Book Review: Irredeemable, by Jason Sizemore

Disclosures: A) I used to slush for Apex Magazine, of which Jason is the publisher, and B) I got a review copy.

I’m reading (as I’m sure you’ve heard me go off about by now) Nightmare Magazine Top 100 Horror Books.  What I’m seeing, as I work through the Bs of Barker, Barron, Blatty, Bloch, and Bradbury, is that (other than Blatty) I’m not finding these stories particularly scary.  I like them all well enough, but they’re not really horrifying to me.  Here’s what seem to be the basic revelations so far:

  • Old people are scary, unless you’re old, and then they’re even scarier.
  • White people are scared of everyone who isn’t white.
  • Men are scared of everyone who isn’t male.
  • Young people with old spirits or who are possessed by old spirits are terrifying–because of the oldness.
  • I usually have more empathy for the antagonists than the protagonists, except in The Exorcist and Psycho, which, well, no, actually.  I had empathy for Norman Bates except in a few spots; it was his mother whose ass I wanted to kick.
  • The theme seems to be, “Everything we took for granted, why can’t we take it for granted anymore?  Waaaaah!”

Now, in my world, old people don’t scare me, and death is a Goth chick in a top hat.  (Okay, sometimes old people scare me, but not necessarily because they are approaching death, but because of the things they take for granted, like Hey, you should destroy your personality when you become a mother, or Hey, wouldn’t it be great if Jesus came and set everyone on fire?)  White people can, in fact, learn how to get along with everyone else, and “men” isn’t an end-all be-all club anymore.  And in my world, what we call it when you have to stop taking things for granted is called “wisdom,” not horror.

Maybe it’s just the Bs, I don’t know.

In the middle of these, I took a break and read Jason’s book, a short story or two at a time.  It’s a good sign, see, when you can only read a short story or two at a time, because a good short story is too powerful to move on from right away.

And they gave me nightmares.  Which none of the Bs have managed to do yet, although I need to reread Blatty before I can really make a final call.  I’m not sure if it’s just me or what.

Here’s what Jason’s stories have to say:

  • What if it’s me?  That’s the horrible one, and I didn’t know it?  And now I’m going to get what’s coming to me?
  • What if I went along with something horrible, and now it’s going to drag me down?  Does it mean I deserve it or not, if I didn’t actually do anything?
  • What if happiness (or at least getting what I want) would kill me?  What if it took the end of the world to get like two seconds of happiness, would it be worth it, then?
  • What if someone’s using the few good parts of my soul that are left against me?  Would it be better to be evil, then?
  • What if I’m so inured to pain that I would suffer more if it stopped?

These things, I can relate to.  In my world, they matter.  But that also means that I don’t know that I’m the most objective judge of the stories, either.

There were some that I thought very well put together (“Caspar,” “Sonic Scarring,” “Yellow Warblers,” “The Sleeping Quartet,” and others), and some that I thought were weaker, that hadn’t explored the line of thought all the way down (“For the Sake of Pleasing”), or had gone for the easy, quick kill instead of being very Jasonish (“Hope”).

And then there was “Shotgun Shelter,” which made me shout and almost toss the book across the room–it’s presented here as a short story, but it’s really the opening of this great novel somewhere between Joe Lansdale and Stephen King and why the @#$% did I get robbed by having it end so abruptly?

I look forward to him finishing the novel.  Which I doubt he has plans to finish…yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trolls by Genre

I was screwing around with genres while journaling this morning:

 

Horror: We are all trolls.

With a splash of terror: Everyone is a troll but me, and now they’re after me!

Urban Fantasy: It’s the job of all right-thinking citizens to make a stand against trolls.  Especially, you know, if we’re getting paid for it.

Crime: How the troll took me down, and I got my revenge.

Mystery:  Which one of you is the troll?  Scratch that, which one of you is the troll who murdered my sister?  Sheesh, you’re all a bunch of trolls…

Romance: A troll hurt me once, so I never loved again…until now.

Historical Romance: …with dresses.

Paranormal Romance: …and the troll was literally a troll.

Noir: Sometimes it’s trolls versus trolls, babe, and you just gotta go with the lesser troll.

Christian: With love, even a troll can be saved.

Janette Oke: …on the prairie.

Thriller: When trolls turn DEADLY.

Epic Fantasy: A savior will arise against the troll who stands behind the throne.

Contemporary Fantasy: What you thought were metaphorical trolls…are literal trolls!  Which is both terrible…and cool!

Slipstream: What you thought were metaphorical trolls…are actually science construct robots run by miniature trolls, and you might be one, too.  Which is deeply unsettling.  Don’t adjust that dial…

Magic Realism:  The quiet suffering of the trolls must be understood.

Weird Fiction:  Dig too deep into the nature of trolls, and you will find something even worse then trolls…something too horrible to comprehend…

Grimdark: If the trolls want this ruined land, they will have to tear it from my cold, undead hands.

Sword & Sorcery:  My unlikely companion, Troll, and I get up to all kinds of blood, guts, and ADVENTURE!

Science Fiction: What if we went into space and found an alien society were run by trolls?

Mundane SF: How will we survive the inevitable worldwide society run by trolls, especially after we run out of petrochemicals?

Space Opera: We few rebels must resist the overwhelming power of a galactic society secretly run by trolls! Of course we will win!

Western: Well, I figure this here town run by a troll of a sheriff has something to learn about right and wrong, and here I am with a teachin’ license and two pistols.

Space Western: We ex-rebels have to teach this trollish society a little something about justice.  Also, money.  As in them not having so much of it all of a sudden.

Caper: So there’s this troll with a lot of money…what?  What could possibly go wrong?

Fable:  Once upon a time, there was a troll under the bridge, whom the main characters tricked so badly that you end up feeling sorry for him, kind of, if he would just stop eating people.

Alternate History: What if the Nazis idolized trolls as the master race?

Historical Fiction: Let us delve into the rich history of trolls, to explore where they came from, and their effect upon society now.

Steampunk/Gothic: A plucky heroine discovers an underground society of trolls abducted from the Colonies and forced to serve His Majesty as slaves.  She prevents a bloody revolution and instigates peaceful social change while falling in love with a Duke.

Steampunk/WeirdFic: A washed-out inventor discovers an underground society of trolls abducted from the Colonies and forced to serve His Majesty as slaves.  He accidentally starts a revolution and is haplessly dragged all over the place as brutal slaughter occurs around him and he finds out more than he ever wanted to know about the nature of reality, which is essentially broken.

Cyberpunk: An arrogant programmer discovers an underground society of trolls forced to serve the Government as online spies.  He deliberately starts a revolution that gets out of control, then is captured by the Gov’t and forced to work against his former allies.

Erotica: Captured by trolls, the main character learns to break down all their inhibitions and become…more truly themselves.

Porn: Captured by trolls, the main character learns to break down all their sexual inhibitions and become…the Queen of Trolls!

Chick Lit: Finding out that you and all your friends are, you know, some kind of minor troll…but you all have each other’s backs once a tragic loss brings you together.

Suspense: You and a troll face off against each other through intermediaries until, finally, you are trapped together, forced to face each other directly…and only one of you will survive.

–What other genres would you like?

Also: Ack, I’m trying to sell books here!  Preorders for my collection of horror/dark fantasy/ghost stories, A Murder of Crows: Seventeen Tales of Monsters and the Macabre is available here.  The book will be released on Oct. 27th.  Please preorder and help me get more visible on the charts on release day!

A Murder of Crows: Preorders Now Open

 

Preorders are now open for my collection of short horror, ghost, and dark fantasy stories for adults, A Murder of Crows.  If you are so inclined to make a preorder, many thanks!  The current price is $2.99 US; it’ll go up after the release to $4.99.

The print edition is not quite ready for preorders yet (ahem).

If you would like a copy but find yourself short of cash (or need a format other than for Kindle), then contact me via your favorite social media network or at publisher [at] wonderlandpress [dot] com, and I’ll email you one in trade for a review.  If you want to hold out for a print copy for review, email me anyway.  I’m making a list.

If you would like to preorder a copy and have an early review copy so that you can show up on my release day (Oct. 27th) with a review and therefore help boost sales to the moon, yes please!  Send me an email!

If you want to help me out but don’t want to read the book (horror stories aren’t your bag, I get it), then please help spread the news by posting any of the below (or making up your own):

Twitter:

It was we crows who took your daughter, in case you were wondering… A MURDER OF CROWS avail for preorder:   

Monsters and the macabre: A MURDER OF CROWS preorders now available:    

Facebook and almost all other social media:

It was we crows who took your daughter, in case you were wondering… A MURDER OF CROWS, a collection of short horror, ghost, and dark fantasy stories by DeAnna Knippling is available for preorder here:  

And if you would forward the link to this particular blog, that would be helpful, too.

I’ll have more blogs later telling you how clever and fascinating this book is–the crow story isn’t so much a frame story so much as it is yoinked out of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, which I’ve always been fascinated with.  But that’s later.  Today’s just to announce presales.  The opening of the book is below.

 

Crows-3b

 

 

It was we crows who took your daughter, in case you were wondering. She didn’t run away. We had–I had–been watching her for some time, listening to her tell stories in the grass behind the house. She would sit near the chicken coop and watch the white chickens pick at the dirt, pulling up fat worms and clipping grasshoppers out of the air as they jumped toward the fields. 

Some of them were good stories. Some of them were bad. But that’s what decided it, even more than any issue of mercy or salvation or anything else. Crows are, for one, possessive of stories. And also by then I had pecked almost all the elders into coming to listen to her at least once, except Facunde, who was then mad and responded to nobody’s pecking, not that I had had the courage to exactly take my beak to her. “She is like a daughter to me,” I had pled with the others. “She listens.” They laughed at me, they rattled their beaks, they came and heard her and were convinced, or at least bullied into pretending they were convinced. 

We took her on the same cold winter day that you traded your son to the fairies, the wind blowing in cold gray threads, ruffling our feathers. It had snowed a few days before that, a storm that had killed your husband, or so it was said. The wind had snatched the snow out onto the prairie, hiding it in crevices. It had been a dry year, and even though it was still too cold to melt the snow, the thirsty dirt still found places to tuck it away in case of a thaw. 

I stamped my feet on a sleeping branch while the others argued. Some argued that we should wait for spring. So many things are different, in the spring. But old Loyolo insisted: no, if we were to take the child, we would have to take her then and there: there had been at least one death already, and no one had heard the babe’s cry for hours. 

We covered the oak trees, thousands of us, so many that the branches creaked and swayed under our weight. I don’t know if you noticed us, before it was too late. You were, it is to be admitted, busy. 

The girl played on the swings, rocking herself back and forth in long, mournful creaks. She wore a too-small padded jacket and a dress decorated in small flowers. She was so clean that she still smelled of soap. Her feet were bare under their shoes, the skin scabbed and dry, almost scaly. Her wrists were pricked with gooseflesh, and her hair whipped in thin, colorless threads across her face as the wind caught it. The house had the smell of fresh death, under the peeling paint and the dusty windows, and seemed to murmur with forgotten languages, none of which were languages of love or tenderness. Afternoon was sinking into evening. The girl’s breath smelled like hunger. 

“Now!” called old Loyolo, at some signal that not even I could have told you. And thousands of birds swept out of the trees toward her. From the middle of it, I can tell you, it seemed a kind of nightmare. Wings in my face, claws in my feathers. The sun was temporarily snuffed out, it was a myriad of bright slices reflected off black wings… 

Book Review: The Imago Sequence

by Laird Barron.

Spoilers.

Reading this book, a collection of short “the horrors of that which is beyond our comprehension” horror stories, was quite the experience.

The first two stories, “Old Virginia” and “Shiva, Open Your Eye,” bored me.  I’m reading Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books, so I’m expecting this stuff to be over-the-top good.  They were well written, but they just didn’t do anything for me.  No horror, no tension, no delight, no schadenfreude, no emotion.  Just the reasonably unpainful slog of turning pages.  I neither loved, nor hated, nor even goggled at any of the characters.  “Uh-huh,” I said.  Logical and plausible, given a world in which the uncanny exists.

The third story, “Procession of the Black Sloth,” made me go, “This guy has a particular horror of old people, doesn’t he?”  I mean, in that story, it’s blatant.  A group of little old ladies are not what they seem.  A man could go mad, finding out what little old ladies get up to, when they’re not playing cards.  This one I liked; it was a much more tense, almost intimate story, and some of the visuals are still with me, although I’m entirely on the side of the little old ladies here.

“Bulldozer,” well, it’s there, okay, whatever.  Interesting setting, a Pinkerton in the West who…looks into stuff what he would be better not looking into.  An old woman adds to the horror of the milieu.  Yawn.  I had to look this one up, because I could not remember what it was about.

I sit down and write a couple of journal entries ranting about how I’m tired of being held at arm’s length by this writer and how I would have ditched the book if it weren’t on the damn list.  Then start I list all the things I’m afraid of and why, and look at it with satisfaction.  “Ugly,” I think.  “But utterly mine.”

Then “Proboscis,” about the same reaction as “Bulldozer,” initially.  Different setting–modern, northwest, horrors at some ancient geological features, wait wait, will we be sorry we looked behind the curtain?–yep, someone’s getting eaten, okay, whatever.  But there are some things about bugs that have real zest to them, about people who might or might not be human.  This story feels a little more real.  I laugh out loud when, at the end, a little old lady expresses sympathy for the main character, her hand lingering just a little too long on his shoulder.

“Hallucigenia” was quite enjoyable.  There were old people!  And insects!  And I was beginning to notice that rich people were coming up more often than not.  Nnnnno, not rich people specificially, but people in power, or people acting on the authority of people in power.  Here, a rich ex-game hunter/financial genius/predator gone soft stumbles into what a bunch of poor but extremely smart farmers have been getting up to.  “Does he have a thing about rich people?” I wondered.  “Everyone in these stories has the money to throw around and get into stuff they shouldn’t.  Working class people, even middle class people would be all  ‘screw this, I gotta go to work in the morning’ and leave it alone.”

“Parallax” is almost…cute, almost a directly connected story with “Hallucingenia.”  Meh.

I look up Laird Barron on Wikipedia.  For  some reason it is almost gripping that he’s from Alaska and wears an eyepatch.  “Don’t let the eyepatch influence you,” I try to tell myself.  “Oooh, he’s done the Iditarod….”  I find out that he’s strongly influenced by pulp, and stuff starts snapping into place.  The settings…the characters…the dryness of emotion.  Yes, those all fit, very pulp and popular fictiony.  70s adventure/spy stuff…with the uncanny!  Private investigator in the back woods noir…with the uncanny!  Pinkerton…with the uncanny!  A drug-induced adventure story…with the uncanny!  Rich people on safari…with the uncanny!

Then I realize these are his first published stories.

Bitterly, I think, “Everyone loves Mr. Cleverdick who can write pulp and the uncanny, grumble grumble.”  I seethe with jealousy, yet am secure in the secret knowledge that at least I’m gutting my own pitiful soul when I’m writing, not copying someone from decades past…at least I’m not holding people at arm’s length…

That Black Sloth story, though.  I still think it’s pretty good.

Then I hit “The Royal Zoo is Closed.”

I don’t remember the story at all:  it breaks out of the pulp mode, and doesn’t bother telling the story in a clear, linear fashion.  I’m not sure whether it’s any good or not (I reluctantly admit to myself, here, that the other stories are good, just not personally affective.)  And yet it feels more personal and real than everything but the Black Sloth story combined.  In a sense, this should be the last story in the collection–the breakdown of reality.  And yet it’s not.

And now the final story, “The Imago Sequence.”  I’m not sure whether it’s a good story or not; I’m not really sure how to judge it.  I wonder what my reaction to it would have been, had I read the story on its own instead of in this particular position in this particular collection.

As I was reading this story, I kept popping in and out of layers:  reading the story as a story, looking at the story as part of the author’s oeuvre and development, looking at how this story ties into the others.  I read the entire story as a story, but got distracted by the other two thoughts, and so I’m not sure whether, in the end, the story’s any good.  It must be (it must be brilliant), and yet I can’t tell.

Here’s the thing:  of all the stories in the collection, the one that came closest to actually spooking, startling, or horrifying me is the Black Sloth story, and even then, I consider the ending somewhat of a mess.  “Ach, that’s the kind of thing that I could end with,” I tell myself.  I expect more from this guy, sad to say.  I came to this with expectations.  “But you have to do everything so much better than I could ever hope to do, so that I don’t tear myself up with jealousy.”  Unfair, I know.

If you set that one aside, then–what you see is a lurching kind of development of the writer.  He starts out as a master craftsman, a master carpenter of words, a master architect.  Everything that I’m striving to hit, he’s already hit it, knocked it out of the park.  But there’s no soul to it, no intimacy, no personal creepy crawlies, or if there are, they’re very deeply buried, so that they only really pop out when you start comparing the stories to each other.  Old people, rich people, people in the employ of the rich and powerful.  I get the impression that none of this is personally important to the author.  Then, as things go on, you see stories with flashes of personal squick to them.  Bugs.  The dent in the rich guy’s wife’s forehead.  His love of screwed-up art.  The Mima Mounds, which seems as if they’re too important to describe directly:  they can only be mentioned, or the fact that they can’t really be seen can be dwelt upon.

Then the moment when everything gets blown up:  “The Royal Zoo Is Closed.”  Which feels like a story where the author finally lets go of the rule book of how to write a good story and just gets drunk and raves and raves without really giving a shit about how it turns out, sends it off, and gets it published, much to his surprise.  A watershed of freedom.

And, finally–”The Imago Sequence.”

It hits me, as I’m making tea this morning (I finished the story last night and, oddly, didn’t dream about it), that “The Imago Sequence” describes what it feels like to become a horror writer, or even just a writer in general.  There’s a first phase, that feels interesting but mysterious.  Pretentious, copycattish, yeah yeah whatever.  A second phase, where you get addicted to the stuff and you write to stop the nightmares and everything is too damn hard.  Stuff sloshes around in you, you start looking at the world differently:  “Hey, that one thing that everyone takes for granted?  It sucks.  It just @#$%^&* sucks.”  And every time you go off about that thing, people look at you like an idiot (at best), or start attacking you because you’ve just pushed the taboo button.  There are things that everyone would rather not know–not the same things for each person, but still.  Rather.  Not.  Know.  And then there comes a third phase, where you dig deeper and deeper into yourself (which is a nicely literal scene in the story itself) and pull out all the ugliness you can find, until it splatters the landscape and transforms the world in subtle little ways, leaving clues for the next person to find.  If Lovecraft hadn’t been racist, for example–he wouldn’t have been Lovecraft.

I’m not sure about the conclusion buried within “The Imago Sequence” itself–it sounds like there’s a fourth phase, which is the horror writer being ingested by the things that horrify him, and he becomes them or is destroyed by them.  I don’t know that that’s true–I mean, weren’t we the things that horrify us already?–but it certainly feels like an intimate kind of horror, being consumed.  Just what I was looking for.

By the time I finished the collection, I was like, A) gonna read more by this guy to see where he’s taking things, and B) I feel like a sick predator for enjoying the fact that the author has been dragged down more into being a personal, intimate, naked horror writer instead of Mr. Cleverdick.  I’m not sure whether B comes more from the writer side of me or the reader side of me:  it’s not often that you get exactly the kind of writer you want, writing the kinds of stories that you didn’t know you wanted, but there they are, and really I’m hoping that that’s where he’s going.  “Scare me!  You’re headed in my perfect horrific direction!  Go faster!”  A selfish thought.

This morning I looked up the copyright dates.  Earliest: “Shiva, Open Your Eye.”  Latest, the Black Sloth story.  I keep smiling in anticipation.

Final thought:  Is the reason that the earlier stories don’t affect me due to the fact that I’m just not afraid of old people or suppressing the idea that wealth and power aren’t all that good for you?  In short, because I’m just not afraid of the same things–and the author didn’t bother to teach me how to be afraid of them?

Is it ethical to teach someone how to be afraid of something they weren’t already afraid of?  Especially if you don’t afterwards teach the reader how to defeat it?

It must be what horror readers want, though.  Think of how many people like plushie Cthulul dolls, how many people from my generation who are afraid of clowns.

 

 

POV Musings

Point of view.  It seems simple:  either it’s first-person (the narrator is an “I”), second-person (the narrator is a “you”), or third-person (the narrator is either looking down on the scene like a god [omniscient], or is a “he” or a “she” [tight]).

But…why?

Which one do you choose?

When  you’re studying POV–or studying how to build characters–what do you even look at, beyond going, “Yup, that’s a third person tight, all right”?

And what if the POV character has an accent?  Should you be droppin’ all the gs, and if so, should you add an apostrophe?

What about head-hopping?  Why aren’t you supposed to do it, if you see it in bestsellers all the time?

When should you use POV to view a scene moment-by-moment, and when should you sum up?

When should you add backstory?  If you’re writing a tight POV, how do you handle backstory–sum up or scene it?  How do you do that without making huge backstory scenes or long blocks of exposition?

Speaking of exposition, why do people say not to do it (i.e., an info dump), but I see it all the time in novels?

Why the hell can’t I do a prologue?!?

Studying POV:

I can’t sort out the answers to all those yet, not clearly.  But this morning I realized I at least have a clue about what to look at when you’re studying POV:

  1. Who is the POV character at the start of the scene?  That is, from whose perspective are you seeing the situation?  It could be a character from within the scene or a narrator–and the narrator could be someone not completely defined within the story (as in the narrator in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or someone defined within the story (as in Hastings, who often narrates the events in Christie’s Poirot novels).  You might even have a temporary narrator–when one character relates a bit of story to other characters.
  2. What is the time period of the scene?  Is it before, after, or concurrent with the main action of the story?  And what verb tense is therefore being used?  (For example, a story told in present tense might use past tense to tell past events, or flashbacks told in present tense; a story told in past tense might use past-perfect ["she had gone"], past-perfect that fades into past [the first few sentences are past-perfect, but then past tense takes over], past tense flashbacks, past tense not in an actual flashback, or even present tense.  For a good example of some of the variations, see below.)
  3. Is the scene in full-scene mode, with events being spelled out in nearly real time, or is it in summary mode, with a few sentences that flash over a longer period of time?
  4. How distant is the POV character?  This is mostly found in third person stories:  there isn’t just third-person omniscient and third-person tight; there is an infinite range of possibilities of focusing in or out on your character.  A distant POV character can be seen from the outside–sometimes from the outside looking in, if you can read their thoughts.  A tighter POV character is seen more from the inside.  If you have a narrator in a third-person omniscient story who is very empathetic, then it can almost feel like, for a moment, that you’re inside the POV character’s head when you’re really not.  Stephen King does this a lot. See below.
  5. When any of these elements change, throughout the scene–note it.

Doctor Sleep:

So here’s a section of Doctor Sleep that I’m working on (near the very beginning).  Granted, any given aspect that you choose to study on King is going to be more complex than pretty much any other hundred authors you care to pick.  King isn’t necessarily where you want to start studying, because it’s hard to sort out everything he’s doing.  But, if you’re looking for an example of how complex POV can be beyond the basics of first/second/third person, it’s fabulous:

[POV: 3rd Om, tightly empathizing with Wendy.  Summary. These opening scenes are backstory--honestly, they're a prologue!--for the main body of the story, and this story is concurrent with the backstory scene action.  Past tense.]  

Wendy nagged her son out of bed at noon.  She managed to get a little soup and half a peanut butter sandwich into him, but then he went back to bed.  He still wouldn’t speak.  Halloran arrived shortly after five in the afternoon,

[Change: shift into full-scene mode.]

behind the wheel of his now ancient (but still perfectly maintained and blindingly polished) red Cadillac.

[Change: shift into past-perfect tense; this is a very slight backstory.  Shift into summary mode to show that she did this many times.]

Wendy had been standing at the window, waiting and watching as she had once waited and watched for her husband, hoping Jack would come home in a good mood.  And sober.

[Change: past-tense, back into full-scene mode.]

She rushed down the stairs and opened the door

[Just a note here--her behavior, although not requiring the shine, is almost precognitive here, opening the door just as someone else is about to open it.]

just as Dick was about to ring the bell marked TORRANCE 2A.  He held out his arms and she rushed into them at once, wishing she could be enfolded there for at least an hour.  Maybe two.

He let her go and held her at arm’s length by her shoulders.  “You’re lookin fine, Wendy.  How’s the little man?  He talkin again?”

[Note--Wendy's accent isn't stressed, but Dick's is; she can't hear her own accent, but she can hear his.]

“No, but he’ll talk to you.  Even if he won’t do it out loud to start with, you can–” instead of finishing, she made a finger-gun and pointed it at his forehead.

“Not necessarily,” Dick said.  His smile revealed a bright new pair of false teeth.

[Note--no paragraph break, just me.  Shift in tense to past-perfect that fades into past tense after the first sentence.  Shift from full-scene to summary.  Shift into backstory.]

The Overlook had taken most of the last set on the night the boiler blew.  Jack Torrance swung the mallet that took Dick’s dentures and Wendy’s ability to walk without a hitch in her stride,

[Shift from backstory into the present moment.  Midsentence.]

but they both understood it had really been the Overlook.  “He’s very powerful, Wendy.  If he wants to block me out, he will.  I know from my own experience.  Besides, it’d be better if we talk with our mouths.  Better for him.  Now tell me everything that happened.”

[Shift into summary mode.]

After she did that,

[Note that she didn't bother to retell the story at all, despite the fact that she has to retell herself the story about Jack hitting her with the hammer.  Shift into past-perfect backstory.]

Wendy took him into the bathroom. She had left the stains for him to see, like a beat cop preserving the scene of a crime for the forensic team.  And there had been a crime.  One against her boy.

[Shift into past tense and full scene, in the present.]

Dick looked for a long time, not touching, then nodded.  “Let’s see if Danny’s up and in the doins.”

[Shift into summary mode.]

He wasn’t,

[Shift into full-scene mode.]

but Wendy’s heart was lightened by the look of gladness that came into her son’s face when he saw who was sitting beside him on the bed and shaking his shoulder.

[Completely break focus on Wendy and hop into Danny's and Dick's heads.]

(hey Danny I brought you a present)

(it’s not my birthday)

[Shift back into Wendy's head.]

Wendy watched them, knowing they were speaking but not knowing what it was about.

Dick said, “Get on up, honey.  We’re gonna take a wakl to the beach.”

[Shift into Dick's and Danny's heads.]

(Dick she came back Mrs. Massey from Room 217 came back)

[Shift into Wendy's head, but very distantly.]

Dick gave his shoulder another shake.  “Talk out loud, Dan.  You’re scarin your ma.”

Danny said, “What’s my present?”

Dick smiled.  “That’s better.  I like ot hear you, and Wendy does, too.”

[Shift closer into Wendy's head; we can hear her thoughts now.  Still much more distant through the rest of the scene than in the beginning of the scene.]

“Yes.”  It was all she dared say.  Otherwise they’d hear the tremble in her voice and be concerned.  She didn’t want that.

“While we’re gone, you might want to give the bathroom a cleaning,” Dick said to her.  “Have you got kitchen gloves?”

She nodded.

“Good.  Wear them.”

Most stories aren’t going to be this complex, but there are still some lessons that non-Stephen-King-level writers might extract from it:

  • POV can be fluid when the story calls for it (like telepathy).
  • Tense can be fluid to help clarify when you’re using backstory.
  • You can shift between full scenes and summing up without making a huge deal out of it–especially if you have a character who dwells on the past.

At any rate, POV is more complex than just first/second/third :)

The Nightmares of my Books

As you may have heard, we are moving up to Littleton…soon.  As soon as Lee’s security clearance goes through, which could be a day or a year, or a year and a day.  Nobody knows at this point.

My books are packed, for the most part.  And they are uncomfortable and ill-tempered in those boxes out in the shed.  Having nightmares.

Anyway, I got to talking to MB Partlow and Shannon Lawrence about horror books–MB started reading the Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books list, and it sounds like a fun project, so Shannon joined her, and now I’m getting sucked in…I was working on another project and found another good list, referred it to MB, and now it’s in the mix, too:  ShortList.com’s 30 Scariest Books Ever Written, an arrogant sort of title but a good list.

Here are the books I’ve read and can remember the plot of, from the Nightmare list:

  •  The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty
  • The October Country, Bradbury
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury
  • Lost Souls, Poppy Z Brite
  • Love in Vein, Poppy Z Brite
  • Sunglasses After Dark, Nancy Collins
  • The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris
  • 20th Century Ghosts, Joe Hill
  • The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
  • Bag of Bones, King (Bag of Bones?  Really!?!)
  • It, King
  • Night Shift, King
  • Salem’s Lot, King
  • The Shining, King
  • Skeleton Crew, King
  • The Stand, King
  • The Call of Cthulu and Other Stories, HP Lovecraft
  • Hell House, Matheson
  • Interview with a Vampire, Rice
  • Vampire Lestat, Rice
  • 999, Al Sarrantino (one of my favorite collections)
  • Frankenstein
  • Dracula
  • Ghost Story, Straub

So…only 24 out of a hundred.  Eeesh.

From the other list:

  • Exorcist
  • Dracula
  • Handmaid’s Tale
  • The Witches, Roald Dahl
  • We, Yrweroiwer Zwrlwelekr, I mean, Russian guy whose name I couldn’t spell to save my life.
  • Hell House
  • The Trial, Kafka
  • A Scanner Darkly, PKD
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Lord of the Flies
  • Slaughterhouse-Five
  • Naked Lunch
  • The Silence of the Lambs (really, I still like Red Dragon better)
  • Frankenstein

Much better on this list, with about half of the books read.

The plan is to swap reviews (and books).  I’m trying to track down Books of Blood.  Anybody in the Colorado Springs/Denver area who has a horror library that isn’t packed…email or FB me, and I’ll trade favors for books.  Not those favors.  But.  You know.  Favors.

Update:  Another list!  This time from Horror Novel Reviews.

  • The Exorcist
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • Lord of the Flies
  • The Haunting of Hill House
  • Pet Sematary
  • ‘Salem’s Lot
  • Psycho (in progress)
  • Dracula
  • Bubba-Ho-Tep
  • Horns
  • Edgar Allen Poe, complete tales and poems
  • World War Z
  • 1984
  • Something Wicked, although I think I’ll reread it, because my memories are so hazy
  • Let the Right One In
  • It
  • John Dies at the End
  • Jurassic Park
  • Flowers in the Attic (yay!)
  • Ghost Story
  • Hell House
  • The Shining
  • Joyland
  • At the Mountains of Madness & Other Novels
  • Red Dragon
  • The Stand
  • Interview with a Vampire
  • NOS4A2
  • War of the Worlds
  • Grimm’s Fairy Tales
  • The Keep (another probable reread, don’t remember much)
  • Heart-Shaped Box
  • Needful Things
  • Invasion (Robin Cook – another possible reread)
  • The Collector
  • Coraline
  • House of Leaves
  • The Picture of Dorian Grey
  • Dawn (Octavia Butler)
  • The Turn of the Screw
  • Started Chuck Pahlaniuk’s The Haunting, put it back down.  I just kept going “blah blah blah” as I was reading it.  I know it’s supposed to be horrifying, and I’ve read a couple of the “people faint at this” stories, and, uh, whatevs.  I liked Fight Club but haven’t read anything else of his.

Which makes 41, not an overwhelming majority or anything.  Lots of interesting books that I haven’t read yet that aren’t on the other two lists, is the main thing.

 

Playing with the Universal

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the nature of story ideas and which ones will sell, be successful, all that.  Which, I guess, considering how many ideas I’ve come up with lately (I’m journaling 5-10 of them almost every morning), is probably natural.

I don’t have anything solid pulled together yet, this is just notes.

  • I tend to notice this more in music than in writing, but there’s this thing where a creator suddenly becomes aware of the idea of a broad audience and writes an extremely popular work, which is then often labeled a sellout.  “I Gotta Feelin’” by the Black Eyed Peas came on the radio this morning, which is what reminded me of it.  But in the writing crowd, you see people like Scott Westerfeld, who wrote a bunch of SF before he hit the Uglies series.
  • The more popular something is, the “worse” it’s considered by a certain crowd, who seem absolutely assured that the less niche something is, the less value it has.  This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with craft as such.  This seems to go with the hipster “I liked XXX before they were popular” type of statement.  Is this something I should take into account as a writer?  Should I worry about “selling out”?  Not that I’m “in” in the first place…
  • Then again–and once again I find this easier to notice with music–there are creators who don’t ever seem to get less specific/more universal:  their style stays more or less the same (and is well-crafted), but the world seems to change to fit them.  Tool comes to mind.  Watching Jeff Vandermeer go up the charts on the Southern Reach trilogy is what made me think of this one.
  • A question that a lot of (newer) writers ask–they seem to revolve around it, like moths–is “Should I write to follow XXX trend?”  Sometimes it seems like what they’re really asking is “Should I sell out, and, if so, how?!?” And yet, year after year, what you see from agents and editors is, “Don’t be derivative, write your own stuff, stick to writing what you love.”  And yet plenty of people a) have success being extremely derivative, and b) fail miserably by writing what they love.
  • On a basic level, it seems like the simplest answer to the question “Should I write what I love or sell out in some fashion?” seems to be “If you take care of your audience, it doesn’t matter.”  This is harder than it looks, of course, or everyone would be doing it.  There are just so many moving parts to any type of creation.  You have to learn your tools, you have to learn to put them together.  You have to learn the craft from front to back, and that takes time.  And, once that comes naturally (!), you have to care about the audience.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain to writers that no, this particular thing they are so enamored of only works inside their heads and in fact will come across as a) unintelligible, b) unintentionally racist/sexist, and/or c) a complete waste of time.
  • “Universal” and “lowest common denominator” can seem very much the same.  Something that appeals to universal concerns also might appeal to the lowest common denominator, whatever that is.
  • Because humanity is specialized, there’s no real “universal” truth, other than the basic needs of life:  survival, reproduction, the greater good (species survival).  What are the most popular/bestslling genres in fiction?  Thrillers, romances, mysteries (which are all about defining the greater good), and Christian fiction.  What are the genres most usually looked down upon as the fiction of the masses, for people “with no taste”?
  • Erotica:  now there’s a question.  Both forbidden and craved, erotica at base is the pure sugar of fiction.  The opiate.  It hits pleasure centers but leaves very little behind other than a nervous system that becomes quickly acclimatized to quick hits of pleasure–unless you mix it with something else, whether a universal truth or some kind of more niche truth.
  • So, on the one hand, you can cater to the most common, most universal truths (and/or addictions) or you can find a niche that caters to more specific truths.  Some people will naturally gravitate toward more universal or more specific truths.
  • At a more advanced level of answering the question of “Should I write what I love or should I sell out?” there are actually two questions going on:  first, “Do you write well enough that you can focus on your audience?”, and second, “How much of a niche concern is what you love?”
  • If the answer to the first is no, then maybe it doesn’t matter what you write, because you’re not in it to take care of the audience and what they want anyway.  Not yet.
  • If the answer to the first is yes, then…it’s time to look at what you love.  If you truly love a niche, maybe you should write to that, and write so well that the world comes to you.
  • But if you find that the things you love are pretty widespread, then maybe you want to look at writing more universally rather than drilling down, or maybe writing universally in most aspects but drilling down on a couple that really matter to you (e.g., Stephen King–a pretty universal writer who loves rock music, Maine, etc.).
  • The thing is that you should not write to a truth you don’t believe in.  Don’t write a niche you don’t love, no matter how popular it is, because you’ll never truly be in it to take care of your audience.  And if you’re not in it to take care of your audience, go back to the beginning, because you’re not a good enough writer yet.  You will be, at best, a one-hit wonder–or a slave to a genre you hate.  But if what you love shifts–or if a genre shifts away from you–then by all means switch.
  • And, in the end, I’d be very careful with satire.  Because you could be making fun of some universal truth and get stuck with becoming a part of it.  I was trying to come up with satirical ideas the other day.  They were a) quite difficult, and b) very difficult to separate out from straightforward ideas that were emphatic to the point of hyperbole, once I looked at them later.
  • In the end, when questioning whether a creator has sold out, I think it comes down to whether they’re still doing what they love.
  • The difference between craft and art seems to come down to passion.  Maybe I’ve run myself into a logical rabbit hole, where of course once you define things the way I’ve defined them, then logically what’s left after you remove the question of craft from the equation is what you love, so therefore the difference between art and craft is what you love, another name for which is passion.  And yet it feels right.
  • A ton of works written by master creators haven’t survived through the years.  They’ve been enjoyed but haven’t endured except among those who are studying the craft or are just fond of an obscure, old-fashioned niche.  I’m reading Hard Case Crimes, for example.
  • Of the works that do survive, they (intuitively!) seem to have several things in common:  1) They are written by masters in service of their audience.  2) They touch on both universal truths and yet are honed in specific ways, in service to certain niches.  (Or are grounded in niches which have since become more universal.)  3) They are filled with a great love.  When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It  is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.  All that is gold does not glitter,/ Not all those who wander are lost.  
  • It’ll be interesting to watch the fate of popular books that don’t have those three things in common. Books that appeal to the universal with an eye to a niche, with great passion, and with skill but without mastery (Twilight).  Books written by masters in service of their audience, that touch on universal truths but are honed in specific ways…and yet are written without passion (Patterson).  Books written by masters with passion, yet without an eye to universal truths (or sometimes, an audience) (Umberto Eco, post-Rose).  A hundred thousand minor books perfectly suited to their genre at the moment that try but don’t nail all three points (most books).  A hundred master writers who stick to their niche, come what may, and chance into a wider audience–or not (Gene Wolfe).

Where I’m at right now is that story ideas–to get back to the starting point–for me, since I’m not really a niche writer so much as I have general trends and a few common elements, should touch on the universal, yet be grounded in a niche.  I should keep working on craft (who shouldn’t?).  And I should keep an eye out, as I’m writing ideas, to make sure that I’m dealing with things that I love.

Simple stuff, but I suck at simple stuff.  Eight POV characters, one of which is really someone completely different, in a kids’ book, 25K or less?  No problem.  Figuring out what to write (that might sell well)?  Just shoot me.

Also, I think I’m just going to let go of brainstorming satire ideas.  I’m just not built for it.

 

 

The Nothing.

You remember The Neverending Story?

I forget who recommended it to me.  I want to say it was this guy who had casually decided that I needed to be a pothead.  I have this vivid memory of walking beside a shelterbelt of elm trees with him and another guy who kept chewing on a grass stem.  They were talking about the first guy’s knife collection and how good he was at throwing them, and how easy he found violence.  They were both headed off to college that year, I think, and I was back for the summer.  We’re walking along the shelterbelt and suddenly he broke off talking about trying to keep his brother out of some fight and said, “You’d make a good pothead, you know that?”

And I, being a smartass, answered that books were my drugs.

I don’t actually remember either of them talking about the book, but when I went looking for my earliest memory of The Neverending Story, this was what was there.  It’s probably wrong:  the movie came out in 1984, and more than likely, if I hadn’t read the book by college in 1992, my friends from Rapid City would have put it in my hands personally, glaring at me the whole time because it just wasn’t right that I hadn’t read it yet.

At any rate, I contain the story for The Neverending Story.  Not word for word, not even plot-point-by-plot-point.  Sometimes stories get graven into you, they’re part of you.  If every single copy of The Neverending Story suddenly disappeared, I could recreate it.  It’d be twisted by my memory, of course, and colored by my experiences and voice.  But the story, I could recreate it.

The first half of the book (and the first movie) are taken up with Bastien Balthazar Bux reading a book called The Neverending Story and gradually learning that he has to save the world, Fantasia, from destruction by the Nothing.

What is the Nothing?

Because my memories of reading the book are so hazy (and probably wrong), I’m not really sure whether I ran into the concept of the Nothing first, or felt it.

I started writing (as opposed to making up stories) sometime in my first couple of years of high school.  It was either that or drawing mandalas and mazes.  I had to do something as I sat at the back of the classroom, homework done, riding through the long, dull parts of the class where the teacher explained everything again…and again…and again.  Plus a teacher (a grammarian) dragged me off to writing camp.  I enjoyed it, I liked the people there, I got a brief crush on a poet and another one on a novelist with gray hair and cowboy boots who stood a foot shorter than I did.

I came back with an identity:  I was a writer.

And, well, I sucked, but I had a purpose.  Mostly I wrote poetry.  I found it easier.  Also, if you stuck your nose up in the air and held to your guns, you could write poetry in lower case, which saved on the number of times I had to type out each page, because that was back in the day where you could more easily get time on a typewriter than on a computer, and because nobody was passing out free whiteout for corrections.

But the reason I was writing–that was the most important part.  Why write?

Because it was something to do, that I did better than a lot of people, that could define me at a time when I was flopping around, that I could connect back to my storytelling in childhood.  All that.

But also because I was lonely and isolated, and writing took that away.

Books were my drugs.

But writing was also a drug.  It made me feel important, or at least not some kind of bland, formless mush whose main personality trait was shyness.  It made me feel like this yawning chasm underneath me had a ladder, a way out.  I had a purpose.  A meaning.  More than that, it felt like I was a puzzle piece about to slide off the table, and instead I had been snapped into place.  A calling.  A function.

An answer to the blackness, and the emptiness, and the loneliness.

The Nothing.

The other half of the book is important, too.  You have to learn, as a writer, how not to think that the things you make up are just for yourself.  You can do whatever you want:  but what you should be doing is writing to bring this stuff, stories, the Water of Life, if you will, to other people.

But the Nothing.

If you don’t fight the Nothing, then you’re done.

When you stop fighting the Nothing, then you’re done.

When I don’t write, I have nightmares.  Before I started writing in high school, I’d sneak into the bathroom at night and lie on the floor with the lights on.

It seems incredible to me that I’m one of the people that has to fight the Nothing, that black despair, that emptiness.  Who, me?  We’re screwed.

But in reality, well, we all have jobs, don’t we?  We’re all shoring up the world against ruin, in often misguided and short-sighted ways.  It’s not like we’re actually alone in our work, no matter what the wolves working for the Nothing try to tell us.

When the despair takes hold, keep working, that’s all.  Get better at what you do.  And remember that you’re doing it for someone else, to shore them up against despair.

Someone has to fight the Nothing, after all.  And if you don’t fight it, you’re the first one it’ll take.

 

 

 

The Outrage Machine

Over the last week or so, I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe the thing where certain people are just always up in arms over something. This is, admittedly, somewhat like a fish developing a word for water. I am trying to crawl up on land, as it were, but I’m still having to think these things through.  Painfully.

Lately I’ve been thinking of this thing as “the outrage machine.”

The outrage feeds into the worst of us, and, although social media sites are really great for a lot of things, they are really and truly effective at feeding the outrage machine.

I’ve seen it on all sides of the political/social map, even moderates. Need to feel superior to someone today? Join the outrage machine and forward a news article about something negative.  Call someone a troll.  Crush them for having some irrelevant flaw in their argument and pronounce a victory.  Hijack a comment thread.  Get into a petty bickering war.  Fill up the psychic space of everyone around you with outrage, either at the original issue or at the fact that they disagree with you.  Or, almost worse, get into a circlejerk of being outraged with other people who are outraged about the same things as you.

Right or wrong, it’s a nasty, smelly thing. Because the tone of the conversation is limited to outrage, anything you do to combat outrage–unless it’s walking away–just feeds into the machine.

Now, there are things we should truly be outraged at.  And then we should let that outrage go.  Because it does nothing good.  Outrage can inspire action, but it never actually helps with the solution.

It makes even the most uplifting cause into a sewer.  It distorts everything we hear, driving us to express our outrage quickly, without thought or compromise, in order to prove that we belong to the right groups and believe the right things.

Outrage is a tool.  It’s an abyss that looks back into you.  It has no sense of humor, no subtlety, no shades of gray.  It doesn’t listen.  It demands proof, then rejects it.  It has no joy, it loves nothing (even as it screams about how it’s defending what it loves), it brings no peace.  It destroys art and turns artists into slaves.

If it can be fought at all, it is fought with patience and empathy, as a kind of firewall between outbreaks.  It is fought with laughter.  It is fought by turning one’s back on it.

And moving on.