Tales of the Unexpected: Roald Dahl, Literary Device, and the Horror Canon


Most of us remember the first time we read a real Horror story. But the one author who opened that door and lured so many of us through it is typically forgotten when it comes time to assemble a Horror canon…

The author is Roald Dahl– that Roald Dahl – the one of children’s book fame; author of Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG… and like Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm before him, we have decided that his stories are for children. But what we tend to forget are the tales he wrote for adults – his much celebrated Tales of the Unexpected – that can effectively teach modern Horror writers how to take simple situations and common characters that occur in our day-to-day lives and lay out a startling, resonating and lasting Horror on the page.

His is a modern style – one that is often considered an anathema to the genre because Lovecraft opposed the tendency toward Horror that utilizes anything deemed “common”… Yet his stories are enjoyably effective, and reading him is a lesson in language usage – primarily satire and irony.

Have we decided his adult stories are not Horror because he also writers children’s stories, or because his adult stories are not Weird? And are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Are these not only the Horror tales we seek, but ones that we seek to tell and all too often fail at?

Roald Dahl, I suggest, is one writer whose adult work not only belongs in the Horror canon, but whose writings should be studied for their ability to use language devices… the very ones we hear tell of in English class, but seldom see so efficiently and accurately wielded. Roald Dahl is yet another author you should know, and have on your Horror shelf.

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Irony and Satire: Do You Know Where Your Outrage Is?

Author of 19 novels, 9 nonfiction works, 13 collections, and 3 poems, Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, Wales on September 13, 1916 to Norwegian parents. “Following his graduation from Repton, a renowned British public school, in 1932, Dahl avoided a university education and joined an expedition to Newfoundland. He worked from 1937 to 1939 in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika (now in Tanzania), but he enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) when World War II broke out. Flying as a fighter pilot, he was seriously injured in a crash landing in Libya. He served with his squadron in Greece and then in Syria before doing a stint (1942–43) as assistant air attaché in Washington, D.C. (during which time he also served as a spy for the British government)…” he died November 23, 1990…. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roald-Dahl

In order to talk about why Roald Dahl affects and enhances our canon, we have to talk about using Literary Devices. Dahl’s work is not only riddled with them, it teaches us by example how to employ them…and this is a lesson we desperately need in this age of gutted Humanities education.

Along the way to modernity in the Horror genre, we as readers and writers have lost the understanding of the many possibilities proffered by alternative functions of language – not just those constructions which communicate a story, but which can also communicate the subtleties of human interaction. We in American Horror are so impressed with pointless diversions like found footage and swinging light fixtures in the “fun” of Horror, that we forget what Horror was meant to do – to reach down deep inside and pull out our still-beating hearts. Horror is meant to connect…to draw blood. Yet modern American Horror is still not fully succeeding at this; our Horror tends to be fleeting and disconnected. And missing that use of the versatility of language is yet another reason our Horror tends to just lie about on the page, not-working to its fullest effect.

This is also why Literary Critics are so frustrated with us. And it remains the unspoken criticism of editorial rejections. We may have a command of language in terms of vocabulary and grammar and sentence structure, but we have lost all of the shades of meaning, the Art of Language that is so central a part of sound storytelling.

And while we can enjoy the superficial window dressing of modern Horror fiction, getting deep into the story is our responsibility as readers and providing those many sub-basements and hidden attics are our responsibility as writers. Only by having and peeling back such layers can we gain that frisson of terror – and it is not about having to know the names for things, the rules of technique, the secret of the magic trick; it is knowing that a magic trick is happening and still not catching the magician at the illusion. It is a subconscious exchange of awareness.

When we talk about inserting Literary elements and World View into Horror in the hopes of building better fiction, we absolutely have to talk about HOW to do it.

Time and again we are” taught” by inference that genius wills out and the rest of us need day jobs. Yet we are also underestimating the value of a sound Classics education on the young writer’s formative mind; on how early and thorough education about language and storytelling pound in place a subconscious narrative on how to use language to do more than basic communication. Put Lovecraft in a cave, and I wonder if we would have gotten the Weird…I wonder if we would be calling the man a genius. He had access to a Classics education, to all of the most modern science of his day, to the entitlement mentality of the rich (even as he languished in the loss of his family fortune). We cannot say the same of our young writers today. We cannot say it even of MY generation.

For those whose intentions are both artistic and honorable, the confusion comes when genius is not equated with sales but with Criticism. And when publication is equated with either talent in telling the tale OR telling a really merchandisable one; the two are not exactly or always compatible.

There is no absolutely black-and-white formula for getting there. There is no education. There is no mentoring. There is not a whit of conversation, encouragement, or guidance. We know we have a story to tell, we might even be Literarily angry… but we have no clue in how to start, revise, or finish.

Fiction writing is not generally taught – or not taught early enough.

And this is why in lieu of actual fiction writing instruction a novice writer does best to read the Classics of the genre… Read enough, and hopefully an epiphany will occur – either subconsciously or consciously – enabling the elevation of one’s personal craft…Because we don’t tend to see much in the way of education fitting the bill. And for the most part, we can forget guidance within a genre that does not commit to discussion, the formal establishment of our history, let alone invite experimentation in its writers. There is an informational and authoritative black hole.

We are, instead, left to deduce how language works…there is no clear disclosure of the fundamentals beyond grammar and its crazy rules, but instead a patchwork of seemingly unrelated and un-relatable terms and concepts. But I found that the adult short stories of Dahl can briefly turn the light on in these empty rooms. And when it comes to pressing Literary elements into Horror, this makes Dahl’s stories integral, and consistently unlike most others in the genre. His use of the Literary Devices of irony and satire are as close to a formula as we could ask…his execution almost textbook.

None of this, however, is any good if we do not understand “Literary Devices”…

My own experience with education and fiction writing has been more about reading and creating essay papers systematically called the “Literary Analysis”… Here, teachers briefly suggest one look at the use of Literary Devices: satire, irony, allusion, diction, euphemism, metaphor, analogy, allegory, imagery, personification, etc… all terms with which to construct observations in the form of an essay. They did in fact attempt to give examples, but many teachers and professors clearly feared giving too good of an example would lead to plagiarizing that example in the assignment. Therefore, students tended to leave the classroom even more confused about what was expected, even more mystified about the actual techniques utlilized by the Masters of good writing which we were expected to deduce (for instance, were they intentionally planted by the author? Or did they just happen in merry coincidence? No one ever said). For most of us – even inexcusably English majors – the entire concept of Literature continues to grow even more muddy.

Worse for us, however, that exact educator fear of explaining too much also means no one really, thoroughly ever talks about Literary Devices. Terms like “satire” and “irony” become key words we as students learn to name-drop in class and in papers without really understanding what they actually define and how they are connected, how structure in writing happens. We are never given the mental picture of any hierarchy of language elements. Terms are free-floating in balloons, sailing well over our heads. And when we consider how many people are not teaching us about language and writing…well, it is a wonder we still manage to produce ANY level of Literature in this country.

(I say again: we need classroom education in the art of writing fiction. We need instruction in technique. We also need it by middle school. And that requires more time, not less… it means STEM needs to learn to work with the lion’s share of educational funding attention it gets and leave what is left of the Arts alone.)

Most of us exited class and even high school and sometimes college wondering how important this all was, and why we should care. Yet we need to care. Understanding all of the hidden meanings and disguised references are a crucial part of discovery in Literature; that private “aha!” moment that might be unconsciously derived or blurted out in excitement is what makes reading a more deeply rewarding experience.

You have probably experienced it when you realized what else a story might be talking about, like theories that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are possibly allegories for World War II…or if you wondered who was right about the Don McLean folksong American Pie (is it about the history of rock and roll, or about the Kennedy assassination?) What we need to understand is that a “device” in Literature moves subversively – like it does in poetry. It is communicated like Morse code; there are patterns, bread crumbs that web the ideas in the mind. And then epiphany happens when the possibility that this is what the author is really saying materializes.

Then everything changes. And that, friends and neighbors, is what “allegory” is all about, strung up on the trellis of Literary Device.

Literary Devices, therefore, are not merely created to become subjects for term papers. They are writing tools. They are there for your reading pleasure, and sometimes as fragments of unconscious expression of the writer’s deepest beliefs – perhaps deep enough the writer is not aware of having revealed them, sometimes intentionally crafted to goad the reader into action while reveling in the story itself, perhaps indeed acting in service to allegory.

Roald Dahl is a writer who uses satire and irony. And he also does it with a touch of Horror and psychological terror. Through it he is pointing out the annoying, tortuous foibles of modern society – from institutionalized cultural behaviors, to the psychological gymnastics we all perform to stay sane. We can read the story without taking its elements apart and be strangely sated. But what happens if we look deeper? First we must know about the Devices he is using.

So what is satire?

“Satire is all about mockery and shaming– typically of social conventions, politics, and the people who serve as figureheads for disagreeable behaviors. And it uses irony as its main delivery system. Dahl uses a great deal of dramatic irony – where the reader or spectator knows something one or more of the characters do not.” https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/why-does-author-roald-dahl-use-verbal-dramatic-536945

What is irony?

Dahl introduces us to two forms: “Situational irony”( an event that is opposite to what is expected), and “dramatic irony” (where the reader knows what the characters in the story do not). (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/satire)

It is through these two main devices that we meet the real Roald Dahl – the one who seems to have an uncanny understanding of how any social injustice or slight can make us feel; he takes us unceremoniously to the cliff edge and we willingly topple right over at his urging. This is artistry in language at its best: every story is an exercise in the economy of words, nothing extra is there. Every word works. Every Device is working right alongside: irony and satire in Dahl’s writing are the draft horses.

This is also exemplary of Dahl’s style – so simple and plainly exposed on the page. This is an art we seem to have lost – the art of simple, uncontrived storytelling. And I blame the modern mad rush to action-adventure in the genre, the muddying and blurring of lines of genre made to serve as a guideline for writing in the genre. There has always been more than one way to do most anything, and if we all do the same thing even on orders, where does originality go?

We are talking about the modern imposition of style preferences… and if criticisms and editorial displeasure is to be believed, even that has gone awry. And maybe it has gone awry because when we aren’t writing to spec for Hollywood, then we are tending to refuse to accept anything Lovecraft wouldn’t have approved of as Horror – anything not Weird. And it is time we started asking how many Roald Dahl’s can we afford to lose?

Diversity in storytelling is important for the genre – it is the way we find our audience and our next artistic direction. We are at risk of losing a lot of Horror if we are going to eliminate everything not written in the style of Lovecraft – and perhaps we should even be asking if that is why Young Adult Horror is well out-performing Adult Horror – precisely because they don’t have Lovecraft hanging over their heads…

According to Joyce Carol Oates, we can hear the bell ringing with Roald Dahl:

“Though a number of Dahl’s most engaging stories, particularly in his early career, are cast in a realist mode, his reputation is that of a writer of macabre, blackly jocose tales that read, at their strongest, like artful variants of Grimm’s fairy tales; Dahl is of that select society of Saki (the pen name of H.H. Munro), Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and Iris Murdoch, satiric moralists who wield the English language like a surgical instrument to flay, dissect, and expose human folly. As a female character says in the ironically titled “My Lady Love, My Dove”: “I’m a nasty person. And so are you—in a secret sort of way. That’s why we get along together.” Given Dahl’s predilection for severely punishing his fictional characters, you might expect this nasty lady to be punished, but Roald Dahl is not a writer to satisfy expectations.” https://www.roalddahlfans.com/dahls-work/books/the-collected-short-stories-of-roald-dahl/the-art-of-vengeance/

Some of us hunger for that kind of Horror now and then, because instinctively we know that fairy tales so very often got it right…

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Using Dahl to Understand Literary Horror and the Power of Simplicity

One of the reasons Dahl has risen in my estimation as a Horror canon writer is because writers who belong in our canon should be writers who in some way shape it. Dahl brings to the fore the importance of the mainstream and commonality of our shared world, elevated by shock value as delivered by Literary Device reflecting the flaws of our times and executed with the precision of a technical writer. This is what reading short stories should feel like. When we read Dahl, we bless him for not making us think: we can enjoy the show. But we can also lift the curtain and see the man behind it if we choose. We can poke about for analogy, and we can study his sleight of hand for his magical technique.

But unavoidably, we see, hear, and feel the Horror. And it is powerfully experienced. It is memorable. It stays with us like it was our own personal and painful memory. Dahl haunts us for years after reading him.

This Literary lesson is not readily found in most of our genre – at least, not so clearly. This makes the lesson of how to employ Literary Devices accessible – even attractive to novices. And isn’t infusing Literary elements into the genre the main goal of both Literary Critics and contemporary editors?

When we look at Dahl, we can see how uncomplicated effective and “effortless” original storytelling could and should be. Yet his stories are also a great read. Why then is he never really mentioned within our genre, let alone adult fiction writing? Why, especially, in times like these when we seem to have lost our ability to understand how to create original fiction from commonplace life?

And is that why he is not considered a Horror writer – because his stories are about common people, places and things – in exactly the way Lovecraft said dooms great Horror? I have little more than theories. But at this moment in time our genre seems to not know what it is or what it wants, beyond the scope of demanding undefined “good,” “Original,” “approved” Horror…and that also makes a ton of money.

Yet don’t we have to write about our own times? Aren’t we obligated, if we are to create Literature and Literary Horror?

We need to be asking what we want from our modern writers when it comes to non-Hollywood-oriented writing. And we need to read and study writers like Roald Dahl. That means we need to acknowledge him as part of our genre. Says Margaret Talbot in her 2005 article titled “The Candyman: Why Children Love Roald Dahl’s Stories – and Many Adults Don’t” (further proof the man is writing Horror):

“Most of Dahl’s early writing was for adults. He specialized in wartime stories and macabre tales with surprise endings, or what the British call “a twist in the tail.”… But by the early sixties… The New Yorker, which had earlier accepted several stories, now sent rejection notices. Dahl’s adult stories were crisply, shiveringly enjoyable—rather like “Twilight Zone” episodes—but they showed little compassion or psychological penetration. It was children, it seemed, not adults, on whom Dahl could lavish empathy.” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/07/11/the-candy-man

Yet he wrote stories for adults… and they are great stories that remind us that concepts handled correctly can drive great stories – whether driven by satire or not, irony or not, Literature or not…but the better ones do have such elements.

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If we wish to do the deep-dive of Literary Criticism, we can look into the rise of feminism at this early time in Dahl’s life – we can see evidence in the repetitive patterns of female characters he sketches for us – the stereotypical wife gone off the rails, acts of revenge that tickle the spine and the imagination.

Here is an excerpt of my favorite story of his titled Lamb to the Slaughter, delivered with his typical simple and direct style:

“This is going to be a bit of a shock to you, I’m afraid,” he said. “But I’ve thought about it a good deal and I’ve decided the only thing to do is tell you right away. I hope you won’t blame me too much.”

And he told her. It didn’t take long, four or five minutes at most, and she stayed very still through it all, watching him with a kind of dazed horror as he went further and further away from her with each word.

“So there it is,” he added. “And I know it’s kind of a bad time to be telling you, bet there simply wasn’t any other way. Of course I’ll give you money and see you’re looked after. But there needn’t really be any fuss. I hope not anyway. It wouldn’t be very good for my job.”

Her first instinct was not to believe any of it, to reject it all. It occurred to her that perhaps he hadn’t even spoken, that she herself had imagined the whole thing. Maybe, if she went about her business and acted as though she hadn’t been listening, then later, when she sort of woke up again, she might find none of it had ever happened.

“I’ll get the supper,” she managed to whisper, and this time he didn’t stop her.

When she walked across the room she couldn’t feel her feet touching the floor. She couldn’t feel anything at all- except a slight nausea and a desire to vomit. Everything was automatic now-down the steps to the cellar, the light switch, the deep freeze, the hand inside the cabinet taking hold of the first object it met. She lifted it out, and looked at it. It was wrapped in paper, so she took off the paper and looked at it again.

A leg of lamb.

All right then, they would have lamb for supper. She carried it upstairs, holding the thin bone-end of it with both her hands, and as she went through the living-room, she saw him standing over by the window with his back to her, and she stopped.

“For God’s sake,” he said, hearing her, but not turning round. “Don’t make supper for me. I’m going out.”

At that point, Mary Maloney simply walked up behind him and without any pause she swung the big frozen leg of lamb high in the air and brought it down as hard as she could on the back of his head….” https://4.files.edl.io/4a65/10/23/18/235824-cd055462-e062-467c-a8ae-492f46d8caad.pdf

What is most useful about Dahl, is the direct way we can see everything laid out in his stories. If a writer is looking for a how-to, Dahl is your man. His works are uncomplicated – even while wielding Literary elements. We can see the story. We can go back and see the elements.

Clarifies David Ulin in his 2016 article titled “Roald Dahl’s Twisted, Overlooked Stories for Adults”:

“What we’re seeing is a style, a sensibility: that sophisticated, offhand voice, that air of a story heard and repeated; fiction as gossip or conversation, a game of telephone. It’s reminiscent, in a way, of Sherwood Anderson, that master of the story within a story, but even more, perhaps, of Kurt Vonnegut, who was writing his early short fiction at the same time Dahl was producing his. Vonnegut ultimately gave up on writing stories, put off by what he saw as their contrivance: “Short stories are artificial; they are very clever misrepresentations of life,” Vonnegut told me, in 1997. “You can be fairly truthful about life if you have a little length, but a short story has to be awfully cute—it has to be a con.” https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/roald-dahls-twisted-overlooked-stories-for-adults

Yet Dahl does con us. He makes Horror look easy. Because maybe it is easier than we have been wont to make it, so accessible we could all of us BE any of his characters… Yet this is not the only reason Dahl succeeds in hooking us. Says Joyce Carol Oates in her 2007 article titled “The Art of Vengeance,”

“Dahl has a zest for blackly comic sadistic situations in which characters, often hapless, are punished out of all proportion to their wrongdoings. In one of the more subtly crafted stories, the ironically titled “The Way Up to Heaven,” first published in The New Yorker in 1954, an exasperatingly slow, doddering, self-absorbed old coot, seemingly so rich as to live in a “large six-storey house in New York City, on East Sixty-second Street, [with] four servants” and his own private elevator, is allowed by his long-suffering wife, to remain trapped in the elevator as she leaves for six weeks in Europe to visit her daughter:

The chauffeur, had he been watching [Mrs. Foster] closely, might have noticed that her face had turned absolutely white and that the whole expression had suddenly altered. There was no longer that rather soft and silly look. A peculiar hardness had settled itself upon the features. The little mouth, usually so flabby, was now tight and thin, the eyes were bright, and the voice, when she spoke, carried a new note of authority.

“Hurry, driver, hurry!”

“Isn’t your husband traveling with you?” the man asked, astonished.

“Certainly not…. Don’t sit there talking, man. Get going! I’ve got a plane to catch for Paris!”

In a mordantly funny coda that must have stirred visceral dread in male, upper-middle-class New Yorker readers of that pre-feminist era, the elderly liberated woman, returning from her highly enjoyable trip, is pleased to discover when she reenters the townhouse a “faint and curious odour in the air that she had never smelled before.” https://www.roalddahlfans.com/dahls-work/books/the-collected-short-stories-of-roald-dahl/the-art-of-vengeance/

Does he get it “right” every time? No, no one does. But that doesn’t mean those stories considered less artful aren’t somebody’s favorites. And isn’t that also the point – that writing is an Art? That it is relative?

Maybe the most important thing Dahl’s writing does is to open the conversation about the proper application of craft and technique, about originality versus the contrived that we need to have within the genre and within novice writing and education. He not only awakens the pores of the Horror skin, but he sets it a-tingle. He makes us feel like we can do it – we can pull great Horror out of ourselves because it isn’t far away from us. It isn’t about genius but more about observation and using every tool we have in the writing toolbox.

Continues Ulin:

“Not all of Dahl’s stories are equally effective, of course. More than a few (“The Sound Machine,” “Edward the Conqueror,” “Vengeance is Mine Inc.”) echo as unrealized conceits. Still, even at its least resonant, his writing raises questions about what we want or expect from fiction, what a story ought to be.” https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/roald-dahls-twisted-overlooked-stories-for-adults

Maybe that is the question we should all be asking, but don’t tell us Roald Dahl is not of the Horror genre; his work reeks of Horror conventions modernly rendered.

Let’s add him to the list. Let’s ask Literary Critics to look again at Roald Dahl for a foundational author of our canon. But for Horror’s sake, let’s read him.

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Works:

Novels: (Young Adult):

The Gremlins

Sometime Never: a Fable for Supermen

James and the Giant Peach

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The Magic Finger

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Danny, the Champion of the World

The Enormous Crocodile

My Uncle Oswald

The Twits

George’s Marvelous Medicine

The BFG

The Witches

The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me

Matilda

Esio Trot

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke

The Minpins

 

Short Story Collections:

Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying

Someone Like You

Kiss Kiss

Twenty-Nine Kisses From Roald Dahl

Switch Bitch

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More

The Best of Roald Dahl

Tales of the Unexpected

More Tales of the Unexpected

A Roald Dahl Selection: Nine Short Stories

Two Fables

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life: the Country Stories of Roadl Dahl

The Roald Dahl Treasury

 

 Edited by:

Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories

 

 Nonfiction:

Boy-Tales of Childhood

Going Solo

Measles, a Dangerous Illness

Memories with Food at Gypsy House

Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety

The Dahl Diary 1992

My Year

The Roald Dahl Diary 1997

The Mildehhall Treasure

 

References

Dahl, Roald. “Lamb to the Slaughter.” https://4.files.edl.io/4a65/10/23/18/235824-cd055462-e062-467c-a8ae-492f46d8caad.pdf

Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 6/15,02019 from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roald-Dahl

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Art of Vengeance.” The New York Review of Books, April 26, 2007 edition. Retrieved 6/15/19 from https://www.roalddahlfans.com/dahls-work/books/the-collected-short-stories-of-roald-dahl/the-art-of-vengeance/

Talbot, Marion. “The Candyman: Why Children Love Roald Dahl’s Stories – and Many Adults Don’t.” A Critic at Large. The New Yorker: July 4, 2005. Retrieved 6/16/19 from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/07/11/the-candy-man

Ulin, David.”Roald Dhal’s Twisted, Overlooked Stories for Adults.” Page-Turner. The New Yorker: July 21, 2016. Retrieved 6/14/19 from https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/roald-dahls-twisted-overlooked-stories-for-adults

Webster’s Dictionary. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/satire)

 

 

Reading Like a Writer: Horror Through Slime-Covered Glasses


There are many reasons to read a great Horror novel: to scare yourself, to scare your parents, or to scare your teachers. But there is one reason that – if you write – you might not have considered: Reading great Horror novels can teach you how to write great Horror.

Seemed obvious, didn’t it?

So why doesn’t “just” reading a great Horror novel beget great writing?

The answer is: there are different ways to read fiction; you can read as the intended audience, you can read as a Critic, and you can read as a writer. And if you don’t understand the difference, you can’t put the writerly gifts hidden in Classic Horror to work.

Reading as the intended audience is easy. You pick up the book and let it take you someplace else; this is entertainment in its purest form and all control is relinquished to the author’s storytelling wiles. There is no commitment beyond the pursuit of enjoyment.

Reading as the Critic is much darker, much more motivated, colored by academic analysis: it is technical, and it is over most of our heads, requiring a great deal of preparation, such as a Classical Literature background, and an understanding of linguistics, psychology, philosophy, and history. Most of us don’t naturally go there and do not want to: it is cold, hard work that seems intent on destroying the innocent bliss of reading for fun.

On the other hand, reading as a writer is a weird marriage of the two. It is at once dependent on enjoying what you read, and then wanting to dissect it in order to understand what made you want to keep reading and what made its afterimage stay in your head. Reading as a writer is all about asking yourself how and why and when another writer managed to get it “right”… it is about studying their technique for the purpose of creating your own.

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YES. READING IS TECHNICAL AND SOMETIMES ICKY

Yet for many people – writers included – it never occurs to them to read something differently.

This is in part because we don’t know how. It also doesn’t occur to us to go beyond the pondering of the magic which appears to be involved in the writing of good Horror. We tend to not want to take it apart, to look behind the curtain because it is the magic that we love to savor.

We are, at heart, a superstitious lot…

It doesn’t help that reading as a physical act quickly becomes so automatic that we are not even aware that we are performing a complex brain activity. We seem to “glimpse” a word and it magically forms images in our minds…effortlessly….mystically.

We curl up someplace snug, we open our book, and wait to be enchanted. We don’t think of reading as work, because as we grow into being readers it becomes wickedly instinctive, unconscious – even involuntary….like magic. Words take on a life of their own, threading their way through our imaginations. We begin to visualize. We become engaged in the tale. Soon, we aren’t even aware that we are reading because the story simply and spontaneously unfolds…

As writers we are looking for clues when we read.

And reading as a writer means that you will have to adapt your reading technique; you are no longer seeking entertainment alone – no longer the one being wooed. Instead, you must become a shadow Critic, poking and prodding everything from the sentence structure to characterization, from punctuation to plot, from the outside in.

To do this successfully, a couple of things must happen first:

  • You must read the book for thrills
  • You must understand what you are looking for

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https://frankenreads.org/event/frankenstein-book-discussion/.

THRILL SEEKING ON A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT

Chances are, if you write Horror, you love Horror. This means you can’t read a word of a new story or novel and not get caught up in it. Of course, that is what every author hopes for, so it is not altogether a bad thing. But it is distracting. Your imagination latches on to the prose like a face-hugging alien – pupils dilate and the pleasure centers of the brain light up like Frankenstein’s monster.

It is important, then, to read a tale first for the enjoyment – to get that habitual and natural pursuit of happiness out of the way. It does serve a purpose: you will know exactly when and where that sweet spot of being hooked and being Horrified took place.

Sometimes it even begets your own monsters, new story ideas, or creates a nice, fertile mood for drafting or brainstorming. But reading for pleasure is not reading as a writer, and it should not be mistaken for such.

Reading for pleasure is that something else: a spinning of the channels of the imagination, a hope of hooking up with a really great idea or being swept away by one.

Yet for writers of Horror fiction, sometimes even reading for pleasure can go awry because if you write Horror, you also come to wonder how it was exactly that a given story scared you… and you eventually might come to be distracted by the fact. This is especially true if you re-read the story years later, when phrases like “What was I thinking?” enter the mind because you read parts you don’t remember and you can’t find parts you thought you did read…

“What happened to the Horror?” you might ask. And exactly how did the writer cause us to manufacture details that were implied but not actually there?

This, friends and neighbors, is where Horror goes all Brain Science…

Two things are at work here:

  • the writer’s technique,
  • and the curious effect emotion has on human memory.

Of course, emotion is not exclusive to Horror; but Horror is – as Lovecraft so accurately pointed out – fear’s first cousin. And fear is one of the most potent emotions because of its ability to hijack the brain and create memories where none previously existed.

When we experience fear, we process it according to our own experiences, and the reconciliation of the emotion with existing memory tends to reshape the new memory as colored by the old. So when we read Horror for the first time or for enjoyment, we are surrendering our brains to the puppet-master of emotion. The monster in the dark becomes more or less sinister based on what we read and what associations we make with it.

So during our teen years, when we fear the ending of the world before we grow up and realize our lives, the monster that threatens this scenario has more scare power than the same monster will when we are at midlife or older, when we are wont to rationalize, minimalize, and offer concessions – even to monsters. While the monster lurking in the closet has more “terror cred” if the reader has ever been or imagined being attacked in their home, the threat of possession by demons more intimate if one is a lapsed Catholic with residual guilt, how much Horror is delivered to a reader totally depends on the reader’s own experiences and learned fear management.

Horror, it seems, is very personal.

So how does the writer tap into that formula that makes a specific fear generalized?

Well, we are going to have to look at technique…and it is as elusive as it is desirable. And we are going to have to admit that not all Horror will scare all people at the same time; in fact historically, much Classic Horror scared its period audiences because of how those stories related to what was happening at the time. If we are able to associate the Horror with something contemporary, the story will still scare us. This means it has to be a Horror that is bigger than the monster – the monster has to represent something bigger.

The bad news is that such success is a bit of a crap shoot.

The writer must be able to gather that perfect storm of what is most likely to scare the bulk of readers in a specific target group at a specific time and for a specific reason, the exact amount of disclosure in when, where and how to reveal the monster, and the strange magic of storytelling.

The first point means a writer must really know his or her audience and not from afar – readers will sniff out the fakers and pretenders — and to actually understand and anticipate what his or her contemporaries really fear the most in life. The second means developing a kind of sixth sense about how to pull back the curtain without shouting “ta-dah!” and flattening the curve of your climax. The third means a writer must connect to that preternatural rhythm of prose that says exactly what it needs to and no more.

And it is the second and third of those ingredients that writers can learn from doing what readers love most – reading.

But there is of course a potentially fatal flaw imbedded in every writer (reading or otherwise)…a kind of subliminal kill-switch

And the glitch is this: very few writers are Masters of Their Domain – once again, most writers are readers and read as readers first. We are addicts of prose – both our own and random words printed on pages. We can’t stop ourselves from seeking the “high” so we might as well admit it; we really do have to read a good book first as a reader. We become as dazzled and bewitched as a fairy with a Celtic knot.

Then and only then can we go back and hope resolve to read as a writer. (And if you think I am kidding, go back and read your own writing – something old that you have forgotten. You won’t fixate on the bad parts that need fixing, but you will congratulate yourself on getting the good parts handled right. Sick, isn’t it?)

We are no different with a Classic writer’s writing; we embrace and stroke the beastly prose that made us feel what we wanted. We excuse any parts we did not understand or disliked. And most of all, we let how the writer set us up slip right past us.

This is why we have to go dark. We have to use the Critic’s lens…those slime-covered glasses that dissect what we hold most sacred.

 

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Illustration by Gustave Dore (1832 to 1883). http://wordyenglish.com/p/little_red_riding_hood.html

ALONE WITH THE CRITIC

For most of us, our only exposure to Literary Critics and analytic assessment of writing is both boring and negative. Critics are, after all (and to our knowledge), the ones who rip our favorite authors apart and insult our intelligence by stating outright that we don’t have any. They are the wolves in the sheep pen…

But what we don’t see is that the Critic means we are forever reading as readers and telling them that enjoyment means everything. Critics want more. And if you remember high school, so did your teacher. And then your professor. So why didn’t you get it? Could it be that no one ever really taught you about the many ways of reading?

The bad news is that it is perfectly possible.

For years we are asked to analyze what we read without being shown how to see words acting differently on the page…And for many of us caught in the passions of youth, we don’t want to….we aren’t emotionally ready yet.

But doing so – learning to read the same words, the same stories differently – is what helps us develop the ability to find and judge truth, to understand the use of metaphor and analogy, to separate polemic from satire. Try looking at our current internet, fake-news (which used to be called propaganda by the way), social media-led world, and NOW you see the importance of that talent…

So it was no illusion…education has always placed heavy emphasis on interpreting and deciphering prose. And all of those term papers, research papers, and required reading were about that. Yet education has never been graceful about teaching the details…because education has failed to show us the complete picture of how and why. Instead, it has served to embitter most of us about the critical process.

It made us feel stupid.

Worse, educators are great for coming up with ways to analyze writing, for some ruining the enjoyment of the Classics. And while this is a real fear for those needing to read like writers, and something that does in fact happen to some people, it does more so to those who are closet editors. If once learning how to look at language means you cannot turn it off, then you must face it: you are an academic, an editor, or a Critic. Get thee thou education and do not pass go. Be happy. Follow your obsessive bliss…because all genres need you.

However learning to approach reading academically and as a critical thinker is an important thing.

Reading as a writer is one of those irreplaceable tools every writer needs to master, and one I’d never really heard expressed as a technique before my return to the college classroom. In fact, if I had heard it in any guise before, I probably dismissed it as a cutesy way of inflating the ego. But this is a serious technique, and here’s why: especially within the United States educational system, not everyone reads enough “good” fiction or “Literature” to develop a subliminal sense of how to mimic the different elements that made those works great.

I know I have been guilty of such neglect. I always wanted to read the Classics. But for some reason, unless someone made me it didn’t seem to happen. I always felt intimidated by their greatness, I suppose, figuring that because they were such a source of study, discussion and Criticism that I would not ever fully understand them and I didn’t want to appear even more stupid.

But that is a cheap excuse. Books are books after all, written for readers. Yet I was plagued by the mystery so many modern readers are: what make a book great? What makes literature the Holy Grail of writing?

Unfortunately, it is not as mysterious and awesome as it sounds; it has more to do with the ability of a writer to accidentally or on purpose say something bigger than is stated in the story, while dazzling the reader with the competent and artistic handling of language.

This does in fact mean that some books are Literature but which are unrecognized as such – at least they are not yet. But it also means that we need to look at prose the way we’ve learned to look at poetry: it can be read for simple enjoyment, or it can be dissected and impress language technicians with double-meaning, allegory, metaphor, analogy and pure genius. The level to which you as a reader or you as a writer wish to enjoy fiction is up to you. But being willing to get down and dirty with the dissection business (something Horror writers and readers should be familiar with) can open amazing windows to understanding how great fiction is constructed.

So to learn how to write better Horror fiction, we have to do what engineers do: we have to deconstruct prose to see how the pieces came together and rendered success.

As Francine Prose (ironically surnamed as she is) states in her book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, you have to discover how to read analytically: to become “conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information conveyed, how the writer structures a plot, creates characters, employs detail and dialogue” because writing “is done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time” (3).

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One of the best ways to do this is to sit down with your favorite book or short story, and start copying it word for word. This slows you down, forcing you to notice every phrase, sentence and punctuation mark. It reveals how you were manipulated by the rhythm of the author’s own choices, why you as a reader gave emphasis to certain passages, were susceptible to others. You notice vocabulary choices, perspective, the intimacy or distance gained by wording and grammatical emphasis. These are your tools – your paints, your canvas, your textures, your lighting. This is the writer’s version of art school.

And because you are also a writer, chances are there is already a bit of the academic in you… As such, you have merely to access that natural curiosity about “memory. Symbol. Pattern. [because] These are the three items that, more than any other, separate the professorial reader from the rest of the crowd.” (Foster xxvii)

Since writing is the creation of patterns, reading is the logical reverse engineering of them.

Like art, writing is all indeed about patterns – everything from plot (of which there are various estimates as to the actual number of available “master plots” from two to twenty or more) to motifs and themes. Decoding these patterns is like deciphering a riddle the author consciously or subconsciously embedded in the text ( Prose 4-5)…

This is what close reading is all about. For example, Prose recounts and old English teacher’s assignment to read King Lear and Oedipus Rex and “Circle every reference to eyes, light, darkness and vision… Then draw some conclusion” upon which to write an essay (4). This is where Literature tends to stand out: these hidden gems lie awaiting discovery and assessment. Literature then, invites the reader back into the text multiple times, to explore potential meanings and relevances, to form opinions and make discussions.

Fiction today is really not much different. We just don’t feel as free to criticize, fearing offense or even attack by fans of the author, if not the author… Yet this is what is meant to happen to fiction. It is meant to be discussed and re-read, and even judged. That doesn’t mean that accepting criticism is easy, or that criticism is just or warranted every time. But unless you write in a vacuum, readers will find you. And they will judge, each and every one. Doesn’t it make sense that writers would write with the intent of surviving that criticism?

The fact is everyone has an opinion, for good or ill, correct or not, graciously delivered or accompanied by obnoxious and illiterate venom.

As writers, we have to detach ourselves from our own work, allowing our “children” to grow up and go out into the cold, cruel world.

We must realize that they will be judged and sometimes justifiably found wanting, but that it is ok to love them anyway.

This is the way fiction becomes Literature, the way writers test and challenge themselves to become better writers, the way good Horror becomes great Horror.

Are you up to the challenge?

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References

Adler, Mortimer J. and Charles van Doren. How to Read a Book: the Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. New York: Simon & Schuster, c1940, 1972.

Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor: a Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines. New York: Harper Perennial, c2003, 2014.

Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. New York: Harper Perennial, c2006

World View: the Secret Sauce of Horror Lit (What It Is & How to Get It)


In these increasingly hard times for Horror fans and Horror writers, one thing is clear: neither Horror nor Horror publication opportunities are what they used to be.

Having editors whose perspective has failed to move with the reality of the times, who consistently preach that cream always rises to the top and pronounce there are “plenty” of legitimate, Establishment-recognized venues looking for new talent, and who simultaneously bemoan the state of novice Horror writing without offering either professional coaching or a dream Craft Bible, doesn’t help. But it has managed to change a lot of the ways (un-traditionally published) Horror is now being written.

Contrary to Establishment insinuation, this is not a simple case of sour grapes.

Not only are Horror fans being “forced” to read more classics due to the smaller and smaller pool of Horror writers being published today, but so are Horror writers.

What are we to do with all of this Literary (and yes, I mean LITERARY) influence on our genre readers and writers?

And if we cannot look to our genre or higher education for the answers, who should we be looking to for craft guidance?

The answer: Literary Critics. And here is why.

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Great Writing Does Not Happen In a Vacuum

I honestly don’t know where the myth got started that real Writers spring from the womb all Literary.

When we look at all of the canons of writing, including the Western Canon of Literature – English Language Literature in particular – none of those writers were untrained: they were taught by their education, their reading examples, and their mentors.

When the education system focuses on things like Literature, what it means and how to appreciate it (appreciation not meaning exhibiting proper adoration, but actually interpreting, decoding, and understanding the actual words, concepts, and ideas therein) instead of passing standardized tests, that education feeds a young writer’s repertoire of subliminal storytelling; a blueprint forms in that student of writing’s mind – one they can imitate, elevate, or rebel from.

When a novice reads published writers accepted as Literary, they further drive Craft elements into their subconscious and learn about plot and character development. They also learn what has been done, and naturally grow toward the unexplored territory of telling the same story only better…thereby producing new fiction. They also learn where trends are, what they are, and how to exploit them or defy them.

When writers are gathered into communities, the unpublished mix freely with the published. Novices get feedback – not always friendly, and not always accurate – but feedback about their writing. Feedback is what shapes a writer; he or she can decide to change their writing, or to defiantly refuse to alter their own vision. They can become an Establishment Writer like a Dickens, or a future genre-changer like Poe…or Lovecraft. But having a sense of community and a place inside or outside of its approval is crucial. Having some level of mentoring is crucial.

Our biggest problem today in Horror is the same as it is for all fiction writing: we have (hopefully inadvertently) hung a price on every level of instruction.

A University degree in this country can easily top over $100,000 for an undergraduate degree – a fairly useless degree in the employment market without even more education. To get to a Masters and a Ph.D., is probably a lot closer to half a million dollars…all that work and expense just to be underpaid in almost every employment scenario.

To self-educate is also expensive. No one – not even universities – are endorsing writing instruction manuals. There is nothing but silence and literally millions of “expert” voices trying to explain how to become rich writing fiction – not how to write quality fiction that apparently no one wants to pay to publish. A writer can spend literally thousands of dollars trying to get to the bottom of how to become a good writer…and never, ever get the full picture. Meanwhile, reading classic authors fortunately has gotten increasingly cheaper…but unfortunately at the same time mimicking these writers’ styles is strongly condemned. Reading “new” Literary Greats is chancey…there are few who are all-but-certain candidates of future admission to the canon…and even for those a single work in hard copy book form can cost anywhere from $14.99 to $39.99.

Today, mentors are something novices are expected to pay for. Editors claim they are far too busy to indulge daring but otherwise incompetent or not-yet-competent writers; conferences and writers’ retreats are thousands of dollars; professional groups have publication requirements and steep membership fees. Clearly today a writer must pay to play. “Unknown” writers are seldom truly that. And to suggest a writer should be a social media king or queen and simultaneously a palm-greasing networking butterfly is flat out offensive.

No wonder there is a noticeable gap in published Horror and new, innovative, original Horror. Great writing does not happen in a vacuum. It is educated, mentored, nurtured, challenged, and overgrown to be carefully and artistically pruned.

 

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Meet the Literary Critic: Your New Mentor

For many Horror fans and writers, our exposure to Literary Critics in our genre is most often encapsulated in those over-expounded, publicly untidy bouts between established Critic Harold Bloom and our very own Stephen King. But we also read essays of rebellion and exposition by Poe and Lovecraft who in their times set about defending the genre from other Bloom-like entities who decreed our genre as some form of garbage. So why should we even remotely be interested in Critical opinions?

The answer is simple: because in Literature, it is the Literary Critic who decides what is admitted to the canon – any canon, including the as-yet-unestablished Horror Canon.

This does not mean Critics are right, or are always right. Critics are human, and subject to bias, preference, elitism, and dislike – just like the rest of us. Their work is also meant and designed to inspire academic DEBATE…to spur (for the rest of us) water-cooler conversations about Literature.

And sometimes, like the aforesaid Mr. Bloom, they are long in their careers and unsettled by change. The field of Literary Criticism itself is changing. It has been forced to.

Not only are younger people put off by the automatic exclusion of contemporary writers they have come to appreciate, but they are more significantly aware of the very clear gap between “Literary Classics” and Modern Literature. Why, they have been forced to address, are there so few Literary writers today? Where is all of our Modern Literature?

The answer has been deduced to be: we are indeed still writing it. But it is because of two issues that it cannot be recognized as such: one, a living writer cannot help but influence a Critic’s interpretation of their work when Literature must stand on its own – cleanly away from the author – to be properly Criticized; and two, the original Literary Critical Theories were designed to accommodate those early writings, therefore they seldom fit contemporary writing models which therefore need new theories with which to develop academic study.

So there is a New Literary Critic afoot.

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Noel Carroll

This does not mean we dismiss Critics like Mr. Bloom, who is tremendously qualified and therefore entitled to and should express his opinions, as long as they pertain to Literary Theory as he understands it. Indeed, there is much to be learned from such a thorough Critic, as long as we realize that once a Critic wades into personal attacks we need to disengage and separate the truly Literary Critical comment from the desperate, frustrated, personal one.

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Harold Bloom

New Literary Criticism is, alas, however…new.

This is good and bad. Bad because we have few Critics in our genre. Good because there are plenty of English majors out there wondering what to do with their degrees…some of whom are Horror fans and would therefore have our best interests at heart in contributing to the development of Theories with which to analyze, discuss and debate our genre works.

That’s right: Literary Criticism is horribly academic. Dull, even. But interesting. Very, very interesting.

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S.T. Joshi

And right now, still at the forefront of our genre, are three Literary Critics of merit: S.T. Joshi, China Mieville, and Noel Carroll. Joshi once wrote in our genre. Mieville still writes – although he is categorized as fantasy/dark fantasy. Carroll is an academic, a Professor of Philosophy and student of film and art.

These three have – by simple timing (by being first) – become major players in how our future Literary Critics will look at our work in the Horror genre. And it is through their commentary – which often builds on those Poe and Lovecraft essays – which can offer us as writers and readers of Horror a much better understanding of everything from the classics in our genre to Craft.

This is important. In fact, right now, it is crucial.

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China Mieville

The Literary Critic is not charging us for the privilege of understanding how Literature works in our genre. In fact, the Literary Critic is desperate for us to understand…to grasp and start applying the essential Secret Sauce that makes Literature LITERATURE….your individual, unique, secret World View.

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http://www.city-data.com/forum/religion-spirituality/686470-average-american-worldview.html

World View: Finding It & Using It

Believe it or not, you already have one.

If you ever say anything predicated with “I think” or “I feel” or “I believe” then you are guilty of having a World View. It may not yet be worldly, it may not be fully formed or fully informed. But if you have an opinion, then you have the roots.

Understanding how to employ World View is another matter. So we have to go back to the Critic for more information.

And all we have to do is read. And think. We are going to have to admit we need to surrender some quality time to studying Literary Critical essays…maybe even take a class if we can.

And then we need to re-read the works we love and the works they are predicting are Literary…see the similarities, the disagreements, the points at which we diverge. Because understanding Literature and Literary Critics means we have to be willing to work. But we also have to be willing to look at art naked – even our own art – to see the clockworks… the bones stripped of flesh. We have to see writing as mechanically assembled bits. We must stop seeing it as magic.

Oh, how we as writers hate that…

But in fairness, we have to. We do already dismantle the magic in fact, when we sit down to edit, to rewrite…to improve, to usurp the Muse. Why not do so using the Critic’s eyes? To see if we could go deeper? Twist the knife? Unearth the body that fertilized the plot in the first place?

The answer has historically been: because we don’t get it. And what the heck is a World View got to do with it?

Critic S.T. Joshi (whose professional opinion also places the Weird as separate and a possible fore-runner of Modern Horror) states it best in his discussion of Modern Weird fiction and its failures: “…it seems as if the whole approach to weird fiction today is flawed in its very conception. The purpose of most modern weird writing seems to be merely to frighten. This is an inevitable result of the elimination of a philosophical basis [my emphasis] for the weird: all that is left (if, indeed, anything is left) is the emotion of Horror…” (Joshi 2)

Now, I know what you’re already thinking…. isn’t that the goal? Isn’t that the point?

And the answer is no. Horror has too long been misinterpreted as having the one and only goal of scaring or unsettling the reader or moviegoer. But that is supposed to be the side-effect… the cherry on top. Because the real Horror is what spawns the emotion… what the story is really about.

Again, I hear you. It is about monsters. And the monsters scare us. Tah-dah!

But this is wrong. This is Hollywood in our heads….visions of sugarplums dancing in our fantasies chanting: sequel, prequel, video games, action figures…

Continues Joshi, “If I may utter an apparent paradox: horror fiction is not meant to horrify. This is to say that the primary purpose of weird fiction should not be to send a tingle up one’s spine….if weird fiction” (and therefore Horror) “is to be a legitimate literary mode, it must touch depths of human significance in a way that other literary modes do not and its principal means of doing so is the utilization of the supernatural as a metaphor [my emphasis] for various conceptions regarding the universe and human life. Hence the need for a world view that structures and defines the use of the weird in literature. Mere shudder-mongering has no literary value, however artfully accomplished.” (Joshi 2)

Did your writing life just flash in front of your eyes?

Good. Then there is hope we can extricate ourselves from writing like everyone else and starting to learn to write like only we can.

World view, you see, is quite personal.

But how do we see it? Especially if we are young, how do we know we even have one? If we are old, how do we know it is even relevant anymore?

If you are American, you can thank our current political circus for clearing all of this right up.

Whether you are for or against the one in the White House, chances are your world view is wearing plaid and day-glo colors. You know how you feel – passionately – about absolutely every utterance, every piece of legislation coming out of Washington. This is your World View. On drugs.

Do you want to build a wall, or rip it down with your bare hands? Do you believe immigration makes America stronger or weaker? Is religious diversity healthy or threatening? Should only English-speakers enter this country, or should we care about learning and preserving other languages? What about women’s reproductive rights? Climate change? Gun control? Voting rights? Civil rights? The definition of Civil Rights? Conformity? Rebellion? The Constitution? The Bill of Rights? Peace? War?

How you feel about – well – every issue this administration is hell-bent on reshaping or dictating how you should feel about – tells you what your World View is.

If only we could bottle it….But then, maybe we already have. In Lovecraft.

Says Noel Carroll: “It is clear that literary supernatural horror – which, by means of the morbidly unnatural (the repulsive), evokes [Lovecraft’s] cosmic fear – is attractive because this kind of awe responds to or restores some sort of primordial or instinctual human intuition about the world… The relation of the repulsive in horror to this sense of awe is that the morbidly unnatural is what it takes to trigger it. So we seek the morbidly unnatural in literature in order to experience awe, a cosmic fear with a visionary dimension that corresponds to instinctual, human views of the universe…Lovecraft appears to think that supernatural literature affords something like religious experience as well as a corresponding reaction against some kind of desiccating, positivist world view.” (Carroll 163)

If you look at what is being published today and come away feeling disappointed, unfulfilled and even irritated…If you just can’t keep yourself from rereading the Classics in Horror, chances are you already understand something of what Joshi and Carroll are saying…You just didn’t know you did.

We have –all of us – had our understanding of what Literature does deformed by what is now called “success.”

Ask any writer what “success” means and he or she will most likely say “earning a living with my writing”…. But what they mean is Hollywood in our heads….visions of sugarplums dancing in our fantasies chanting: sequel, prequel, video games, action figures…

Because that is what has been marketed as success: wealth… the power to dictate what you write and when.

Yet look at our Critically-besieged Mr. King.

Stephen King

Do you really think he wants to keep writing the same thing over and over? Look at the many times he has tried to break out of the constricting mold we have sentenced him to: Delores Claiborne, Full Dark, No Stars, Rose Madder, Lisey’s Story, The Green Mile, Joyland… All of these may ultimately score him the Literary recognition his mainstream Horror has been denied… and yet we want and demand more Christine, The Shining, Carrie, Pet Cemetery… And because those are the moneymakers, so do the publishers. So he keeps churning them out for our pleasure (and we do thank him, but at what cost to his personal ambitions?)

Likewise, the sheer numbers of his sales potential, peripheral options, merchandising opportunities… these are dangled in front of novices and labeled “success”…

What we have to be asking, is “is it really?”

If Lovecraft had been born in today’s environment, he would likely have kept his mythos… but he would not be placed in front of us as a “success.” Lovecraft would have none of the commercial criticism or demand that we have laid on King; he himself was too…weird. He avowed repeatedly that he did not desire “success,” that he would not change what or how he wrote to please anyone other than his own muses.

And look what we inherited.

This is the Critic’s point. This is Joshi’s point.

If a writer writes for anything other than the art of communicating a real concept about the universe and human life…if we don’t touch depths of human significance, then we are flirting with being hacks. We are prostituting our talents.

While we are all aware of the need to pay our bills, we must (daily) decide if what we write and the way we write it is important enough to keep it sacrosanct… to choose to go unpublished if the alternative means writing more fiction that has no soul…that is in Joshi’s words…”lifeless.”(3)

How to do this is another argument. Therefore, it will be my next post.

But the current question, the question of this post, is should we? Should we start pushing our World View into the Muse?

Should we seriously consider what the Literary Critics say? Study their comments? Consider if they might be in fact, right?

I strongly suspect they are.

There is a whole boatload of soulless fiction out there, convincing publishers that good Horror is not selling because it is not being written…maybe because the genre is all used up, or that no one buys new Horror because it is “somehow” inadequate and substandard despite all the editorial begging.

And the truly disturbing thing is that they are using this very set of speculations to reduce the publication of Horror titles…to reject new Horror writers.

The Literary Critic is telling us why.

The Literary Critic is telling us what is wrong and what must be fixed if Modern Horror – especially Modern American Horror is to ever regain its former popularity, to rise to the level of Real Literature… To grow from the likes of Poe and Lovecraft. To grow the genre…

And what Horrifies me most…is the thought that I am still writing it myself, that I have not learned – mastered – the Craft of infusing my own words with my own passionate beliefs. I realize that my own interpretation of how to write good Horror has been corrupted by the very system that claims it wants better.

So where do we begin?

Perhaps with Joshi, one of the world’s foremost experts on the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

He says about the few success he sees in modern weird writing: “It can be seen that these novels have virtually nothing in common with each other, either in theme or in style or in execution; it is simply that in each instance the author [my emphasis] has conceived of a scenario that is sufficiently complex and sufficiently supernatural in its essence such that a novel is required for its exposition.” (Joshi 10)

So where do we begin? With World View — not preaching it, but showing it.

We begin with ourselves. We begin with our passions. We begin with finding ways to say what we really think about the world. This means we have some thinking to do, to discover what we truly believe and what is truly true. We have skills to hone as we set those rampaging emotions loose upon the page as we try to say what we mean and mean what we say. But we have to begin. And where we begin is shockingly easy.

We begin with the monsters. We begin with US.

References

Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, c1990.

Joshi, S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, c2001.

Girly-Girly Horror: Daphne Du Maurier & Gothic Romance (Because It’s Women-In-Horror Month)


For most of us who read and write Horror, there is an almost automatic tendency to cringe when we hear the word “romance” associated with our genre. Even with blockbusters which have encompassed the one-time popularity of amorous vampires to taunt us, we of the Horror genre prefer the more suspenseful, monstrous-scary kinds of relationships in our fiction.

Romance, we insist, is a whole ‘nother creature – one we banish happily to the Harlequin aisle. Romance is girly-girly stuff.

But not so fast. Because if one really embraces the genre we have come to associate with psychos and monsters and a host of demons and witches, then we must embrace our beginnings in the classics – including our beginnings in the medieval romance and folktale fairy princesses which begat the Gothic Romance and Gothick (so christened with the ‘k’ by writers like Victoria Nelson to differentiate “new” Gothic from Medievally inspired Gothic ) subgenres which lead to where we are.

It is Gothic Romance – the provenance of writers like the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and one Daphne DuMaurier – which put Horror on the map (and in particular, the Literary map).

Forget what you think you know about romance. Because it is these ladies who put the paranormal into romance and laid the groundwork in setting and characterization for a lot of modern Horror.

If you want to understand and appreciate our genre – especially including the role of women who contributed to its modern shape – you need to read Gothic Romance. And I suggest strongly you start with a book called Rebecca.

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Girling Up Horror All Over the Place

For most of us, our exposure to romance left us covered in a kind of gauzy, glittery, pink-fairy-wing kind of stupor, or drenches us in the stereotypes of bodice-ripping erotica. It is far too saccharine for our Horror tastes. But that also means that we have had our heads turned by pulp romance, which – not unlike pulp Horror – is a subgenre that caters to a specific audience. Before and alongside that type of romance is Gothic Romance – tales that leak in sinister designs from drafty castles and isolated manses, tales that reek of the supernatural and dark, dark secret histories.

It is at once a genre of deft flexibility, and perhaps that is how and why women writers so expertly and effectlively took charge of it.

Explains Greg Buzwell in his article “Daphne Du Maurier and the Gothic Tradition”:

“Gothic fiction possesses a remarkable ability to reinvent itself. The sublime landscapes and imperilled maidens of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), for example, seemingly bear no relation to the city streets and macabre body transformations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) or to Henry James’s psychological ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1898), and yet all three tales are, undeniably, Gothic. Regardless of their entirely different storylines and settings all three share the traditional Gothic qualities of a disturbing atmosphere, a carefully described landscape and setting, a sense of the uncanny and the impression that events are out of kilter with the rational world.” (Buzwell)

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Change, as we have seen even in our lifetimes, is survival for fiction. It has to move with its readers in order to move its readers.

This is something we see regularly in Horror: monsters evolve, ghosts change tactics and motivations, monsters drift between human origins and supernatural ones. This has to happen or our audience becomes too sophisticated, too conditioned to be easily disturbed, our stories flat or trite.

It is an easy conclusion in hindsight then, that “Romance” was doomed to change, and that the Gothic period of writing would bleed from real world wounds, from actual histories being lived by the readers the stories were being written for. We forget that stories about the 1800’s were once “modern” and that readers understood first-hand the travails of their protagonists.

But this is why Gothic Romance evolved from its more straight-forward origins. Readers of the 1700’s and 1800’s could only identify so far with medieval times and cultural constraints. Readers always tend to look for stories written with them in mind, preferring their habitual devouring of story pressed through a prism they can at least imagine; readers need to see themselves in fictionalized tales.

Gothic Romance descends from stories wrought from the romance languages, making use of medieval tales of knights and ladies in distress. Where “Romance and Gothick” are not (according to the critic Northrop Frye) “two separate literary movements, one high and one low drawing from the same sources, the Gothick should be regarded as the foundation of the Romantic” (Nelson 97).

But change happens slowly, unevenly. There were writers – female writers of the Gothic – writing well before Gothic Romance became fashionable. They wrote in lesser known publications for women, and their names are harder to remember, their works harder to find. Unfortunately, it far too often takes writers with the panache, style, and timing of J.K. Rowlings and Jane Austens to awaken fame, fortune, and opportunity for others.

With the deft pens of writers like Charlotte Brontë, whose work Jane Eyre was the main transformative work to lift The Castle of Otranto (also considered the first true modern Horror story) into what we see as “modern” Literature, the genre of Gothic Romance exploded onto and all over the publishing scene, borne by the imaginations of women who it appears, saw things a little differently.

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In her book Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural, Victoria Nelson asserts that men and women write Romance differently, and with the rise of Gothic Romance, women transformed the genre by refashioning the protagonist and the conclusion of early romance into what has become coined “the Female Gothic.”

Formerly, male writers were wont to write tales in which “[a helpless young woman is pitted against] a devilish villain whom she is going to be forced to marry (The Castle of Otranto [by Horace Walpole]) or who forcibly ravishes her (The Monk [by Matthew Gregory Lewis])

“In the female-authored Gothicks that followed Walpole, in contrast, the single heroine (whose point of view we usually inhabit) escapes the villain’s clutches and marries the young man. Where the early male Gothick writers, drawing directly from the medieval romance tradition, used a faux-medieval aristocratic cast of characters, the women Gothick writers frequently introduced a bourgeois female protagonist into the mix. Where male authors favored supernatural elements, female authors – most famously [Ann] Radcliffe herself – like to titillate their readers with ghostly, chill-inducing phenomena before revealing the human agency behind them.” (97-98)

And with the advent of this new perspective and the emergence of publishing venues for women and their readers, the Gothic Romance was unleashed. Gone was the tendency toward the male-favored tragic ending, and in came the more female-friendly happy ending. But along with the surge in female storytelling, came the disfavor of Literary Critics of the time.

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Long seen as sensational, overly sentimental writing, it took writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters to capture Critical respect. Says Nelson:

“Literary critics have not been kind to Gothick romance. Fred Botting has dubbed contemporary women’s romance ‘Girly-girly Gothic’ after Mark Twain’s label ‘girly-girly romance’ for the identical literature of the nineteenth century. Traditional Gothick scholars and literary critics alike have delivered scathing and condescending critiques and commentators have noted the continued low status of the women’s romance in mainstream culture despite being statistically the most popular literary genre.” (106)

Enter Daphne Du Maurier, a woman whose most preeminent work, Rebecca, has sold well over 3 million copies, some 4000 copies per month since 1938 and has never gone out of print (House), yet who could not in her lifetime garner the least Critical respect (facts to which today’s Stephen King fans can relate).

For far too long her work was considered “standard” women’s fare, and not in the same class as writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters; and one must recognize that the Curse of Bestsellerdom is an enduring one – one that has been around as long as there have been Literary Critics who cannot fathom the fickle passions of the masses.

Far too often it takes decades, if not centuries, after an author’s death for Critics to reconcile knee-jerk reactions to sales figures with what is really going on in an author’s writing. Recounts Greg Buzwell in his article “Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca Taught Me How to Love Literature”:

“In some respects Daphne du Maurier was a victim of her own success. Her prose was so smooth, and her stories so packed with incident, that her gifts as a storyteller often overshadowed the more serious aspects of her work. It is only when you look beyond the surface polish of her stories that you begin to notice her brilliant and eclectic use of Gothic imagery.” (Buzwell)

Still think you haven’t heard of her?

Ah, ye of little faith, O Horror Fans…she is also the author of one of Horror’s most iconic stories, tagged (and therefore probably misremembered) as “Alfred Hitchcock’s” The Birds…

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Author, Author

All too often we have our attention directed to authors acknowledged and endorsed as Canon Greats, and we tend to not question the absence of a name here or there, as though there is a kind of security or gilding of the Critic’s lily in propping up “established” theories of Literary evolution and the roles certain authors allegedly play in it.

We shy away from those labelled “popular” or “mainstream” authors as thought their contributions are somehow less valid, less impactful. And we often do this whenever there is the slightest whiff of controversy – too often assuming that the lack of a Critical voice to say otherwise somehow legitimizes the exclusion of an author in the discussion of genre.

This tends to happen historically most often to female authors. And while we are getting better at deflecting such tendencies, we do little to clear the air of suspicion for deceased and historically significant writers as though to do so will cause our own reputations to be sucked into the vortex of unsavory scandal – or worse, will make an enemy of the Literary Critic/academic community.

Daphne Du Maurier is just such an author. Despite numerous accusations of plagiarism during her career – all of which reached legal resolution in her and her publishers’ favor, the cloud of disgrace associated with those defeated claims continues to disparage her reputation and deprive her of her rightful place in genre history.

Legal confirmation of her innocence is a matter of record. And yet Du Maurier is seldom mentioned with or within genre references and Critical essays with any regularity. It is as though she is being disparaged as a “girly-girly romance” writer – a pulp writer – a sentimental sensationalist instead of what she was – a Gothic writer who strongly influenced not only Romance, but the Horror and Suspense/Thriller genres.

It is time that changed. And Horror should be the genre coming to her defense. Both Rebecca and The Birds were genre-changers for us, building directly upon the psychological terror platform of Edgar Allan Poe.

But it is also time for modern women in Horror to demand Critical engagement in such circumstances as the accusation of plagiarism – not only against Du Maurier, but also against Mary Shelley (who some claim published Frankenstein under her name after her husband wrote it). Ugly rumors and greedy grabs at sensationalism should be met with immediate Critical address, and not allowed to hang over the work and reputations of such writers.

Especially because this happens historically and disproportionately to women – accusation and Critical ostracism – women need to call it out for what it is: a form of professional bullying which needs to be stopped by the nearest thing we as writers have as a governing body: the Literary Critical/Academic community. Mention of accusation is one thing; but reputations should cease to be impugned once the law has ruled on the issue. Such writers should not be omitted from works referenced in genre discussion, or from Critical analysis.

For years I have sought and expected to find essays on Du Maurier’s work, perhaps even Critical expositions. Yet references have been rare and piteously fleeting when found. I find this to be shameful, especially if not only an American issue.

And while Du Maurier is not as “well-known” in the United States as she is in the UK, not as widely read perhaps, and even possibly avoided due to her reputation for alleged anti-American sentiment in her day, her work is more than worthy of attention in this country, her name the kind which belongs on reading lists.

If a writer inspires the readership of a genre, changes the genre, and is referenced as an influence by other writers (as Daphne Du Maurier frequently is), he or she is Literarily relevant – deserving of Critical attention and (if necessary) defense.

Rebecca is one such story… It is often remembered with the same misty reverence by its intensely loyal fans as Jane Eyre…

The story of Rebecca grabs the reader from the very first line: “Last night I dreamed I went back to Manderly…” and it holds the reader entranced with the kind of language that mesmerizes Stephen King fans – accessible language that makes each scene familiar, identifiable, relatable. It is a woman’s story, one that penetrates into a common innocence, a common need for loving and being loved, the sense that we will never quite belong and whole histories await to bedevil us even as they precede us.

This is the what makes Du Maurier a favorite among favorites. With so many of her stories, we can not only imagine her heroines, we could be them.

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Says Christian House in his article for The Telegraph titled “Daphne Du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Rebecca Was a Study in Jealousy”:

“In August 1938, Rebecca caught the zeitgeist, drawing on the glamour of country society and the feeling of impending catastrophe that permeated the pre-war years. Put coarsely, it is a novel about a dead woman and a house. Both of which were drawn from the author’s life.

“‘Mum used to get fed up talking about it,” says [her son Kits] Browning. “She did get so irritated with people calling it a romantic novel. Because she always said it was a study in jealousy.'”

[and further that]

“The seed of the Rebecca story lay in Daphne du Maurier’s jealousy of her husband’s first fiancee … (House)

So firmly nestled among Du Maurier’s success were those facts of her life — and that in the end, it makes her even more human, even more intuitive as a storyteller. And yet like all women writers, there was always lurking in the shadows the problem of being a woman in a man’s world. Continues Buzwell:

“As a child du Maurier often wished she was a boy. In part this was because boys at that time had greater freedoms and opportunities than girls, but with du Maurier the desire went further. She even invented a male alter ego for herself, named Eric Avon, along with a colourful past for him in which he had been to Rugby. Eric Avon was adventurous and fearless, qualities that Daphne du Maurier had in abundance but which she was never fully allowed to express because of her gender.

“As a writer, du Maurier was able to explore this masculine side of her nature vicariously through her fiction. Many of her most famous books, including My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat and The House on the Strand have male narrators. Even the very early tale The Doll is told from a male perspective, the narrator finding himself rejected by the woman he loves in favour of a mechanical doll – something which, inevitably, has devastating implications for his own identity. The more you look into du Maurier’s work, the more wheels within wheels you begin to see, and the darker the imagery becomes. It is only when you look beyond her narrative brilliance that you begin to see the haunting darkness and complexity of her work.”

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Such wishes and imaginings are – if nothing else – the ghost that walks among all female-authored fiction. We always second-guess ourselves, our worth, our potential and our right to success. We wonder if we would have fared better as men, if our work would have found better Critical reception had the byline been male.

This is natural in a patriarchal society, even when we hope things are better for us than it was for women who preceded us, even when “things have changed.” We all too often find that they have not changed so very much, and there are just enough mines in the minefield that we can never truly be sure of our footing.

And when we read prominent women writers, we tend to discover troubled waters beneath the prose. This is how we write ghosts without actually writing ghosts. For example, Buzwell explains how Du Maurier builds on the tradition of ghosts as built by Ann Radcliffe:

“Daphne du Maurier’s work also contains echoes of Ann Radcliffe, whose novel The Mysteries of Udolpho came to epitomize the first golden age of Gothic literature. In Radcliffe’s work the seemingly supernatural is nearly always revealed to have a rational explanation. Du Maurier’s work exhibits similar characteristics. In Rebecca, for example, the sinister character of Mrs. Danvers is just that – a character, not a malevolent ghost; while Rebecca herself, who dominates the book without ever making a single living appearance, is a ghost only in the sense that she haunts the imaginations of the living protagonists. This psychological element contains echoes of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw…”

Indeed this is the magical recipe for originality in Horror: the taking of a device from a traditionally-established writer and altering it subtly with the result that the difference jars the plot and the reader alike. But it must always ring true.

This is how we know Du Maurier is not only Literary, but a writer of the feminine Gothic where the female protagonist’s own insecurities has captured us and simultaneously modernized the ghost story, providing the scaffolding for another generation of writers to build upon.

Yet female authors, when they do well, tend to come under scrutiny. Since the early days of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, a woman’s ability to come up with her own ideas is always suspect, and an illogical and random variable constraint of possible talent is arbitrarily assigned to her capacity as a writer. The success and similarities of Rebecca to the absolute conventions and themes of Gothic Romance made Du Maurier a target. Plots repeat in fiction. And they often repeat more noticeably in subgenres. Yet even as she was dogged by accusations of plagiarism for Rebecca, Du Maurier won all court decisions, and still the spectre of accusations haunted the author all of her life. She lived in mortal fear of disclosing publicly the secrets and details of her own life, of her writing process, of her faults as a woman. (De Rosnay 186-191)

This remained so until her death at 81.

And despite numerous attempts at interviews and accommodating the curious, Du Maurier was at all times a typical writer – insecure, private, perhaps even a bit paranoid of the intentions of others. But she was something else: she was a pivotal player in the Gothic Romance genre, a not-too-distant relative of the Horror genre.

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She should be mandatory reading for writers of Horror, particularly female writers, and writers of the ghost story. She should be on a required reading list for Classic Literature.

Even so, perhaps you are wondering…

Why Daphne Du Maurier? What leads me to choose her as my Women-In-Horror Month writer? Why not Charlotte Bronte or Ann Radcliffe?

Because Daphne Du Maurier is least known in this country and for all of the wrong reasons.

So much of her work has been repeatedly made into films by directors who overshadow her name as an author – (The Birds) Alfred Hitchcock, (Don’t Look Now) Nicholas Roeg, (Jamaica Inn) Alfred Hitchcock, (My Cousin Rachel) Roger Michell, and (Frenchman’s Creek) Ferdinand Fairfax…and because even when we read her work, we get caught up in her stories – haunted by them – without remembering who wrote them.

Yet she is a vital part of Horror genre history. She is a major contributing player in the psychological American roots of Horror writing and filmmaking. Who among us does not count The Birds among the most relevant, inspirational, and yet disturbing Horror of our lives?

The absence of Daphne Du Maurier from our reading lists and our analysis of the history of Literature, especially Gothic Romance and subsequently Horror, has cheated us. We are blinded to a significant Literary connection to our classical roots and – most importantly in Horror – to our British roots.

Du Maurier is a transitionary writer for Horror fans and authors. She is where the Gothic romance becomes the Gothic romance. Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey are the noises we hear in the dark. Du Maurier is the frisson.

If we are going to improve our knowledge of our own genre – especially as women writers – we need to re-evaluate how we study Classic Literature. We need to abandon the idea that our educational system has the money or wherewithal to broadly educate us in such a way that we can see the Horror from here…Instead we have to look for the Horror ourselves. We have to educate ourselves.

Having abbreviated reading lists in our schools and reduced exposure to Literary Classics in general makes this worse. Writers who are not Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters are almost ritually abandoned in our Lit classes. And the seemingly deliberate avoidance of the Gothic in general as a subgenre except as a setting device is another.

Yet especially in the assessment of contemporary American Literature, we bemoan the lack of continuity with our past, with the lack of originality, the absence of fire that animated so much early English-language Literature. This complaint has spilled over into genres and subgenres like Horror, where so many of our rejections reflect this professional frustration.

It is time Horror recognized Daphne Du Maurier for her contribution to our genre. It is time we stepped up. It is one thing to excuse such childish, professionally irresponsible avoidance and ostracizing behavior when we read about it as history. It is another when we realize our own silence reinforces the inaccuracy and injustice of prejudiced exclusion.

It is time we opened our eyes. The British continue to outpace us in accomplished Horror writing. We continue to flop about like dying fish out of water.

I say wade in. The water is fine. The water is still mostly British. And when it comes to studying women’s writing and the Gothic Romances, nobody does it better than Daphne Du Maurier.

Go on. Scare yourself. You’re gonna love it.

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References

Buzwell, Greg. “Daphne du Maurier and the Gothic tradition.” Retrieved 1/31 from http://www.dumaurier.org/menu_page.php?id=122

Crace, John. “Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca Taught Me How to Love Literature. Retrieved 1/25/2018 from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/20/rebecca-daphne-du-maurier-classic-literature

Davenport-Hines, Richard. Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin. North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1998.

De Rosnay, Tatiana. Manderley Forever: a Biography of Daphne Du Maurier. New York: St. Martin’s Press, c2017.

House, Christian. “Daphne du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Rebecca Was a Study in Jealousy.” Retrieved 1/15/2018 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10248724/Daphne-du-Maurier-always-said-her-novel-Rebecca-was-a-study-in-jealousy.html

Nelson, Victoria. Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, c2012.

 

 

 

Unlearning the Craft of Failure (or, No One Talks About Real Revision Anymore)


I’ve often wondered why Revision is so difficult. But after attaining my degree I started wondering why everyone was making it so difficult.

It is almost like everyone wants you to fail. Books typically written on the subject of Revision (to put it mildly) suck. For every sentence of worth there are five pages of fluff and confusing flow-charts, diagrams, and pie charts. Terms go incompletely explained or undefined; they are haphazardly introduced, and the mystery of their useful application is left to our already flawed imaginations. They take writers who know something is “wrong” in their fiction and hint at a “well-known” recipe for success. They make you feel stupid… Like everybody else “gets” it except you.

What does this do for the average novice writer – the one without access to a university degree with its fiction writing program? Or an amateur writer who “gets it” sometimes? Or a hopeful young person exploring the very idea of what it takes to be a writer?

The answer is that it leaves us guessing about the true nature of our abilities. It creates the mythology of the Overnight Success and the woefully incorrect parallel that publication validates talent. It hides the hard fact of actual manual labor involved in the construction of story and it reinforces the bad habits of unlearned craft – it creates an unconscious template FOR failure and endless, meaningless Revision that we are helpless to stop…

Fortunately, we no longer have to rely on convoluted attempts at explaining it all: from the depths of our collective despair rides a writing coach. And if you don’t mind snuggling up against a bit of screenwriting wisdom, you might be able to end the mystery and all of its subsequent bad habits.

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Woe is I

There are two things you need to know if you are stressing out about Revision: one, you are not alone; and two, someone finally wrote something that you can use.

I’m going to give you a name: Larry Brooks. And I’m going to give you three book titles: Story Engineering, Story Physics, and Story Fix.

Get them and read them. Get them all.

Your first response is going to be feeling overwhelmed. You’re going to find out just how much fiction writing has not been talked about to you. And you are going to be very depressed – at first. The reason is because you are going to feel like writing is so technical it isn’t fun anymore. But bear with Brooks.

What he is teaching is craft and technique… and just like all Horror, you can’t unread it. This means that what you are doing is setting a subtext for your unconscious, a script running in the background that will kick in when the storytelling begins instead of having to unravel it afterward. This alone will reduce the amount of Revision you might have to do. But it will offer something else. It will allow you to be aware of choices that you are making as you write and as you revise.

This is powerful stuff. For those of us who experience writing like a bad game of Blind Man’s Bluff, it will be playing without the blindfold.

This blindness can tend to happen especially if you are what is referred to as an organic writer – that is, you do not start with an outline and construct a story, but prefer to give the Muse her head and let the whole thing unravel on the page. For organic writers, there is a love of the mystery of the process, an embracing of that creative element known as “flow” which carries you into a timeless realm for unnoticed hours and leaves you invigorated…a writer’s high.

The problem with this is that the Muse is a storyteller, but she is also high. And like a spider under the influence, the web she weaves can be beautiful and weirdly unusual at the same time it is fatally flawed.

If you fall under her spell every time you read the magic words, then you are not able to spot the weaknesses that will get you rejected time and again. So if you write like this, you have to realize that you cannot revise like this.

You have to learn to see what an editor sees. And it helps if it has names and definitions and an outline of its own.

Organic writers need know when to switch hats. And when to leave denial in the dust. This isn’t about aesthetics and editors who don’t like your style… You can wail about that all you want when you’ve mastered the elements of craft. Until then, you are just sabotaging yourself and wasting a lot of time. Trust me. Time is something you won’t get back. Don’t be wasting it on ego.

This is about Rejection – that of editors and your own: remember those stories in the back of your file drawers that you read and reread and continue to sigh over? It’s about knowing deep down that something is fundamentally wrong with your writing and not being able to name or fix it. The prose is lovely, the sentences are perfection, the grammar stellar, the character so perfect you could see him or her walking right into the room….yet. What is going on with the story? Is it even a story? Or a type of one? You know the story I’m talking about… the one you really like but can’t send anywhere.

Professionals will say you haven’t yet earned your stripes, that a real writer will figure it out: that is The Test…. And that Revision is part of the process and deserves decades of your gut-wrenching attention – such are the dues we all pay…blah, blah, blah.

But what if that just isn’t true? Or maybe not completely true?

Let’s face it; right now in our world, writing fiction is still not taught the way the rest of the Arts have been taught for centuries – well, except for screenwriters, who are ahead of the game in many cases. We fiction writers are having to rediscover the wheel as a profession using books, the MFA and workshops, and pretty much anything we can get our grubby hands on. Only now the Professionals want each individual writer to rediscover the wheel by themselves. As proof of their worthiness.

What is up with that?!

If writing has rules – known as criteria (not formula) –then it makes sense that not following fundamental writing rules will get you rejected. And let’s face it:  it doesn’t hurt to write knowing eventually what criteria will be on the list to be ticked off.

And while you may rightly rebel against what looks like yet another formula, Brooks clarifies, “What you are about to learn isn’t formulaic” but operates more like a structural blueprint that only dictates rough scaffolding. He gives the example of the human face, i.e., with nature’s strict palette of eleven biological variables to work with, asks Brooks, “how often [do] you see two people who look exactly alike?” What Brooks is giving us is bones and biological variables. Bones to hang any manner of genre flesh from. Because whether you are talking Mysteries, Thrillers, Romance, Adventure…they all share the same structural skeleton, the same biological blueprint he names “the core competencies.” (Engineering 6-7)

Starting out, you will have to fight the natural recoil – especially if you dislike clinical peeks at your writing. But if you don’t build it that way, if you wrote before you knew about and understood the core competencies or any of the rest of the architecture Brooks gives in his three books, you are probably facing some form of Revision. And a whole lot of emotionally laced confusion.

This is going to feel mechanical. Revision is a technical skill, not a creative one, and there are no two ways about it. But if you think Poe, Lovecraft, Dickens, or Austen didn’t revise, you haven’t read their biographies. It’s time to accept that Revision is part of the process – just as it is time to accept that we’ve been making it far harder than we’ve needed to.

Revision, we are so constantly assured, can take years…(and this is especially true if you are feeling your way along.) What all we needed was someone with a technical writer’s flair for explanation, and the simple truth given simply. Larry Brooks is our man.

When you tire of rejections, when you tire of trying to revise a story you feel like you are –  in your ignorance of what is wrong –  just destroying…it’s time to get help. It’s time to get Brooks.

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Awakening the Real Writer Within

Sometimes breaking the fairy glamour of organic writing is tough. But just like when you happen to find a fairy stone and peek through the worn hole of it – when the spell shatters it is a bit jarring….absolutely necessary – but jarring.

You’re going to have to make some admissions. But fortunately, you can make them in private.

One of these is whether or not you can recognize a story as a story. Sounds obvious, but it isn’t, and it most often it is one of those creations in the back of your file cabinet that you love dearly but don’t know what the heck is. The reason is because it isn’t a story…it’s perhaps a scene, or a vignette, or a musing – and look hard at that word! In that much-loved piece there is no beginning, middle and end…just a collection of lovely constructed sentences that was fun to write.

This is what Brooks says on the subject: “Writers who don’t know what a story is tend to simply write about something. That’s a recipe for disaster. Rather, what they need to write is about something happening…A writer who doesn’t know the true definition of story can only hope to stumble upon, however intuitively, the complex sequence and forces of story in a way that really works…Begin with accepting the truth about your story and then be honest about how much of it is alive in your mind.” (Story Fix 173-174).

As an organic writer myself, the lesson is hard…the Muse is sometimes drunk on her own power. But what I have found reading Brooks, is that the very stories that do have profound flaws are falling apart exactly where he says they would, missing exactly what he says they are. That got my attention even as it irritates me, because I am obsessed with the idea of capturing that elusive thing known as craft, and have been convinced by many that the acquisition of this particular knowledge would save me and my writing.

But Brooks complicated that thought with this comment: “It’s all craft, craft, craft. And on one level that’s how it should be. But on another level, conceptual appeal is at least half of the whole ballgame.” (Fix 171).

This is another wake-up call. Because this is what all of those other books were hinting around at but just not saying. There is always this annoying darting from clinical diagrams to the magical mystery tour of related terms no one connects together in other books on Revision. In fact, increasingly books on Revision have become books on writing…An interestingly, many books on writing are looking a lot like the approach given by Brooks.

Take for example, a recent publication by author Gabriela Pereira titled DIY MFA…it mirrors what Brooks has done, installing its own terminology and processes…do you want to follow a story model (Brooks- Engineering  141) or a story map (Pereira 63)?  Do you want “decisions” (Pereira 110) or “parts” and “Pinch points”? (Brooks- Engineering  165, 200) Clearly there is something to this approach to understanding story construction…

And while I have been reluctant to look directly in the face of what I have incorrectly seen as a move toward commercialism and cookie-cutter creations, Brooks shows that concept is part of the story, not a buzzword for marketers or nefarious retail plans. Concept is not a dirty word – it is a term.

Brooks makes it clear that while this is about being published, it is only so because being published is one possible happy side-effect of good writing. And he admits writing these books came as a result of his own frustration with what he found in other books, in writing workshops, and conferences – in other words, what we have found…confusion.

Brooks takes his experience with studying screenwriting materials and his experience as a writing coach to marry the two disciplines of screen and fiction writing – why? Because screenwriters have honed the process down to the bare bones.

I admit there is a part of this that makes me bristle a bit…when I look at diagrams for structure and see a given thing should happen at a specific percentage of the way through a story, I feel uneasy…Like this is the very thing I have heard Critics cringe about… just a new kind of formula to make Hollywood happy, to churn out “bestsellers” that have little Literary value.

But despite the inferred connection some will derive between writing a salable story and having a film rights on a contract, I tend to think Brooks has done the right thing. We are not, after all obligated to do the things that lead away from Literature and toward Hollywood. But we are far better off to have learned at least one take on the structure of storytelling – with which we can embellish, mirror, or deviate from – than we are to sit in a dark room wondering what is wrong with our fiction. For years. Or forever, whichever comes first.

I think the truth is this: one can just learn the basic bones of craft and construct salable stories – and indeed sell them. Or one can continue to build on that foundation…experimenting with concepts and formula arrangements the way a jazz musician plays with the rules of music. That is where Literature will happen. But before Literature happens we need to understand how to construct a story… even a contrived one.

For example, at our core, in our very hearts, we know that when our writing fails there is a reason it is failing. I’m not talking about rejections. I’m talking about that moment alone when you are picking up a story you have let bake for a bit, and reading through it you suddenly find yourself unhorsed…that narrative thread you thought was so taunt suddenly causes you to stop and re-read a sentence… the “wait a minute – what?” moment.  This is an editorial sign that something is wrong. Very wrong.

Brooks says, “…effective stories need two separate dimensions of energy. Just two. Either (1) your story proposition isn’t strong enough, or (2) its execution isn’t effective enough.” (Fix 12-13)

You know that this is a truth. But what you need to do is be able to see which truth applies and then find out how to fix it…specifically fix it….not make use of empty advice like “make it sing.” You need advice like your first plot point comes too late and the second plot point is too weak. You need to hear that your story is boring unless you change the entire premise. You need to know what a plot point or a premise is.

And most importantly, you need to admit that no one ever taught you that… that you’ve been guessing up to this point.

Do you know what dramatic arc is? How to increase tension?

Says Brooks:

“Revision requires two focusses in terms of process, both of which applies to the story level and the execution level of viability:

  1. the identification and repair of that which is broken within a story, either at the story level or the narrative arc level
  2. the elevation of that which has yet to reach its highest dramatic strength and character potential.

In other words, we are looking at what’s broken and what’s just plain weak.” (Fix 144).

Rev3

Getting Started

The best thing you can do is to start at the beginning.

Start with the first book, Story Engineering: Mastering the 8 Core Competencies of Successful Writing.

Did you see that? When was the last time anybody mentioned anything about core competencies?

They are: concept, character, theme, story structure, scene execution, writing voice, story development. They are not defined in a sentence; they are defined in chapters. Revisited and reinforced by other chapters.

Do you know what they mean or how to implement them? Do you think you know? And shouldn’t you be sure?

One of the most important reasons you need to get started is because these are complicated issues that you need to marry to your own creative process. They are craft issues. Fundamental craft issues…the ones you cannot skip or expect an editor not to notice are missing or mishandled.

The best thing about Brooks, is that he sounds like he is already in your head. Says Brooks, “without mastering a formidable list of basics that is rarely talked about coherently, most of us end up with a dream that never materializes.” (Engineering 4) And this is proved true time and again, with nonspecific comments made by Writers and experts of all ilk. I have mentioned this before – this pretense of knowledge everyone alludes to and no one defines. Myself, I have had enough. Where’s the beef?

The idea that everyone else is in The Know and you would do well to fake it until you, too, “get it” is stupid. The idea that when a writer is lucky enough or intuitive enough, or studied enough that they figure it out is some kind of validation of the modern “process” or in any way legitimizes who and what have gone before is also stupid.

Here’s an important statement made by Brooks on this subject: “…published writers who, like King, just start writing their stories from an initial idea do so using an informed sensibility about, and working knowledge of Story architecture…” (Engineering 3) They don’t sit and guess, they know that there is a model and that model works for them, and they write with it embedded in their subconscious. You can spend years guessing at such templates, hope by osmosis to deduce them from classic Literature, or you can find a teacher of story architecture…

That would be Larry Brooks, for $17.99 or so per book, or a five or six figure college education…or years of rejections… or pure luck. It’s your choice.

But Rejection is the general tell that you need help. That, and tearing your own hair out.

Knowing what you are doing is what separates the Professional Writer from the Novice writer. It is what keeps some people looking down on your writing and minimizing the competition.

I say it’s time to up the game. Challenge yourself.

Go to your collection of stories. You know which one has been sticking out like a sore thumb, the one that has that part where it all seems to go awry. Copy it on your computer, print it out double-spaced, and sit down with Brooks. Read until you find the scenario of what you are seeing wrong in your story. Mark the printout with terms, and with structure points. Can you find your first plot point? Can you identify the very sentence in which everything changes? Is there really a mission for your protagonist? Can you see the arc from your front porch?

Are you lost when you read those words? Do you think you shouldn’t be, but you’re too embarrassed to say? Get Brooks. Turn beet red in the privacy of your own file cabinet. Then fix it. Fix it ALL. Or burn it.

I’m not going to kid you – Brooks scares me. He scares me because I already know he’s right. His books are full of terms and diagrams and – guess what? – DEFINITIONS. Explanations. Examples.

And I’m going to tell you the truth. I have to read and re-read Brooks. It’s not because he dazzles you with big words or concepts (he defines and gives excellent examples); rather, it’s because he is talking about applying something complicated, clinical and patently un-magical to your work, and there are a lot of emotionally-charged strings attaching you to your misbegotten prose.

Having created the spell, sometimes it is hard to divest yourself of its glamour. You start reading like a reader and not like a writer or editor. You fall into it and forget what you are supposed to be doing. You must stop that in order to fix it.

It is difficult not to fall into that murky pond of imagination lurking in your prose. And it is difficult to accept that the cold embrace of the Muse is her trying to drown you before you change anything. But if you want it published, and it is a technical flaw that is compromising the story – again, noticeable because you yourself become disoriented in the middle of things – then it has to be done. Something must change.

That’s why I encourage you to purchase all three books. Each one focuses on the different levels of story construction. And they feel deep, because you have to be willing to look back at stories you wrote that you thought we complete. When you start trying to apply his process to yours, you start realizing just how deep in the weeds you’ve been. And that you’re going to have to eventually come out…

There is a lot of emotional baggage that has to be sorted from writing that needs to be fixed. I am saying that I finally bought Brooks because his was about the only books left on the shelf I hadn’t bought. And I can honestly say that his may well be the only ones I actually needed.

Has it made a difference in publication for me? Not yet, although there is at least one newer story with Brooks’ influence out there that hasn’t come back yet… And I have begun to construct stories with a better awareness of what I need to create in there. For me it is too early to tell if it will all lead to success, but I have selected for Revision two victims from my drawers that have given me fits, and I willing to make changes to them as Brooks advises…so I am running them through the paradigm…slowly, because eviscerating your children is hard, even when they are flawed.

This is how it’s done.

It’s why writing is such hard work. And it means we cannot be squeamish. We have to take out the knives and carve up our children. It really is for the best. Because it’s time to start crafting success.

C’mon. Let’s scare some Professional Writers. It’ll be fun.

 

References

Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2011.

Brooks, Larry. Story Physics. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2013.

Brooks, Larry, Story Fix. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2015.

Pereira, Gabriela. DIY MFA. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2016.

“Getting” Weird: When a Subgenre is a Subgenre and its Shadow is Over More Than Innsmouth (Part One)


Here’s the question in debate: Is Horror a subgenre of Weird Fiction, or is Weird Fiction a subgenre of Horror?

When I returned to college and began to comprehend the organizational structure of Literature as established by Literary Criticism, I thought it would be fun to apply the substance of what I was learning to Horror. Why? Because I was convinced there was structure in Horror.

There had to be. Right?

But what I found not only surprised me; turned out it was interesting, too…Because Horror – having long been the splinter in the flesh to Literary purists – had only the structure and spurts of structure authors and Critics had sporadically given it. And once we left English soil, American Horror’s plan to re-invent itself instead resulted in a kind of Literary disorientation rife with distracting rumors and its own mythology.

To my surprise I discovered that there was no canon; there was historically no established Criticism by Critics other than essays and articles created to roundly condemn the genre as genre (and its writers by association); and that the very genre name was something even its authors historically argued over.

Horror – as the red-headed-stepchild of speculative fiction – continues to emerge from the darkness in this country, shedding forms as it grows, morphing from one interpretation to the next as it blindly seeks to discover and define itself.

No wonder the Critics are frustrated and our writers seem to wander and careen about the genre…

How then do we have a discussion, let alone a debate? Answer: we listen to the words of our best writers and the constructive comments of new Critics…. Then we all need to participate in the careful examination of points presented.

When Horror Was Horror, or Was It Ever?

Perhaps the first and most surprising thing for this child of the sixties to trip over was the discovery that Horror was not always Horror. In fact, the name “Horror” for the genre was a relatively “recent” attachment. Horror – as we know it – began with names we no longer call it.

Those earlier names made it clear that stories told under the genre umbrella were largely sensational short works designed for quick chills and thrills with their folk roots showing: Ghost Stories, Spectral Fiction, Supernatural Fiction, Thrillers, Tales of Terror, Gothic Fiction… Critics were quick to point out their campfire glow, their dependence on both superstition and the naiveté and/or rural links associated with the illiterate and uneducated masses.

In other words, the genre was considered childish and unsophisticated; it was most certainly not for a mature audience tuned to the marvels of modern scientific thought, and it was not a genre that represented our best profile. And as the genre blossomed at the precise time of the industrial revolution and the birth of technology, it was an unwelcome reminder of times ruled by emotions instead of analytical thought.

So emotion became both the hallmark of and the motivation behind the choice of genre name. The choice seemed likely: Horror was what you were promised in those early publications…. terror…fear…creepy… scary….eerie…frightening….amazing…astounding…unbelievable… indescribable… tales.

The parade of adjectives led directly to the name “Horror.” And it did so because it managed to encompass and corral all of the many subgenres that were developing their own rules and authors. This is not to say that all of those subgenres are subgenres of Horror… but that “Horror” was hung as a name over all of the writings in the genre – whatever its proper name should have been…

We cannot know what would have happened in the vacuum of a printing press-less world. Writers were already sharing and bending terms to their purposes, and perhaps it was Critical derision that resulted in the spotty criteria writers used to define and clarify subgenres. But despite the best efforts of some editors and some writers, terms and definitions began to swim and swirl in the creative currents until many became inseparable from each other.

Meanwhile even as the first publishing boom was happening and pulp dotted the writing landscape, a small detachment of writers began writing something “new”… and they were calling it “Weird.”

Lovecraft3

It was the emergence of the Weird tale – a proliferation of the strange, the supernatural, the cosmic dominated by unique group of writers who knew their fiction was “different” than the norm, and who did not consider themselves so much “horror” writers that sparked the venom anew of earlier Critics and now hold the academic interest of contemporary Critics.

But something weird happened to the Weird: while it began before Lovecraft, it seemed to culminate with his efforts, thereafter sliding into a combination of hackneyed Literary efforts and Critical disinterest. For Critics today, there is a noticeable pair of bookends surrounding this period, and to at least one modern Critic, the thread that made the Weird so fascinating a kind of story has been all but lost.

Joshi1

Says S.T. Joshi –the most prominent of Literary Critics now laying the Critical groundwork necessary for Literary Criticism in our genre – “It is my impression that what has frequently been termed the ‘ghettoization’ of weird fiction – especially in America – occurred as a direct result of the pulp magazines. All of the standard ‘genres’ we now recognize — mystery, horror, science fiction, western, romance – either grew out of the pulp magazines of the 1920’s (even though the pulps as originally conceived at the turn of the century were by no means specialized in terms of content) or received considerable impetus from them…” And here Joshi asserts “As a result, weird material in particular disappeared almost entirely from mainstream magazines, since there seemed to develop a notion that such material now had a market of its own.” (Joshi-Modern Weird 4)

One has only to look at the assortment of magazines to see the coalescence of our genre into semi-firm molds of subgenre. Early writers had already began to weigh in, discussing in essays exchanged in letters and Amateur Press Associations the nature of what was being written – all as part of the argument that the genre had a glimmer of Literary offerings. But just as things might have been becoming clearer, the paperback was born…and back to the primal mud our genre crawled… and it may have taken the Weird with it.

The official market “tagging” of the genre by publishers as “Horror” sometime in the 1970’s all but obliterated the earlier discussions. Weird fiction – which had its own audience and writers – became an alternative adjective instead of the noun it was intended to be. Publishers – not being Critics – saw a sales-driven mission of lumping everything together into a broad category – whereas Critics and writers are wont to separate and define. Editors were somewhere in the middle, and have been trying to argue their way out for some time.

But perhaps the most damaging and consequential result was what happened to the rest of us… because the publishing boom did something else – instead of enlightening us all to the history and progression of the genre, it simply ceased to clearly define subgenres and instead vomited up a plethora of terms for which none of us had immediate association. No wonder we lost the ability to build on the Weird tradition in this country; we lost our vision of tradition altogether.

Those of us “coming of age” in the genre of the 1970’s and 80’s were awed by the tossing about of terms, certain that those who were using them knew what they meant. We never dreamed that they did not. And it has been the genre nerds who woke us up – the Lovecraft fans, the passionate heirs and curators of the Weird.

While the rest of us were luxuriating in the massive deluge of scary and strange stuff, even pretending we understood the term “Gothic,” we were losing everything we had gained in genre awareness. In this country, it was the Weird fan who kept us grounded by adhering to a bold and determined declaration of ‘genre.’ Those of us not disciples of the Weird were ignorantly adrift in a flotsam of alleged subgenres that shared and cross-pollinated names and distorted conventions.

While Horror was exploding onto the popular fiction scene, it seemed that American writers became disoriented instead of inspired. It did not matter that writers referred to what we now consider classic works; we did not feel the connection to recreate it. If you read American 1980’s Horror, what started out as inspired eventually becomes circular and redundant. Today’s American Horror is still stuck in that rut, prompting many of us as writers and fans to return to Lovecraft and Poe to try to figure out where we lost that thread of continuity while others try to hide behind the concerted effort to force the genre into a more Literary straitjacket.

I don’t know how it feels for European writers, for British writers of the genre… But here in the U.S. it is confusion resulting from our lost or disordered history that seems to dominate and dog our fiction. It prompts both editors and Critics to say we don’t comprehend what has already been done or done to death in the genre.

That in turn has caused a resurgence of interest in the Weird – and in Lovecraft specifically. We may not understand what we feel, but we know we feel it in Lovecraft’s shadow. So we sit there in it… enveloped in tentacles, begging Cthulhu to tuck some Horror in our minds. Editors feel it, too: we are awash in Lovecraftian-themed anthologies, struggling to recapture the elements that make Weird fiction so effective a storytelling device. But then we ran into a complication. Whether it is subgenre or genre, where are the rules?

Suddenly those of us who thought we could write it find no guidance and empty references to unnamed conventions and undefined formulas.

What is Weird Fiction? And if so many people can reference it, why can’t anyone define it?

We thought it was us.

Yet the more we set out to understand what was “wanted by the genre” (itself a paradox because we have abdicated who the authority of the genre is and publishers are never the genre even as this is who we continue to look to even now), the more the structure of genre evaporated. Our conventions are convoluted and polluted. Our fiction is substandard and hybridized and we feel it but cannot name it. The epiphany will come from Innsmouth…of that we all seem certain.

What we have to realize is that the train came off the rails with the hand-over-fist American publishing boom of the 1980’s. We buried the essays and drowned the voices of the early genre writers with a flood of new writers seeking careers in storytelling. Certainly a peek at all of the financial reasons is self-explanatory, but only a handful of thoughtful editors who placed important Critical writings and author commentary in the front matter and endpapers of classic collections of the genre kept our history from completely going dark. When we began to follow the Pied Piper and call the genre Horror, we ceased to see what else it might have been.

Weird Heroes: the Literary Critic

Now we are scraping all of these commentaries together, and our first Literary Critics are having the task of sorting out exactly where the genre was heading before the boom of reading, writing, and publishing that inflated the 1980’s into a wanton writer’s market. As already stated, prior to that time Horror had been addressed by many other names, and had already established a long and tumultuous history of impoverished writers condemned for their artistic choices.

When the emergence of the mass market paperback created the explosion of affordable fiction which seeded the Horror boom, it also created a generation of readers who knew the genre by one name only: Horror. For most of us, “Weird” as a term has no traction in our memories, and there is no clear understanding in our composition of contemporary writing. We are Horror writers, we say… and isn’t “Weird” just a synonym for “strange?”

Mieville 2

This is where newer writers need the Literary Critic – or at least those with Critical analytic capabilities such as writer and Critic China Mieville – who can help put our socks on straight. Mieville not only helps us greatly by reminding us that the “invention” of the tentacle heavily influences the texture of what should be considered Weird, but that “Weird fiction [shares] with Surrealism a conception of modern, orderly, scientific rationality that [is] in fact saturated with the uncanny.”(Mieville  xiii)

Our hackneyed understanding of the Weird has now spilled into our own interpretations of what we are trying to write, or think we are writing. It is presenting a problem for some Critics, who themselves are trying to unravel a clear understanding of what the effective Weird was and now find themselves awash in what some writers are calling Weird fiction that appears to be not. And sometimes it is when something is diluted that the pure solution becomes more obvious.

The more Critics look at the original writings and writers of the Weird, the bigger, more viable its legitimate core seems to get…So much so, that some are starting to propose that Weird fiction encapsulates Horror, and not the other way around.

Asserts S.T. Joshi, “Strictly speaking I regard ‘horror’ as a subset of the weird, since fantasy of the Dunsany or Tolkien type is just as much a branch of weird fiction as any other, and ‘horror’ itself must be subdivided into supernatural and nonsupernatural horror” (Joshi-Modern Weird 3). For Joshi, the impervious structure needed to provide a broad foundation for subgenres is already fractured when attempting to apply the name “Horror” to the whole genre – a Critical sign that it cannot be the parent of Weird offspring and is therefore not the correct name to use.

Mieville proposes that “Traditionally, genre horror is concerned with the irruption of dreadful forces into a comforting status quo—one which the protagonists frantically scrabble to preserve. By contrast, Lovecraft’s horror [Lovecraft being the towering genius among those writers of fantastic fiction for whom plot is simply not the point] is not one of intrusion but realization.” (Mieville xii-xiii)

While Mieville’s description of the Weird simply seems to differentiate between what we perceive as Horror and what we experience as the Weird, he actually has something in common with Joshi. It is important to note that like Joshi’s interpretation, in Mieville’s look at the two in the context of a Horror versus Weird as genre argument, it is again the Weird that provides greater Literary foundation which seems more potent and Literarily promising than any singular assemblage of the moving parts of Horror.

This is not to say that sometimes the argument for Weird as a more likely independent and Literary genre doesn’t get – well – weird…

Another – and I find odd – part of this dissatisfaction with the term “Horror” is encapsulated by Joshi’s exasperated question, “What other mode of writing is designated by an emotion?” As Joshi interprets it, “horror” is a term rendered even more inadequate for him as a Critic because “The term ‘horror’ also suggests” – and he emphasizes – “(falsely, to my mind) that the arousal of fear is somehow the prime concern of weird writing” instead of the more Literary depiction of world view. (Joshi-The Modern Weird 3)

Never mind that Lovecraft himself went down this path…

I find that this part of the argument against the term “Horror” implies that the word “Horror” as applied to genre involves only the emotion of fear and not its cousins – dread, discomfort, disturbance, disgust. I find that both Horror AND Weird fiction has some of those elements on a regular basis (as apparently does Mieville (“Lovecraft’s stories …move tightly and precisely, evoking growing foreboding…aggregating a sense of dread and awe” (xii)) – and those adjectives are especially evident in the descriptions used to define cosmic horrors and human failures. So while I empathize with Joshi on this point, I do not agree with him. I do agree with Joshi, however, that the intrusion of “world view” in Weird fiction is of Literary blood, and is an important point in establishing the criteria that would define Weird fiction as a genre/subgenre.

For Literary Critics, this relevance to bigger things – to the real issues that shape and affect humanity – is what defines Literature. And as such, it is the bread crumb trail that helps identify when something in genre writing is bigger than genre. It is most certainly there in the Weird. But is Literature always the biological parent? Or might the parent be a gangly, disproportioned and lovingly awkward mutt?

With so much confusion and overlap of genre and subgenre, the muddle of terms, Joshi admits with considerable exasperation: “I do not know what one is to do about this whole issue.” However just because a matter is entangled by centuries of amateur theories does not mean it should not be UN-entangled….clarified….and committed to. And Joshi himself cannot seem to let it go, because the question and argument of which came first haunts all of his work on Criticism in our genre.

So while I do not agree that “Horror” being an emotion disqualifies it from being a genre name, I do agree with Mr. Joshi that study and discussion of this messy subject is necessary to sort it all out. And I agree that if Literary Critics can do so with legitimate theoretical reasons for creating a better terminology for the genre, then it should be done. We may all have our preferences, but the truth of the matter is that until we settle on terms and definitions, we cannot present arguments or press works through Critical Theories.

And Critical Theory is how we get canon.

Deciding what we call ourselves may seem a moot point, but for Critics, the name of the structural tree from which we hang our Literature does matter. And it should matter to us as writers, so we can be certain we are delivering the goods to our readers, and making conscious choices about the quality and creative direction of our fiction.

Like the new Literary Critic, we need to revisit the discussion that was in play during the time of Lovecraft… Because if we are to argue the Literary merits of the genre, we have to start thinking more like the Literary Critic and that means we must be looking at what we write and where it falls on the scale of genre definitions. And that means we must not be adverse to the reordering of terms and conventions.

It’s time to go there… and due to the length of the discussion, we will in the succeeding post.

 

References

Joshi, S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, c2001.

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction (the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. New York: Hippocampus Press, c2012, 2014.

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction (From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century. New York, Hippocampus Press, c2012.

Joshi, S.T. The Weird Tale. Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, c1990.

Mieville, China. “Introduction.” At The Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. New York: the Modern Library, c2005.

Montague, Charlotte. H.P. Lovecraft:the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness. New York: Chartwell Books, c2015.

Montague, Charlotte. Edgar Allan Poe: he Strange Man Standing Deep in the Shadows. New York: Chartwell Books, c2015.

VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff, eds. The Weird: a Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, c2011.

Crisis on the Leng Plateau: the Struggle for the Soul of American Horror


Maybe it’s Lovecraft’s fault… After all, he did it so well.

But lately I figure somewhere there must be an explanation as to why in contemporary American Horror, the weakest point of the story tends to be the monster. I’ve fallen for blurbs, for cover art, for Famous Horror Writer recommendations. Yet time and again the monster just isn’t scary, or eerie, or haunting. If I come away with any manner of emotional displacement, the author (or the concept) tends to be from an earlier period of Horror history, or not to be American at all.

Could it be that we are so excited about what we hope to write that we forget WHAT we are writing? Are we that ignorant of our own genre history? Is it possible that we don’t even know what genre writing is anymore?

Monsters – By ANY Other Name

The genre of Horror has actual history… it has a bloodline and a marked route of exploration and developmental growth. During its earlier years when the term “Gothic” or “ghost story” would no longer adequately encompass what was being written, writers and editors and publishers began calling what was being produced by new and confusing names – Supernatural Fiction, Spectral Fiction, Strange tales, Weird tales, Terror, and Horror.

True to form, everyone had a different interpretation of definitions and definition boundaries even then. And this confusion continues a bit to this day, but now more in the Critical quarter – because remember that it is the Literary Critic whose job it is to decide how to categorize Literature for the sake of Literary analysis. And we now have actual Critics in our genre corner…

With changing times, the former discourse between writers of subgenre fiction seems broken, its writers (new and seasoned) now scattered about in genre isolation with less publication venues to offer dedicated subgenre havens, fewer informed editors and actual examples of subgenre fiction. So the rest of us just tend to pronounce ourselves as writing this or that with no real forethought or thorough Literary understanding of the definitions we use.

But today we are blessed to have S.T. Joshi and China Mieville in our genre corner. And it is the coming of these two Literary Critics that has lifted our genre from the stage of Literary argument (is Horror Literature) to the stage of Literary analysis (which Horror is Literature and why). Of the two, I find the most useful published Criticism by S.T. Joshi (although I really would like to see something more and intense by Mieville). And it is Joshi who has started me thinking – well, Weird.

As part of his job as a Critic, and one of the first in our genre, Joshi has taken the necessary step of attempting to tackle the definitions of genre and subgenre work in Horror and to nail them down. In his book The Weird Tale, he takes the opportunity to present an argument to clarify his rationale for chosen categories in the genre, and to open the discussion on how the genre should be Literarily argued. What is exceptional here, is Mr. Joshi’s attempt to include the modern Horror reader and writers in this discussion.

He does not “talk down” to genre fans and writers; he simply explains how he sees the parsing of the genre for Literary analysis and –most importantly – why he believes his rationalizations are either correct or ripe for discussion. Yet isn’t it awkward that most of us have no idea what Joshi is talking about? Or know that he is talking? This ignorance of our own literary progression has left our imaginations (replete with monsters) high centered on a plateau of mediocre fiction…a Leng Plateau…

I’m saying that the reason we don’t know is exactly why our monsters are in crisis, why our writing has lost its authoritative voice, why the British seem to have a strong sense of place in their fiction and we seem to be nomads. We have disconnected with the past; we are balloon writers floating above the plains of Leng…

It is also why we have lost our Horror section.

We have allowed ourselves as writers (sadly, sometimes innocently enough) to be led by the public, by publishers’ guesstimates of what the public wants, by editors who might be coerced into finding the next Stephen King instead of the next genre-changer. Worse, we have allowed ourselves to be led by the promise of Hollywood and merchandising. We have committed the greatest sin in Lovecraft’s eyes: writing for money…

Okay, so let’s be clear: Lovecraft desired publication, he submitted stories, he was occasionally paid for them, he lived off an inheritance and a wife as long as he could, then was reduced to editing other authors for a living. Lovecraft was not saying he was against publication. He was saying one doesn’t change the story to get it published. He was saying a writer needs to pursue the higher art offered by the story, no matter how many rejections that equates to; that a writer should be true to his or her vision. In this case, he is firmly in alignment with the Literary Critic.

Yet how many of us actually have cultivated a vision for our writing? How many of us think in terms of legacy instead of simple solvency?

The problem is, no one is out there teaching us about the history and mechanics of Horror. No one except our very own Critics right now. We need to read them. We have artistic decisions to make.

Golden Age writers knew what they were writing, where it could find an audience, what publications were their choices… Today, we just write, and submit to any publication that we can find. Most of us cannot categorize ourselves, let alone our fiction, because to categorize our work would be to narrow our choices, our sense of opportunity.

Example: I recently visited a website for a regional writer’s group, looking for Horror writers. What I found was the comment “is willing to write Horror.” WILLING to write Horror?! Where is the writer who unabashedly is PROUD to write Horror?

Sometimes I think we lost our own section in Horror because many of us have lost the understanding of what we are intending to write. And marketing departments are only too happy to pronounce the demise of genre writing.

So why does the very thought cause us an instinctive knee-jerk reaction? Is it because the meandering away from genre conventions is an accidental misstep and that we never meant to abandon genre? Yet is that also why our monsters have lost their teeth and grown human appendages where tentacles should be? Do we know how to get back into formula?

My Weird Tales Epiphany

Maybe it’s time we listened to our elders – the genre greats who started a conversation that just seemed to evaporate in the 1990’s altogether, and which has been resuscitated in part by S.T. Joshi. Have we forgotten the rabid dedication many authors and editors once had to the argument over terms and subgenres?

Today if a writer doesn’t research the genre personally or trip over key essays chances are he or she just hasn’t a clue what has gone before and where we are now. For instance, since the genre began to grow in popularity in the 1930’s and 1940’s, there have been arguers and defenders of the usage of the terms Horror, Terror, Supernatural, Strange and Weird to define the many types of writing we may do.

Did you even know that there has been an internal unrest about what our genre should in fact be calling itself for quite some time?

This is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Because if you write Horror, you are on the battlefield up to your Muse. Shouldn’t you be at least aware of your place in the tradition? The British (our main competitors) seem ever to be…

While a large part of writing – most specifically drafting – is drenched in magic and mystery and wonder, in the end we need to know as ­authors of a story exactly what we are trying to say. Then we need to revise to be sure we are saying it. Only then can we be certain that the genre is worthy of its name – whichever one is ultimately chosen.

The name “Horror” has taken a beating for a while now. It and “Terror” in its turn has been commandeered by current events to the point that many are reluctant to use it. It has driven genre fans in droves back to more “antiquated” terms like “Weird” and “Strange” to defend and salvage the genre. But I think we shouldn’t be letting “world events” distort our genre to that effect. I think the conversation of what we are writing is germane to what we choose to call it. And I don’t think we can call it something if we don’t know the definitions of those terms.

Horror itself has been keelhauled for being an emotion. Why, ask its detractors, do we want to name our genre with an emotion when almost all other genres are described by nouns or adjectives? I believe that the word – emotion or not – encompasses all that the genre tries to inflict upon the reader – an emotional response. In that capacity, it is like Thrillers, Suspense, and Romance. It is asking the brain to explore dark corners, to revisit the primal place of fear, terror, revulsion, disgust, dread – you know – horror.

But some genre experts (those who have duly earned their stripes as writers, editors, and Critics of the genre) sometimes feel otherwise, that Horror is more about gore and dismemberment – fear of our fellow man or human-ness than that which merely disturbs. They will argue for other terms – like Weird. I’m thinking we are arguing over semantics here, over connotation and denotation... But what is important is agreeing on what our genre is and should be called, what its conventions and formulas should include or exclude. There should not be any question in a writer’s mind.

Enter S.T. Joshi, Literary Critic and the best friend Horror has in Literature right now. Joshi, perhaps the world’s greatest contemporary expert on all things H.P. Lovecraft, has embraced the Weird. Like his object of research, he has come to believe that Horror is more a subgenre of Weird fiction than the other way around. And he uses Lovecraft to explain why. Whereas according to Lovecraft “The crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen” (Joshi 6), Joshi states, “I begin my own study with a rather odd assertion: the weird tale, in the period … (generally 1880 -1940) did not (and perhaps does not now) exist as a genre but as the consequence of a world view…” [his emphasis] (xiii).

Most assuredly, that is the Literary Critic in Joshi talking… because it is the presence, the omniscience of a world view that elevates a work from genre to Literature. And if Weird fiction is more commonly Literature than average Horror fiction, then is it not the tree from which the apple falls?

You can see how quickly this conversation becomes interesting and relevant to all genre writers and fans. It is why Joshi has put his work out there. Discussion is the key to movement… to breathing life into the Critical process.

But it is also integral to creating new Lovecrafts. We all have to be on the same page. And at a time when we seem to have lost our national genre compass, shouldn’t we get on board with this very basic Critical idea – the naming of parts, the re-establishment of genre, the enforcement of boundaries and celebrating rebellions against the very same? How else can we commit to writing a story we can encapsulate with a category name if we don’t know the terms of surrender?

Believe it or not, many of us as Horror writers have never really considered this, and it may be the deserving reason we get rejected.

Here’s a thought based on that statement: to elevate a story beyond the genre, to be genre-changing we must first be able to write genre.

Can you? Can you structure a monster based on a subgenre? Do you know what that means? I am not so sure we do, because I don’t see any establishment figures laying out the formula they claim is criteria. I see allusions to formula, partial lists of conventions, scattered tropes…I do not see a book or website or rule guide dedicated to defining the genre as only this and never that. A writer should not have to piece genre formula together like a quilt, over decades of rejections and gleaning gems from essays and editorial forwards and interviews. Yet only the subgenres of Weird (pardon me for the classification liberty) and ghost story/Spectral fiction have easIER guidlelines to find…

Editors have pronounced themselves too busy. Universities are teaching and preaching against genre. Workshops are a gamble, writers groups may “accept” but don’t generally specialize in genre writing, how-to’s have Gone Hollywood. What’s a genre purist to do?

If you want technical assistance, you need a Critic: read Joshi.

If you want written examples, read Golden Age genre writers – read Weird Tales from the day.

That’s right. Under the scales and leathery wings of the greatest of all Literary Horror monsters (Horror being the overarching term I am predisposed to), beats a heart of pulp.

Get thee to a collection of early Weird Tales… I recently found a copy at a used book shop, one edited by famed genre editor Marvin Kaye, who back in the 1990’s also edited several anthologies of the subgenres including Terror, the Supernatural, the Unknown, Ghosts, Witches, Devils and Demons… I remembered having read many of the stories when I was a kid, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. I assumed I would read them, smile in remembrance, and move on.

Wrong.

I was awed. Stunned. My imagination was RE-filled with the passion that started my love affair with the Horror genre. How did we lose this? I wondered aloud. How did we lose this awesome ability to tell tales that in mere pages can keep us up and night and hungering for more?

Is it because authors in those days had a bevy of magazines whose “bar” was set a bit lower to acquiring and keeping a basic readership – not set to making an author’s or an editor’s Big Break, not set to doubling its subscription base annually or it is a “business failure,” not reliant on burying writing among ads just to stay in print… not set to the equivalent of tossing a bottle out on the ocean so it could be “discovered in its excellence” by the masses who would theoretically spend lavishly to keep it on the internet ocean?

Is it because it was “just pulp” and not overreaching to call itself high Literature, its writers happy to just spill its monsters into cheap prose to see what else might hatch? Is it because no matter how poorly writers were paid, writers could by being prolific, actually make a poor living doing it?

Who knows? But those very circumstances led to some of the absolute greatest writing of our genre – some of it now admittedly Literature…

It also inspired contemporary writers – like Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell – our current models of success with totally different styles. It set the standard for Horror in Literature by revisiting Poe and Lovecraft, Machen and Blackwood, Dunsany and Bierce. It made all of us want to be Horror writers…

Calling Central Casting

To perform at our best, to exercise the boundaries of genre and flirt with the meaning and power of Literature, we cannot be trying to manipulate our fiction so Hollywood can use it. We cannot be motivated by fame and fortune. We cannot allow ourselves to be told we either “write for Hollywood or for Critics.”

It’s not about starving. It’s about producing ART, not mass producing drivel. Because if that is what we are teaching ourselves to write, then we roundly deserve the stinging criticisms of editors and Critics. We are rolling our monsters out on a rack time after time and expecting a different result.

Stop the insanity!

We need to write for ourselves. For our genre. For our audience.

When you read fiction written for you, there is no doubt; you are sitting next to the campfire, the storyteller is looking at you right in the eye, and the monster is drooling just at the edge of the darkness. You can feel his breath on your neck, imagine his fangs tearing at your flesh…and anything is possible…even the impossible.

So are you writing Weird or Horror fiction? Or are you perhaps writing in the subgenre of Terror or Strange tales?

And if you don’t know, shouldn’t you be finding out? Because right now our monsters are suffering from a clear identity crisis. We don’t seem able to write them without it looking like we are attempting a parody or poking fun. American monsters leap, crawl, and ooze onto our literary theater with the impact of a stage magician pulling a very tired old rabbit out of the hat. We have lost something besides the element of surprise.

Surprise! Storytelling is an art that has its own rules. I say again…look at pulp.

Stories fail for so many different reasons. They should not be failing because we glimpse the monster, or we rolled him out on a rack. That should be a moment of pure Terror. Horror. Weirdness. FEAR.

Surely, we can still manage that…

 

References

Joshi, S.T. The Weird Tale. Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, c 1990.

Montague, Charlotte. H.P. Lovecraft:the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness. New York: Chartwell Books, c2015.

Weird Tales. Marvin Kaye, ed. New York: Barnes and Noble, c1988.

Recommended Websites:

Weird site: http://greydogtales.com/blog/?p=1336

Horror site: http://www.thisishorror.co.uk/category/columns/