Antic Fiction

by Timothy J Jarvis

(Taken from an interview with Jonathan Raab, originally published at Muzzleland Press.)

I’m fairly ambivalent about genre designations. Part of me is suspicious, both of the taxonomical impulse that lies behind their creation and of their use as marketing labels. I think the best writing will always be hybrid, difficult to categorize, and display an irreverence towards established tropes. But on the other hand, in my main job as an academic and university lecturer, I think genre is an important tool for understanding and teaching how literature works, and why it takes the forms it does. I’ve also always liked those scenes in contemporary music that define their own, abstruse, sometimes ridiculous, genres as a way of expressing their difference from other forms, and as a kind of game. Further, I reckon that thinking in terms of genre can help when attempting to transgress certain ways of writing.

I believe horror is a mode that particularly enables transgression, of all kinds (not just the obvious transgressions of the body or of taste seen in certain subgenres like splatterpunk and bizarro). Horror occurs in an instant, at a frontier, a border, a limit, and lives in interstices. It is sudden, violent, unsettling. It is the disruption of a situation we thought stable or safe, the shifting of the ground beneath our feet. Therefore I think of it as a genre as a way of crossing borders, rather than as a static thing. In fact, I prefer the term mode, rather than genre, to describe horror, in that I see it more as an atmosphere or tone. Genre implies specific settings and tropes, such as the wild frontier and lone rider of the Western, or the Jurassic jungle and randy Tyrannosaurus rex of dinosaur porn, where horror, like comedy or pornography more generally, is more a mood any genre can be infected by. A parasite mode battening on a host genre.

(Interestingly, the Gothic, from which horror is often considered to be derived, is a genre, with settings, decayed castle or plantation house, and tropes, the evil monk or inbred scion of a once noble family, proper to it.)

When I was working on my book, The Wanderer, I began considering what I could call the kind of fiction I was writing. I knew it was horror, roughly, and I hoped to activate some of horror’s transgressive potential, but I also wanted to be more specific. I like both weird and strange fiction as terms and as modes of writing, but weird tends to bring to my mind cosmicism, and strange seems to me to consist of muted terrors and irresolution, and I knew my writing had neither true cosmic horrors nor subtlety.

I got to thinking about what horror shares with comedy and pornography. The moment of horror must occur at the right instant to be effective, to bring about that crossing of boundaries, that subversion of the law. And comedy is the same – reliant on the deployment of the unexpected at precisely the right moment. And pornography, as Susan Sontag has written, in her essay, ‘The Pornographic Imagination’, is, at its most powerful, able ‘to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsessions, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness.’ I realized I was attempting to combine aspects of all three modes in my work – not to actually write horror or comedy or porn, but to bring together some of their potencies.

I then pondered how, in the tradition of the folk grotesque, the gross body, a terror of the inhospitable cosmos, and comedy are closely entwined. The macrocosm is mirrored in the microcosm, the cosmic in the gross body, and cosmic terror is brought low, made the butt of crude jokes. Mikhail Bakhtin, in Rabelais and His World, describes a number of ways in which biblical eschatology is mocked in Gargantua and Pantagruel by being reflected in the bodily functions of eponymous giants: seas of blood being mirrored by lakes of wine-tinged piss, and terrible storms, by flatulence. I realized I wished to bring some of this folk grotesque into my work.

This is what lead me to put Punch at the heart of The Wanderer. Punch and the parallel French tradition of Guignol (which has its apotheosis or nadir in Alfred Jarry’s crazy Ubu plays) evoke not just the uncanny life of puppets, but also the carnivalesque inversion of proper hierarchies, the seeping to the surface of suppressed absurdities.

But grotesque in its general usage, wasn’t quite right. It occurred to me I also wanted my work to have a bizarre, nonsense, tortuous quality, that most horror, being generally tautly plotted, doesn’t have. That was when I hit upon the term “antic.” It appealed to me because it hints at knottiness alongside its suggestion of the grotesque. And its derivation from an Italian word meaning “antique” seemed right, intimating something of the fustian quality I try to get into my prose.