The Thin Line Between Artists and Their Art

Happy birthday, H. P. Lovecraft—you racist bastard!

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Good heavens, I seem to be a bit conflicted there. To be perfectly honest, I’m not the biggest fan of ol’ Howard’s work; his style always struck me as unnecessarily forced and I can’t get behind an author whose best description of the most fearsome, otherworldly terror is that it can’t be described. But I can’t deny the impact and influence Lovecraft has had on horror and SF/F literature, even if I do think folks might be better off heading a little further back to Hawthorne and Poe first. The “mythos” HPL and company crafted continues to thrill and inspire readers and authors alike to this day, and there is quite a lot to be said for that. Weird fiction has even broken well out of the confines of pulp genre fare and into the mainstream with the success of True Detective, and Lovecraft has quite a lot to do with that. Whether or not he is or was the godfather of the subgenre is debatable, but not the debate I wish to delve into here. Instead, I’m interested in the recent (but not entirely new) hullaballoo over the World Fantasy Award.

You see, the award itself is a bust of H. P. Lovecraft, and it is pretty well known that Lovecraft was a racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic jerk. Hell, my favorite HPL story, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” is a thinly veiled diatribe against “lesser people” arriving upon American shores to interbreed with our lovely white protestant American woman and therefore sully the gene pool. On the surface, it’s a terrifically creepy little weird horror story, but the slightest background on the author and its sinister intentions become clear. Gross. So once again, and perhaps this time with more fanfare and force, voices are being raised against the use of Lovecraft’s image for an award in a field already under fire for being too much of an anachronistic white boy’s club.  I don’t deny that is an issue at all, and I’m all too happy to see more attention paid to women and minority voices in that or any other field of creative endeavors. Likeminded individuals, who are incensed that the award still bears the visage of a known racist, have called for it to be replaced with that of Octavia Butler’s, a well-regarded black female SF/F author (who I confess I have not yet read as of this writing). More than 1,200 people have signed a Change.org petition asking the World Fantasy folks to make this specific change. A similar debate arose some years ago regarding the Director’s Guild of America’s D. W. Grittith Award—Griffith was, of course, most (in)famous for directing The Birth of a Nation, an important but undeniably racist film. It was subsequently changed to the “lifetime achievement award.”

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My mind is not made up about this debate. There is a counter-sentiment out there that suggests by removing irrefutably important and influential figures like Lovecraft and Griffith from places of honor, we are not only washing over the history of our media and predecessors, but more-or-less throwing out the baby with the bathwater when, in fact, their work may remain important to posterity (whether it is offensive to our sensibilities or not). I do not completely disagree with this. It seems to me the larger problem lies in how—and indeed if—we can separate the art from the artist.

Were we to toss out every book written by an author with beliefs we deem reprehensible, libraries would start to burn by the thousands like Alexandria ad infinitum. I happen to be a lifelong devotee of Edgar Rice Burroughs (another overwrought pulp wordsmith, I know, but damnit, I love Tarzan)—and there is no getting around the centrality of eugenics to much of ERB’s world-building and characterization. He was a white supremacist, plain and simple, but to this day I can’t let that make me rid myself of my collection of his work. Does that make me an apologist? A co-conspirator? Is it possible for me to enjoy Tarzan stories while still acknowledging the racist eugenics angle and finding that abhorrent? How about that other Burroughs—William S.—who got loaded and shot his wife in the head during a wildly ill-fated attempt at a William Tell game? Or Dr. Seuss’s racist anti-Japanese caricatures? How about Flannery O’Connor, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling—all racists? Or anti-Semites T. S. Eliot and Roald Dahl? Or misogynist VS Naipaul? Can we not reconcile this? Must we toss them all out in the bin? Or is it sufficient enough not to honor them with their images on awards and only read them, yet with a hint of distaste?

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Personally, I tend to feel at least a little better about it all if the offending artist happens to be moldering in his or her grave—HPL isn’t seeing any of my hard-earned jack, but I still won’t pay money to see a Mel Gibson picture. Is that hypocritical? Maybe so. I haven’t sussed out the problem yet, myself, but I do know if I start looking for repulsive qualities in authors and artists my boycott list will never end. And worse yet, I will be denying myself quite a lot of terrific and even significant creative work, no matter how unpleasant the minds behind it might occasionally have been. So perhaps we really don’t want to honor today’s (hopefully more enlightened) authors with the image of an avowed racist from yesteryear, be that Lovecraft, Griffith, or whomever. But I’d hate to think of the slippery slope that might encourage with regard to jettisoning crucial works to authors and readers alike. Surely the entirety of the Western Canon is rife with such unpleasantries when it comes to the authors therein, but I can’t help but think that delves too deeply into the high school English class’s favorite sticky wicket: authorial intent. It’s a worthwhile question when analyzing literature, but one that needn’t let us ruin literature by imposing too much upon it—or taking too much away. Our species is, unfortunately, chock-full of lousy, cruel, and hateful individuals, but even some of those sometimes produce things we ought not ignore. And if, perhaps, today and tomorrow’s SF/F and horror writers can read Lovecraft, fall in love with the mythos, and simultaneously correct for his repugnant personal views while redirecting his influence toward a better, more positive literary path, what in the world could be wrong with that?

That Voice in the Darkness

Another day, another celebrity death. I suppose I take these things in stride because (a) chances are pretty good I had no interpersonal connection to the individual, and (b) I have a pretty chill attitude toward death—to wit, that we’ve all got to go sometime. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died earlier this year, I was sad to see such a tremendous talent snuffed out so young, and appalled by the legions of internet commenters suggesting sympathy was not due to him because he was an addict. I’ve never shot junk, but I’ve been there. And when it comes right down to it, if you haven’t been in someone’s shoes, then you probably don’t have the faintest idea what the hell you’re talking about, no matter how good your intentions.

Which is precisely why the apparent suicide of Robin Williams has left me so stunned and introspective today. It is an objective point of fact that Williams was an extraordinary talent, both as a comedian and an actor, and I have every reason to believe he was a terrific human being on top of that. (An old friend of mine once told me he’d attended an art show in San Francisco, nothing particularly fancy, to which Williams showed up. He was an avid art collector and shot the shit with everybody, just as approachable and likeable as you’d hope he was.) We know how he struggled with addiction all his life, right up to the end. And we know now that he also battled that hoary beast whose name seems to puzzle and even exasperate so many: depression.

That’s the thing that strikes so deep for me, since I have suffered from depression for as long as I can remember. Not just melancholy, which I welcome and treasure*, and not merely sadness that things are or appear difficult, though they often are. Exterior stimuli can certainly exacerbate it, and they often do. But at the heart of it, to oversimplify in the extreme, my brain just doesn’t quite work the way it’s supposed to in this regard. I have a physiological, chemical disorder that both affects and is affected by my psyche as well. What a shit soup! And none too tasty, though I’m left no choice but to sup from that bowl almost daily. Frequently I remind myself that I’ve won at least part of the battle insofar as I’m aware of the issue and can usually identify it when things start to spiral. But neither that nor the various medications I’ve been prescribed over the years cure the depression. It just is. It always will be. It is part of who and what I am, and I’ve long since recognized that fact.

For me, and for millions of people, it’s a frustrating trial at best and at times a dangerous animal to content with. It is a rare day for me that I don’t have that ugly voice speaking to me from the depths of my mind telling me it just might be a good idea to punch my own ticket today—even when everything is going my way, which lately is generally the case. I’ve got a three book deal I’m working through, my stories are being picked up left and right. A thousand times better than that is how I finally found the love of my life, to whom I’m engaged to be married, the most perfect girl imaginable who fulfills me completely. So how the hell could I managed to be sad with all of that going for me? What kind of colossal dickwad doesn’t suck it up and see a glorious set of privileged circumstances for what they are? Why don’t you just get over yourself, Kurtz?!

Almost as soon as I learned the news about Robin Williams, I started to see a few of the callous, unfortunately expected comments about how pathetic it is for a rich, white man like him to cash it in like this. This is ignorant horseshit to the Nth degree with a side of sociopathy in stupid sauce. Williams’ wealth, race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, height, weight, astrological sign, or favorite ice cream flavor have absolutely nothing to do with his suffering. Nothing whatsoever. He may have been privileged, but he was not weak. He was depressed. He was in pain. He tried to numb it with substances, but experience told him that it didn’t really work. He gave his all to others—talking Christopher Reeve out of suicide after Reeve’s accident, for example, or providing his time and comic brilliance to the gloomy cast and crew of Schindler’s List as they immersed themselves in the Holocaust during that film’s production—and brightened the lives of millions over the course of his illustrious career. But interiorly, he still suffered. And the suffering must have gotten bad enough that he deemed it hopeless, unbearable, and ultimately decided to take his own life. I wish he hadn’t. I wish there had been something or someone that could have pulled him out of the darkness long enough to prevent this awful tragedy from happening. But unless you’ve been there, in that wretched pit, you seriously cannot have the slightest clue what it means to despair to that horrible, desperate extent.

Most days that voice hisses at me. Every time I tell it to shut the hell up and continue about my business. I wish it would just go away. I don’t know if it ever will. Whatever the case, I work hard to focus on my love and my work, on the books I love to read and discuss, on the cinema I’ve always been obsessed with, all the things that make my life worthwhile and meaningful, at least to me. I continue to seek solutions and stopgaps, but mostly I just try to deal. I hope for at least that much for others with this same, stupid disease, though I know for many it’s just too damn much to bear—even if to the outside observer they appear to have everything in the world going for them. And god, how that saddens me.

One last thing on the subject, if you’ll indulge me: ya’ll have only the very best intentions when you implore sufferers of depression to “reach out” or “seek help.” I appreciate that deeply and I can see how kind your heart is to make that statement. The trouble with this sentiment is that people like me don’t always know how, or don’t believe at a given moment that we can, or don’t even want to. We withdraw. We get trapped in our heads. We slink off into the ouroboros of our own solitude. So wouldn’t it better to pay attention to those in your life who might be hurting or suffering in this way, and take the initiative to reach out to them? They may fight you at first, but I’m willing to wager most of the time they’ll come out on the other side to thank you for it. Just a thought.

Nonetheless—if you find yourself in a dark place where that voice starts to get louder than usual and, worse still, starts to sound like it might be making some sense, there are always people out there who want to help you. Call 1-800-273-TALK or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.com if you think you need some help. There’s no shame in that at all. Everybody needs help sometimes.

*A recent discussion on the personal, creative, and social need for melancholia is Against Happiness by Eric S. Wilson, which I highly recommend. There is a strong philosophical notion that melancholy, or even sadness if you prefer, promotes creativity and positive social change/progress. I tend to agree with this.

The Forty-Two, or How I Became a Sleazehound

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with New York City for a short while. I devoured everything I could get my hands on that had to do with the city, from the popular shows of the time to books and films. I dreamed of someday living there, when (and if) I grew up, and as I started to get the idea that the New York of the 80s wasn’t exactly the cleanest, safest, or most morally sound place in the world, my interest only grew. Then, a miracle: my old man was offered a job in NYC, and the family was relocating! It was a dream come true…until it didn’t. Arguments were had, decisions undecided, and we remained in Virginia. I didn’t even get to see the city when we went up to look at houses—the entire trip we stayed in New Jersey, and it was another decade before I ever set foot in Times Square. Forlorn, New York faded from my mind.

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Then, years later in Little Rock, I discovered a dust-coated VHS tape in a big box hidden away on the top floor of a video rental shop…and my life was changed forever. The film was Lucio Fulci’s 1979 Eurogore masterpiece Zombi 2, and I had never seen anything remotely like it. The callous violence, dripping gore, and low-budget devil-may-care style of it all enthralled and delighted me, and as I set myself to seeking out more of its kin and kith, I was reborn an exploitation junkie, just like my character Charley McCormick in The Forty-Two. Inside a year I had devoured every Italian gore film, Eurowestern, Emanuelle knock-off, and churned-out American or European horror production (usually featuring washed up second tier actors of years gone by) I could get my hands on—and I still craved more.

To this day, I still crave more. I love these films, and in time I came to love everything about their creators, their productions, and also the beautifully bizarre manner in which they were typically advertised and distributed back in the good old pre-multiplex days. Cities all across America had their crummy strips where scumbags and lowlifes peddled their wares, from Boston’s Combat Zone to Austin’s South Congress, and typically these were the places to find crumbling movie palaces playing the weirdest and wildest films being made around the world. Yet the undisputed king of them all was Manhattan’s own 42nd Street—the Deuce, the Forty-Two. The block between 7th and 8th Avenues in particular was for many, many years home to outrageous double and triple-features in an ever-changing rotation of sex, violence, and low-brow humor. Horror, kung fu, westerns, porn both soft and hardcore, bloody action flicks and a thousand cheap clones of the previous years’ blockbuster hits, the Forty-Two had it all and showed it all. And, of course, even if the movies weren’t necessarily any good, there was always plenty of alternative entertainment to be procured. Anything anybody could want, so long as legality and cost weren’t issues for the consumer.

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By the time I ever got the opportunity to lay eyes on the Deuce, it was on its way out. All of the old grindhouses were shuttered and their marquees bore strange legends put up by avant garde artist Jenny Holzer: strange, broken fragments of poetry that eulogized the old Forty-Two while simultaneously dancing on its still-fresh grave. There were still a few quarter peep shows and dirty bookstores, but even the HoJo’s was closing down in Times Square and the whole squalid legend of the thing was passing into a memory most seemed content to forget. For sleazehounds likes yours truly—especially one born in the wrong time and place—the entire experience was nothing short of heartbreaking.

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But I’ll be damned if the old Deuce didn’t live on in this Southern boy’s heart, and while I continued to expand my exploitation acumen, I became intimately familiar with the on-the-spot writing of Bill Landis (Sleazoid Express) and the tireless work of Mike Vraney (Something Weird Video), the gentlemen to whom The Forty-Two is dedicated. Through their work I not only discovered countless more obscure cinematic gems, but I also learned more and more about the scene back in the day, the Deuce in the 60s, 70s, and its decline throughout the 80s, where I would have spent every free second had I been there. So when the time came that I finally decided to memorialize that sacred and profane city block in a novel, it was almost as though I really had been there, like I owned a piece of it just by loving it so. (And when some of my native New Yorker friends and colleagues expressed their surprise and delight that an Arkansan born two years before the events in the book actually got it right—well, most of the time—I was on cloud nine.)

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I didn’t have to think twice before crafting a major supporting character on Andy Milligan (New York’s own Bizarro Warhol), nor include a plot twist based on one of the more sordid rumors of Linda Lovelace’s early days before Deep Throat; these are just part and parcel of the sleazehound’s repertoire. But more than just all of that, I wanted to craft a sort of twisted love story, a triangle between a lonely young man, a woman who isn’t what he needs her to be, and someone else still that happens to be the only person the young man can ever trust, but whom he can never fully permit himself to love. I hope I was successful in this way, and that The Forty-Two is a fitting homage to a wondrously filthy bygone era as well as a moving and thrilling crime tale. If not, then I’ll just have to give it another shot—I’m fairly certain I’ve got a Combat Zone novel percolating in my gray cells, anyway.

The Forty-Two is out now in paperback and e-book from New Pulp Press.

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Why Do I Write About Race?

A question I get exactly none of the time, except frequently from myself, is why the hell do I write so much about racism, and so many racist characters? A recent story of mine, “Pegleg” (Thuglit No. Seven), opens thusly: “Poke was the craziest spook I knew, so I told him that.” In the first draft, I went all out with the (rightfully) dreaded N-word, but changed it in revision. Conversely, another story I published last year, which takes place during the American Civil War, had an instance of “negro” downgraded to its uglier cousin by editorial request. Many of my characters are homophobes, misogynists, xenophobes, you name it—but none of those make up for half the near thematic quality of so many goddamned racists littering my books and stories. So again: why the hell do I do that? Does the world really need a privileged white male author taking this on?

An easy answer, I suppose, would be that I’m a crime/noir/horror writer, an author of “dark” literature (vaguely), and one who generally adheres to the naturalist school of storytelling. I am tremendously influenced by Émile Zola, and in particular the way he so often conveyed some of our species’ basest qualities and tendencies without authorial judgment; just laying it out for us all to see in all its naked malice. (And if you haven’t read La Bête humaine, get on that. I’ll wait.) Further, the characters I tend to deal with belong to the working class or below; poor and generally uneducated, often with chips on their shoulders and little to nothing to lose. I’ve never been particularly interested in writing about golden heroes, so even my “heroes,” such as they are, are by design deeply imperfect—and occasionally just plain lousy—people. As such, my characters are, as it happens, occasionally to some degree volubly racist. That’s one theory, anyway. And none of it necessarily untrue.

I also tend to write a great deal of historical material. A Wind of Knives, The Forty-Two, and a lot of my short work are all period pieces, most of them dealing with America’s past which is, let’s face it, positively dripping with the still-felt horrors of institutionalized racism. From my perspective, you usually cannot discuss the history of this nation without discussing racism, even when racism isn’t necessarily the main topic at hand. This too is an attempt at both realism and naturalism, however successful it may be, when handling less enlightened times than our own in my fiction.

I’m not trying to fix anything or make anyone feel guilty, it’s not anti-American nor does it condone the points of view some of my characters espouse any more than my crime fiction espouses murder. As a Southerner it’s an unpleasant facet of human interaction that I’ve been well aware of since I was a kid, and it’s crept into the periphery of my life from time to time, hurting people I cared about and generally holding entire communities of people back from achieving everything our extraordinary species could otherwise be doing. It creeps me out and makes me angry, though more than that it saddens me to the point of impotent sorrow. And I still—still!—encounter it today, in 2014, in what’s supposedly one of the nation’s most progressive cities. But here’s the thing, friends—you don’t mind if I get a little personal here, do you?—that’s just the point. I encounter it. It occurs in my periphery. I’m a white male, ya’ll. Like Louis C. K. once said about us white dudes, “You can’t even hurt our feelings.” Which is really kind of true.

As a teenager in Arkansas, I experienced a lot of racist attitudes. I came across a lot of people who did not want anything to do with me because I was white. Hell, the foxiest girl in school told me she couldn’t go out with me because she wasn’t allowed to see white boys. (Okay, she also knew I was kind of a jerk.) That kind of shit. But I’m on the winning side of history, here, and I know it. All I could do was scratch my head and walk away, knowing in my heart that the worst of that kind of bullshit wasn’t ever directed at me. Homophobia, though? Different beast altogether. Up until A Wind of Knives I did not tackle that one much at all. Snippets, flashes. But, for me, largely a verboten subject. Why? Too personal.

Other people’s issues? Okie dokie. Things that hit home? To quote good old Bartleby, “I would prefer not to.”

It is my general focus in my work to concentrate on the bad things people do to one another and how we deal with it when it happens, either positively or negatively (or some shade of gray in between). But as I come into my own as a professional yarn-spinner, I’m starting to allow myself to bleed a lot more on the page, to put more of myself, even the stuff I find difficult to look at, into what I’m doing. I am finding myself wanting to explore the “bad things” I’ve experienced, or even caused, in my fiction, and to leap feet first into the fire if I have to in order to get it down and get it right. I think I’ve done some genuinely good work and there really isn’t all that much I’d go back and change, and I will continue to write about the same sorts of people who have so far cropped up in my novels and stories, replete with all their failings and shortsightedness and sundry peccadilloes. But if I’ve learned anything from a wonderful person and terrific writer who came into my life this year—and I’ve learned much—it is this: even us lowly genre writers have something to say. And you can say it about what you’ve seen, which is okay, but you can say it about where you’ve been, too. Which is maybe better. For the work, for the reader. For the writer.

If I was to be entirely forthright about it, I might say the reason I write so much about race and racism is because I don’t have to bleed to do it, but can still elicit strong reactions. But folks: I’m starting to think it’s time I bled some more.

(Stay tuned.)

Ed Kurtz Signs 3-Year/3-Book Deal with DarkFuse

DarkFuse-logoMy novel Angel of the Abyss may not be due out until December, but I’m enormously pleased to announce the fine purveyors of dark literature at DarkFuse have offered me an additional 3 book/3 year contract. I couldn’t be happier to have landed such a great deal with so marvelous a publisher, and I look forward to getting these – and more! – tales in front of readers’ eyes over the course of the next few years.

The official announcement:

“DarkFuse’s roster of the best dark fiction writers has added another key member today.  We’re happy to announce that DarkFuse has signed Ed Kurtz to a 3-year deal which will include 3 new novels.  This deal includes mutual options on other Kurtz titles as well.  Kurtz’s novel, Angel of the Abyss, is due out from DarkFuse in December 2014 and is in addition to the 3-book deal.

Ed Kurtz is the author of A Wind of Knives and The Forty-Two. His short fiction has appeared in ThuglitNeedle: A Magazine of NoirShotgun HoneyBeat to a Pulp, and numerous anthologies. Ed lives in Texas, where he is at work on his next project. Visit Ed Kurtz online at www.edkurtz.net.

More about this first DarkFuse novel Angel of the Abyss:

When Graham Woodard is hired to restore part of a previously lost silent horror film—Angel of the Abyss—the last thing he expects is the first in a series of murders clearly meant to keep it lost.

With one-time friend Jake Maitland in tow, the two must now navigate the treacherous enigma that is the lost film, while piecing together the story of the film’s ill-fated starlet, Grace Baron, who vanished in 1926. The closer they get to the truth, the more blood is spilled, and it soon becomes apparent that there is much more to the lost film than anyone expected, as there are still forces that will stop at nothing to keep it and its star buried. The darkness the strange film conjured all those years ago has come alive again with its discovery, and now everyone from Graham’s own estranged ex-wife to the LAPD is getting involved.

And the body count is growing.

From the burgeoning film studios of 1920s Hollywood to the perilous streets and dark underbelly of modern-day Los Angeles, Angel of the Abyss is a dangerous tapestry of cinema, history and murder, at the center of which stand two men with everything to lose.”

Short Story News!

I am tremendously pleased to announce two of my stories, previously published in 2013, have been picked up for inclusion in a pair of important collections this year. First up, my crime/noir tale “The Trick,” which appeared in Needle no. 8, will be in Best Gay Stories 2014 from Lethe Press (ed. by Steve Berman). This collection will be available in June and is up for pre-order now.

Also I’ve learned that my story “A Good Marriage,” originally in Thuglit no. 5, has been selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2014 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and series editor Otto Penzler (ed. by NYT bestselling author Laura Lippman, no less!). This is of course an astounding honor and I couldn’t be happier to share the news. BAMS will be out in the Fall and available everywhere.

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CONTROL gets reissued!

controlcoverNightscape Press has released my sci-fi/horror novel CONTROL with a brand new cover by artist George C. Contronis. Now in ebook for the first time (with paperback just around the corner), this novel was previously issued in a limited edition hardcover by Thunderstorm Books. That edition sold out very quickly, so I’m over the moon that CONTROL is now available to a wider audience. I hope you’ll check it out, and I hope even more that you enjoy it.

Leon Weissmann is an introverted loner with no control over his life. His only joy is the menagerie of insects, spiders, and scorpions he tends to in his garage. When he acquires an illegally poached rainforest spider, he unknowingly contracts a rare strain of fungus that enables him to control people, to make them do anything he wants. As his power grows, Leon begins to abuse it until there are bodies in his wake and a coterie of brainwashed disciples under his influence. But soon Leon suspects that the thing growing inside his head may be the one with the power…

It wants to come out. To reproduce. It wants to control everyone.

Get CONTROL at Amazon for $4.99.

NOW AVAILABLE:

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