And after you finish reading this, feel free to check out my review of I AM THE NEW GOD, which went live on the blog yesterday.
In Praise of the Gutter and Derangement
by Nicole Cushing
I've never been homeless, but I've been to a homeless shelter before. I've had friends and acquaintances who were homeless.
Hell, I was once mistaken for being homeless. In the winter of 2003-2004. I lived in a one bedroom apartment in Louisville, Kentucky and had forgotten my heavy winter coat back in my native Maryland. I couldn't afford to have it shipped back out to me, so I wore a thin, calf-length sweater over top of my work clothes. It was a bitter winter. The morning I was mistaken for homeless, it was about fifteen degrees Fahrenheit outside. A concerned, do-gooder-like woman came up to me while I stood at the bus stop. “Are you okay out here?” she asked.
Was I okay out there? The truth be told, I was just coming off the worst year of my life and trying to get things back together. My life had crash landed in Louisville. Emotionally, I was wreck. But that wasn't what she was talking about. She wanted to know what I was doing, standing out there in temperatures well-below-freezing, wearing nothing but a thin sweater over my clothes.
I explained I was just waiting for my ride to work. I think I spoke with a clarity of mind she wasn't expecting from someone on the streets, because she looked mildly embarrassed after I talked to her. I think she was a social worker, dispatched to get people off the streets and into a shelter. Maybe, though, she was just a kind stranger who wanted to help. Who knows? Maybe I should have broken down and cried and admitted I didn't have money for a coat and begged some off of her. But I never begged for money. Not even when I only had five dollars to make it through the week (and bus fare was a dollar a day).
When I climbed aboard the bus, I sat in my usual place (up front). Even on a winter morning, stale, sour body odor lingered around my seat. (It wasn't me, honest. I may have been poor but I wasn't stinky). Eventually I was joined by a woman reeking of rum who sat down next to me. She mumbled to herself. At least the bus had heat. At least I had food. At least I was safe.
I hadn't always been safe. Once I had to literally run for my life, from an assailant. There have been times when my safety has been threatened by people who were truly (frighteningly) unhinged. There have been times when my safety has been threatened by people who – on the outside – looked like Joe Normal. This is all stuff that happened in my twenties, for the most part. But growing up wasn't a picnic either.
Domestic violence is part of my family's story. Suicide is, too. These were things I learned to deal with in early adolescence. And then there's plain, old ordinary death. I often comment that my career as a horror author was predestined by an experience I had at my grandfather's funeral, when I was six. I walked up to his casket and patted his hand, perhaps in some naïve gesture meant to comfort him. I was shocked by how damned cold he'd become. At that moment, the visceral reality of death became very apparent to me. For this reason, death will never seem particularly dignified, abstract, or poetic to me. That experience, and the experience at not-a-few hospice bedsides, has convinced me that death is an ugly, sweaty, gurgly business. I'll never look at death as – primarily – a philosophical construct. For me, it will always be a physical reality, first and foremost.
I don't share any of this to elicit sympathy (I mean, c'mon, my hunch is that many of my readers and colleagues could share similar stories. As bad as my stuff is, I don't think it's any worse than the autobiographical vignettes Gary Braunbeck shares in To Each Their Darkness. I have no intention of posturing myself as more-traumatized-than-thou. I'm not unique. The world is one big wound.)
Besides, things are much better now. I'm safe. I live modestly, in a fifty year old house in an unfashionable, blue collar subdivision. But I live in relative comfort. So I'm not sharing all of this in order to whine.
No, I share these incidents to set the stage for a brief manifesto, and to attempt to explain why I write the kind of horror I write. My mission, for the foreseeable future, is to take the reader to a place of deep, realistic disturbance – to take the reader into the heart of trauma, actually – and for the route to be direct rather than circuitous. I'm obsessed with the topics of insanity, poverty, the erosion/corrosion of decency (particularly at society's margins), the menace of authority, and the self-defeating (or, perhaps better-said, self-damning) tendency Poe called “the imp of the perverse”.
I'm not quite sure what subgenre my work falls into. (In a way, that really isn't any of my business. That's more a question for publishers, readers, and reviewers). My stuff is a bit literary, but doesn't seem to fit neatly under the designation of weird fiction (whose practitioners and readers highly value subtlety, something that's a poor fit for the kind of work I do, which seeks to depict trauma). It, at times, intersects with cosmic horror – but it's not just cosmic horror. At times, it seems graphic, but I don't think it sits neatly alongside most of what's called extreme horror. It's strange, but not Bizarro.
Honestly, I don't know what to call it. Other than, simply, horror fiction. (Or, if you insist, “dark fiction”).
In any event, my life experience has (I think) determined what sort of writer I'll be. I'm forty years old. I am not suddenly going to become a shiny, happy person. I started writing seriously, about six years ago, because a friend told me that no one should “die with their music still in them”. So when you read Children of No One or I Am the New God or any of my short stories, please understand: that's my music. The deranged chant of lunatics. The scraping of garbage in the gutter. It's a song that's been in my ear (sometimes barely audible, sometimes deafening) since I was a very small child. It's not the only tune I know, but it's the only one that feels true in the marrow of my bones. It's the only one worth passing on to you.