John Shirley: cyberpunk & just plain punk
He’s written songs for Blue Öyster Cult, movies like The Crow, and pioneering sci-fi novels. In between, he’s humped Christmas trees and gotten into onstage brawls with rival bands. John Shirley tells his pal and agent Paula Guran about the darkness, the light, and the poetry of it all.
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It’s hard to think of an author who has broken out of more jails than John Shirley — the jails, that is, of genre. He’s busted out of horror, science fiction, suspense, fantasy… you name it. No literary walls can confine his writing; the only classification applicable is sui generis.
Shirley’s life, which has included a night or two in real jail cells, is as unique as his work. No matter what legends you may come across, the truth — good or bad — is usually even more bizarre. He is a natural-born eccentric, brilliantly autodidactic, and a passionate seeker of the spiritual as well as human and political justice. His writing is informed by experience: a personal knowledge of extreme people, mental, and emotional states; insight and an empathetic connection to both the completely alien and the deeply human; damnation and redemption. And there is a small but essential part of John Shirley that, even now, remains delightfully unpredictable and uncivilized — you are never quite sure just what he will do next.
His first professional short-story sales came in the early seventies while he was fronting a variety of punk rock bands, including Sado-Nation, in Portland, Oregon. First novels were Transmaniacon (1979) and Dracula In Love (1979) — which Shirley wrote much of while still in his teens. His City Come A-Walkin’ (1980) is acknowledged as the first cyberpunk novel, and a stint living in France provided the European background crucial to another seminal cyberpunk epic, his A Song Called Youth trilogy.
Back in the States and living in Los Angeles in the late ’80s, Shirley began working as a screenwriter — and also as a songwriter for the legendary band Blue Öyster Cult (a relationship that continues to this day). He wrote the early drafts of the script for the gothic comic-book movie The Crow, released in 1994; the same year saw the release of the Sylvester Stallone/Sharon Stone thriller The Specialist, based on series of books Shirley wrote under the pseudonym John Cutter.
He began working and recording with his post-punk band, the Panther Moderns, in 1995, and a year later published the science fiction novel Silicon Embrace. In 1997 he moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where he still lives. In 1998, “Cram” won an IHG award as best short story; he repeated the next year with the collection Black Butterflies: A Flock on the Darkside.
Recent novels have included Demons (2000), The View From Hell (2001), Her Hunger (2001), And the Angel with Television Eyes (2001), Spider Moon (2002), and Crawlers (2003). His first nonfiction book, Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas, was published in 2004. Shirley’s spectacularly original novel The Other End will be out this fall, and his short-story collection Living Shadows is forthcoming in spring 2007.
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WEIRD TALES: You occasionally reference H.P. Lovecraft in your work (as in “Buried in the Sky,” p. 58), but unlike many writers who deal with the weird — Ramsey Campbell, for one, comes immediately to mind — you never went through “the school of Lovecraft.” Do you see yourself as influenced by HPL?JOHN SHIRLEY: I went through the “Junior High School of Lovecraft,” because that’s when I was first reading him big time. I read all I could find and I sent away to Arkham House for The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (a work I still admire) and even Fungi From Yuggoth, a collection of his highly uneven but charmingly outré poetry. I remember not getting my books from Arkham fast enough and after six weeks or so sending them a postcard demanding them. Then I got wind of some of HPL’s personal prejudices and this put me off him for twenty-five years or so. (I’m told a biography of Lovecraft reveals that in the latter part of his life he emerged from the dim caverns of prejudice and became rather progressive.)I recently re-read a number of his works and I can see that he was a master storyteller, mordantly imaginative. I think a lot of his writing effects were borrowed from certain works by Poe, and someday I’m going to write an essay showing which of Poe’s works specifically helped form Lovecraft’s distinctive voice.
Lovecraftian imagery crops up, flailing its rubbery tentacles, in my novel Wetbones and perhaps a bit in A Splendid Chaos (which is now out in a new edition from Babbage Books). Cellars (also recently re-published) includes a touch of Lovecraft.
WT: But with Wetbones, you combined a grisly serial killer with the tentacles. Even when you use supernatural elements your weird seems more reflective of “the times in which we live” or “the individual going over edge”… the psychological and the personal. So where, would you say, does your sense of the weird come?
JS: I wrote a song for the Blue Öyster Cult called “The Real World” (it’s on the Heaven Forbid album), which describes weird events and then says “the real world is weird enough for me.” I regard “normal” life itself as a bizarre phenomenon. I have always felt somewhat disassociated from the deep sense of identification with the process of living life as a human being on this backwater planet. I have easily fallen into what Dali called “the paranoid critical method,” which, simplified, means looking at things around you as if you’d never seen them before. This is a world of rampant parasitism in the animal world; of media becoming the dominant shared reality in the human world, resulting in modern mankind living in a vast, dreamlike, interlinked marketing organism. If I evoke the bizarre, it’s only poetry about life as I see it.
Then again, in my new story, “Buried in the Sky” [in the current issue, #342, of Weird Tales] we see the ordinary modern world, a big high-rise yet, revealed as becoming more and more alien, a piece at a time, so that the nightmarish otherworldly aspects integrate until we accept them as part of the “ordinary” world — and then all is literally inverted; and the Stygian metaphysical substructure, hidden in the darkness of the collective unconscious, is exposed as the true reality… well.
WT: You mentioned Poe and you’ve been called “the postmodern Poe.” Do you think that’s apt?
JS: I read a lot of Poe as a youth and read a biography of him recently. He was a talented, gifted bumbler — I’ve got the bumbler part down, anyway. But I do think that I am capable of creating state-of-mind as literary atmosphere with a high degree of control; and my use of words, in a modern dialect, is not dissimilar. I am drawn to the dark romanticism of the nineteenth century, too, and it crops up in my work.
WT: Poe, of course, wasn’t a “genre writer.” We typified your authorial life as being “jailed” by genre in the introduction. Do you feel this is true?
JS: I feel it is mostly what has happened. No use whining about it now. When I was young it seemed to me there was a revolution in science fiction and horror and fantasy, as represented, for example, by the “new wave” writers and the Dangerous Visions books. There was some misplaced optimism that suggested that science fiction and fantasy could be absorbed into the mainstream, or at least into literary respectability — partly because of crossovers like Kurt Vonnegut and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ursula Le Guin.
And it seemed to me that these genres were places where one could make a statement, where the metaphors for allegory were very rich and also the cyberpunk thing was emerging — the sensibility that fused science fiction with William Burroughsian/Pynchonesque perceptions. There were great talents like Ballard and Ellison to be inspired by, too. So I was seduced by all this and threw myself into the sf pulp vat, headlong. I wasn’t much suited for it, or it for me.
My rock’n’roll-infused early cyberpunk novel City Come A-Walkin’ was a freakish Frankenstein monster of a book. Eclipse was too leftist for most of sf and too sf for the left. Plus I was not mature enough as a writer to really break through — I was too hasty, too impulsive, too improvisational in the early days.
I began to feel that I’d made the wrong choice in breaking into writing through genre. But I have a love for the genres too — Jack Vance, Bruce Sterling, Zelazny, Lovecraft, imaginative people with great literary voices — and so my jailbreaking was always from the cellblock, but never quite entirely out from the prison walls.
It’s an agreeable prison, however. We basically run it. The warden is usually drunk. I will say, though, that after I became a teenager I read at least as much outside the genre as within it — I read avant-garde writers, I read nineteenth-century imagist poets, I read early twentieth-century novelists of all stripes … and this informs my writing in whatever genre or non-genre I take it into.
Also many of my stories are not tales of the fantastic, they are based on my knowledge of the dark side of the “real” world, stories like “Cram” and “Nineteen Seconds,” “Jodie and Annie on TV,” “Barbara,” “What Would You Do for Love?” and so many other short works. You see, right there I’m resisting pigeonholing again.
WT: But without genre, would you have become a writer?
JS: It did give me an easier place to break into. But I think I would, in time, have started writing for “little literary” magazines, I would have taken the Charles Bukowski route (in terms of publishing) perhaps. As for why I started writing, it was because that’s what there was for me — it was the only thing I was good at. Also I looked around at the world and found I had a great deal to say about it and couldn’t rest till I’d said it. It may be significant that I first published in underground political publications.
WT: In truth, you’re a “literary” writer rather than a genre writer, but you were writing “transgressive” fiction before it was lit-chic. You’ve always pushed the edge, even when you were considered a “science fiction writer”…
JS: William Burroughs was writing “transgressive” fiction in the 1950s and he mixed science-fiction imagery with drug-induced delirium and paranoiac insight, although he was probably indifferent to science fiction per se. I was trying to write within the sf genre — but writing to subvert it. My dark stories have little to do with the “genre” of horror — they attempt to do what horror is supposed to do but seldom does: subvert.
WT: What does William Gibson mean when he calls you an “outsider artist”?
JS: You’d have to ask him. But I suppose it’s a term for artists who stand outside the mainstream to comment on it — they use imagery that will seem very “outside” (which is even an admiring pop cultural term, in music and poetry, for “odd” or “weird” imagery). Being outside means you can see things objectively and you have a wide variety of imagery to draw from-and you can have a feeling of freshness that, you hope, is exhilarating.
WT: You were, shall we say, not like other sci-fi guys. Sterling says he, Gibson, Rucker, et al., were, as Sterling has out it, really pretty normal in a rumpled, but button-down way, while you were “a total bottle-of-dirt screaming dog-collar yahoo.”
JS: I pushed out the envelope, wherever I was. Sometimes it was meaningful; sometimes it was not much better than self-indulgence, a consequence of my boredom with the droning nerdiness of, for example, parties at sf cons. I grew out of much of it, but I’m sure I’m marked by it. I’m somewhat eccentric. I still perform musically at times and somewhat wildly. [Note: Hear for yourself.] Though not as much as when I was lead singer of punk bands — tearing up Christmas trees from the corners of the stage and humping them across the room as I sang, jumping onto people’s tables, smashing beer bottles in the process, getting into fights onstage with other bands… ah, those were the days!
WT: Perhaps, on that nostalgic note, it would be best to go back to literature… Genre at least allowed you to publish things like the metaphysical Demons and, now, The Other End.
JS: People like Atwood and Vonnegut and Aldous Huxley — a writer I very much admire, especially his Time Must Have A Stop — and George Orwell and Philip Wylie and C.S. Lewis and J.G. Ballard, later on, did it; so could I. Demons isn’t a scary novel about demons though it is technically about an invasion of demons that transfigures the world — it’s really a novel about how people are demonically selfish, and whatever way it was marketed, it was intended to speak to everyone. I think of The Other End as a crossover novel, a kind of allegory about social values and consciousness, in the tradition of Huxley or Wylie.
WT: But it takes on the “fundamentalist” view of the Apocalypse. So, are you just being outrageous with The Other End? Just needling Biblical literalists?
JS: The Other End is a kind of chance for psychological refreshment, a way to take a deep, long breath, and look at the world freshly. It’s an “alternative Judgment Day” novel, needed because Biblical literalists were staking out great sections of the consensus mind with their twisted mis-interpretations of Biblical texts, their foolish literalism. I’m inspired by spirituality and even by some doctrinaire Christians, like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, but I’m strongly against any kind of scriptural literalism, in any religious context. The Other End’s Judgment Day does not involve any conventional notion of God.
Recently I heard [religion writer] Karen Armstrong say that most people get their religious ideas at the same time as they learn about Santa Claus — they grow out of believing in Santa Claus but retain childish ideas of God. I provide an alternative phenomenology, an alternative metaphysics in The Other End, and also I provide the joy of seeing real justice overtake the world at last. This is no horror novel, though there are dark, horrific elements in some of it — this is a novel about “the wrong things being made right” as the line was in The Crow, but on a global scale, and not with violence — I don’t want to give away how it’s done. It’s different. There is an apocalyptic factor — “apocalypse” originally meant a great “disclosure” — a revealing. That is, a shocking new way of seeing … I believe that this book will lift people’s hearts. Especially those who are sick of the right wing enforcing its neurotic ideas of ultimate values, imposing its vision of the future of the world …
WT: Isn’t this a little risky? I don’t think Pat Robertson declares “fatwas,” but some of these people are pretty powerful and they are absolutely certain that they alone possess the truth.
JS: They are actually in the minority. They’re a vocal minority who seized power through dirty tricks. Most people are more rational. I’m counting on the rational majority.
WT: You’ve said you are incapable of writing without social commentary. You’ve also said you are basically an entertainer. Can the two co-exist?
JS: I’m not incapable of writing without social commentary — I do it sometimes — think I said that it emerges from much of my writing because it’s natural to me, and I let it emerge because it’s called for, and because one can write entertainingly and have something to say. Were not Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World entertaining? It’s possible to make a statement without being too heavy-handed and irritating about it; one can fuse it so much with story you almost don’t notice it while you’re taking the story in, but the message gets across somehow. I enjoy entertaining; I get pleasure from it; I never stray from it knowingly.
WT: I understand Demons may become a movie?
JS: Demons has been optioned by the Weinstein brothers (formerly heads of Miramax), for their new company, The Weinstein Company. An enthusiastic, talented young director was attached last I looked and they paid well for the option so I think they’re “serious.”
WT: Infrapress has re-published two of your early horror novels — In Darkness Waiting last year and, recently, Cellars. In Darkness Waiting has been optioned, too.
JS: In Darkness Waiting is at Gold Circle (My Big Fat Greek Wedding and White Noise) and there is a script that seems pretty strong… we’ll see. There is now interest in my novel Cellars and my film agent is asking to see The Other End. Also my script for Edgar Allan Poe’s Ligeia (set in modern times) is close to being financed. It’s produced by Jeff Most who did The Crow. But nothing is ever certain with films until they are showing in your hometown multiplex — and even then you can’t be sure.
WT: Babbage Books released new editions of your cyberpunk Eclipse trilogy and a few years ago and, earlier this year, A Splendid Chaos. The Eclipse books are gritty, realistic future scenario sf, but Chaos is… uh… not. It’s not fantasy, but it is certainly fantastic…
JS: A Splendid Chaos is an interplanetary fantasy; it was an influence on various people — China Miéville gave it a nice quote recently [“...a revel of delirious, intoxicating, popular surrealism”], he’d read it early on — and I’ve re-edited this new edition, if I may say so myself, to something closer to perfection. It evokes crystalline-sharp tableaus of some of the most surreal scenes ever appearing in a science-fiction context. It was an attempt to do the impossible, the contradictory: to write logical surrealism. I wanted the reader to see moving paintings in their minds, to see the strangest movie they’d ever seen, in their minds’ eyes, while reading the book. I think it is one of the best, most original things I’ve written…
WT: But there’s a fantasy project you’ve been rumored to be thinking about that doesn’t sound like “John Shirley” at all.
JS: That would be Northmen, probably. It’s set in a parallel universe, an Earth that is familiar and unfamiliar, and follows the story of a young “Viking.” (“Viking” is, of course, not the correct term, but that conveys the idea here.) Since it is set in an alternative world, the “Viking culture” is similar but not exactly the same. The young man is adopted by a “higher” or more decadent culture in the south, and tries to stop a war between these two civilizations — I deliberately set out to have a Robert E. Howard-type character “invade” the world of high fantasy. It’s a deliberate clash — and merging — of two kinds of fantasy… and it’s something I always wanted to do. I can see the scenes playing in my mind.
WT: You have had a parallel career to writing: music. We’ve touched on it a bit. Are you still doing music? Still doing lyrics for BÖC?
JS: Music’s probably part of my writing, too. William Gibson said he always thought of my writing that he could “hear the guitars” in my writing. I think it’s because I listen to music while writing — I try to evoke that energy in the prose. I was listening to Wolfmother while writing “Buried in the Sky” for example.
I try to give up writing songs and can’t ever quite manage to. Blue Öyster Cult has a sheaf of lyrics by me and if they have a new album, which is unknown at this point (they need to be produced by someone like James Hetfield, the lead guitar/singer of Metallica, someone who will acknowledge how much they influenced him), they will probably use some by me. I do have plans to record new material and am thinking of putting together a band to be called The Screamin’ Geezers. The demographic is there! The older rockers will take back the stages… with their “axes” in hand!
WT: Somehow, that seems like the right note to end upon.
Paula Guran is the editor of fantasy imprint Juno Books. She reviews regularly for Publishers Weekly, is review editor for Fantasy Magazine, and is a columnist for Cemetery Dance. In an earlier life she produced weekly email newsletter DarkEcho and edited Horror Garage, winning several IHG and Stoker Awards. She’s a publisher (Infrapress), teaches, and is author John Shirley’s literary agent.