A Little Gross: A Conversation with Kristen Gallagher and Ed Steck

The following is an edited interview between writer and publisher Aaron Winslow and two writers whose books he has recently published on Skeleton Man Press, Kristen Gallagher and Ed Steck. You can read an excerpt from Kristen’s 85% True/Minor Ecologies here and an excerpt from Ed’s The Necro-Luminescence of Pink Mist here.

I’ve been a fan of Kristen Gallagher and Ed Steck’s writing for years, so it’s a true honor to publish their new books on my imprint, Skeleton Man Press. They are very different books by very different writers. Kristen’s 85% True/Minor Ecologies is travel memoir meets weird fiction—it’s set in Florida, so the weird gets very weird. Even worse: some, or all, of the horror described is true. Ed’s book, The Necro-Luminescence of Pink Mist, tells the story of an irradiated vapor monster through meditative images of loss, trauma, and brutal physicality. Both of these writers hit the sweet spot where genre fiction meets experimentalism—where genre form (horror, science fiction, travelogue) pushes against its own limits. In other words, where the weird gets weirder.

I suppose this is sort of an inbred interview, given that I’m the publisher of both of these books. But if something about that seems a little gross, well, you should read the books themselves. But I guess I would say that….

So, without further ado, allow me to present the fruits of our conversational labor.

Aaron Winslow (AW): One thing that ties your work together is an engagement with genre form—specifically, horror/sci-fi. Of course, neither of you “play it straight.” Ed, your book filters horror film tropes through fractured lyricism, while, Kristen, you engage horror and science fiction through a series of elliptical, first-person accounts of bizarre ecological horrors that are “85% true.” I’m wondering if each of you can talk about the place of genre in your respective works.

Ed Steck (ES): I started writing Necro-Luminescence of Pink Mist as an exploration of spaces in the model landscapes of Japanese kaiju films. In the process of watching all these films, I became pretty obsessed with the historical content of the 1950-70s Toho films. I watched many films directed by Ishiro Honda when working on this project and became interested in how he and other filmmakers filtered the trauma of the atomic bomb through science fiction and monster films. Matango, The H-Man, The Human Vapor, Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, Rodan, The Mysterians, Mothra, Frankenstein Conquers the World, and The War of the Gargantuas, to name some off the top of my head.

It wasn’t the first time that I had seen these films. I obsessively watched them as a child, but the viewing experience changed. I started to key in on the depictions of loneliness and loss. I was also reading the Barefoot Gen manga at the same time, and was struck by the fragility of the moments encapsulated in the panels. I was interested in the repetition of the later Godzilla films (structure: alien monster, terrestrial monster, panic, rural setting destruction, urban setting destruction, monster battle) and the serialization of the manga form. Then, while reading Hiroshima by John Hersey and revisiting Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, I began to reread the gaudy kaiju and science fiction films through a revised lens. I wanted to structure the piece around a slow serialization of dissolving impressions, images, and moments.

In terms of lyricism, I sit down to write poetry and then write something that is an amalgamation, or abstraction, of poetry, science fiction, and whatever source material I am using– this time around it was Godzilla films. I don’t think it’s too far off or out there. You can probably learn a lot about the lyric while watching Dogora or Terror of Mechagodzilla.

Kristen Gallagher (KG): Actually, genre fiction as such has not been a big influence on me. I came to the writing in 85% True through my interest in minor, or non-literary, genres: long-form reporting, documentary, folklore, and experimental poetry.

Most people read as if genre markers were invisible, having learned to respond almost unconsciously to repeated cues: line break and word play means “poetry”; one paragraph length suggests “journalism,” other markers suggest “fiction”; a certain number of words signaling family or employment yields “autobiography.” These genre signifiers create boundaries around how we read, and readers not only fall into habits of reading for genre quite easily, some fight to preserve these boundaries as if the entire world were at stake inside them.

Meanwhile, recent shifts in methods of communication have destabilized how we experience reading and writing, and one result has been an explosion of new kinds of work that are not recognizably part of any genre, and this has affected how I think about “poetry.” I’m not an “internet writer,” but these changes have pushed me further into a practice that partially ignores genre boundaries and partially plays with how genre markers operate on readers.

I try to occupy several genres at once and create texts that, on the surface, lie about what they are doing, both in form and in content, to intensify reader experiences of the content. In Florida, I could see the effects of capitalism on the ecosystem up close; as a witness, I recorded other people’s stories and experiences of it. And I’ve become invested in the local news and weather of several towns. I wanted to write something that would cue those genres for readers and reflect the experiences of people I’ve known there, but remix and revise all of that in ways that increase drama around, and enhance focus on, the central issues of the work.

AW: Kristen, it’s interesting that you connect the formal and generic concerns of your work with the environment that you’re writing in and about—i.e., Florida. Ed, you’re currently living in Florida, so I’m wondering if both of you could talk a bit more about how nature and the environment operate in these projects.

KG: I spend about three months of the year in Florida doing research. What first took me there was a visit to a sick friend. What brought me back was the bizarre cultural dynamics, the little-known history of Florida as a destination for itinerants—escaped slaves; people running from the Civil War; survivors of Andrew Jackson’s slaughter of native peoples; John Muir and Thoreau types; anarchists; cultists; circus “freaks”; escaped convicts; misfits of all kinds. While capital was driving west, most of Florida was still impenetrable jungle and swamp. It was a great place to hide, start over, build a new community. But when you begin looking closely, everything here ultimately leads back to the ecosystem. It’s what first brought people here, and now it’s poisoned and drowning, providing several of the most visible signs of ecological devastation in the US.

I’ve been really interested in Zora Neale Hurston and her ethnographic work in Florida. It’s clear that even back in the 1920s and 30s, she kept ending up in ecology. All the Jim Crow laborers she interviewed to collect story and song were carrying out ecological devastation at the behest of their bosses. These days the work is being performed by migrant laborers, but the dynamic is the same, and the signs of trouble are everywhere: rising tides; poisoned rivers and oceans erupting in seasonal algae blooms, causing enormous fish kills; encroaching real estate pushing endemic species to near extinction; wealthy owners of million-dollar beachfront property in Miami looking to move inland, gentrifying historic communities like Little Havana and Little Haiti.

ES: Like I mentioned earlier, for The Necro-Luminescence, I was looking at model landscapes, or abstractions of landscape, as a stage for collective (or projected) trauma. I am interested in how fantastic worlds, uncanny spaces, floating worlds, or supra-natural worlds, whatever you want to call them, act as mirrors to the anxieties and fantasies of our terrestrial world. It’s also a playful thing, oddly enough. There’s quite a bit of action-figure-ism in my writing. That’s something I used to be embarrassed about.

I love nature. Maybe that’s corny to some. I use nature as allegory because it’s a way to conceptualize external spaces into platforms for mutations, reconfigurations, transformations, or states of being between. Nature is a space for decoding the between state. There’s a fragility that one expects from nature, as if its finality is dependent on humans. But, the dynamics of nature are so slowly orchestrated that the speed of capitalism obscures them. I think that’s what I’m interested in—nature’s ability to operate incognito amidst human folly. I think about some of the trees that survived the atomic bomb. Speaking of eco-writing or nature writing, the book The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing discusses the collaboration between mushroom clusters, forests, and the collapse of capitalism. It’s about much more than that, actually. Mushrooms as vessels for collaborative growth after world downfall. I’m currently writing about slime molds co-opting virtual terrains for a project that will be published next year. Fungus is the future. I’m totally inspired by mushrooms. I am a complete mushroom advocate.

AW: I think one great example of the imagistic juxtaposition between abstraction and corporeality in Necro-Luminescence is the origin story of the Pink Mist monster:

The body unravels, becoming fleshless, hoping to become ash to avoid congealing blood, spurring continuing openings of flesh upon flesh as if wounds mouthed warnings to sores prior to formation–as if the body could scab, or scar, and be anything but a cloud burst of pink dust.

The body here seems to be poised, tortuously, between the abstraction of a “cloud burst” and the embodied meat of “flesh upon flesh”—can you elaborate on this grim reminder of the place of the body under hyper-accelerated capitalism a bit more?

ES: I read a lot of Paul Virilio, which is obvious in the content of Pink Mist, specifically his ideas on dromology and grey ecology. Pink Mist is about confronting the implications of intimacy in a world that is nothing more than an impression of speed, conflict, and production. Fragments, rather than experience, characterize speed. The waste of this production is seen in the monster: remnants of human beings, industrial wreckage, smashed architecture, and warfare detritus. All of this waste intermingles on a natural landscape, continuously building into a heap of waste created by a world of hyper-accelerated, endless conflict and production. Slow gore. I imagined Muffuletta sandwich type-layers of different flesh, unable to congeal and scab. I was thinking about the consequences on flesh in the blur of a sped-up world—one that is in the throes of a nuclear blast, in the nuclear wind washing over the landscape. It’s very much about final impressions.

Returning to the kaiju films, there is a moment when the uncanny flesh of the monster is sacrificed for the production of the metallic “skin” of MechaGodzilla. MechaGodzilla isn’t an organic monster, but a robotic facsimile of Godzilla controlled internally by humans. Even King Ghidorah eventually gets the robotic treatment and becomes Mecha-King Ghidorah.

AW: Speaking of mutilation and mutation, Kristen, one of the most striking images in 85% True occurs in “Death to Our Friends,” in which we witness a horrific scene of starfish self-mutilation and cannibalism:

These stars were using one arm to rip off the other. She watched for hours and hours, days and nights. They twisted their arms together, they pulled and pulled and pulled until one of the arms popped off, then that arm just walks away, like it doesn’t even know it’s dead. This continued for about a week, nearly every species of star ripping off its arms, one after the other. She’d have coffee watching them rip off one or two arms, then she’d go make lunch, and by the time she came back each one had ripped off two more. In the final days, the leather star and the last of the ochres liquefied.

The bat stars were the only ones left alive. For them, the mass death of their friends was a bonanza. They gorged on the corpses.

The vision of collectivity presented here is dark, to put it mildly. Can you expand on the Mad Max meets Hobbes vision of this passage?

KG: I think what you’re picking up on, re: the collective, is a tension between the neighborly tone and the repeated invocation of friendship, and the visceral images of violence. The friendly, relaxed tone and beautiful beach scene are offset by actual events: the horrible self-inflicted violence, and the exploitation of the results by the lone survivor species, described as “their mates.” The relationship between the narrator (guest) and the main character (host) is friendly and studious. The host who loves the stars seems casual, unaffected, matter-of-fact, when describing the horror she witnesses. So there are two layers of rhetoric: one of friendliness and collectivity, another of brutality and exploitation.

To return to the question of environment and ecology, many humans I know sense ecological destruction on the horizon, but also have zero certainty about when and how it will happen. But a lot of people I know are filled with doom about it. Perhaps readers, in a perverse way, need images like this, things to fill in the blanks of the eco-horror film running thru their heads. The images in 85% True are based in real events–images like this offer a glimpse of actual survival and devastation, evolution snapshots in the beautiful toxic landscape of Florida, where everyday life contains countless small destructions and randomly “lucky” species or individuals survive to cannibalize the remains.

Which takes me back to “the image.” There has been a great deal of neuroscientific work done on the image and its centrality in human thought and perception. The image does not work like information. It is deep, physiological, and primitive, bringing together internal processes connected to how and why we name, remember, and imagine. An example of its function comes from the work of V. S. Ramachandran, who studied phantom limb pain. He had a patient whose missing left hand felt perpetually clenched in a fist, and caused this patient extreme pain and distress. So Ramachandran created a “mirror box,” where the patient could put the injured arm into one side, and the other arm into the other. The mirror box produced an image of a hand where there was no hand (it was the image of the remaining hand). When the hand moved, it appeared as if the phantom limb moved. Through this image, the patient began to “move” the phantom limb, and to unclench it from the painful fist.

The image changed physical reality for this patient. That’s what the image can do. Worrying about climate change is kind of like a painful clenched fist in the collective imagination. So I feel a weird satisfaction when I encounter highly affecting images of this kind, and when I read them in news or science investigations, I use them. I want the writing to be visceral, go deep, deeply disturb, unclench the abstract worry.

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Aaron Winslow

Aaron Winslow's novel, Jobs of the Great Misery, is available from Skeleton Man Press. His fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in journals such as Theme Can, P-QUEUE, Smallwork, and Jacket2, among others. He currently works at The New School library. Further information and writing can be found at aaron-winslow.com. Photo: Ryan Collerd