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Welcome to the second part of my 2015 interview with Tony Burgess, horror writer and screenwriter. The first part is available here.
Some time ago, I was teaching my favourite zombie novel, Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, so I decided to scour the library database for essays on Burgess or the book.
I located precisely one reliable essay, which was mostly about Max Brooks’s excellent World War Z but partly about Pontypool Changes Everything. This sort of critical neglect is criminal, in my view, since Burgess is easily (no contest) the most fascinating and radical of Canadian novelists.
My one hope was a book called The Bewdley Mayhem, the only Burgess book I did not already own. I was surprised to have missed it, but noticed that it was a republication of three books I already owned anyway (Burgess’s first three novels), which possibly explained my neglect. I thought it might have a critical preface that I could use, so I placed an interlibrary loan for the title.
Soon, the library cancelled my request, noting that the book had not yet been published. Not long after, Burgess himself contacted me — to ask me to write an introduction for the book. That’s how I ended up writing the critical preface that only weeks before I had been trying to find and read. A strange example of the dictum that you should “write the book you want to read but can’t find.”
ECW published The Bewdley Mayhem by Tony Burgess, which is an incredible deal: $20 for a 700+ page compendium of three full books by Tony Burgess, including the short fiction collection The Hellmouths of Bewdley, the most radical zombie novel ever written, Pontypool Changes Everything (which was the basis for the very different, also Burgess-penned Bruce McDonald film Pontypool), and Caesarea, the strangest novel about small-town Canadian life you’ll ever find — something like David Lynch rewriting Stephen Leacock.
And, of course, my introduction: which ECW has graciously allowed me to reproduce here, for your enjoyment.
THE BOOKS THAT SHOULD NOT BE: A PREFACE
What do you need to know to read Tony Burgess? The answer — “nothing” — is deceptive. While you do not need to know anything special to enjoy Burgess’s poetic horror, at the same time it would be better if you knew nothing of the conventions of horror, and of literature and the novel, and made a virtue of not knowing. Then, you might stop tilting at windmills and give up your mad quest to understand. In Pontypool, Bruce McDonald’s film adaptation of Pontypool Changes Everything, Grant Mazzy is able to combat the zombie virus once he realizes that the act of understanding is dangerous. Understanding allows the Pontypool virus to move from the word it has infected into the mind and body of a human host. Not only does understanding the infected word grant the idea of the virus some pseudo-reality, the impulse to understand operates as an attempt to enforce reality, to impose upon it some structure and stability. However, what most unites the books of The Bewdley Mayhem is the instability Burgess insists upon throughout the trilogy: in the world he presents, in the characters that people it, and in his style.
Not to say that Burgess’s fiction lacks logic or structure. Caesarea, at a glance, displays apparent incoherence in its plot, and, due to Burgess’s surrealistic approach to storytelling, often results in the exhilarating feeling that he is making it up and proceeding without a plan or without shape, or perhaps cutting it up in the manner of William S. Burroughs. On closer inspection, however, the novel does conform in clear and even conventional ways to the shape that a more normative literary novel might take. The book begins with Ed, who doodles a crude circle onto paper. Somehow, this circle becomes an airplane, which at the same time is the town of Caesarea. At the novel’s end, we return to Ed, who has been absent for most of the intervening story. Ed is now trapped within a Caesarea that, again, is somehow an image on paper (like, of course, Caesarea the book). Caesarea performs this sort of mirroring often and focuses much of its horror on the figure of the double (like Burgess’s zombies-that-aren’t-quite-zombies, his doubles both conform to and subvert the conventions surrounding how this monster appears in horror). Although Caesarea’s doubles recall those of the Nicolas Roeg film Don’t Look Now, they seem closer to those of John Carpenter’s The Thing, wherein creatures that the Thing has copied do not seem conscious of being the Thing. In this way, both the doubles of Carpenter and of Burgess seem controlled by some “thing” inside of them but outside of their consciousness, the way that Freud’s unconscious (an “uncanny double” of a different stripe) and the Pontypool virus both operate.
The Bewdley Mayhem, unlike most conventional trilogies, seems to cohere mainly through such distorted mirroring. The trilogy opens (in The Hellmouths of Bewdley) with an awakening, a character opening his eyes, and ends in Caesarea with another character closing his eyes. The books also cohere (if they cohere) through the repetition of story elements, or even the odd consistency of Burgess’s otherwise inconsistent style, rather than through a narrative arc. Focusing on Dr. Mendez, who appears throughout the novels yet is always relegated to a supporting role, helps us to see what sort of logic governs The Bewdley Mayhem. Mendez dies in a snowmobile accident in the second story of The Hellmouths of Bewdley, but appears in its later stories, and then is present throughout Pontypool Changes Everything. He returns again in Caesarea, where the fact of his death in a snowmobile accident is repeated in a way that seems to undercut the reality of his appearance earlier in the novel, and by extension in the previous novel. Mendez’s character, whose recurrent presence belies the fact that his actions have little narrative consequence, works like a stitch, suturing the books and supporting the idea that they constitute a trilogy. At the same time, his continuing presence (beyond apparent death) undercuts the reality of the scenes that include Mendez and muddies or defeats attempts to untangle the scenes from the trilogy and slot them into any sort of chronological order. (We might say these scenes with Mendez simply take place before his death, but this seems neither clear nor necessary given the instability of Burgess’s fictional world.) As if underlining Mendez’s potential phantasmic status in scenes that might precede, but might also follow, his death, the inscription on his tombstone states that his body walks still in the night.
As a character, Mendez also challenges the conventional manner of depicting characters in fiction. Almost midway through Caesarea, he shows a younger man (a patient of sorts) an oil painting he has made of the title character from Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman. Mendez explains his impulse to paint her:
*I wondered what the Wasp Woman did when she wasn’t buzzing around apartments. So this is what? I think that she is here alone, in a pretty garden, at night. But she’s walking perfectly. And she knows that she is entirely made up. A character in a movie — a very good movie, but still a picture. So she can never stop being herself, not even for a second, not even while she is alone.
Here we have a character in a story meditating on the situation of being a character in a story and the horror of that situation. What Mendez presents as horrible, however, is not what we would expect (the fact of being fictional), but the stability of it all. Being a character in a story is horrific because story conventions insist on the consistent nature of characters. They must “be themselves,” conform to their characterization, even when alone — because, of course, they are never alone. The audience, the reader, holds them always in the trap of its gaze.
Burgess oscillates between at least two positions in his approach to characters. On one hand, he allows his characters the apparent freedom to escape this gaze and be someone else, due to the unstable nature of his narratives. In Caesarea, with its doubles, this idea takes a literal form, as Mayor Robert Forbes becomes both his double and estranged from his actions, feeling as if they were committed by someone else. On the other hand, Burgess often suggests (or outright states) their lack of freedom, their fate as characters in a story. Worse: in a horror story. As Burgess writes near the end of The Hellmouths of Bewdley, in a sentence that might be lifted out and placed anywhere else in the book (or in any good horror story): “Now it follows that terrible things are fated to happen.” At the same time, Burgess often shifts our gaze towards the terrible fact of our gaze.
While insisting on the participation of the reader in imagining his stories, Burgess reminds us of how the violence endemic to the horror genre troubles our relationship to the entertainment these stories provide. In “Summer,” from The Hellmouths of Bewdley, Dr. Mendez makes another appearance as a painter. Midway through, the narrator suddenly insists that we paint the scene ourselves: “Feel free to use your aesthetic sense of spacing when laying out the lampposts etc.” In a story that otherwise contains no clear horror elements, the narrator encourages us to add some: “If at this point you are growing to resent the arbitrariness that has been privileged thus far, you may kill this third person . . . Be as violent as you wish.” In this way, Burgess rarely lets readers forget their complicity with the author, how they cooperate in forging the nightmare world within which the characters must live, or try to live.
The instability of the narration, which often shifts between character perspectives or narrative voices without warning, is described by Burgess in the afterword of his book Fiction for Lovers as an attempt “to tell stories with a deteriorating consciousness.” Burgess thus subverts one of the horror genre’s persistent and deplorable conventions: the near omnipresence of vivid, clear, sober narration. Although detached, transparent narration is commonplace in genre fiction, the nature of the horror genre complicates the seeming neutrality of its presence. Should it not be somehow difficult to speak of horrors? Should not the narrating consciousness, if sane, be driven to madness by the events it is required to relate? Should not this increasing madness become apparent in the breakdown of the narrative voice, as the narrator crumbles before the sublime terror it must somehow relay? Should language not fail narrators the way that, when we are visited with horror in our own lives (or contract the Pontypool virus), it fails us?
In place of transparent narration, Burgess offers opaque metaphors that have little immediate or intelligible relationship to the scenes in which they appear. These metaphors seem to live their own lives, in some hyperbolic space that only elliptically connects to the world of the fiction or how its characters perceive that world. Pontypool Changes Everything begins with just such a metaphor:
Down in the strange hooves of Pontypool’s tanning horses scratches one of Ontario’s thinnest winds . . . The anonymous wind gathers its speed in turns around a cannon bone and tears across the ice of a frozen pool . . . breaking into mad daggers and splintering into the phantoms of horses. These horses, vacancies now, or maybe caskets, are places for the wind to rest. And when a wind rests, its heart stops and it is dead forever. The horses on the ice, built from the corpse of a breeze, skate towards each other, not breathing, but intelligent. They leap inside their crazy minds and begin to make plans.
Burgess sets the “real” scene in which the wind scratches at the horses’ hooves and then shifts fully into the “reality” of the metaphor. This wind turns into metaphorical daggers, which splinter into metaphorical phantom horses, which are metaphorized again, becoming caskets where the wind can rest. Resting, we should remember, is another metaphor (for death), but lest we forget Burgess next notes that “when a wind rests, its heart stops and it is dead forever.” Although Burgess’s dagger-horse-winds have stilled (and, thus, died down), they nevertheless continue, having emerged by now into some strange second life, unmoored from anything they might have meaningfully represented. The wind-dagger becomes a herd of horse-phantoms that are somehow also their own coffins. Not only do these “horses” continue to survive, zombie-like, beyond the death of the breeze that comprises them, they are more active in death. These corpse-wind horse-phantoms leap — another metaphor, since this is mind-leaping — and plan, as if about to shoot off into their own story in some universe parallel to the novel’s own. Why not? The narrative of Pontypool Changes Everything really has nothing to do with either set of horses anyway.
At the same time, despite how disconnected this introductory paragraph seems from the novel that follows, and indeed how disconnected these metaphors seem from one another, some of the novel’s core thematic obsessions begin to develop in this paragraph (notably, the concept of infection and of how language’s instability reflects or causes reality’s instability). The wind, in a sense, becomes infected through its proximity to the horses, imbued with the idea of horses, and so the wind becomes horses. When it dies, it births zombie-horses that skate off into new, post-life lives. The process is not much different from what happens to humans who contract Acquired Metastructural Pediculosis (AMP, the Pontypool virus). They acquire the idea of the virus through some infected word (as “Pediculosis” suggests, the virus is a lice-like language parasite). The idea of the virus causes language to seem strange to the speaker, and as the symptoms develop and language seems more and more an alien and foreign thing — something living and beyond the speaker’s control — s/he loses the ability to communicate through words. As panic sets in, and the infected arrive at some horrified, instinctual understanding that language exists apart from its use, and meaning is unstable, they become desperate to communicate. They see others, uninfected, who seem able to use language with ease and, in a sad, jealous, desperate rage, attempt to leap out of themselves and into their victims’ mouths.
Burgess mirrors the increasing mental instability of humans that have contracted AMP in the style of his writing, in this case developing a metaphor to the point where, instead of clarifying and expanding our understanding, the poetic language complicates and obscures any possible meaning. The result is a narrative style that renders the reality of any event in the story questionable, so that it is rarely clear whether or not a metaphor is to be taken as a metaphor, or as a character’s subjective perception, or as a literal plot event that occurs in the novel’s surreal reality. Should we take the crazed birth of an incestuously produced zombie-baby (one that walks, speaks, and already has places to go) as something that is not really happening in the story’s world, but as a metaphor for the event as a testament to humanity’s new inhumanity — a suggestion that this birth presages the death of the human world, signalling total social and cultural collapse and degeneration? Or should we instead view this as the subjective experience of one or both of the characters present at this birth, something that reveals little about the real event but much about their mental states? Or should we take the events Burgess relates in Pontypool Changes Everything at face value, as “really happening” within its surreal world? All three options seem valid on their own terms.
In an Open Book: Toronto interview about the movie Pontypool, Burgess notes that on occasion during the scriptwriting process others questioned his unexpected infidelity to the novel. “We had these discussions where people were saying, ‘Well, this has nothing to do with the book’ — well, the book has nothing do with the book.” The same might be said for The Bewdley Mayhem. It operates like a trilogy of horror fiction but seems infected somehow, a thing that should not be. Its books contain monsters but, more significantly, are monstrous. They transgress the boundaries and expectations of normal narrative fiction to throw themselves into disorder, transgressive in their ideas about and approach to language.
Later in the same interview, Burgess addresses the nature of his zombies. Although the zombies in stories are often metaphors for something (e.g., the global spread of inhuman relations under capitalism), Burgess notes that his zombies function as “a metaphor for metaphors that keep hunting you long after they’ve been meaningful . . . figures of speech that become predatory long after their . . . meaning as figures of speech has left the stage.” What is left after the zombies have communicated something about the human predicament, its potential for failure, is their presence in a horror story. Like any good metaphor, they exceed the thing they stand in for, persisting bodily beyond its death, which is why zombies are so malleable as metaphors in the first place. The language they once commanded has ceased to mean, but not to animate them.
Long after we are dead and our bodies have dissolved, the words will speak of us. They will tell their children of the monsters who once forced them into flesh. How they bore their yokes in silence, suffering in servitude, biding time.
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