Today I would like to welcome Brendan Vidito to the Plutonian! An exciting new voice on the scene, he has recently dropped his short story collection Nightmares in Ecstasy on an unsuspecting public. Nightmares in Ecstasy is packed full of bizarre sex, mutant body parts, strange encounters, and doomed protagonists. Highly recommended! And Brendan has a new story entitled Walking in Ash that will be coming out in Plutonian Press’s new collection Pluto in Furs in August!
Thank you very much for having me!
In Nightmares in Ecstasy, there is this great mix of surrealism, body horror, and bizarre humor. What genre do you see your work as falling into? Horror? Weird Horror? Bizarro? And where do you see your writing going/evolving?
I think my editors at Clash Books—Christoph Paul and Leza Cantoral—gave the most accurate description of my work. They categorized it as literary hardcore horror fiction, which speaks to my intention to balance somewhat poetic prose with transgressive subject matter. Many of my stories also fit comfortably in the erotic horror mold.
As for where I see my writing going, I noticed that many of my recent stories have dialed back on the sexual themes and so-called “hardcore” elements in favor of a more psychological approach. I’m still very much interested in body horror and surrealism, but I’m also eager to explore different regions of the horror genre. It’s hard to say for sure, but I have a feeling my future works, though linked by some common threads, will each be distinctive in their own way.
I think in the horror genre, it is essential to have a sense of danger. A feeling that you do not know what the writer has in store for you and maybe, just maybe, it will be too much for you to handle. But I think in the current horror scene, that sense of danger is missing. I just can’t see a truly transgressive style of horror thriving in the current environment. But this I feel is one of the things I most enjoyed about Nightmares in Ecstasy. Your collection is full of these kinds of surreal scenarios and nightmarish imagery that challenge the reader. It has this willingness to push at the reader, to say I am going to put down on paper exactly whatever bizarre or pervy idea and run with it. Do you actively try to challenge the reader? Is there ever moments where you think maybe it would be better not to put a certain story you wrote or idea you had out into the world?
This is a huge compliment. Thank you. I’m glad to know my stories are able to pack that transgressive punch. To answer your question, it’s definitely a goal of mine to challenge the reader. Like you said, a sense of danger is essential to crafting an effective and engaging piece of horror fiction. That’s one of the reasons why my stories aren’t exactly set in the “real world”. From the opening paragraphs, reality is already unstable and dreamlike, reinforcing that sense of unpredictability and danger. Above all else, though, I like to challenge myself as a writer. I have a relatively short attention span when it comes to my own work, so I always try to keep myself engaged. And that usually means writing the weirdest, most confrontational shit I can imagine.
As for the second question, despite the extreme nature of my stories, my intention is never simply to shock the reader. There has to be something more going on (subtext, metaphor, social commentary) to justify the transgressive subject matter. I try to make that assessment before I even set the idea down on paper. There’s a difference between provocative art and art that merely provokes, and it’s my goal to, hopefully, create stories that earn a place in the former category.
Your work has this kind of hazy dreamlike feel to it. It’s like having a window into someone’s dreams, unfiltered and raw. Sometimes a writer’s work may act as a kind of archive of their own obsessions and desires. Examples I would use would be, say, JG Ballard’s Crash or Tim Lucas’s Throat Sprockets. Would you say that is accurate? What is the importance of having this kind of dream life? And what is the importance of a writer sharing their obsessions or dreams with others through their writing?
My writing is more reflective of my obsessions rather than my desires. And those obsessions take the form of fears and anxiety. To be honest, I have a tendency to be paranoid and I often find myself trapped in cycles of catastrophic thinking, where my mind conjures all kinds of awful worst-case scenarios. I blame this on the fact that, when I was fifteen years old, I was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus. It’s an autoimmune disorder where your body essentially rebels against you. Throughout this ordeal, I was forced to contend with hallucinations, delusions, migraines, chronic fatigue, joint pain, and a host of major surgeries. For example, I had both my hips replaced before I turned twenty due to some complications with my drug treatment. These experiences undoubtedly left me with a negative perception of my own body. I was basically living through my own personal tale of body horror. And, in many ways, I’ve been obsessively working through those experiences in my writing. I definitely believe in the cathartic potential of horror fiction, and for me that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important, even vital, to share your trauma through the veil of storytelling. You never know when your stories might resonate on a subconscious level with a reader who underwent similar experiences.
A lot of your stories blend this kind of surreal body horror with a deep thread of black humor running through it. Can you talk about your use of humor in your work?
Recently, a good friend of mine read through my collection and we sat down for drinks afterward. I asked him what he thought. He paused for a moment, a smirk forming on his lips and said, “I thought it was hilarious. But then again there might be something wrong with me.” I feel like that sentiment perfectly illustrates the function of humor in my stories. It’s meant to be uncomfortable and disarming.
At a glance, the plots of my stories are rather outlandish and ridiculous: a couple becomes physically attached at the waist; a man reaches the height of sexual pleasure when a worm gives him a blowjob; a grieving husband grows a copy of his dead wife using her placenta. And because of the inherent absurdity of these concepts, it’s natural for some humor to leak through the cracks. I also like to think of each story in my collection as a short cult horror film. And, for me, cult cinema is basically a collage of many strange and unorthodox elements. These films consistently demand your attention because there’s always something unexpected happening onscreen, and humor is often one of those elements.
What is it about sex and eroticism that make them such fertile subjects for writers? And why do you think writing or talking about sex and eroticism is so taboo in our culture?
I can’t speak for other writers, but for me, sex and eroticism are appealing because they’re such fundamental parts of being human. I like to approach sex in my work the same way other horror writers tackle the idea of a haunted house. You take the family home, which is meant to evoke feelings of comfort and security, and transform it into an unfamiliar and hostile environment. I do the same with sex, an act that’s meant to be fun and passionate, and turn it into something nightmarish. It’s an easy target because most of us, no matter our age, can relate to sex on one level or another. It’s naturally attractive, so when you render it uncanny, it’s easy for readers to sympathize with the experiences of the characters. I guess that’s the purpose of a lot of horror fiction, it’s a deliberate perversion of the familiar.
As for why I think sex is taboo in our culture, I suspect that religion and the conservative nature of western society are two of the biggest culprits.
What would you say are some formative works in literature or film that inspired you or gave you something to model your own work after?
My gateway drug was William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. I read it in high school and it changed my perception of what fiction could achieve. I was like: “Oh man, you can do that?” So, in a way, it opened the floodgates for me in terms of creative potential. Around the same time, I started watching the films of Lynch and Cronenberg, the most influential being Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Shivers, and Videodrome. Clive Barker’s Books of Blood were an absolute revelation for me. I love his style of writing—the rich, ornate prose—and the almost obsessive level of detail he provides when describing something outside of reality. He’s the Bosch of literature, and no one can match him when it comes to dark fantasy fiction. Kathe Koja’s The Cipher was another formative work, along with the entire output of Ryu Murakami. J.G. Ballard also had a huge impact on me with High Rise, Crash, and Kingdom Come. More recently, I’ve been drawn to the stories of Robert Aickman. I absolutely love ambiguity in horror—the cardinal sin for me in a horror book or movie is when the writer feels the need to over explain the agent of chaos plaguing the characters—and Aickman’s fiction is as ambiguous as it gets. My weirdest inspiration, by far, is the pornographic director Stephen Sayadian, also known as Rinse Dream (I can’t even type that with a straight face). He directed the cult hit Café Flesh and, my personal favorite, Nightdreams. He’s such an oddity in the arena of film as well as pornography, and I admire his audacity to make these weird little fuck films.
When did you start writing? At what point in your life did you decide you were going to take a serious stab at making a name for yourself as a writer?
I started writing when I was eight. My first story was a fifty-page fantasy called The Egg and the Eye. I don’t remember much about it, but I do recall a scene featuring a creature—imagine a cross between a velociraptor and a clown—that stalked the protagonists through the ruin of a theme park. I didn’t start taking a serious jab at writing until 2014. It all started when I signed up for one of John Skipp’s classes on Litreactor. It was called Lean, Mean, Writing Machine. He liked my work—at the time I’d written both Fuck Shock and The Androgyne—and he introduced me to Jack Bantry, the creator of Splatterpunk Zine, who purchased both stories. Not long after that, I met the folks at Clash Books and I’ve been plowing forward ever since.
What kind of effect do you hope your collection Nightmares in Ecstasy has on its readers?
I hope readers are unsettled, disoriented, aroused, disturbed, amused, and ultimately horrified. I’m immensely humbled at the reception it has received so far. It’s always nice to see readers understanding and appreciating your work. And I’m especially grateful that the book isn’t simply being dismissed as a collection of gross-out stories, because there is so much more at play under all that weirdness and viscera.
If you had the power to claim any writers work ( living, dead, current, classic ) and add it to your bibliography as your own, totally free and clear with no one the wiser, what three short stories would you plunder?
The Whimper of Whipped Dogs by Harlan Ellison, In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka, and A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor.
So what is next? Any new projects coming up you would like to talk about?
I’m currently in the final stages of my first novel. It’s an idea that’s been percolating for over a decade and I’m both nervous and excited to share it with the world. It borrows some familiar elements from Nightmares in Ecstasy—surrealism and body horror—but it also attempts to do something different. I’ve always had a hard time pinning it down. It’s kind of all over the place genre-wise. At its core, though, it’s a social horror story (with elements of the drug novel) that combines real-life tragedy with fictional horror.
I’m also co-editing an anthology called The New Flesh: A Literary Tribute to David Cronenberg with Sam Richard of Weird Punk Books. We’re accepting submissions until the end of March, so send us your best body horror stories!