TALIE HELENE is a musician and writer, from Melbourne. She has poetry published in journals including Voiceworks, Avant andInkshed, and Mary Manning’s About Poetry (Oxford University Press), and a co-authored short story (with Martin Livings) ‘The Last Gig of Jimmy Rucker’ in More Scary Kisses (edited by Liz Grzyb). Talie is horror editor for the anthology The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror (Ticonderoga Publications), and was news editor for the Australian Horror Writers’ Association for four years (2006-2010), for which she received a Ditmar nomination. She is a member of the SuperNova writers’ group. Talie has a background in music journalism – especially extreme genres – and has performed with many artists including The Tenth Stage, Wendy Rule, Sean Bowley, Saba Persian Orchestra, Maroondah Symphony, and Eden. She is currently developing a new audio arts anthology titled The Unquiet Grave. You can find out more at www.taliehelene.com.
What are the pleasures and perils of compiling the horror component of the Ticonderoga Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror?
One of the guiding principals I have is that the stories need to go to different emotional places, because horror is about hitting raw nerves. If you hit the same nerve too many times, you desensitise and the stories become emotionally monochrome. Horror is unique in that the genre is defined by emotion, rather than trope or context – you can have a completely supernatural story that is horror, and a totally realistic story that is also horror. So trying to keep the mix fresh and blow the readers away in different ways, keep the emotional impact – that is pure fun. Editing a Year’s Best is a bit like being a DJ. The works are already published and polished, so the job is to find that mix of hits and undiscovered gems and make the overall experience entertaining and powerful and surprising. It’s a kick!
Working with Liz and Russell at Ticonderoga is totally a pleasure. I was a dark horse choice for this editing job, and having them believe in my instincts is very humbling. They are also really understanding, and they’ve been very supportive throughout. Having a purpose that isn’t focused on my own headspace has probably been a saving grace for me. Just getting to associate with such fine writers is a buzz and an honour; meeting some of ‘my authors’ and having these instantly engaging conversations about narrative that I would never otherwise have is a delight.
The perils. Well, there should be perils in compiling horror, right?
I think probably the biggest peril is balancing literary horror and visceral horror; horror goes to places that connect with visceral responses, and it goes to places of deep trauma and danger and anger, and sex and death are so very tangled together. If the emotion overwhelms the form it can be incomprehensible, and if the form overwhelms the emotion you get cliche. The quality that lifts both aspects up is authenticity. I’m just one person, so I have to trust my own instincts as to which stories do which of those things excellently. Just entering that territory is perilous, because when people disagree they will disagree vehemently. Conversely, if I didn’t stick to my guns about my choices, I have no business editing horror.
I worship what I would call literary horror – writing that engages with top-shelf word craft and narrative constructs in the service of hitting those raw nerves. In the Capital L Literature world the idea of ‘literary horror’ is regarded as an oxymoron. The reality of any genre is you have to read through a truckload of mediocrity to find the amazing work. Go to a Capital L Literary spoken word night. You will have to endure an avalanche of bullshit to experience a few dazzling talents. But I think it’s harder for people to go the other way – from the literary world, to the horror world – because horror stories do contain exploded intestines! The bad ones have exploded intestines! The brilliant ones have exploded intestines! It takes a committed reader to learn to separate being repulsed by bad gory writing, and enthralled by brilliant gory writing – which is also repulsive! But repulsive in the service of some larger meaning.
Really great horror stories aren’t just about horror – there is always something else that makes you empathise. That’s the reason Stephen King writes so much about love and different kinds of relationships. If you write about death, you write about life. I think horror is the deepest genre because it speaks from that precipice of our mortality. But I’m not allowed to harpoon people who don’t share that view!
While I prize literary horror, I also feel very connected with visceral horror. There would be something really wrong if the horror selection in Year’s Best didn’t include some stories where things that are supposed to be inside people are splashed all over the page – maybe that is blood, or a terrible secret, or unbearable knowledge. I think there are people who read horror and appraise the shock value over the literary merit – that reader is going to roll their eyes at terror in sunlight stories or existential horror. For me, blood and the numinous are equally powerful. By making a broad selection, I’m demanding the reader be open to all of that.
Is that condescending? I don’t mean to be condescending to consider that a peril. My gut tells me horror writers feel that they put great demands on readers too, and that is one of the issues of commercialism (or lack of) for horror.
There is an amorphous danger zone of gender politics in the speculative fiction community in Australia, and in horror more than any other genre. It is in part due to a disparity in theorised feminism, because writers range from all walks of life – can I say thank fuck? That is something I can appreciate from both sides, because I’m not a theorised feminist myself. (I don’t have a degree, and while I do read feminist musicology with interest, I’m truant on Feminism 101.) I think the sticking point is that horror is often violent, and historically violence precedes from the patriarchy, so there has been confusion in separating confronting language from gendered language.
As horror editor of the Year’s Best, I’ve had to remain silent on feminist issues I might have otherwise been very vocal about, because I have conflict of interest – and I support people in their artistic practice who have completely contradictory views, including views that I don’t agree with. It doesn’t mean I’m not participating in the discourse, because I will recognise writers who are disrupting and interrogating those issues in their work, and that becomes an influence in my editorial process. I want the anthology to be a powder keg of awesome! My philosophy is stolen from an old 3RRR Radio Station ID: ‘Diversity in the face of adversity’.
A more personal peril is discovering if I don’t include a writer’s stories, I can hurt the feelings of a friend – and maybe give them the erroneous impression that they had ‘a bad year’. While the words ‘best’ and ‘horror’ are the stars by which I navigate in story selection, there are also other pressures on the selection process – and not every fine story on the shortlist makes it through. It does not always mean those stories aren’t as good – or that I am prejudiced against a certain flavour of horror and won’t ever include it. This is the arts. It is subjective. It has to be subjective. And the DJ part of the editorial process serves a mix, not just an evaluation.
The final peril is for me as an emerging writer. Donning the hat of gatekeeper threatens to crush my view of my own writing with 10,000 tonnes of neurosis. (And that’s what SuperNova is for?)
You’ve got a Ditmar-nominated short ghost story co-written with Martin Livings: is this a sign that we might be seeing more Talie Helene stories out in the wild soon, and is the supernatural likely to play a role in new material?
If by soon you mean ever, then the answer is ‘eventually’. It’s a sign! The stories I have in progress have supernatural elements, although that wasn’t a conscious choice. You can’t really marinate your brain in horror fiction without soaking up the supernatural – and it kind of crunches down to writing emotion. I was already into it, but how tumultuous and marginalised my life has been in the past few years has probably pushed me deeper into it. You can write emotion through the supernatural that might not translate if you tried to deliver it Capital L Literary style. I don’t want to jinx the writing by turning this into a publicity blurb for unpublished work. I need to submit an ‘unavailable form’ to my retail job for SuperNova Sundays, and be humble or shameless with bringing drafts to the table.
You’re known for being a musician and a writer, and ‘The Last Gig of Jimmy Rucker’ combines the two: in what ways do those two creative pursuits influence each other in your practice?
Your question makes it sound nice, Jason. My stock answer is ‘they are the two halves of my heart’ – but right now, fox-holed in a robotic random day job, wearing a plastic smile and folding knickers in a department store – music and writing feel like combatants! They both fight for time and energy I barely have, and one is always stealing time from the other, so of course the other claws in as an influence. Anything beyond writing, that a writer spends time immersed in – history, physics, maths, or philosophy – that is going to influence them. That goes both for social engagement – dialogue colour and character – and for soaking up information that ignites ideas. Whatever boards you tread – the squeaky boards there are your story. Especially if the dark stuff sings to you.
So that kind of influence… I’d like to think my diction and structural sense of drama are influenced by music. I’m definitely influenced by the more personal ways people use music, and that is always a place of story – to grieve, to love, to evoke memory, to escape, to heal, to endure, to mark time, to hide from or find themselves, as a mask, as a drug, as an excuse, as redemption, as Dutch courage, a mating cry, a war cry, a goodbye…
There is something really spooky about singing a Dorian mode with a bunch of other music students. It is intended as an aural drill, but sometimes it hits you that you are inside an ancient structure – and it gives you shivers.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
I’ll tell you about some things I didn’t anthologise. I had post-it notes plastered all over them – one saying ‘HELLYEAH!’ and one with a sad face and ‘NOT HORROR’.
Two stories from Cat Sparks – ‘The Alabaster Child‘ and ‘Beautiful‘ – were both completely immersive science fiction with a distinct visual style. Cat is one of the best visual stylists in Australia, which is not surprising given her involvement in design and photography. She studies colour and light all the time. Thoraiya Dyer‘s ‘Fruit Of The Peepal Tree‘ was the most delicately painted and subtly paced story I read from 2011, and I’m so glad it won the Aurealis in the Fantasy Short Story category, because I was shattered I couldn’t use it for Year’s Best. Even touching on dark themes of loss, environmental degradation, and female infanticide – it didn’t riff the emotion of a horror story, but it was an exquisite story.
The Rage Against The Night anthology Shane Jiraiya Cummings edited as a fundraiser – while under-the-radar locally, that was an impressive collection. The excerpts I’ve seen from Rocky Wood and Greg Chapman’s Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times (with Lisa Morton) look kickarse.
What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years since Aussiecon 4?
Given that I have an Atheling nomination for a 2010 Year in Review essay (co-authored with Liz Grzyb), and I’m gap-filling the 2011 review essay right now – it is absurd, but I don’t feel that qualified to answer this question, because I only really follow the horror. I’m kind of new as a writer and an outsider in the Australian speculative fiction enclave – and I’m tremendously self-involved. The PR Bitch answer would be to say Ticonderoga Publications launched a Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror series, right? The size of the two boxes of Year’s Best reading – 2010 and 2011 – 2010 weighs in as a year of bigger output, but the marketing impetus of a Worldcon makes that almost a given.
Australian spec fic had an international profile boost with all those international practitioners visiting Melbourne. While I’d never dream of suggesting it was the reason Alisa Krasnostein and Twelfth Planet Press scored a World Fantasy Award, I think the wave of Aussiecon4 helped an already deserving and enterprising nominee – and this is a good and natural development, and I’m cheering that success on.
The bowing out of Brimstone Press certainly changed the playing field for local horror writers. Bummer. The AHWA seems to have lost cohesion, but I can see a rallying point emerging with Marty Young executive editing Midnight Echo.
The unfortunate melee that Robin Pen hilariously sketched as ‘Ballad of the Unrequited Ditmar‘ seemed to cause a lot of hurt – factions seem delineated, which I think is a pity because in a scene this small we all move forward together. (Who knew I was such a hippy?)
I think the true biggest change – to paraphrase the words of Bren MacDibble – there is a Paul Haines shaped hole in the world. For the broad generation of Paul’s contemporaries, the wave of writers around him, that loss is going to be felt for a long time. Art doesn’t evolve in a slow creep, it leaps forward with bold thinkers and original voices, and then other practitioners play catch-up. I’m not saying he is the only trailblazer in Australia, but that ego Paul always talked about having – to my mind was just that awareness. He was a leap forward kind of artist. He was special. He knew it. The curtailing of that brave talent is the biggest change I’ve seen, and the saddest.