The Witch: What a Bookless Film Teaches Us About Writing in Our Own Genre


You might not have noticed, but one of the more critically acclaimed Horror movies that you didn’t hear much of not long ago hit DVD/Bluray release. The Witch, a 2016 debut from Robert Eggers, came at us from the Sundance Film Festival. And it came bookless – without fanfare, and without the promise of a sequel.

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Yet in theaters and in DVD stores, the film has failed to ignite, the sales not so stellar.

Why do Critics and some fans give this film the highest of marks, when it does not resemble what we have come to expect from “successful” Horror films? And specifically, if you have watched it and did not feel affected, why not?

The answer would be because this film is not conventional Horror: it is about Horror – it is how Literary Horror looks when filmmakers understand the importance of punctuating their plots with something deeper than splashy effects. This is an important lesson for writers of Horror to understand…Because even if you choose to write in-genre and somewhat pulpy fiction, you need to grasp just how to utilize words, setting, symbols, and psychological effects and then be able to deftly select from a smorgasbord of actual history, folklore, superstition, and disease (social and literal) to better enhance your Horror – to layer it in the intent of getting under the skin like a parasite. It’s why films like Insidious (the first one) worked where the plot and acting was less dimensional – there it is the imagery and the suggestions it makes to our subconscious that delivers the shivers. But it is also why so much 1980’s Horror worked – why Classic Horror still works…

When these ingredients are properly combined, films like The Witch, The Exorcist and The Birds result. The reliance on jump scares may still be present, but they are to a much lesser degree – relying instead on the direct connection to the personal fears of human beings – whether it is the reality of the Devil and his army of demons, or a preternatural and unsettling unification of nature against humanity.

In The Witch, there are pretty strong references to fear, terror and real Horror the way most of us imagine it. Yet a large chunk of our audience – the Horror audience – was unimpressed. Indeed, the reviews aren’t particularly stellar – especially among movie-goers and subsequently – Horror fans: according to film review site Rotten Tomatoes, only 55% of viewers liked it. But 91% of Critics did. Why the point spread? And what does this say about our genre?

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Tricks Are For Kids, Silly Rabbit

One of the first clues is the subtitle “A Folk Tale.” This film unabashedly shows its lineage to the viewer. For a murky, moody tale surrounding the Salem witch trials, it is not about the Salem witch trials – but the atmosphere created by the paranoia and dread such rampant fear invokes. Nested within rests the possibility, the suggestion that witchcraft and its consequences are real…the extension of which is the possibility that for the witch, perhaps not all is as it is promised.

We forget that the time period in question birthed the phrase “witch hunt” – a frenzied, irrational attack on anyone unfortunate enough to warrant a finger-point, whose differences or poor luck or gender was enough to justify their own persecution, torture, and death. But we also forget that tucked neatly away within our own religion are warnings about such fraternization with things unseen, with the dangers of envy, the vulnerability of being faithless.

We also forget that caught in the middle of such historical moments are real people, fearing that their own reactions or behaviors – however innocent –might be misinterpreted, costing whole families everything. We forget how easy it was to acquiesce to the momentum of the moment rather than take a risk, to see that the price of loyalty might well be one’s own life. We forget – especially today and in this country – what it is to fear the accusation of another that leads directly to death.

This is the importance of history, and of this specific time in our history. Because if we don’t see the mistakes that were made, we cannot prevent their cousins from rising as specters in the future.

And yet we have already managed to forget.

We make light of witches, even as our unpalatable history rests intact in Salem, Massachusetts. We amuse ourselves with the idea that our ancestors were simply superstitious, gullible, ignorant – not enlightened like ourselves.

We also make light of witchcraft, chiding ourselves into believing that if we play at it, we might be in charge of pre-selected consequences; we might dabble, be amazed, and then escape. Yet such is warned against in all religions; because in all religions are unwritten rules, forgotten wisdom, hidden Horrors. And the greatest Horror of all is not that one would be detected, persecuted and put to death… but that any such engagements might carry extenuating clauses in their contracts – ones that call for sacrifice of those loved other than the self.

But bad things, if they happen, happen to others. And we are all pretty certain sitting under our electric lights, that it is all superstition anyway.

Is that why we can sit disaffected by such a film as The Witch?

Indeed, much of our own religion today minimizes the possibility of the supernatural, the reality of a witch, or a ghost or a demon – all while handing us biblical verses mentioning those very possibilities. We have separated ourselves from those passages, determined to make them “symbolic” or “parables” or “metaphors.”

This film asks what if they are not? What if they are more – be it in the mind or the making?

Primitive humanity has always allowed for the unseen. And perhaps that is the problem: we seek to disavow our primal fears from our new, glossy, sciencey selves.

It’s why so many viewers might have missed the symbolism of the rabbit. To get it… to let ourselves be made very afraid we have to engage the folklore that might have its origins in very primitive truths.

While modern Horror fans are conditioned like Pavlov’s Dogs to quiver at vampire love and laugh at the startled scream after a scary face leaps from the dark of the theater, real terror – real fear – has more to do with things not-seen and things once seen that cannot be unseen…things that follow you because you saw them.

Tricks are for kids. The thing that wants your soul has something else in its toolbag. And it hides those things in the ordinary.

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The Devil In the Details

If you’ve ever had a bout of the Serious Superstitious, you know that once that roller coaster ride gets started, danger is everywhere. This means that whether you are writing Horror or watching it on the Big Screen, it is important to provide layer after layer of detail. Accurate detail. The imagination cannot be allowed to escape, to dismiss the entity come for you because the scroll saw marks are on the wood of the clapboards.

This is how The Witch ensnares the wary, the skeptical, the Modern Human. The senses are so burdened by detail, by the weight of the period the viewer can almost smell the farm animals, the sweat, the decay of crops, the whiff of goat.

This is not the same dark forest of Hollywood, but the thick tangle of copse and ravine that cradle our folk and fairy lore – the ones that left their echoes outside our safe houses, in the skeletal, wet-black branch that claws at our windows in a storm, that still lives as a microcosm in our National Parks, and spills forth from children’s book illustrations. This is the dark wood our ancestors walked and succumbed to… a wood where death happens, and where a scream goes unheard and unanswered.

If you have never had the privilege of walking in a natural wood, you cannot imagine the depth of the darkness, the ease of disorientation, the uncanny sense of being watched… or stalked. Nor can you appreciate the stories of our folk heritage that came from such a place, the legitimacy that wilderness gives them.

Yet it is why we tore down the woods, killed the wolves and the bears, and planted our tame crops to feed our domesticated animals to ourselves. It’s how we beat The Witch… we tore down her temple.

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We hung our pictures of blond Jesus, and separated ourselves from all but the most sacred of miracles, we philosophized Hell, and electrocuted our ghosts.

Yet. What if? What if even some part of the parable were true?

This is how we build great prose. This is how the Horror classics still terrify. When we read classic Horror, we allow ourselves to identify with and in a sense become the character whose very times and place are darker and more indistinct than our own. We suspend our belief and accept that of the character.

Modern presentation of character and scene are not the same. The character goes into a house…a modern house, just like all the others. There is no depth of description because it has become a stage set upon which the all-important action will occur. Yet it is anticipation of action that equates to dread. Those moments of anticipation are laced with the observations made by the mind – the analysis of shadow, the assessment of danger, the awareness of the rise of adrenaline, the shakiness in the legs and hands. All of that is dependent on detail.

So much detail. Like the tangles of knots in Celtic design meant to entrap the curiousity of fairies, rendering them harmless…the writer or filmmaker must overload the senses for mistakes and miscalculations to be made. We have to be ensnared. For that, we have to be persuaded to believe.

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Bookless, She Came From the Woods to Terrify Us All

I find it wonderful that this film comes without a book or promise of sequel. It is a folktale – a warning, a tale of caution.

There is so much here for the writer to learn from another artist’s medium. This is storytelling. At no moment does the viewer not feel the connection being made to much older stories – actual accounts of such things being used by Eggers to fortify his imagery. In this film, the story is firmly rooted in Horror tradition, in folktale tradition, in fairytale tradition… yet it is no also-ran. It is an outgrowth, another link in the chain of evidence of such storytelling. It is a modern rendition of the folktale told using the harsh and vulnerable times of Colonial America to do so.

This is a lesson in how to build on tradition in the way the British have managed… This is what has been so lacking in contemporary American Horror.

If a writer is willing to really watch this film, there are important lessons here about story-telling and the best delivery method for Horror: the primal one already there, just under the skin, just under the surface – the one that creates surface tension like the skin on water.

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This is not your ordinary night at the campfire, but the slowly unfolding tale of all that goes unforgivably wrong in human interaction and hides somewhere between deceit and coincidence. It is about failure, and desperation, and need for answers. It is about the things that hear you in your darkest moments and most hopeless prayers. It is about choices and faith and the relentless stalk of the predator upon the alleged innocent.

It is also about how we look at misfortune, how we primitively expect good behavior to be rewarded with all manner of blessings: how we seek to lay blame and accusation to rationalize and rebalance…Life. And then it is about how far we will all go to restore the balance – to re-conjure our own illusions about ourselves. How quickly do we turn… Such is the makings of some of the world’s greatest Literature – the rationalizations for so many oppressions and genocides and wars, for exploiting children and locking up women, for labelling people criminals and fanatics and less equal, for silencing whole generations and rewriting history… for hunting, trying, and burning witches.

That which does not or cannot conform is a threat to our theory of how the world works. Therein resides the deepest of human Horrors pressed out of the fabric of our secret fears.

Sometimes you have to sneak up on an audience, dragging them deep into the imagery of their own making… to hold up mirrors. This is why The Witch works for some and not others: some are afraid to see what else is reflected in the glass, to allow it out…

Critics love this film because so many layers offer so many interpretations of what the film symbolizes: the role of the nonexistent apple tree and its connection to original sin, the questions about faith and afterlife and coming of age of our nation, the nod to the dark ages of superstition coiled in the body of a recurring rabbit.

But there is so much more for the Horror fan, should he or she be willing to admit that the contemporary explosion in jump-scare Horror and found footage is a phase. Sure, such films are great for grabbing your significant other or reasonable facsimile in the theater; they are a summertime blast.

But do you really want to be scared? Exorcist-scared?

Then you’ll have to let go of the bar. Because Horror is bigger than flashlights under the chin.

Horror is about the Big Questions that unsettle us all.

You have to be willing to ask yourself just how much of the real world is real, and how much is illusion. You might even have to wonder about life and death and what comes after, that if it is anything at all, there may be players in the game you cannot see and whose motivations you cannot sate or outmaneuver.

You might have to admit that we live at the mercy of others and the luck of fate, that we may have success or long life because we managed to avoid the notice of Others.

They say that most Horror writers do not believe in what they write about. Perhaps this is so. But I tend to think that at our very primal core, none of us is sure. We live according to our theories, and sometimes we think that the supernatural is a fun place in which to scare ourselves silly.

But if you really want to scare your audience or be scared with the audience, you have to be willing to surrender your talismans and amulets. You have to turn out the lights. You have to go naked into the forest, to wonder if you would have the courage to accept a terrifying death and be lost to the world, or whether you would be just curious enough – just innocent enough – to stray into the darkness and expect to outsmart what lies coiled there.

In the film, the protagonist is asked if she would like “to see the world, to live life deliciously”… What is most telling is how the audience wants her to say yes…even having glimpsed the hellish truth of the misery that drives the witch of the wood just to keep young and potent. Is the protagonist Eve, or ourselves?

We are never told what conditions await the signatory of such a contract with the devil. We are too busy imagining what the offer means, too busy justifying the needs and subsequent choices being made. And in the end we are left to wonder about our own roles and choices in the world.

We are left to wonder what this creature is, this Witch.

Is she us – bargaining away the lives and fortunes of others so that we might live the way we believe we are entitled to?

Have we mistaken desire for need for so long that we don’t want to know what happened to the baby, and we don’t see the tears behind the laughter as our protagonist is lifted in flight?

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Do we not care about the coworker we volunteered for lay-off, or the civilians caught in the crossfire of our wars? And isn’t that the Horror?

A lot has been said about The Witch as one of the genre’s best offerings in decades. A lot of Horror fans apparently don’t agree.

What I find unfortunate, is that this could mean we are not-seeing exactly what makes the Horror genre great: its ability to take the mundane, the everyday, the culture of contemporary society, and make it monstrous.

It could mean a percentage of Horror fans don’t want to think about why they might be afraid of something: they just want a good time.

Those are the Horror fans who will probably age out of the genre.

Because what stays with you in Horror is the stuff you can’t get out of your head…. And I’m not talking about old lady butts (of which I have one and it does indeed get scarier every day, but it is not Horror Mr. Shyamalan).

I am talking about the contracts we make every day with the devil… about that darker unknown that lurks in the woods of our minds, that fails us when we should have been better, and that eats our flesh and bargains our souls for a few more seconds of youth.

Horror is about the real world and the many things that crouch within it. It is about the long, patient stalk of a predator, and sometimes, about dying well. It is about what makes itself known when we are at our most vulnerable.

When it combines well with an audience educated in all of its nuances, such a story – whether on film or between two covers – is received like Hitchcock or Poe. But the catch is this: if we lose and continue to lose our connection to real life, then we are losing our Horror vocabularythe most valuable tool in our storytelling arsenal.

As writers we are unable to convey what raises the goosebumps on our own skins, to name the Horror – to conjure it behind the eyes of our audience. Nothing resonates because nothing is there. This is exactly how we have come to this place in Horror where nothing – and I mean nothing – is scary enough.

Without a shared vocabulary that includes an understanding of humanity and a willingness to be led virtually anywhere in our torrid and shameful human history, film goers and book readers will simply not get it… and Horror will continue to descend into less-scary, less meaningful works that currently mirror the two dimensions of what we have come to see as “normal” – and worseto consider as acceptable work in our genre.

If you want to write effective Horror, this means you will have to get your hands dirty. You need to crawl into that cave and summon spirits. You need accuracy and detail and the ability to overwhelm the needs of your audience. That means you need to understand where we come from – that very primal place where so many unlikeable things are possible, and happy endings do not come from stories with witches in them.

You need to story-tell. And that means first, you have to listen.

So pull up a bearskin. Study folklore and fairy tales. Tell ghost stories. Ponder those warnings in the Scriptures and other Holy Books. And watch The Witch… Let your mind slowly take in all in… And then watch it again.

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Are You Keeping a Crawling Eye on the Print Industry? A Bookseller’s Lament


Complacency. This is what – if anything – will kill print.

People who leave it up to other people to purchase books in hard copy, to frequent brick and mortar stores of any product while patting themselves on the back for “saving” money need to wise up. The entire retail landscape is under fire. You now have to drive further, pay more, and find less for any product – including books.

This is not a “sign of the times.” It is an orchestrated effort to rearrange the retail market into a handful of distribution outlets that feed the pockets of wealthy individuals whose ideas of enlightenment include the replacement of workers with robots because “they never get sick” and “they never take vacations,” as well as the ultimate privilege of determining not only what the public will want to have access to, but what they will be allowed to have access to.

We are living on the cusp of censorship…the Horror Story is yours…

And in truth, some of the earliest and loudest voices of warning came from artists, musicians, and independent bookstores.

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Step One: Divide and Conquer

It is increasingly hard to recall what it was like to venture into the mom-and-pop book or record stores of the past, to see the variety, to taste of the unique personalities that nested there, providing pleasant and integral niches of the labors of the humanities. Fewer still seem to recall the bitter and angry fights that occurred between the rise of the big box stores and small, locally owned ones. But they were there, ripping flesh from bone and real people from real careers even then.

As a shopper I knew it, and left it up to others to save the small stores. I rationalized that the big boxes were more convenient, and enabled my tiny, minimum wage paychecks to buy more deeply discounted books. What I didn’t acknowledge was that if a lot of people thought like me, our collective buying power would strangle small shops to death. What I didn’t consider was that this was part of a battle plan to “do away” with choice and channel profits and editorial power to a bunch of rich non-book people.

But the result was real.

The result was a domino effect of dead independent booksellers, and a transfer of the murderous intent of modern “competition” to destroy all others to a war between the big boxes. Once again I rationalized that I could buy books no other way, and flocked to the cheapest bargains. And then Borders was suddenly and horrifically gone – and it was as though the scales fell from my eyes and I realized what my rationalizations had cost me ultimately.

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Now we live in a retail bookselling environment where the last of the big boxes are struggling, are consolidating territories, reducing inventories, not unwilling – unable – to cut costs any more to stay alive. And the vultures are circling, waving their iPhones in our retail spaces, daring us to price match or they will “go to Amazon.”

Just what do they think Amazon is going to do if and when the big boxes disappear? Let me awaken you, Sleeping Beauty: just because they sell books does not make them book people…

I’m not even sure if they are people people.

Just who exactly do these self-described “savvy shoppers” think took things this far? Non-book people do not care about choice. They care about dictating choice. They care about making money – not to share it, not to “create jobs” but to buy robots and take your last greenback even if it means your future home is under a bridge.

Choice is a freedom, folks. Are you willing to sell it for the savings of a few pennies and free shipping?

This is the exact same argument (simply resuscitated and slightly tweaked) which small bookstores made against the big box bookstores. And we as customers didn’t listen. And now in equal measures, customers come into bookstores and complain loudly about the lack of choice, the missing classics, the critical and growing hole where actual contemporary Literature used to be, the absence of those “fun” sections of cheap mass market genre paperbacks, the invasion of non-book items onto our floors, taking up precious “book space.” Some even wax poetic about the loss of those very same old independent bookstores.

Yet where were they – these very people – when the e-publishing-induced crisis upended the publishing industry and shuttered the doors of dozens of big box competitors to those brick-and-mortars left standing?

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They were elsewhere. Rationalizing. And all the while, the snake in the garden was slithering along… the e-snake…Amazon with all of its tentacles and its great, bulbous, glowing eye…

It’s time to wake up. Because there is still time to save print with all of its ambient, job-creating light, but only if we are willing to rip the e-scales from our eyes and vote with our feet and wallets.

For me, retail has been an education during these times of transition. And here is what it has taught me…

This is Not a Coincidental Evolution: This is a Contrived Assasination

After years of working in retail book sales, one thing is clear: the battle to survive rages on, and far too many eager people with plans to pocket a writer’s profits continue to promote the rumor that the print industry is dead, and the only salvation is online.

But why don’t we really look at that hideous monster? Are we afraid to gaze into that naked eyeball looking back at us and all we can sacrifice in its name?

The tech industry continues to advertise with their deep and diversified pockets that “no one reads anymore” and “print is too costly” and how “economically friendly” e-printing is… Never mind the severe ecological damage of many computer parts tossed into our landfills as opposed to the growing and harvesting of trees, never mind the current push-back of people preferring to own hard copies of books, never mind the threat to vision too much computer-time represents, never mind the consolidation of thousands of middle-class jobs into a handful of exclusively-awarded upper class incomes.

Working in retail book sales, I can tell you honestly that the prediction of the death of print is premature and greatly exaggerated. Yes, the profits are not what they were. Yes, the selection is not what it was. No, the career path is not as clear or certain. However, neither is the future of e-anything.

But there is still a segment of population that never wanted anything else but print books. And there is a new generation of people who are discovering the pleasure of print books. And there is yet another group of people becoming disenchanted with electronics, with hacking, with tech glitches, with unending costs for expiration-date-stamped toys with infinite, expensive upgrades.

Yet the biggest snake in the room is still in the room. (Shhh!!! It’s looking at us….)

The problem is greed. Like anything else, the tech industry is hyper-focused on how to enrich itself. It doesn’t care about the future of books period, nor does its avatars care about the future of writers or artists who spend their lives creating that content. It cares about content that it can acquire for as near to free as possible and sell either at its own profit or giving it away while charging for ever more expensive hardware and upgrades in order to access that allegedly “free” information.

This has been promoted as “good business” or “business savvy.” But what it is, is self-serving greed.

It is industry-killing, job-killing greed.

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It’s time to wake up. If you are a writer or artist, a fan of the product, or a purveyor of either or both, it’s time to put our collective foot down and stop participating in the demise of the middle-class in order to pocket the promises of the elite whose intent to abolish whole industries means the ultimate loss of jobs, careers, education, and even more important – choice.

Part of that is saving brick-and-mortar bookstores. That means going to brick-and-mortar bookstores. And buying books.

Why It Matters/How You Matter

I cannot tell you the publishing industry will return to its former glory days, that writers will write better, and once again it will be safe to become a complacent shopper.

But I can tell you that an increasing number of people come into my store and complain to me (probably because of my age) that they cannot afford to keep upgrading e-book software and hardware, that they cannot figure out what happened to their cloud-saved books or movies or music, that they can’t find something for sale that used to be for sale last week in e-catalogs, that they can’t understand why “timeless classics” in books, movies, or music are not carried in-store and are print-on-demand, that they want to come in and browse items, not see pre-selected “excerpts” of things to decide if they want to make a purchase…

I can tell you that people are starting to realize that their own personal choices are not what they used to be: that instead of an entire writer’s or artist’s catalog, there is only a single title or single “best of” anthology, that their section is less than half of what it was or is gone, that “reviews” are sales-motivated and not true to quality, that items bought online are often badly used or never show up, and that there is no one to ask questions of or discuss books or music or movies with.

But are these realizations happening in time to divest the tentacles from our hag-ridden, tech eyeball-affixed lives?

Can we still change things? I believe the answer is yes – if we do not dally.

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I can tell you that all it takes for brick-and-mortars to blink in this war is a “downturn” in the retail economy (currently around 10% nationwide and across the entire retail landscape), less foot traffic, smaller purchases, and an old threat gotten a lot worse – theft – to change the trajectory of things.

People like me used to think that theft – as an inevitable part of retail – was just another write-off, part of an insurance policy that would keep my favorite stores afloat. But that is only true when theft is marginal. When the loss to theft ratio exceeds sales figures, the corporate hatchet comes out. Something is leaving: sales clerks, product, discounts, departments… perhaps even locations. And currently, brick-and-mortar everything is being hit by thieves in huge, professional numbers.

Many of them steal to resell – wait for it – on the internet. At Amazon’s many marketplace vendors. On Craigslist. At flea markets.

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Bean counters don’t look at the number of sales transactions and say, “we have a healthy gatecount of customers”… They do the math and reconcile the cost of stolen items to profit. They make decisions about item availability based on numbers. Because they are not book people, even when they represent book people.

And thieves are doing so well because so many people are not coming into bookstores, are not buying higher priced items, and brag how they will just “find it cheaper” on the internet.

(No kidding. Let me ponder why those items are cheap…and note, there will be consequences.)

Already we are seeing in the book retail industry a trend that foreshadows what is coming in actual retail choice. CDs, DVD/BluRay, Literary Classics, Indie Press offerings, self-published, and niche-published items are all going to Print-on-Demand. This means now even bookstores cannot order these items into their retail space.

To make things more complicated, brick-and-mortars depend on a kind of cousin of consignment when they acquire product– if things do not sell, they return them for credit and try something else from the same publisher or vendor. With POD items, the product is nonreturnable. And it is also non-vetted, with questionable, uncertain editorial and production quality. These are pay in advance, ship to home offerings only.

This means even less variety, less vouched-for quality, even less choice. But it is one sure way to keep thieves hands off bookstores’ and publishers’ bottom lines. And that makes it attractive, this selling of images of things…

All of this affects the creators of books and film and music and art. It makes for even less places to market their creations, and while perhaps “offering” more control, requires so much more in time to market, promote, and additional costs to edit, assemble, and then to undersell in order to be “competitive” that the “advantage” is really quite obscured by the endless paychecks of the elite few.

 

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How can we reverse this trend of slow strangulation? By purchasing from bookstores – large, small, independent or corporately run… by making an actual physical appearance and literally buying items right there instead of taking a picture of it and purchasing it on Amazon.

We do have to pick our poison, to choose from the many monsters that feed off our work and desires like parasites. But at least the older professions of publishers provided middle-class jobs and a solid market base from which writers could concentrate on writing, and readers could somewhat count on more-truthful blurbs and actual Critical reviews.

And in truth, it is not all bad news… there are signs of life in the small, independent bookstores carving new niches, starting to return in lesser numbers. There are an increasing numbers of independent presses springing up. But the threat to print remains viable. How it plays out will be up to you – the customer.

If you love print (or anything else you want to hold in your hands first), you need to support it right now. Your brick-and-mortar retailers need you… in their stores. Making purchases. Sustaining industries…

You may think you are all right if your choices are all online and you get to choose between vendors for the “best price.” But once brick-and-mortar bookstores are made extinct, your choices will join them in the tar pits. Non-book people have no interest in books. It’s all about them. It’s all about money – theirs.

Is your freedom of choice for sale? Keep in mind real Horror may be the alternative.

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In Search of the Interdimensional Beings of Horror: Where Are Our Writers of Color?


Most of the time, when we read Horror, we are simply looking to be spooked – to be creeped out, to be disturbed. That superficial-ism is largely the damage done by the 1970’s Horror Boom, when we rediscovered how very fun it was to turn out the lights and scare ourselves. I was there, reading and keeping myself awake nights by suspiciously regarding shadows that seemed to move when they should not.

It never occurred to me to look beyond the pages of the books I was reading to the race of the author, or to wonder why minorities – if they appeared at all – appeared primarily as characters in cameos, as early-plot monster-fodder, as the sinister representatives of secret, exotic societies of monster worshippers – but hardly ever as writers.

It simply never occurred to me to wonder why

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It is like minority voices and/or those of people of color belong to some Lovecraftian interdimensional place in undefined space, beings who we cannot see, do not engage with, and cannot relate to except when they reach through that thin veil of our reality to hurt or insult us.

But it also like we have fallen asleep in our own fairy tale.

Hmm…. Perhaps WE are the problem?

No, of course that couldn’t be it; after all, the Publishing Industry has long been telling us why things are inevitably the way things are – because the voices of color “simply aren’t telling stories The Market will bear…”

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“In terms of my own justifications, I find marketing interesting—that’s in Apex Hides the Hurt and John Henry Days. The marketing of culture—how we relate to it, how it finds us—is something that preoccupies me.” Colson Whitehead https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/10/colson-whitehead-on-zombies-zone-one-and-his-love-of-the-vcr/246855/

Oddly, when minority writers turn up writing Horror stories, they are inevitably consigned to the general fiction section, pitted against the whole of Literary Writing as though it has already been decided that minority writers don’t write Horror; therefore minority writers must be Literary instead. So minority-written Horror becomes all about “slumming it” in the genres.

Way to insult the both of us – genre writers and Literary writers. Are we supposed to be jealous or critical of these “outsiders” come to create in our genre? And why is anyone making it matter?

Rest assured, ‘Publishing has its reasons,’ we are informed; most of them dollar-informed reasons.

And indeed, in Publishing there are many arguments made and offered up for why minority writers are not as prominent. For example, we are often told not as many of them are writing. But isn’t that in defiance of where so many of our stories came from?

What are the odds, I wonder… that so many minorities do not produce published writers because the seed of storytelling is not in their genes…

Talk about your fairy tales.

And to brand all minority writers as Literary because they can’t help but write about minority experience which includes any number of fine Literary Theories, is – well – awfully racist sounding.

Are we revising minority voices out of our fiction?

Every culture in the world has stories. Every culture in the world has had them ripped off in some manner or other by modern-day published writers… From The One Thousand and One Nights, to the Aboriginal Dreamtime to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, we have been ripping off campfire stories since Homo Erectus rubbed sticks together.

No, I cannot believe that there are not people of color telling stories meant to be heard, inspired as every writer is by older, traditional tales. Right now, as they always have been.

We are also told that minority writers tend to tell stories that are not-inclusive of the bulk of The Market… But isn’t that in itself the purpose of good writing – to write to and for an audience that is known? To educate the rest?

I mean it seems racist yet again to assume that I as The Market’s pristine representative want to be catered to, and see no merit in “Other” or “Ethnic” writing.

Aren’t writers supposed to speak to an audience they know firsthand and cherish? To provide them with a warm blanket of prose and poetry with which to endure and navigate the world? Pardon you for speaking for me… someone smart enough to recognize that the work in question was not written specifically for me, and here I am the Other, open to giving a story its own space to inhabit…

Furthermore, are Publishers really going to suggest that there aren’t enough minorities to support (at the very least) a healthy niche Market of publishing if They are not as The Market seeks to define Them?

And why is anything in today’s business environment a failure if it at least breaks even or makes a modest profit? And what about all of those sermons to writers about the quality of the work for the good of humanity if Publishers won’t stand behind it, loss accepted?

Then we are told that (just like with our own rejected writing) only the Best find publication – as though we should overlook but subordinate the implication that minority writers tend (like all of us currently rejected) to not be good writers.

But how many really good writers do you commonly encounter who cannot or will not fit the whimsical parameters of a fickle, one-trick-pony Market? Does artistic choice make a writer truly “bad” or “unmarketable”? Or just make The Market and its machinery lazy and unimaginative?

No More Excuses: Now We’re Talking Kids, Futures, and Dreams

We are too often told that their children do not read, and so they do not read as teens and then as adults… therefore, there is no real Market for any of their fiction which may surface, or it is too negligible to finance.

Now this really ticks me off.

And which summons the paradox: do minority children read less, or read less when they discover they are not being invited to participate as readers? And then would they read more if we gave them more relevant stories to read? Would that in turn lead to more adult readers? And fan the already hot teen market?

Clarifies Jonathan Gottschall in his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, “Children the world over delight in stories and start shaping their own pretend worlds as toddlers. Story is so central to the lives of young children that it comes close to defining their existence. What do little kids do? They do story.” (7) And eventually, they do us. So why are we processing writing through a filter of white culture that ignores all others?

And exactly why the heck do we always expect minority children to identify with white characters, and believe it either doesn’t happen or shouldn’t happen the other way around?

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Debbie Weldon/AP http://www.phillyvoice.com/boy-trying-trick-teacher-haircut-goes-viral

“In this Feb. 28, 2017, photo, 5-year-olds Jax, left, and Reddy smile after Jax got a haircut similar to his friend’s at the Great Clips in Louisville, Ky. The story about the two boys and their racial harmony went viral online after Jax told his mother that he wanted to get his haircut like Reddy so that their teacher wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. “

Ah, don’t tell me children don’t get the real story…

But the rumors don’t stop there. They go on to sprout the theory that even if more minorities did write stories, the Market wouldn’t be able to interpret them – laced as they would be with cultural jargon and slang, and life-situations that The Rest of Us simply could not relate to… like Straight Outta Compton, the message would be lost on The Market, with no chance of Recognition or award; that the characters would not be identified with.

But at what point does something become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Wouldn’t it be truly amazing if we could learn something about each other through our art?

And that quickly, we are right back where we started…campfire myths.

Only this time, the Neanderthals are us.

Wake up, Sleeping Beauty.

The Publishing Industry is first an industry: it aims to protect itself by serving a market it perceives to want certain things.

It self-censors…

Maybe it even believes its own manufactured trends…

But it endlessly quotes what it refers to as “Market Demand” or “Public Interest.” Now, part of this is fairly and rightly rooted in a publisher’s need to make money, because making money allows for the payment of authors, artists, printers, editors, warehouse folk, transportation folk, bookstore folk, library folk, etc. But it is also rooted in a very dated idea of just who “The Public” and “The Market” really is….

For example, we hear how “people don’t read print books anymore” and that “people want certain types of books with certain types of heroes – read: stories about white heroes in white cultural situations…

My life has been so full of white people, I never noticed…Worse, I never noticed that people of color had little choice but to read the same…I’d like to think I was too busy reading, but the unavoidable truth is that somewhere in my own egocentrism, I chose to not-see.

And it is past time we started to realize that there is a whole universe of beings out there that we have been relegating to the fringes of our publishing dimension.

And some of them just might be…gods… Perhaps, crusty, cranky ones like Lovecraft’s versions…but perhaps ones whose voices we need to make us tremble in awe…

I look with the eyes of a white child raised in the 1960’s and 1970’s, whose father fought in Vietnam, and who accidentally encountered a Vietnamese-American writer like Violet Kupersmith, only because someone left her book at the desk to be re-shelved… It was Horror – told the old-fashioned way, cloaked in traditional myth and storytelling.

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Her bio: “Her mother’s family fled the country by boat following the communist takeover of Saigon in 1975. Her parents met in Houston, Texas, where her father was a librarian and her mother was living in a convent… Violet attended Mount Holyoke College, where she injured herself many times playing rugby and began writing the ghost stories that would eventually become The Frangipani Hotel.”) http://www.violetkupersmith.com/violet/

I wonder what I am supposed to not-get as a representative of The Market. What was I supposed to resent? Why wasn’t she in my genre? We need voices like hers.

I get it.

I got it.

I loved it.

Like it or not, our world is changing. We are homogenizing, we are beginning to see enough value in each other that color is beginning to fill our families with rich, new cultural diversity. You can rejoice, or move to another planet.

The question becomes:

Are “people” not reading anymore because less people are exclusively living the white experience? Do today’s potential readers want to see themselves in books that are NOT being published?

One has to wonder. Even I wonder… And working in a bookstore, I can testify that yes, it appears that Publishers are right, and our customer base is largely white…

But then who wants to come into a 50,000 square foot bookstore and be directed to one tiny little section devoted to history, or sociology/cultural affairs, or psychicly deduce which writers of the rows of stacks are of a given color, and which of those were “allowed” to depict true characters and real experiences?

Listening to the Flutes and the Chanting

What is blatantly clear to me, nested all comfortable in my Horror genre, is that writers of color – especially in Horror – are excruciatingly hard to find.

From educational disparities, to vacuums of encouragement and mentoring, to “pressure” from the Ivory Tower (pun intended) to congratulate the self on “rising above and never looking back to save the drowning people who will surely overturn the boat,” people of color face unique challenges – additional challenges to being published that those of us in preferred shades of color do not.

And we don’t want to admit it because doing so makes us feel like that much more of a failure for having the advantage and still not getting the job done…

This is a tool our own race uses against us constantly to exploit our own sense of inadequacy, and to keep our heads turned, our noses to the altar stone. We are teased by an implied if not implicit wink and a nod… even as we are rejected. Always it is the fault of …The Market, the one god in this dimension whose whims select but a few for Eternal Fame.

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Daniel José Older photographed by Ashley Ford.

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/daniel-jose-older/

Says Daniel Jose Older in a wonderful essay on the matter titled, “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing”:

“The publishing industry looks a lot like one of those bestselling teenage dystopias: white, and full of people destroying one another to survive.” (238-239)

It’s true: look at how the acolytes of The Market, the would-be priests to the beast, rip apart and publicly dissect even the successes in our industry. Look at the sour grapes and the bitter envy.

Meanwhile, locked outside are writers and readers of color – a whole ‘nother Market…

I don’t tend to think that this is insidiously planned, although I could be wrong. I think we have become insidiously institutionalized to believe that this is the Way Things Are and that Nothing Has Changed. We have been asleep at the wheel , waiting for the kiss of the prince– even if not especially – at the wheel of the Horror Van.

Horror has long been a Literary tool for expressing dissent with the norm, with exposing the horrors of real life by the manufacture and exploitation of monsters. It has been the venue for feminism and civil rights, for truth-telling and condemnation of unacceptable social behaviors. So why have the most powerful voices of those issues been largely silenced or minimalized to the point of pulps and limited interest publications? Why do we label authors and not works? Why do we not trust readers to find the works designed to speak to them?

I can’t help but think this is a self-perpetuated problem inherent to the Publishing industry.

Older continues, “The publishing industry, people often say as if it’s a gigantic revelation, needs to make money and as such, it responds to The Market, and people don’t buy books about characters of color. This is updated marketing code for ‘you people don’t read,’ and its used to justify any number of inexcusable problems in literature…” up to and including commentary such as “The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book…because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover – or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way…” (237)

Older further states that when agents and editors are typically asked what they might do to mend the lack of diversity in publishing, the conversation degrades into a blame-the-victim mentality, deftly managed with comments such as, “the change is going to have to come from within those who are affected” which as Older clarifies, “is the language of privilege – the audacity of standing at the top of the mountain you made on the backs of others and then yelling at people for being on the bottom.” (237-238)

Where publishing argues that people of color do not read, perhaps the substantiating argument is backward. Perhaps people of color would read if there was something out there that they could relate to.

More importantly, why isn’t it important to publishing to inspire people of color to read, to improve reading scores because reading stories that matter to them naturally leads to reading more, more often and better.

We must admit, there is nothing – and I mean nothing – more frightening to white privilege than an articulate, well-read person of color who can aim their vocabulary with laser precision at issues of social concern. But it seems sad to think that this is why “of 3,200 children’s books published in2013, just 93 were about black people according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Books Center at the University of Wisconsin.” (236)

And yet if the question is occurring to me, I have to wonder what people of color are thinking…

So how do we fix this…really fix this?

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http://www.azquotes.com/author/44523-Judith_Ortiz_Cofer

Dimensions Are Right Next Door

Unfortunately, the editors and agents may be mostly right. Change will have to start with writers of color, and the motivations of their intended audience. But they are wrong to think it stops there.

It stops with US. It stops when we don’t see the potential rising right in front of us and give it a chance.

In an essay by Laura Tohe titled “The Stories From Which I Come,” we see how what we start in the classroom is framed by Publishing choices. Tohe states:

“In the early 1960’s I didn’t read indigenous writers; I didn’t know any existed. Every day at reading time, out came the further monotony of Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot…Hearing and reading stories in English regularly, I thought only non-Indians were writers or could be, even though when I was twelve, I secretly longed to be a writer. What stories could I tell? Who would be interested in my stories? How does one become a writer? Instead I told my parents I wanted to be a pediatrician when I grew up.

I didn’t realize until much later that my writing life really began with my mother’s stories and the stories my relatives told as I was growing up. Not until I graduated from university with a degree in psychology did I stop writing ‘in secret.’“ (176)

Imagine how she might have soared being seen and nurtured as a young writer. And how many others just like her are in classrooms right now, or lost to other “professions” by hopeless default because their writing doesn’t “fit” a myopic, colorblind Market?

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http://www.sonorannews.com/archives/2015/151104/comm-laura-tohe.html

I love Horror. I don’t care who writes it, as long as it scares me. I love it when I learn something in addition. I cannot imagine that I am alone, and if even a percentage of The Market as currently defined agrees with me, then why aren’t we all worth courting?

Perhaps publishers are thinking that now is just not the time to take that kind of a chance… But I can’t help thinking maybe it is precisely the time. Here we are in the bonanza of all marginalist times since the 1800’s, with antagonism and horror being done to so many people of color and differing religions and cultures… when coincidentally and suddenly The Market isn’t buying much of anything at all…

Why not give the new majority something to read, to talk about, to inspire and educate the rest of us? And why not market to this Market?

So where are our writers of color? Right beside us… Where they have always been – pushed into an alternate dimension by our own desperate jostling for recognition. The question is more accurately not about where they are, but why isn’t their own voice, their own way of storytelling valued for what it can teach the rest of us?

Pucker up. I don’t know about you, but I feel horrified. And maybe even a little cheated.

References

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Mariner Books, c2012.

Older, Daniel Jose. “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.” Manjula Martin, ed. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, c2017.

Tohe, Laura. “The Stories From Which I Come.” Janet Burroway, Ed. A Story Larger Than My Own: Women Writers Look Back on Their Lives and Careers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, c2014.

Brandy Maxie, Bone Woman: What Non-Indians Just Learned About the Power of Voice


As writers, it is a grail second only to the holy one of publication… finding and using your Voice…

And here in the last days of Women in Horror Month, comes Brandy Maxie – at once a beautiful, striking young woman and a single, solitary figure standing in tears and alone at the DAPL protest campground, being vacated under threat of arrest.

Some would say the reporter covered her because of that: a vulnerable and pretty woman is always good press. But I say the reason is otherwise. Brandy Maxie is a Bone Woman, a keeper of sacred Voice.

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http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/single-first-nations-mother-brandy-maxie-never-gives-up-on-dreams-1.3019612

Voice is about Knowledge, and Power, and Heart.

So clearly distressed, so clearly heartbroken, her words rattle the houses of denial where we all choose to live, a Powerful wind born of the earth itself. Her tears are transformative, even as she does not seem to know it yet – there in that news clip, there under threat of an arrest she doesn’t want.

Warrior woman. It’s on your shirt, my dear. Just read. And accept it. This is you.

She is the inner Wild Woman, the Mad Woman of creativity and true self once again made famous by Jungian psychoanalyst Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D.

This is the same Mad Woman we witness locked in Literary Attics, the same Wild Woman who dares to wear pants or cut her hair, the same Wolf Woman who devours that wildness raw because she knows and recognizes that essential part of her biological heritage which the Bone Woman summons back from the dead. The Bone Woman is the one who takes back the Power robbed from women. She is an archetype and a role model. Her existence is an ethnic proof of historic marginalism.

And we all need to see her, to feel her presence with our skins because she will not be easily forgotten in a willy nilly world.

How do we process this?

A woman standing on a battlefield of words and principles. Her tears cut like knives the flesh from our arms. Are we mourning?

How far back do we have to go to remember?

How do we sort out our misdirected, and self-aggrandizing vision of Native People from the very real one of people who share the exact same concerns as the rest of us?

We listen.

We listen to the Voice.

“Earth. Mother. Goddess. In every culture the voice of the Feminine emerges from the land itself. We clothe her as Eve or Isis or Demeter. In the desert she appears as Changing Woman. She can shift shapes like the wind and cut through stone with her voice like water. And when she approaches us with her open hands carrying offerings of white shells in arid country she reminds us that there was a time before drought when ancient seas covered the desert. She cannot be classified… I wish someone had told me when I was young that it was not happiness I could count on, but change.” Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds, p.92

Why is it so hard?

Why can’t we look Native Americans in the eye and just say it:

We. Were. Wrong.

We were blinded by our own needs, mice in the grasses, seeing only what is right in front of our noses – and still seeing only that – those endless lands of milk and honey that promised what seemed like endless bounty. What we need to be endless bounty.

A blessing. Proof of our rightness.

We are still blinded.

We placed you at the edges of our world so we wouldn’t have to see you… to think about what we did in our hurry to define ourselves, in our rush to build our own world where you happened to be standing.

We welcome blindness… the excuse that it is winter on the plains, that the land is Federally owned, that Native People need “tending” for their own good. We gaze adoringly at our giant SUVs and dread the price at the pump, so we rationalize how the actual danger of a leak into the water supply for Native Peoples is so miniscule, it is worth the risk….

We pretend we know better. Like we did 100 and 200 years ago.

For far too many of us, Native Americans are tourist curios… quaint remembrances of a time when pioneers were being elevated to Hero Status and our Great Country was being formed on the backs of slaves and tenant farmers, in garment factories and tenements, in mines and railroad camps. They were brave, but misinformed, simple, and superstitious.

We mutilate what we cannot understand, what threatens our sense of self.

It wasn’t us. But it is.

(“Those who do not assimilate deserve what they get.”)

No other minority in this country today is repeatedly told what to think and how to think it.

(“To be named after a sports team is an honor…they should be grateful we remember them at all.”)

No other minority is disallowed a voice at the table.

And then there is Brandy.

Power comes when it is called.

First American. Native American. (that’s right, the whole continent is America…always has been…the name is not exclusively the U.S. right to claim…)

Of all the horrendous images we saw come from the protests, of all of the rationalizations of how those darn Natives just don’t get it… It is her Voice that connected the angry fist of protest to the stomachs of the rest of us…

“We know the quality of another’s heart through her voice. Not the sound, although it is a cue. Not through words, although they present an idea. I most often feel the tenor of another’s heart through tone and the feeling that enters my body when they speak.” Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds, p. 186.

Brandy shook the World. Did you hear it? Did you feel it?

Her Voice spoke loudly in that moment. The shudder of fear and sadness, at the loss of something she had given her all for in peaceful protest, hoping against hope that at last someone would just listen… That someone would hear.

Her.

As a Mother.

As a Woman.

As a Voice.

Why is it so hard?

The question drove tears from her eyes without her saying so.

Why?

http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/north-dakota-officials-plead-protesters-leave-45678680

Why was it okay to move the DAPL from its course numerous times because its latent threat would not be tolerated by nonNative interests, when it is more than okay to dismiss Native People’s all-too-valid concerns?

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“140 Route Deviations….17 Route Adjustments….”

We cannot see you….

“The Dakota Access Pipeline is NOT on Standing Rock Sioux land,” crows a headline on the Pipeline Facts page….But that is not the point: it impacts the Sioux by being UPSTREAM. Sh*t runs downhill and so does oil. How many times were we promised that leaks and spills are not really a big problem? Exxon Valdez, BP Gulf Spill, and most recently the Denbury spill in Southwest South Dakota http://oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/North-Dakota-Spill-Leaks-120000-Gallons-of-Oil-Wastewater.html … At what point are will willing to risk the lives of and health of People?

We cannot hear you….

Are Native American concerns less than those of the people of Flint, Michigan? Apparently.

There is a difference between what is needed and what is desired. The difference is in holding the power to disregard the needs of others to satiate the childish desire of self… it is called “social currency.”

And that is what made Brandy Maxie’s Voice the single loudest of the entire protest. It was soft, and simple, and honest… feminine. It came from a primal place that resonates with all hearts of the marginalized, and sometimes penetrates the man-made numbness of other senses. Perhaps it is because she is a mother, which is the first thing she said to define herself to an audience unseen and unseeing.

“Your voice is the wildest thing you own…” Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds, p. 188

The words Became… behold a Woman running with Wolves…

There on the muddy fields in the aftermath of a valiant protest effort, stood the very heart of what it is to be Native American today: dismissed, a mild point of interest, an entertainment that tritely represents the very real shame of what we’ve done to these people….

Yet.

Brandy shook the World.

Did you hear it? Did you feel it? The Bone Woman cometh… the voice of All Women…

According to Dr. Estes,

“Ideally an old woman symbolizes dignity, mentoring, wisdom, self-knowledge, tradition-bearing, well-defined boundaries, and experience…with a good dose of crabby, long-toothed, straight-talking, flirtatious sass thrown in for good measure” (Estes 243).

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Bone WomanWoman SisterhoodtmWild WomanSimply FeminineSacred FeminineDivine FeminineShaman ArtShaman WomanPuppet Lc

“La Loba (She wolf) “The gatherer of bones” – the 2 million year-old woman who sings bones to life again”

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/18999629656190673/

Did you hear the wind gathering its sacred Voices to itself?

Did you feel the shudder of Power as it drew a ragged breath and held up its daughter as a sign of change, its hands bloody from the birth?

Because change is indeed coming…thundering across the lands we see as empty and Native People see as Home.

Some of us have heard the rattling of bones; we have begun to awaken, to see for the first time our sisters, if not our brothers.

We see a real person standing there, frustrated, afraid for her people but also for her children, for the lives yet to be, unable to imagine what comes next in a world gone intentionally deaf and blind to her basic fears.

We are learning the lesson of the Power of Voice. Can you feel its tremolo echo through your own body?

What comes next is fearsome.

Awesome.

It is the awakening of Power and another kind of change. The change that comes with the resonance of Voice in a people marginalized for far too long. It comes when we at last begin to hear them. It comes when justice is summoned on a muddy battlefield the morning After the day Before…

“In Mormon Culture there is a saying, ‘I would walk across the plains with you.’

The translation is simple: you are tough. You are reliable. You can carry your own weight.” Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds, p. 131.

It is important to know, Brandy, that your Voice made itself heard, all in that simple moment of exasperation and surrender, broadcast in a news clip. You couldn’t have planned it. Power takes its own form.

You are a Bone Woman.

And the world quakes at your tears, the Power of not what was said – but what was meant – it is carried by a thousand ancient rivers all born of Women in this world…Changing Woman….

You are awesome. And I would walk across the plains with you… always wondering if I was worthy of your presence…

Brandy Maxie. Bone Woman, extraordinaire.

Shirley Jackson: Of Mothers, Daughters & Horror (a Women in Horror Month Perspective)


Mothers. They, as part of the parental power couple, are the villains in everything from psychoanalysis to career choices and marital partners. And while there may be many unjustly accused, all prejudices germinate from the same seed of truth – that all of us grow in the direction of our sun – and either flourish or wither beneath its gaze… Mothers can make us or break us.

“The first book is the book you have to write to get back at your parents… Once you get that out of your way, you can start writing books.” Shirley Jackson (Franklin 30)

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For those of us who write, there is perhaps no truer statement – especially if our youth was riddled by the constant misfire of incompatibility, of conflicting dreams and expectations for ourselves. But this is a good news/bad news proposition: it is bad news if the emotional worm bores into our souls and cripples our ability to write what needs to be written; it is good news if we can learn to tap into the honesty of the subsequently generated emotions and – through our writing – (instead of degenerating into psychic messes) work competently through the layers of universal truths.

It has been done before. And one of the best examples is that of Shirley Jackson, whose own relationship with her mother sadly tainted both her self-image and her self-confidence, but led to some totally awesome Literary Horror.

History and the Other Inconvenient Truths

Of all the women writers of American Horror, Shirley Jackson is queen. She set the stage and the bar for the writing of modern Literary Horror, influencing generations of writers in ways we never suspected, leaving us examples that are more easily digested when Critics attempt to explain how they look at our genre. While a lot of what she wrote might today be considered Young Adult fiction and is still taught at the high school level, the subject matter is pure adult – tapping into psycho-social behaviors that still shock and disturb, yet also resonate with our adult memories of our younger selves.

She didn’t set out to write Horror – her influences were typically Literary ones, her husband a Literary Critic. But her work held the roots of Horror in its curled fingers – and all because of her complicated relationship with her mother.

Horror has long been the Literary vehicle for expressing the conditions and humanity of the oppressed. It’s something women commandeered in their writing during the late 1800’s, following along the path that writers like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters had blazed. And like it or not, it was because of the second-class status of women and minorities that provided the impetus. When one group of people (then as often now largely legally and politically empowered white men) have absolute command over “Others” – be they women or immigrants or minorities – in which lives are lived subject to incarceration, psychiatric experimentation, homelessness, poverty, untreated illness, wretched working conditions, physical and or verbal abuse – terror is the result. Post-Traumatic Stress is the result. Mental illness is the result. Violent pushback is the result.

Women writers were often the privileged prisoner-witnesses when not victim to these events, bearing testimony from their own strata of society, often identifying with those they witnessed being mistreated when not suffering their own class-tinted versions. Sometimes these women were so moved that they attempted to represent the classes they saw suffering – such as Harriet Beecher Stowe with Uncle Tom’s Cabin (https://www.saylor.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/SAYLOR-ENGL405-7.3-UNCLETOM.pdf ) – the first successful attempt to bring due attention to the inhumanity of slavery, Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2802 ) – highlighting the brutal consequences of mixed race life in Mexican Colonial California, or Ann Sophia Stephens’ Malaeska: the Indian Wife of the White Hunter (http://www.ulib.niu.edu/badndp/dn01.html )– one of the first attempts to bring the plight of eastern Native Americans to light.

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Of course these stories were meant for other women’s eyes, written in overly sentimental and “emotional” tones that decried them women’s reading material instead of Literature, and they were at times every bit as ignorant and romanticized as “imagining” how others live can be. But they were also meant to unite and more importantly, to enlighten and then incite. Literature they became. And being embraced by generations, they also became transformative works that changed many early American minds about the plight of all “second-class” citizens.

Jackson serves this purpose in American Horror. In Jackson’s case, her stories reveal the “normal” lives of women of her generation (1916-1965) – a time and place close enough to our own that we seldom remember the constriction of society against women and girls even then. We tend to gloss it over, to misremember it with Donna Reed-like complacency. Says Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin:

“…tension animates all of Jackson’s writing. And it makes her perfectly representative of her time…The themes of Jackson’s work were so central to the preoccupations of American women during the postwar period that Plath biographer Linda Wagner-Martin has called the 1950’s ‘the decade of Jackson.’ Her body of work constitutes nothing less that the secret history of the American women of her era. And the stories she tells form a powerful counternarrative to the ‘feminine mystique’ revealing the unhappiness and instability beneath the housewife’s sleek veneer of competence.” (Franklin 5-6)

I remember the cracks that showed in the early sixties when I was a child, my own mother born in the 1930’s, discussing things across the backyard fence with other wives, the way in which there was still a tiptoeing around the man of the house, routine sacrifices demanded of wives for their husband’s public face and personal careers, the arguments and lectures about compromising the “appearance” of things, the dispensing with a mother’s complete life and career because the new one was the children she was expected to have for the good of the husband’s career advancement. My own mother did not learn to drive until her thirties… a demand she made after she suffered a miscarriage while unable to get herself to the base hospital in time.

We could argue that it is natural for people to forget the discomfort and unpleasantries we have survived – whether as a group, a gender, or an individual; so it is that today we tend to have conveniently forgotten what recent generations of women have endured, preferring to remind ourselves that once upon a time, things were much, much worse for our gender. It is as though distance makes it easier to look at. And it makes us wont to repress any criticisms of where we are now, lest we seem ungrateful for the advances we have achieved…or worse, rabble-rousing and unfeminine.

When we consider writing as a reflection of our own times – of writing modern Horror and revealing the truths of today’s social issues, we go wooden. We recognize that it is that very oppression which makes us decide whether we want to “come across” as militant and angry women, or “reasonable” and “compassionate” as we are taught to believe “normal” women are. It scares us as women and as writers back into complacency. Worse, it puts phantom voices in our heads, whispering what some people might think of us if we really said that…

We think about how our parents will respond, what our own mothers will think of us. We remain unsure of the consequences if we tell our secrets. We let this affect storylines and word choice, character development and how we evolve them. We think we can tell stories with half-truths and are surprised when editors say they are lackluster. We begin to belittle the very things that eat at our souls and take so long to work their way out of our bodies like splinters — sometimes leaving Literature in their wake, sometimes leaving orchards of trees bearing too little or shriveled fruit. We hear the criticisms of society and our parents… and we let them silence or mutilate our voices.

We may be survivors of something, but we don’t want to be called warriors…we don’t want to draw hurtful criticism, or worse – enemy fire – especially from our own intimate camp. We women, it seems, can be our own worst enemies…

There is even now a separation between protesting our circumstances as righteous anger, and behaving in a socially acceptable manner; today as before our patriotism might be challenged or our sexual preferences. It’s driven many a writer to Literature and genre fiction… Because it is there that the awful truth of damage and ruin can be revealed with less criticism, hidden in plain sight because it is a societal normal. It is there that any oppressors can “overlook” the rebellion, not seeing it in fiction because they don’t see it in real life where it is also hidden in subtext – coded as the way things are, or because they can belittle it as “women’s writing” as… pulp… inferior, toothless ranting.

But particularly in its preservation, an analysis of Literature in retrospective remains also the fact that we do see it – the oppression of times, the flaws of relationships, the vulnerabilities of self.

The work of Shirley Jackson is as much a loud confession and a work of rebellion as it is a recognized body of Literature – Horror Literature.

From her poisonous relationship with her mother, her constant reconciliation with the fact of a constantly unfaithful husband who she loved passionately and her mother opposed, the minimizing of her writing by everyone including herself, the professional ostracism of the Academic community, the struggle to raise children in the midst of so much and so constant criticism – it all led to private battles with her own self-worth and subsequent brushes with mental illness…all of which color her fiction with immaculately concealed screams.

Because of its honesty, the work becomes elevated.

Says Horror Critic S.T. Joshi of Jackson: “…I wish to place Jackson within the realm of weird fiction not only for the nebulous reason that the whole of her work has a pervasive atmosphere of the odd about it, but, more importantly, because her entire work is unified to such a degree that distinctions about genre and classification become arbitrary and meaningless. Like Arthur Machen, Shirley Jackson developed a view of the world that informed all her writing, whether supernatural or not; but that world view is more akin to the cheerless and nihilistic misanthropy of Bierce than to Machen’s harried antimaterialism. It is because Shirley Jackson so keenly detected horror in the everyday world, and wrote of it with rapier-sharp prose, that she ranks as a twentieth-century Bierce.” (Joshi 13)

This is high praise indeed, and praise overdue. But it is also a call to arms for women writers of Horror…horror in the everyday world….Do you not know horrors that like Stepford Wives we pretend not to notice lest they notice us? These are Literary links…world shakers….Inconvenient truths.

States biographer Ruth Franklin: “Critics have tended to underestimate Jackson’s work: both because of its central interest in women’s lives and because some of it is written in genres regarded as either ‘faintly disreputable’ (in the words of one scholar) or simple uncategorizable. Hill House is often dismissed as an especially well written ghost story, Castle as a whodunit.  The headline of Jackson’s New York Times obituary identified her as ‘Author of Horror Classic” – that is, “The Lottery.” But such lazy pigeonholing does an injustice to the masterly way in which Jackson used the classic tropes of suspense to plumb the depths of the human condition.” (Franklin 6-7)

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“Dismissed” and “overlooked” is indeed the best way to describe Jackson’s body of work in its own time. Like other “greats” before her, her subjects found their way under her readers’ skins and held out to Critics an ornamentation of honesty so many of us are not comfortable with when expressed in plain English – the adolescent awakening of honesty, of not-liking one’s own parents and the societal implications of being not-liked back. It did not help that like many women who feel made powerless, she publicly embraced witchcraft – describing herself as a “practicing witch” although exhibiting more of an intellectual interest than that of more serious dabbling in the occult. (Lethem vii-viii)

This could only serve to push Critics further away from her, raising the ire of a more conservative public who cancelled subscriptions and declared themselves incompatible with such disturbing writing as found in “The Lottery,” denouncing it as “nauseating” “perverted” and “vicious”… (Lethem viii)

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Yet she and her fans endured. It was, perhaps, because Literature has a way of seeking out the subtext – of stripping away the witchcraft of character and plot and seeing world view – the truths of historic period revealed by the people who live them. This leads to a dedicated fan base – one that simply does not go away and signals to the Critic that there is something more in the writing. But this seldom happens during the writer’s lifetime…

Jonathan Lethem explains in his introduction to We Have Always Lived in the Castle (New York: Penguin, 2006, c1962): “Jackson is one of American fiction’s impossible presences, too material to be called a phantom in literature’s house, too in-print to be ‘rediscovered,’ yet hidden in plain sight. She’s both perpetually underrated and persistently mischaracterized as a writer of upscale horror, when in truth a slim minority of her works had any element of the supernatural…While celebrated by reviewers throughout her career, she wasn’t welcomed into any canon or school; she’s been no major critic’s fetish…” (xii)

And according to Franklin, even Jackson’s husband was distressed and perplexed at the professional ostracism:

“[Stanley Edgar] Hyman[an important intellectual and author of several major works of literary criticism] was a consistently insightful interpreter of his wife’s work. He bitterly regretted the critical neglect and misreading she suffered through her lifetime.” (Franklin 9) According to her husband, “she received no awards or prizes, grants or fellowships; her name was often omitted from lists on which it clearly belonged…” (9)

Yet her impact is undeniable – palpable, connecting to women and young women even today. Like many of her gender, Jackson’s writing has been left adrift – largely as consequence of an inability to reconcile real issues within the rigid interpretations of a Literature still evolving its theories and conjecture on how writing happens. But the public noticed – her public, often filled with young women who could identify… Because her writing captured the most important of Literary elements – resonance with generations of readers.

Indeed, we all have mothers who criticize to guide, we all have various infidelities that interrupt and scar our lives, children who complicate our decisions, Professional ceilings to crack our heads against when they do not collapse outright upon us. Jackson’s audience knows her vulnerabilities and feels her angst and subversive anger.

Joshi continues that the importance of her domestic fiction (which he describes as domestic horror) lies in the fact that Jackson “systematically attempts to present what may in reality have been highly traumatic events as the sources of harmless jests…it rests in its employment of very basic familial or personal scenarios that she would reuse in her weird stories in perverted and twisted ways; things like riding a bus, employing a maid, taking children shopping, going on vacation, putting up guests, and, in general, adhering – or seeming to adhere – to the ‘proper conduct’ expected of her as a middle-class housewife.” (Joshi 17).

Jackson’s fiction survives because not only is it truthful, but we can still see the truths as being in our lives today in various degrees. And, we are glad somebody has the brass to speak it.

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Mommy Dearest

So with all of these social battles, why is it that it is the one we have with our mothers that tops them all?

Perhaps because our relationship as women is most intimate with our mothers; here, all pretense is stripped away. They know our secrets. They know precisely our vulnerabilities. They know how to hurt us and have immediate access to do so. All of our future ability to trust others is attached to our parents – but most deeply to our mothers… So much so that they can scar us permanently, whether they are even present at all.

Mothers can’t win. But if they are or choose to be their daughter’s worst enemy, the damage is devastatingly deep. Where bad maternal and absent maternal relationships with daughters have been the subjects utilized in many great Literary plots, few have gone where Shirley Jackson went.

Classic Literature had long been where domestic abuse and the manipulation of inheritance laws became the source of many a ghost story, with mad women in attics, and the ghosts of dead babies and drowned young women facing pregnancy and ruined reputations littering the mythology of many a fine family, each generation – each era – having its own denigrations and disappointments, its own secrets. In that Classic venue most of the resentments and tragedies were handled by heroines who were vulnerable and ultimately, unfailingly “good.” Evil stepmothers, greedy mothers, absent mothers… it was the daughter who through her own inherent goodness would triumph at last.

So everything that came before set the stage for a shift in truth: that sometimes such mothering does not produce “goodness” but savagery.

The final spotlight wrought by Shirley Jackson came to shine upon the biggest resentments of all – the resentment of daughters against mothers who fail to protect them in their own attempts to protect themselves and their mutual reputations, and the resentment of mothers against daughters who impulsively disregard their hard-won advice or blatantly sabotage the best laid plans. Jackson’s writings seem to drag us into the world where best intentions and robotic obeisance lead to isolation and the celebrated road to Hell.

It was honest. Painfully so. And every parent and child has been there to some degree. We live our lives in constant push-back, testing the boundaries of our respective worlds, craving acceptance and praise, risking it all on impulse and frustration. We tend to live our lives specifically to spite each other.

So when we are not blessed with that Carrie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds mother/daughter power relationship, the rough edges wound and eviscerate instead of nurture and heal.

Many a woman has grown up feeling that she was quite accidental, if not being told so. She becomes a burden, an inconvenience that constantly threatens the happiness of her family. She is a point from which it all potentially comes unglued and reputations can be slighted, she is all of the dreaded and unsightly mistakes of her parents. The pressure to get it right is often overwhelming.

Even when we say we don’t care, we do. After all, if our own parents don’t love us unconditionally, what possible life can we have in a world full of cruelties and misadventure?

It took Shirley Jackson to open that door. And she went as far as matricide in her writing. Imagine that in a Classic Literary heroine…

Says biographer Ruth Franklin in her new book, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:

“This does not mean that Jackson actually wished to kill her mother any more than the frequent appearance of sexual molestation in her fiction means that she was literally molested. But it is clear that even from California, [her mother] Geraldine managed to insert herself into her daughter’s life in a way that Jackson resented, criticizing her appearance and offering unsolicited advice on household help, clothing, furniture, and other domestic matters.” (Franklin 350)

It simply means that the relationship between mothers and daughters is every bit as potent and potentially toxic as that often attributed to fathers and sons… Women are simply more societally pressured to suppress our rebellions.

And sometimes that suppression, the reluctance to consciously acknowledge the personal evisceration, leads to great Horror.

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Franklin continues: “On one level, the ‘explosive’ material clearly touched on her own feelings about her mother. All of Jackson’s heroines are essentially motherless, or at least victims of mothers who are not good enough…” And the character – Elizabeth – “ would be the first of Jackson’s characters to commit matricide; the act also takes place in her last two completed novels…”(350)

As writers, sometimes our characters have to say what we mean, to do symbolically what can’t be done in real life.

Still, the constant bullying by her own mother took its toll, both in Jackson’s mental health and in determining the direction of her fiction. And sadly, many writers know all too well this type of unsettling relationship with kin.

Continues Franklin,“Her [mother’s] letters to Jackson are masterpieces of passive-aggression, disguising harsh critiques beneath a veneer of sweetness. She needled Jackson constantly about her weight: ‘How about you and your extra pounds?…You will look and feel so much better without them’” (this written less than six months after her daughter’s birth), and then a year later stating in another letter in response to the successful publication of The Lottery: “‘We’re so proud of your achievements – we want to be proud of the way you look too, And really dear – you don’t do a thing to make yourself attractive.’”

Such is the relationship many of us share with our own mothers. Is it any wonder that this kind of private narrative leads to public art and writing that leans toward the Gothic, the dark, toward Horror and women’s issues? Toward Literature?

We Are All Shirley Jackson

It should come as no surprise then that during her lifetime she developed emotional struggles amid various degrees of mental illness spurred on by the stress of those fueled insecurities handed her by those she needed to trust. The result was the creation of dark-themed stories and novels with characters who could do what she could not.

In so many ways then we are all Shirley Jackson. Often we are like her: self-loathed, too tall, too awkward, and burdened with insecurities… We might be likely to assume that this was because she was at heart a writer – a creative person which is a title we stereotype into shyness and social dysfunction. But it had more to do with her upbringing, and a difficult relationship with a mother who seemed unwilling or unable to like her.

Says biographer Franklin, “As a writer and mother myself, I am struck by how contemporary Jackson’s dilemmas feel: her devotion to their children coexists uneasily with her fear of losing herself in domesticity. Several generations later, the intersection of life and work continues to be one of the points of most profound anxiety in our society – an anxiety that affects not only women but also their husbands and children.” (9)

Hers is the story of how the irritants of life and circumstance become the grit of sand upon which the pearl of Literature is made. It is a lesson in how one uses the honesty of one’s own life to shape a fiction that masks the truth of one’s times by the telling of one’s most intimate secrets. This is how Literary Horror is done – not by the overt caricature of shock and gore – but by the constant drip of the faucet everyone has and no one notices or chooses to ignore.

But the lesson is that we should never make excuses for those who have laid traps for us, never attempt to bury those hurts with substance abuse or spiraling illness and behavioral addictions. Instead we should let those wounds fester. Let the wood work its way out of our flesh, or let it lie there if it be resistant to our preferences… let it be the grit in the oyster.

Honesty and mining our most private emotions in writing is the lesson we take from Shirley Jackson. If it is big enough in our psyche to suppress our writing, to tempt us into self-destructive behaviors, to make us fearful of actually saying it, it needs to be said.  And until we find a way to do so, writing will remain a struggle – clouded by emotions that block our words because left to fester unacknowledged in the dark they are cancerous.

We may have to – as Shirley said – write a lot of bad fiction to please our parents, to please who we anticipate will be judging our fiction. But in the end we have to stop caring. We have to tell the truth.

Because the truth will set you free.

 

 References

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

Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: a Rather Haunted Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, c 2016.

Lethem, Jonathan. Introduction. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. New York: Penguin, 2006, c1962.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cthulhu Worshippers: Is the Rise of Themed Anthologies Good For Horror?


When I recently looked across the sea of my past years’ Horror purchases, I was struck by just how many Lovecraft anthologies there were. Themed anthologies are on the steady increase – collections dedicated to one author’s established universe, one established monster, or one Horror concept. And of those themes, the work of H.P. Lovecraft absolutely dominates. Yet as open-minded as I try to be in my Horror story collecting, I found an alarming amount of tentacles on my shelves.

Herein lay a truth: I am a sucker for tentacles. I enjoy reading Lovecraftian fiction…but I do not tend to write it.

So if I did not purchase more generic modern collections, what did it mean? Were they not out there? Granted, I discriminate against vampire collections and I have not yet dipped my toes into steampunk-tinted Horror… But the prolific dominance of Lovecraft struck me as more than coincidence.

So that begs the question what does it mean for Horror writers – this rise in themed anthologies of which Lovecraft dominates?

Too Much of a Good Thing

World class Horror editor Paula Guran states in her introduction to The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2016, “…there were around 15 anthologies of Lovecraftian tales published in 2015 – not to mention other venues that published such stories…”(8)

Fifteen! I am imagining that this is – like – twelve anthologies of Lovecraftian fiction we did not need that year….twelve opportunities for other stories of Horror fiction to have been officially birthed in our world.

Perhaps that is the bulk of the type of Horror being published today. But maybe, just maybe, the singular and collective weight of ALL of the same kind of anthologies in my personal library means something besides my own addiction: maybe it means our genre has fallen into a rut.

No, I thought…surely it can’t be….

And yet the proof is on every bookstore shelf. And it is causing my floors to sag.

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Fan Fiction: Let’s Call It What It Is

Believe it or not, it starts with Technology. Technology has caused a lot of changes to publishing in general and to Horror in particular. Horror has grown toward Hollywood like weeds to the sun…

In her essay, “Blurring the Lines,” Amber Benson states, “There used to be a hard-and-fast rule. There was “them” and then there was “us.” “Them” was made up of artists – the people who created TV shows, books, films, music, and visual art. “Us” was the group of people who consumed what they made. “Them” was set apart from “us” because “them” was creating material that was disseminated, on a large scale, to “us” out there in the real world. “Us” could enjoy “them” and their work, but “us” could not contribute to the creations we loved in any appreciable fashion…But then something interesting happened: the internet took over the world, and this hard-and-fast rule slowly began to disintegrate. All of a sudden “us” was able to horn in on “them” and their creative process in a very public way – most notably in the form of fanfiction.” (Jamison, 334)

Enter the world of Big Money. Enter the world of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray… That’s right: Fifty Shades started as – believe it or not – a fanfiction of Twilight. And for that mystery of artistic and unholy alliances, one has merely to follow the money trail… Hollywood has discovered the great storytelling in fanfic Vampires and scary entities that populate urban legend. This has led to the migration of the movie public to the bookstore titles traditional publishing has cringed at, yet harvested with tremendous profits.

Such success has in turn inspired fanfic sites to create and self-publish their own anthologies, not always to as profitable acclaim. But Hollywood has noticed. The fanfic writing collective that is Creepypasta (http://www.creepypasta.org/) is the undisputed home of such well-known Hollywood pollinating characters as Slender Man, Eyeless Jack, Jeff the Killer, and The Rake…

To the Horror Establishment’s chagrin, this is where a lot of “real” modern Horror resides – neatly ensconced in the folds of pulpy Fan Fiction, tucked away in secretive places on the internet. And it is thriving there… perhaps because of technology… and with no thanks to more “reputable forms of publishing.” Creepypasta has established its own reputable form… and its ever-growing following is testament not perhaps to content so much as its aspirations to recreate the much adored Horror of Yore…

Much of its content is literarily a bumpy ride, reminiscent of the fireside tale, campy cautionary tales Horror is known for… but it is a ride worth taking – fun, engaging, scary, and pure pulp.

All of that flies in the face of technology and Literature itself – the very tech that threatened to permanently banish Horror to the history shelves – or worse, to sociology….

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The question traditional Horror folk have is that with such “obvious technical flaws” why is fanfic doing so well and in sharp contrast to traditional publishing?

Part of the problem is indeed that invasion of technology that slaughtered traditional Horror. Fanfic took the scythe away from the reaper and built its own platform of resistance. Isn’t it interesting that we acolytes of traditional Horror writing are “borrowing” from those sites and their writers?

To sort this out and give credit where credit is due, we have to admit that for traditional Horror fiction there is a price to pay for having so much in neat, shiny new toys to mesmerize and distract us like a roomful of little children. And fanfic places like Creepypasta have managed to tap into that elusive “something” that old Horror fiction’s corpse remains animated by, the very thing that lurks behind the everlasting light of electronic devices… And ironically, it is that same thing that so much published modern Horror has failed to find; too often it is dismissed as cliché or trite…because handled ineptly or too pulp-like it can be…

It is appropriate that technology has also led to a lot of pushback toward the older styles of storytelling – embracing the chapters of Horror’s own history where writers combined forces with artists and landed in pulpy swamps, creating comic books and graphic novels, seeking independent means of publication and now internet ones. It is, undoubtedly, a rebellion.

One of the largest surges backward has happened in Fan Fiction – that oft-chided subgenre of all genres where it is always and only about the storytelling and known characters. It is often – in Horror – purely reminiscent of urban legends (even new ones and contrived ones), about successful movies and video games. But it is also about the kind of writing traditional fiction writers deign to acknowledge and love to “abhor.”

With Horror fanfiction there is always a component of dark fantasy afoot, laced with what can only be called a rabid fan loyalty, and within its closed communities it provides a creative space made to sow all wild seeds of imagination. There is instant editorial and fan feedback – because its audience knows by heart every sustainable plot and can grasp every new realistic possibility. Fan Fiction forces a writer to mind the lines – to know the character and the fiction world it lives in – to write to spec with twists and caricatures and secrets and alternate endings. These are the speculative, secret-seeming chapters about characters from stories you love. Fan Fiction (officially “fanfic” in their world) is its own world.

This goes against the grain of the isolated, socially dysfunctional curmudgeon most writer’s manuals claim we should be, and whatever delusion we ourselves subscribe to…No wonder there is “rivalry” if not jealousy; our environment is less supportive of our endeavors. And far too many of us consider the running of that lonely gauntlet to be a professional requirement for doing a “respectable” job… We shrink from fellow writers bold enough to just “put it out there” all un-vetted and unadorned.

Back to the Themed Drawing Board

So how did such unsavory fanfic elements leak back into traditional Horror? The answer may be as simple as admitting to the struggle for contemporary Horror to re-discover its voice…to reconnect with our roots and regain Critical respect.

We have no choice but to admit that “traditionally published” modern Horror in America has lost its way… And while it could be a consequence of all of the technology that blossomed around us (willing participants or not), that unavoidable invasion of all things glossy and new that supplanted what the imagination needs to drive darker fantasy and fear: abandoned sites of historical ambiance, the ruins of our own civilization, the decay of our own lifetimes. Our minds dismiss the shadowed failings of our civilization. We are in denial.

Modern Horror writers have noticed. They have questioned the same way editors and Critics and readers have questioned what is wrong with our Horror today that we are not duly terrified by the words? And just like the editors and Critics and readers, we have flooded back to the early writers – the ones who did scare us – to ask how and why. Why did their words work and how do we tap into that zeitgeist?

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That means we are not only looking at Stephen King and Clive Barker, but we are also looking at Lovecraft and Poe and James and Blackwood and LeFanu… We are re-reading our unofficial canon. And we are being influenced.

So maybe the next logical step is themed anthologies… Indeed nothing helps a writer get into the head of his or her idol like writing “in the tradition” of that writer – borrowing that author’s personally tailored conventions – and learning how to “write to specifications” of an editor or market. Getting one’s head in there also exposes weaknesses in the boundaries the author may have touched… It inadvertently uncovers and explores some of the themes and higher concepts that interest (get ready for it) Literary Critics… So imitation can become a lesson in how to create Literary elements – fleshing out your own work with those dual-meanings best recognized by lovers of poetry.

Imagine. But there is also another interesting side-effect to themed anthologies: the pretense of elevating Fan Fiction to a more “legitimate” professional space.

And the fact that everyone just dances around that pretense is rather amazing to me – and insulting to the very real, already legitimate world of fanfic writers…

We should call what we are doing exactly what we are doing: pillaging fanfic for the desperately needed blood infusion into modern American Horror. But we are sharing the same nurturing roots, two branches of the same tree.

At the very least, we are in keeping with tradition here – even Fan Fiction traditions. According to Anne Jamison in her totally fascinating book,  Fic: Why Fan Fiction is Taking Over the World  (Dallas, TX: Smart Pop, c2013) we have been at it since Sherlock Holmes, even as times have changed the way Fan Fiction is derived. Says Jamison, “None of these earlier literary practices are exactly the equivalent as what we understand as fanfiction today…Our understanding of the key relationships – those that exist variously among writer, written, reader, publisher, object published, and source – changes over time. What doesn’t change, or rather, what never disappears, is the writerly habit of writing from other sources.” (35) In other words – imitation.

Imitation is one of the ways writers learn to write. Continues Jamison, “Writers have always entered into and intervened in familiar stories and styles and collaborated on authorship through discussion or other forms of influence…We have long given (or ceded) credit, ultimately, to a single authorial name – and fan fiction, with all its collaborative glee, continues that tradition.” (35)

It is why Fan Fiction is a wonderful environment for learning about story-telling and how important it is to stick to conventions established for certain monsters and to explore all of the possibilities of character – to retell stories until you get the right version told – the one that sings. It is a place in which a writer learns the importance of the reader (who might well more passionately know your character’s potential than even you) and the utter necessity of toeing the line of logic.

These are the reasons writers have “pirated” the concept of Fan Fiction and re-christened the process as writing more reputable product for themed anthologies. Writers – like the editors who solicit them – have accepted the challenge to “write in the tradition of Lovecraft”… to tell “new” stories in a way Lovecraft himself might have approved.

Yet it is subversively (and maybe perversely) almost a Frankenstein effort: are we trying on writerly hats, or are editors so hungry for Lovecraft-level work that they won’t stop until they find a substitute? Why are we so infatuated that we are publishing Lovecraft Fan Fiction in place of original modern Horror fiction?

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I mean, I’m not sure, but I think we should feel insulted…

Don’t get me wrong: even I have written some fanfic-styled things myself – just for the challenge of doing so. They were fun to write and the ghost of copyright hangs over them. But fun and education was neatly tucked into the experience of writing them. The End.  I am thinking that outside of coincidence or anniversary tributes, there should be limits to the traditional publishing of fanfic themed anthologies. I mean if you really want original work…truly new, original work….

What is good for Horror writers may not be good for the genre as a whole… Sure we need to master mimicry the way artists master Masters – to learn the many techniques available to us. Then we need to paint our own pictures, mix our own palettes. We need to explore, to shed fetters, to find new ways of scaring, to play with language and the darker, clawed things that clutter our minds.

While we are casting our creative nets wider, we need to grow up and also cast aside our personal demons with regard to levels of professional legitimacy. Our genre grows from varied roots, and we don’t all have to write Literature or be professional outcasts. Most certainly there are standard differences, vetting differences, editorial differences. But in the end readers want to read good, scary Horror. So do Horror writers, who coincidentally hope to write the stuff that way.

We need to acknowledge with due respect where we get our inspirations, where we place our stories, and the audience that loves them. We need to consider that maybe fanfic is doing so well because those writers are telling the stories people want to read in our genre, because our genre is too obsessed with ideals of perfection and we are not listening to part of our constituency.

That maybe – just maybe – we need to teach, train, coach and mentor writers who DO want to write more Literary Horror.  That maybe we should stop with the whole mystical search for the next writing messiah to bring Big Money back to publishing.

We also need to admit when we seize and repurpose a tradition for our own use and profit, and recognize that the whole real problem is that maybe just maybe there aren’t enough “legitimately recognized” venues for the number of writers in our genre, or enough Horror being traditionally published, or that traditional publishing needs to acknowledge the value – monetary and artistically contributory – that “illegitimate forms of writing” bring to the genre – that therefore, perhaps they ARE legitimate, just different.

I think we must do what only we can do… We need to have faith in our own fiction voices, our own stories, our own versions of characters and plots, even if that means we don’t see a market for them right now. Be true to yourself and your Muse.  Don’t let the mirage of fame and alleged Overnight Success color your choices. As long as we are imitating Lovecraft, let’s do it right: Lovecraft imitated nobody. He preferred to not be published than to sell out for money.

And as for the illusive possibility that you would be discovered and beloved in this lifetime? Well, the public is fickle. If you ever do connect suddenly with a following, you need to have work in the wings, ready to go. If you don’t, someone who does will step in front of you…maybe even out-fanfic you…

And that would be more than a shame. It would be pure, unmitigated Horror.

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References

Benson, Amber. “Blurring the Lines.” (p. 384-388) Fic: Why Fan Fiction is Taking Over the World. Dallas, TX: Smart Pop, c2013.

Guran, Paula, ed. The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2016. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2016.

Jamison, Anne. Fic: Why Fan Fiction is Taking Over the World. Dallas, TX: Smart Pop, c2013

 

 

Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas: Horror From The Good Old Days


It may come as a surprise, but once upon a time folks liked their Horror at Christmas. One could surmise that the increasing hours of darkness, the howling of hungry wolves, and the entrapment of inclement weather were co-conspirators to the cause; it is far too easy to become preoccupied with one’s own mortality when the temperatures send frosty ghosts to drift across candle-lit rooms and skeletal branches claw at window panes while the animals in the walls scurry ever deeper to find warmth.

In so much dark and quiet there is isolation, and the ever more loudly heard “sounds of silence” echoing in your ears. We forget how very dark and how very quiet the world once was. And maybe that is why our modern ghost stories are often found lacking the connective tissue of eerie tales of yore.

Technology changed things; we haven’t embraced so much light since humanity learned how to make and keep fire. And we haven’t surrendered our senses to so much noise in our daily lives since…ever.

Poor, poor ghosties….all drowned out by our modern day distractions.

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God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

If we really wanted to detail the history of ghost stories and dark times, we might well have to revisit Darwin and his Theory and explore early human brain development – as far back as when the animal brain diverged into homo sapiens. We would have to give more than a passing nod to rural folk and fairy tales, myths and legends, to the very human fear of naming things we cannot control – all for the sake of mitigating the chaos when not outwitting it. Because “the ghost story is the oldest form of supernatural tale…” (Dziemianowicz  xiii)

So where has it gone? Have we simply shuttered it away with childish things and suffused it with jokes made at the expense of our own mortality, or have we simply catalogued it to death? To know for certain we have to look at the last time ghost story-telling was king…

The ghost story – as we recognize it today – is more the “modern” invention of the Literary crowd. And of course the British started it…

It was the Victorians who spurred the whole renaissance in scary tale-telling, all by focusing on an infatuation with toying with the senses and exploring mortality, gazing with fascination at the changes spilling forth from the open maw of the industrial revolution and measuring it against the loss of all things past. (Perhaps this is what happens in a strictly regimented, class-driven, repressed society exposed for the first time to the seemingly unlimited promises of a newly born culture of science.) But once our invisible friends rose from the primal ashes of campfires in caves and collided with the tradition of the Christmas serial, a ghostly bonanza of spectral fiction ensued.

That’s right: we owe our Golden Age of Ghost Stories to the weird collision of Christmas and the rise of publishing.

Many consider the writings of Charles Dickens to be the main transformative template upon which many modern Christmas traditions and many ghostly tales gone traditional had their start. And while supernatural tales were long told round winter fires in the dark months of brutal seasons in many countries, this is what happens when the right writer delivers the right tales at the right time – what we now consider the J.K. Rowling Effect – wherein entire national imaginations are captured and slain. Dickens in his time was every bit as powerful, his influence felt across oceans and continents. And he is still selling and influencing today…Which is not at all bad for a dead guy.

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With the explosion of print onto the scene, there were magazines both pulp and “professional,” newspapers and book markets seeking to pump up slower Christmas sales all jostling for the new reading public’s precious coin. Many indulged in serial publication of stories – profiting more when such were delivered by writers of Dickens’ Literary merit and standing, but taking off when connecting the supernatural with the intimidating darkness of winter months.

And what prompted him to write ghost stories? The wonderful answer is his own childhood experiences…meaning that the remembered telling of scary stories and folk and fairy lore in the short, bleak days of winter colored his imagination; the oral tradition begat the written one of telling ghost stories at Christmas. (http://www.hypnogoria.com/html/ghoststoriesforchristmas.html)

What Dickens did was Literary: he incorporated his own experiences into his stories, his own impressions – from socio-economic conditions of the London he knew to his own memories of supernatural tales told round the Yule. This elevated his tales just enough to win the hearts of his public and melt a few of the Critics’. His contributions then helped legitimize the tradition of ghost story, as well as to help inspire other Literary writers and even those lesser efforts in the creation of the subgenre. It became a kind of tradition for writers of every professional ilk and genre to try their hand at Christmas ghost story telling. Louisa May Alcott, Hans Christian Andersen, O. Henry, H.H. Munro, and William Locke are just a few of those Literary writers who went “rogue.” And Horror got some great foundational stuff from both the exposure and the expanded audience.

But Dickens also colored our views of the environment in which these Christmas ghosts appear. And he did it by changing our Literary and then literal expectations of the holiday itself.

Did you ever wonder why we expect White Christmases? How so many songs came to be about deep snows and blizzard conditions, bitter cold, and the starving poor? Bits of coal and prowling elves? Did anybody else have childhood trouble trying to reconcile the birth of baby Jesus with snow and wise men in deserts?

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It was Dickens. Or rather, it was the whole of Britain with an unprecedented weather event often referred to as a “mini ice age” had while in his youth that colored our imagining of the holiday. He did what he did so well and we wound up permanently entangling his magnificent tales with weather patterns none of us have seen much of since, and sweeping the images of an Arctic landscape draped over the English with snowstorms of soft powder drifting like clouds of sugar on Christmas Eve over toy stores and holiday lights even in this country…Just visit Bedford Falls…

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Or look again at The Shining… that almost-Christmas tale. Sooo much snow around the isolated “manor house” that the connection to those English ghost stories is unmistakable. Yet today most of us do not have Christmases with mounds of snow and spiritual awakenings. And as for ancestral mansions, well, we are admittedly at least working on that piece of the equation

All this time, I thought it was rotten luck – the number of years a White Christmas failed to make an appearance in my life – even here in Colorado or the mountains of New Mexico, the hills of Indiana or the swamps of Florida. No snow. No reindeer tracks. And worse, even fewer ghosts. How tainted was my expectation of the holidays…

From Shakespeare to Washington Irving, there seems to have always been some spooky business afoot during the darker days of winter. And maybe that comes from early Christians commandeering earlier (and probably scarier) winter celebrations to affix the new beliefs upon the skeletons of the old…Bones tend to poke through now and again…

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But it was Dickens who through the Miracle of Modern Publishing solidified the trend as a campy tradition. Says editor Richard Dalby, “After Dickens’s A Christmas Carol first appeared in 1843, ghost stories became an ever-popular and essential ingredient of weekly and monthly magazines, especially the Christmas Numbers…xi-xiii). Today, whether Christmas remains in the story or not, the oppressive atmosphere of those once-wintry months remains – the cold, dark isolation, gloomy weather and gloomier estates…these are now standard Horror conventions – mandatory for ghost story telling.

And it all morphed again slightly once it crossed the pond: “the ghost story became equally popular in America, following the success of Dickens and his disciples…” (Dalby xii). Whether it was cheap imitation, British envy, or a thirst for our own Literary traditions mixing with social evolution, the ghost story form was embraced by women’s periodicals as a vehicle for expressing the concerns of women’s rights and children’s rights and henceforth civil rights. With the rise of the pulps and a more literate general public with money to spend, the subgenre took off in this country. Even though it languished in the literary dens of iniquity referred to as “Sensation” fiction – a consequence of any writing designed to illicit emotion and inflame passions – flourish it did, leading to what is often referred to as “The Golden Age of the Ghost Story.”

But then the electric light banished the dark with a flick of the finger. And for the ghost story, it was THAT finger.  Soon, if it were not for Halloween and teenagers eager to explore the concept of death, the ghost and its stories would have been banished completely back to superstition and folklore. But maybe that is not altogether a bad thing… Piggybacked on the traditions of Halloween, a good ghost story can garner quite a few miles…And more importantly, the good ones get remembered.

So isn’t it a shame we seem to have abandoned that Christmas tradition? And why exactly do we whine about bad ghost stories when no one is really working the edgy, Literary ends of the subgenre?

While some may argue all versions of the ghost story have been done, I say maybe we just gave up digging around in our darker folkish roots a wee bit too soon.

Ghosts are, after all, so much more than fragments of the human soul. Sometimes they aren’t human at all.

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The Return of the Christmas Horror

“Santa Claus…

How vile your name upon my tongue. Like acid, hard to utter without spitting. Yet I find myself incapable of speaking little else. It has become my malediction, my profane mantra.” – Krampus the Yule Lord, by Brom

It’s been a long time coming…But change and Horror is once again on the wintry breath of the Holidays. The ghost story is back…slightly amended, twisting backward upon an even older arc to restart our imaginations. We are talking about the fearsome mythologies and folklore of old…all of which count as ghost story.

It doesn’t mean we get it right – there is, after all, such a thing as poetic license. But back to the depths indeed we are called.

We can easily admit that our enduring affection for Halloween just doesn’t get enough reciprocal Literary love, and that simultaneously, many of our later efforts have indeed been wanting. Something was missing – something unnamed and unnamable. But wait – the door knob has begun to turn…slowly…deliberately. Something has been waiting for the opportunity to present itself for a dramatic return… That something is old, and dark, and distant enough in our proper memories that when our primal blood curdles, a new spark has been loosed. That spark has manifested in the form of…

The Krampus.

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For those who might think it a simple and modern take of Santa gone bad, the news is much more interesting: the tradition of the Krampus is far, far older…far, far darker. It comes indeed from a time when stories whispered in bleak isolation took on such lives of their own that eventually it became difficult to discern which came first – the story, or the creature in it (whether real or misinterpreted, imagined or misremembered).

Krampus, it is said, is “not really an individual’s name, but a class of entity, e.g. ‘vampire’ not ‘Dracula’” (Ridenour 14). Imagine that…a class of entity….implying other entities, and oh so, so many interpretations…

Isn’t this the very thing that made Lovecraft, Lovecraft? Isn’t this the very thing that animates our graphic novels, our video games, our superheroes, our fan fiction, our movie sequels, our darkest fantasies? Mythic monsters, demons of folk and fairy tales, that whole concept of hell-and-afterlife thing? Of wars between gods and humanity as puppets or prizes?

Ah but it is so easy to rumor that cults and weird traditions still linger in isolated places, just enough peculiar parades and effigies and misunderstood rituals to fuel the imaginations of those of us bathed in the false security of artificial light, tainted with just enough exoticism that we cannot look away, and just enough of our ancestry that we can feel those unseen eyes upon us. And so such legends capture our primal attention…punctuate our darker nights when the power fails…

How much blood lineage is enough for an entity to track our whereabouts? Our offspring? Our sins?

Krampus represents a return to darker things at the Holidays, and yes – a diversion from the “true meaning of Christmas” which has been so long obscured by the commercialism of Christmas that even the faithful have wandered into zombie territory. We are all ripe for the return of the Krampus and all of its kind…Primal, punitive, judging. We have taken our safety and freedoms in this world for granted. We ignore our obligations to each other by pretending we are too busy to see injustice. We have turned up our noses at superstition, and considered the scientific act of relegating religion to that category. We think ourselves untouchable…on par with the unseen.

The Krampus reminds us that such hubris has been the source of supernatural come-uppance in the past. And opening our imaginations to the monsters and demons of our darker histories might well serve to remind us of why we needed our religions to begin with, of the importance of living honorably.

Even dark entities abide by rules. Does it not then beg the question of who set those rules, and provoke the question of why humanity would be exempt when all other creatures are not?

And does that not lead right back to the backbone of the ghost story – the execution of justice?

And does that not in turn lead right back to Christmas, which for Christians implies the coming of the ultimate judge?

Ah yes, Commercial Christmas pales in the light of the gifts of heaven or hell… And the Krampus is bringing us right back to our point of origins…reminding us that there is no light without the dark.

And the greater the light, the greater the dark…

“America’s recent love affair with the Krampus, like any infatuation perhaps, tends to distort the object of its interest…” (Ridenour 10) Perhaps we should be more aware of what we make light of. What if we have summoned into our awareness the sword of justice from more primal times? One can only imagine the amount of justice-letting about to ensue…

Because just as we have distorted the ghost story to fit a Hollywood Blockbuster, we have distorted the meaning of Christmas and its lessons of our place in a dangerously unstable spiritual hierarchy; we have blissfully forgotten upon which plane we reside.

As one of my own fictional story characters once said, “On this level, we are all meat.

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So why not embrace the concept of the Krampus and his ilk? The timing could not be more perfect, with so much of the world still at war with itself, with the ever constant battle of “the Other” so ever-present and just out the front window when it isn’t right in our own homes. When has there been a greater need for justice when the loudest, most obnoxious voices are the most visibly rewarded? When the simple, quiet person just trying to survive is the one who is imprisoned, humiliated, murdered, castigated, blamed and disappeared because his or her existence becomes a random affront to someone else – someone who seems to get away with it sometimes under the very gaze of the world?

Don’t we all crave judgment? Don’t we all cry out for justice? And don’t most of us understand that unless it comes from some all-seeing entity, it will not happen at all?

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And of course this begs the question: how innocent are you?

Enter the Krampus…a handy instrument of the immortals who might be watching our every thought and move. Draped in Christian accoutrement but ever so much older and less inclined to mercy… Doesn’t every one of us in a moment of selfish disenfranchisement crave the reality of his existence? And don’t we all hope it is not us who he comes for?

The Krampus is a gift to modern Horror. Here is our opportunity to take back the fundamental concept of primal judgment…of a vigilant and swift executioner of justice. Once again we can deck the halls with things quite converse to the saccharine holiday we hijacked from its original purpose, reawaken those personal awarenesses of our own stupid mistakes and arrogances that will not go unpunished or ignored if original religion and mythology are to be believed…even reawaken the fear…

Come on. Get Literary. Resurrect our dark holiday tradition.

Write a ghost story for Christmas… root about in the old, forbidden stories. Turn out the lights. Look your demons in the eye.

I dare you.

 

References

Brom. Krampus the Yule Lord. New Yor: Harper Voyager, c2012.

Dalby, Richard, ed. Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories.New York: MetroBooks, c1995.

Dziemianowicz, Stefan, Robert H. Weinberg & Marlin H. Greenberg, eds. 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, c1993.

Moon, Jim. “Christmas Spirits Part I: The Origin of Ghost Stories at Christmas” posted 20 December 2011. Retrieved 11/30/2016 from:  http://www.hypnogoria.com/html/ghoststoriesforchristmas.html)

Ridenour, Al. The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, c2016.