It’s my pleasure to welcome Vincenzo Bilof to our ever-growing series of SMM interviews! Bilof is the author of The Violators, Necropolis Now, Japanese Werewolf Apocalypse, and a slew of other horror/bizarro/literary weird wonders. In addition, Bilof is also the Editor-in-Chief of one of my favorite publishers, Bizarro Pulp Press. Check out his Amazon author page and Bizarro Pulp Press. Without further ado, I hope you enjoy our discussion of The Violators, Roberto Bolano, the declining gothic element in horror fiction, and, of course, Bizarro Pulp Press.
“So then we have to wonder: why do people read horror fiction, or watch horror movies? I think we want our sense of normalcy and safety challenged.”
Justin A. Burnett: The Violators is my first exposure to your work, and it was enough to convince me to follow up. I don’t often come across a thoughtful horror/weird fiction book with a literary sensibility. Do you have a suggestion for what book Violators fans like me should visit next in your oeuvre?
Vincenzo Bilof: A few of my books have literary sensibilities. Vampire Strippers From Saturn is a genre satire that I wrote with more concentrated prose; I think that’s my way of saying the book is semi-pretentious. The Horror Show is a book of poems that string together to form a narrative, and because of its surreal quality, it might be considered literary.
Burnett: At the end of The Violators, you mention a follow up entitled Worship This Fiction of Explosions. Is that still floating around in the works somewhere?
Bilof: “Floating” is probably the best word for it. At this time, any sequel is on the back burner.
Burnett: Do you consider The Violators a work of bizarro fiction?
Bilof: I think, sometimes, when a book’s genre is difficult to identify, it might be easy to lump it into the bizarro category. As the bizarro genre has evolved, I think there are some identifiable tropes. I like to think of The Violators as an anti-novel, more or less a deconstruction of genre. There are more horror elements than anything else inside the loose narrative, and I think, because the book has surreal qualities about it, that it must belong to some category. I’ve heard it referred to as “transgressive”, and I think that’s appropriate. Wherever you would find Burroughs in a bookstore (not comparing myself to him), that’s probably where The Violators belongs.
Burnett: I would say it belongs where Bolano shows up as well. And since it belongs with Bolano and Burroughs, it undoubtedly has literary leanings. Much about this novel reminded me of Savage Detectives and Distant Star, particularly the intersection between art and transgression. Did you sense a similarity between the Visceral Realists of Savage Detectives and Bizarro that inspired you to respond to Bolano’s novel?
Bilof: Bolano is one of my favorite authors. I consider him my “literary hero” because a big part of me wishes I could have lived and experienced life the way he did. I feel like I certainly discovered a similarity while writing The Violators, but I have to confess the idea for my work was generated by a dream. I dreamed about the class and the professor, though not exactly the way they’re characterized in the book, and a few of the other scenes. I don’t think I could confidently say that anything I do is similar to what he might have done; for me, that sounds like a horror writer comparing themselves to Stephen King, or a science-fiction author suggesting they are the next Asimov.
Burnett: The dream origin certainly seems apt, given the anti-narrative quality of the book. The juxtaposition between scenes lacking a firm causal relation reminds me also of poetry, to a certain extent. Poe and Baudelaire play a central part in The Violators‘ literary meditations, and Rimbaud is mentioned more than once. Are there any other poets working behind the scenes here, insofar as they influence your artistic vision?
Bilof: T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are definitely at the top of my list.
Burnett: You add a disclaimer to the beginning of The Violators stating that the views held by fictional characters are not the views held by the author. Has the exploitative nature of your work inspired outrage from readers, despite the fact that you clearly don’t endorse your character’s behavior?
Bilof: I think an author’s beliefs will oftentimes bleed right out of the page. We have to remember that a book is sort of an extension of someone else’s consciousness, and as much as an author attempts to project the personality of a character that is completely different than them, it’s never completely without the influence of experience. We can’t possibly meet all walks of life, and even if we place characters into archetypical models, we can fall into traps.
This is challenging to explain. The characters in The Violators are absolutely deplorable people. There is nothing good about them, and really, what they’re doing isn’t funny. These characters are not people we can empathize with. I would compare them all to older versions of the Jack archetype from Lord of the Flies. They are young sociopaths in the company of like-minded people. They are essentially a murder cult.
I was very careful in the construction of my novel. I began to reflect upon the horror genre, and particularly, extreme horror. Do the authors endorse eating babies? The atrocities committed in Edward Lee and Wrath James White novels are shocking, but I doubt they are an intimate reflection of any fantasies these authors have. These authors want to make you feel uncomfortable; they want to make you squirm. And there’s an audience for this type of fiction. What compels someone to write about genital mutilation in vivid detail? What compels someone to read it—and enjoy it?
So then we have to wonder: why do people read horror fiction, or watch horror movies? I think we want our sense of normalcy and safety challenged. I’m minimizing the rationale behind horror genre consumption, because there’s a lot more to it than that. I think it’s foolish for readers to complain about “shock value” in fiction, because more often than not, it’s part of the package. I like to think that books have their own “special effects”, and The Violators is no exception.
In an organization that includes young, sociopathic artists with the permission to do serious damage, these artists would certainly attempt to outdo each other. These characters want to shock each other, and they are awful people to being with. I wanted the reader to experience the madness within Professor Krang’s class, and the only way to do that was delve deep. In short, the warning was included as both a part of the novel’s special effects, and to highlight the fact the book doesn’t actually attempt to make any statement whatsoever. The characters are constructed out of nightmares, and that is why, in my mind, they would be scary to ME.
Burnett: Excellent response. You touched on several issues surrounding the “paradox of horror,” which I deal with in some other writings. I won’t unpack it point by point, as much as I’m tempted to, ha ha. I know this might be a difficult question, but why do you think readers want their sense of “normalcy and safety” challenged? Is there a value to this that goes further than mere excitement? Do we “need” this challenge, in other words?
Bilof: I think you would have to analyze an individual’s psychological profile to determine why any one person likes to do anything. People don’t like roller coasters, or taking a trip by plane, or skydiving, or pineapple on pizza, or horror media. Who can say what’s thrilling and what’s not?
Good horror preys on psychological factors; its one of the founding principles of the genre. Frankenstein still resonates with audiences; and the Gothic tradition is just as evident in a TV show like The Terror, based on a phenomenal novel that deals with all the horror of surviving in an arctic wasteland with a monster thrown in. I think the departure from the gothic tradition ultimately dooms subgenres. Consider zombie and vampire media; psychological horror has become completely absent.
I remember when zombie fiction was difficult to find. But we take the psychological horror element out of it to appeal to wider audiences for a longer period of time. And it’s exhausted most of us. As popular as zombie fiction was, I think 99 percent of it is trash, and easily forgotten. Even now, when someone asks, “Can someone recommend a good zombie book to me?”, they get a thousand different opinions on the matter. The idea of what might be considered “good” is difficult to pin down because authors tried so many different things to stand out. Ultimately, I think it’s good that we tried to create different interpretations, but we let it overstay its welcome, and a lot of good work remains buried. Alternatively, popular zombie authors stuck with what made them successful in the first place, and the formula was simple, but not at all horrific. Zombies and vampires have had the “horror” bled out of them. People seem to hate it more than love it, now, and that’s too bad.
But we want to recapture the magic of that first time it thrilled us; the first time we watched Alien, or the first time we watched Dawn of the Dead. We become nostalgic for that feeling and we convince ourselves that we love zombie or alien stuff, but then we have to sift through all the “different” stuff to recapture the original feeling. It’s like falling in love. The next time we fall in love just won’t be as special as the first time when we’re looking for something specific. It’s when we don’t know what we’re looking for that we’re surprised and fall in love all over again.
Burnett: I absolutely agree, and think you diagnosed the “pop horror” problem beautifully. There’s an undeniable difference between watching Dawn of the Dead fourteen years ago (holy shit! Has it really been that long?) and, say, The Walking Dead now. As the Editor in Chief at Bizarro Pulp Press, is this psychologically hollowed-out version of fiction something you actively avoid?
Bilof: We have our fun, pulp-horror books, so we do cater to some tropes for the sake of doing it. There is a special place in my heart for Grindhouse-style fiction. I think I will seem like an utter jackass if I talk about my expectations for Bizarro Pulp Press, and any editor would just easily say something to the effect of, “I want fresh, original fiction that’s different…” What does that even mean? I’ve heard editors say things like that, and yet they publish work that is hardly original at all. For me, I suppose I more or less want a specific thing at a specific time, and that changes.
Burnett: Is there anything coming up for Vincenzo Bilof, the writer, or in the Bizarro Pulp Press world that you’d like your readers to know about?
Bilof: I have two novels coming out: The Poetry of Violence, which is a modern version of Titus Andronicus with two rival families—that one should be out from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing this year. The other book, called The Profane, is a horror-action novel coming from a publisher named Source Point Press; they are mostly known for their comics, but I’ve worked with them at a few conventions, and they are rolling out a revamped book lineup.
Bizarro Pulp Press always has something going on. It keeps me plenty busy. We have several great titles coming out this year, including Taterskinheads by David Barbee and Skull Nuggets by Amy Vaughn.