OTHER OF BEETLES: Project Collaborators Discuss Ossuary Erotica
This year’s Autumnal Equinox marked the inaugural release of OTHER OF BEETLES: Ossuary Erotica, a quarterly publishing collaboration between The Altar(ed) Slate and Snakeroot Works. With the Winter Solstice issue in production, readying for publication, collaborators Heatherlie Allison and Patricia Cram offer up a discussion addressing questions encountered from readers and curators alike.
OTHER OF BEETLES:
The bones of taboo enliven within—where pain and desire are fed, the transgressive is written to incite transcension. Two authors, four stories, all giving space for the fractured bones of the Other.
WHAT IS OSSUARY EROTICA?
PC: Ossuary erotica is erotica that treads an abnormal path. It seeks strange places and unexpected sensations, but it is also more subtle and thereby has the potential for greater cunning. Some of those sensations are outside the realm of what one would normally consider erotic. Through ossuary erotica, we explore the enlivening power of disgust and discomfort, which have a specific capacity to ground us in a physical experience, but which usually do not contribute to the sexual narratives we most often encounter. Ossuary erotica thereby challenges the linearity of conventional eroticism with elements of horror and revulsion in order to involve an array of sensations in the processing of the carnal experience. Furthermore, the ossuary is, to us, a sacred space as well; because of that, the stories also all contain a highly ritualized or ceremonial experience of the erotic.
HA: The definition of ossuary erotica is one still in formation, but I hope that it continues to grow as it continues to be written. For now, I like to think of it more as an approach housed within the tradition of erotica, one that moves beyond the pushing of flesh and boundary—it opens doors to spaces untended. It embraces the fact that darkness dusted down is present at any threshold; it is a certain uncertainty—like death, and perhaps this is why ossuary erotica tends to intersect the speculative in literature: the otherworldly, the magical, and of course, the horrific. Perhaps, for now, we can imagine the ossuary: a vessel-space for the skeletal remains of the dead. When we open the doors, if we listen close enough, we can hear them stir—the knocking and hushing of the bones. But heed: the language of the dead is not a straightforward tongue. It comes in sensation, in symbol, in suggestion; it comes alive in nature, and yes, it lives under the bed and in between our sheets. Our bodies respond in listening, and as we translate what is heard, what is felt, we form a love affair with that which sleeps. By doing so, we raise our own ghosts (the inner Other), both personal and collective, an altar(ed) state wherein the page becomes an instrument of union. Through writing, we consummate. And there is pleasure and pain to be found in it all, for eroticism is a kind of symbiote of life and death entwined. With one hand we destroy; with the other, we build anew.
WHAT INSPIRES YOUR PERSONAL CONTENT?
HA: She usually shows up somewhere in my writing: The Mother archetype, in many iterations, great and terrible alike. Then, there is my personal relationship to The Mother, cultivated through magical practices, as well as my re-envisioned experiences as a mother embodied. It all has the potential to be strangely eroticized, rapturous, and horrifying, especially when we move away from the conceptual and into these embodied territories—for she contains, creates, consumes, and destroys all things. For me, she is the root and the wellspring. In terms of the erotic, however, The Mother has oft been forgotten, relegated primarily to the pornographic, as commonly seen in MILF fetishizations, for example. While I may fetishize her in the totemic sense, and while I do eroticize her in my writing for Other of Beetles, her interiorities are not revealed via the straightforward path. Veiled, she remains convoluted, mysterious, and wholly Other.
PC: My work for Other of Beetles revolves around the erotic as a transcendent act with metaphysical consequence. I am interested in rapturous but strange intercourse that accesses other dimensions in order to alter a third-dimensional experience. In that light, each action is capable of being both a symbol and an act. These are the worlds that I want to live in: the ones in which the dreaming enflames a surreal intervention upon the waking; the ones in which sacred knowledge is the consequence of transgression; the ones in which the individual uses an inner compass to generate wisdom and uphold justice. My intent as a writer is to explore the story’s power to change something rather than merely tell something. I am invariably interested in conveying stories that explore personal or collective transformation or revelation, especially in mythic settings—but within Other of Beetles, the catalyst is often the eroticized experience.
HOW DID THIS PROJECT COME TO BE?
HA & PC: Last spring, we spent some time discussing the sexual fantasies we had as children. Revealed were memories filled with curiosity and exploration, and yet also highly imagined scenes enrapt with a sophisticated awareness of visceral, disobedient, and even dangerous sensations. We threaded those fantasies to their origins, and then we threaded them back to the continual flux of our sexuality, especially as marked by the hand of early experiences. Shortly thereafter, and with that conversation still fresh, we were having lunch together while discussing writing craft (Patricia had just begun writing Predation—see initiatory issue). Heatherlie wanted to share a “certain tone” of something that she had written years prior (To Dei: A Morning Ritual—see initiatory issue). With typical grace, Patricia remained still in seat, postured in concentration (Heatherlie could tell she was holding back the urge to giggle). She followed the read with: “We should write erotica together.” Heatherlie shined in response. What followed was an energized storm of months connecting ideas with action. During this time, we were regularly spending the hour of sunset together in a graveyard, each of us perched upon a different grave, writing in the only truly quiet place we could find. Threaded into this project is all of that silence, other countless hours of meaning-making spread over the years of our friendship, and our focused intent to bring into being a project that would exalt the word and interrogate the flesh. Thus, Other of Beetles was born.
WHAT IS THE EXPERIENCE LIKE ON A COLLABORATIVE LEVEL?
HA: Patricia and I have had the fortune of building upon a relationship that began with writing—in the torrential throes of an MFA program. While acclaimed as an academic support system to writers-in-becoming, we both found it to be vitally unsupportive, even hostile at times, despite its elements of value. Thankfully, we were both inspired by each other’s writing talents, from style and aesthetic sense to writing processes unconventional, so we nurtured each other’s spirit with a sense of play and consideration; we communed in some form, and on a deep level, every day, learning to respectfully navigate each other’s strengths as well as each other’s eccentricities. In the years following graduate school, this mutual admiration has not wavered, so it has felt natural to collaborate, and in fact, collaboration has in many ways been part of the larger conversation. In each suggestion, each decision made with Other of Beetles, there has been no ego involved, simply love and trust uplifting.
PC: We have a lengthy history of experiences together, and we have cultivated a radical honesty between us. Because of this, our collaborative vibe is communicative, forthright, and understanding. We put in the work to support one another’s visions. So, the impetus for Other of Beetles was an eruption of ideas that we jumped on immediately for its potential as a project both meaningful and fun. We are inspired by independent presses, by the DIY ethic, by those who create what they want to see in the world. We love Other of Beetles as a project that keeps us working together and keeps us in connection with others.
As far as the fundamentals of collaboration, we workshop the stories thoroughly and judiciously over the course of many weeks. We discuss aesthetic particulars and gather our materials. Then, we scan and process the ornamentation that will appear in the print, and we discuss, create, and then review cover art (by Heatherlie) and layout (by myself). Finally comes printing and assembly, which takes place in complex hours, as each booklet takes a multitude of steps to construct. Each of the steps, however, we imbue with substance and intentionality, determined as we are to animate the spirit within each booklet before it makes its way into the world.
WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT THE WINTER SOLSTICE ISSUE FORTHCOMING?
PC: We are very excited about the stories in this upcoming issue, and we feel confident that they reach even more transportive spaces than previously traversed. Readers can expect a bevy of the anomalous and weird. We’ve been deep in underworlds and in-betweens, and we look forward to sharing these spirits and locales soon.
HA: The initiatory issue was testing the waters of an experiment, in my mind, and it turned out beautifully, varied content-wise with a subtle layer of unintentional interconnectivity between all four pieces. I will admit that both stories that I submitted for publication were written over 10 years ago, although re-envisioned and revised with more of a reflective current. As a whole, the issue’s content was inescapably dark with some subversive humor—for those who get our humor. We are grateful for the generous reception it has received. The Winter Solstice issue, on the other hand, is freshly wet, full of twisted red light; within its shadows, it contains moments of playfulness even. All four stories in the issue upcoming were written specifically with Other of Beetles in mind.
WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT YOUR PLANS FOR OTHER OF BEETLES IN THE FUTURE?
HA & PC: One of the many reasons why we value this project as much as we do is because our relationship as collaborators is so generative, thoughtful, and with big-picture consideration of the transformative potential in the visceral experience—the embodied trans-sensory. We are both artists, visionary to much extent, and we are also quite discerning. Thus, we foresee a careful cross-pollination of artistic métiers in conversation with the writing. And we have begun that with this upcoming issue; one of Heatherlie’s stories has an audio component, a side-collaboration with sound artist Brad Mowen. We also foresee the project as a space for other writers, so we will be soliciting or creating a call for submissions in the near future. Our initiatory issues are laying a foundation and crystallizing tone so that we can come to expand the project to hold a multiplicity of voices that align with the ethos and purpose of Other of Beetles.
AT THE END OF THE FIRST ISSUE THERE IS A DEDICATION TO SURVIVORS OF SEXUAL TRAUMA. WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT THAT?
PC: This project strives to transmute. When one’s sense of their own body and desires is trespassed, we say that something sacred has been taken away because sensual/sexual acts henceforth are layered with the interjections of trauma. Those interjections then provoke dissociation, even in desirable situations. For better or worse, a power struggle is written into each effort to relate, each effort to connect. Upon the altar of this struggle, Other of Beetles is an offering. An array of settings and sensations are put forth in hopes of engaging new sensory pathways. In each story, an unconventional eroticism is explored, and both power and desire are invoked in ways that we hope show characters negotiating with and enacting choice. The subtleties of will and choice are complex, so we don’t propose that there is anything linear or prescriptive here. What it is is effort. We want those of our readership who feel what we are saying here to know that we are with them—this is part of our reclamation.
HA: Sexual trauma fundamentally changes its victim. Here, I speak for both of us—and also for those who have shared their personal stories. It alters the way we view ourselves, our bodies, our partners, and it alters the way we think about sex and the way that we utilize fantasy. Writing (or creative expression), however, empowers reconciliation by way of revision, especially because of the silencing impact of abuse. By doing so, engaging with whatever emerges from our sexual sensorium, we are able to subvert the trauma by writing our own rules of engagement. The content that arises from this intention doesn't necessarily speak to our character nor does it reveal our sexual proclivities (although it might in both cases), but it does “exorcise the demons" to some extent. We endeavor to build upon a new sense of autonomy, one with forward momentum, because expecting to return to some untouched state from a past that doesn’t exist anymore impedes expression, both sexually and creatively—sex and creativity being reciprocal expressions of the same energetic channel. “Like the beetle who makes rebirth from remains, so too do we rake at bones and make thresholds.”