NEVER AGAIN anthology story notes: PART TWO
Below is the second part of the story notes to this forthcoming anthology, the first part of which was posted on this blog last week and can be found here. Who better to explain the inspirations behind the stories than the very people who wrote the ones which were chosen to be featured within its pages. The publisher’s website describes the anthology thusly: ”Never Again is an attempt to voice the collective revulsion of writers in the weird fiction genre against political attitudes that stifle compassion and deny our collective human inheritance. The imagination is crucial to an understanding both of human diversity and of common ground. Weird fiction is often stigmatised as a reactionary and ignorant genre – we know better”. The anthology will be published by Gray Friar Press, and is due to be launched at FantasyCon 2010 in September. The anthology is edited by Allyson Bird and Joel Lane.
In the Arcade
I wrote In the Arcade in September 1974, in Austin, Texas, where I was working a 2 to 11 p.m. shift as a typist, and typing out my own stories in the few hours I had between managing to haul myself out of bed and having to leave for work again. I’d been reading some heavy-duty non-fiction about Nazi Germany, with the intention of collaborating with another writer on a piece of fiction about Hitler being discovered alive and mad somewhere in America. (A work never finished, and probably just as well.) The Nazis did not invent genocide, but they were the first to industrialize, bureaucratize and modernize that terrifying aspect of human nature which starts with dividing our fellow humans into two groups—”us” or “them”—and rapidly rushes downhill into fear, hatred, cruelty, dehumanization and mass- murder. Unfortunately, that’s a horror story that seems set to run and run. My little story is a Twilight Zone—style speculation on something that might have happened if the Nazis had won their war.
Although written in 1974, it wasn’t actually sold until October 1976—I usually kept notes of rejections, but don’t have any for this one, so I don’t know if I was slow to send it out, or if it sat in the slush pile for two years, but the backlog of stories at Amazing Stories must have been considerable, since they did not get around to publishing it until May 1978. Then Gerald Page picked it up for his Year’s Best Horror Stories.
It was Blair and the Iraq war. It made me so angry, so wound up that he ignored the facts and the will of his voters. Zulu’s War translated my anger, but it hasn’t got rid of it. The war criminal still tours the word stage and now, to add insult to (real) injury he pays blood money to the British Legion. I vented my anger through the characters in my short story, but of course the real characters, the troops who served in Iraq, and the hundreds of thousands of civilians who were killed or maimed, were the blood-splattered victims. The sanctimonious freak, as usual, gets off to live his money-clotted, self-centred life. Can you tell I am still furious. This is what happens when we are unable to influence our political inferiors. We—millions of us—are just powerless. And that is truly frightening when such a monstrous ego gets into power.’
The ambience of a certain kind of mittel-European reminiscence literature hovered about me as I wrote Survivor’s Guilt… Ann Michael’s Fugitive Pieces, the Manns, or perhaps further afield to Cesare Pavese and Primo Levi. Though it’s been years since I read these writers, I remember books suffused with melancholy and longing for people and places forever lost to fascism and war.
‘Meanwhile, a German friend said that many of his compatriots have no idea that a social revolution had taken place in their country amid the wreckage of WWI. Led by councils of workers and ordinary people, the revolution of 1918-19 tried to create a society based on cooperation and freedom. The repercussions of its bloody repression were profound. The Freikorps, an elite paramilitary grouping used by the Social Democratic government to suppress the workers councils, later formed the nucleus of the Nazi Party and the SS.
‘I also give a big tip of the hat to historians whose work unearths ‘hidden narratives’ of the past—CLR James, EP Thompson, Peter Linebaugh, Silvia Federici and others. I try to write fiction in the same way, and their approach has informed my delving into the submerged history of the German revolution. Several individuals mentioned in Survivor’s Guilt —Ernst Toller, Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam—were real people. In fact, Toller’s memoirs and writings from prison provided much information and inspiration. So this story is dedicated to them, and others who struggled to bring a better world into being at a very bleak time.
‘Another presence in this story is the elusive writer B Traven. He’s best known for novels such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Rebellion of the Hanged and Death Ship. His work expressed affinity with the indigenous people of Chiapas, poor working people and the dispossessed. There’s a suggestion of him in the character of Gunther, though Gunther emphatically forges his own fictional identity when he behaves in ways that would have Mr Traven rotating rapidly in his grave.’
Beyond Each Blue Horizon
‘The genesis of this story originated in a dream whereby the denouément came to me complete. It was such a striking image that I knew I would have to use it in a story. The opportunity to develop it came with a call for submissions for the Book of Voices anthology (Flame Books, 2005), which was published to support the Sierra Leone PEN organisation—part of the international organisation which promotes literature and human rights. The Sierra Leone PEN was established to reinvigorate the diminished writing community after the civil war and encourage those writers who remained to play an active role in society. I decided to explore the scenario of inaction, whereby absolving responsibility or distancing ourselves from potentially harmful political situations makes us just as culpable and detrimental to the force for good as those who wish to violate us.’
My story Rediffusion was inspired by one writer. Kafka. I discovered Franz Kafka when I was about 15 and I was strongly affected by his work. His novels and stories seemed to reveal a dark truth about the workings of society that I’d never encountered in the work of any other author. Kafka’s protagonists, although active and intelligent (or perhaps because of it), are always forced into passivity and stasis through the horribly farcical obstinacy of large faceless bureaucrats and fascistic controllers. Our own world is Kafkaesque in the extreme.
‘My dealings with the Television Licensing Agency in recent years have been exquisitely Kafkaesque. I don’t own a television and I have never owned one. Every few weeks I receive another threatening letter assuming that I do watch TV and that I haven’t paid for a license and warning me that action is required immediately (no, it’s not; they have no legal power to require anything, the most they can do is request action, and I’m within my rights to ignore such a request). I find it utterly bizarre that the onus is on me to prove that I don’t have a TV set, and in fact it’s not; the bluster, deceit and sheer mean-spiritness encapsulated in these letters is an object lesson in how to assemble, piece by piece, threat by threat, the Kafka nightmare. That’s why I wrote my story.’
Feet of Clay
‘The theme of Never Again was so huge the only way I could think of tackling it was by coming at it sideways, through the experiences and reactions of a particular group of characters. In a way I suppose my story is an exploration of the theme of ‘the sins of the fathers’ being visited on their children, only in the case of Hanne Ganesh it is her suffering that is handed down, first to her lonely son Jonas and then, in the form of a bequest that is both metaphorical and frighteningly actual, to her granddaughter Allis.
‘I very much wanted to portray ordinary people fighting back against fascism, and yet at the same time show how the use of violence in any context, even a righteous cause, is bound to have questionable consequences.
‘It’s difficult for any European writer to even think about fascism without referring back to Hitler’s Germany, but it felt important for me to bring the story home, as it were, and the decision to have Feet of Clay set in the present day and in the familiar landscape of my own country was a very conscious one.
‘Feet of Clay bears an interesting relationship to the story I wrote immediately afterwards, Bellony, which is to appear in the Eibonvale Press anthology Blind Swimmer, also due to be launched at this year’s FantasyCon. The deadlines for these pieces were uncomfortably close together, and in order to quell my panic about being able to finish them both on time I began increasingly to think of the two stories as a pair. Although on a narrative level Feet of Clay and Bellony are completely independent from one another, those readers who happen to sample them both will discover some surprising and (I would hope) intriguing overlaps in the area of both character and theme.’
‘Among my numerous uncles, some alive, some no longer with us, there are two in particular I want to talk about. One of them left Vienna in the late 1930s on a so-called “Kinderpass” or child’s passport, after Austria was annexed into the Third Reich. The rest of his family never made it out; they vanished into the ghettos and the camps. My uncle made it to Manchester, where he grew up an orphan and later married my mother’s sister. One of her brothers, meanwhile—another much-loved member of our close-knit family—joined the Army and became a military policeman, in which capacity he served in Cyprus during the 1950s. This was the time of the EOKA nationalist group’s struggle for “enosis”, or union with Greece; force was met with force, and my uncle was tasked with the interrogation of prisoners. Sometimes, blind eyes were turned to the ways in which these interrogations were conducted; certain things were, if not approved of, then at least let pass without official examination.
‘Of course, all this doesn’t mean that the one uncle was an angel, nor that the other uncle was a monster. Far from it. It’s rarely, if ever, that straightforward. The lesson I choose to draw from it all is that there isn’t always a clearly demarcated “us” and “them”, necessarily; there’s mostly just a bunch of people dealing with situations, reacting as best they can to their upbringings and environments. And the more positive influences we can exert on them, from as early an age as possible, then so much the better.’
The Death of Dreams
‘The UK tabloids are some of the nastiest in the world. They make a living by destroying people’s lives and dignity in the name of the public’s alleged “right to know”. I learned firsthand just how nasty they can be when friends of mine found their private lives on display for the world to mock. The incident has stayed with me ever since, demanding to be put into a story.
‘When the idea for Never Again came about, I thought at first that I wouldn’t contribute. I didn’t want to write with a political agenda and I didn’t know what I could say about fascism that others haven’t already said so much more eloquently. Joel Lane suggested I get personal and think along the lines of general intolerance and from there the story wrote itself. The self-righteous tabloids are the epitome for me of “attitudes that stifle compassion” and I imagined the horror of a society with no privacy laws. We all have unbidden thoughts and dreams we wouldn’t want anyone to see. What if those private ideas could be recorded to provide shock value entertainment for the masses?’
‘The Decision is an attempt to show that even when wrapped up in our own problems, not understanding what is going on around us, we can still act the right way. If we don’t take the opportunities offered we are complicit in discrimination, and will carry that with us into the future.’
Methods of Confinement
‘As far as I can recall, Methods of Confinement, was written after somebody close to me visited a family member in prison. The journey and the meeting that form the basis of the tale actually happened, and when the anecdote was related to me I started thinking about how society puts us all into little slots, prison cells within the complex structure of civilisation. Some forms of fascism are subtle; they don’t involve violence or hate crimes. Often we are not even aware of what is happening—that this kind of insidious social fascism is at work.
‘According to our social group—where we are born, how rich or poor our parents are and what they do for a living—we are herded into a cell and expected to stay there, and the unseen forces behind society almost dare us to try and escape. My story suggests a way that this set-up might be policed, and involves someone being given a brief glimpse behind the scenes. A glimpse that asks more questions than it answers.’
South of Autumn
‘This was sparked off by the Cure song All Cats Are Grey. The lyrics suggested someone who’d been released into a world he didn’t recognise any more, still feeling persecuted. Then the image of the Wall came to me, walking round town one lunchtime.
‘I wanted to write about survival. And its price, which for the central character is his sense of reality. He’s not sure he really has survived; his imagination’s been poisoned by the old regime.
‘It became more of a fairy tale than I expected, but I found I couldn’t tell it any other way…’
‘Volk was a breakthrough story for me. It was the first time that I was brave enough to throw the rule-book out the window and follow the dictates of my own imagination. I’ve continued to try and write in this manner, which has frequently resulted in readers saying they don’t understand the story. But that’s OK, because neither do I. It wasn’t until Joel said to me that Volk was about fascism that I realised it was. I believe that readers, not writers, create meaning from fiction.’
Once again, I must express my thanks to Allyson Bird for asking the authors to write down their thoughts, and also express my thanks to each of the individual authors for taking the time to write them.