Josiah Morgan and I have been online acquaintances for several years, bonding initially over our mutual passion for film. I recently read his debut poetry collection Inside the Castle and was stunned by its formal sophistication, thematic complexity and breadth of reference. I sent him a message asking if he would like to publish a chat with me about writing, genre and influences and he kindly agreed. The transcript below is the result of our exchange, which we conducted through a series of e-mail exchanges.
THORN: I love the way Inside the Castle foregrounds formal slippages, and how this approach seems to align with a persisting focus on identity. It seems to me like you’ve deliberately presented this text as an assemblage (as underlined by the appendix)—was it your intention to suggest the book’s speaker(s) is/are also assemblage(s), in some sense?
MORGAN: I’m pleased that you note the slippage of style as something aligned with identity of the central narrators. There are certainly polymorphous elements to the text; and the voices that speak frequently (or sometimes infrequently) throughout Inside the Castle are, for me at least, the key example of something polymorphous going on. It’s no secret that I’m a big admirer of Nabokov and his Pale Fire; which has a rather obvious identity-confusion conceit related to ethnicity and academia, but I’m also a big admirer of his Lolita; which appears to present a more complex ‘slippage,’ and one talked about less frequently—the ‘Americanization’ of his protagonist often slips into a European mode of storytelling; frequently two opposed cultural backgrounds collide to create what has become one of the longstanding contemporary canon classics. I bring this up because my book utilizes a similar tool in its transitory state from act one to act two to act three—I don’t mean to suggest that each act follows a different protagonist, but the voice gifted to each protagonist at differing points is actively defined by its placement within the overall structure. The clearest example of this I can give is in what my editor graciously refers to as the ‘Faulkner/American Gothic’ section of the text; beginning with ‘It was his brother who tore / his other’s heels into the world’—this vocal identity is quite different to the poem that opens the text—‘I’m watching you fry a lamb and / I want you to slam your hand on the element’—act three unites a multiplicity of voices more actively assembled from throughout the earlier text. Of course, this becomes more complicated because, as you suggest, all voices including those from earlier are equally assembled.
THORN: I think your editor’s ‘Faulkner/American Gothic’ description is totally apt. Speaking of influences, I love the way the book’s appendix illustrates your critical tendency to flatten and complicate boundaries between various media. I think this speaks to your use of voice throughout the book—some passages (e.g. Act One, Part One) are intimate confessionals, whereas others (Act One, Part Two) are more abstracted and explicitly ‘constructed.’ Are you conscious of your multimedia influences when you’re writing, or do they generally become clearer to you after you’ve finished writing and revising?
MORGAN: My multimedia background and influence has never been, for me, a conscious mechanism that I think about in the process of creating; however my deep passion for avant-garde cinema underlies all of my artistic principles to the extent that my manipulation of aesthetic identity is conscious simply because I think about it all the time. Act One, Part Three beginning ‘Carlos wants to’ was deliberately constructed to follow a mathematical pattern that creates a multiplicity of entry and exit points—as you’ve said to me privately, the text is rhizomatic in this sense—though the vast majority of the text was created in a spew of emotion, anger, and sometimes calm. The process of revising pulled some of the multimedia identities forward; especially those directly engaging with digital media that pop up frequently in the background of the text. My appendix is absolutely not prescriptive, and draws heavily on subjective experiences and unpublished works that would be unfair of me to expect others to experience. However, each source helps decode the text in various ways. If I am to point the reader to any one ‘skeleton key,’ it would be Rilke’s ‘The First Elegy’—the second section of the book is effectively an active rewrite of this poem; though designed around demystifying Rilke’s spiritual beliefs and conceits. I’ll throw in the comment here that I absolutely adore Rilke.
THORN: We originally connected over our mutual interest in cinema (especially horror and the avant-garde). This entire book seems to draw from body horror and the terror of limited corporeality… how does your background in film criticism and experimental filmmaking inform your writing?
MORGAN: As mentioned in my answer to your second question; my writing focuses on an aesthetic unity that, in my experience, is rare among writers who have a background in the linguistic arts. That’s why Amphetamine Sulphate was the perfect publisher for this—their background lies in music (their catalog is incredible and includes writing from some of the more prominent noise artists of the last decades). I’m also interested in the superficial and the myriad ways that images can lie to us and misguide us. The films I connect with frequently underscore their own fictionality (especially those of Greenaway and Hooper)—there’s a paradox here, though: I cannot stand postmodernism (in most cases); though my beliefs frequently align with the movement. ‘Limited corporeality’ is a great way to put it – my awareness and interest in especially experimental film has meant that I am consistently aware (if not fully) of the limits of form; I try to constantly play around the edges.
To follow up on some of the ideas you posed to me; I’m curious as to how your ongoing fascination with horror ultimately collided with academia and subjects such as philosophy, which appear to be a common thread in your work. Has the meeting of a ‘low genre’ with ‘high’ concerns always been of interest to you, or did that develop over years of experience?
THORN: It sounds like we have similarly ambivalent feelings about postmodernism. To answer your question, I think I’ve always been opposed to arbitrary distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Regarding academia, there’s much to be said for where I was and how I was feeling while writing many of the stories in Darkest Hours. While plenty of philosophy and theory texts have shifted my perspectives in meaningful (even profound) ways, I can’t deny that I find critical academic processes disturbing on some level. Maybe it’s because those processes force me to interrogate the unspeakable something that happens when I encounter a powerful work of art. To me, Darkest Hours is fundamentally defensive and cathartic, but it has some combative qualities as well. I have shit-disturbing impulses, so I really enjoy pressing against the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low.’ The books, films and music that mean the most to me are often antagonistic, impolite, sometimes even a little chaotic, so my hope is that some of those qualities have made their way into my creative DNA.
MORGAN: I can definitely see the chaotic impulse in your work, especially as contradictory images find themselves in harmony with each other as if by accident. That’s an element of your narrative writing that never fails to shock me. One of the nastier stories in Darkest Hours is ‘Hair’—your language in this story is especially sparse; and I mean this in the most complimentary manner (this story especially reminds me of Kafka, at times)—so I am curious: does your own editorial process handle the concision/tightening of work (one of the key elements in making horror function on the page, in my mind, at least) or is this a natural state of being for you? To follow that up; what are the key elements to revulsion on the page, especially as relates to ‘Hair’?
THORN: Of course I love Kafka, so thank you! On a sentence-by-sentence level, my first drafts often lean toward ‘excess,’ so my later drafts always aim for cleaner, more concise writing. By contrast, I often end up expanding my stories’ ‘macro’ aspects while revising: psychological and thematic elements usually sharpen, clarify and grow.
Regarding revulsion, I’m always impressed by the way Hubert Selby Jr. translates his protagonists’ disturbing (sometimes sickening) psychological worlds, especially in The Room and The Demon. When it comes to stories like ‘Hair,’ I think I’ve tried to take cues from his work. ‘Hair’ describes Theodore’s inner logic through a quasi-omniscient narrative filter. If the story works, it should give the reader a sense of Theodore’s dependency while also offering an ‘objective’ point-of-view to reveal unnerving truths about his psychology. I wanted to tap into the bizarre, seemingly universal fear of hair, which is of course something that grows from our own bodies… I was thinking lots about Dylan Trigg’s The Thing: A Phenomenology of Horror around the time I wrote this story, especially the implications of Trigg’s scary phenomenological framework on our relationships to our physical selves. When hair shows up in unexpected places, it takes on an abject and alien quality that can be nearly overwhelming—as a horror writer, I can’t help finding this intriguing. I wanted to explore that fear through a kind of Ouroboros addiction narrative.
MORGAN: I’m going to have to read everything you mention above, now… the act of constructing a short story collection comes with challenges of its own—the process of ordering the stories in relation to and in communication with each other can often be a large undertaking. Do you have any insight into this process of cultivation either in relation to your own collection or your work in anthologies?
THORN: While arranging the stories in Darkest Hours, I wanted to pay attention to the book’s overall tone and rhythm. I wanted it to feel almost like a concept album, with recurring themes and an overarching vibe but with noticeable variation in approaches and styles. Whenever I’m writing a new story, it exists completely on its own terms; I don’t think about it in relation to anything else I’ve written. So, while compiling this collection, I was genuinely surprised to discover certain connections and differences. When I first organized the manuscript, I thought it was too relentlessly bleak and nasty, to the point that I worried it might flatten out the overall affect. Taking that into consideration, I made the deliberate decision to incorporate some explicitly satirical pieces throughout.
Before we close this dialogue, I want to ask what’s next for Josiah Morgan—Inside the Castle is such an outstanding debut collection; are you planning to write more poetry in the future?
MORGAN: The next year of my life will be rather relentlessly tied to theatrical and academic studies, so you won’t see much of me in the immediate future. Beyond 2019, though, I do have two major works underway.
I’m about 10,000 words deep into a novelization/critique/analysis/exploration of Tobe Hooper’s magnum opus The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, possibly the work of art that reverberates within my body and mind the most frequently and strongly. That’s a highly abstract piece of prose writing in large part exploring the relationship the audience forges between the transgressive and the invisible. The second is another sequence of poetry, this one more obviously unified than Castle—30 pages of headway has been made into a sequence of poems following the differing legacies of colonialism in New Zealand, India, Australia, The United States and Burma. My hope is to present a sort of unified aesthetic theory on the (usually negative) empathic effects of colonialism on native peoples. That collection has been significantly influenced by the works of New Juche, especially Stupid Baby (Amphetamine Sulphate) and Bosun (Kiddiepunk), both of which deal with the traumatic roots laid down by the construction of frequently Western empires. That fascination comes from my own Maori heritage as New Zealand deals with the complicated process of decolonisation. One day I’ll sit down and try to write something narratively tied to the horror genre, but to date my attempts have always turned out rather strange and genreless.
It’s been great talking to you, Mike—thanks for both your insightful questions and your time—can we expect to see anything new from Mike Thorn in the coming months?
THORN: I’m extremely excited to see where these projects take you.
I’m currently writing a new novel that’s proving to be far more unwieldy and difficult than I’d anticipated… here’s hoping I make it out alive. I’m also working on a new short story that draws on experiences with writer’s block and my fear of contemporary, populist demagogues.
Finally, I’m nearly finished drafting a sprawling article on Marilyn Manson’s discography. That should be published online sometime in the near future.
Thanks so much for your time and thoughts, Josiah, and thank you for the outstanding poetry.
Josiah Morgan was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2001. Josiah has been involved in the Aotearoa performing arts scene his entire life; portraying his first professional role in Carl Nixon’s The Raft in 2007. He has danced with the Royal New Zealand Ballet (The Nutcracker; 2011) and now dedicates most of his time to physical theatre. He is a member of the 2019 Court Youth Company, a founding member of Rangatahi Theatre, and studies English & History at the University of Canterbury. Josiah is a monoglot, but would like to speak Māori and German fluently soon
Inside The Castle
Josiah Morgan is a 17-year-old poet from New Zealand. ‘Inside the Castle’ is his first book.
I watch you fry a lamb and
I want you to slam your hand on the element,
to slam your
hand on the element so
hard that when you jerk off you
feel intense third degree burns I want you
so hard that I can set fire to your cock and
I want you …
You can buy Inside The Castle from Amphetamine Sulphate
Mike Thorn is the author of the short story collection Darkest Hours. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies and podcasts, including Dark Moon Digest, The NoSleep Podcast, DarkFuse, Unnerving Magazine, Turn to Ash and Behind the Mask – Tales from the Id. His film criticism has been published in MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, The Seventh Row, Bright Lights Film Journal and Vague Visages. Visit his website (mikethornwrites.com) and follow him on Twitter (@MikeThornWrites).
In the bleak landscape of Darkest Hours, people make decisions that lead them into extreme scenarios – sometimes bizarre, often horrific, always unexpected. Between this book’s covers you will find academics in distress; monsters abused by people; people terrorized by demons; ghostly reminiscences; resurrected trauma; and occult filmmaking. Ranging from satirical to dreadful, these stories share a distinct voice: urgent, sardonic, brutal, but always empathetic.