One: Plotto is a book. It contains plots. 1,462 plots. It is the TVTropes of plot books.
Two: Don’t get the ebook. Just don’t. You will need all ten fingers and several bookmarks to read this book.
Three: This book is madness. Or a meditation. Or both.
Four: This book clearly states that it does not include all the plots. I noticed a dearth of antiheroes and Scooby gangs. But it does allow that new plots can and should be invented.
Five: It’s dated, written in 1928 by a pulp mastercraftsman, William Wallace Cook, who once wrote 54 novels in a year (!) but now is largely forgotten. So feel free to genderflip and ignore racial epithets.
Six: After the Foreword but before Plotto itself, someone helpfully tries to give additional instructions–“Plotto 101.” Ignore these. They are worse than useless.
Seven: The author proceeds to give extensive but vague instructions. Follow them. Essentially, he tells you just enough to dick around with the book for a while. Do so.
Eight: Then follow the real instructions and exercises, at the back of the book.
Nine: It feels like a party game at first.
Ten: Then the next time you get stuck on a plot, go back to Plotto. You will resist doing so. “Such a horrid amount of work.” Nothing will suit. Everything is not quite right. Then you start following plot threads back and forth. Certain numbers keep reappearing. You begin to strip away nonessentials. You get inspired, write three paragraphs, and the next day delete two of them before writing ten pages, as you add another block to your plot. The ending reveals itself, then rewrites itself. You cycle back through the beginning of the story to make sure the ending’s set up correctly, and there aren’t any major plot holes. You are not stuck. You can no longer imagine being stuck; you curse the business of your day that prevents you from fixing every story that you’ve ever abandoned because you got stuck. This could work, you tell yourself. This could work.
3a. A lawless person. 18b. Rebelling against a power that controls personal abilities and holds them in subjection. 5c. Emerges from a trying ordeal with sorely garnered wisdom.
B clauses for 18:
674 (622) (755) (1450) A loses his son, in whom all his ambitions were centered * A struggles against an overwhelming sorrow that proves an obstacle to enterprise and holds his abilities in subjection. (1053) (1056)
Hm…how about we skip the first section and just use the second, changing it like this*:
A, a lawless person, struggles against an overwhelming ennui that proves an obstacle to fitting in the ordinary world and holds his aesthetics in subjection.
Moving to 1056 for more plot…
A hiding in a place where there is no food, steals from the larder of his nearest neighbor. * The neighbor, missing food from his larder, half believes it was taken by a “ghost” ** A, a supposed ghost, is caught in a trap set by the neighbor, and the neighbor proves to be A’s missing son. ***
Here I only want the first section, and I can change it like this:
A, attempting to break his ennui with the help of his cohort, steals all normalcy from his nearest neighbor in a perfectly contemptible fashion.
But 1056 is a dead end, no follow-on plots! What to do next? We could go back to the list of B clauses and add more, or we could look up plots as organized by the main character relationships.
I decide that Lawless Person A has been captured by the authorities by this point, and so go to A and male officer of the law, page 321.
Here’s a good one: A, a fugitive from justice seekeing to avoid capture, finds himself in a tight corner with sherriffs apparently approaching him from every direction 651
Which hardly needs editing at all.
A, a fugitive from justice seekeing to avoid capture, finds himself in a tight corner with the law apparently approaching him from every direction.
This leads me to plot 651, which says the same thing but leads me to 699b.
699b. A driven to bay by pursuers, takes refuge in an old house * A is rescued from pursuers when the old house in which he had taken refuge is blown away by a tornado.
Here I think I have a few edits, and then I think we can end:
A is driven to bay by pursuers, and takes refuge in an experimental government program. * A is rescued from his pursuers when the government program in which he had taken program is proved to be complete bunk.
And then you wrap things up with the c (ending) clause:
5c. Emerges from a trying ordeal with sorely garnered wisdom.
In the end, A emerges from his trials with the knowledge that the normal world is just as criminal as anything he ever did.
–And there you have the plot for A Clockwork Orange. Which is an antihero story, so I guess you can force an antihero if you want one.
*WWC notes that you can and should do this, changing everything to suit.
I was on a panel last night where we were trying to define horror. My definition? Horror is a violation of reality.
I disagreed, because, well, that’s what I do when this kind of thing comes up, and made a brief response, which then got me thinking…
And what good’s a blog if you can’t use it to write up stuff that takes more brain-space than a FB post?
First: Is Tim’s definition correct?
I have to say no; otherwise, all magical realism is horror, and it isn’t. Hand someone Christine and tell them it’s magical realism and they’ll look at you funny; likewise, tell someone Like Water for Chocolate is horror and see how far that gets you. Sure, on the surface, there are some superficial resemblances: reality is violated. And yet, in most cases, it’s pretty easy to tell whether something’s horror or magical realism, unless you’re reading some of Neil Gaiman’s darker short stories.
My point being that not everything that violates reality is horror, per se.
However, that word violate.
Does magical realism violate consensual reality, or does it do some other verb? If you’re going to look at it like that, then…perhaps horror violatesreality.
However, what do you call horror that doesn’t violate reality? Just because there are no unreal elements to a horror story doesn’t make it not a horror story. Another of the people in the thread suggested that “thriller” was the word for a horror story that didn’t violate reality, but I beg to differ. Hostel is not a thriller. Sure, it violates. But it just doesn’t violate reality. Neither does Audition or a thousand thousand other horror novels.
So what we have left is that horror violates.
Personally, I don’t think that’s accurate, either. Is all horror about violation? Some of it is, right enough. But is Dracula about violation? Or is it about seduction? Or is it about syphilis? What about every other story about violation? Is every rape story a horror story? Every story about betrayal?
I think the idea that horror violates reality is a description of one of the things that horror does well, but not a definition of horror itself. With stuff like that you can easily end up with ideas like “romance embraces falling in love” or “historical fiction defines history” or “science fiction explores imagination” or whatever, which gets people to thinking that any story in which people fall in love is a romance, etc.
Second, what’s a more plausible definition of horror?
Right, I realize I can’t be trusted to adequately critique myself. But I am totally tied up in the idea that when you fit a book in a genre or subgenre, you’re vowing that the reader will have an experience that fits within certain guideline or follows certain traits. Tim’s idea is a trait, fair enough, but I think it describes what Tim likes about the genre rather than the genre as a whole.
My idea is that when you’re talking horror, what you’re promising primarily is an emotion. When you promise romance, you promise the feeling of falling in love, or sometimes falling back in love. With the horror genre, you’re promising the emotion of horror.
Which begs the question: what is horror, then? We know it when we feel it, but what is it?
I take the tack that horror is an emotional condition in which we attempt to avoid unavoidable pain.
You have to experience acute pain, and you attempt to deny the reason for the pain, or even the pain itself, exists.
You have to fight/escape a threat that is much stronger than you are, even though you know that facing it down is your only chance for happiness or survival.
You have hurt a loved one and shift the blame onto the loved one or someone else entirely.
You have hurt someone who is justified in hurting you back, and try to deny that your behavior caused the pain or that your complicity contributed to the pain, but the other refuses to accept your explanations and irrationally, inevitably, pursues revenge.
A third party has caused someone horrible pain as above, and they try to re-enact the story upon you because of superficial resemblances, at which point you go back to the first and second points.
You realize that in a world of predators and prey, you are prey, and naturally expected to be hurt or killed by the predators; you refuse to accept it.
You realize that in a world of predators and prey, you only thought you were a predator.
You find that what most people consider normal, everyday life (or what externally seems like a minor change) is too painful to endure without increasingly desperate methods of denying it.
You find that the repercussions of a seemingly innocent act are too painful to face.
You find that the repercussions of what other people name an innocent act are too painful to face.
You find that the repercussions or ramifications of the difference between what other people say is true and what you observe are too painful to face.
You are forced to hurt someone for their own good or for the greater good, and it hurts too much for you to do so.
And so on. What my idea about horror comes down to are two things: 1) something inescapably bad happens, and 2) it hurts too much to face it directly. If anything is violated, and I think it is, it is ego.
Horror is a violation of ego. But that’s just a trait of horror. One I happen to prefer over violating reality, but still just a trait.
So here’s my shot at a definition: Horror is a story primarily about avoiding unavoidable pain.
The “happy” resolution of a horror story is when we confront pain, or at least confront the situation that causes the pain. To my mind, the most horrifying stories are those in which we remove the element that causes pain without removing the internal trait of avoiding unavoidable pain (the TV version of “The Mist” is a good example here–removing the necessity of defending undefendable loved ones without changing the need to defend them). You can have your Cthulus and your Kings in Yellow, in which the end of the story is, “And then, because they could not endure, they died, went mad, or were otherwise perverted or destroyed.” Yawwwn. To my mind, that’s the beginning of the story, not the end.
Keep in mind, I’ve been screwing around with Plotto, so I may simply have gone plot-mad, but there you have it. Horror can intersect with other genres (like thriller and magical reality), but to my mind the heart of horror is about pain and trying to run away from it.
(A note: fear is the emotion that there might be unavoidable pain, as in “I’m afraid of spiders” or “I’m afraid of cancer.” When the spider is actually on you and you know that no amount of flailing or beating about with a newspaper will get it off and you have to touch it, that’s horror. A horror story about cancer is E.F. Benson’s “Caterpillars.” He died of throat cancer, by the way.)
So I’m standing in front of a full fridge again and going, “I don’t want any of this stuff.” I used to do this with closets, too: a closet full of clothes and nothing I wanted to wear. Or I’d be at a restaurant, looking at a menu for ten minutes and not know what to order.
I used to think it made me a bad, indecisive person. Lazy.
Then I learned about decision fatigue. Basically, I only have so much willpower to use any given day, and when I run out of it, I spin my wheels until I’m recharged. Which looks a lot like indecisiveness.
The days that I stand in front of the open fridge door are the days when I have nothing left. The days when I eat nothing but crap. The days when I break down and make some chain restaurant solve my food problems. I’m not lazy or indecisive (although I have struggled for years over making choices in socially fraught situations).
We call it “stress,” but it often isn’t. During the course of a normal day, doing normal tasks, it is possible to exhaust your willpower resources and end up too tired to make desicions. Then we wonder why we’re such failures at reaching our goals. Why couldn’t I just force myself to make better choices?
Add in some real stress…and things get worse. Not only do we run out of willpower, but time disappears as your brain goes into forced shutdown mode. When I’m stressed I will suddenly realize I’ve been on Facebook for two hours, with no idea what I’ve been doing other than skimming through posts. I’ll read a book and have no idea of what I read. I used to watch a lot of TV. Same thing.
The first line of defense against having no willpower is to take the times that you have willpower, and plan ahead for the times you don’t. When you make a to-do list for the day, that’s what you’re doing.
However, most people make crappy to-do lists. I make horrible to-do lists. I usually plan out an eight-hour work day with ten hours with of stuff. I can’t help it. “Maybe…if I finish up early…I can slip in a few extra things…”
And of course I end up a) not accomplishing everything on my list, and b) psyching myself out so that I don’t finish the six hours worth of stuff (plus email and the same kinds of breaks that normal employees get) that I could have, if I set things up right.
Let’s not do that.
Let’s not plan to make a meal that takes two hours to prepare on a weeknight, just because we “should.” (If you promise, I will, too.) Let’s not even feel bad about it.
Let’s not even plan to make a ten-minute meal that takes ten minutes’ worth of willpower. Because there are going to be days when, honestly, that won’t happen. Some days I couldn’t make myself a cheese sandwich, because that would mean trying to find bread and cheese in the post-apocalyptic landscape of my fridge.
Here’s my suggestion for a starting place:
Figure out what you normally go out for when you have a zero willpower day.
Go to the grocery story and buy at least three premade meals of that to stick in your freezer or fridge (freezer for preference).
When you get low on those, replenish.
No blood no foul.
Your chosen meal can be really, really horrible for you. It’s still better for you than going out–I can almost guarantee it.
Sure, you “should” worry about eating healthfully. You “should” worry about a lot of things. But for the days when you have nothing left, you have one choice: eat that one thing.
At least I don’t have to decide what to have for supper.
It’s weird. Once you have that in place, the little voice in the back of your head that tries to make you into a Responsible Adult ™ gets a little quieter. For me, it started with burritos. Horrible, horrible freezer burritos. Now it varies. It could be freezer burritos of varying quality, it could be pizza, it could be french onion soup. But there is always one thing in the freezer or fridge that is “the no-brainer meal.”
Some weeks we don’t touch it; some weeks it’s all gone by Wednesday. But I’m not standing in front of the fridge feeling terrible about myself.
Because stories are about people dealing with problems, the most important things to know about a character are how he/she responds to obstacles and handles stress. Even if you know nothing else about a character, knowing these two things will allow you to plot your story.
And I went, “yeah yeah yeah, I know that already.” But my subconscious said, “Are you sure? Are you sure you know that? Now are you sure? How about–”
So I stopped to think about it last night, because I couldn’t sleep (what with it being the Saving the Daylight/Murdering the Darkness changeover), and I got to thinking that mostly, writers don’t get this. Some really good writers don’t get this, or they don’t really get this for their main characters.
[Here I was going to add some recent reads that didn’t do this. And then I thought…nah.]
Someone who does this particularly well is Joss Whedon.
If you wanted to name Joss Whedon as a one-trick pony, this would be it: he assembles a group of flawed but relatable characters, and makes sure they stick to their flaws.
How does Buffy solve problems? She looks for them, and then she charges. How does she handle anything that can’t be solved by a full frontal assault? She trains so she doesn’t have to think about it or goes to her friends to get them to solve it. She gets all shouty and sarcastic…and whiny.
How does Mal solve problems? Trust but verify. Mal thinks to the next move ahead but is wise enough to recognize that the unforseen, unfair, and unjust happens–that life isn’t chess. So when he can’t verify, someimes he trusts and sometimes he doesn’t. And when he has verified, he just doesn’t have any second thoughts about the next move. When he falls down is in situations where he can neither trust nor verify – all that emotional stuff – in which case he dithers, hoping that the situation will take care of itself.
Hulk smash: a two-word character description. “Puny god” is funny because it was inevitable (Hulk smash) and surprising (…but even a god?).
Cabin in the Woods is all about the characters staying true to type…the reason the five main kids were picked (in the context of the story) was that they were so very good at staying true to type.
And so on.
Joss Whedon? Makes a whole lot more money than I do. So clearly I haven’t mastered this idea yet, and it’s a lot harder than it sounds.
And there are tons of ways to do it, too: Right now I’m obsessing/studying The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits (which sadly got screwed by the use of a flowery, “girly” cover on a perfectly evil novel), and her main character handles problems by ignoring them. When she can’t ignore them, she redefines them as Someone Else’s Problem, and then ignores them. And so on. All the while running madly about, trying very obviously to try to solve her problems, a hypochondriac of body and soul.
Gone Girl, which I had to put down, has its main female character trying to solve her problems by being the long-suffering passive female who needs to be rescued – the innocent – even when it means destroying innocence in order to do so.
The novel Somebody Owes Me Money is a Donald Westlake novel about a guy who just wants his money back. That’s it. A one-trick pony novel if I’ve ever seen one.
Terry Pratchett’s another guy who’s made his living off characters who stick to their flaws. The more successful the character is, in fact, the more aware they are of their flaws…and the more they make sure their lives are framed around what they’re inevitably good at.
Harry Potter makes a good go of it, but doesn’t always stick the landing. Even so: still good enough at it that the books have become world-famous.
Edding’s Belgariad. Stephen Brust. Mark Lawrence. Fruits Basket. Fullmetal Alchemist. Robert Crais. Every mystery writer worth a damn.
And so on.
Over and over and over again, our favorite books are about characters trying to solve their problems the same way they’ve always tried to solve their problems. And writing that really well is always trickier than it looks.
There’s a house in your dreams, THE HOUSE. It isn’t the same house, except it is. Although sometimes it’s a submarine or a skyscraper, or, in my daughter’s case, a spaceship. There is a story that has to be carried out, in this house. Everything that happens there, you seem to be an outside observer, even when you’re in the dream.
I dream of the house from time to time. I dreamed of it last night. Over the last few years it hasn’t been the house so much as the basement that I dream of. Last night it was the basement again, the cellar actually. I was upstairs, and the person I was with said, “You have to go through the doors,” and I gave them a look that said, “You could be a little clearer, couldn’t you?” and he pointed out of the house at the cellar doors, painted red. The house itself was unfinished, and I jumped out of the framed wall and onto the fresh dirt.
When I was inside the house, the doors were closed; when I came out, they were open. My dreams have a lot of continuity problems at the best of times.
The stairs were those poured concrete ones, sharp along the edges, and oddly (but understandably) new. The texture of the concrete wasn’t Swiss cheese or anything, but the bubbles in it were unpacked with dust or dirt. How often do you see new concerete, so new that there are thin gray skins of concrete around the sides of the bubbles? It seemed alien at the time.
At the foot of the stairs, around the left, was a hole in the wall. Daylight shone in from above; there were also lights strung up along the ceiling, which was higher than it should have been: the place was cavernous and disappeared into a vanishing point, like an enormous mine tunnel lined with cement or like a sewer tunnel, only square. It sloped downward and faded out of sight. Here’s how these dreams usually go: I have to go downwards into a series of basements, each of which leads to another basement, and there is something behind me, chasing me, and/or something ahead of me, horrific but not really fast-moving, which must be seen, because it must, and that’s all there is to it.
This time, someone sat at the foot of the stairs. He was holding a kitten, in a towel. An orange kitten, I don’t know what kind of towel. He was dressed like he was out of The Gangs of New York, with suspenders and maybe a newsboy hat. Maybe I just want there to have been a hat. He said, “They don’t know anything but fear. You have to be careful not to teach them any more fear.” I came closer and the kitten struggled out of his arms and ran away.
Let me tell you what didn’t happen: I didn’t go down the slope. From time to time in the dream, I would know that I had gone down the slope. There was something about a room full of computers, something urgent and plot-related. When I realized I was there, I undid it, so that I hadn’t gone down the slope.
Whatever it is that makes dreams, sometimes I struggle against it. Considering that it’s another part of myself that makes dreams, maybe I shouldn’t. There’s always this idea that your subconscious is right and your consciousness is wrong: but what if that’s wrong?
I crawled over to the hole. It was full of kittens, nests of kittens. In cardboard shelters, surrounded by straw. Old enough to have their eyes open and be cute rather than pitiful. When I reached for them, they moved away. But if I buried my hand in the straw and rustled it around, several pounced. I caught one. It was Siamese-looking, the same as a batch of cats we used to have on the farm. I can’t remember feeling it with my hands, but I rubbed my face in its fur, which was soft, and now I have the feeling that it was my daughter’s hair. I’m always rubbing my face in her hair, to feel it and smell it. I can’t tell you what the cat smelled like. Sometimes I can smell things in dreams, but only if I focus on it, and I wasn’t at the time.
I know the dream went on from there, but I don’t remember what happened. Eventually I woke up. And when I went to get my daughter up, she clenched her eyes shut, so I let her sleep a little longer. First I kissed her head, though, because her hair is so soft. People say the subconscious is smarter than you are, but I disagree. We just have their own kinds of intelligence. The subconscious wants to do the same things over and over. Over and over again.
Daphne had been kicked out of her friend Nina’s house because Nina got grounded. It happens, you get grounded. Ugh! It was so frustrating! One minute they were playing video games and the next everyone was in tears. In. Tears.
It was so unfair, too.
None of the parents would believe JUST HOW EVIL Mrs. Barkone was. NONE of them. And just because Mrs. Barkone called Nina’s house and accused her of stealing that horrible boy’s lunchbox didn’t make it true. Not at all. And Daphne had proof, but Nina’s parents didn’t want to listen. That was the problem. Nobody wanted to listen.
And so, as Daphne stood at the sidewalk in front of Nina’s house waiting for her dad to come pick her up, she thought, I wish that Daphne’s parents’ brains would explode. WHAM. WHAM. SPLATTER. Just like that. And then she bit her tongue. Literally. Bit. Her. Tongue. Until she tasted a little bit of blood in her mouth. She spat it on the sidewalk–peh peh peh–but her mouth still tasted bad.
But wishing for things didn’t make them happen. Or she would have wished a lot of things into happening.
Like Christmas every day. Or Halloween. Or her birthday. Every day. Her birthday. Or summer. If every day was summer then she could spend every day with her mom, on summer vacation. Her stepmom wouldn’t let her cook. Or a lot of things. Her dad was the greatest, except for her mom, who was also the greatest. Her stepmom was only just okay. Her dad would be here any second to pick her up in his pickup truck. He might be mad. Not at her. He’d been planning to go shopping without her…maybe for a surprise! Except really he just hated going shopping with her because she kept saying “I want this! And this! And this!!!”
Okay, really, she didn’t really want Nina’s parents’ brains to explode. Except if they did maybe Nina would come and live over at her house, and that would be cool, except Mom probably wouldn’t want to have Nina over during the summer. Mom wasn’t a “friends” kind of person. But otherwise Mom was the best.
Daphne checked her watch. Her mom gave it to her for Christmas, except it was also supposed to be for her birthday. It was gold and kind of weird and grown-up-looking but that was cool. Nobody weirder than Daphne. Except for her friend Nina! Dad still wasn’t here and it was almost lunch time. And Daphne needed to take her medicine. Every day at noon. Or she would get too wound up. And you didn’t want to see Daphne when she was too wound up! No, ma’am! Your head might explode! Except she couldn’t take it out here. She needed a glass of water.
What she should do, what she should really really do, was go back into Nina’s house and wait inside for her dad. And while she was waiting for her dad, she would, on purpose, not take her medicine. And then she would talk. She would really really talk. Everybody thought she was hyper, but they didn’t know what she was like when she didn’t take her medicine. She would go inside Nina’s house and talk. Until everyone’s heads exploded. Except for Nina. She would make Nina wear headphones so she wouldn’t hear THE FULL POWER OF DAPHNE’S WORDS. And then Daphne would talk. She would really really talk.
And let out all the words she was secretly thinking under all the words she normally said. Yeah. If she ever let all the real words out, that would do it.
WHAM! WHAM! SPLATTER!
Except nobody, not even Nina’s non-listening parents who listened to Mrs. Barkone instead of their own kid, deserved that.
Her dad’s pickup truck pulled up. “Nina got grounded,” she said as she climbed up the ladder into the seat. “Do you have all your stuff?” he said. She had all her stuff. And then she told her dad all about what happened. Except she left out the parts with the exploding brains.
“Uh-huh,” was all her dad said. “Uh-huh.”
Mom once told her that she was like her dad. Mom was so funny! Dad was the best, but she wasn’t like her dad. Not. At. All.
Afterword: This is a De Kenyon story, in case you’re curious. This tale comes from Ray and a couple of her friends. Ugh, grounded! It happens.
“You don’t even know what Latitude and Longitude are!”
Ina exclaimed. “I do so! Latitude is how much you’re allowed to get in trouble before you’re punished, and Longitude is how long you’re going to get in trouble if you get caught!”
With the invention of a serum that prevents most people infected with the zombie sickness from becoming raving cannibals, Victorian society finds itself in need of more standards: to separate the infected from the whole, to control when and how the infected can come into contact with the pure, to establish legal contracts, precedence, employment, and more, with regards to the walking dead.
The very backbone of the British Empire is its standards.
The middle daughter of the Dean of Christ Church in Oxford, Alice Liddell, finds a certain lack of charm in the standards she must follow, with increasing strictness, day after day. Wild and rebellious, she battles her father’s cold discipline, her mother’s striving to hide her middle-class origins, and the hollow madness of the world around her, in which the teetering Empire desperately pretends that nothing is, in fact, the matter.
Enter Mr. Charles Dodgson: one of the chaste Dons of Oxford, married to his mathematics. He charms Alice and her sisters, often taking them on walks and boat rides (chaperoned, of course), and telling them jokes and stories. He is twenty-four when he first meets them.
And he is dead.
Turned in a tragic accident at Rugby, Charles uses the serum to keep him from the ordinary sort of madness that affects zombies.
But it doesn’t affect the elegant madness of his brain.
And one day, as he sees Alice struggle against the chains that constrict her, chains so similar to his own…
…one of his playful stories becomes something more.
Episode 3: In which Alice, her sisters, the Reverend Mr. Duckworth, and Mr. Dodgson boat up the Thames, and a story–the story–is begun.
I suspect the first day I so much as heard of it, I had the idea for this book in the back of my mind. In 2011, I wrote the first draft for a NaNoWriMo project.
I have been terrified to do anything with it ever since. The Alice books are my favorite books ever. I have combed through The Annotated Alice more times than I can count. I love the Tenniel illustrations. I’ve poured over biographies (Morton Cohen’s Lewis Carroll: A Biography is the one I drew on most strongly here), I’ve wondered at the missing diary pages, I’ve gasped at the thought of the real-life Alice running around with the Queen’s children, and I’ve goggled at the surrealness of Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot. I debated with myself for hours over whether to attempt to use British spellings and grammar and whatnot (I decided against it for the time being but am working on it).
And the cover.
There’s an image I wanted to use. A pair of them. But I’ve had trouble getting good digital copies of the photographs at rates I can afford, so that may have to wait.
Both of the pictures are by Charles Dodgson, Lewis Carroll’s original. The Dodo.
One picture’s from 1857. I can’t seem to find the first picture that Dodgson took of the Liddell girls (in 1856), but there’s one from 1857 that captures what I want. A little girl sits with her hands in her lap, staring at the camera. She’s got this look on her face. “Oh come on, pull the other one, it’s got bells on.” She’s no curly-haired, tame blonde thing. She’s dark-haired and willful looking. She’s trouble.
The other one’s from 1870, the last picture that Dodgson ever took of her. An upper-class young woman slouches forward in the chair as if no effort of will could make her sit up straight again. She glares at the camera, accusing it–of what, we’re not sure. She’s eighteen and her mother wants her to sit for a portrait suitable for advertising her on the marriage market. It’s the same year that Dodgson is writing Through the Looking-Glass, the same year the White Knight falls off his horse, endlessly, while escorting the fictional Alice towards her Queendom; inevitably, she leaves him behind.
I can’t escape the idea that there’s something intertwined between the life of the real Alice and the fictional one; that the books are a kind of instruction manual, a code–a message to a stubborn, willful upper-class girl about how to survive the madness of the Victorian era, with its standards and hypocrisies.
This isn’t a book about zombies running rampage over England (although they do a bit) or about Alice slaughtering her way through oncoming hordes. Nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t the story I meant to tell. This is more of a teatime with zombies story, quite civilized, until it isn’t.
I apologize for the errors (they’re all my own, which is what makes them so terrifying) and hope that, in my retelling, I haven’t done the characters and people herein a disservice.
Chapter One (1856; Age Four)
“Alice! Hold still this instant!”
Mother pinched the top of her ear with sharp fingernails. She was annoyed because the small side parlor hadn’t been dusted properly. Edith was only a baby, but Ina had done her chores in half a moment, then refused to help even though she didn’t have as much to do, in addition to which Alice had been told to stay off the chairs, which meant that Alice had only dusted what she could reach from the floor and of course Mother always looked at things from such an incredible height that she never did see the places where Alice had cleaned. Mother said that even the best kind of people ought to have responsibilities when Alice had protested that she wasn’t a maid.
“Ow!” she cried. “Stop pinching me.”
“And shush.” Her mother picked up the brush. “We’ll just have to hope that dust won’t show in the photograph when Mr. Dodgson comes to take your picture. What were you thinking?”
“Ow-wow-wow!” The harder her mother brushed her hair, the louder she shouted, until Ina and Edith had their hands over their ears.
“She won’t let you go until all the knots are out of your hair, Alice,” Ina said. “It’s your punishment for not brushing it yourself.” She sat in one of the pretty chairs with the flowers on the cushions with her legs crossed at the ankles and a book in her lap.
Alice rather thought that Ina needed a handful of mud put down her pockets, because she seemed so very older-sisterish and tidy, which must have been uncomfortable.
“What about Edith? She has knots in her hair.”
“She’s only a baby,” Ina said, then turned the page in the heavy book. Alice wasn’t allowed to read books by herself any longer; one accident two years ago, when she was quite younger than she was now, and Mother had flown into an unforgiving rage.
At any rate, none of them wanted to tell Father if anything should happen to one of the books, which meant that keeping Alice (and Edith) away from them was rather safer.
“Don’t worry about Edith’s hair, Alice,” her mother yanked the brush again. “Worry about your own.”
“Why can’t Miss Prickett brush my hair?” Alice asked, speaking before she thought, as usual. “She brushes better than you do.”
Ina’s eye flicked toward Alice while she turned another page. Edith banged a wooden spoon on the leg of the chair, trying to crush the dust-motes that sparkled in the air. In a second, Mother had taken the spoon from her, dumped Alice over her lap, and beat her several times with the spoon.
“Don’t…talk…to me…about…Miss Prickett!” her mother exclaimed.
Alice bit her lip. Crying out now would only make things worse, because then she would be sent to explain herself to Father.
“Oh!” her mother cried. “Even your underthings are brown with dust. Alice! What kind of manners is Miss Prickett teaching you?” And then her mother hit her again.
Ina glanced at Alice again, and Alice understood that now was the time to submit to Mother without another word or whimper: Miss Prickett was something precious, and not to be dragged into Mother’s attention more than necessary.
“It’s all my fault, Mother. I’m rather wild, you know.”
Mother released her, brushing her skirts down for her. “If you can’t behave, then I shall tell Miss Prickett that it is time that she was replaced with someone sterner.”
“Yes, Mother. I shall be quite good.”
If Alice’s contriteness wasn’t entirely genuine, it wasn’t entirely false, either. The children were all fond of Miss Prickett, even though Alice’s fondness tended to show itself as pranks and teasing.
Mother was not one to cross.
Eventually, Mother left them in the hot parlor, which contained nothing that might muss their hair, with strict instructions not to move a muscle. Alice couldn’t help pointing out that they would soon suffocate if they weren’t allowed to breathe, but her mother had ignored her and swept out of the room, her skirts brushing against the carpets and the furniture with a heavy swish that scattered Edith’s toys and the chess game that Ina had been trying to teach Alice when they had first been deposited in the room earlier that morning, before Alice’s escape, capture, re-desposit, and assignment of housework.
Alice paced around the parlor, looking into corners and behind chairs.
“What are you doing?” Ina asked.
“Looking at what?”
“Everything.” Alice was never allowed into the small parlor, which was rarely used. Alice peered at the silhouettes and the paintings on the walls. Dozens of stern faces looked down at her, intermixed with castles and churches.
Ina said primly, “Mother said we are all related to the people in this room, and we should always remember that our actions reflect upon them. Their greatness reflects on us, so we should do our duty and reflect it back to them—oh, Edith. Don’t put that in your mouth.”
Alice sighed, stomped over to Edith, and took the pawn away from her. Edith burst into tears.
“Now see what you made me do,” she told Ina.
“I did no such thing.”
“You did, too.” Alice grabbed the rest of the chess set and put it back on the sideboard while Edith howled.
“Give her a sweet,” Ina said.
Alice sat in one of the fancy chairs and crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t mind the sound of her crying.” She looked at the ceiling, trying to see if there were any spiders she could capture and drop onto the back of Ina’s fancy chair.
Ina closed the book with a thump and picked up Edith. “Don’t cry, little mouse.” She pulled a tin of pastilles out of her pocket and gave one to Edith. “Only one, now, or you’ll spoil your luncheon.” Edith, well-trained, popped open her mouth and sucked contentedly.
Alice jumped out of her chair and stood next to Ina as she put Edith back on the floor in the middle of her overturned toys. Alice opened her mouth like a small bird.
“Oh, Alice,” Ina said.
Alice sniffed and whimpered like a baby about to burst into tears and rubbed one fat finger under her eye, just like Edith would insist on doing. Ina laughed and gave her a pastille. “You are such a naughty little kitten,” she said.
Alice purred and rubbed her head against Ina’s arm, then set the chess pieces to right again. “Will you play with me?”
“I’m reading,” Ina said.
“You’re always reading. It’s dull.”
“It is not.”
“It’s dull for me.”
Ina sighed and closed the book, this time quietly, with her finger in between the pages to mark her place. “All right. I’ll tell you a story then. But only a short one, and then you have to play with Edith and keep her amused and not let her fuss.”
“All right,” Alice said. She sat on the floor next to Edith, puffing up twinkling clouds of dust, which would have made Mother unhappy, although Alice thought it rather clever of her, using her petticoats to dust the rugs. She picked up the scattered toys and set them within Edith’s reach in rows, as though they were her audience at a play or her soldiers in a war. Edith wiped out a row of them with one cruel gesture.
Ina announced, “The photographer, Mr. Dodgson, is a zombie.”
Alice squealed with delight. “Oh! Is he?”
Ina snorted. “Yes. And that’s the end of the story. Remember, you promised.”
Alice gaped at her. “That’s not a proper story.”
“It is, too.”
“No it isn’t!” Alice shouted.
Edith’s face screwed up. “All right, hush. Mother said that he was infected years and years ago, but nobody knew, because it was dormant.”
The corner of Ina’s mouth twitched. “Hidden under a rug. Door-mat.”
Alice leaned forward and slapped Ina on the leg. “That’s not true. Stop making up words.”
Ina pulled her stockinged leg out of Alice’s reach. “It’s a real word.”
“It is not.”
They sulked, with Ina reading and Alice setting up the toys again, until the door opened and Mother swept back into the room, knocking all the toys over again. “Girls! Mr. Dodgson is here.”
Alice groaned and started to set the toys aright.
“Up, please. Off the floor,” Mother said.
Ina put her book on the little table beside her, and Alice jumped up and stood next to her. Ina poked her in the side and pointed, and Alice bent over and picked up Edith, who opened her mouth and started crying.
“Give…her…a sweet,” Ina hissed.
“I don’t have any,” Alice whispered back. “You have all the sweets, you selfish cow. You give her one.”
The gentleman who had followed Mother into the room coughed softly into his glove, and the two girls looked up at him, leaving Edith to cry as she would. Really, there was no stopping her for long, and the two of them had simply learned to ignore the noise unless adults were around.
Mr. Dodgson was very tall, taller than Father, and quite thin. He had brown hair that was nearly as long as Alice’s (hers had been cut quite short after the hedgehog incident) and stopped near his chin.
“Are you a zombie?” she asked.
“Oh, Alice,” Ina moaned.
Mother reached towards Alice to get at her ear again, but Alice stepped behind Ina and switched Edith to her other side. Edith was as fat as anything, probably from all the sweets that Ina had given her, and made a good shield against being pinched or poked.
The man coughed into his glove again, this time a little more loudly. After a few seconds, he said, “I’m…afraid so.”
“You’re afraid of being a zombie?” Alice asked. Edith was wiggling to get down, so she let the baby slither down to the floor and pick up a toy, which she chewed between bouts of sobbing. As Mr. Dodgson was standing quite close to them, Alice noticed that his left leg was manacled to a heavy ball, which he apparently dragged behind him. “Have you been press-ganged?” She had heard all kinds of stories about people doing things they oughtn’t, then waking up the next morning to find themselves turned into zombies and press-ganged onto a ship with a heavy cannonball chained to their legs, so if they tried to escape they would sink over the side of the ship and be forced to walk along the bottom of the ocean for ever and ever, because zombies didn’t die, not unless they were spiked in the back of their heads with a horrific crunch! Alice had always wanted to see a zombie spiked, but she supposed that Mother wouldn’t allow her to try it out on Mr. Dodgson, or not until after their pictures had been taken, at any rate.
“Ah, ah, ah, yes. I mean, ah, um, no.”
She wasn’t sure whether he was laughing at her or not. “Which is it?” She took a deep breath to see if he smelled bad. At any rate, something smelled bad, but it might have been Edith.
He giggled into his hand.
“Don’t do that,” Alice said. “I don’t like it when people laugh at me instead of answering the question.”
He coughed, then lowered his hand.
“Oh, I’m a zombie,” he said. “A perfectly tame zombie. B-but I haven’t been press, ah, press-ganged. I’m a terrible sailor.”
“You were press-ganged into taking pictures of us,” Alice declared. “I’m sorry that your whole life has been ruined for nothing, because I don’t want to have my picture taken. It’s dull.”
The man laughed deep down in his throat, making a half-gargling sound as Mother got Alice by the ear again, Alice having quite literally lowered her defenses.
Mr. Dodgson said something about going outside because of the light, and Ina leaned over and whispered, “You’re in for it now.”
Alice kicked at Ina, but as Mother was dragging Alice by one arm into the hall, she missed.
“Come with me, girls,” Mother said. “Let’s do finish this quickly, so Mr. Dodgson can get back to his…other tasks.”
Alice, stumbling along after her mother and twisting around to see behind her, said, “I thought you weren’t supposed to call zombies Mister any more. In all the stories, they’re called the former Mister or arghhhh a zombie run!”
“That was before the serum that allows us to retain our presence of mind was invented, my dear Miss Alice,” Mr. Dodgson said, clearing his throat. “Now, if one remains calm and refrains from eating anyone, one may retain the title of ‘Mister.’ However, if a zombie attempts to bite one, it’s quite proper to begin one’s address with a blood-curdling scream.”
Ina, with Edith on her hip, carefully closed the door behind them and stayed away from Mr. Dodgson’s iron ball, which he dragged behind him, making him walk with a lurch.
“Like this?” Alice let out an earsplitting shriek that made him cover his ears and open his mouth in mock-horror.
“Indeed,” Mr. Dodgson said, as Mother nipped her ear sharply again.
Taking photographs wasn’t quite as bad as Ina had made it out to be. Alice had suspected that Ina had been lying about one or two things, and, as it turned out, Alice wasn’t frozen as a statue for ever and ever, so there. Mr. Dodgson made it seem like a game as he and Miss Prickett set up a carpet and a chair in the garden while Mother watched.
“Why can’t we take pictures inside, if we’re going to make it look as though we were inside anyhow?” Alice asked. Mr. Dodgson had asked her to sit on a chair so he could try to focus the camera. She kicked her legs back and forth.
“Alice,” her mother hissed. “Sit still.”
“That’s a good question,” Mr. Dodgson said. “The answer is that cameras are not nearly as good at seeing things as your eye is. Your eye takes a picture with just a blink, like this.” He blinked owlishly at them.
“I can blink faster than that,” Alice said, blinking dozens of times, her eyelids fluttering.
“Your eyes work better than mine, then,” Mr. Dodgson agreed solemnly. “But even my eyes work faster than this camera. In addition to being quite slow, it sees rather poorly in the dark, and even the bright daylight of the parlor is too dim for the poor thing.”
“It’s quite stupid, then.” Alice glanced at her mother, but Mother had become bored with them and had wandered off, checking on the work the gardeners had done; some new roses had been put in, but they hadn’t been the ones she’d wanted, and she was working herself up to being quite cross at someone other than Alice, which was rarely a bad thing.
Mr. Dodgson leaned forward toward her, and she found herself taking a step backward. He mightn’t look like a zombie, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t eat her. He whispered, “Yes, but don’t tell the camera it is stupid. If you get it to crying, I won’t be able to take a clear picture for a month. It cries even more than your sister Edith.” Then he leaned back.
“How did you become a zombie?” she asked. “Have you eaten anyone?”
“Oh, no,” he reassured her. “I have never eaten anyone, although I did have the misfortune to see someone eaten.”
“When was that?” Alice asked, leaning forward.
“At Rugby School,” he said.
Alice nodded. She had once overheard her father saying that Rugby was nothing but a pack of beasts, although it was better than it had been, so very long ago. “How old are you?” she asked.
She nodded again, because that was very old, and tallied with Father’s report of Rugby.
“And how did you become a zombie?” she pressed.
“Hm,” Mr. Dodgson said. “I should be quite happy to tell you, on one condition. The camera is all ready. If you should sit in the chair like so, I will tell you that story. While I am talking, that is the time it takes for the camera to blink. As you recall, it does take a terribly long time, almost a full minute, for the camera to blink and take your picture.
“However, during the story, you must be terribly, terribly careful not to cry, for it is a very sad story, and if you should cry, well, that would ruin the picture and we should have to start all over again, and you might even get the camera to crying, and then who knows where we should end up.”
“Should I hold my breath?” Alice breathed until her chest felt like it would pop and held her breath with her cheeks puffed out.
Mr. Dodgson coughed into his hand again, and she scowled at him. “No, no need to hold your breath. Just breathe very shallowly, as though you were pretending to be dead.”
“Hmph,” Alice snorted, but she liked the idea very much: to pretend to be dead while listening to a zombie tell a story about how he was turned into a zombie. “Do you breathe?”
“I do,” Mr. Dodgson confirmed, making some last few adjustments in the darkness of the cloth covering the back of the camera. “But not as often as I used to.”
“Then press-ganged zombies would drown if they were thrown off a ship,” Alice exclaimed.
“Oh, no. They simply would be unable to speak very well until they had come up to the surface again. Now, let us begin the picture and the story. Remember, it is vitally important that you make not a single change of facial expression until the story has finished.” And then he removed the cap.
Here is the story that Mr. Dodgson told, as Alice sat in front of the camera and listened. (Despite her mother’s complaints to the contrary, Alice did listen most of the time. However, she was of the opinion that listening didn’t oblige her in any way to do what she was told.)
* * * * *
One day, as I was attending school in Rugby, I happened upon a dark hole in the middle of a field. The hole hadn’t been there the day before, and, as you will see, it wasn’t there even an hour after I left it.
I was laying on my stomach over the hole and reaching my arm down with a stick to see if I could reach the bottom, when suddenly I saw a white rabbit running toward me. My experience had previously been of rabbits doing the opposite: that is, running away as fast as possible. “Curiouser and curiouser,” I cried.
The rabbit, apparently not even noticing I was there, ran bang-on into me and bounced backward, unable to take another step for fright.
I looked up to see what could have possibly scared it so. Charging toward us was a maddened zombie, quite ready to eat any body it should happen upon, and it seemed only too glad to see both Mr. Rabbit and myself.
I jumped to my feet with only the stick as a weapon. I swung the stick at the zombie as though it were a sword: one, two, one, two! However, the stick snapped in half, and I was left defenseless. I stood my ground and dared the zombie to do its worst.
Just then, the rabbit gave a roar (if you have never heard a roaring rabbit, it is quite memorable) and attacked the zombie! You see, the poor thing had been bitten earlier and was starting to turn into a zombie, no serum having been administered.
I took a step back and stumbled, almost falling down the hole. The rabbit and the zombie wrestled for a few moments, the rabbit too light to do much damage, but the zombie unable to dislodge the rabbit from his throat.
Fortunately, the zombie took a step too close to the hole, and down they both went. I went back to the school, and one of the other boys noticed that I was bleeding. I went to the headmaster and told him the story of what had happened, but by then the hole was gone, and I taken to the doctor and given the serum before I should change into entirely the wrong sort of zombie, and do say you believe me, or else I should be terribly sad.
* * * * *
He had put the cap back on at some point during the story, but Alice hadn’t noticed. As soon as he stopped talking, she took a deep breath—towards the end of the story, she’d been holding it.
“That was longer than a minute,” she said.
He gave her a little bow. “I entirely agree, my dear, but I did so want to finish the story. However, now I must go and develop the picture.” He disappeared into the little tent.
Alice looked around her. The black tent on the garden grass was sitting right where they usually set up their croquet game. Mother was nowhere to be seen; Miss Prickett was working on a basket of torn things that were usually Alice’s fault, or so Miss Prickett claimed; and Ina was reading a book while Edith began to crawl off under the bushes.
“No, Edith,” Alice said. “There might be rabbits under there. Come away.” She scooped up the little girl, then carried her over to Miss Prickett. “You might take better care of her,” she said, and went looking for a stick.
If there were zombies about (and not the nice kind, like Mr. Dodgson), she would be the first to attack. One couldn’t allow one’s friends to be bitten. It simply wasn’t done.
Part 2 of The Queen of Stilled Hearts resumes in 1860, with the arrival of Queen Victoria for a royal visit, as well as a bout of croquet in which Alice loses her temper. Now available at Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, Gumroad, Kobo, and more.