Tuesday, October 28, 2014

African psycho: a new voice in South African speculative fiction

When you meet David Horscroft in the flesh, it’s really difficult associating this fresh-faced, well-spoken young man with the main character from his debut novel, Fletcher, which comes out this month via Fox & Raven. The problem is that one can’t stop wondering how Horscroft has come up with this rather charming classic sociopath who makes our favourite serial killer, Dexter, seem like a kindergarten teacher.

Horscroft also hasn’t come up in the authorly ranks as one would expect, which he freely admits.

“I’m a bit of a strange specimen,” he says. “I have a wide variety of interests, from reading and writing across to biochemistry, psychology, forensics, computer science and genetics. I somehow managed to wrangle an honour’s bachelor of science in medicine, specialising in bioinformatics last year, and for the majority of this year I’ve been working as a software developer.

“I love being busy. Boredom is my greatest enemy. I always have to be doing something, reading something, playing something, drinking something. It’s probably a little manic, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Informed by his interests, Horscroft developed a love for reading from a young age, that led him on his path to eventually write his own stories.

He adds: “I’d devour books by the day. I absolutely loved reading. I still do, but unfortunately I just feel like I have less and less time as more and more people are foolish enough to give me ‘responsibilities’. I was especially enamoured with the Redwall series [by Brian Jacques], as I recall. With this came the crazy desire to write. I was probably a pretty typical precocious 12-year-old: I was convinced I’d write something and it would be amazing and I’d be super famous and meet all my favourite celebrities. So I guess that’s where I first got the desire to write. As I went through high school and broadened my literary palate, I also found I wasn’t awful at English either. I started with little things – small 1 000-word scenes, psychotic Valentine’s poems, the like – and slowly realised that I really, really enjoyed writing.”

With regard to specific genres, he says: “I don’t know if I’ve actually chosen a genre yet. Like I say, I started on horror, with some flash fiction pieces published in an online horror magazine and anthology. Fletcher isn’t so much a horror as it is a thriller, despite the protagonist being pretty horrifying. I guess I really like deception and mysteries, which exist in both genres: the whodunit elements of thrillers and the what-is-it element of horror. I especially adore HP Lovecraft for his ability to maintain mystery.”
Fletcher, otherwise known as K, is a character who is capable of acts of extreme violence yet there’s a peculiar rationale to Fletcher’s behaviour.

Horscroft elaborates: “Fletcher is, in some ways, a classic sociopath who acknowledges that the social contract exists, but never hesitates to point out that there’s nothing really holding us to it. Another common sociopathic trait is a predilection towards boredom: being surrounded by people living common lives, doing common things, all because of this feeling of ‘we should’. ‘We should’ earn money, ‘we should’ treat others with respect, ‘we should’ try to act unselfishly. Fletcher doesn’t stand for this blandness, so you have this very twisted monster getting up to very twisted things just because there’s no good reason not to.

“The driving force behind the character’s behaviour is an equal blend of curiosity, boredom and spite. I’m not sure if it constitutes as a rationale, in so much as an almost-instinctive call – a bored, reckless force of nature.”

The world Fletcher inhabits is a lot like ours, yet things have gone horribly wrong. It’s not completely post-apocalyptic, in that society hasn’t quite disintegrated, but things have become pretty bad.

Horscroft says: “I first started writing Fletcher in 2010, believe it or not. It took a long time to finish it, but when I started, I had this question on my brain: what if 2012 actually was the apocalypse? Not in the biblical sense, but what if the fear and expectation had turned the world upside down? So that’s kind of what happened: all the wheels have fallen off. A deadly virus scourges the globe (note that this part was written before the current situation in North-West Africa) and, by the time the book takes place, the world has only just started to steady itself. Cities, even countries, across the world, have been devastated, quarantined and cordoned. And with this fear, comes false-positives: chaos that was triggered out of fear of this virus rather than the virus itself.

“America has been crippled, China has gone dark, and large swathes of Europe have descended into outright civil carnage. And where you have corpses, you have carrion-feeders; that is, those looking to take advantage and make the best of the situation, at whatever cost. That’s why Fletcher is so comfortable in the ‘New World’: it makes sense. Fewer people are respecting the social contract, and K finds that fascinating and fun.”

Fletcher is not for the squeamish – possibly the understatement of the year. The story is drenched in violence and bloodshed, to which Horscroft adds: “There are some pretty heavy scenes. I generally try to use violence as a means of conveying something and I guess that if it succeeds, it’s not gratuitous by definition. It all depends on the context of the scene: for example. I’ve personally never really understood long, winding descriptions of violence in combat scenes. It’s combat: of course it’s violent. The reader doesn’t need to be reminded of this by a three-page explanation of exactly how someone’s skull exploded.

“Other times it’s very necessary, since different kinds of violence tell us a lot about a character and their current mood. The existence of drawn-out violence can be used to demonstrate a whole range of things – sadism, regret, incompetence, doubt, anger and fear – so it’s important to use this contextually. Especially in the first person, it strikes me as strange when violence isn’t expounded upon sometimes, since it’s clearly what the character is focusing on. A watchmaker won’t skimp details with a watch, so why would a sadist skimp details with a particularly fun murder?”

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