Speculating Canada is speculative with me

Zombie at the keyboadI recently had a chance to talk (email-wise) with Derek Newman-Stile of the amazing Canadian genre blog Speculating Canada, a website chock full of Canadian science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and other what-have-yous. Derek is a tireless reviewer and a peerless interviewer, as I found out, and while my fingers were nigh-exhausted by the end, this is one of the most interesting interviews I’ve participated in.

[The following was originally posted on Speculating Canada on March 14, 2013.]

Wouldn’t the world be better if we just asked the monsters politely if they could please not eat us at the moment? Corey Redekop and I had a chance in this interview to explore the figure of the monster and its role as a representation of the social outcast, the rejected. It is great to talk to an author who shares my belief that horror and SF in general can be a medium of social change. I hope that you enjoy our interview as much as I enjoyed talking to Corey Redekop.

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself to begin this interview?

Corey Redekop: I was hatched in the Canadian north, and spent the next 18 years building up my strength to order to escape. After bouncing around for a few decades, I wrote my debut novel Shelf Monkey, which helped open some doors I didn’t know existed. Currently I eke out a living as publicist for book publisher Goose Lane Editions in Fredericton, NB.

Spec Can: Why is the zombie so appealing to people right now? What has led to the current excitement about the figure of the zombie?

Corey Redekop: It’s well known that people flock to monsters and horror in times of stress, which explains the popularity of giant radioactive monsters during the beginnings of the nuclear age. I don’t know why zombies in particular have taken off. I think it has to do with the fear that we are the ultimate monsters in our world. If we want to better this planet, we have to fight our own fears, our own weaknesses, and our own ignorance.

Spec Can: What are some of the things that the zombie can represent in our society?

Corey Redekop: Zombies are a terrifically malleable monster, the “jack of all trades” of symbolism, capable of subtextually representing almost anything we care to name. Crime, disease, ego, sexuality, bureaucrats, consumerism, class warfare, conservatives; you name it, they can do it.

Spec Can: What myths of the zombie influenced the type of zombie that you created in Husk and what zombie myths fascinated you most?

Corey Redekop: Much of my initial idea had to do with the resurrection myths that permeate modern and ancient religions. In a real sense, they may be the progenitors to the zombie of today. What was Jesus post-death, really, if not a zombie with functioning brain? In my original manuscript, I played a lot more with this theme, trying to push the rotting corpse of Sheldon into a messiah figure. By combining the two, I tried to find a way that Sheldon could be both a zombie in the b-movie Hollywood sense and a fully sensate individual.

Spec Can: What made you decide to write Husk from the perspective of the zombie?

Corey Redekop: I didn’t want another “us vs. them” story. I like stories about outsiders and loners, which all monsters are to some extent. I also like tales where protagonists have to adapt or fight against something completely out of their control. (Which, I suppose, is the basis for all fiction, now that I think about it).

From BeyondI love body horror, which is horror of the most unsettling sort; the horror of being trapped within flesh, a prisoner of your own DNA. David Cronenberg — whose movies The Fly, The Brood, and Videodrome are required viewing for those who appreciate both the form and a great mix of gore and intelligence — is the preeminent purveyor of the theme, and I wish he’d go back to it. I also find the idea of a man continually trying to keep his innards in check very funny, as well as gross; I recommend Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and From Beyond as two examples of just absolutely grotesque transmogrifications of the human form that are horrifying and horrifying funny. It seemed natural that I combine the two.

Spec Can: Is there something distinctive about Canadian horror? How so? What distinguishes it?

Corey Redekop: All horror is about coming across some form of evil; Canadian horror is about confronting such evil with unfailing politeness. Why thrust a wooden stake through the heart of the vampire when a strongly worded letter can be just as effective? “Dear ancient evil; I must strongly object to your recent killing spree…” (joke)

Horror is horror, no matter who writes it. I don’t think that there’s a necessarily Canadian POV that permeates northern horror, other than possibly setting (which doesn’t even work, since fiction crosses borders with such ease; one of my favourite horror novels, Cabal by Clive Barker, is set in Alberta, yet the author is British). I think this may be because fear is a primal instinct, something shared between peoples across the globe. Authors such as Andrew Pyper, David Nickle, Gemma Files, Michael Rowe, Susie Moloney, Ian Rogers, and Tony Burgess stand firmly with the best horror fiction available in the world. This could be because horror authors are all of a similar breed, a sect of damaged individuals who yearn to explore the darker corners of the world. Some are darker than others, but all appreciate what confronting our demons can achieve.

Spec Can: In your novel Husk, you wrote about a gay zombie. What inspired you to make your zombie character gay?

Corey Redekop: I actually didn’t know Sheldon was gay until (*SPOILER*) he killed his boyfriend. It just wrote out that way, but as soon as it did, I knew there could be no other choice. Sheldon has always been uncomfortable as himself, which may explain his striving to be an actor. He was never truly at ease with his homosexuality, a discomfort that can be placed at the feet of domineering religious mother. In our society, homosexuality is one of the last personal characteristics that some people feel very comfortable discriminating against because of their blatant fears and willful misreading of age-old texts that have very little bearing on the world of today (although this is lessening, thank God). Allowing Sheldon that experience informs his refusal to fully “monster up” and embrace his new identity as a member of the undead.

Spec Can: What can horror reveal about ‘otherness’ and the outsider experience?

CabalCorey Redekop: In Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, the hero Neville, after fighting vampires for what seems like ages, suddenly understands himself to be the outsider, the monster that preys on innocent victims. Similarly, in Cabal, Boone, filled with self-loathing and believing himself a monster, realizes that the monsters are in actuality the prey, living forever in fear of humanity. Like the best of any fiction, horror allows us to turn the mirror and see ourselves as others see us, as monsters in our own right. This isn’t meant to excuse the monstrous acts of others, of course, but is it right to condemn the monster (or the outsider) as evil simply for following its own instincts? A zombie isn’t intrinsically evil; it is simply following an impulse we do not share. A vampire is only trying to survive, the same as us, reacting in the same way as any animal that has its habitat threatened through civilization’s continuing encroachment.

Spec Can: Can horror be a medium for empowering people who have been oppressed? How so?

Corey Redekop: Storytelling can always be empowering, and using elements of horror in the medium is no different. Look at how many authors are imprisoned for their stories; there is great power in words and tales, which explains why some governments are so wary and distrustful of their artists. The more we discuss a subject, the more people begin to understand it, come to grips with it, and accept it. This is what some people find so dangerous. The world is a place of constant change and evolution, and that scares some people to the core of their being. This is why Harry Potter gets challenged and banned, because in its own way it challenges some people’s belief as to the way the world works.

Spec Can: Why does horror literature show such a fascination with the body? What does the body interest us so much?

Corey Redekop: The fascination lies in the body’s fragility. The prick of a pin can lead to infection; the eating of a peanut may close our breathing passages. It doesn’t take much to kill us, really, and while we may fight disease, we all know that it is ultimately a losing battle.

There’s also the absolute unfairness of the body that terrifies us. When people die from outside actions, there is always a reason we can attach a form of blame to. The girder wasn’t built to specifications, the terrorist was angry at government inaction, the brakes on the bus failed. We get that; we can deal with it rationally. When our body rebels, however, we have no one to blame, no one to confront, no one to fight back against. That body you took such good care of is now a prison you never escape from. You could apply the term Kafkaesque to the process, although the machinations of the body is even more unfathomable that poor Josef K’s predicament.

Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that ‘realist’ fiction can’t?

Corey Redekop: When people read speculative fiction, they are already primed to accept anything that would, under almost every other circumstance, be viewed as ludicrous. Once you accept that (in the world you’ve just begun reading about) starships travel faster than the speed of light, the colour of your hair may lead to insanity, a society of frog-people live beneath the surface of the lake, Trafalmadorians can experience any point in time at will, and the dead get up and walk around and hold down a job, you’re up for anything.

Speculative makes the impossible possible and the subtext palatable. A reader may not want to read a treatise on the damaging mixture of religion and politics, but a reader will read an enormous set of volumes on just that theme as long as its set on Arrakis. A viewer will not care to sit through a documentary on racial violence, but will watch again and again a tale of space prawns unwilling trapped in South Africa.

I actually don’t care for the term, actually; by definition, all fiction is “speculative.” It feels like a cheat to me, a way of elevating a genre through semantics. I’m all for declaring all genre classifications null and void. However, the librarian in me protests that form of anarchy, because then where would we put the books?

Spec Can: What drew you to write speculative fiction? Why do you write it?

Monty PythonCorey Redekop: This is the only spec-fic I’ve ever written, and I’m not sure I’ll return to the genre soon (I’m now starting work on a crime novel). But I love it. My childhood was made up of equal parts Star Trek, Star Wars, The Prisoner, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Wild Wild West, Stephen King, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I wasn’t popular as a kid, so most of my free time was spent in my imaginations, and the more outlets I could find, the better. I love stories that give you an alternate view of the world, a viewpoint you never considered.

Spec Can: What role can Speculative Fiction have in provoking people to think about new things and new ideas?

Corey Redekop: Fiction pushes at the boundary of what’s possible, and encourages readers to learn from example and then create themselves what they love in their stories. We dreamed of space travel through our stories, and then achieved it. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were enormously influential, as is William Gibson today. Yet we’ve now advanced to such a point where such outward innovation has almost caught up to our imaginations. I think speculative fiction will have to look inward now, to expanding our consciousness beyond mortal limits. We see hints of this in talk of Artificial Intelligence and The Singularity.

Speculative fiction can also act as a warning by providing glimpses at what may happen should science go awry. Margaret Atwood’s books are terrific examples of real-world scenarios and advancements having devastating consequences.

Spec Can: Is there anything distinctly Canadian about the worlds and characters you create?

Corey Redekop: I don’t know. I write what I want, and leave the discussion on subtext and cultural influences to others. I like to think my protagonists so far have been polite, which works to their disadvantage.

Spec Can: In Husk, medical doctors are largely corrupt and disinterested in the human element. They privilege their research and economic factors over humane treatment. What influenced this image of science?

Corey Redekop: I certainly didn’t mean for my doctors to infer a distrust of the medical profession. I think doctors (the good ones) are some of the noblest people of the planet. I far more distrust corporations that underwrite research, politicians who suppress research and innovation because of ideological bent, and good old basic human greed. I also follow Vonnegut’s satirical writing rule, “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” I need bad things to happen to Sheldon, and uncaring scientists seemed a good way to test his mettle.

Spec Can: Why focus Husk on an actor? What is the significance of the acting profession and how does it relate to your story line?

Corey Redekop: I thought acting would be a fine way for Sheldon to avoid being himself. Acting can be a psychologically damaging profession (I know from experience), and I thought it a nice touch that Sheldon can’t seem to get anywhere either as himself. I also wanted to play with some of the themes of fame, or more specifically, celebrity. I hate that in this world you can become a celebrity by virtue of being an absolute asshole with no redeeming qualities who somehow lucked into having a television camera catch every revolting act. Sheldon wanted fame, but not celebrity.

Spec Can: Is there anything further that you would like to add to this interview?

Corey Redekop: Only that the response has been far greater than anything I could have hoped for. I’m truly gratified that people have so enjoyed such a deeply weird story.

I want to thank Corey Redekop for this insightful and thought-provoking interview, as well as for his sense of humour. It is always delightful to talk to someone who can ponder about the nature of the Outsider effect in our society and then also joke about Canadian politeness.