The Politicisation of Remembering —Judge Dredd and Horror Stories
by Mark P. Williams
I generally feel I have a clear sense of the cultural markers of my own generation; I can identify certain obvious landmarks in the terrain of my life. Despite this it was only relatively recently, while putting together materials for a serious study of key writers from within the last thirty years that I started to really identify the little crossroads where the things they write about had affected me directly and personally from an early age. These little crossroad-moments are the beginnings of the cascade towards a critical consciousness, responses to the interactions of literatures, music forms and TV, comic books and ‘current affairs’—I always used to be very amused to spot pulp horror author Shaun Hutson in the audience of TV debating show Central Weekend but there are interesting connotations there, particularly considering the knowing topicality of Hutson’s horror narratives.
It’s somehow gratifying to find that the same points of cultural reference which have a strong personal import have been shared by people who create books, art and music. My friend Joe was always surprised that I didn’t know the work of The Fall because of my own interests in things like post-1960s SF, Lovecraftian horror and the darker crime fictions of English urban life, and in particular, fictions set in the bleak, liminal landscapes of the North of England. I’ve found that the research project I’m developing has a dimension of personal archaeology to it: I’m uncovering links between disparate cultural fields that I’d encountered separately because they were part of the cultural air I breathed.
What started out as a contextual attempt to get back into the culture I was writing about through music and TV accompaniment is actually becoming significant in its own right. I find I’m listening to songs that I thought I didn’t know only to realise that I used to know them well; in some cases just because they would have been on the radio all the time and I’d just forgotten how popular they were, but in other cases because they were the favourite albums of friends—they form a kind of shared soundtrack to a personal history. That sounds nostalgic, and perhaps the distance from home makes it seem to have that quality sometimes, but I don’t think nostalgia really does justice to the political dimension of remembrance in this: I’m not longing for the past; I’m rediscovering past contemporary moments and their complex relationship with my own contemporary moment.
Perhaps I should say, the politicisation of remembrance that comes with understanding the wider context for personal events.
T he comics I grew up reading included Marvel and DC but my reading was dominated by the idiosyncratically British title 2000AD, which, like many readers, I followed very closely. It was 2000AD that gave us Judge Dredd in 1977. It’s not too big a claim to suggest that it was this very British series, set in a totalitarian, authoritarian future megalopolis in America, Mega City One, which helped define British comic book culture. 2000AD gave a start to most of the names who went on to form the ‘British invasion’ of American comics: Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Garth Ennis have all contributed to either Judge Dredd or to Tharg’s Future Shocks. The overarching context for the satire was always that of mocking the social mores of conservative figures and Conservative politicians—restriction and authoritarianism were presented as genuinely insidious things, performed in the names of ‘safety’, ‘justice’ and ‘social good’ but always seeming compromised. Great characters like Johnny Alpha, mutant leader of the Strontium Dogs, out of the ‘Milton Keynes uprising’ where mutants, sick of bigotry and intolerance against them in future Britain (Brit Cit), became freedom fighters.
Classic Johnny Alpha lines in a scene from the ‘Judgement Day’ storyline (a zombie story where earth is being overrun thanks to alien ‘Necromagus’ called Sabbat—it was actually a crossover between 2000AD and its spin-off Judge Dredd the Megazine):
Hondo City [Japanese] Judge (named Sadu, I think): “And you’re a mutant too, you admit that.”
Alpha: “I declare it pal.”
Judge Sadu later sacrifices himself to save Dredd and Alpha—the poetics and ethics of the buddy-movie at work, yet somehow it’s not cloying, it retains a harshness that reinvests it with its critical qualities. (As an aside, I found it interesting that Sabbat physically resembles an Elf from some Tolkien epigone; he appears as a magical figure in an SF universe who has literally broken the rules of the world he appears in.)
Naturally, anti-authoritarians like Johnny Alpha came into contact and conflict with Dredd, being on the wrong side of the law—yet these meetings were always tinged with ambiguity: there was a fondness for Dredd in the 2000AD stories which didn’t extend to the system he represented; in the case of the Strontium Dog crossovers, Dredd and Alpha would reach a grudging respect for one another. Moreover, as a character, Dredd developed from simplistic totalitarian figure to a more nuanced satirical figure in the hands of a variety of new writers. He is obviously a Clint Eastwood character (he has an ‘apt’ in Rowdy Yates block, if there were any doubt) and over the years, Dredd’s characterisation would take similar shifts to those of Eastwood’s famous movie escapades: blending the unswerving contempt for liberalism of early Dirty Harry with something much more attuned to moral and political ambiguity of later films like Unforgiven and Absolute Power. Dredd also has the virtue of being a larger than life cartoon character who can be employed as a mask to fit over the face of any given British political figure who follows an authoritarian bent (The Guardian used a Judge Dredd costume in a cartoon to satirise one of Blair’s interchangeable Home Secretaries a few years ago). Dredd is a significant cultural marker: an American uber-authoritarian who represents something distinctive about contemporary British pop culture.
T hen there’s Horror fiction, which formed another significant node of my reading.
Clive Barker says in his A—Z of Horror: ‘I don’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t genuinely interested in Horror in some form or another [;] [i]t was always the grisly bits of fairy tales that I was interested in [,] I’ve always liked fantastical literature of some kind, and I’ve always liked the darker aspects of that’. That approach to ‘Horror’ as the darker fantastic, the exploration of the hidden underbelly of culture, is a fruitful and positive one; I think it taps into what I perceived as the importance of the form when I was younger (which has a fairly subjective dimension).
During the 1980s and into the ‘90s Horror fiction seemed to gain cultural ground. Great writers like Ramsey Campbell who had been working in their own particular style, refining and evolving since the sixties and seventies had gradually become recognised as veterans of a singularly powerful fictional form. It would be too much to claim that Horror fiction had become ‘respectable’—it was, and remains, proudly the opposite—but it had certainly become respected, particularly with the arrival of Clive Barker. For me it was about seeing Campbell and Barker on TV panel discussions alongside other literary luminaries of the darker genres being asked serious questions about the concept of fear and its social application—Cold War in microcosm, the terror which defined the ideologically overweening presence of a true unimaginable horror transmuted into the supernatural and the psychological. This was also a time of the birth of visceral horror, and it’s impossible in retrospect not to see some kind of specific correlation between the acquisitive mentality of deregulating, privatising freemarketeering and the appearance of certain types of fiction.
We usually trace visceral horror back to Barker’s Books of Blood, which were something of a publishing phenomenon, and one still being adapted into films (their continuing cinematic proliferation another reason for Barker’s popularity), but an essay ‘On Sex and Horror’ by John Nicholson, in Clive Bloom’s Gothic Horror (1998), traces a direct line between the extreme, visceral dismantling and recombining of the body in 1980s British Horror and an established tradition of Cold War British Science Fiction and psychological fiction.
Horror fiction felt hugely significant to me as a developing reader, my Mum would no doubt mention her introducing me to the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley at a young age, and this is clearly a personal factor, but on a cultural level I remember perceiving genre fiction in terms of shelf-space in book and video stores: the Horror sections seemed to have a real presence in the late 1980s and ‘90s. Partly this is about genre perception: the visual codes of the horror shelf are clear and strong, they present a kind of force field of genre unification with their black backgrounds and gold lettering (Shaun Hutson paperbacks are paradigmatic of this). Naturally, they carry expectation; you really know what you’re getting to a significant degree, this is a meticulously defined genre in many respects with a recognisable emotional palette to match its colour coding—whatever the text’s relationship with epistemology, whether the ‘horror’ comes from a supernatural or a psychological source, the design of the story is to excite a specific set of responses. For this reason it is considered a more conservative form than either science fiction or fantasy, with which it competes for shelf space. Farah Mendelsohn has argued persuasively in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction and Rhetorics of Fantasy that neither SF nor Fantasy should be considered genres in this sense, because unlike Horror, they do not define the limitations of the form of the writing as such. In that sense, Horror is more limited, but within those limits there has been much space made for play and subversion (as Barker, Gaiman, Brite, Newman and many others have amply demonstrated).
Stephen Jones needs a mention at this point. Jones’ anthologies brought together some of the most interesting and exciting short fantastic fictions around, all grouped under a loose rubric of ‘Horror’ that meant they were so much more than merely spooky stories. It was through Stephen Jones’s Best New Horror and Dark Terrors, and, of course, Mammoth Book of Best New Horror anthologies, that I encountered the writing of Kim Newman and Neil Gaiman, Caitlin R. Kiernan and Poppy Z. Brite, writers whose work not only interrogated but really pushed the social boundaries of the genre. Particular stories stand out from memory, serving as potent introductions to the work of important authors: Poppy Z. Brite’s New Orleans-based story ‘His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood’ dealing with sexuality and obsession through the concept of voodoo and vampirism in terms both frank and haunting; S.P. Somtow’s ‘Chui Chai’ presenting a blend of tropes from the European Gothic tradition and the more contemporary paranoias of globalisation in the context of Thai culture. Still more vivid is Kim Newman’s ‘The Original Dr Shade’, which mixed up a powerful brew of satire, comic books and a critical exploration of the darker underbelly of 1980s British ideology. Pre-war comic book superhero Dr Shade is resurrected by a media company, with all and the artist assigned to handle his new adventures finds himself haunted by the character himself, while Right wing thugs known as ‘shadeheads’ roam the streets.
Although I was only reading SF magazines like Interzone sporadically, I was dipping into them to find works by this stable of writers whose work I’d encountered through the reliable sources of fascinating writing that were Stephen Jones’s anthologies, and from there I would branch out: reading novels by Paul J. McAuley, like the brilliant Fairyland because of his Frankensteinian ‘Dr Praetorius’ stories found elsewhere.
The texts of these writers and others were clearly invested in genre, and made their living selling to genre magazines, but they obviously had much to say about other matters, cultural and political and would happily use a ‘Horror’ text to say it. These texts took the limitations of genre seriously on one level (operating clearly within certain parameters of audience expectation—there is something horrible within) while subverting and playing with genre limitations on another (approach, tone and character-type—the horrible thing might be your expectation). Above all, that feeling, that sense of partaking in and following along with a collective expression of the expansion of the boundaries of the world, was a great thing. Through the horror anthologies and Judge Dredd comic books relationship with literary culture and ‘the Classics’ that I became aware of the presence and implications of self-reflexivity in fiction—initially through stories which made intertextual reference to Classics, to films I was just starting to watch and to the other fictions I was reading, and also to critical concepts about culture: serious critiques of Thatcherism and Mary Whitehouse’s social conservatism couched in pop-culture. These texts were critical, exciting and pushed against the visible limits of the world that surrounded us both politically and aesthetically; they helped lay the groundwork for a lot of other significant writers and, somewhere among the crowd of readers, they put down traces that I would eventually return to and rethink when I decided to study literature, and begin to uncover the political layers and artefacts in my personal archaeology.
Mark P. Williams
Journalist and Independent Academic Researcher
Research profile: http://independent.academia.edu/MarkPWilliams
Barker, Clive, in Clive Barker’s A—Z of Horror compiled by Steven Jones (London: BBC Books, 1997), p. 86.
Nicholson, John, ‘On Sex and Horror’ (pp. 249—77), Gothic Horror ed. Clive Bloom (London: Macmillan, 1998).