Pulp and the Avant-Garde: An Interview with Nicholaus Pantnaude of Psychedelic Horror Press

“Psychedelic Horror is an attempt to forge a new genre…. I like the idea of merging the dangerous side of pulp (in terms of content) with the dangerous side of the avant-garde (in terms of form).”

-Nicholaus Pantnaude

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For our latest addition to our author interview series, I spoke to Nicholaus Pantnaude about Psychedelic Horror Press. PHP’s unique combination of high-quality works and beautiful illustrations grabbed my attention, and the ensuing interview has convinced me to keep an eye open for future wonders bound to surface from the fruitful, collaborative efforts generated by this press. Be sure to stop by the Psychedelic Horror Press website, grab a release, and prepare to find yourself amazed. Don’t forget to check out Nicholaus’s own website, as well as his book Guitar Wolf from Eraserhead Press on Amazon.

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Justin A. Burnett: To begin, what exactly is psychedelic horror?

Nicholaus Pantnaude: First off, thanks for having me on your site. I love your approach and finely-tuned design eye. Psychedelic Horror is an attempt to forge a new genre. Certain works in the past have been released which I would classify as Psychedelic Horror, but I wanted to start this press in order to consciously birth more of them. I like the idea of merging the dangerous side of pulp (in terms of content) with the dangerous side of the avant-garde (in terms of form). Only a handful of works achieve this on a satisfying level for me. A novella like The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat is a perfect example. The narrative is conceived as a series of recurring spirals and the murderous confessions of a young man to the shadow of an owl on his bedroom wall. The is a particularly eerie scene of an old man laughing under a tree, with subtle variations—a man who may or not be there and who knows of the young man’s confessions before he speaks them.

Burnett: Thank you for the kind words! The pleasure of having you on is all mine, I assure you. The combination of pulp content and avant-garde form is interesting–it seems to make a lot of room for inclusion as well. Would Naked Lunch be an example of this? What are some other books that might qualify as Psychedelic Horror?

Patnaude: Yes. Naked Lunch would definitely qualify as a work of psychedelic horror—its hybrid of odd forms (fake menus, advertisements, speeches, shifting tones, etc.) and experimental style combined with its free-flowing, disturbing direct link to the unconscious creates a work that is bold in both content and style yet also pulpy to a degree in the same way that a shoddily produced b-movie would gain an audience purely by the merit of its delivered transgressive—or even merely violent and sexual—content alone. This is not implying that Naked Lunch is shoddily produced—it is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century—just that it could even be marketed to both the serious literati and the pulp rack in a shady 50s drug store where Faulkner’s Uncle Willy might be nodding off in a corner.

We’re also deeply obsessed with alternative comics and underground comics. Charles Burns’s trilogy of X’ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull and Black Hole, for instance, offer the reader horror tropes while mutating them in a curious fashion, including experimenting with narrative. We’re intrigued by the tightrope act of many artists with style and substance: is it possible for style to overwhelm substance—via euphoric moments of synesthesia-like epiphanies—like in the most sublime moments of Twin Peaks, for instance—while still maintaining deep and interesting characters. I think it was Thomas Ligotti who once wrote somewhere that the very personality of an author and the author’s peculiar outlook can be compelling enough in and of itself. One of our newer authors, Elizabeth von Dracula, reminded me of this recently when dropping off a faux-fur lined box containing a series of poetic, outsider art graphic novels which we will soon begin publishing as part of our Avant-Gore and Blues Horreurs series. I’d also include Brian Catling—author of the magnificent The Vorrh—and Alan Moore. Interestingly, both of these authors have a deep background in other art forms—Catling is a painter and Alan Moore primarily writes graphic novels and comics. This, I feel, contributes to a fresh quality to their novels—The Vorrh and Jerusalem. Haruki Murakami is another author who blends avant-garde and pulp sensibilities.

Burnett: That’s a fantastic response. I doubt that many publishers out there pay as close attention to the possibilities of specific elemental combinations and transgressions. The Twin Peaks example was apt. I’m not familiar with comics at all, underground or otherwise, but it is obvious that the visual elements of your publications are of high importance. Is this love of underground comics where the extensive illustrations come from, despite the fact that, from what I’ve seen, your books aren’t “comics” themselves?

Patnaude: The illustration of our titles comes out of our love for underground comics in part, but we are also fascinated in hybrid forms and new forms in general. Recently, we were reading a comic by Zanardi (an Italian underground gent) who started using oil and acrylic paintings for comic panels which we thought was a new and fascinating idea. Another artist who inspires us is Gary Panter, especially in works like Dal Tokyo and Invasion of the Elvis Zombies; he moves in and out of surrealism, Impressionism, abstraction, and jagged-line seemingly-rushed states of frenzy to bring the punk energy and aesthetic to the page. Another newer comics artist we’d been inspired by is Michael Deforge, especially his book First Year Healthy—it’s not quite a comic book, not quite a children’s book, and not quite a short story either. Then again, we don’t want our ideas to come across as being overly rigid or fixed exactly; we’re into evolving and trying different experiments.

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Burnett: I think the combination works beautifully. Your extensive illustrations in Bob Freville’s The Network People really add a whole new dimension to the book. Are you the illustrator for all PHP releases?

Patnaude: Thanks for your kind words about the illustrations for The Network People. Each of our three books has been illustrated by a different artist. Our first book, Governor of The Homeless by G. Arthur Brown, was illustrated by Sarah Kushwara. Our second release, Bonespin Slipspace by Leo X. Robertson, was illustrated by Thuy Vi Pham. At one time, it was more common to have one’s book fleshed out by illustrations. We hope to inspire some small resurgence of this process. I think one of the most thrilling aspects of writing a book are the reactions it generates in others, be that reviews, essays, or, in our case, illustrations. It’s challenging to elicit any kind of response in the underground literature or comics scenes. The illustrations offer both an intriguing interpretation of our writer’s stories and a way for further collaboration to take place; in that sense, the books never truly end, even after the pens have been put down.

Burnett: I absolutely agree that, as a writer, the reactions your work inspire are some of the most exciting aspects of the process. As beautiful a production as The Network People is, I’ll have to check out your others. Are these illustrations done entirely without influence from the author, or is it more of a collaborative process?

Patnaude: In the case of Governor of the Homeless and The Network People, the authors were simply presented with the material and, satisfied with the interpretations, we proceeded to publish them; I’m not sure exactly what occurred between the artist and author of Bonespin Slipspace. It could be interesting for it to be more collaborative in the future—however, each of these projects is quite difficult to see through to the end (if one has high standards), and, therefore, I feel that the existence of each of projects proves to be a successful collaboration in and of itself. There have been other projects that have fallen through since we started the press a little over two years ago, projects that, occasionally because of problematic collaborations, never came to fruition.

Burnett: That’s always one of the downsides of collaborative efforts, I find. What direction do you hope to see PH go in the next few years? Are you interested in keeping things relatively small, or would you be happy to significantly expand? Are there any other stylistic “blends” or “crossovers” you’d like to explore?

Patnaude: I think if you viewed a press as a sort of magical beast, you might get an idea of what Psychedelic Horror Press is. It does what it wishes. The press itself will decide if it wants to stay small or expand. We, however, should the press listen to our pleas, would like to produce some bold new graphic novels and other unwholesome but compelling illustrated fictions (or poetic and magical memoirs or scrapes-from-the stars otherworldly poetry) and to challenge the idea of what a book can be without sacrificing storytelling and memorable characters who will haunt you forever.

Burnett: This question is based on a Facebook query I’m doing right now, and I’d like to hear your take. David Foster Wallace or Bret Easton Ellis, if you had to choose only one of them to keep in your library forever?

Patnaude: Ha ha. Definitely David Foster Wallace. He bent and transformed language on a whole new level. I’m especially haunted by a short piece he wrote in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in which he writes about being so petrified on a diving platform at a pool that he has to climb back down. No other piece of writing has captured the horrors and sadness of adolescence so perfectly.

Burnett: Despite your uncertainty regarding long-term, future developments, are there any short-term future happenings in the PHP world you’d like readers to know about? Does an anthology seem to be in the cards anytime soon?

Patnaude: There are a few short-term projects in the works; however, I don’t like to announce them until they’re finished and contracts have been signed. There have too have been too many projects that have fallen through over the years.

I’ve considered doing an anthology, but I’m not sure the idea is quite right for Psychedelic Horror Press. Our books are essentially blossoming views of novelettes and novellas—what I mean by that is: our artists dig deeply into and help exfoliate delicate but dangerous works, whereas an anthology usually has the opposite effect: there’s so many competing visions that it’s impossible to come away with an enduring or singular aesthetic experience.

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