Author Charlene Elsby joins us today as our featured guest in our Women In Horror Series.
She is a philosophy doctor and former professor. Her work has focused on Aristotle’s metaphysics and contemporary phenomenology, especially the ontology of the literary work of art. Her first novel, Hexis, was published by CLASH Books in February, 2020. Her second horror novel, Psychros, will be released in October, 2021.
What is the significance of the title Hexis?
Hexis is an ancient greek word meaning, roughly, “habit.” It’s the state of something which one acquires by performing any action repeatedly. When I submitted the book to CLASH, I had given it the title Recursion, because of the novel’s depiction of time. But then Blake Crouch published a book with that title, and we changed it. I think Hexis is the better title, anyway. It expresses the idea that you can form a good or bad character by repeatedly performing the same actions—you become a virtuous or vicious person by repeatedly doing good or bad things. The character in my novel kills the same man ten times. You can conclude what you want about her character.
Can you share a snippet that isn’t in the blurb or excerpt?
Sure, here’s one:
The only thing that people have in common is that they die. I wondered if he could die. If he couldn’t, that would mean he were not a person. If he wasn’t a person, what was he doing in the University’s library at all? Even the most mystical of my explanations depended on the idea that he was a person. If he wasn’t, then perhaps it wasn’t him. His humanity was always evident, always thrown in my face or wherever he felt like throwing it. It was the worst part of humanity that poked me in the leg or the back or that he thrust into my hand. The worst part of humanity was constantly demanding attention.
If he could die, then all would be right again. I would be happy with the conclusion that something, one thing, was accurate. I could come up with several explanations for what had happened, all premised on the certain conclusion that he was human, and then when asked to explain, I could confidently state that the true explanation was one of X, Y, or Z. And if any one of X, Y, or Z were true, then that statement would be true. If it weren’t, I could continue to add letters on until it were true, a near-infinite number of letters. If he were human and there were a finite number of explanations for his being that rested on his humanity, then it would all logically work out.
I thought, for a second, that maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it was the case that his current state, with the eyes and the movement, was the result of a long and arduous process meant to eliminate his demands on me and the world. If he didn’t act out towards the world, then that would eliminate his possibility to harm it. That didn’t explain the time thing, though. If there was anything certain, it was this thing’s monstrosity, not its humanity. So I had to kill it, because it was monstrous, in order to prove that it was human. It all worked out if you thought about it.
I lingered in the room, just staring at it. It hadn’t done anything the whole time; it didn’t speak, it didn’t look, and it didn’t do anything. It was possible that it had died during the proceedings. If it were dead already, I wouldn’t have to kill it. That much was certain. I tried to find some evidence of the idea that it was experiencing time. If it were quiet enough, I thought, I could hear a heartbeat. If it weren’t for the consistent hum of the universe coursing through the walls of the place, I might be able to hear its existence in time. But I couldn’t.
Of course it was breathing. It had to be breathing. If I got close enough, I could smell the stale breath of the monster who hadn’t drunk anything in a while and whose mouth water was starting to rot. I would be able to smell it on his breath, then, if he were existing. I didn’t want to get very close to it, though. It seemed to have this thing about it that demanded a minimum spatial distance. Nobody had even sat near it the whole time, it was so obvious. At the same time, no one took note of it.
—Excerpt from the book Hexis. © 2020 by Charlene Elsby. All rights reserved.
What were the key challenges you faced when writing this book?
Editing. I drew on some terrible experiences when writing this book, and frankly I just didn’t want to read about them. It makes me a little sick when I have to go look at it again, for any reason.
Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s a philosophical debate about where the real literary work has its origin—in the creative act of the author or in the interpretive work of the reader. But there’s a third option such that in the creative act, the author accesses a universal intentionality and in the act of reading, the reader accesses the same thing. I’m using “intentionality” in the sense phenomenology defines it—as the defining feature of consciousness, the fact that it is always directed to a world. That is to say, consciousness is “intentional” insofar as it always takes something as its object. In contemporary realist phenomenology (my area of expertise), intentionality isn’t only limited to consciousness. There’s a directedness to nature as well, and when the author sets about writing a book, they access that aspect of nature and “realize” it in the work. Writers will recognize this directionality from the fact that sometimes, despite all of their planning, there seems to be somewhere the book is going, of its own volition. Some things that the characters have to do, because of who they are, against the author’s will.
When I wrote Hexis, I went in to each chapter with somewhere to start and how, eventually, he would die, and the rest basically wrote itself. But it is also possible to write mechanically, not from inspiration, but with a skilled hand, and sometimes very well. If you’re looking to have a more spiritual writing experience, Leza Cantoral has a Spirit Conjuring workshop that I recommend.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Besides Psychros, which is slated for publication in October, 2021, I have two completed manuscripts and two almost-completed manuscripts. One of those is certainly horror, while another is horrific, and the other two are literary fiction.
What books or authors have most influenced your own writing?
According to people who have read Hexis, Dostoevsky is the author who has most influenced my writing. I can see it. I read everything by him that I could find on eBay in English translation in the early 2000s.
Are you working on anything at the present you would like to share with your readers about?
I’m working on a book of philosophical experiments. It’s all sex, death, and blood. I was a philosophy professor until early 2020, and I spent a lot of my time arguing for the merits of philosophy—we literally research universal concepts like being, truth, beauty, and the good. But the institution where I worked shut down the department anyway. In this manuscript in progress, the professor aims to establish the life or death nature of philosophical concepts through a series of horrific experiments.
As a woman author, what are you most proud of in bringing into horror literature?
Rage. I think we don’t get enough of women’s rage. Wait for it.
Who are your favorite women writing in the genre?
Hailey Piper is just a delightful human being, and a credit to the genre. I’m a big fan of her most recent book, The Worm and His Kings.
It rides between the very particular, very subjective, characters and their feelings type stuff on the one hand, and the big picture, expansive concepts of cosmic horror on the other. It’s a heartfelt story of love and loss but also the end of the world.
Thank you, Charlene, for taking the time out to do this interview and for being a part in our Women In Horror Series. Her book Hexis is available now from CLASH Books.