Cult fiction – Clive Bloom


In concluding his book, Cult Fiction, Clive Bloom writes: “My contention is that contemporary post-structuralist criticism is the new ‘pulp’, that its metaphors and obsessions parallel that of pulp fiction and that around the critical genre, modern criticism has created a subculture at once arcane and escapist: a fantastic arena in which the body, sexuality and violence underwrite the cult’s wildest fetishes. Such criticism toys with the idea of somehow going beyond, transcending and deconstructing the boundaries and realities presented in those fictions we as academics are paid to explain daily. I further contend that such literary theory is basically a nostalgia for scandal, a basically conservative retro-ism defined by a loose alliance of deconstructionists, feminists and liberal critics whose relationship to the established order is that of a false opposition unknowingly renewing, by mysticism and obfuscation, current cultural, political and economic control, having substituted a theology of the body for a politics of intervention: theory as escapism, dressed in the erotic language of horror. Their celebration of broken taboos in fiction simply reinforces the stability of the taboo in the world.” (236)

My reading of Misery,” Bloom continues, “suggested a crisis in popular writing which was most apparent in Stephen King’s ambiguous attitude not only to the ‘muse’, his readers and the nature of publishing but was also focused on his chosen genre: horror. The specific consideration I gave to King was part of a larger argument centred on the historical progress of the gothic and the changing form of its presentation. I suggested there was a movement in the genre, from a literature of revelation and annihilation obvious in writers such as MR James but obvious too in Edgar Allan Poe (whose tale ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ is an exemplary instance of a tale centred on bodily functions ending in revelation and annihilation), to current [-p.237] works which also concentrate on the body but for different purposes. For Poe the interior of the body is simply a sticky mess of undifferentiated organs – a type of interior slime. For current writers brought up in a photographic and technological era thee body represents an anatomical structure and a fluid-filled machine. In this present literature, the body is cut, dissected, ripped, dismembered, always tortured and abject; it is emptied out, displayed; part human and part machine, visceral, fluid, sticky with blood, semen, faeces, urine. The body is monstrously there but already so alien as to constitute an horrific elsewhere both pradoxically supernaturalized and objectified. The vague image of London fog and a faceless assassin represents what previous generations wanted to know about the psychopathic dismemberment of the body: material horror of annihilation – the flash of a knife and the moment of truth. Yet it is the famous Scotland yard photograph of Mary Kelly’s eviscerated body which forms the first link in a chain which reaches to the Zapruder tape of Kennedy’s assassination and beyond: the interior of the body suddenly and uncannily exposed to a fascinated and sensationalized gaze

The central stalking horror of this literature is no longer the demon, hellish spectre or ghost but the psychopathic hero-villain not only of pulp fiction but also of supposedly serious writers who themselves stalk the popular imagination for their subject matter. Here is a metaphorical or virtual world of libidinous violence, incest, dismemberment, Sadeian fantasy, with a shopping list of broken taboos and of invented horrors for which no taboo exists to be broken.” (236-237)

He goes on: “We can trace four parallel and interelated incarnations of fiction concerned with the erotic, the sensational and the horrific. The first includes the early work of James Herbert, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Shaun Hutson and many other popular authors who work or are identified with the purely horrific. The second includes popular fiction which crosses genres, especially into that of detective or crime fiction. Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs cannot be overlooked here. Puportedly based on the psychopathology of known serial killers, the book owes just as much to its gothic horror origins with Clarice Starling acting the part of the heroine in a Radcliffe-like adventure pursued through a dungeon basement filled with death’s head moths, bodily parts and terrified female victims cowering in an oubliette. Hannibal Lecter, with his deformities, gross appetite and ludicrous knowledge is at once Dr Fu Manchu, Dr No, and [-p.238] Count Dracula. Here the mundanity of the psychopath is supernaturalized for popular consumption.

The third incarnation concerns writers or artists whose work is recognized by academics as ‘art’ and who have utilized the sociopathic as a central theme. These writers are Booker Prize candidates or Palm D’Or winners who may have no real interest in the horror genre per se. Its ultimate expression would appear to be Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.

The fourth incarnation is not in fiction at all but in current cultural criticism.” (237-238)

He follows on from this, writing: “American Psycho is the ultimate novel of body nostalgia, a final futile search for the innocent subject amid the charnel house of New York’s postmodern decadence. I want to state, rather baldly, that the fourth incarnation of contemporary erotic horror sensationalism is the new fictional space of literary theory itself: pulp violence as the heart and controlling passion of cultural inquiry and intellectual concern. I further want to suggest that post-structuralist criticism is itself a type of nostalgia interlaced with other forms of artistic expression so as to form a parallel discourse, self-contained and only occasionally an explanatory commentary. This is the horror of the library where the gothicization and occulting of the ordinary takes place amid the rococo of academia’s ivory towers. Theory is pulp sensation, plagiarized without acknowledgement.

Richard Wagner wrote to Theodor Uhlig in 1849 that, ‘artwork cannot be created at the present time, but only prepared – by a process of revolutionizing, of destroying and smashing everything that is worth destroying and smashing. That is our work, and only then will totally different people from us become the true creative artists.’

He was expressing the creed of a new intellectualism, that was based on struggle, apocalypse and renewal. This has remained the basic premise of the structure and project of theory ever since.” (238)

He breaks this statement down a bit, then adds: “And one should add into this mélange the project of linguistic feminism where we need include neither such eccentricity as Mary Daly’s witchcraft nor Luce Irigaray’s bizarre obsession with the placenta. Rather such feminism by its nature is haunted, not by the misdeeds of real men and real women, but by a shadowy and inexplicably alien force called phallocentrism whose agents are real men unwittingly dedicated to fulfilling a conspiratorial and generalized male aggressivity. Aggression, duality, violence, eroticism, paranoia, imprisonment, dismemberment, the irrational, the displacement of the real, the supernatural, the body, the freak, the nature of death and the spectral afterlife – these are the component features of horror-porn-pulp and its collusive double, contemporary criticism.” (239)

In his final comments, Bloom notes: “I have pointed out that modern theory is descriptive of a metaphysical nostalgia for the full body and the self-sufficient ego. The modern pulp gothic seems, in parallel, to describe a similar trajectory. Such reciprocal parallelism has meant that post-structuralist language has incorporated the language of the pulp gothic within its own discourse. A language inherently metaphoric in pulp (gothic) fiction has been taken as literal (a description of actuality) in post-structuralism. Such analysis is drenched in the language of nostalgia – virally disturbed by its own rhetoric of violence, irrationality and death. / Perhaps analysis must again reinvent itself as both descriptive and prescriptive.” (240)

He also writes that: “Any requiem for pulp culture will inevitably be the requiem for the old high literary culture that defined itself as its implacable enemy. Both required the conjunction of market forces (that is, commercialism), media cross-fertilization (especially with film and newspapers) and the need for a canon of taste using contemporary literary production as its benchmark. If serious fiction used mimesis for revelatory truth, so pulp used it for entertatinment. Indeed, pulp turned information into entertainment for the urban, literate and democratic masses.

In the age of Hollywood, it was the movie that acted as the defining medium for the world of literature (just as much as any tradition of high art), for writers engaged in representing the modern world. The magnetic grip of Hollywood and its inability to accommodate great writers is well documented; what is less obvious is how commercial movie-making influenced writing per se. It was the movies as form that transfixed and fascinated not merely movie audiences but writers of all types and levels. Just as the camera had challenged painting, so Hollywood challenged writing; the advent of television did not affect writing as Hollywood did and continues to do. Indeed, television is a side issue in terms of the formal changes and challenges brought about by the studio system, the moving image and the star system.” (221)

Ref: Clive Bloom (1996) Cult Fiction: Popular reading and pulp theory. Macmillan Press Ltd: London


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