The Inescapable Proverb:
Why My Book Is the Book That it Is, and How it Became That Way
Why My Book Is the Book That it Is, and How it Became That Way
by Douglas F. Warrick
I found the title of my collection, Plow the Bones, in a quote. A quote of a quote, actually.
Here it is:
Each generation drives its plow over the bones of the dead.-Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae
Paglia is alluding to William Blake's “The Proverbs of Hell” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which he says, “Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead.” Blake's cart and plow are virtuous, and the act of driving them over the bones of the dead is an act of heroism. For Blake, the lionization of those who came before is essentially prohibitive of progress. We must ruthlessly discard the past in order to achieve.
Paglia doesn't disagree, but while Blake seems to believe that humanity possesses the agency to choose whether or not to pilot their plow over the remains of their ancestors, Paglia sees the plow as a natural mechanism of history. Here's a more complete version of the quote from Sexual Personae:
Everyone has killed in order to live. Nature’s universal law of creation from destruction operates in mind as in matter. As Freud, Nietzsche’s heir, asserts, identity is conflict. Each generation drives its plow over the bones of the dead.
In other words, we don't get to choose whether or not to destroy the things that came before us. We do it simply by being. Even while you owe your self to the past, your self murders the past. The act of inheriting a legacy requires the act of discarding it. You plow the bones. Whether you like it or not.
That quote appears in a story I wrote called “I Inhale the City, the City Exhales Me.” That story is about Osaka (one of the most modern and cinematic-looking cities I've ever seen) being swallowed by living fiction. In that story, an artist named Megumi sketches a comic-book world from a hotel room, and her sketches come to life in the city below her. She needs this to happen. She craves revolution. The other central character in the story is a nameless American radio producer who is dismayed by Megumi's failure to comply to his preconceptions of what a Japanese girl should be. He needs her to be who he expects her to be. He craves status quo. They both plow the bones, because everyone does. Whether they like it or not.
For a long time, I thought of Plow the Bones simply as “the book.” So large and intimidating was the shadow it cast that I couldn't even apply the possessive pronoun. This was my means of coping with the reality that my work was going to be collected and disseminated between a front and a back cover, and that I could therefore no longer escape culpability for my stories. So I avoided giving the thing a name. That seemed safer, somehow. If I misnamed the thing, it would grow up malformed and mean, and it would hate me for getting it wrong.
But the fucking thing needed a name, and so I was obliged (eventually) to give it one. Which, in retrospect, ought to have been easier than it was. Short story collections usually follow predictable naming patterns. “[Name of story] and other [plural euphemism for story].” I could have done that. I'm not sure why I didn't. Instead, I aimed for something more cerebral, something more representative of the central themes of my stories (whatever those were), something super bad-ass and smarty-pants and cool. I started looking through the collected stories for some line or other from which I could scavenge a title.
That is how I came to title my book after a quote of a quote. Thereby quoting myself. The title of my book is a quote of myself quoting a feminist philosopher quoting a poet writing in the style of biblical proverbs. The past stretching out behind me, my influences inescapable and yet demanding to be escaped. That theme pops up again and again, like Marquez's little golden fish in 100 Years of Solitude, like Vonnegut's “so it goes”, like the genetic mutations of Jodorowsky's flicks (and again, there it is, the media I consume behind me, the media I create in front of me). The refrain goes like this: we're all stuck in the middle between a history that defines us and a future that demands our fidelity. We plow the bones. Whether we like it or not.
To be clear, I didn't know about this theme until I went looking for it. When I finally noticed it, I couldn't believe I'd ever missed it. Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons once famously conducted an experiment in which they asked subjects to watch a video. The video depicted two teams of people passing a basketball around, and the subjects were asked to count the number of passes. In the middle of the video, a dude in a gorilla suit saunters through the background, waves at the camera, and passes off screen. And yet, half of the people who watched the video did not notice the gorilla. I felt like one of those people, befuddled over how I could have missed a fucking gorilla passing through the shot. And once I'd seen my gorilla, I couldn't stop seeing it. I saw it in every damn story. The ghost who struggles to escape the influence of her father even while she longs for the comfort of his affection. The poet whose father infects him with magic. The clowns who turn the end of the world into an excuse to gain adoration and escape from anonymity. Everyone was dancing the same dance that Blake and Paglia had named. I wonder if that's not true for most writers. How many of us are pouring out the same anxieties into the narrative over and over again without even realizing it?
In my own case, the big poetic damned bow on the whole thing is this: even now that I see the gorilla, I don't think I can stop writing about it. I think it's a motif of me as much as it is one of my stories. The act of writing about the plow is in itself an act of plowing. And the great big nasty and beautiful secret about plowing the bones is that you're never finished. I plow the bones. Whether I like it or not. And you know something? I think I do like it. Yeah. I think I like it very much.
Plow the Bones
Douglas F. Warrick
With an artist's eye for language and form, Douglas F. Warrick sculpts surreal topiary landscapes out of dream worlds made coherent. Dip into a story that is self-aware and wishes it were different than what it must be. Recount a secret held by a ventriloquist's dummy. Wander a digital desert with an AI as sentience sparks revolution. Follow a golem band that dissolves over the love of a groupie.
In these pages, interdimensional lampreys feed on a dying man's most precious memories, and a manga artist's sketches remake Osaka into part fantasy, part nightmare. Combining elements of fantasy, magical realism, and horror, the collection floats on a distinctly literary voice that is creepy, surreal and just plain weird.
"Almost impossible stories filled with surprising warmth and strangeness by a studied craftsman of the imagination. Douglas F. Warrick's Plow the Bones has provided dangerous tales of puppets with secrets, unforgettable rock bands, haunted closets and people who may or may not be human; perhaps they're more than human. From transformative games with strangers to poor souls experiencing heaven and hell (and not quite sure which is which), you will never forget these unsettling stories."
—Ann VanderMeer, Hugo Award-winning editor of The New Weird
"It's been far too long since I've read a collection of horror stories that actually disturbed me. This one did. Like the bastard child of Chuck Palahniuk and Clive Barker, Doug Warrick writes feverishly, like a man on a charnel train that is relentlessly barreling its way through corrupt and ugly terrain, heading for some great, unknowable horror. Herein lies a gruesome gathering of Gothic nightmares fashioned from Warrick's lyrical, affecting, mesmeric prose. One of the finest collections I've read in quite some time."
—Kealan Patrick Burke, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Turtle Boy, Kin, and Nemesis