Interview, Manchester, News

The Shock Horror Doctrine: Twisted Tales of Austerity at Gothic Manchester 2014

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By Neil Harrison

The fightback against government austerity measures took a turn for the macabre at this year’s Gothic Manchester Festival. Contributors to a new anthology of austerity themed horror stories, Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease, including co-editor, Tom Johnstone, gathered to read excerpts from the book and discuss its wider significance.

Firstly, Tom read from the story which originally inspired the anthology, ‘A Cry For Help’ by fellow co-editor, the late Joel Lane. This satirical, yet unsettling, tale surrounds an unscrupulous businessman complicit in the privatisation of the NHS who is forced to face up to the effects of his profiteering ways.

Following the reading, Tom told the audience, “It feels really strange that we should all be here reading from the book and discussing it without Joel being here.”

Next to read was Laura Mauro from her own contribution, ‘Ptichka’. This grippingly lucid tale of a young, pregnant immigrant denied professional healthcare brims with unyielding socialist analogy before reaching a macabre, and wholly unexpected, conclusion. Laura later said of Horror Uncut,

“We’ve allowed the dominant narrative in society to be preached by The Daily Mail, et al. I think if this book can do one thing, it can help to raise our voices a little bit. As I see it, that is what anyone who opposes or doubts the narrative that we are hearing should be doing. Why aren’t we speaking up? Why aren’t we challenging it in a more vocal way? If this book gets people talking about those things then that’s a start.”

The final reading came from Rosanne Rabinowitz who shared an excerpt from her story, ‘Pieces of Ourselves’. Dealing with the after effects of an anti-austerity student demonstration, at which the protagonist, a librarian, is a victim of kettling, this creepy allegory will seriously leave your skin crawling. If you can keep your skin on your body, that is…

Tom Johnstone, Rosie Rabinowitz and Laura Mauro

Tom Johnstone, Rosanne Rabinowitz and Laura Mauro

Following a lively panel discussion, we spoke to Twisted Tales events organiser, David  McWilliam of Manchester Metropolitan University. David told us why horror fiction, and popular culture more generally, can play a crucial role in attuning society to the dangers it faces.

“Not every moment of social crisis produces a corresponding Gothic movement but I would say that since 9/11, in particular, the notion of an apocalyptic, fearful, uncertain culture is emerging. You need only to look at some of the most popular TV shows. The Walking Dead, for instance, is a really good example of how you can talk about contemporary political anxieties through the medium of, in that case a zombie show. I think that this Gothic event and the book, Horror Uncut, have really touched on a lot of the different issues at stake.

Asked about his own personal interest in themes of social activism and how they fit within his work with the Gothic, David responded,

“At the moment my own personal research surrounds the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Quite early on I became aware of the threat that TTIP poses in terms of making austerity permanent. It is about the permanent privatisation of the NHS and other public services. One of the key aspects of the deal is that multinational corporations will be able to sue elected governments for any policy that negatively affects their profits. These measures have been used to sue countries for bringing healthcare back into public ownership and for raising the minimum wage. Again, this will tie in to the Gothic work I do, as I’m contributing a chapter on the subject to Dr Linnie Blake’s upcoming work Neoliberal Gothic.

“So, I see the whole austerity issue as complex and multifaceted and it is very difficult to campaign on all fronts. There’s a lot going on and it can be really bewildering. Naomi Klein uses the phrases ‘Disaster Capitalism‘ and, of course, ‘The Shock Doctrine,’ to explain how, when a society is in crisis, that’s the moment when the capitalist state can impose radical, irreversible change. To a certain extent, since the financial crash, that crisis has been used as a vehicle for all sorts of policies that I don’t think would have been palatable or even thinkable a decade ago.

David McWilliam

David McWilliam

“But when talking about things like this, often people on the left will quote statistics, much as I did earlier, when discussing such issues as the percentage of fraudulent benefit claims being vastly higher in people’s imaginations than they are in reality. That use of statistics, however, doesn’t necessarily resonate and people are often suspicious of statistics. So, I think the Gothic Horror genre in particular is able to extrapolate and emphasise and amplify the most disturbing qualities of society. For instance, Laura Mauro’s story is a very personal tale of someone who is unable to receive medical care but at the same time, the element of the fantastic gives us a different angle into that story and has a symbolic resonance as well.

“The importance of fiction, therefore, is the notion of empathy. It is its ability to empathize with those people who are being scapegoated and those who are at the sharp end of austerity measures. To tell the stories and to imagine what it must be like for people having to manage under these conditions, I think that is something that is left out of the national debate all too often.”

From the readings given at the event and a quick flick through some of the other stories in our newly signed anthology, it soon becomes evident that within even the most fantastic of the tales on offer there can often be found a great deal more truth and social awareness than in the average mainstream political narrative. At least in the former the horror is only fictional.

Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease is available now published by Gray Friar Press.

Neil Harrison is Editor in Chief at Humanity Hallows and is in his third year studying History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is a socialist and an only partially reformed Goth. Follow Neil on Twitter @looseriver

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