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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is satire?

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

What is irony?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Using Dahl to Understand Literary Horror and the Power of Simplicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A leg of lamb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hurry, driver, hurry!”

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

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

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

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

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

Continues Ulin:

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

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

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

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Works:

Novels: (Young Adult):

The Gremlins

Sometime Never: a Fable for Supermen

James and the Giant Peach

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The Magic Finger

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Danny, the Champion of the World

The Enormous Crocodile

My Uncle Oswald

The Twits

George’s Marvelous Medicine

The BFG

The Witches

The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me

Matilda

Esio Trot

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke

The Minpins

 

Short Story Collections:

Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying

Someone Like You

Kiss Kiss

Twenty-Nine Kisses From Roald Dahl

Switch Bitch

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More

The Best of Roald Dahl

Tales of the Unexpected

More Tales of the Unexpected

A Roald Dahl Selection: Nine Short Stories

Two Fables

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

The Roald Dahl Treasury

 

 Edited by:

Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories

 

 Nonfiction:

Boy-Tales of Childhood

Going Solo

Measles, a Dangerous Illness

Memories with Food at Gypsy House

Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety

The Dahl Diary 1992

My Year

The Roald Dahl Diary 1997

The Mildehhall Treasure

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Protagonist Next Door: Where Horror’s Best Critic Says We’re Going Wrong


The question of how American Horror lost its scariness is a daunting one.

So if you are one of the many who are baffled by how we wound up in this unscary place, rest assured that even the Critics are mystified. There are speculations, of course; I myself have made several. But when it comes to really looking at the problem, we have to get into the technical issues – everything from tropes to convention and the literal execution of story.

Because Horror as a genre is just beginning its official Literary Critical journey, we are also at the beginning of the kind of intense excavations literary analysis will bring – along with its insights and – yes – opinions. So for those of us pondering the mystery of missing horror in Horror, we can and should look at the earliest of Critical argument as the hunt for the scary expands – in this case, an interesting theory put forth by one of our first and foremost Literary Critics in the genre, S.T. Joshi:

That our choice to write our protagonists as everyday people has undermined the potent power of Horror.

 

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Literary Critic, and imminent Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi

 

The Premise

In his absolute admiration for the fathers of Weird fiction – Lovecraft, Blackwood, Dunsany, James, Machan and Bierce in particular – S.T. Joshi has become a major authority on the subject of Weird fiction, especially where Lovecraft is concerned. His intense study has taken him interesting places, and as he has Critically begun to document the structure of Weird fiction (defining what makes Weird, Weird), he was quick to notice an interesting point about our protagonists: we have made them increasingly ordinary.

Is this, Joshi ponders, the vehicle by which we have lost our way? And are we simply writing bad Weird fiction (and not Horror at all) because we have broken a cardinal rule of it? Does great Horror require a certain type of protagonist?

There is one thing we can all agree upon: one of biggest differences separating contemporary Horror writing from that which up until now defined the irregular but interesting shape of the genre is the choices we make in characterization. Specifically, it is the rise of the “common” protagonist in modern fiction – our embrace of the everyman or woman who is just like us, caught doing nothing out of the ordinary, and who is suddenly faced with Horrors we are doing an equally bad or inconsistent job of revealing.

Joshi theorizes that this is in fact “a” (if not “the”) fatal flaw resulting in declining scariness.

The most easily recognized ring leader of this newer perspective has been Stephen King. And many would argue justifiably, that this is precisely why we like him. So it is ironic that at least for one Critic, the ordinariness of King’s characters is a pointed reason why Critics in general have developed an equally passionate and opposite opinion of his work.

This is also an example of our communication gap – revealing that fans, writers, and Critics often do not share the same values system.

Where Joshi’s position about the common-person-as-protagonist is clear, we often disagree about its importance in scaring. What, we wonder, is so bad about creating or reading about a main character based upon ourselves?

And aren’t we as writers creating a new, modern influence on writing conventions not so very different than the rise of the first person narrative?

Or are Critics right that we are (by creating ordinary protagonists) causing our own stories to flatline?

And what about style? Have we as readers and writers mistaken King’s style for a convention change – one we should not be imitating?

We tend to defend our choices: such characters have jobs and dysfunctions like us, speak like us, have the same nagging worries like us; we identify with them. In fact, we often pay a great deal of lip service to those carefully crafted similarities, mistakenly thinking we are showing our World View hand, creating a literary element that roots our fiction in this precise moment of time.

But what we are actually doing – according to Joshi – is making our Horror banal, our monsters underinflated, and our protagonists just plain boring…

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The Critic and Criticism (at Fifty Paces)

What is important is that we remember we are all on the same side, suffering the same frustrations when we curl up with a Horror story that promises us the kind of fright that will pry our eyelids open for endless nights of residual terror, only to find ourselves distracted by the promise made on yet another book cover blurb…

Critics are equally baffled at how precisely we got here. But there is little work actually having been done with regard to exploring the problem (in case you are interested) because of two major reasons: one is that older Critics never really looked at Horror as its own established genre – so there is a messy thing happening when works are compared with no set criteria – complicated by the constant repurposing of terms and ideology in the genre even by our own writers. And this subsequent lack of established and agreed upon rules for the genre is our inheritance because up until this point (second reason) in the field of Literary Criticism, we have had no cadre of dedicated Critics analyzing our genre.

Analyzing the genre means setting up agreed upon definitions and rules. Then arguing about them. Then deciding after all of the arguments, which argument was right and balances all future arguments…all before we can name our Canon works and authors.

(English majors wondering what you can do with your degree, this is your chance to get in on the ground floor of a once-in-a-lifetime event: the official establishment of a genre in Literary Criticism…from the bottom up. Have at it…)

We need our own Literary Critics dedicated specifically to the Horror genre, whose job it is to establish these perimeters and definitions that will set the accepted criteria for the genre…including what it should be rightfully CALLED.

Whenever a Critic tries to begin the Critical process on a work or an author today, he or she immediately collides with the kinds of contradictions in terms that happens when a genre has been growing wild like so many weeds – but with actual roots and flowers that are intrinsic to a real, established genre all mixed in. There is research, reading, study, sorting and discussion to be done. And all of that is going to lead to serious debate.

These include arguments over even what basic conventions and tropes will be deemed acceptable, expected execution of Craft, as well as deciding which authors and which works are seminal to the genre and therefore Canon works – establishing in turn our own very first actual genre Canon.

(Because yes, Virginia, we have NO HORROR CANON until the Literary Critics establish one – Because that is their job; that is what they DO. If you want in on that action, you need to get your BA, your Masters, and a Ph.D. Period. All other discussions are secular and moot.)

And there are some very interesting questions to be resolved….many of which come to light when we ask the simple question why isn’t modern Horror scary anymore?

Are we looking at different types of Horror? Is it about subgenre? Is it about modern times versus the past and our technological differences? About our religious ones? Our regional ones? Our geography? Our culture? Is it about short story versus novels and word counts? Is it about the narrative we now abbreviate? About word choice? The length of our sentences? The backstory we edit out? The monster we edit in? Or is it something as basic as the building blocks of perceived convention? Is it about the characters we design?

S.T. Joshi started his probing by comparing what he considers the most successful of Horror – Weird Fiction – with the stuff we write now. And what he found is thought-provoking, especially because his research is thus far more comprehensive and/or available for laypeople to read and contemplate. This is a contributing factor to my referring to him as the “best” Critic in the genre.

So I mean no disrespect to China Mieville (who I genuinely wish would write a Critical tome about the genre and his Critical interpretations, if only for the sake of comparison and contrast)… or to Noel Carroll, whose work in the area of philosophy within the genre is equally thought-provoking.

However, because Joshi (himself a former fiction writer in the genre) is a world-renowned authority on Lovecraft who has published at least four seminal Literary Critical works on Horror and Supernatural Fiction (The Weird Tale, The Modern Weird Tale, Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction in two volumes) which have made him a foundational Critic for the genre, there is more accessible information to study and consider with respect to the genre for future Critics, writers, and fans of Horror.

But I also appreciate his honesty, and his tendency to write for the layperson if not to the layperson.

Joshi has opened a window for those of us who always wondered what Critics do and how they do it, even if it means he disagrees with those of us who appreciate other facets of the genre; at least he explains his process.

Joshi readily admits to us a favoritism towards the Weird and Lovecraft, and to having a professional and personal aversion to most modern writers, of which Stephen King takes the brunt of his angst. And like all other Critics, his frustration about what is going wrong in modern Horror also remains ours: not only is Joshi perplexed at what is causing so thorough a failure of modern writing to produce actual horror, terror, dread, or fear in the manner to which readers of older genre works have become accustomed, but why is writing that is so much like King’s all that remains of our formerly vibrant genre? Where is the creative diversity?

Yet also, how is it that so many fans are adamantly enjoying King if King is doing something Critically wrong in his writing? Are we all simply uneducated or undereducated in the ways of Literature, or is King doing something not even Critics have figured out the value of yet? Are Critics biased? Or are we?

This brings us back to characterization – the most noticeable change in Horror since the Weird writers wowed us all. For Joshi, the first complaint is laid at the feet of the modern protagonist. And nobody does the modern protagonist as ordinarily as King.

(Keep in mind this is for the moment okay: it is by virtue of his success and popularity that Critics cannot choose to ignore King. But they do have to understand why whatever works with King works better with him than with anyone else writing modern Horror…Kind of a complement, really…)

 

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The Argument

In reading Joshi, one has always to remember that being among the first Literary Critics looking professionally at the Horror genre, he is overwhelmed with the need to constantly create definitions for terms he needs to use to do his job. One of those terms, for example, is the actual name of the genre, and the hierarchy of subgenres. Joshi admits that he is not certain yet as to whether what we call Horror is not just badly done Weird Fiction, or if one is a subgenre of the other. So when we read Joshi, we have to think laterally – accepting that he is also discussing Horror when he uses the term Weird, as he is sorting out criteria as he observes them. Naming the genre officially, then, could take a while.

But this has no effect on the point he makes about our newest interpretation of protagonists and the level of ordinariness we have layered them with. Keep in mind also, that commercial success is to most Critical thinking an anathema to all that is holy in Literature: sales figures simply do not correlate to the Literary “soundness” of a work. Commercial success is about the attractive outer clothing; Literature is about the hidden, academically derived technical soul of the work.

Says Joshi:

“One reason why the weird tale has become both commercially successful and, in my view, literarily problematical, is what Stephan Dziemianowicz has termed the ‘banalization’ of horror. This means the increasing concern of weird writers to depict the minute details of the mundane lives of mundane people, both in an attempt to win the reader’s sympathy (most of us are, after all, pretty ordinary) and to lay the groundwork for the intrusion of the weird into a familiar realm.” (Joshi 6-7)

It is hard to not interpret this as Joshi thinking writers have become lazy in devising ways to create relevant fiction that should instead connect through its Weird I.V… over-relying on characterization and distracting details in the place of building a better “monster” or monstrous epiphany.

I get what he is saying here, and I agree but only up to a point, and this is why I say Weird fiction is in fact different… I agree that in Horror we are relying too heavily on extraneous details – complex relationships, distracting backstory…all in a strange attempt to disguise the elephant in the room we all paid to see… It does not make sense, it does seem superfluous and pointless – except in the writer’s desire to connect the story to the audience. By its proximity and our miseducation about the genre in general and the Weird in particular, our Horror “sins” have dirtied the face of all subgenres – including Weird fiction. Not seeing boundaries, not understanding boundaries, we have overrun them; we have contaminated Lovecraft’s perfect child.

But are we wrong in the rest of the genre – in the Petrie dish of new genre fiction – to be attempting to make our characters and our entry point of Horror ordinary?

And here I have to question the condemnation. Is this desire to connect more deeply with a modern audience we are told does not connect with old-style narrative reflected by a natural growth of the genre narrative?

In other words, are we legitimately responding to the needs of our audience in order to be read?

Is this as natural a “change” in narrative style as transitioning to the first person was in its day?

If not, why not?

Continues Joshi:

“In the end this technique is not so different in approach from Lovecraft’s brand of realism, although he emphasized topographical over psychological realism. Although this dwelling on issues that are of concern to most normal people – relationships between husband, wife, and children; difficulties on the job; problems of modern urban life – is a very large reason for the success of writers like King and Straub, it does not seem to me as if this should be the primary focus of weird fiction. This is not what Winfield Townley Scott meant by touching ‘the depths of human significance,” especially since most weird writers treat these issues superficially and sentimentally, and without sufficiently integrating them the weird scenario.” (7)

Well when you say it like that…

It would appear to me then that the issue is not ordinariness, but our ineptitude in turning that ordinariness into a vehicle to introduce, engage, and surrender to the Weird (or…Horror).

It implies that we are clumsy and do not thoroughly recognize the tool we have in our hands as a tool…we are chimpanzees at a canvas.

A little insulting, I know. But is it true?

Is underdeveloping the full complement of story why we are writing superficial Horror? Maybe we see the importance of the job loss, the World View impact of our modern Technology Revolution…but if we leave it a dangling modifier on the page…it is still bad grammar. It is still awkward usage. It is still lacking the full impact even we as writers wanted it to have…

So maybe Joshi is onto something here. Let’s go further. Joshi continues:

“Many modern weird writers do not appear to have taken much notice of Lovecraft’s words on this matter: ‘I could not write about “ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos – to the unknown – which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background.’

“Weird fiction should never be about ordinary people. Even if one does not ‘adopt’ the cosmic attitude of Lovecraft, even if one wishes to depict the insidious incursion of the weird into the ordinary, the emphasis should be on the weird and not the ordinary.” (7)

So Joshi reveals that it is not only our technical faults, but a misdirection of focus.

And this is true…we most certainly do retain the focus on our characters – not the monster or the monstrous. We seem to do this like babies reach for blankets – mistaking their soft warmth for mom. And that action is reinforced by the motivation for money and sequels. We don’t just leave the door open – we remove it from its hinges.

Yet It is so easy to hear arrogance in both the Critical voice and Lovecraft’s voice, we tend to react from the gut… it feels like classism – something that rattles us to our primal cores. We first interpret those words “ordinary people” as “common” in the vernacular of upper classes and inescapable caste systems, the concerns about family, food, and shelter as “incapable of captivating fancy” when most of us lose so much of our lives in the struggle to support those concerns, fancy never enters into it. It is a “how-dare-you” moment that prevents us from hearing what is being said. From hearing each other.

Lovecraft, for all his petty arrogances and bigotries, is saying something important about writing. About story.

Lovecraft is saying there is an elephant in the room and we are talking drapes and wallpaper.

Granted, in some cases that may be the Horror of it… But when we were clearly aiming for something else and didn’t deliver it, we have to admit it is time to take a hard look at how, where, and why we failed.

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A Rebuttal (Still Not Scary, Now Paranoid About Writing Protagonists)

Maybe we have to stop opening doors…maybe we need to let the monster – like Schrodinger’s cat – both be and not-be behind the door…to be dead and not-dead at the same time…

We can’t do that if the happy couple goes off thinking the Horror is over…even if we leave teasers suggesting it might be otherwise. I think we have to do more than suggest it: I think we have to communicate that because it is far bigger than us, older than us, more supernatural than us…we are blips on its radar, mere morsels to be snacked upon on the way to world domination, to the annihilation of humanity…Cthulhu sleeping at the bottom of the sea…

But I don’t think it means our protagonist cannot be the guy or gal next door. I don’t think it doesn’t mean we can have him get mugged, or laid off, or be a drug addict. But I do think that details that affirm those character supports cannot be left to overgrow the rest of the monster garden…they are backstory and must remain backstory; the monster must be front-and-center, even when he is just offstage.

Which makes me then ask…are we really talking about emphasizing the wrong character arc?

And if we choose the monster’s beginning, middle and end…will we be dinged for failing to show properly dimensional characters?

Of course this is a matter for Critics to discuss. That’s why we need more Critics.

We also cannot pretend that our religious orientations might not color our views of detail like what the differences are between Weird and nonWeird fiction and why we have lost the scary gene; indeed, both Joshi and Lovecraft come at Weird from atheistic angles. That in turn potentially colors Criticisms that Joshi might find a work as far too saccharine or silly for its author’s attempts to infuse religious messaging or morals into a work, yet too shallow if it didn’t offer something…but then it might also mean he has made a point. It might mean we have limited our audience and made our story trite instead of “touching the depths of the human experience…”

It might just mean that whether we are talking Horror as Weird or Weird as Horror that where we have gone wrong is not in how we see the protagonist at all…but how we see the monster.

Maybe Joshi and Lovecraft are right.

Maybe our modern Horror disappoints because we really want to think ourselves far more interesting than monsters dreamt of. Maybe we really do believe that Cthulhu can’t get us if we see him first; that we are smarter, and more worthy of survival.

Because after all, there really is nothing scary about that…

 

References

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