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Northern chills: a conversation with cult horror author Tony Burgess

(illustration: Louise Reimer)

(illustration: Louise Reimer)

“I kind of understand a lot of what goes on in deviant minds,” says Tony Burgess casually. “Broken minds, antisocial minds, psychopathic minds, outsider minds. It’s something I’m drawn to, because I probably have one.” Anyone possessed of even a passing familiarity with Burgess’s fictional output – three story collections and five novels that feature zombies, serial killers, various kinds of insanity, and deliriously Grand Guignol violence liable to make the Marquis de Sade blanch – will surely recognize the appropriateness of this assessment.

One of the reigning figures of homegrown horror, Burgess delights in dismembering the Canadian Gothic tradition; his stories of small-town Ontario are anarchic and bloodthirsty, as if Munro country had been invaded by fugitives from a George A. Romero movie. His fiction blends high-minded ideas about philosophy, semiotics, and Freudian psychology with plentiful depictions of graphic sex and violence. That the author gives no quarter in either regard is perhaps one reason his books have stubbornly failed to break out of their cult niche and achieve mainstream success.

Not that this seems to bother Burgess, who appears more than happy to continue spinning his bizarre and fractured narratives in an arena that gives him requisite room to indulge his particular tastes and interests. “What I like about [horror] is that you can get away with doing things you might not be able to get away with in a more conservative genre,” he says. “You can include as complex or difficult an idea as you want, and you can also be as brutal and as vulgar as you want.”

“I think a horror novel, to properly horrify you, should make you feel like you are not being made safer, and your world is not being made better by a secret noble agenda.”

So, in his short novel People Live Still in Cashtown Corners (ChiZine), the central figure – a disaffected gas station owner named Bob Clark – goes on a mass killing spree, at one point slaughtering an entire family in their home. In one of the stories in Ravenna Gets (Anvil Press), a mother castrates her own son, slicing the organ “right down the middle like a goddamn hot dog.” Dixon, a “Seller” who wanders a post-apocalyptic planet convincing people to commit mass suicide in The n-Body Problem (ChiZine), is described in a chapter that includes a three-page litany of atrocities that seem to have sprung from a Hieronymus Bosch fever dream. And the zombies in Pontypool Changes Everything (the second volume of a trilogy that ECW Press just re-released in an omnibus edition titled The Bewdley Mayhem) are stricken with a virus that is carried in language, prompting sufferers to chew the mouths off other people.

“I think a horror novel, to properly horrify you, should make you feel like you are not being made safer, and your world is not being made better by a secret noble agenda,” says Burgess. The traditional approach to horror fiction sees the genre as a cathartic instrument for negative emotions, providing a socially acceptable avenue to exorcise one’s darkest fears and impulses. “That’s the line, and that’s what a lot of horror fiction people talk about,” says Burgess. “It’s a noble line. So it doesn’t satisfy me very much.” Rather than meritorious ideas about catharsis and purgation, Burgess maintains he is interested in the sudden, convulsive violence that can befall anyone at any time. “That terrifies me,” he admits.

Bursts of excessive violence and anarchic revelry seem somewhat antithetical to the more recondite notions promulgated by “conservative” CanLit: does Burgess consider himself writing within any kind of national tradition? “By default, obviously,” he says. “Because I set everything in Ontario, very specifically, but also because there are lots of the things you find in a lot of Canadian literature – bizarre sexuality and survival shit. There’s lots of that. And comedy.”

This last is an aspect of Burgess’s work that often gets overlooked – quite unfairly, since the author is frequently very funny. Perhaps it is the métier that causes problems: there is such discomfort in the lack of recognition that accompanies reading one of Burgess’s books that readers might be unsure whether it is safe to laugh – whether they have permission. Burgess recalls giving a reading at the Idler Pub in Toronto, with the Canadian writer RM Vaughan in the audience. “It was a story out of The Hellmouths of Bewdley,” Burgess says, “and it was just a completely excessive, non-stop description of slitting wrists. RM Vaughan, God love him, could not stop laughing. And I thought, he’s exactly right. So, every once in a while, it does happen.”