concepts of beauty.  

Thanks for the opportunity to give these novels a mention, and to chat about The Beauty! I enjoyed it.


  • SEL: Thank you for writing intellectual fantasy and sharing your creative process! Readers can learn more about her Wordpress.



THE IMAGE REVEAL (click to enlarge):

SEL: After the interview, I provided the below Image Analysis workflow that transformed her portrait into the abstract tile. What did she see in herself?

AW: Look at that! I felt certain you'd used the image of a mushroom as your starting point. I must have mushrooms on the brain...




Aliya Whitely Bio (on Wordpress):

Aliya Whiteley was born in Barnstaple, North Devon, in 1974 and grew up in the seaside town of Ilfracombe which formed the inspiration for many of her stories and novels. She was educated at Ilfracombe College and gained a 2:1 BA (Hons) degree in Theatre, Film and Television Studies from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth in 1995. In 2011 she was awarded an MSc in Library and Information Management by the University of Northumbria; her dissertation involved conducting a case study into the research techniques of modern novelists. She currently lives in West Sussex.