Chandler Morrison: Being Better Than the Demons
Quickly rising as one of the more prolific and unique voices in transgressive fiction, Chandler Morrison's latest novel, Along The Path of Torment shows us an underground Los Angeles ensconced in the shadowy hills above its moth-to-flame neon wasteland. Where the desensitization of wealth and its warped circuitry of power is fueled by the sacrifice of youth—the first and last frontiers for the repugnantly corrupt. We've never seen a protagonist like Ty Seward—who is at once battling cancer, being used as a frayed synapse errand boy for this evil class, while assuming a heavily nuanced protective role for a young girl, who in turn, slowly breaks down the armor from his own cycles of abuse. While there might be elements in this book the reader won't be able to unsee, it takes a writer brave enough as Morrison to shed a specific light on this particular kind of darkness most of us will hopefully never have to encounter.
AtPoT struck me as such an essential L.A. novel, in my opinion, on par with Day of the Locust and Imperial Bedrooms. If you put your new book third in that succession, it's almost its own commentary on how the city has developed even more of a festering, detached, corrupt nature with time. Why do you think LA is often used as such a backdrop, often as they say “its own character” in all these personally apocalyptic books and films?
I’ve lived in a lot of places, and visited countless others, but LA is the only place that feels like a truly sentient being. Something with its own desires and motives and intentions. Sometimes it feels like it’s working with you, usually it feels like it’s working against you, but it’s always working. Moving. Shifting. It’s never passive or stagnant. I think that’s why artists are so drawn to it. It’s easy to write it as its own character because it already is its own character.
I appreciate the favorable comparison to those two novels, because Imperial Bedrooms is my all-time favorite book, and The Day of the Locust is, of course, the godfather of all Hollywood fiction. What makes Along the Path of Torment different from them, though—and, I think, different from other Hollywood novels of their ilk—is that in my book, the city’s glossy veneer is visibly slipping. Los Angeles has, for a long time, hidden behind this glitzy, glamorous façade, and the fiction that takes place here naturally captures that element. But, while there’s still a lot of beauty to be found in LA, that beauty has been tarnished in recent years as a result of corrupt bureaucracy, crumbling infrastructure, unabated crime, and rampant homelessness. The LA we see today is much closer to its true nature. It’s diseased, it’s decaying. That’s what I wanted to capture in this book.
Los Angeles is a city that seemed so doomed and dishonest from the get-go, the way it was marketed as a promised land to deceptively lure the Oakies in with no recourse, the way the LAPD imported Klan members to comprise its original law enforcement—I could go on and on. How long does someone have to live in LA before they feel its inherent evil seeping into their bones? How long does it take to notice it before you become just as evil as the worst ones out there? Does part of defending the city require the admittance that you may have become “one of them?”
I always knew that darkness was there, and in a perverse way, it’s one of the things that initially attracted me to this city. But I didn’t start to really feel it until my second year living here. Before that, it wasn’t exactly tangible—it seemed more like an aesthetic affectation that the city wore with a kind of ironic flourish, not something that was rooted deep in its marrow. I liked it the same way I like wearing all black, or looking contemplatively out a window at the rain. For that first year, it was harmless, it was fun, it was cool. Once I started to feel it seeping into me, though, my relationship with it changed. There are still a lot of things I love about the city, but I have to constantly be on guard against its nefarious influence. It’s so easy to get caught up in the shallow materialism, the artificiality of everything. “You can disappear here and not know it,” as Bret Easton Ellis so poignantly wrote in Less Than Zero.
I will, however, defend the city in the same breath that I’ll use to condemn it. Am I “one of them”? I don’t know. My friends back East will tell you I am, but they’ll also tell you I was always “one of them,” whatever that means. But point me to another place in the world that brims with the kind of promise—however hollow it may or may not be—that LA does. Show me another town as bursting as this one is with creative energy. Direct me to another metropolis so perfectly situated at the epicenter of everything nature has to offer—from the snows and forests to the north, the desert to the east, and the ocean to the west. And don’t even get me started on the weather.
Yeah, LA has a lot of flaws, and I’ll be the first person to point them all out to you—usually with a weary, beleaguered sigh. But there’s no place on the planet quite like it. If there was, we’d all leave. Trust me.
When I was a kid there were a couple of movies that I remember having to shut my eyes during because of some unexpected graphic scene that I didn't know how to process. Now at age 43, I'm not shocked by anything, especially in a work of fiction. Or so I thought, before I found myself having to fast-forward through some parts of AtPoT—at that initial party scene at Ty's uncle's I actually shut my eyes, as if I was watching a film I couldn't handle. I later went back and forced the medicine down out of respect for you and the book, my own sensitivity to unchartered waters be damned. Do you find readers/critics unfairly branding you as some shock-hawk with some of the content rather than focusing on your unique, committed style?
Yeah, no, for sure, I get a lot of that. Even some people who enjoy my work seem to appreciate it more for the shock value than anything else, because I have a fair number of fans who overlap with the “extreme horror” crowd. I was complaining to my dad once, some time back, about how I was a “misunderstood artist” because people were focusing too much on the gross aspects of my work. His response was, “Well, you write gross books, so what exactly did you expect?” Fair play. In retrospect, my aversion to getting that kind of reaction was snobbishly ignorant and pretentious.
The thing I’ve come to realize is, it doesn’t matter what I want people to take away from my work, because once it’s out in the world, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. Yes, what I really care about is the intricacy of language, identifying certain truths about the human experience through fiction, and dismantling cultural mores with transgressive satire and the allegorical depiction of aberrant behavior. But there are plenty of readers who just want an enticing story with blood and guts, and that’s totally cool. I’ve come to a place where I’m just as grateful when someone comes to me and says, “Wow, that abortion clinic scene in Dead Inside was just so gnarly!” as I am when someone wants to talk about the mechanics of my prose or the influence of Shakespeare on my plotlines and characters.
How do you see the present or future of transgressive literature in the midst of our essential political upheavals and the reaction of cancel culture? When I was growing up, the art we made and supported was inherently transgressive and often disgusting, but it was created out of a general protest of mediocrity – a cry of savage emotion rather than creating a safe space for our audience. In other words, it was all about confrontation. As we fight for social justice today – and more specifically, in the way we fight - are we potentially losing our ability to read between the lines, to see the intended poetry in the more dangerous spectrums of art?
People treat cancel culture like it’s this new thing, but in reality, it’s always been there. Social media has just given it more of a platform. I mean, look at the Marquis de Sade. That guy was getting canceled 250 years before Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg even glanced at a line of code. Art of a subversive nature has always had vocal opponents, and I think that’s one of the things that helps endear it to its sympathizers. Would American Psycho have such a devoted legion of fans if those fans didn’t have to defend it against its detractors? Would Marilyn Manson have resonated so deeply with disaffected teenagers if their parents weren’t clutching their pearls every time he came on the radio? Part of the thrill comes in the act of rebellion. Furthermore, when you’re put in a position in which you have to defend a work of art against someone who is attacking it, it forces you to really examine the art’s favorable qualities so you’re better equipped to have a conversation about it. As a result, you end up appreciating the art on a much deeper level than you ever would otherwise. When something is safe and wholly inoffensive, you can take it and appreciate it and then move on without ever having to think about it again. I’m not interested in making art that people don’t have to think about once they’re done with it.
One theme I'm glad to see pervasive in horror and crime-fiction right now is tackling the cycle of abuse and its long shadows of trauma—it's as if we're finally getting to the bottom of the origins of evil. I see this in your writing as well. Do you see this as an easy litmus test for your detractors? I feel like you could just as well call them “insensitive” for not empathizing with your characters who have been through Hell and as a result, are Hell personified.
My characters tend to be a pretty hard sell, so I don’t know that I’d go so far as to accuse anyone of being insensitive for not empathizing with them. The thing about trauma is that, while it does tend to act as a precursor to evil, it doesn’t excuse evil. Victims of a trauma are exactly that—victims. They didn’t choose to be hurt. They didn’t deserve it. But there comes a time in every victim’s narrative when they have to make a choice about whether that trauma is going to define them. If you choose to perpetuate the cycle, you’ve gone from being a victim to a willing participant. You are creating other victims because you’re unable or unwilling to rise above what was done to you. That isn’t fair, and it isn’t right.
The protagonist’s behavior in Torment can be explained by the trauma he experienced, but it can’t be excused. If some readers aren’t able to empathize with him, I wouldn’t fault them for it. Still, I tried to make him as deeply human as possible, and to give him an arc that’s engaging enough to keep the reader enthralled through all of his shenanigans.
I won't go too much into detail about your controversial performance at Bizarro-Con, but I did see the statement you made after—not an apology, but more of a “I could have been more specific with the performance so people could have gotten it” type disclaimer. You chose to debunk the whole right-wing Pizza-Gate conspiracy in the statement, yet you created an environment in AtPoT where a similar scenario is taken to very convincing measures. Did it just seem ripe material to write with?
I actually had another editor who wanted me to write a more straightforward horror novel with the Pizzagate conspiracy at its center, just because it’s so rife with opportunities to explore some really dark territory. I tried to write that novel for the better part of a year, grinding away at a maddeningly slow pace, and I came up with a 40,000-word mess that lacked cohesion and substance. I ended up stepping away from it for a few months before deciding to scrap the whole thing and start fresh, with a marked de-emphasis on the horror aspect and a more streamlined approach to the personal journey and struggles of a singular character, and that’s how Along the Path of Torment came to be.
That said, while the Pizzagaters’ partisan spin was ridiculous (evil isn’t beholden to party lines), and the “code” in those emails was pretty reaching, make no mistake—there are dark forces at work in the world of the super-elite. I really wish I could say that the things that happen in Torment are complete embellishments, but once you’ve lived in this city long enough and spent enough time around certain kinds of people, you start to hear things. That’s all I’ll say about that.
And I should mention that I actually did apologize in a separate statement during the fallout of the BizarroCon controversy, but not for the performance itself. I realized that the venue and crowd wasn’t quite right for that particular performance, and I should have gotten a better feel for the audience before launching into it. I remain sorry to this day for all of the ensuing chaos that resulted from it, because I’m not a shock-hawk, and I don’t get off on offending people.
I've noticed your fondness for the band Hole. You've mentioned them anecdotally on Twitter and there's a Hole-cover band that makes an appearance in AtPoT, which resonated with me as someone that sees Courtney Love as that very Hell-personified type character I mentioned earlier. Is there something symbolic about her and the band's music, in terms of your perception of Los Angeles or otherwise?
I listened to a lot of Celebrity Skin while the ideas for Torment were gestating, and I reference that particular album a number of times in the book. It’s oft maligned and is widely seen as a low point in Hole’s career, but it’s one of my favorite albums and I think it’s a pretty close-to-perfect piece of musical craftsmanship. I feel like it’s one of two albums that really captures the true essence of LA—the other being Hotel California—in a manner that flawlessly marries its dark, sad beauty with the lurking sickness that lies beneath. I don’t know that there’s another work of art in any medium that encapsulates my feelings about this city with as much totality as that album does. When I started writing Torment, I was setting out to do a lot of different things, but one of the main ones was to bottle up the emotions elicited by Celebrity Skin and put them in a novel. I’m going to let Elizabeth Victoria Aldrich—Twitter’s preeminent Hole fan—have the final say in respect to what my degree of success was in that department.
As a writer, one of my least favorite questions to be asked is “how much of your work of fiction is based on your personal life?” I think it's misguided and ultimately disrespectful to the writer, to imply that they have a limited imagination. However, one of my favorite questions to ask another writer is this: Since the creative process often proves time is non-linear, have you ever written a passage that presaged an occurrence in your life?
When I was writing Torment, I was still fully in the grips of cancer. There’s a flashback scene in which Ty’s oncologist tells him he’s in remission, and Ty’s reaction is very anticlimactic. I wrote that scene purely from Ty’s point of view, without any experience to draw from, because I was mentally in a place where I didn’t think I was ever even going to have that conversation with my oncologist. When I did end up having that conversation some months later, my own reaction was rather…muted. Throughout the whole process—the endless doctor’s appointments, the nightmarish surgery, the debilitating radiation treatments—I’d wanted nothing more than to get that coveted “all-clear” from the doctor. But when I got it, I was baffled to find that I was, like Ty, strangely unrelieved. My reasons were very different, of course, and it took me a while to sort through the emotions. What I eventually realized was that I’d come to accept the cancer as a part of my life without even really knowing it. More than that, it became something of a…shield, I guess. When you wake up in the morning knowing you have cancer, it’s like, what else can the world really throw at you? How much darker can things get? Life has already played its hand, and with that comes a sort of freedom. I hadn’t realized it, but all of these minor things that used to bother me—trivial worries, fears, stress, et cetera—were no longer a factor. Cancer had a way of putting everything in perspective for me. Then, being relieved of the cancer, they all sort of returned in full force. I felt vulnerable again, not to mention I now had to worry about it coming back.
Throughout the course of Torment’s events, Ty lives in the shadow of the fear that his cancer is going to return. Everything he does is, in some way or another, essentially a product of that fear compounded with his trauma. I don’t want to live like that. Granted, he’s an extreme example, and I, like most people, would never descend to the depths that he does. Still, it would be very easy to let that fear shape me and turn me into something I’m not, something I don’t want to be. Writing this book helped me examine what it looks like—in extremely exaggerated terms—when a man succumbs to the things that have happened to him. It’s like Judy tells Ty that night in her dorm room: “You have to be better than the demons that haunt you. You always have to be better.”
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