The Sterile is the Opposite of the Seedy

A Conversation Between David Leo Rice and B.R. Yeager

In the spring of 2021, just as Covid was beginning to wind down in the US and the country was warily reawakening, authors David Leo Rice and B.R. Yeager got together via Zoom to discuss seediness, decadence, decay, artistic development between adolescence and adulthood, forbidden knowledge, and new avenues that the horror genre might take as we lurch deeper into the all-pervasive disquiet of the 2020s.

They also dove back into their shared memories of Western MA, where they grew up in the ’90s, and considered the spectral legacy of that time and place on their work, which, most recently, includes Yeager’s novel Negative Space, about a group of teenagers probing the frayed edges of reality in a small New Hampshire town, and Rice’s Drifter, a collection encompassing ten years’ worth of short stories that focus on psychic and geographical dislocation in a world where every attempted return yields a stranger and more ominous form of exile. What follows is an edited version of that exchange.

Seediness and Place

B.R. YEAGER: One place I thought we could start is by discussing the idea of seediness, both as it pertains to our shared creative approaches, and to the area of Western MA that we’re both from. I keep thinking about this in terms of the Northampton art scene. I can’t speak to it as much now, but its waxing and waning historically has coincided with the degree to which the City Council has been trying to stamp out the seedier aspects of the town. To have a vibrant art or music scene, it has to be open to venues where seedy people can show up, and where seedy things happen. Otherwise, it gets so sterile.

DAVID LEO RICE: And the sterile is the literal opposite of the seedy. Something that has been sterilized means there are no seeds around anymore.

BRY: The art scene has moved toward Greenfield, Holyoke, and Easthampton, because the seediness hasn’t been stamped out there.

DLR: Those towns are one or two steps earlier in their cycle. The cycle of gentrification is that at first places might be shitty, like actively dangerous, so that people are trying to leave. But then, if time passes and things go right, there comes a phase of seediness, where the town or neighborhood is cheap enough that a wide variety of people can come there, without stressing about money. And you can have a wide variety of people on different mental wavelengths, without them having to be normalized by a guiding ethos, which fancier towns and neighborhoods insist on.

BRY: And it’s not based on arbitrary factors like economic status. The most interesting stuff comes when everyone can participate in the culture of where they live.

DLR: And when they can be genuinely eccentric. They don’t have to be consumed by a stressful day job, or making their art specifically for a certain market, or even by accentuating their strangeness for image or brand purposes. But the beautiful and also sad thing, as is true with actual seeds, is that if they sprout, then they already bring in their own destruction, like a baby that starts dying as soon as it’s born. If you look at the Lower East Side in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it starts out shitty, with needles everywhere and people getting stabbed and so on. Then out of this sprouts David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring, Basquiat. A bit later, you have Harmony Korine and Larry Clark, and the whole skate scene in Tompkins Square Park. Which is great, but if those things become as iconic as they are now, then they already begin to usher in the next phase. Richer people show up wanting to live where Basquiat painted, and their problem is the opposite: Now they have too much money, but not enough funk or cultural cachet. And these are the people, at least in the early days, who can buy Basquiats, and maintain their denial about not being very interesting by buying interesting works.

If this continues long enough, these somewhat rich people get overthrown by truly rich people, and those massive high-rise luxury towers come, and those people are often actual criminals, like oligarchs. They have no need for the edginess of Basquiat because they just ordered a hit on someone.

BRY: Exactly, or they just overthrew a Central American government. It’s really interesting how the ‘90s, when we were growing up, seeded so much of the paranoia and cultural foment that’s seemingly coming to fruition now. The sense that no one in power can be trusted. It was papered over back then, so the full darkness of it wasn’t apparent. Whereas now it’s sprouted and grown to huge proportions. It’s all coming back to haunt us.

DLR: I wonder if that’s what we’re both writing about, whether we like it or not, because that’s the world that seeded us and then deposited us here. Something in the air turned us toward the kind of horror that we now write.

BRY: You can’t help but write from how you grew up.

DLR: And you write about the things you weren’t necessarily conscious of, but that you absorbed on a deep level anyway. These come out in the wash when you’re working on fiction. Maybe that’s even the purpose of the work, to see what’s really been seeded in you that you’d otherwise never become aware of. For us, it seems to be a sense of omnipresent horror, humming everywhere in the background.

BRY: The horror that there is order. We were of a generation, following on Gen-X, where we could easily accept disorder, the sense that everything is chaos. And now we’re reeling from the horror that there might be a much deeper, darker order to things than we’d been led to believe.

DLR: Exactly. It’s a kind of post-individualism, a waning of the belief that we’re all freely moving particles, dealing with chaos in our own rational ways. There’s a deeper sense now that vast, complex systems control the world we interact with, whether those are cultural, historical, economic, digital, or occult. And of course, underlying everything is the awareness that the environment itself is changing, that the whole planet is involved in a transformation.

From today’s perspective, that ‘90s grunge belief that it’s all just chaos and bullshit is a kind of wishful thinking, because it allows you to say, well, I’m not part of it because I can see it… everyone else is stuck in it, but I’m on the outside. The horror of an all-pervasive system is the sense that, even if you can see it, you’re still stuck in it. It’s acting on you anyway, because there is no outside.

BRY: Oh my God, yeah. That’s so much worse. That’s a nightmare.

The Edge of Knowing

BRY: I’m always interested in the tendency to overestimate one’s ability to know reality. In order to function you almost have to pretend to know more than you’re capable of knowing. And if you don’t have any kind of philosophical check and balance to that, it gets really rough.

DLR: Maybe writing fiction is one means of navigating this, because, returning to the notion of unsprouted seeds, you can proceed into the story without knowing where it’s going while feeling confident that it will go somewhere, because there’s a latent structure that the process of writing is going to activate. So you can be honest with yourself about your own ignorance, while maintaining a kind of verifiable faith that you won’t remain lost in the woods forever. This is perhaps a positive aspect of that idea of latent systems imposing order behind the scenes.

Still, in most aspects of life, there really is an edge of knowing, a point of no return. You could go through the portal beyond that point, and maybe you’ll die, or stop being who you are, but it might also yield transcendence, the ability to access another realm while still on Earth. In the stories in Drifter, I was very interested in these moments, when the only way to “drift on” is to stop being yourself and accept a radical and perhaps terrifying transformation, because to remain yourself is to stagnate.

BRY: When I was in line to get vaccinated (which is a threshold in itself), I was actually reading your story “The Hate Room,” which felt like a very appropriate vibe. In that story, I think the compulsion that the character called “the General” has is very interesting—his desire wasn’t to go to the hotel and destroy himself, though that’s what he did. And it made me wonder if during the process of destroying himself he had a moment of acceptance, where he accepted his destruction. That’s always interesting to me, where it’s almost a spiritual or psychedelic experience, or like a dream where something unthinkable happens to yourself or your body and you either reel from it or you are at peace with it. Which I think is the dichotomy that we’re talking about. Like when you talk about characters being confronted with ultimate reality—with the chance to know what’s really real—do you paper over it, or do you embrace it, no matter what it is?

DLR: In many cases, the ego rebels. It says, “I want to remain me.” This is the threshold that Lovecraft’s protagonists always find themselves on, as they confront forbidden knowledge about the true nature of reality—there’s some pull where they have to know, even if it drives them insane by shattering their egos.

BRY: It’s like the phenomenon of medical students who pass out the first time they see a body being operated on. They’re reeling because they’re seeing something that isn’t supposed to be happening—a live body, continuing to live, while opened up. The potential for that scenario only exists because of human-built surgical technologies. In nature, if you see an opened-up body, it’s supposed to be dead.

DLR: And your ability to empathize, or to see other people as conscious, has to do with seeing them integrated, body and mind working seamlessly together. The idea that I can talk to you and respect your individuality and take you apart and put you back together—to maintain both of these at once is quite difficult, I’d think.

Systems Horror

BRY: It’s like the full body system is broken down into a system of objects that work together in knowable ways—but does the sense of an autonomous person in there remain intact? These types of transformation involve humans interfacing with systems and forces beyond our comprehension, whether it’s surgical processes, or just the force of time that shifts us imperceptibly over the years, or something more occult, like in Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, with the notion of crude oil as an eldritch abomination, or a sentient entity that has its own will. Or the notion of humanity operating under a whim that isn’t our own, or is unrecognizable to us as intelligence because it’s beyond what we’re capable of recognizing.

DLR: Maybe this will keep coming out over the coming years. I think we’re only scraping the surface of how occult the Iraq War was. Stuff that was going on there that we had no idea about. Even why it really happened—it’s hard to fathom without invoking the supernatural.

BRY: My perspective has shifted. Even though I had always been against the war, I had kind of shrugged off or batted away conspiratorial theories surrounding it. But after looking into it more and finally accepting the sheer strangeness of it, and the circumstances surrounding it—I have to accept that something much more bizarre is afoot. That too grew out of the atmosphere we came of age in.

DLR: These ideas have a very dark and negative aspect, but there’s also something alluring about occult presences accessible in the real world. Something that we might be tempted to call supernatural, but that is actually natural. I’ve heard the argument that what we often think of as “extraterrestrial” presences might actually be “ultra-terrestrial,” presences that have been on Earth much longer than we have—another sense of something profound having been seeded long ago. This is where my politics and my fiction dovetail—in both cases, I’m always seeking places where real life starts to seem unreal while, perhaps, becoming realer than ever.

BRY: “Propaganda” sounds too quaint for what I’m trying to say, but thinking in magickal terms, this gets into processes of forcing one’s will onto a population, society-wide actions conducted by a handful of people.

DLR: I wonder if that’s one interesting direction that horror is going in now, accelerated by COVID-19—“systems horror,” or “consciousness horror,” a growing mood of total suspicion about every aspect of our culture and collective worldview.

BRY: I’m hoping so. I see that in stuff like Gary J. Shipley’s Terminal Park, or David Roden’s Snuff Memories, where he talks about transformation and crossing thresholds. He specializes in post-humanist philosophy, and one of the things he says is that for something to truly be post-human, it needs to be completely unrecognizable as human—in terms of bodily form, in terms of culture, in terms of society. One of the foundational aspects of post-human speculation is that it’s something we can’t comprehend in the present. That comes back around to the question of would you withdraw from the truth when presented with it, or pass through the portal into whatever it turns out to be? But the fact is the truth would likely be so far off from what we’ve planned for that we may not even be able to make that decision.

DLR: It’s like any amount of thinking you do to prepare might have nothing to do with what it actually is. That’s the classic fallacy of how we imagine aliens, or demons in human form. There’s something comforting about picturing this strange presence as more familiar than it could really be.

BRY: Almost like the way that angels are depicted, changing from these rotating rings covered in eyes, completely unrecognizable as even living, to then being translated into an anthropomorphic interpretation that we can relate to and even find comforting. Trying to translate the divine into something palatable.

DLR: Like God as a man.

New Dark Age / Forbidden Books

DLR: This reminds me of that Lovecraft quote about the New Dark Age, I think from the start of the first Chtulhu story, where he says something like, “The greatest gift ever given to mankind is our inability to correlate the contents of our own mind. And if we ever overcome this inability and correlate them, we will either gaze upon a horror beyond what we can comprehend and go insane, or we will retreat into the comfort of a new dark age.” Which, written in the 1920s, almost perfectly predicted the 2020s. Now, if the Internet represents the possibility of correlating our cultural mind—and there’s a recent book about this called New Dark Age—basically, whatever’s on the Internet, there’s automatically something else there to refute it. Like our goal is to never put the pieces together.

BRY: I’ve lately found myself thinking, I’m just going to not pursue knowledge about certain things…

DLR: In this regard, ignorance can be an active state, a willing decision to not-know, rather than a passive state of simply being unaware. It’s like the idea that we’ve segued from the Age of Information, which lasted from the ‘80s into somewhere in the early ‘00s, where access to limitless information was seen as a good thing, to the Age of Influence, where we’re sickened and frightened by the amount of information out there, so we latch onto influencers we believe can vet and simplify that information in a way that makes sense to us, and seems true, whatever that means. We’ve all retreated into our own filter bubbles, so that the world perhaps seems simpler now than it did a few years ago, even though we know it’s become more complex. Some knowledge gives us the sense that it’s building us up, whereas other knowledge seems to break us down.

BRY: That’s an occult thing too. The idea that some books should be forbidden, because if you aren’t approaching them with the right background or education, then they can be a destructive force, like a negative education.

DLR: I wonder if Lovecraft was thinking about this, in terms of his world of forbidden books. Many of his stories are framed as cautionary tales about someone who read something that then destroyed them.

BRY: Yeah, and a big horror thing is about the transgression of just looking, of just wanting answers. I’m sure that’s tied up with a lot of Abrahamic religious culturalization, but it’s cool to tie this up with the realm of contemporary writing practice, too.

DLR: In Negative Space, I wonder if that ties in with ideas of teenage consciousness, the desire to know more than you can know at that age. In college, I spent time with a book called The Zohar, which is part of the Kabbalah, and in it there’s an official prohibition that says that no one under sixty should read it, or even that no one under sixty can read it. And of course, at twenty, I was like, “What do they know?” And it’s not like I died from reading it, but looking back on it now, I have more respect for that idea.

BRY: It connects to the idea that some knowledge needs to be paired with life experience, even more so than formal education.

Childhood Sacred Horror & Disillusionment

DLR: And life experience relates back to horror. I bet that you and I both had a constant desire for the taboo as teenagers and even as kids. Of wanting to see what we couldn’t see and read what we couldn’t read.

BRY: I mean that’s the whole story. It’s interesting because when I was growing up, whenever I encountered something that was transgressive or that came as a shock, I was intensely sensitive. And I still am. So I would reel from it, and be intensely upset, and withdraw from it. But then I would think about it more, and it would become tangled up in my thoughts, and I’d obsess over it. And I would always come back to it.

DLR: I remember being at Pleasant St. Video in Northampton all the time and looking at the pictures on the back of the video boxes, way before I could rent them, and they really felt like holy relics, like Pulp Fiction or Silence of the Lambs, with pictures of explosions and people covered in blood. It felt so holy, like I had found the hidden scroll in the basement of the church, and was about to be vested with tremendous power.

BRY: And I’m sure everything you were imagining was infinitely worse than whatever was in the films themselves, once you saw them.

DLR: Absolutely. That was the Fall. It went from the transcendental realm in your mind, like Bosch or something, to the banal realm of whatever was in the film, which was always just a regular scene with a regular story.

BRY: That’s absolutely it.

DLR: Paradoxically, my idea of how transgressive they were going to be was my state of ultimate innocence.

BRY: I think that taps into the root of what makes horror sacred. It’s the period where things are unknown, where you’re not seeing the monster yet, and it’s still ripe with possibility. That’s how it plays out in horror media, whereas for both of us, it was playing out in our lives and our idea of even engaging with horror in the first place. We were in the early stages of the horror stories, where everything around us—our whole expectation of what the genre could be—was fraught with that same sense of ripe, menacing possibility.

DLR: And it extended to our whole town, too. The idea that everything around Northampton was fraught with unknown potential, like anywhere you went might open up into a realm of adventure, and you were never sure whether there were any limits.

BRY: At that age, you don’t know what the limits of anything are. Like you don’t know that there aren’t movies where someone actually gets killed. You truly don’t know how far it goes. That’s how it is all the time, but it’s so pronounced at that age, when you have so little context. There can be that feeling of, is this wrong? This feels wrong, so does that mean there’s something wrong here?

DLR: And the constant question of, can this even be a thing? I have a friend who said his first memory in life was of stepping on a bee and running inside screaming, and his mother was like, “Oh, you just stepped on a bee. It’ll be okay.” And his horror wasn’t at the pain, it was at the dawning awareness that this was part of the world. That it was something that could happen, not a terrible anomaly.

BRY: The horror of the abominable becoming normalized.

DLR: And becoming banal. Maybe part of the disappointment is that when you’re a kid, looking at the pictures on the video box, you assume that that’s the starting point, because for you it is, and that it’ll therefore only get more extreme from there, but in reality, it’s the ending point, the most extreme moment that the marketers wanted to put on the box.

Post-Secular Age

DLR: One aspect of Negative Space is that it felt like the teenagers there engaged in genuine but improvised rituals, not part of any official dogma or tradition. A kind of folk religion that was developing along with them. I’m not sure where I first saw this, but I came across the term “Post-Secular Age” to describe where we’re at now, which feels right.

BRY: Definitely. It’s a phenomenon we’re seeing, coming out of a very atheistic generation and culture, into something that’s looking for more. Like with the New Atheist stuff from the early ‘00s, there’s a feeling now that it wasn’t sufficient, that it was posing as absolute truth but was actually far from it. 

DLR: The New Atheists wanted to say they were the end of the line, but they were really just a phase, as perhaps every stage of human thought is bound to be. I wonder if this relates to what we’ve been considering in terms of a new evolution of horror, the idea of systems that extend beyond our comprehension. Maybe part of why this new decade is looking to be a post-secular age isn’t just that we’re going backwards. There definitely is a fundamentalist movement in a variety of religions, but also, as we move forward in time, things seem to be on a course to become more rather than less strange. Either we’re learning that we can’t explain everything with data, or else the data is much less coherent than we’d imagined. Scientific progress is not comforting the way it once was.

BRY: That’s what remains to be seen, what’s the new form that people create that will be the new extension of blank... I can’t call it religion or spiritualism, because we don’t know what form it’ll take.

DLR: We’re responding to stimuli that we don’t fully understand, but we know that we’re responding. The air and the water are changing, and we can feel at least that much. And I wonder if this is connected to a more national-historical phase of seediness, or you could call it decadence. We’re in a phase of feeling like America is going to seed, and as this giant corpse rots, ghosts emerge from it.

BRY: A pronounced gothic age.

DLR: The same way that Britain had a gothic age at the end of its empire. Maybe for us something like the Iraq War represented the end of the idea that the American empire could do things that made sense, and now we’re living in the ghostly aftermath of that…

Writing to Make Yourself Uncanny 

DLR: In terms of trying to commune with these ghosts, I think a lot about the passivity of mystics and saints. Part of what seems like genuine creativity to me is making yourself available to something that wants to use you, or wants to possess you.

BRY: I feel like sometimes the medium of literature can be one of the harder ways of tapping into this. The idea of playing music or acting is that you’ve practiced it enough that you don’t have to think about it, and you can just lose yourself in the divine. But writing has extra barriers to unlocking those states. Do you ever find that?

DLR: Definitely, because most people think in words, so if you’re also writing in words, it can feel more like you’re just rehashing your own thought processes. If you’re a painter, you don’t necessarily think in paint, so if you’re painting, you’re already doing something special. Which is why the barrier of turning prose into an art form is higher. It’s easier to just write a page of text than it is to paint a painting, but for that same reason, it might be harder to write a page of text that becomes art.

In some ways, it requires using the medium of language to overcome your own thought process and give it over to something else. That’s where the paranormal comes in, and the uncanny—the sense of becoming a stranger to yourself, of tunneling in deep enough that what you’re writing, or who you’re writing as, doesn’t seem like you anymore. Maybe there’s a convergence point between expressing yourself as well as possible, and erasing yourself entirely.

Death Ritual

BRY: I definitely resonate with the idea of self-erasure. One huge change is that my conceptions around making art and being an artist have become much less romanticized. Now I try to approach it with the idea that it may be very special and important to me, but it isn’t inherently special and important to the world. Treating it as a practice and something that’s valuable because I give it value has been transformative. It chews away a lot of the anxieties of being young and thinking, I’m gonna make my career as a famous musician.

It doesn’t define me as a human being now, it can just be something I do, whereas I have friends and family I love, and who love me, for reasons totally unrelated to making art. You start to understand that it’s not something that can fix all your problems or reconcile you with the world. It’s something that can aid in that, but it’s one piece of the picture, not the entire thing.

DLR: Absolutely. Early on, when I was working on a novel that felt insurmountable, I told myself, if I could only finish this, I would stop being a human and become a God. And the realization that this isn’t possible is a shock, and you have to grieve the end of the belief that you can transcend your own humanity, but this also allows you to accept the idea that being human is really important and worthwhile. It allows you to finish the book in the realm of the real, not the divine, and then move on with your life.

BRY: And this helps you value other people, too. It’s humbling in a good way. It doesn’t just cut you down, but makes you at peace with where you’re at in the world, and with those around you. It helps you see that it’s not a competition.

DLR: It’s like in a myth, where you have to leave the village before you can return. You have to go through a journey to earn your own respect in order to be reintegrated into your family or community without fearing that it’s holding you back or failing to recognize whatever you see as special about yourself.

BRY: And without lashing out from that fear. That’s the only way you can meet people who are going to make you better, without always worrying if they’re better than you.

DLR: In a weird way, it’s the opposite of the gift you’d hoped for, which was to leave everyone in the dust and live in a castle. You don’t get that gift, but you do get what might be a much deeper gift, which is the ability to genuinely appreciate being with other people, and perhaps to become someone who has something to offer them. As a mentor, you have to want to build up the other person, even if in some way you’re deconstructing yourself. As a young person, you want to harden your edges and stand out from others as much as possible, but as an older person, you need to soften those edges and let others in. I feel this way as a reader now, too, in that when I read something great, it makes me genuinely happy, whereas ten years ago it would’ve also made me seethe with jealousy. Now I think, this author’s achievement is only making me stronger.

BRY: As both a mentor and an author, you have to go through a psychic death so you can hand your corpse over to someone else to feast upon.

DLR: That’s the death ritual. Like, I’ve made myself into this corpse that can nourish you. This relates back to that question of, do you go through the portal or not? Maybe the ultimate goal of a creative life is to reach the point where you can finally go through it, while fully knowing that it will destroy your ego.

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