We were to meet in a pub that’s name is a mash-up of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death – concealed identities, immorality, disassociation, depersonalisation and Gothic materialism – and the trending critical theory of hauntology all retro/futuristic absence/presence, the past inside the present. But the Masque Haunt has no postmodern pretences and the closest it gets to Derrida’s Spectres of Marx is the library named after the 19th-century revolutionary socialist a ten-minute walk away in Clerkenwell. The Masque Haunt is a Wetherspoon’s boozer – low on prices, high on pissheads and it’s located on the corner of Old Street and Bunhill Row – Silicon Roundabout and William Blake, Bunhill Fields and the bodies of plague victims – hauntology a go-go. Stewart had just returned from California where he had been promoting his new novel Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane, and I had just recovered from a burst appendix and a laparotomy leaving my abdomen looking like it had a purple zip from sternum to pubic bone. I fancied a pint and I owed Stewart a glass of Islay (but he was drinking lime and soda – result). We were there for a catch-up and to talk about the new book, which I had just read and enjoyed, as I have the majority of his 20-something works over the past 25 years.
From Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane: The essence of a great genre movie is that it is as much like every other film from its category as possible. It is not originality that makes genre flicks classics, but rather the complete opposite.
Steve Finbow: Forgetting Benjamin to Baudrillard via Barthes reproductive simulations, your books (I belch and say books rather than novels) flirt with genre rather than full fist them, are you interested in crime/sci-fi novels (take your pick) or genre writing’s non-canonical stance/state?
Stewart Home: Genre fiction and literary fiction produce and mediate each other – of course genre fiction is preferable to literature and is less obnoxious but ultimately you can’t just abolish one of these categories, you have to get rid of both. That said I find elements of interest in both crime and sci-fi. Crime in particular often features nicely stripped back prose as opposed to the prolix bollocks of British literary fiction in particular. And the way, for example, Mickey Spillane treats the passage of time in his Mike Hammer novels (through the abbreviated description of the consumption of a pack of cigarettes among other things) is a lot smarter than what you’ll find in most literary fiction. Likewise, the way Jim Thompson gradually undoes the reader’s belief in the first person narrator in books like The Killer Inside Me by showing the narrator to be crazy and unreliable puts most literary post-modernism to shame. On the other hand, Lynne Tillman, Kathy Acker or Ann Quin all do these things just as well in their own way and in what is treated as literary fiction. However, the bigger names in literary fiction – Martin Amis or Philip Roth for example – do everything very badly. So while in pulp there is a mix of good and bad writers at all levels, literary fiction is dominated by a load of extremely bad and boring writers. Ultimately we need to get rid of all these genre categories that produce and mediate each other – and literary fiction is, of course, in itself a genre – and get rid of all received ways of reading and writing, and instead create something new and truly contemporary, while not forgetting that the communities that throw up cultures are more important than the cultural artefacts we’re left with.
MC&M-J: All great artists have a famous doppelganger.
SF: If that’s correct, who is yours? Who is the anti-Stewart Home?
SH: I think that’s false because the idea of great art is ridiculous. But if it was true I guess my doppelganger would have to be Pamela Anderson, who is seriously hot but shows no interest whatsoever in creating a new world without art or any of the other elitist garbage that characterises the reigning society. And one of the great things about writing fiction (or even non-fiction if you happen to be me) is that it allows you to take on and explore subject positions that are in fact NOT your own.
MC&M-J: ‘Who are the real cannibals?’ Is it those in the overdeveloped world or so-called ‘primitive’ people? I then told the students that Cannibal Holocaust also delivers a scathing critique of the media, showing how it manipulates events to create news’ stories.
SF: With the News of the World phone-tapping story and the involvement of police and politicians, isn’t it a case of auto-cannibalism, the media’s attempt to create stories created a story about itself that then brought about the death of the media? This is proper viral news, the death of the host means the death of the virus until/unless it is passed on – the Sun on Sunday.
SH: I think the phone-tapping story still has a long way to go before it is fully played out and we probably won’t ever know more than 10 percent of what really happened. Likewise, the death of the media is very similar to the death of the avant-garde: rather than experiencing death as silence we get the clatter of neo-critical production announcing a death that is forever delayed by endless chatter about this long anticipated demise. The media, like the avant-garde, might be on a life-support system but news of its death is rather exaggerated.
MC&M-J: When technology completely alienates us from our fellows, the most over privileged people from the overdeveloped world are instantly transformed into the most vicious savages of all time.
SF: Do we have a new Sade among us? A new Bataille? In what way do you think new technology alienates us? Doesn’t it allow us an instant interconnectivity with the other? I jotted this down just after finishing MC&M-J, ‘Human beings when solitary are classifiably insane, it is only when we are with others – defined and limited by the other – that we dare to be reasonable and rational, where we suppress our desires and rages, our perversions and obsessions.’
SH: The Christian fundamentalists in the American Bible Belt are the worst example of ‘modern savages’ who are far more barbaric than anything we’ve seen in this world before. They’re armed and they have a massive political influence on the world’s only superpower – that’s truly horrific. I understand insanity as a deviation from a social norm, so I would say it isn’t possible for a totally isolated individual to be insane since there is no norm to judge them against. On the other hand I’d also view a completely isolated individual as not fully human since we are by nature social beings. And isn’t that why we’re less than human under capitalism also – because although we mix with other people we suffer from social alienation! Moving on, technology isn’t neutral and Web 2.0 is more about consumerism than mass creativity. A lot of the corporate platforms like Facebook, Google+ and WordPress.com are extremely restrictive in terms of their institutional puritanism and deem even items such as Gustave Courbet’s Origine du monde (The Origin of the World’s L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) as pornographic when users post reproductions. These platforms aren’t there to enable people to do things, they’re there to serve corporate interest through activities such as data mining.
MC&M-J: Oh, yes it is. Oh, no it isn’t.
SF: Just before this classic piece of dialogue, you write about punk, the Sex Pistols, Sham 69 and the whole anti-prog-rock stance of punk as being more seminal to its founding and development than the political environment; yet prog-rock and punk both suffered from their pantomimic excesses – dry ice and bad opera from the former and over-the-top characters from the latter. Do you think the English have a pantomimic DNA?
SH: The narrator isn’t me and doesn’t necessarily express my views. The section about prog and punk is a parody of my experience of being on a talk radio show 14 or 15 years ago with Billy Bragg among others. I’m using Bragg’s position which I’d view as too simplistic, rather than my own views. Pantomime is a big part of our local culture here in London and people throughout England love dressing up – punk and prog drag are a not fully expressed manifestation of the desire to cross-dress, something that is far more successfully realised in pantomime (where men often play female roles). However, very often transgendered cross-dressing in pop music is a cover for a lack of talent – and I guess it is even more evident in someone like Siouxsie Sioux than it is in Steve Strange.
MC&M-J: The Walton Hop, the disco in the south-west London suburbs where King picked up the child victims he sexually molested.
SF: I used to go there when I was 12 or 13. We used to get the bus from Feltham to Sunbury and walk the rest of the way drinking Newcastle Brown and Newcastle Amber, maybe a dope pipe, some blues. We were Bowie boys – bad haircuts, plastic sandals, mohair jumpers our mums had knitted. Where did you grow up and what are your memories of sexual predation?
SH: I didn’t like where I grew up so from the age of 12 on I used to go into the West End of London without adults to hang out either on my own or with mates. So right through my teenage years I used to have a lot of closet cases (men who were mostly married too I’d guess) trying to pick me up around central London. None of them were successful although it was sometimes necessary to tell them to fuck off rather forcefully. The closet cases would hang around the streets or anywhere else they might find young boys but they didn’t tend to come into the punk gigs. The sexual predators who came into the clubs tended to either be out of the closet, or were very occasionally much older women who’d offer me and other kids money to have sex with them. I can remember being horrified when the first time this happened, some pensioner came into a punk venue at the end of the show and offered me money to go home with her – she must have been in her seventies. I ignored her so she just went around offering teenage boys money for sex until she found one who said yes. There were also guys who’d offer like £100 if you’d be bum-fucked on camera – and they’d say you wouldn’t even have to have your face in the film. Obviously the omission of faces was to protect them since they were going around asking underage boys to do this. They were offering what was a lot of money at the time and I saw kids accept the offer, personally I didn’t go for it. I also heard other kids tell them by way of reply stuff like: “I’d like to stick a red hot poker up your arse, the wrong way round, so that you burn your hands when you pull it out!”
MC&M-J: The killer doll Chucky is possessed by the spirit of a vicious serial killer called Charles Lee Ray. Chucky self-consciously parodies the studied nihilism of post-modern teenagers, while the scenes in which he strangles and slashes his victims are comic if, like me, you don’t find them terrifying.
SF: Throughout the novel you reference serial killers, do you think a nation is defined by its type of serial killer, or is it defined by its media’s reaction to the serial killer?
SH: I think serial killers are treated in different ways in different cultures – so they might be seen as a sort of rugged American individualist anti-hero in the USA, but in Europe they’re more like sad but dangerous nutjobs.
MC&M-J: The campus is a near perfect setting for a zombie film since it is built around a lake.
SF: Stewart Home writing a campus novel – Bradbury, Lodge, Coetzee, Roth and now Iyer, Royle and Home. Why this genre?
SH: I thought it would surprise people, but I did it differently from how it had been done before. I really don’t like books like Bradbury’s The History Man, so I thought some genre-bending was in order. Also I wrote about half the first draft when I was writer-in-residence at York University in 2005 and completed the novel shortly after I was out of that post, so the material was to hand. The book just sat around for seven years as I wasn’t happy with the deals I was offered for it. The 7/7 material seemed to really upset a lot of publishers when I was first showing the book around at the end of 2005. If it had just been a campus novel I’d have probably got it published much faster. And of course there are more students now than ever, so a bigger potentially interested audience probably accounts for the renewed interest in the campus novel. I say in the book the campus is a closed institution but more reflective of the gender mix in society than say the military, so it can act as a microcosm of a larger system. Not everything I have the narrator say is stupid, I thought a mixture of sense and nonsense would make the book more interesting for most readers.
MC&M-J: She was followed by the novelist Stewart Home, who seemed more interested in the sound of his own voice than culture.
SF: Talking to Lee Rourke a few weeks ago, we agreed that your back catalogue of ‘novels’ should be re-released by a major house. I see them as a collection of trilogies – Pure Mania, Defiant Pose, Red London and onward. Maybe with Richard Allen-esque Stewart-Home skin/suedehead poses of the time on the cover. Do you see your work structured that way?
SH: I see the books more or less that way. But the first trilogy is Defiant Pose, Red London and Blow Job because of the way they address anarchism and fascism. Pure Mania and Slow Death kind of work together because they’re about different parts of the culture industry. In terms of a critique of ideology I considered Defiant Pose, Red London and Blow Job to be a conceptual trilogy as I wrote them although they don’t feature the same characters. Mandy, Charlie and Mary-Jane hangs with Cunt; while Down and Out In Shoreditch and Hoxton, 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess and Come Before Christ & Murder Love also work together as a kind of loose trilogy but I wasn’t thinking of those books in this way when I wrote them. Tainted Love bookends with a novel I finished last year that isn’t published called The 9 Lives Of Ray The Cat Jones (both are written as autobiographies and based on a lot of research but since they were written by me and after the death of the person I’m effectively ghosting without their involvement they are fiction – the first draws on my mother’s life and the more recent book the legend of the most famous criminal in my family, Raymond Jones). Maybe Whips and Furs should be put with The Art School Daze of David Hockney when I finish the latter project (both use a lot of ‘found’ text but rework it as patently fake ‘autobiography’). I don’t think Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie or Memphis Underground particularly fit with anything else I’ve done.
MC&M-J: My actions shall live on to inspire future generations.
SF: And the next thing?
SH: When I’ve finished The Art School Daze of David Hockney (a detourned sadomasochistic art school novel) I’m tempted to write a book set around the late-seventies punk scene in London, and in particular the crowd that went to see Adam and the Ants in 1978 and 1979… but maybe by the time I’ve finished the book I’m currently working on I’ll want to do something completely different.