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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Secondhand Sunday with Meeah Cross (aka Michael Cecilione)

Even in a world driven by reader trends, and fuelled by the instant availability of e-books, there is still nothing that can quite compare to wandering the dusty shelves of a secondhand bookstore and discovering a hidden gem, wedged deep within a stack of well-read paperbacks. With that in mind, welcome to Secondhand Sundays, a new feature that celebrates the old-fashioned joy of hunting down those tattered-and-torn titles we've heard of, but never seen; and of discovering bent-and-broken books we never knew we wanted, but suddenly knew we had to have.

As I'm able to reconnect with those authors who continue to stock my shelves, I'd like to use this opportunity to celebrate those books that first kindled my love of books, and those experiences that remind me of why that love has never faded.

First up is an absolutely fascinating author who I first encountered as Michael Cecilione, but have since come to know as Meeah Cross. Tracking her down wasn't easy but, like the search for her books themselves, the effort involved in making that discovery is part of the magic of reading.


Q: Thanks for taking the time to stop by today, Meeah. During the mid to late 90s, you published a number of edgy, erotic horror novels under the name of Michael Cecilione. Were those your first published works, or had you seen print before that?

A: Well, to start, I’m going to have to suggest that we conduct this interview in a rather unorthodox manner. Because I don’t feel comfortable doing it as “Michael Cecilione” or “Michael Cross” or any of the various pseudonyms that he wrote under over the years.

The fact is that Michael Cecilione died, quite literally, a number of years ago. The best way to understand what I’m trying to say is to understand “death” the way the family member of an Alzheimer’s patient talks about a loved one “disappearing” in the end stages of the disease. They talk, and not at all metaphorically, of the person, as they knew them, having “died,” even though their physical body continues to live on, often for years. In my case, someone replaced the personality that died…and that is who is talking to you now, the person who I should have been all along, but who’d been sublimated and displaced by a personality construct conditioned at birth and for years afterwards by the expectations of others.

The early books that you mention were, in a very literal sense, not written by me at all, but by someone else entirely. I stand in relation to these books, to Michael Cecilione, as might an heir, as a literary executor. Michael Cecilione has left me his works and some memories of his intentions and experiences but no more sense that I had anything whatsoever to do with creating his books or living his life than you have.

So with that said, let me answer your question, which I’ll repeat since we’ve been down the rabbit hole for some time now since you first asked it:

During the mid to late 90s, you published a number of edgy, erotic horror novels under the name of Michael Cecilione. Were those your first published works, or had you seen print before that?

No, they weren’t his first. Cecilione’s first published novel was a contemporary gothic horror novel called Soul Snatchers, a quite conventional book. That was followed by a far more interesting novel called “Deathscape” (a truly horrible title that the publishing company chose—it was the worst of the alternative titles he gave them, so it was ultimately his own fault. He originally wanted to call the novel “Croaker,” but his editor thought it would make people think it was about an evil frog). Anyway, those two novels were the bridge to the edgier and far more overtly erotic vampire novels that followed, “Thirst” and “Domination.”


Q: After a post-80s lull, horror experienced a bit of resurgence in the late 90s. Were you looking to capitalize on that with your books, or was the timing just a happy coincidence?

A: Believe it or not, he really wanted to write “serious” experimental literary fiction. He wanted to write stuff like his literary heroes wrote, writers like Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Robert Coover, and William S. Burroughs. There wasn’t much chance of finding a publisher for that sort of thing, though, not then or now. So he looked around at what popular commercial genre might accommodate some of the elements of that kind of fiction. Horror seemed the logical choice. You can add a great deal of surreality to horror and no one will notice that you’re doing it. He considered “Thirst” and “Domination” as pop-culture recasts of the work of the Marquis De Sade retold as vampire novels. The Marquis De Sade’s philosophy, if you take the time to read between the dirty parts of his most infamous novels, is the quintessential statement of vampire philosophy.


Q: It was Domination and Thirst that caught my eye, staring back at me from the second-hand bookstore shelves, but is there one title from the Michael Cecilione era that holds special appeal for you?

A: Yes, Easy Prey. It may actually be the best novel from that period. It is a very violent weird kind of serial killer novel that borders on the supernatural in parts. It was a novel that even creeped Michael out as he was writing it. That doesn’t happen often because of the critical distance you have to maintain when you’re writing. He got rather abnormally absorbed in the character of Frank Noone. He identified with him unfortunately—a character without a core or identity of his own, floating from one alias to another, playing each one as a role to be eventually discarded when it’s worn out its usefulness…Frank No-One. I imagine that Michael must have begun to understand the emptiness at the center of his own identity as he was writing this novel.

Q: How did the end of that era come about? Was it a matter of a contract running its course, or were you simply read to move onto other things?

A: Well there was a period of time that Michael was writing under a pseudonym. I think the idea was that he was going to go more mainstream than category horror, in the direction of mainstream psychological suspense thrillers. So he wrote a fairly decent novel called “Merciless” under the name Michael Cross. It disappeared without a blip on the radar. And then he came out with a really wretched book called “Muse,” which he wrote almost as proof of his contention that the most successful commercial novels were often the stupidest and most poorly written.

He told everyone who’d listen that he’d bet them anything that “Muse” would be both his worst-written and most commercially successful book. And wouldn’t you know it, sadly, he was right! He made more money on “Muse,” both on the advance and in royalties than he did with any other novel before or since. In fact, he might have made more money with that one wretched book than all his others combined. But it was a joyless victory, confirming all his worst suspicions. After that experience, he was utterly disgusted with himself and with commercial publishing.

His last book with a major publishing house was the second book on the contract after “Muse.” The publisher quite naturally wanted another book like “Muse.” But Michael found himself, personally and professionally, undergoing a severe crisis of identity on virtually every front. He was, looking back on it now, most likely undergoing a nervous breakdown without anyone noticing. He was, in fact, beginning to commit suicide.

Instead of another book like “Muse” he wrote a book purely as an act of defiance, revenge, and rebellion. A novel called “Afterhuman.” It was dedicated originally “To everyone who doesn’t give a shit,” which tells you all you need to know about what must have been his state of mind at that point.

With “Afterhuman” Cecilione committed, if not yet physical or identity suicide, than certainly career suicide. The publisher marketed it as a vampire book which it most definitely was not. People who bought it under that misapprehension were surely and rightfully disappointed. It was the kind of book that he had wanted to publish all along. It was nasty, violent, nihilistic, and full of rage and disgust for the world and all it’s hypocrisy. What most people missed, though, is that it is also a very funny, over-the-top piece of black humor. It was his version of “Naked Lunch” and Lautreamont’s “Maldoror.”

His agent was shocked that the publishing company actually ended up publishing it at all. He suspected, and I think he may have been right, that it was unlikely anyone at the publishing company even read it, that it was just passed it along to production. That happens, by the way, more often than people outside the industry might suspect.

Anyway, “Afterhuman” vanished, too, without a trace, shot quietly in the back of the head and dumped in the backlist swamps where no one would ever find it. Happily, though, it lives on, risen like the ghastly undead thing it is. I’ve since self-published it in a revised and expanded edition with Amazon. I think it’s one of the few things that Michael ever did right in his life.

Q: In the years since then, your personal life has undergone quite an evolution. In fact, when we first chatted, you compared those books to messages in a bottle that have floated far from their source. Looking back, what do you remember the thoughts and emotions behind those books?

A: I guess I answered this question in great part at the beginning of this interview. Perhaps another way for readers to understand what otherwise sounds plainly psychotic is that I feel towards those old books what many people might feel if they came across a diary they’d kept when they were sixteen. “I’m not that person any more,” might be their first reaction. “I can’t imagine ever having been that person,” might well be the second.

Part of it is a matter of natural growth and change. But, in my case, it’s a lot more radical. Most people, despite the changes in their lives, look back in time and see a continuity to their identity, which I do not.

Whatever the confluence of factors responsible for the personality who wrote those books—at one time known as Michael Cecilione—those factors stopped cohering several years ago. They dispersed, like ripples in a pond, growing weaker and weaker at the periphery until they eventually disappeared altogether. There was never anything at the center.

To answer your question, I remember nothing of the thoughts and emotions from that period. I am not that person and never was. To put it another way, I am the product of a new and entirely different pattern of brain activity.

The only thing that remains the same is that I still write. Although in a decidedly different way than previously.

Q: Along with your personal transformation, your writing has undergone a significant evolution as well. As identities have come and gone, you found expression through horror, fetish erotica, and avant-garde/surrealist fiction. Has it been more a matter of art imitating life, or has your fiction served as a necessary means of self-expression?

A: I think it is a matter of both. And sometimes a third, too: often my life has imitated my art. Or my art has certainly seemed to predict the trajectory my life would take. Michael Cecilione was writing about his own death and who was eventually going to replace him when, to him, it could have seemed nothing more than a crazy fantasy. He never became a vampire or a serial killer, but at the time both would have seemed a far more likely scenarios than the fantasy that he was ever going to be replaced by a married woman.

Its weird, looking back, at how many things he’d written about in novels that eventually ended up actually happening, if not in his, than in my real life. Some of those things were good, others not so good. When I look at some of his old books now it’s as if I’m reading about myself in his imagination. He’s writing about my future. I like to think that maybe somewhere deep down he knew that and welcomed it. That he was trying to liberate me.

Q: With such a wide range of styles and genres behind you, I have to ask, was there ever a time when you worried how a reader would react, or have you written primarily for your own satisfaction?

A: With the exception of that one novel, “Muse,” Cecilione always wrote primarily for his own satisfaction. That is one lesson I’ve learned from him that I’ve taken quite to heart.

Of course, writing for a commercial audience almost always involves a certain amount of compromise if you’re going to be successful. Especially if you’re a writer who, by nature, stands as far outside of the mainstream as I do in virtually every conceivable way. For me, writing for other people, for a perceived audience is always an enormous mistake.

I think you have to decide why you’re writing. If it’s just to make money, then you approach it one way, just like any other job. You don’t get a job at Wal-Mart, for example, stacking shelves to express yourself. You do it to make money. And you can write that way, too.

But if you approach writing as a calling, with a religious spirit, as Art, as a means of being engaged at the deepest level with life itself, then you don’t concern yourself with an audience, a publisher, with anyone at all. You write for your own satisfaction and your own enlightenment. You write because you have to write, because not to write would be like not to breath. You write because no one else is saying what you have to say and you want to see it said at least once and if you have an audience that’s great, if someone will pay you even better, but if not, you’re still satisfied. More than satisfied…you’ve already gotten out of the work all that you could ever ask, which was the experience of doing it. Your song has been sung, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, and there’s nothing more to life than that.

Q: In terms of reader reactions, what is the strangest or most surprising reaction to your work that you've ever encountered?

A: Some people have actually appreciated and understood what I’ve done—or tried to do. That always surprises me. I don’t expect that my attempt to communicate anything like my true intention will actually succeed despite my most painstaking efforts. Communication — real communication — is one of the rarest things of all despite all the interpersonal chatter in our lives. So I don’t take it for granted on the rare occasions when it happens .

Q: In this era of self-publishing, how (or perhaps why) did Afterhuman Press come about?

A: I started by doing a lot of writing for the internet. All of it unpaid at the time. Yet the online writing I was doing gratis was far more absorbing and rewarding to me than anything I was doing as a paid professional. I liked—and still like—the immediacy of writing and “publishing” material with just a click. I like being able to connect directly with an audience. And I like writing whatever I want, whenever I want, without the censorship of an agent or editor or a publisher all of whom, ultimately, have one goal: to make money.

To my delight, I‘ve discovered that there are vast subcultures of people out there ignored by the dominant media. There’s an audience for virtually everything. It’s just a matter of finding it. Now with the advent of Amazon and other e-publishers and online distribution channels, a writer can have the best of both worlds. You can write whatever you want and you can make a couple of bucks, too.

Q: Do you foresee a day when Afterhuman Press may welcome other authors to its pages, or does the imprint exist solely to house your own work?

A: Oh there’s no reason a writer would want to publish with Afterhuman Press because there isn’t anything I can do for them as a publisher that they couldn’t do for themselves just as well—and keep every penny they manage to make in the process. That’s the beauty of self-publishing today. You can reach the entire world with just a click of your mouse. You don’t need a publishing house with distribution to brick and mortar stores. You don’t need to put paid advertisements in newspapers or the backs of magazines. You don’t need someone else to e-publish your book for you. You’re limited by nothing but your own imagination and ingenuity. You don’t need anyone anymore. As a solipsist, I like that.

Q: Looking back over your entire literary career, what book (or books) stands out most vividly in your mind? Is there a title you’d like to be remembered for, a book that could serve as your legacy?

A: I guess if I had to pick one book from the Michael Cecilione days, I’d say “Afterhuman” should serve as his “legacy.” Shortly before his death, he wrote another experimental novel called “pornocalypse” that I suspect fulfilled a vision he had of the kind of literary experiment he felt called to write. I think they stand at the outer limits of what he’d hoped to do as “art.”

There were a couple of other novels that he wrote at the end that I also feel are worth mentioning. One was a comic sci-fi detective novel called “Fake Girls,” which he wrote under the name Matthew Sloan. The other was a thriller called “Hardcore Romeo” under the name Mark Nadja. He got better as a writer toward the end, knowing, I suspect, that his time was limited.


Q: Is there a favourite quote or scene from your work that you feel particularly fond of? Maybe a line or two that sticks in your head and reminds you of why writing that book was important to you?

A: “Real life is worse than any horror story. Because in real life the monster gets us all in the end.”

I forget what book this line comes from. One of Cecilione’s early ones. Possibly “Deathscape.” You know how in horror films the monster is always vanquished in the end or, at the very least, you have a character or group of characters who get away. The credits roll and the audience feels relieved. Well if the movie kept running, those people would eventually die too. Everyone dies. In real life, the monster gets us all in the end whether you call it Freddie Krueger or Dracula or Cancer.

So, from an existential point of view, what’s the point of running away from the monster? The monster is the inescapable fact of Death. If survival makes for a happy ending, life makes for a very bleak horror story.

As Camus said, the only serious philosophical question worth asking is why we don’t commit suicide. When we run from the monster all we’re doing is just putting off the inevitable. No matter how fast or far we run, ultimately we’re running right into the monster’s savaging embrace. He’s waiting for us in the next sequel. And we each get only so many sequels.

Well, maybe the best we can do is make the monster run his ass off chasing us down for as long as possible. Poke a bar-b-cue fork in his eye, hit him with a flame-thrower, whatever, just really give him hell. And when, panting and puffing, he finally has us cornered, spit in his eye. As Camus noted, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”

Q: With your personal life having passed some significant milestones, what’s next for you in terms of publishing? Is there another literary reincarnation in the works?

A: I’m currently finishing a novel that’s sort of a cross between Anne Tyler and Jennifer Finney Boylan. It has a transsexual main character who isn’t treated like a freak but like an ordinary person with human concerns the same as anyone else. I’m also in the process of reworking one of Cecilione’s last unfinished manuscripts. It’s a literary porn novel called “The Brothel of Beautiful Corpses.” In other words, two diametrically-opposed projects neither of which have a chance in the world of finding a commercial publisher. But when I stop writing what I really want to write out of a concern for an audience or a publisher than it’s time for me to stop writing altogether.

In between major projects, I write and draw comics and pen plenty of sleazy porn for fun and money. People look down on pornographic writing but I consider good porn to be pure magic. Think about it. With words alone you can cause another person separated from you by time and space to experience the most intense physical pleasure a human being is capable of experiencing. You can literally cause them to writhe in ecstasy, spasm in orgasm, squirt actual bodily fluids. It’s astonishing!

Why aren’t porn writers honored more? Beats me. It’s really a noble endeavour. They provide people with so much pleasure. When I consider it, I think it’s arguable who gives readers more real pleasure, Shakespeare with all his plays and sonnets or someone writing a sleazy internet porn story under the name Anonymous.

Q: Finally, before we let you go, do you foresee a day when those early Michael Cecilione may see life again as e-books, perhaps through the efforts of Afterhuman Press?

A: No, I don’t think so. For one thing it would be a matter of retyping and reformatting them all. And what a tedious task that would be even if I had nothing to do! I’d rather be spending my typing-time doing my own stuff. I haven’t been me for way too much of my life…I have a lot of catching up to do. Right now, it’s kind of cool that those old books are so old and so out of print and so rare. It makes their sporadic rediscovery by someone, like you, for instance, that much more special.

Thanks again for joining us, Meeah!

Thank you for inviting me, Bob!

1 comment:

  1. Next time, ask her about Boris Mangold.

    ReplyDelete