The Zombie in the Room

The late poet Michael Donaghy once said something along the lines: Whenever I start writing poems about poetry – I take a cold shower… And I’m inclined to agree with him. Writing about writing can be self-indulgent, and not advance the thought, or the art, very much.

So, I am going to pretend that I am writing about thinking, and see where it gets me regarding the art, or craft, or science. Whatever seems right. It’s all too easy to get snagged on definitions, and there is always the cold shower. Maybe an ice bucket, although mine would have a (full) bottle in it.

Thoughts are very much of the flesh, despite them being abstract. They are abstract because we cannot touch them – but we can feel them. We get metaphysical about them, but they could not exist without the bodies and brains we can consider we inhabit, or simply – are. We ‘be’ by means of our physicality. Don’t worry – I’m not going to launch into some half-baked philosophy, but feel the need for an excursion from my page.

To elaborate. Amongst other things, I write fiction. Mostly realist literary stuff, but some speculative fiction. A year or so ago, I became a horror writer by accident, having written a story considered by those that know the genre as ‘body horror’. My story has a Pygmalionesque theme, featuring a beautiful mannequin and a real woman, also beautiful. In the original story, Pygmalion was a sculptor who loved a beautiful woman he created, and she was brought to life by a goddess. In my story, it was a real woman who was brought (perhaps) to her death by a mannequin. No goddesses needed. That my work had been picked up in the horror genre surprised me. (See News and Publications for the story in question). My influences for writing include a glug of science, as I explain in my ‘About’ page. I am provoked by ideas of ‘reality’, the virtual self – which is a kind of transcendence – and projection – another kind of reality, perhaps. But one can argue this always is the territory of fiction. Deus ex Machina à la mode etc, etc. Abstraction shimmers over the question of the flesh. And this is where the work of the writer shows itself. (Or showers him/herself with the valve set on cold).

Since the story was published, I have on the odd occasion been referred to as a ‘horror’ writer, but I do not consider my work as primarily aimed at genre. I have also written humour, which perversely turned out quite dark or even sad. But I think that there is no such thing as humour – or horror – or anything that migrates into a corner that can be named – without contrast. I take stock, nonetheless. I can’t help, at this point, thinking about Eric Idle singing ‘Always look on the bright side of… (pause)… death… de doo, de doo te doo te doo…’

Humans have drivers for dealing with the concerns that all mortal beings have – and that is death, disease, disaster and destruction. And all the attendant horrors and miseries. We have instincts that are automatic, but the ability to conceptualise gives humans a great advantage in planning how we get food, shelter and mates, and how we can defend ourselves from predators and enemies. We fear what we cannot master, and what do not understand, in case it can kill us, or worse. But what could be worse than death? Perhaps – most of all – we fear the disintegration of self. Maybe this is why we feel compelled to write things that scare and horrify, and why zombies are always popular. They represent the body without the spirit, yet somehow living without our permission. We are happy to have transcendent spirits, but get quite jittery at the thought of animated corpses. We can’t see spirits, but a zombie is the zombie in the room… The question of our ownership of our bodies is important to us, even after death.

I’m wittering here. Artistic expression is, at some level,  a form of embodied reasoning and coming to terms. One of the downsides of being human is that we have knowledge of our mortality and can hold onto abstract notions of how our lives will end.

From science, we have learned that our brains like to fill in the gaps in a narrative with things that are not ‘real’. Our bodies are equipped with primitive responses to react to life and death situations – including fear. We have learned that we are not immune from disease, tigers, old age or zombies. But our brains give us the means to ameliorate or avoid some of the bad things. Our brains also seem lead us down some strange paths as a consequence of evolution, and our fascination with our own bodies – alive and dead – is perhaps why we like to write and read about ‘horror’.

In writing this post, I was more than a little prompted by my recent reading for Words by the Water (see my previous post: This Flesh We Wear). Each of the books I mention goes some way to explaining what niggled me about genre. It is part of us, and we can’t escape it. The zombie in the room. Apologies to science writers everywhere.


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