April 11, 2013

What the Horrour Is: a guest post by Jack Wolf, author of "The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones"

You can follow along Jack Wolf's blog tour via TLC Book Tours by clicking the following link: http://tlcbooktours.com/2013/02/jack-wolf-author-of-the-tale-of-raw-head-and-bloody-bones-on-tour-april-2013/

In the meantime though, check out this great guest post from the author of the new novel, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones.
What the Horrour Is
by Jack Wolf

When I was asked to write this guest blog piece, I was a little bit surprised, as I don't consider The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones a horror novel in the same way that say, Stephen King's Carrie is a horror novel, or James Herbert's The Fog.  But after thinking about it, it occurred to me that in one very important way, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is very much a horror story - because it deals intimately and unsparingly with something that most modern people find extremely frightening - madness.

When I was a kid, I was asked to learn a poem for a memorised recitation in a drama class. It was called "The Fear" and in it the speaker was pursued by a beast, which he would often turn, suddenly, to face. The beast was fear itself. I remember my drama teacher very clearly, trying to get me to stress the words "bound by bound" rather than "face the beast" - which I think was my inclination. You see, then as now - my instinct was to face the beast, and try to call out the horror.

I've been asked by readers of The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones whether I was disturbed by the experience of writing a novel that deals so intimately with psychological and supernatural horror (or Horrour, as Tristan writes it). My answer has always been that it was not really my place, as the writer, to be disturbed by the story I was writing. To write a character like Tristan Hart, I had not only to accept the very real blackness in his psyche, but learn to see in it, and through it, so that I did not lose my footing in the dark and fall down a metaphorical cliff. Tristan, while I was writing him, became - to me at least - almost normal. He had to be. If I had been afraid of him, if I had not turned to face the beast, I could not have written his story with the sympathy and empathy that it needed. Likewise, when other readers have asked me whether Tristan's experiences are real or imaginary, I have replied that I do not know - or that the question itself is meaningless. Perhaps both realities - both the world of the faeries and goblins and the mundane world of the eighteenth century in which Tristan lives - are as real as each other, in different ways. Or perhaps, because the novel is a tale of the mind and perception, there is no difference whatseover in levels of reality. Certainly if there is a difference, Tristan cannot easily tell it.

But is insanity a frightening thought? Is madness, or the threat of it - the possibility that one might cease to tell the difference between those things which -  one assumes - exist entirely within one's own imagination and those things which exist in the physical, objectively verifiable world, the most terrifying thought of all?

I am afraid of becoming mad. I am also aware that, statistically, I have a high chance at some stage in my life of succumbing to some form or other of mental illness. Depression, that scourge of the western world, affects 17% of people at some stage during their life; psychoses, such as Tristan's, will afflict another 3%. Both forms of mental illness run in my family, I am susceptible to stress, and I work in an economically insecure profession - writing - all of which increase my risk factors way above the baseline. The chances are that if I do become ill, I, like the vast majority of people, will not go one to commit any sort of crime or pose any danger to wider society, but will instead find myself at increased risk of assault or other violent attack. If I become mentally ill, and I am lucky, then I will receive some form of treatment - and if I am very lucky, that treatment will work well enough for me to be able to live a useful and reasonably happy life within society. But if I am not, then I could, like many other mad people, fall prey to the modern Horrours of homelessness, worklessness, and an ever present, often overwhelming, fear. I am fortunate enough to live in a country (the UK) where medical care is supposed to be free at point of need. Psychological care, however, is not always accessible on the NHS for long enough to make any sort of difference, and private care is often prohibitively expensive. Consequently, in the case of depressive illnesses, anti-depressive medications may be prescribed long term in the place of any counselling, with the result that the illness does not improve, or degenerates. Worse still, someone who suffers from a severe psychosis may find it impossible to access proper psychiatric care unless he reaches such a low that, like Tristan in London, he becomes dangerously violent, and is consequently arrested. Having been hospitalised, he may then be released before he is fully ready and return to the community still showing symptoms of psychosis. And it is because of that, rather than some vague fear of what it could feel like to lose my reason, is why I am afraid, yes, horribly afraid, of madness.

In the eighteenth century, medicine, and its associated profession, psychiatry, was in its infancy. Historically, the mad - which was a broad category including those with learning disabilities and those whose depression, like Katherine Montague's, had a rational cause, as well as those who exhibited a more obvious psychosis - had been locked away indefinitely, out of mind and out of everybody else's sight, inside their own, or their family's house. The enlightenment, however, saw an upsurge of interest in the notion that the insane could be cured, and family physicians would attempt such dubious remedies as bleedings and cold baths in an attempt to shock the person's reason back into operation. The period saw an increase in the number of public asylums within which the 'untreatably mad', who did not respond to such simple cures, could be contained, treated and - almost co-incidentally - displayed to public view. Society's understanding of madness began gradually to transform from one in which the mad could - as Tristan Hart suggests towards the end of The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones - provide a window into a world of mystical and magical truths from which the rational individual was perforce debarred, into one in which insanity was an indicator of illness and corruption on both a psychological and a moral scale. Effectively, 'the mad' were demonised; their sufferings and the treatments they were made to undergo, which were often both barbaric and ineffective in nature, equally valuable as both spectacle and warning. The message of the Bedlam to its lay visitors was stark: this is hell. This is what we, and our society, shall become, if we, who are not mad, do not uphold reason and moral virtue as our core guiding principles. It is one of the ironies of enlightenment psychiatry, which justified its procedures on the humane basis that insane could be brought back to reason, that this should have been so.

I have to wonder if this eighteenth century 'Horrour', this fearful moral judgement of madness as being an implicitly wicked thing, and of the madman as a sort of modern demon, still lies behind the grotesquely unempathetic attitude that our society, on the whole, continues to show towards those of its members who display signs of mental illness. It is easier to refuse to help, to ignore a person's mental, emotional and medical needs if that person has been stigmatised as a monster. If I become mad, then, it will be easier to write me off, if I can be interpreted as something less than human, a monster, like Tristan fears himself to be, feared and despised as a threat to humanity. Easier to abuse me, rob me, violently assault me. Easier to leave me on my own to harm myself, or refuse to listen to my cries for help until I cause harm to others, when the finger of blame, of course, must be pointed. At me.

The greatest fear I have around madness is not that of losing my mind, but of thereby appearing to lose, in the eyes of those around me, my humanity.

Madness is 'an horrour' of a sort, but it is one that we must turn to face, and of which we must cease to be afraid. It is the fear that must not be allowed to leap on us, unseen and unchallenged, in any of its forms. The stigma that surrounds mental illness must cease. It must do so because we are a civilised society, not in spite of it. We must cease, as a society, to demonise the madman, and instead, call out the ugly beast of mental illness by its real name: Sickness. Treatments for depressive and psychotic illnesses that are effective, genuinely humane and dignified must be made available to those who need them. We are no longer in the eighteenth century, watching the birth of modern medicine, and we need no longer pay any heed to the enlightenment's attendant, in this case misguided, notions and worries about good and evil. It is a question of humanity. Ours.

Losing humanity: that is what the Horrour is. We must turn and face the beast.

Jack Wolf
About the author: Jack Wolf is currently studying for a Ph.D. and is at work on his second novel. He lives in the United Kingdom. The author was a woman when he wrote the book and is now transgender.


  1. Loved the post, and I've been dying to read this book. Can't wait to get my hands on it.

  2. Excellent guest post! Madness truly is a frightening thing, even with better mental health care available.

  3. Ryan - It certainly looks promising.

    Liv - Ain't that the truth.

  4. Thanks for featuring Jack as part of the tour!