Dejan Ognjanović: All of My Fears Are Rational
Dejan Ognjanović, the author of The Poetics of Horror, was interviewed by Miloš Cvetković
Translated by: Filip Čolović
The Poetics of Horror was initially a doctoral dissertation defended at the Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade, and it has subsequently reached a wider audience after it was released in the form of a book published by Orfelin. What is your opinion regarding academic works and their place among a wider reader base, that is, while working on your dissertation, have you ever thought about how someone other than the professors would read it someday, or do you just have one writing style which you stick to, regardless of who might be reading the work further down the line?
In my opinion, academic works do not necessarily need to be saturated with grotesque, indiscernible discourse riddled with hideous phrases and loan words in places where a thesis could be expressed clearly using native, commonly understood expressions. Of course, a scientific work must use specialized terminology pertaining to the field in question, which inevitably includes some professional vocabulary (in my case, that would be literary theory and other related disciplines), but not to such a degree that every sense of beauty and precision is lost. Of course, I am against the opposite as well, the use of what I call the “conversational”, casual discourse which undermines the scientific value of a thesis through the use of laconic language, along with arbitrary structure and arbitrary definitions.
At the end of the day, books written in an obscure discourse aren’t unappealing to me just because they are difficult to understand, as I could understand them should I deem them worthy of the effort required; but such language repulses me primarily because it shows that the author is someone who did not have enough love and dedication for the works that they discuss but rather, they reduce them to a soulless collection of illustrations for their own theses, be they sociological, linguistic, psychological/psychoanalytical, feminist, etc. If someone is writing about works of art (be they books, films, etc.) and they are doing so using the dull language of some court reporter, a doctor writing an autopsy report, a statistician, or a mathematician… then, at least as far as I’m concerned, that is a sign that the author did not manage to delve deep enough into the work which they were trying to present in such a way.
The ideal that I gravitate towards in my writing is seriousness without ostentatiousness, presenting the content and the argumentation with clarity and without any rambling or digressions. My earlier non-fiction books –Faustian Screen (2006) and In the Hills, the Horrors (2007) – were influenced by those very same ideals, though The Poetics of Horror is perhaps the closest I’ve come to realizing said ideal, partly thanks to maturity (at the time when I wrote the aforementioned books, I hadn’t even earned my master degree yet), and it’s partly due to the fact that The Poetics of Horror was, after all, one of the most important works that one writes in their life – that is, a doctoral dissertation. True, many see even a doctorate as just another piece of homework in their academic career, as a means to a specific end (advancement, job, career…), but when it comes to writing this particular book, I approached it without any such calculation, with the very ambitious intention of it being my magnum opus. This, however, doesn’t mean that this book marks an end of my exploration of the poetics of horror i.e. that I’ve said all that I had to say on the subject or that I wouldn’t further develop the theses included therein while perhaps abandoning others, should I come across better ones.
Both of your novels, Nazivo (In Vivo) and Zavodnik (The Seducer), were written in first person. Why is that? Was that perspective the best fit for these stories, or is there more to it? And what do you generally think about first person/third person writing in horror, both from a reader’s and from an author’s perspective?
The story i.e. the effect and the meaning that I gravitate towards are what dictates the storytelling perspective. This was the case with both of my novels. As for my short stories and novellas, there are some which were written in third person (with an omniscient narrator). In principle, I prefer the first-person view because it implies a narrower perspective and limited knowledge, something that can be enhanced further with the help of an unreliable narrator, an approach that was established by Edgar Allan Poe and something that is, at least in my opinion, essential to generating truly disturbing horror. In other words, the omniscient narrator in third person narration is what I most commonly see as a “divine perspective” which provides a single, clear, doubtless story; this has become a dominant approach to horror thanks to Stephen King and thanks to mainstream horror in general. I, however, prefer the more classic approach (with a modern take on it) where the horror is lasting, effective, and given life by all the doubt, claustrophobia, existentialism and psychology that seep into it thanks to first-person narration. The very core of the effect and the meaning of both my novels, particularly The Seducer, is based precisely on first-person narration; a hypothetical switch to third person would radically change the fundamental meaning of those books, if not make their meaning impossible to convey.
While we’re at this subject, have you ever thought about writing a novel in first person where the protagonist would be someone who was radically different from you, in the sense that they would be a person of another gender, race, or origin; do you think that it’s all a matter of experience and talent or are there also some other elusive factors that the writer must keep in mind?
When it comes to the novels I have written thus far, I generally didn’t start with the main character: that is, in the case of In Vivo, I did to a degree, while in the case of The Seducer, the ambient and the atmosphere came first and only then did I create a character that I needed for that environment. I don’t write to prove anything to anyone but to express that part of myself which demands to be expressed. Because of that, I have no intention of forcing myself to write the next novel with a protagonist that’s female, Romani, Albanian, a rich playboy, an unrefined peasant, etc. The main character will be the one that I deem the most appropriate for the story I intend to write.
And as for the characters drastically different from me, I would say that Goran, the best friend of the protagonist from In Vivo, is one such character; furthermore, many readers have found Grandma Grozda – an old peasant woman – to be the most standout character in The Seducer. When a man sits down to write a horror novel in this country, if he ever “gets into” any female character, it’s almost always some “strong” super-sexy chick, some fantasy heroine. As for my novel, there you have it – I needed neither a femme fatale nor a horror superheroine, least of all the classic patriarchal woman-sister-mother-damsel-in-distress but just an old woman. She generally represents many things that I agree with but also has some opinions radically different from mine. What’s more, after writing The Seducer, I wrote a horror/feminist story called “The Dark Man” which revolves around her and it was written from her point of view, though in third person (only so I could avoid writing in a dialect that would take away from the atmosphere and make it seem comical). That story was included in the appendix of the second edition of The Seducer which was published by Orfelin.
By the way, most of my stories from the “zombie cycle” were written in first person, as seen through the eyes of complete idiots and morons who find themselves in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. But it’s one thing to write that way for 15-20 pages, and another to do it for 250; I’m not saying it’s difficult or impossible, just that I didn’t have a story worth telling that would be as long.
In your writing, you refer to different literary inspirations, be it more or less openly. In The Seducer, that’s Henry James, and in some other works, it’s Lovecraft. However, are there any authors whose works you love and appreciate exclusively as a reader, without relating to them as an author who could/would like to write something similar?
In both cases that you’ve mentioned, the inspirations and references were not simple homages but the allusions to the works of those authors were incorporated into the core of what I wanted to create. To be more precise, in both novels, my positions relative to those of the writers is not epigonic but critical. And just like In Vivo was my attempt at modernizing and “Serbifying” some Lovecraftian motifs, The Seducer was supposed to do the same with James’s “The Turn of the Screw”; in both cases, they were not merely intellectual and aesthetic games, least of all exercises in worship and mimicry, but were instead partly merged with a poetics that I could relate to, up to a certain degree, and partly it was also a battle with/a critique of whatever I found to be foreign, problematic, or inadequate in the other writer for what I was trying to convey.
In that sense, of course there are numerous writers, horror writers or otherwise, whom I look up to but I’m not sure whether I will even try, let alone succeed, to attain their way of writing and their work, partly because their writing style is so radically different from mine (e.g. Aickman or Ligotti). Still, who knows, maybe one day I’ll write something similar to the works of Thomas Bernhard or L.F. Celine… actually, I think traces of Celine’s influence can already be found in In Vivo.
Is there some irrational fear from your childhood that you’ve never overcome, at least in the sense that it intrigues you because you don’t know why it used to scare you? And how much do you actually write about your own fears, be they childhood fears or current fears?
All of my fears are rational. [laughs] I am not now, nor have I ever been, afraid of classic horror monsters such as bogeymen, vampires, ghosts, monsters under the bed, monsters from the closet, monsters from the basement etc. What’s even worse and what upsets me a little is that I’d never had any intense, memorable nightmares that people like, say, Lovecraft used to suffer from and which spawned numerous key works of horror: The Castle of Otranto, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula… all of them were conceived in the dreams of their authors.
I, on the other hand, fear banality most of all, I fear the shallow and the stupid, and so my nightmares (whenever they happen) are usually banal, shallow, and stupid, connected to people and situations of the same kind. The problem that I face as a horror writer is that I am very skeptical about everything, especially towards the so-called “otherworldly phenomena”. Maybe that is why I never dreamt of monsters, werewolves, zombies, “Cthulhus”, and the like. This is reflected in the horror I write – the horror of someone who can take seriously neither gods, nor demons, nor the supernatural creatures and superstitions upon which the biggest part of horror tradition was built.
Could you list a few novels or stories which you would never classify as horror but that evoke a strong sense of terror in you, and what do those works actually have in common?
I wouldn’t say that there are any literary works that evoke a strong sense of terror in me, but there definitely are works which have disturbed me without actually being works of horror. By that, I primarily refer to Kafka’s stories and novels, The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, the grim nihilistic stories of Leonid Andreyev, the “no-nonsense” cynicism of L.F. Celine, the merciless sadomasochistic destruction of self-imposed delusions in the novels of Thomas Bernhard… If there was anything that these works have in common, it would have to be the departure from the comfortable, mythical, poetic, and anthropocentric view of the world and humanity, as well as the coming to terms with the fact that we are actually wandering blindly with no real goal in a world without God and without any form of higher powers or values, like puppets controlled by banal psycho-biological urges.
When it comes to horror literature, which works of which foreign authors would you like to see translated into Serbian?
Since I have started collaborating with the Novi Sad-based publisher Orfelin in 2014, who has already published The Poetics of Horror, and since I am the editor of the newly launched “The Poetics of Terror” series, I am finally in a position where I don’t have to daydream and fantasize about the untranslated works of my favorite authors, but can also think about them in the context of an actual business plan. We’ll see what we will be able to realize but I’d rather not reveal any further plans for this series apart from what was already stated: there’s the first-time presentation of the best novellas of the masterful author that Serbian audiences are still unfamiliar with – Algernon Blackwood, presented through the collection called The Willows. Having published the second edition of said collection after great sales, we have also published Blackwood’s works in another collection called The Ancient Lights (there will be at least two more!). Then, we have publish the untranslated but quality stories of H.P. Lovecraft in The Whisperer in Darkness collection (the second edition of which was also released), as well as my translation of his novel At the Mountains of Madness, followed by a selection of other horror classics which were either never published in Serbia or were published “bit by bit”, without proper organization or quality control: M.R. James – Whistle and I’ll Come to You, Sheridan Le Fanu – Carmilla and Other Horror Stories, Arthur Machen – The Great God Pan, W.H. Hodgson – The Voice in the Night…
We are seriously lagging behind when it comes to first-class horror translated in Serbian, and sometimes I wonder how many years we’ll need to fill up even the biggest “holes” at the tempo we’re going (even though we have stepped it up to publishing 4 books a year). Still, this book series is not limited only to long-dead classics, and through it I have fulfilled my wish to see the two greatest horror writers from the second half of the 20th century (at least in my opinion) published in Serbian – Robert Aickman, having published two collections of his works, Cold Hand in Mine and the newly-published The Wine-Dark Sea (two more are planned), and Thomas Ligotti, having published Grimscribe and with Noctuary planned for a 2019 release. Of course, we intend to publish all of his fiction. I have actually been in contact recently (via email) with one of my horror idols, a first-class writer with whom we have just signed a contract and plan to publish his brilliant collection of novellas in 2019.
How do you see the future of horror in Serbia (in the academic, pop culture, and every other sense)?
The horror of our current embarrassingly uncultured government and its shameful influence on culture (and beyond) inevitably darkens any hopes that this region will yield any profitable, quality works in the areas of publishing and filmmaking, which I am personally most interested in. The commercialization, trivialization, and the dumbing-down of horror in every possible sense, including the genre as a whole, is what I see as dominant in this country. The most stubborn people will hold on for a while, spurred on by sheer enthusiasm, but we’ll see how long they’ll last and what the fake PhDs, the plagiarists, and the ignorant government thieves will allow them to create before they pack their bags and move to some other place that’s less toxic for spirituality and creativity.
Those who keep up with your blog can read a lot about your future plans. However, is there anything that you wish to write or create but are unable to do so because of specific reasons? That is, if there was some sort of “dream project”, would you give us a hint as to what it was?
Several of my dream projects that have to do with literature are currently in different phases of coming true at Orfelin, and they should be viable and in sight. By that, I am not referring to the “Poetics of Terror” series; there are also some more ambitious works in the new series “The Black Cat”, where we have already published the first book, the ultimate edition of The Necronomicon. As part of that series, we will be publishing anthologies of the best non-English horror stories in the coming years, which is also another unexplored territory that not even the readers and experts in the USA or Britain are familiar with, let alone those in Serbia.
As for those that will likely remain only dream projects, sadly, they have to do with cinema. In some more ideal world, I would have loved to see my novels adapted to film: apart from all of their obvious literary role models, both In Vivo and The Seducer rely on my sense of cinematic narration and atmosphere, so I think they could be “translated” into film without much trouble – if placed in the hands of an adequately talented director, of course. I’ve “watched” many of the scenes from those books countless times in my head both before and after writing them, I directed them, I even considered the logistics behind the special effects and the set, but it seems likely that all of that will remain only in my head and my dreams. However, if it’s any consolation to me, they will also live on in the thoughts and dreams of the readers who were influenced by my work and whose positive feedback gives me the strength and motivation to continue down this road.
Dejan Ognjanović (1973), writer, film critic, literary critic, editor, and translator. He graduated with a PhD at the Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade; Doctoral dissertation: “The Historical Poetics of the Horror Genre in Anglo-American Literature” (2012). He wrote the novels In Vivo (2003; 2010) and The Seducer (2014; 2015). He wrote the non-fiction books Faustian Screen: Devil in Cinema (2006), In the Hills, the Horrors: The Serbian Horror Cinema (2007), The Poetics of Horror (2014), More than Truth: Kadijevic on Kadijevic (2016), and the collection of essays A Study of Horror (2008). He edited and partly translated the collection of stories of H.P. Lovecraft published in The Necronomicon (2008; 2012; 2018), as well as several articles in the magazines “Gradina” and “Gradac”. He is a regular contributor to the world’s leading horror magazine, Rue Morgue.
Milos Cvetković Born in 1979 in Belgrade where he currently lives and studies literature in his old days. He published film critics and essays in journals: Popboks, Yellow Cab, Huperand Filaž. His essay “The Movie About Revenge – Ballad about the Cruel Radivoje Lola Đukić” was published within the New Angles (CLIO, Belgrade, 2008) collection. His essays were published abroad in the books 101 Sci-Fi Movies and 101 War Movies (Barron’s, New York, 2009). Compiled two anthologies of fantasy short stories: Anomaly 1 (2010) and Anomaly 2 (2015), in the Lazar Komarčić Fantasy Fans Society’s issue. He himself occasionally writes a short story, but loves to read and edit them more.
Translator Filip Čolović (1995) – born in Belgrade, he is currently finishing his undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade (English Department). At the moment, he works as a content writer and translator. Appreciates the avant-garde and all forms of quality art and fiction.