Jessica McHugh Interview

by
Daulton Dickey.

If you haven’t encountered Jessica McHugh online, then you’re missing out on a singular personality. Witty and offensive—to some—and brutally honest, she chronicles her daily life and her life as a writer constantly in search of inspirado.

She’s more than a horror writer: she’s written science fiction and YA series. A prolific short story writer, she spends her days and nights toiling away. Sometimes she writes at home, sometimes she writes in bars, she’s always producing something well worth reading. 

Can you remember the first time a book gripped you?

One of my favorite books since I was ten or so, “The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle” by Avi. It’s a historical fiction novel about thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle voyaging from England to America in the early 1800s. There are storms, mutinies, and some pretty harrowing incidents that require Charlotte to abandon her upper-class sensibilities and woman-up big time. I’d never read anything quite like it at the time. Continue reading

Women of Horror: An Interview with Peggy Christie

by
Daulton Dickey.

Peggy Christie began writing horror in 1999. A member of the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers, she’s written novels and short stories, including The Vessel and Hell Hath No Fury.

Her stories have appeared in several publications, such as Sinister Tales, Black Ink Horror, Necrotic Tissue, Elements of Horror, and more.

The daughter of a printer, a man with a wicked sense of humor and a big heart, she says, Peggy embodies horror artistry by combining her passion for horror with the craft of a seasoned professional.

To celebrate the month of Halloween, I decided to interview her as the first in an installment of Women of Horror.

Tell us about yourself: when did you start writing?

I loved creative writing when it started in 6th grade. But as I wrote some pretty gruesome stuff back then, my teacher told me I couldn’t do it anymore. So, I stopped. But when I hit 30 and had a particularly bad day at work, I wrote a short story as a form of therapy and I’ve been hooked ever since!

What drew you to horror?
I’ve always loved horror, even as a little kid. I loved watching Creature Feature and Sir Graves Ghastly every Saturday afternoon. All those Roger Corman/Hammer films, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and of course, my first love, Vincent Price, kept me enraptured for those few hours they were on TV. I always wanted more. Continue reading

The Psychology of Appearances

by
Daulton Dickey.

They say we grind our teeth as a show of affection. I’m so adept at grinding my teeth that I can do it while walking and contemplating the plaque in the clouds. Affection? Hardly. Curiosity, I’d say—at best. But then who isn’t, if not at least slightly, curious about the plaque dripping from the clouds? No one comes to mind.

When I was a child, my father pretended not to care, but it was a vaudeville routine: he’d say, “I don’t care about the goddamn plaque,” while gazing at the sky with shifty eyes. Such behavior taught me two things: 1), don’t take everything adults say at face value; and, 2), never directly confront the plaque. Always pay your respects furtively.

—Dad, I remember saying, when I was maybe three or four. —Why does the sky crack?

—The sky cracks to let in the juice from the sun.

—What does the juice do?

thehumanconditionrenemagritte1933
The Human Condition, Rene Magritte, 1933

—It allows us to see and live, breathe and scream.

—Can we scream without the sun’s juice?

—Yeah, but what’s the point?

What’s the point indeed? I didn’t know it then, but it’s clear to me now that the point of the sun’s juice is to illuminate our deficiencies, a sort of aesthetic truth serum. We wouldn’t know we were ugly or flawed, overweight or weak-chinned or buck-toothed or cross-eyed if the sun’s juice didn’t force honesty into our optic nerves. Continue reading

Dead End

by
Daulton Dickey.

20160601-230511.jpgI sit and breathe and think about the sunset floating over waters. Dipping into the abyss, the sun melts and drips to the bottom of the planet, where it reforms and ignites and floats along the planet again. Sometimes I’m indoors when this happens, sometimes I’m outdoors, but the plunge in temperature never ceases to astound me. And when the bowl overhead darkens, and when the air in front of me freezes, and when the goal of the night is to survive in a dreamless state, I know I’ve made it another day. Another day. Where the wind shatters the frozen air and life reboots and I realize I’m a different person—similar in appearance, perhaps, and sharing certain idiosyncrasies—from the person I was yesterday. And whenever the new day forms, and the old me transmogrifies into the new me, I slip into the habit of living in the past and seldom realize the new me is different, and in some cases distinct, from the old me.

The waters ripple, spreading and scattering particles and waves. The bowl overhead signifies nothingness: a void, a vacuum, an entry into a state where our kind perishes. And by “our kind,” I mean “my kind”; and my “my kind,” I mean “bacteria.”

At core, we’re all bacteria, scurrying around and growing and evolving advantages over our competitors. That’s evolution in a nutshell: a competition to dominates the environment. Dominating an environment means controlling resources, making it easier to survive long enough to propagate genes.  Continue reading

The Call of the Void

by
Justin Burnett.

It has been quite a while now since I first began dissociating from my work. I have finally succumbed to the universal somnambulism. It’s a well-known fact that we anesthetize the domination of our lives by our jobs with sleep. Not literal sleep, of course. I now fall asleep with the optimistic electronic chirp of the timecard reader like everyone else, even though I work, laugh, and chat throughout my nine-hour day like any functioning human. I remember a time when it was different. Once it was worse. Once I wasn’t permitted the cold solace of sleep. Once I had a job that forced me to face the spectre of mortality in all its grandiose contradictions. Like any one of the paradoxical lines in the poetry of John Donne, the job forced me to remain awake.

I was a hospital phlebotomist at the time. I drew samples from patients in their sardine-can cells and took the blood downstairs to the lab in a soul-deadening daily exchange of elevator ascents and descents. This repetitive aspect should’ve kept me sleeping since it was the same lullaby that you find evenly distributed in all the occupational quarters like powdered pesticide. Only one force was strong enough to counter the anesthesia.

I discovered it one morning at about a quarter to twelve. I was on the cardiac floor. It was just before lunch and I was getting impatient. Not that the hospital food was any good—au contraire, it was damn awful (the chicken-gristle sandwich sans-condiments was legendary around that time). And it wasn’t that I was particularly interested in seeing my coworkers—all the same sleeping faces circulated both the cafeteria and the floors with soul-deadening regularity. Lunch was, however, the only period in my twelve-hour workday during which I could read. Only one more patient lay between me and my book. Let’s just get it over with I told myself encouragingly as I opened the door to a heavily curtained room.

“Hello, I’m from the lab,” I said, with as much zest as the particular situation could reasonably call for. “Your doctor wants me to draw a blood sample.”

The man on the bed was in his late fifties. Gray, unwashed hair curled above his pale

egonschiele
Egon Schiele, Self Seer II (Death and Man), 1911
temples. Beads of sweat sparkled under the fluorescent lights across the waxy surface of his forehead. The room simmered in the faintly repulsive redolence of unwashed and unmoved biology, the nauseating sweetness of bodily crevices hoarding soured perspiration.

 

I noted the smell with passive disinterest. Smell, after extended exposure in a hospital setting, only gives rise to the accompanying biological reactions (retching, nose-pinching, actual vomiting, in rare cases) when it is particularly vile—as in, for instance, the unforgettable and infamous case of a particular legless prostitute’s infected colposcopy bag. What was more unusual about this patient was his stillness. Continue reading

Another Thinking Animal

by
Daulton Dickey.

 

—So tell me why you’re here.

—I’m tired. Not exhausted, but … just, I don’t know, tired.

Sarah’s wearing that gray face sad people wear, that mask with dead eyes looks like an unpainted statue.

—Can you describe it? “Tired” is so …

—Not clear?

—Mmm Hmm.

—I didn’t want no attention, she says. —Some people, I think, will think I did it for attention. But it wasn’t attention I wanted. Continue reading

An Origin of Species

by Daulton Dickey.

 

KA-88 sat on a rock in a desert and glanced at the sky. Hydrated oxide in the atmosphere drenched the dome in sepia hues. Two hundred miles to the east, a cargo freighter sliced through the sepia and penetrated the skin of the planet. KA-88 knew what it contained—microbe guano, three humans, nineteen transhumans; she knew its destination: Ronocae; and she knew its speed: eighty-eight times the speed of sound.

She knew everything.

If a human part of her remained—the emotional, irrational product of those meat machines—she wondered if she’d lament knowing everything. Confusion had its perks. It seemed logical to balk every now and then, to feel uncertain and even frightened. When such experiences coalesced, she conjectured, then they gave rise to mystery, excitement, luminousness.

Correct?

Without so much as vestiges of emotions, she didn’t know. She couldn’t know.

Interesting.

She stood and circled a rock and contemplated her paradox: without emotions, she, an eighty-eight year old transhuman, an organic machine supplemented with silicone neurons and hardware, couldn’t know everything; if she couldn’t know everything, then she didn’t know everything. So how could a transhuman who knew everything not know everything—a clear violation of the law of non-contradiction. Continue reading

The Hills of Zoar

by Daulton Dickey.

Jane Doe sits in a chair beside a window in a dimly lit room. A book in her lap is open to a chapter filled with blank pages. She turns the page and scans the textures. Her eyes bounce right to left, right to left, as if reading Hebrew. The textures, fine, almost imperceptible, are arrayed in scattershot patterns. Pulp dropped and compressed into pages. Random. But the textures say something. They mean something. Of that, she is certain.

The window to her right overlooks a brick wall. Someone at some point long ago, probably long before Jane was pushed into this world, had tagged the wall with paint. A cock with eyes and a mustache sitting on top of a scrotum. Above the cock, in perfect calligraphy, reads, “Beware, ye who enter here.” Continue reading

The Role of Expectations in Kafka’s “A Country Doctor”

by
Daulton Dickey.

“I was in great perplexity”—or so the narrator of “A Country Doctor” tells us at the start of the story. On the road to visiting a patient, with a gig and without horses, his perplexity is understandable. He is a doctor, after all, and he is in need of transportation to visit a potentially sick patient. 

The story, it is worth noting, is written in the past tense, so the narrator is recounting these events from a vantage point sometime after the events he describes. It is possible that the opening statement—”I was in great perplexity”—is an expression of his state at the time the story begins; however, it’s also possible that the statement is an expression of something we would now call existential angst. 

From where does this “existential angst” spring? The nature of roles and the perception of roles might supply an answer.

As frameworks for viewing the concept and consequences of roles, we can appeal to two thinkers: the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Cooley, working in the early decades of the twentieth century, posited what he called “the looking glass self.” Briefly, the looking glass self is a theory suggesting that our personalities are derived from how we perceive others perceive us. As Cooley once remarked, “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.” (Hood :72)             

In his philosophical treatise Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus, the Austrian philosopher kafkaLudwig Wittgenstein delineated an ontology that might be useful in viewing the concept of roles objectively. In the Tractacus, Wittgenstein distinguished between things in the universe and the language we used to describe those things, arguing that the language used to describe a thing does not equal the thing itself. To put it simply, the word “matter” is not a component of the thing it is meant to signify; instead, it is a picture of that thing, distinct from it.

We, each of us, play roles. Life is a series of theatrical stages onto which we are thrust, and the roles we play depend on the situation and on the audience, so to speak. Anecdotally, I am different in isolation than I am at work, as I interact with other people. Using “me in isolation” as a baseline, then we can say that I am different at work and different still around friends. Given the situation, given the people with whom I am surrounded, my personality shifts from situation to situation. 

This phenomenon is not unique to me. It occurs to each of us. How we encode and retrieve memories, how we select information, how we spin information to loosen the tension of cognitive dissonance too often blinds us from these situational-personality shifts.

Anticipating Cooley’s “Looking Glass Self” theory, the poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once encouraged us to embrace the way the public reproached us because, he claimed, their reproaches came closer to signifying who we really are.

In “A Country Doctor” we find several roles cast, and too often we find expectations met and affirmed, by either the people cast in those roles or the people casting those roles.

Having kicked open an uninhabited pigsty, the country doctor discovers a man inside. The man crawls out on all fours—animal-like—and asks, “Shall I yoke up?” (Kafka: 220) This behavior might be a joke, it might be a gag, but to a man in search of a horse, and to man living in a pigsty, it is an interesting pun on roles.

Expectations of roles play a part in this scenario as well. A few minutes later, when this man is helping to yoke real horses, he lashes out and bites the doctor’s servant girl on the cheek, leaving visible teeth marks. The role he had earlier cast himself in, and the role the doctor might have unconsciously cast, brought about subhuman behavior from a man living like—and joking about being—an animal.

We are who we think other people think we are—if this proposition holds true, then it can help shed light on the man’s behavior, on why he bit the servant girl: he was playing a role, that of a horse, and he was performing as he, or others, might expect him to perform.

Calling on Wittgenstein’s ontology, let us distinguish how things are from the language we use to describe them. For the sake of argument, let us presuppose that this story is true. Now consider the following: seeing a man living in a pigsty, crawling around like an animal, how would you expect A-country-doctor-by-Franz-Kafka-213x300him to behave: like a civilized dandy or like an animal? Assume the latter. Then assume that he picked up on your expectation: now how would you expect him to behave?

Before the man joked about yoking up, before the man bit the woman, he saw the doctor and the doctor’s serving girl. In a class system, a man living in a pigsty undoubtedly underwent social and culture training inculcating subservience to a person of a higher class—even if it is a doctor. It is possible that the man recognized this, and it is possible that it offered another role for him to perform: servant. So, “of his own free will” (Kafka: 220), the man assisted the doctor and the servant girl in yoking the horses.

The language you use to describe people, even if the language you use is nothing more than body language, even if the difference is perceived class differences, can affect how a person behaves.

On biting the servant girl, the man reverts again to his role as animal when it is implied that he is going to possibly rape the servant girl, who runs into the house and locks the door. The man smacks the doctor’s horses, and the horses race away as the man broke down the door to the house and bolted inside.

We are, each of us, a looking glass. The language we use to describe ourselves does not necessarily reflect our personality or behavior. The language other people use, or, specifically, the language we think they use, can and does affect our personality or behavior.

We can find evidence for this, within the context of Kafka’s story, if we jump ahead in the narrative.

Having arrived at his patient’s house, the doctor is rushed inside by the patient’s family. Lying in bed, the patient says, “Doctor, let me die.” (Kafka:221) The patient’s family doesn’t hear his plea; instead, they watch intently, expecting the doctor to heal their son and brother.

The doctor’s role is one in which he cast himself, but his expectations of this role differ from the expectations of those who do not belong to the medical profession. Here, the patient himself has peculiar expectations for the doctor: by pleading with the doctor to let him die, the patient seems to presuppose that the doctor can save his life—which may or may not be the case.

Yet the doctor has cast himself in another role as well, that of master and protector of the servant girl. While he prepares to attend to the patient, his role as master and protector occupies him, and he contemplates fleeing to save his servant from the clutches of the animal-like man.

We each play roles. Roles dominate our lives. In every second of every day, we play roles, we perform. Do these roles, do these performances, lead to existential angst?

To answer this, we can appeal to the philosophical movement known as existentialism, which in its reduced form makes the following claim: “meaning” is a human construct; it is not a thing that exists independently of human beings; and in lieu of latching onto meaning that exists outside of us, we are free to make our own meaning.

To the country doctor, this triggers an interesting question: what does hkafka complete storiesis role mean, a role perceived by himself and others?

The townsfolk view the role of doctor as almost superhuman, or mystical–or magical. Having surrounded the doctor and stripped off his clothes, they sang, “Strip his clothes off, then he’ll heal us,/ If he doesn’t, kill him dead!/ Only a doctor, only a doctor.” (Kafka: 224)

The role the townsfolk cast is unrealistic, as unrealistic as the role the patient himself cast when he implored the doctor to let him, the patient, die. It is the case such that a doctor might cure people, or at least ease their suffering. This, however, doesn’t necessarily translate to the doctor as the hinge on which life and death always turns. In some cases, it is possible that a doctor can cure or heal someone. It is not the case, however, that, in all cases, a doctor is able to cure or heal someone. Yet these townsfolk seem to assume the latter. Punish the doctor, say, if he does not give us what we want, if he does not fulfill the role he is expected to play, which is the role of superhuman healer.

This is a role he cannot play, this is a role he does not want to play—the situation created for him has spoiled his role as doctor, and now he wants to finish his business so he can escape. However, he must finish meeting with his patient, who is cast in a role of his own: miser.

To illustrate this, pay attention to how the patient behaves when he finally has the doctor’s attention:

“‘Do you know,’ said a voice in my ear, ‘I have very little confidence in you. Why, you were only blown in here, you didn’t come on your own feet. Instead of helping me, you’re cramping me in my deathbed. What I’d like best is to scratch your eyes out.’ ‘Right,’ I said, ‘it is a shame. And yet I am a doctor. What am I to do? Believe me, it is not too easy for me, either.’ ‘Am I supposed to be content with this apology? Oh, I must be, I can’t help it. I always have to put up with things. A fine wound is all I brought into the world; that is my sole endowment.'” (Kafka: 224)

A sense of duty compelled the doctor to visit the patient, duty derived from his role as a doctor. The threats of the townsfolk keeps him by the beside, despite the threats from his patient, despite his patient’s lack of interest in living. The role the doctor plays is as both author of his circumstances and victim of his circumstances, and the expectations he has of himself, and that others thrust onto him, transform his looking glass into a magnifying glass through which rays from the sun pelt and assault him.

His role has thrust him into this circumstance, the expectations others have of him have heightened his circumstance, and he cannot appeal to his role to save him. After all, as he told the patient, “I am a doctor. What am I to do?”

 

Bibliography

Kafka, Franz, The Complete Stories (Schocken Books, 1995)

Hood, Bruce, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Major Works: Selected Philosophical Writings (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009)