Nightmare Royale #17: Jan Kozlowski Kills a “BASTARD,” and Laura Lee Bahr Puts a “HAUNT” on L.A. (On the Women Who Bring the Change, Pt. I)Books/Art/Culture,Columns,John Skipp's Nightmare Royale (On Making Horror Better),News John Skipp
Dear Women In Horror,
Well, I hate to admit it, but I missed “the month.” I’M SORRY! But I swear to God it’s okay. This year, for “Women In Horror Century,” I thought I’d try a little something different anyway!
Rather than re-rattle off the broad strokes of the debate, which has come to feel like some hellish infinite tetherball game on a cracked and broken grade school playground, with the same ball on the same rope, going back and forth as angry girls and boys line up to smack it around and around the same fucking pole forever, I’d like to shift the focus to some astonishing cases in point. Scoring actual points. Examples of the transformation in action.
So for the rest of the year, I’m going to devote this column to spotlighting female artists – writers, filmmakers, kick-ass creatives of every stripe – whose work inspires me, or knocks me out, in ways that help blaze the trail not just for other women, but for everyone who cares about keeping this shit we love risky, vibrant, and alive.
In other words: it’s “Women In Horror Month” EVERY month, this year at NIGHTMARE ROYALE!!!
So for our first installment, please allow me to introduce Jan Kozlowski and Laura Lee Bahr, two writers whose work I admire so much I made a point of getting it published. Jan is the author of DIE, YOU BASTARD! DIE! (Deadite Press), a blistering hardcore rape-and-revenge saga so unrelentingly brutal it would singe the hairs off Jack Ketchum’s nutsack. Laura is the author of HAUNT (Fungasm Press), a David Lynchian bizarro noir mindfuck hall-of-mirrors that questions the nature of reality, even as it yanks it out from under you.
One couldn’t ask for two books more thoroughly on opposite sides of the dial. I’m leading with them because, together, they embody the enormity of scope weird nightmare fiction has to offer. And in asking them some questions about what they do, their take on the nature of horror, their reasons for exploring it, and what being a woman has to do with it, I got some answers that blew my mind. As I hope they will yours.
This, to me, is the heart of the matter.
TURNING THE TORTURE INSIDE OUT
One of the most hilarious questions I’ve ever been asked is, “Yeah, but can women write real horror? Like, SERIOUS HARDCORE HORROR?” The insinuation being that anyone with a vagina will automatically write like a pussy. You know! All flowery and candy-ass or something!
Which is, sadly, where the otherwise-swell insult “pussy” comes from, in denigrating weak-ass or cowardly people taking watered-down stances on important subject matter. Like for instance pedophilia, or grown-up torture and rape, ‘cuz what could women possibly know about that?
To that end, DIE, YOU BASTARD! DIE! tells the story of Claire, an EMT devoted to saving lives, largely because her childhood was a living hell. But when her monstrously abusive father winds up hospitalized, she’s convinced by another of his childhood victims that now might be a good time to “make things right”.
Of course, shit does not go according to plan. And the result is flat-out one of the hardest-core horror novels I’ve ever read, written by a woman who knows of which she speaks, in ways most male writers can only guess at. Plumbing depths every bit as excruciating and specific, if not more so, from the other side of the coin.
And yet, Kozlowski keeps it insanely entertaining, with both an honest survivor’s grueling matter-of-factness and a bawdy, inescapable gallows humor that is practically the definition of sanity under pressure. Not to mention shocking plot twists out the ass. Meanwhile, asking serious questions about the point at which victims become monsters themselves, and where you humanly draw the line.
In other words, it’s one hell of a book. And working on it with her was one of the most engaged and revelatory editing experiences I’ve ever had. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when Jan answered my question about her attraction to horror like this:
“I have been fascinated by things that other people find horrifying for as long as I can remember. Before I was old enough to buy my own books, I was obsessed with a book my father had in his collection detailing the history of public executions and torturous punishments down through the ages. When I got old enough to talk my mother into buying me a weekly paperback out of the grocery money, I immediately went for the darkest, scariest covers I could find: Stephen King’s SALEMS LOT, Peter Benchley’s JAWS, V.C. Andrews’ FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC as well as tons of “non-fiction” about serial killers, concentration camps and the Bermuda Triangle, Atlantis & alien contact.
I didn’t realize it at the time of course, but what I was doing was looking for confirmation that there were scarier people, places and situations out there than the one I was trapped in at home. I grew up in a state of near-constant terror of my father, in the company of a group of adults who knew what he was doing to me and refused to intervene or even acknowledge it. Reading (and television) was my escape and it helped a little to be able to rationalize that while my childhood was a nightmare, at least my father wasn’t a vampire and there were no sharks circling my aunt’s pool. It helped to read about other people/characters who survived their stories and it gave me hope I could survive mine.
When it came time to write fiction, it seemed natural that horror would be the genre I was drawn to, and, in particular, the subgenre of human-to-human horror, which after my childhood and years as an urban EMT I felt I had some worthwhile stories to share.”
As to the now-painfully-obvious question of how gender played into her writing, she very generously offered this:
“To be honest, I’m always surprised when my gender becomes part of the conversation when it comes to what I write. One of the nicest reviews of BASTARD started out with the male reviewer apologizing for his pre-conceived opinion – based on my profile picture & my polite social media interactions with him – that I wouldn’t be able to write true horror. He found out he was wrong, way wrong, as it turned out, and I thought it was pretty ballsy of him to own up to it.
I don’t understand though why anyone would think another human being is too nice, too middle-aged, too suburban, too anything to write horror. In the world I grew up in, and unfortunately still run into occasionally, outward appearance is the big con. It was the primal directive in my family to APPEAR perfect, to not ‘air our dirty laundry’ and to, above all, NEVER tell anyone what happened behind closed doors. My mother, grandmother & aunt would call my father (behind his back of course) Street Angel/House Devil. After 17 years of that kind of training, believe me, I never, ever assume that the way someone looks or acts in public has the slightest thing to do with the person they really are on the inside, or what they’re capable of when they think no one is looking.”
So I asked her what she hoped readers might hope to gain from reading a book like DIE, YOU BASTARD! DIE! And she said:
“That if they’ve also been to that dark place, they are not alone. And that there is not only survival, but life on the other side. Never let anyone, for ANY reason stop you from telling your story or speaking your truth. I can almost guarantee you it won’t be easy or fun, and definitely be prepared for even the most outlandish consequences. But never let it stop you. You will end up stronger, healthier & more at peace in the long run.”
Honestly? Far as I’m concerned, the whole “Can women do horror?” debate could easily stop and drop right there. With this book, and those statements. END OF TETHERBALL GAME! But whuppin’ the boys on their own home turf is only part of the fun. Now, let’s zip to the other end of the spectrum, where the trap door genre stands upon gives way beneath our feet.
LIFE AS A SPIRALING CHOOSE-YOUR-OWN ADVENTURE WITH ALL OF THE CHOICE HORRIBLY STRIPPED AWAY
Sometimes the deepest slice to the soul is a fingertip, lightly stroking your throat. A deep stare in the eyes, with everything you fear inside it. And sometimes death is the least of your problems. Death is over in a flash. It’s existence that’s really gonna fucking hurt.
Laura Lee Bahr is, in my estimation, one of the most easy-to-underestimate feminine forces-of-nature on the weird fiction scene. At least until you read her work, or see it performed live onstage, or watch the couple of indie feature films she co-produced, wrote, and starred in. (Her directorial feature debut, BONED, is in post-production as we speak.) She embodies a singular kind of boldness, wherein genuine sweetness is an incredible strength, if not a shield; and sensitive intelligence is your perambulating gateway to an ever-shifting maze packed to the rafters with wonder, sorrow, molten joy, and blinding pain, all draped in the clothes of regular life both vivacious and mundane.
HAUNT is a very hard novel to categorize: like a literary ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, or the hotter, funnier, more kicked-back but equally dark and labyrinthine cousin of HOUSE OF LEAVES.
But if there’s one thing I can clearly say, it’s that the title is truth in advertising. It’s a truly, madly, deeply haunted book that opens with a mysterious dead woman in a bathtub, speaking directly to you – like William Holden in SUNSET BOULEVARD, except that you’re not a casual observer, but an actual character in the story – and gets seriously strange from there: Shirley Jackson by way of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., floating ghostly inside 21st-century L.A.
Originally designed as a choose-your-own adventure for grownups, and written over the course of seven years, she finally found novelistic closure by jettisoning the illusion of choice and focusing instead on the bottomless mystery. But maybe she can explain this much better herself (in a free-form style I now present to you intact):
“There’s always that True Story about the pretty young woman
I could spin off the names of 20 real ones fast
and they are murdered disappeared snatched
by some Monster
And this Monster is why you walk with your keys clutched in your fingers
and are scared, rightly, to walk your damn self to your car in the dark.
In these stories, true stories, there is the Hero (a detective, a father, a brother) who Cannot Rest until the Monster is brought to Justice. And then the story is about the Hero finding the Monster and the disappeared is just that.
But bringing the Monster to Justice is the biggest crock because there is no Justice possible because even if you gouged the eyes of the Monster and slit it from mouth to genital and bled it slowly upside down
that does not change
I wanted to change what happened. I wanted what actually happened to be something you could never put your finger on.
generally these true stories are told from the perspective of the Cop/Detective/Hero and sometimes from the Monster.
But I wanted the voice of the pretty young thing who died to try her hand from the other side.
I wanted a noir where
my femme fatale is also my victim, my hero is also my villain, and to cast/create my reader in the story as a very particular “you”.
Why I wanted to HAUNT you like this:
the reason i started writing HAUNT was I was trying to create a horcrux of sorts – a piece of my own heart beating dark and loving obsessively without destination.
I was so haunted and needed a place to contain the spirits so that I could live my life.
Romantic Love- how it gives you purpose, meaning, life, beauty,
and how the same love can make you naked, blind, mewling, a shadow of yourself
– to love can be to have your heart torn from your chest-
bloody and beating, dripping sticky-sweet syrup of hope and feeling
and indeed, yes, like the creature in Stephen Crane’s poem IN THE DESERT
I do eat of it-
and like it
‘I like it because it is bitter, and because it is my heart.’”
So given all this, I asked her what she thought gender had to do with it. And she said:
“It has very little to do with ‘why’ I write. I considered myself a writer since before I had any concept of myself as a gender (because I was like, 6 or 7 when I hauled a typewriter into a closet as my first ‘office’ and began, with a cup of sugar and a stick of gum in my mouth that I would keep re-sugaring as I typed, my ‘serious work’ writing a novel about a homeless puppy).
It has a lot to do with WHAT I write. Being an actor has made me write a shit-ton of plays and screenplays about gender because as much as I may have rolled my eyes in my liberal-arts women studies class, that shit got real and fast when I moved to LA.
That’s when I realized that even if I personally thought of it as ‘we’re all human and should view each other as such, right?’ that is dead wrong when we are talking about image and buying and selling what people fear and fantasize. So when I write plays and movies I write women and more women and I tell women to write themselves roles and produce their own work because you have to fight to be seen and you have to fight to be seen as a human being with a soul.”
To which I helplessly say, “Fuck yeah!” And then ask her how this has played out for her, as a woman, doing all these things she does. To which she says:
“I always get a little weirded out talking about gender because in terms of my identity, I know I am a woman (duh) but it is low on the way in which I identify myself.
I think of myself as a writer, an actor, a geek, a freak, a spazz, a flirt, a bad-ass, a Bahr, all before I think of myself as a ‘woman’. I have actually just come to understand that I think I am more muppet than woman, in the same way Darth Vader was more machine than man. (But not in the Scottish sense!)
But I have had to fight mightily to be who I am, for damn sure every day of my life. I’m sure that fight is helped or hurt by my gender in countless ways- but I think that fight is a human fight and it’s an honor to leave my blood, sweat, tears, shit, piss and everything else I got on the page.”
And as for horror, she had but this to say:
“Horror to me is survival. The inability to do anything moment to moment but try to keep alive. Horror in my world has been less of battling with monsters than it is living in the belly of The Beast and eking out an existence day to day in a world that cares nothing for you, draining your soul and essence like a Gelfling in THE DARK CRYSTAL. To me, horror is so much of what people call Reality.
I wrote a short story called ‘The Liar’ for your anthology PSYCHOS; it’s very understated in terms of what it actually describes, but to me, it got at what it is to be a child and understand that there is evil and that you may not know its face, but it knows yours.”
Indeed she did, and indeed it does.
In the next NIGHTMARE ROYALE, I’m gonna spotlight two more authors I am honored to work with. Their names are Autumn Christian and Violet LeVoit. You’ll want to remember those names. Because DEAR GOD ALMIGHTY, do they kick ass!
Past that, I’ve got a list of female ass-kickers I’m dyin’ to talk with and spotlight, with an aim toward the cream of the crop. But I’m wide open to suggestions. So if anybody wants to point me toward any woman whose work is demonstrably pushing us forward, in phenomenal ways, PLEASE DO! That’s the point of this whole exercise.
And guys? It’s not like I turned my FANGO back on you. I’ll still be doing book reviews, periodically publishing books by non-women. And the odds are pretty good that awesome kickass men will write the shit out of quite a few of them this year. As such, pointing them out will be every bit as much an honor.
Because HERE’S THE TETHERBALL TRUTH, and the only one that matters.
When it comes to the dark art-o-tainment we love, good is good, and great is great. And you never know who is gonna create the next one that hits you where you live, makes you jump up and down, makes you want to tell your friends all about it.
But when 51% of the creative population is strategically disadvantaged from even getting on the playing field, the math says that we might be missing out on 51% of the good-to-great shit. I don’t know about you, but I find that problematic.
In books, things are getting much better, though they still have a long way to go. But in movies, the percentage is fucking atrocious. So it’s incredible to watch the Soska Sisters and Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK walk point, with so many amazing female filmmakers lining up to take their shots, with short films and no-budget features that prove their worth, their kickassitude, their potential audience love and box office draw. Movies they sunk their hearts and finances into, in the hope they go on to make many more.
I think the balancing time is closing in fast, as the evidence piles up, and more and more gifted women step up to the plate. But I also know it’s a long game we’re playing. Hopefully, by the end of all this, we will start to leave the kiddie playground. And take “Women In Horror Month” to “Women In Horror Century,” which is what it’s gonna take, if we ever wanna balance the scales.
Not so that men fade into the background, ‘cuz we never will. But, dudes? The other half of the human race would like to have its say now, using every art form at our disposal. I, for one, consider this a thing worth fighting for. I HOPE YOU DO, TOO!
Yer pal in the trenches,