Interview: David Horscroft on bisexuality, psychopaths and violence

My bookclub recently read Fletcher by David Horscroft, one of the latest sff novels published in South Africa, from Fox & Raven Publishing. Set in a postapocalyptic dystopian world, it’s written from the perspective of K Fletcher, a murderous psychopath who investigates a murder-suicide and gleefully commits a lot more murder along the way.

I’ll admit that Fletcher proved to be a bit too much for me, but it did start an interesting discussion about unlikeable characters and psychopaths. I started chatting to David about it, and he kindly agreed to let me pick his brain on the subject.

avatarWelcome to Violin in a Void David! To get started tell us a bit about your novel and the world it’s set in.

It’s the almost-apocalypse. In 2012, poor containment procedures resulted in a haemorragic outbreak of global proportions. Two years later, and the world is only just starting to steady itself. Entire countries have been wiped out, Europe has descended into civil chaos, America has been crippled and Russia has somehow ended up as the most stable surviving country. Southern Africa is a desolate bloodbath, with the northern territories still being scourged by viral resurgences, civil struggles and opportunistic looters from what used to be the first world. Israel has completely annexed the Sinai Peninsula, and no one has heard a thing from China in almost sixteen months. Across the world, cities burned and rioted, and the ones that survived have only done so by cordoning off vast swathes of land into anarchic gutterages.

This novel has very little to do with these troublesome two years. Enter K Fletcher, stage left.

Fletcher is several things: problem drinker, slutty dancer, private investigator, corporate saboteur and discrete problem fixer. Fletcher also happens to be one of the most prolific murderers the world has ever seen.

K doesn’t deal with morals, but rather with puzzles: anything to stave off the boredom between each bloody, thrashing kill. One such puzzle involves a murder-suicide: man-kills-wife, man-kills-self, cue tears. But Fletcher is not convinced that it’s that simple, and ends up finding connections between the husband and a far more dangerous entity: the standard Evil Dystopian Corporation in the form of the munitions company RailTech. The book follows Fletcher’s investigation as they shake down, slice up and choke out any unfortunates in the way.

Fletcher

Photograph by Ruth Smith (@photo_bunny24)

 

Readers may not notice this (I didn’t!), but K Fletcher’s gender is never revealed. Why did you choose to write the character this way?

It was actually my goal from the start, simply for its own sake: I wanted to see if it was possible to write something of a decent length wherein the gender of the main character was ambiguous to the reader. It’s tricky: the level of violence K exhibits is stereotypically seen with male offenders, so it was a lot of fun to see how I could bring out the feminine side too. Fletcher is also the perfect character for this: a naturally volatile, aggressive personality is really fun to write when you’re completely unbound by societal expectations of something as often-silly as the gender of your character.

It’s also interesting that Fletcher is bisexual. On a practical level, bisexuality is another way of obscuring gender, but it also had me thinking that you don’t often see gay or bisexual characters who are really badass or openly psychopathic. Any thoughts?

I’d tend to disagree that you don’t often see bisexual characters which are psychopathic, but I’ll get to that in a tick. Bisexual and gay characters are starting to make appearances in mainstream media: several playable and non-playable characters in the Borderlands series, Admiral Jack Hardness (Dr. Who?, Torchwood), Omar Little (The Wire) and Frank Underwood (House of Cards). The main villain in Skyfall, Raoul Silva, was casually bisexual; in fact, there was a brief implication that 007 himself had gone through an experimental phase at the very least.

It’s starting to creep in, with the classic resistance (especially, as you’ve spoken before, in the SFF sphere). But there’s a common thread that I can’t be the only one to note. Bear with me for a second, and consider the following list:

Everyone mentioned above (minus Omar Little)
Dr. Frank ‘n Furter (The Rocky Horror Picture Show)
Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs)
Oberyn Martell and Cersei Lannister (Game of Chairs)
Lisbeth Salander (Millenium trilogy)
Chloe (The B**** In Apartment 23)
Dorian Gray
Anyone in The Vampire Chronicles
Pretty much any evil protagonist written by the Marquis de Sade

All these characters have two things in common: they’re all degrees of bisexual, and they’re all sociopaths. Some are murderous, others are simply violent, and some are just largely harmless troublemakers, but they all share those two traits.

Why? Is this the bisexual version of the gay-lisp: an unfair stereotype that we’re all shifty, amoral psychopaths? I don’t think so. I actually think it’s the other way around: psychopaths strike me as far more likely to be bisexual. It makes sense for sociopathic characters to be bisexual: someone so inured to social convention and so aware of the power of seduction would be extremely likely to be bisexual, even if only for utilitarian means. As M.E. Thomas, the author of Confessions of a Sociopath puts it, it’s not so much bisexuality as it is gender indifference. The sociopath doesn’t see gender; rather, they see someone to manipulate and prey on.

This preconception extends way back into history. Lilith (of the Bible, not of Borderlands) is bisexual, having sex with both Adam and Eve. Loki chooses partners of both sexes. There’s apparently even an Aztec god called Huehuecoytl (thanks, TV Tropes) who is a gender-changing bisexual with a penchant for causing trouble just out of pettiness or boredom. Sound familiar?

Maybe that’s even why bisexuals get such flack from both the exclusively straight and gay communities: maybe humans instinctively distrust bisexuals since we instinctively see it as a “Sociopath Here” flag. It’s clearly pretty ingrained into our collective psyche.

If that warning triggered while you were around someone like K Fletcher, it might just save your life.

Fletcher is a very violent, unlikeable character, at least in the sense that their actions are typically questionable (e.g. frequent drug abuse), if not outright abhorrent (e.g. murdering a child on a whim or holding a woman prisoner for amusement). What was your approach in writing a character like this?

The book is written from Fletcher’s perspective, and I always made sure to write in as authentic a Fletcher-voice as possible. It was more important to me to have an authentic character than a likeable one, and I think Fletcher makes as much sense as this kind of character can, despite the madness and impulsivity.

What this means is that Fletcher is wholly unapologetic. The character wouldn’t care what you thought about them. In fact, the same personality type would probably go out of its way to shock and horrify those around them. That’s why Fletcher is perpetually spouting off violent thoughts and saying things like “Hey, remember that time I killed everyone in that orphanage, that was heeee-larious.” It’s almost a little cartoonishly evil at times, but I can imagine Fletcher giggling and getting off on people getting uncomfortable about that.

Once I got used to pulling no punches, it became very easy to write in Fletcher’s voice. I started writing this book for myself long before I even considered taking it to a publisher, so once the blend of flippant atrocity took form it was something I could easily step in and out of. I can be a bit of a sick twist myself, at times, so I’m sure that helped… a lot.

Unlikeable characters have stories to tell. They might not be well received, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell them, and it definitely wouldn’t stop a character like K from doing so.

Doesn’t this mean that Fletcher actually does care what people think, albeit in a twisted way? They don’t care about being hated, certainly, but evoking fear, shock and horror is essential because that’s what Fletcher thrives on. They’re not totally indifferent.

I think there’s a difference between caring what people think, and how people react. I wouldn’t expect Fletcher to care what people thought about them in the long run, but when they’re interacting with the character it’s almost like a form of mental torture. Fear, shock, horror, revulsion: these are all instinctive reactions. Even lust is an instinctive one (considering Fletcher’s thing with occasional seduction).

If someone jumps out from behind a curtain with a knife, you don’t think: “Wow, this person seems pretty unpleasant. I can’t say I’m very fond of who they are and what they’re trying to do.” You don’t think at all. Your brain kicks into instinct mode and overrides any thinking.

Fletcher does this on a literal level when engaging in violence, and on a lesser level when engaging with people. Saying horrifying things is, to them, the social equivalent of jumping out swinging a meat cleaver, with the same fruits in the form of the instinctive skin-crawlage and discomfort.

So no, I don’t think this means that Fletcher cares what people think, when you consider that thinking is a very intellectual approach to a force of nature like K. Invoking fear and repulsion is simply the social equivalent of feeling someone struggle and thrash as you beat them to death with a claw hammer.

One of the things I found interesting but difficult to handle is the fact that there are no good guys, or at least no group or person who “should” come out on top. K goes up against an evil corporation called RailTech that murders its own employees and tests weapons on poor African villages. K, however, is just as evil on an individual level. Was this a consequence of the broken world in which the novel is set? Or did you have some other purpose?

A core motif in Fletcher is this concept of the “grinning flesh”, which K uses to refer to humanity in general. In their opinion, the almost-apocalypse didn’t change humanity; rather, it just took off humanity’s collective mask of sanity. It shows: the vaulting depravity of the Midnight Hour and the unfettered expansion of brutal mega-corporations such as RailTech show us that the good people are going crazy, and the bad people are profiting. Fletcher is both bad and crazy: this new world makes a lot of sense.

It’s the authenticity angle, all over again. Good people simply don’t stand a chance against Fletcher, unless they sacrifice a bit of themselves to stack the odds a little, like Vincent. You’re stuck with the only contenders being the ones who are willing to get their hands dirty, which can leave readers feeling either torn between wanting K to win or die, or indifferent as to what happens at all.

I’m OK with that, I guess. It’s still a bit weird to me that Fletcher got published at all. In the same way that unlikeable characters have stories to tell, those stories may often contain plethoras of other unlikable characters. At least there’s a conflict: for example, I think “Everyone is Shitty” is a more engaging stance than “Everyone is Hugs”.

I sometimes found the violence of the book alienating; K kills frequently, cruelly, and indiscriminately. Some random stranger could easily get their throat torn out just because Fletcher is bored or annoyed. However, I appreciated the fact that the violence was never sexual. Did you have any particular reasons for avoiding this sort of violence?

The violence is meant to be jarring. It’s meant to be there as a wake-up call to anyone who is cheering for Fletcher: “I am not a nice person.” But there’s no reason to avoid it, since violence is such an important part of K’s existence. Murder makes Fletcher feel alive and powerful like nothing else.

Sexual violence, then, doesn’t make sense. I’m not saying Fletcher would have anything against rape; rather, the character simply has no interest in it. As they say themselves: “cheating is pointless if the game is the goal”; Fletcher kinda gets a kick out of being sultry and seducing people. It’s a power trip: “I’m going to seduce you into taking your clothes off for someone who has killed more people than you’ve left-swiped on Tinder.” Violence doesn’t help that goal, and inherently destroys any mental manipulation. Similarly, if Fletcher wants to murder someone, rape would be unnecessary as it wouldn’t be a direct contribution to the finality of their death.

Don’t mistake the lack of sexual violence to be an indicator of some moral compass. Fletcher has simply realized that fucking and filleting are two incompatible forms of entertainment.

I’ve asked quite a few questions about what a terrible person your main character is, so tell me, what do you like about K Fletcher?

I like several things about Fletcher, which worries my team of psychologists greatly. It makes sense, though: sociopaths often have some traits we admire, and a narrator like Fletcher would exacerbate those traits in themselves. Why do you think Bumblefrond Cucumberpatch’s take on Sherlock Holmes has won him such acclaim? People want to be Sherlock. People want to be the cold, calculating sociopath who can stare down death, crack wise and solve the mystery before tea.

In that regard, I like Fletcher’s honesty (with themselves and the world). I like their curiousity and glibness. I definitely admire the character’s resourcefulness, and can relate to that boredom they constantly feel. The snark was fun to write, too.

I like the fact that K kept Valerie and Vincent around, because I really enjoyed writing about the dynamic between those three.

I’m probably a bad person to ask that question of: considering I did as much as possible to really adopt Fletcher’s voice while writing, a little part of me wants to shout “Fletcher’s great! I especially love the face-puppet part. With the actual faces and the actual puppets.”

It’s probably wise for people not to have dinner alone with me.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share?

Nothing tangible in the writing sphere: a few potential Fletcher stories and a nice zombie premise.

I’m mainly bundled up in my programming at the moment: playing around with fun cryptography systems for high-risk websites.

Thanks for your time David!

 

David is a South African programmer with a wide range of fascinations, including biology, medicine, psychology and technology. He spends most of his time obsessing over pet projects and is a sucker for bad puns, good vodka and interesting people.

You can find David on Twitter @forealiously.

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Betrayal’s Shadow by Dave-Brendon de Burgh

Betrayals ShadowTitle: Betrayal’s Shadow
Author: Dave-Brendon de Burgh
Series: Mahaelian Chronicle #1
Published: 25 April 2014
Publisher: Fox & Raven Publishing
Source: own copy
Genre: epic fantasy
Rating: 6/10

For five hundred years, the Mahaelian kingdom of Avidar has been ruled by King Jarlath, whose mysterious magical powers make him a force that no one can oppose. He began his reign by uniting humans against the Elvayn dominion, but now even his iron grip can’t stop the kingdom from faltering. Civil unrest may become a serious problem, and General Brice Serholm is sent to investigate reports of rebellion in the one of the provinces. However, his ship is attacked by a group of islanders wielding magic no one knew existed, and Brice is consumed by the fate that befalls his Blade Knights. It falls to his second-in-command, Alun Dronald, to do his duty if Brice will not, even after a brutal battle leaves Alun forever transformed.

In the capital of Cambeith’ar, a man named Cobinian sets a sinister conspiracy in motion. First he kidnaps an Elvayn child, saving it from mutilation so that it will be able to use its incredible magical powers. Next, he gives a special dagger to Seiria, the Mistress Concubine, who is torn between loving and hating King Jarlath. Then, he gives a note to the king’s First Advisor Del’Ahrid, undermining Del’Ahrid’s trust in the king while feeding his own dark ambitions. Finally, Cobinian creates an epidemic of Reavers (zombies) to attack the city.

So, I’m delving into the epic fantasy genre again, this time with South African author Dave-Brendon de Burgh. It’s the only local epic fantasy that I know of, and it’s great to see SA authors branching out. Hopefully De Burgh’s book will be the first of many.

First off, I’m so glad the novel avoids one of the clumsiest traits of epic fantasy – infodumping. There are no long, dreary tracts on travel, architecture, irrelevant history or whatever else the author thought was so cool that the plot needed to grind to a halt for it. No, Betrayal’s Shadow is surprisingly short at only 263 pages, and exposition is kept brief. If anything I wanted to know more, as opposed to feeling that I had to trawl through too much. And without infodumping to weigh it down, the plot can move along unimpeded, making this a fairly brisk read.

But unfortunately there were aspects that dragged me down. For example, the book did not give me a good first impression – it kicks off with a scene where Brice, a blonde, blue-eyed soldier in heavy armour, leads a force of white knights in fighting a tribe of naked, pierced, tattooed black people who are described as “probably-illiterate barbarians” and “savage”. After the fight, Brice wakes up in a hut full of crude furniture and is surprised to find that the tribespeople removed his armour, because they don’t look to him like people who would know anything about armour. Things are not all they seem, but even then, perpetuating these racial stereotypes is unnecessary.

Brice’s racism sets the tone for the parochial world of Avidar. Pretty much every character whose appearance is described is white and blonde with blue or green eyes. Everyone follows the same religion (the Mahaelian Church). People don’t seem to know anything about the world outside of their kingdom. Brice and his Blade Knights clearly had never heard of the island they encountered, even though it was en route to their destination. References are made to areas that were subdued by war, but little is said about lands the king does not control. But there are definitely other lands, because King Jarlath has started something called the Far Continent Project, in which his people will set sail on giant arks to find new lands that they can explore and exploit for minerals, lumber, farmland and living space. In other words, a colonisation project, except that everyone conveniently avoids mentioning what they’ll do to the people already living there.

It wouldn’t be Avidar’s first crime against another race. Centuries ago, the Elvayn were the dominant power, but the humans overthrew them with Jarlath’s help. Rather than wiping them out, King Jarlath chose to keep them as slaves. Because the Elvayn can wield incredibly powerful magic by singing, every Elvayn has its tongue cut out at birth. They’re kept in slave-holds across the kingdom, although they aren’t slaves per se – they don’t do any work (I checked this with the author). There is one case of a merchant using an Elvayn girl as a servant, because rich people are sometimes allowed to use Elvayn slaves, but this comes off as a special circumstance put in place to get a specific aspect of the plot going. In later scenes, people freak out when they see an Elvayn child outside of the slave-holds, so they are certainly not a part of everyday life.

It’s easy then, to see why people hate and fear the Elvayn. Historically they are the enemy. If even a few of them were allowed to keep their tongues, they could easily take their revenge on the Mahaelians. The average citizen doesn’t exactly live in comfort, and has every right to be angry that the king wastes money on the Elvayn for reasons he refuses to disclose. And even if there were no sociopolitical issues, the very idea of mutilating babies and imprisoning a whole race of people for centuries is simply grotesque.

Their continued existence is a mystery that bothers everyone, but Jarlath isn’t exactly politically savvy. He doesn’t have to be – he can single-handedly destroy entire armies on the other end of the continent (which makes for a rather good action scene), so he doesn’t have to be a good king. And he’s not; he’s a tyrant and all-round piece-of-shit human being. He responds to opposition with extreme violence. When Del’Ahrid started his job as First Advisor, Jarlath told him to constantly undermine the governors and ambassadors by playing them against each other. When Jarlath gives a speech about the Far Continent Project, he goes on about how totally awesome the kingdom has become, when in fact it’s only a nice place if you’re a man with money. None of the POVs are from an average citizen, but there are hints about how much people struggle to get by while the wealthy live in luxury.

Avidar is also a crap place to be if you’re a woman. This is pretty common in epic fantasy, but that doesn’t excuse it. The High Cleric in the capital might be a woman, but apparently her brother Del’Ahrid got her the job and one of the first things she reveals about the religion is that it’s based on pain and wives can be punished for not doing their “duty” towards their husbands. Violence against women is frequently used in the narrative. Almost every woman mentioned gets beaten or raped at some point, and the word “whore” is grossly overused. The Reavers (zombies) are created when a man rapes an Elvayn girl. An ambassador is “punished” by having his wife thrown in a jail cell for three days to be gang-raped. Del’Ahrid physically abuses both his sister and his wife, and treats his poor wife like shit because she was forced to marry him and never learned to love him (even though she tries really hard to be friendly and polite).

Most of the abuse is directed at Seiria, the Mistress Concubine, i.e. the court prostitute. She’s there to please Jarlath, who also hands her out to other men. Given that prostitution is her profession, the question of consent is murky, but it’s worth noting that Jarlath chooses her partners, and she feels she can’t leave because she’ll be totally destitute. Thus, she puts up with having to sleep with whoever Jarlath commands her to, and being slapped around, not only by random dignitaries, but also by Del’Ahrid and Jarlath himself. At one point I’m pretty sure that he sends her to a Senator knowing that this guy would beat the shit out of her, just so that he could use that as an excuse to execute the man (but not before the Senator calls Seiria a whore as often as he can fit the word into his sentences). Then, late in the novel, Seiria is revealed to be the victim of what might just be the worst act of sexual violence I’ve come across. I’m still struggling to wrap my head around it.

As the only major female character in the novel, not to mention a woman surrounded by men who are either despicable or bland, I wanted to like Seiria, but I found her frustrating. She loves and hates Jarlath in what looks very much like a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Which is fine, but she spends the entire novel agonising about it. When Cobinian gives her a dagger and she sneaks it into the palace (where weapons aren’t allowed) it looks like she might take some action, but instead she just thinks about holding it to Jarlath’s throat and demanding that he admit he loves her, or stabbing him because he doesn’t. Even after witnessing a zombie massacre, all Seiria can think about is the absurdity of loving Jarlath. And I don’t agree with the idea that Jarlath could never admit to loving her – he is powerful enough to do whatever he wants, including marrying a prostitute he found on the street. Seiria has my sympathy but I desperately wanted her to do something other than pine for Jarlath. It looks like she’ll play a role in the next book, but in this one she’s all victim.

Paradoxically, the character I hate the most is the one I consider to be the best-written – Del’Ahrid. He has serious anger management issues. He physically and emotionally abuses the women in his life. There isn’t a moment when he’s not being an insufferable little shit. He’s never strayed from Jarlath’s trust-no-one approach to politics. He’s always suspicious, always critical, always treating his peers like enemies.

But what I like about his character is that it’s more layered than the others. You can always tell how his view of the world differs from others’, and you can understand his stupid behaviour no matter how much you hate it. He’s not as smart and sly as he thinks he is. He believes in protocol and hierarchy above all else, even in the face of death and disaster. He seems genuinely shocked when people act like ordinary human beings instead of always following the rules. His indignation when people fail to show him the proper formalities as First Advisor is quite entertaining. That said, I do find him difficult to read because he makes me so angry. It’s a bit like having Joffrey Baratheon as a POV character.

A few other things before I go. There are aspects of the worldbuilding that I wish were clearer or more deeply embedded in the world. The Mahaelian religion, for example. It defines the entire kingdom and the series, but except for a short section written from the POV of the High Cleric near the beginning, we learn almost nothing about the nature of the god Mahaelal, or the tenets and practices of his church. Characters often swear by Mahaelal, but religion doesn’t feature in their decisions or daily life.

Worldbuilding aside, the book will also leave you with a ton of unanswered questions simply because it’s very much the first of a series. Lots of things are set in motion, while absolutely nothing is resolved, and the second book isn’t out yet. Finally, if you’re a pedantic reader, be warned that this book needs a good edit – it’s full of errors.

But, overall, not a bad read for something that’s not my genre of choice. It pissed me off quite a lot, but it also got me thinking a bit about passive and unlikeable characters and my reaction to them. There are lots of things in Avidar’s society that raise my hackles, but at the same time it’s a society that’s about to undergo a massive change partly because of the things that are wrong with it. What’s also quite cool is that the author has set up a Goodreads group for the series, where he’s available to discuss it and answer your questions (I’ve already gone to bug him). And if you want to read a bit more while waiting for book two, you can check out the prequel short story “A Song of Sacrifice”, about the Elvayn and their Singing magic.