by George Lea
The notion of the “extreme” is a perpetually problematic one in the realm of independent horror publishing. With entire sub-genres revolving around the concept, almost constant controversies concerning publishing houses and platforms that either promote subjects that some consider wholly transgressive or inconsistently decry them, the issue rears its many, mutilated heads again and again, particularly on social media platforms and arenas, where parameters and definitions of such are even more uncertain than they are in mainstream publishing circles.
First of all, the concept itself: within a genre as broad and as innately transgressive as horror, what might be legitimately defined as “extreme?” In terms of subject or overt imagery, the application becomes immediately inconsistent, assuming, as it necessarily must, audience reaction to material: it may well be that a large swathe of people react to particular images or subjects with degrees of disgust, revulsion, moral outrage etc, but what of the less vocal minority who experience no such reaction, for whom the material is interpreted as comic book in its excesses or banal in its myopia (for the most part, it’s fair to say that the majority of works that label themselves as “extreme” consist almost exclusively of images, descriptions and situations intended to shock or elicit reaction based on their lewdness, graphicness or the extent of their apparent transgression. The problem with this is that: if you happen to already be immersed in such material -or even create it yourself-, such becomes trite, cliché and, ultimately, lacking in emotional resonance through sustained exposure)? To them (or us, as I certainly number myself amongst that demographic), what is popularly marketed as “extreme” is often anything but; it does not elicit the emotional reactions it purports to, and thus cannot be legitimately defined as such within that particular range of interpretation.
Furthermore, what of material that is popularly available and marketed on all platforms, to all demographics, regardless of age, sex, creed, culture or whatever, yet which, for many of us, DOES evoke extreme emotional reactions, that arouses genuine disgust, outrage or antipathy? I am more consistently affronted on an emotional and intellectual level by the likes of Pop Idol, Britain’s Got Talent, Coronation Street, Casualty et al than anything I find in the pages or chapters of “extreme” horror fiction or cinema. I am affronted because they exhibit their own species of extremity, but one that is so insidious and culturally enshrined as to be invisible: the aggressive, abusive promotion of banality as though it is the highest aspiration, the denigration of art and expression to a means of making money and achieving particular proscriptions of lifestyle, the erosion of genuine inspiration, passion, talent…that is what I find “extreme,” that is what I find “offensive.”
Yet, such media is readily available on massively popular platforms and often without any warnings, restrictions or parameters concerning the demographics it is marketed to.
Furthermore, what of the images and accounts of genuine atrocity, malevolences; genocides, political and corporate abuses, wars, accidents, murders etc that predominate our news media, that are readily available at any time of the day, thanks to 24 hour news coverage, and are often framed and presented in the most prurient manner imaginable; specifically designed to provoke reactions of disgust, of moral outrage etc? In this instance, we see how extreme situations, even when they physically occur, are perfectly palatable and acceptable to many who would denounce such subjects were they to occur in fictional or artistic mediums in which there are no quantifiable consequences or “real life” ramifications.
Enshrined hypocrisy concerning what is promoted as “extreme” pervades our cultures; what is denigrated and promoted as despicable in one breath might be extolled and celebrated in the next, under subtly different framing and cloaked in different language. We live in a world where images of the human body (which we all possess, to some greater or lesser degree) can arouse more furore than images of homeless people, torture, cruelty and genocide. A world in which children’s toys can be sold with little plastic knives, grenades and rifles but are specifically and carefully filed down, ultimately mutilated in their fundamental humanity, so as not to cause some measure of “offence” via the suggestion of their sexes. A world in which morally minded newspapers can shriek and rail against the apparent sexual license of (post) modern culture on one page whilst featuring semi-naked teenagers on another, often boasting slogans such as “hard to believe she’s over 18!” A world in which we casually and off-handedly use terms such as “torture,” “murder” or even “rape,” yet froth and foam when certain terms arbitrarily deemed as “curses” are uttered.
But beyond that, our cultures actively promote and/or dilute the significance of certain forms of “extremity” that serve particular proscribed interests. For example, extreme nationalist rhetoric pervades anglophonic cultures, in our news media, our soap operas, our dramas, our day to day discourses: it is often insidious in its invisibility, as we are all conditioned to regard such as a measure of normality from birth. In order to appreciate how extreme (not to mention bizarre) such language and discourses are, it requires a degree of removal from them; a distance by which persepective might be achieved and analysis made. This is often painful, as it requires that the observer actively abandon certain aspects of their self definition, which is why many of us cannot perceive when we exhibit extreme perspectives or tendencies; why others might react with distress, amusement and/or revulsion to them. To the individual, the extreme is not extreme; it is the measure of normality, rationality and the evil myth that is “common sense.” Thus we find ourselves, as cultures, as individuals: awash in hypocrisy, contradiction and misunderstanding, so alone in our own skulls, so much the products of our own influences, we can barely even begin to perceive, let alone comprehend, what it must be to live as another.
Such a dynamic has profound significance for what is labelled or marketed as “extreme” in art or fiction. To some, the acknowledgement of the existence of LGBTQ people in any form of fiction (or waking life, for that matter) is so extreme as to move them to frothing, letter-writing (or even actively protesting) furore, whereas for those of us that identify as LGBTQ in some way, shape or form, such seems an obvious factor of reality and determining verisimilitude within fictional worlds. Likewise, some publishing houses and platforms even within genres that (arguably) exist by measure of their transgressive natures (horror, science fiction et al), refuse to publish material that includes overt sex, gore, rape, bodily mutilation etc, despite the fact that these subjects are, ultimately, matters of framing: a story might contain some of the most overt and graphic violence imaginable, yet not evoke extreme reaction in its audience because the language it is comprised of lacks weight or atmosphere. Alternatively, a work might contain nothing overt at all; no descriptions of sex, violence or otherwise “extreme” subjects, yet evoke profoundly unsettling emotions and states of mind (a fantastic example of this occurs in the better examples of “found footage” horror films; The Blair Witch Project, Marble Hornets et al include nothing overt or gratuitous, yet have been known to unsettle certain audiences so profoundly, they become icons of disturbance).
Acknowledging this has significant implications for any platform that seeks to censor its artists/writers or that attempts to proscribe standards of taste to its audience: it is an exercise in futility, as emotional and intellectual reactions to such material are so idiosyncratic, based so significantly on personal experience and influence, that one might purge all art and fiction of what one considers “extreme,” only to find that certain specimens still evoke powerful and traumatic reaction in certain individuals, by dint of the manner in which they arouse particular associations and experiences.
Thus, the application of any created thing as “extreme” in terms of its subject becomes an exercise in impotence, as do efforts on behalf of publishers and platforms to clamp down on such material out of some fear of alienating particular demographics or arousing the ire of others. This is further compounded when one considers that: for the most part, such publishers and platforms invariably boast materials in their back catalogues that might be deemed as “extreme,” if not moreso, than those they attempt to censor or make examples of.
A peculiar case in point reared its syphilitic head recently with regards to the writer Matt Shaw; one who has made his name (and a fairly significant one at that) in independent publishing via works of peculiarly deviant subject, primarily published via Amazon’s Kindle Publishing Platform. In recent days, Matt found a work due for publication, for which pre-orders had already been taken, pending further investigation by Amazon. Whilst the company itself has been consistently evasive and oblique regarding an explanation for this state of affairs (a significant one for Matt himself, who makes his primary living through his published work, but also in terms of reputation), it has come to the light that the suspension refers to some perceived “extreme” qualities in the fiction that Matt produces (most notably with regards to their covers).
Nor is Matt the only author suffering; consistent reports have occurred of late regarding works marketed under particular labels or genres being quietly shunted away and sealed off from certain selling lists, positioning within which often determines the relative prominence or obscurity of the works in question. For the most part, such publications seem to consist of those categorised as “extreme” horror fiction, erotica and those whose subject revolves around some contentious socio-cultural subject (for example, LGBTQ fiction). Again, the reasoning as to why has remained extremely vague, communication from the company itself universally oblique, evasive and inconsistent, leaving those tarnished as a result to the entirely reasonable conclusion that it has something to do with the nature and content of their work.
This is an absurd state of affairs for a number of reasons:
First of all, the arbitrary nature of labelling any material as “extreme,” for reasons detailed above (primarily with reference to presuming or pre-empting audience reaction, which is as condescending as it is impossible).
Secondly, it is an exercise of seconds, seconds, to find material throughout the platform that can be deemed as -if not more- “extreme” than anything Matt writes about or concerns himself with (Matt’s peculiar brand of fiction is what I would deem aesthetically “extreme” or explicit; it is designed to shock, to revolt, to arouse and make people laugh at the elaboration and intensity of its images, visually graphic in the way of a particularly down and dirty horror comic book. That said, there is nothing philosophically or ideologically extreme in Matt’s work; it does not promote hatred or violence against any particular sub-set or demographic, which, frankly, is more than can be said for SOME of the work readily available via Amazon’s various outlets). The likes of A Serbian Film, Cannibal Holocaust, Urotsukidojii and its various sequels, plus numerous other specimens are readily, readily available via Amazon; works that include content such as: the most explicit bodily mutilation, scenes of rape and torture, close focus on the experience of pain, cannibalism, forced cannibalism, under-age sex and rape by a multitude of Giger-esque, phallic and labial demonic entities, scenes of genocide, apocalypse and incest, just for starters. All subjects I have no particular issue with, in and of themselves; any more than I have particular gripes with any subject in art or fiction (one’s imagination is one’s own playground; nothing, no matter how ostensibly obscene or offensive, should be verboten, nor can it ever be, in any practical or realistic terms, since conscious acknowledgement and consideration of any given subject naturally elicits the imagination of it, such is the nature of how our creative and inspired minds work), but which become problematic by contrast, given that the platform is actively censoring or suppressing other content creators whose work is no more “extreme,” from a culturally proscribed standard.
Market forces play an enormous role in this: work which makes money, names which sell in particular markets and which can be manufactured into phenomena that platforms can utilise, will always have status above and beyond those that operate in arenas considered “lesser.” The fact that Matt (amongst others) operates in independent circles and is -largely- self published, means that different rules and sets of parameters apply to him than to, say, the likes of King or Barker or Campbell or Gaiman; all writers I adore, but whose work contains material and situations that can be interpreted as “extreme” in numerous ways and on more potentially insidious levels than Matt’s work (which, as previously mentioned, is largely aesthetically extreme rather than in any ideological manner). Furthermore, a casual search through the reams upon reams of independent fiction on Amazon will reveal any number of works that not only feature “extreme” situations, imagery and subjects, but which actively promote or cultivate forms of ideological extremity, whether it be from a nationalistic or particular political perspective, a position of moral or religious superiority and so on and so forth. There is thus a significant class issue involved, one which refers largely to traditionally enshrined and proscribed parameters and assumptions which it is auto-cannibalistic insanity for a platform like KDP/Amazon to promote, being itself a new and deviant platform that sustains exclusively on the basis of its egailitarian qualities.
Thirdly, nothing in Matt’s particular brand of “extreme” fiction promotes any kind of behaviour; it provides imagery and material that others might find stirring and/or engaging on a fictional, imaginative level. It does not in any way naturally result that exposure to such material elicits or provokes behaviour: most consumers of such fiction (myself included) are intelligent and sane enough to understand the difference between what occurs within the realms of our own imaginations and what occurs in the physical, flesh and blood world, and have no desire to actually engage in the situations or experiences we read about, watch on the cinema screen or play in video games. In order for such material to be deemed as somehow inappropriate or “corrupting” to the masses, someone, somewhere, has to be exposed to it. The argument for censorship thus becomes redundant at the point of application: if these individuals can experience the material and walk away from it unharmed (for example, not automatically descending into fits of cannibalistic, dog-raping, auto-castrating frenzy), then the insistence that others can not becomes condescending and absurdist; ultimately, when all obscurantist drivel has been cleansed away, an argument for the enshrinement and imposition of particular tastes.
And that is the very crux of my distaste concerning this situation (a reaction, ironically, not a million miles away from those I’m sure certain moralists and tender souls experience on being exposed to material they deem “extreme” or obscene): this is not some exercise of moral position or even consistent business standards; it is a kneejerk attempt to establish sovereign territory within the imaginations of others; an act of aggression and violation that is, ironically, no less “extreme” for occurring in the abstract; a metaphorical abuse in which certain individuals and institutions attempt to proscribe what is appropriate for us to not only consume, but to imagine.
Can there be any more sincere expression of a desire to impose, to violate, to control and dominate? I don’t think so, and in that, we find the elaborate, obscurantist nonsense of this situation unpicked: at its core, a power-play; token efforts to make “examples” of content creators whose status is considered lesser than other, enshrined names, despite whatever relative audiences they boast or sells thay accrue, in the interest of pacifying a perceived arena of potential criticism, whose barely concealed intention is to establish control and dominon over the imaginative lives and landscapes of other human beings.
A more disgusting, offensive, immoral, abusive and extreme intention I cannot conceive.
George Lea inhabits a state of being slightly removed from the standard that can occasionally be accessed via the UK Midlands (most notably the town of Tamworth). In between his work as a carer for people with mental disabilities, he spends time baking elaborate cakes and scribbling down the insanity that swills around inside his head. He’s of the opinion that if anyone got a good look at that stuff, it would be akin to when one of H.P. Lovecraft’s characters stares into the face of an Elder God. He’ currently involved with the photographer Nick Hardy in a joint project entitled “Born in Blood,” a collection of images and short fiction exploring psychological disease, on the heels of his last collection, Strange Playgrounds.