1. William Seward Burroughs. Lugubrious master of hallucinogenic, laconic prose, this mad master of the beats first came into my life, as he may have done for many others, as the slow drawling Tom the Priest in Drugstore Cowboy. I didn’t know he was a writer but I liked his style. Then came Naked Lunch the movie and suddenly I discovered this mad old bastard who played Tom was a writer, and this crazy-arsed Cronenberg-fest was actually based on a book written by him, colour me stunned! I read Naked Lunch soon after and it threw me completely, I couldn’t get a handle on it at all, it just made no sense and even if I did admire the sprawling, balls to the wind prose and underlying savagery, I put it down, unfinished (I look back in shame, thinking how many years I lost of this man). It would be years later that I picked up Junky instead, then Queer, Wild boys, City of Dead Roads etc (and Naked Lunch of course, which I now devour on a regular basis) and discovered that this man was writing everything locked away in my mind that I’d been trying to put words to for years. That all those crazed, nebulous, half-cocked, cockamamie ideas in my mind had a purpose after all and this man was riding the selfsame wave of insanity, glory be! The world is mad, bad and dangerous to know and good old Bill, junkie, homo and bucolic father of the modern world, laid it all at our feet in straight razor prose that slits right down to the jugular. Bless him, and sod those who look down their nose at the man who wrote modern culture into being.
2. Samuel Delany. In all honesty, if we’re going in order of reading, Delany should come first. But, whilst he gave me the freedom to commit poetry in my writing, it was Bill whose works encouraged me to quit trying to be the writer everyone else thought was appropriate, say what the hell was actually in there waiting to be said, no holes barred, no excuses made (I won’t say I’ve kept on the straight and narrow there, but we all have moments of self doubt). When it comes to Delany, though I admire the totality of his body of work, it is one series of novels in particular by this great and wondrous wielder of words and ideas that has been a foundation to my writing, to my way of thinking. The Fall of The Towers: a metaphor, a glorious, convoluting, richly textured and brilliantly realised series of novels. Many cite it as a lesser work but I’d posit that’s because it’s, first and foremost, literary playfulness in action. It flits and flurries from idea to idea like a hummingbird, rarely settling. Characters, ideas, story, all organically bloom and fade. And in the last book, in the very last chapters, it descends into pure prose-poetry. The first time I read those last chapters, I could barely breathe. Here was language carousing and kicking up its heels, throwing caution to the wind and flying in the face of convention, arse and tits out. By god, I love this man for those chapters, because they threw my mind wide open to possibility and nothing’s managed to close it since.
3. Twin Peaks. Or more specifically, the mad mind of David Lynch. I watched this entire series with my dad as a young teen. We were addicted. Half of it was sheer delight at the lunatic world he’d created and the other was genuine intrigue as to what mad direction the plot would run off in next. OK, and I admit, I had a massive crush on Bob. I mean, who the hell wouldn’t? He’s dark, devious, deadly and definitely not entirely human. My favourite combination. Who can forget the fabulous conclusion when Mr Cherry Pie himself ended up possessed by the spirit of Bob? Genius or insanity? A little bit of both actually. But what, you ask, caught me here? (Don’t lie, I can hear you begging to know ). Character first and foremost, what a bonkers brilliant array of savants, saviours, saints, psychos, whore, bitches, liars and deviants. All pulsing with personality wrapped in a heaving layer of transfixing strangeness. Yet they were all people, recognisably, frighteningly, normal and nuts as everyone I knew. Then there was the endless genius of the set pieces, the midget, the games, the constant cat and mouse, interwoven around a cats cradle of ingenious subplots. Spellbinding stuff, and it resonates in my mind to this day, leaks into everything I see and everything I do, that madness, that seething chewy centre of bizarre wrapped in the crunchy caramel of fakery and the shiny cellophane of normal.
4. Cronenberg. My first introduction to Cronenberg was the twin obsessed peculiarity of Dead Ringers. You may know the story, twin gynaecologists, one lacking confidence and mental strength, the other almost arrogant, become obsessed with a woman with a syndrome that gifts her with two vaginas and two wombs. On the surface it seems quite innocuous, something that might simply descend into soft porn (and it does have some wonderful threesome scenes) but this, as all Cronenberg’s works, is a grim and claustrophobically probing little psychological number. Cronenberg has a gift for digging right into the meat of things, he slides in under your skin and hollows himself out a little hole somewhere near the essence of your being and fills it with a gradual and pervasive unease of spirit. He serves the dark of the world up on a shining silver platter, all its ugly innards exposed and straps you, face down, in the steaming bowel. When he fails, he fails epically, much like the Lynch. But in his successes, Dead Ringers, the wonderful Shivers, Videodrome, Rabid, to name but a few, he triumphs. Without Cronenberg, the latent darkness in my mind may have gone astray. I thank a chance viewing of a movie my mother would have boiled me in Holy Water for watching for a subsequent obsession with the underbelly of the psyche that gripped me hard as cement shoes and sunk me to the stinking depths of the dankest pit. I’ve been happy as a pig in shit down here ever since.
5. Kathe Koja. I don’t know who amongst you knows of this truly special and magnificent word surgeon. She is, quite simply, the one who set me on the path of righteous prose. Whilst Bill gave me chutzpah and Delany gave me poetry, Koja opened the door in my mind marked ‘Here be Dragons’. Her writing is dense, staccato, difficult and disturbing, it is all absorbing, coruscating and stuffed to splitting seams with the gritty, dusty, filthy depths of psychological distress. To say I love this writer would be a vast, heaving, trumpeting understatement. Read THE CIPHER, read SKIN, read BAD BRAINS and wonder why the hell they let these truly stunning works of unmitigated horror go out of print. Lose yourself in the suffocating depths of her first few novels, then read her short story collections (if you can find them) and her YA books and her latest adult book, because she is something totally extraordinary and if I come within a mile of being anywhere near as good as this woman, then I can die happy. Her work does not stint in its layering of misery, its drive to destruction, and is occasionally deeply depressing in the conclusion, something that perhaps, initially, led to her losing what might have been a massive following (though I’m sure the primitive power of her prose, relentless as it is, may have turned some readers away). I recall reading an interview with her many years ago (http://www.darkecho.com/darkecho/archives/koja.html), wherein she explained some of her process and, in partcular, touched on the reason why some of her characters ended in such dismal circumstances, she said:
“I used to send my characters into a fire that necessarily consumed them, but I have learned, a little, how to send them through the fire to a new place. The characters who do not change — most notably Nakota in Cipher, Bibi in Skin, and Lena in Kink — are motivated by an essential selfishness or self-centeredness, an unwillingness to relinquish control to the process, a refusal to become.” Kathe Koja (1998)
I think that’s an unflinching eye on the truth and never at any point do those dire ends feel false, or engineered. They are true to the character they befall, which to my mind is the mark of brave and bold writing, to allow what will happen to a character to happen based on who they are in their story, not on what popular opinion dictates. To hell with happy endings. I’ll leave you with this short extract of SKIN (my favourite of her early works) that was included in the interview I’ve quoted. It speaks for itself about the quality, and darkness, of her work:
“Tess said less, watching the dancers, thinking of the rhythm inherent in metal, in corroding iron, in the slick long limbs of steel. Could it be found? Could she find it? … Branches of mastery, hints and feints and driving piston hearts, the drip of machine oil, the stutter of living flesh mechanically enabled; what she wanted — what did she want? Machines that were not robots, moving sculpture that did not mimic the organic but played, somehow, both with and off that distanceless dichotomy, the insolvable equation of steel screws and aching flesh, that wanted people not only as operators but as co-conspirators. See those dancers now, and imagine them locked in ballerina combat with the grip and clench of metal, the sweet smoke of rosin solder like incense around their dripping faces, imagine them lit with a hundred strobes and the subsonic growl of bass-heavy music like the throb of an engine running hot, burning hot, burning like the white heart of the arc.
Burning. All of it burning.” Kathe Koja SKIN (1993)