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Posts Tagged ‘horror’


Anyone who’s ever been in a fiction critique group will probably run into questions. Some are just garden variety questions, but others poke and prod at the very center of your story—questions that make you want to scream at the idiots asking them because isn’t the answer, you know, obvious? Well no it’s not, and usually for good reasons.

No matter how irritating these questions may be, they usually will reveal themselves to be valuable to the writer. Garden variety types can often be resolved by a few tweaks here and there in the plot, or a bit of dialogue to reveal something the reader can use to realize some aspect of a character’s motives, for example. The other kind, the kind that gnaw at you, are more problematic. It could mean rewriting an entire chapter or more, throwing out thousands of words, some well-crafted and stylish. It could mean that you really don’t understand your main character, after all, so you spend hours contemplating motives and backstories that you thought were set in stone. Or it could mean that your story is actually working rather well.

How’s that?

I’ve noticed that one can divide readers into two basic camps. One camp likes everything tidy, plots to follow definable arcs, characters with relatable motives, an ending that lets the reader let out a sigh because everything has been satisfactorily completed with nothing left unresolved. For these readers plot twists are fine, but only if they make sense; quirky moods are fine, but only if they are integrated into plot and character. The idea of reading a murder mystery that goes unsolved at the end is abhorrent to them.

The other camp—and I’m guessing fewer readers are in this one—aren’t so picky. They don’t mind if a character goes missing with no explanation, or that the main character’s motives aren’t fully revealed. Sometimes a particularly poetic passage triggers something in their emotions that overrides the rest of the story’s flaws. Sometimes an unanswered question is what they find most interesting about the story in the first place.

Consider The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock’s famously creepy horror movie about birds that attack people for no apparent reason. What starts as a few isolated attacks escalates into larger, more furious ones, not just scaring people but threatening their lives. No explanation is ever given for this behavior, and the key question—Why are the birds doing this?—hangs over the story like a storm cloud.

For some moviegoers, the fact that the question never gets answered is a major disappointment. They might enjoy the buildup, the ratcheting up of suspense, but when the end doesn’t give them that definable “Aha!” moment, they grumble “I don’t get it,” and dismiss the story as incomplete. For other moviegoers, however, the unanswered question is the central element around which everything in the story revolves. They love the fact that it’s up to the viewers to supply their own ideas as to why the birds attack, and it’s fine if one admits that not even having an answer of one’s own makes the story more appealing.

So if the people reading your novel draft act puzzled and don’t understand why or how certain things occur in your story, take heart. It could be that you need to make your characters more believable and your plot better paced. Or it could be that you’ve stumbled onto something that will make your readers eager to read on and try to figure out what it all means.

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Back when I was in high school, one of my cleverly-penned personal mottos was “Weirdliness is next to Godliness.” If an idea was strange or bizarre, I attached a personal interest to it. H.P. Lovecraft’s creepy tales, Mervin Peake’s labyrinthine Gormanghast novels, and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land stood proudly on my bookcase next to the battered Tolkien trilogy.

Had Jeff VanderMeer published his collection of stories, City of Saints & Madmen, in the 1960s, I no doubt would have been fascinated by Ambergris, the fungi-infested city of Vandermeer’s nightmares. As a gentleman of undisclosed years, my fascination has been tempered by firsthand experience of the real deaths of friends and family members. Graphic violence in pulp fiction and movies has dulled my reactions to the kinds of horrors VanderMeer employs in these stories.

Nevertheless, this City is no mere collection of genre tales. Start with Ambergris, a brilliantly conceived, steampunkish metropolis in an undefined time and place, both disturbingly similar to those in our world, yet vividly different as well. VanderMeer exhibits his literary bent with a clever nod to Borges by naming a bookstore after the Argentinian writer, for example. His character and place names strike me as influenced by Titus Groan. His King Squid and the ever-present fungi clearly evoke Lovecraft, and the overall tone of Ambergris carries unmistakable echoes of J.G. Ballard and even Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. No doubt VanderMeer has added other references that went over my head as I read along.

The overall tone is unremitting darkness, brought about by a subterranean species of semi-humans known as “graycaps.” These people, if you can call them that, have bonded with the mushrooms and fungi that inhabit the city, and are a clear stand-in for indigenous peoples ruled by imperialist forces but never really conquered. Scavengers with the ability to drive conventional humans insane, instigators of violence, they live on the periphery yet inform every aspect of Amergrisian society, and are part of every story in this collection.

These stories range from the conventionally told “Dradin, in Love” and “The Tranformation of Martin Lake,” to a hilarious monogram on King Squid by invented squid-obsessed author F. Madnok, to a baffling interview with the author himself, known here only as X, who languishes in an insane asylum while trying to determine whether Ambergris is invented or real. A number of pages consist of nothing but number codes written by X with his toes, since both his hands have been cut off. The aforementioned monogram by Madnok has a lengthy bibliography full of seriously funny Ambergrisian books on squid. VanderMeer throws a postmodern kitchen sink at us, and that sink has plumbing full of sour-smelling goo that will probably infect our minds and lead us to strange parts of our world where unspeakable acts of cruelty await us.

So, yeah. If you like this sort of stuff, go for it. Even if you don’t, VanderMeer has enough brilliantly written passages to make reading this collection—or at least part of it—worthwhile. Consider the following passage from “The Cage,” in which merchant Robert Hoegbotton describes his love Rebecca:

The light came from her open eyes, although he could tell she was asleep. It was a silvery glow awash with faint phosphorescent sparks of blue, green, and red: shivers and hiccups of splintered light, as if a half-dozen tiny lightning storms had welled up in her gaze. What rich worlds did she dream of?”

Such transcendent passages are the exception, though, being far outnumbered by descriptions of scenes right out of a painting by Goya or Bosch. The endings to VanderMeers’ stories are also uniformly depressing, the possible exception being “The Transformation of Martin Lake,” in which the protagonist achieves a measure of redemption and grace. Ambergris has few saints, and even they are virtually indistinguishable from the madmen. Read at your own peril.

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