Recently I read Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree, and now I’m engaged in a struggle to finish Nick Cutter’s The Deep. Both books are in the horror genre, and both, in my opinion, are problematic.
The thing is, these are not straightforward genre books. They are literary horror. And that’s the problem.
Before I go on, I’ll just say that I have no problem with the writing itself. Kiernan and Cutter are skilled writers whose prose is artful and compelling. It’s the entire reading experience I want to dissect.
First, what is horror? It’s fiction whose purpose is to provide the reader with a vicarious experience of something terrible that is outside of reality. (This distinguishes it from thrillers, in which the threat is reality-based). It may be gory and graphic, it may be subtle and inexplicable, but whatever the fictional characters experience must be vividly shared by the reader. The best horror fiction lingers in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished, providing jolts of terror at unexpected moments.
Literary fiction is character-based. The characters and their inner lives drive the plot. Whatever happens to them is of less importance than how they change in the course of the narrative.
Strong, fully fleshed-out characters are thought to be a mark of superior fiction. Readers (this one included) who post reviews of books often complain about “cardboard cutout” or stereotypical characters. But I’m wondering if that criticism applies less to horror fiction.
Think about it — in horror, it’s the situation that’s the star of the show. It’s the house with something dwelling in the cellar, the forest full of malign presences, the stealthy noises in the walls. The reader should be right there, cheek by jowl with the character experiencing these things, trying to figure out what’s happening, becoming terrified, confronting the fear, discovering the terrible truth. If the point-of-view character is also a complex personality sorting through messy personal baggage and possibly struggling with mental health issues, the story sometimes becomes muddy and tedious.
Unreliable narrators are practically a given now, even in genre fiction, and they can add texture to a story. But the degree of unreliability should be limited, and the reader must be given a fundamentally sympathetic character to travel with and root for.
In both of the books I mentioned at the start of this post, the main characters are troubled to start with, as a result of unhappy childhoods or traumatic events in the recent past. Add the bizarre or dangerous situations that underpin the plots (a tree with a weird history, a research station 8 miles underwater that’s gone incommunicado) — and who is surprised when they start to crack? But the reader who just wants to experience a series of terrifying situations while sitting comfortably on the couch may get impatient when their companion character breaks down and needs psychoanalysis. It’s like when you’re on a hike in challenging conditions and your only companion starts to lose it. Yes, this ramps up the tension (always a good thing in fiction), but once a character’s psychological issues become more important than the shapes in the shadows, you have a different type of book.
And indeed, many readers enjoy the combination of literary + horror, as shown by the ratings of both these books on Goodreads. I may be in a minority, preferring a greater degree of separation between the two. For what it’s worth, I think the literary/horror balance is a bit better in The Deep. The main character, although overburdened with personal issues, including a most peculiar upbringing, is basically sympathetic. In both this book and The Red Tree, however, the psychological is too tightly entangled the with the horror for my taste.
Critics have commented that H.P. Lovecraft’s main characters are not well developed. They are usually types — New Englanders of an academic bent faced with evidence of weird goings-on, often in the form of documents or artifacts that lead to the situations and settings that were HPL’s darlings. The characters are merely vehicles to take the reader to those situations. Aside from the basics (name, residence, scholarly interests, family background) little detail is provided. And really, it doesn’t much matter. The reader is sucked right in, reading accounts of R’lyeh rising from the ocean, traveling haunted rural roads to Henry Akeley’s place, exploring the city of the Old Ones in Antarctica. Who cares about Francis Wayland Thurston’s mental quirks, Albert N. Wilmarth’s love life or William Dyer’s childhood?
When I read Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator,” I thought Herbert and the unnamed narrator had potential when it came to character development. What led Herbert to reanimate corpses? Why did the narrator remain loyal to West even when he began to fear him? These questions don’t really have much to do with the corpses lurching around, but they led me to write my novel The Friendship of Mortals. “Herbert West, Reanimator” is definitely horror; some have called it the first zombie tale. Re-Animator, the movie based on the story, is horror of the splatter and gore variety. But my book? Answering the character-based questions that compelled me to write transformed it from horror to psychological/supernatural.
Technically, summer is just beginning, but after a warm, dry spring it feels more like late July than June. Happily, the seediness of mid-late summer has not yet set in.
The area near the pond looks deceptively lush. I’m delighted that the calla lily bloomed quite well this year.
The rosebuds I noted a few weeks ago have burst into bloom, with more to come.
The rather feeble potted rose “Fragrant Cloud,” grown from a cutting (and thus on its own roots, not grafted) managed to produce three luscious blooms. Here are two of them.
The mulleins are getting into their rather lengthy season of bloom, lighting up the garden like yellow torches.
With almost no rain since April, and the hottest weeks of the summer soon to come, this may be as good as it gets…
Note all the campion (Lychnis coronaria), mostly white but some magenta. The ideal way to treat these plants is to remove each spent flower individually — an impossible task with this many plants. They seed extravagantly, which is why there are so many.
Remember the Shoe Bird? The shoe is now full of little Bewick’s wrens, with the parents busily bringing in bugs and removing waste. I wish I had a picture of this activity, but they come and go so fast they’re gone by the time I pick up the camera. It was easier during the incubation period.
What with the wren family, a gang of sparrows in the garage birdhouse, and raccoons methodically flipping rocks over at night, the garden is full of life.
This evening, while I was at a Jazz Vespers service (a real treasure, only a few minutes’ walk from my home) a light bulb came on, about the new phenomenon of self-publishing.
This has probably been said by many, but it felt like a new insight to me, so I decided to write it down.
At one time, when “publishing” meant rendering prose into print, gatekeepers were necessary because it was an expensive process, involving printing machines, warehouses, trucks and heavy boxes of books, in addition to the talents of editors, book designers and publicists. Time and treasure. Traditional publishers had to be selective. Hence the submissions process and all those rejection letters.
Things are different now. Novels and stories may be presented to potential readers in electronic form. No more paper, ink or machines. No more warehouses full of books. Why should anyone be surprised that the gates have been thrown open? Not only have the mechanics of publishing changed, but the fundamental criteria as to what is publishable are completely different.
No longer must every book justify its existence by making a profit for the publisher, or at least breaking even. Self-publishers are free to apply their own criteria of success. Maybe it’s a couple of hundred sales a year, or a few thousand free downloads. Some writers choose to make their self-publishing effort a business; to others, it’s primarily a means of creative expression.
Profit motives aside, all of us authors must remember that our readers’ time is the real treasure. If we want to catch and keep their attention (and thus the few dollars we charge for our ebooks), we absolutely must present polished work, competently packaged. But our books are offerings, not submissions. That’s a radical departure from the world of Trad.
The closing tune of tonight’s Jazz Vespers was “This Little Light.”
Fellow writers, let it shine.
I was doing one of those google yourself (and your book) checks, and was happily surprised to find this review of the first book of the Herbert West Series.
Originally posted on Writer Style:
I found this as a free Nook book. I love discovering (well written) free books by unknown authors.
The Friendship of Mortals is about a librarian (instant draw for me), Charles Milburn, who becomes friends with a medical student, Herbert West, when West asks to view the famed Necronomicon. From that moment as they look at it together, their lives are linked forever.
West finds in Milburn a trusted friend and helpful assistant for his experiments: trying to revive the dead. Milburn, someone who is very predictable and stable, is drawn to West as someone who is exciting and possibly unstable. Despite their differences and arguments, West knows that Milburn will come to his aid whenever he calls.
Through experiments, lovers, careers, even war, the pair keep in touch for over ten years. When West asks for one last favor, the ultimate favor, Milburn cannot say no. The ending is somewhat…
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Birds nest in various spots in my garden. House sparrows, of course — last year they moved into a long-disused birdhouse attached to the garage, and have been very busy producing more sparrows. I have found three bushtit nests in recent years. The latest one was in a ceanothus right next to the front walk. Sadly, something (probably a crow) yanked it out recently. I found the nest (a small work of art made of lichens, spider silk, dryer lint, grasses and feathers) lying on the street, under a power line where the crow probably took and dropped it. I hope the nest was unoccupied at the time.
And now we have the Shoe Bird! My preferred footwear in the garden is a pair of Duck Shoes — cheap rubber shoes that slip on and off easily. Until the advent of Nelly the Newf, I used to kick them off on the back porch, but since Nelly likes to chew shoes, I resorted to parking the duck shoes on a beam that holds up the porch roof.
A couple of weeks ago, I found an amazing lot of plant material (dried moss and grass) stuffed into both shoes. Since I’d worn them the day before, I was quite surprised. The creature responsible turned out to be a Bewick’s wren. Once I observed it stuffing the shoes, I removed the current ones and put them inside, replacing them with a worn out pair I hadn’t gotten around to disposing of. I made sure to put all the nest material into the replacement shoes. The bird didn’t seem to notice, just got on with nest-building.
I have no idea whether it’s intending to hatch out a brood of tiny wrens in the shoe. Wikipedia says Bewick’s wren males sometimes build “dummy nests,” hoping to attract females to take over and finish the job. (Hmm. No comment; we’re talking about birds). Maybe that’s what’s going on here. I don’t know, but in the meantime, the bird is an interesting addition to the scene.
And, just because it’s so gorgeous, here is the second flower to bloom on clematis “Pink Fantasy.”
Anticipation is one of the great pleasures of gardening. You plant, water, feed, weed and hover. You watch the little plant grow under your care. One day — it has buds! Already a reward for your efforts. Watching them swell, and develop colour, and begin to open — I find this almost better than the period of full bloom. It’s like the excitement you feel before going on a vacation; experiences yet-to-be-experienced are perfect and unbroken, without disappointments and, of course, the inevitable aftermath (returning to home and work, or fading and deadheading).
So far this spring, quite a few plants have budded, bloomed and faded already in my garden. Some, such as snowdrops, crocuses and tulips, are now dormant. Lilacs, fragrant and beautiful just a few weeks ago, are now entering the ugly brown stage and becoming an item for the Unpleasant Things To Do list, because clipping off the faded blooms is a tedious job done from a ladder.
But there are buds, hundreds of them, maybe thousands, such as those on this extremely tough, dependable rose growing into a Norway maple. (You can see a bit of a browned-off lilac bloom on the left).
Clematis “Pink Fantasy” has lots of promising buds this year.
Nearby are delphiniums and snapdragons, both in bud, with pink snapdragons already blooming in the background.
I like lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantia) best just before they bloom. They start to look tired once a few of the small flowers fade, although they do go on blooming for weeks, and the bees love them. Right now they are exquisitely velvety.
Mulleins do a great job preparing to bloom. You just know something big is coming, like the long crescendo in Respihghi’s “The Pines of the Appian Way,” a great buildup to a magnificent flourish. They also bloom a long time and are popular with bees.
Rose campion, Lychnis coronaria, is indecently happy in this garden. Here is one of many plants, developing dozens of buds that will soon be magenta or white flowers, next to an already blooming Dutch iris. (Note the wire fences around the perennial beds, and the rather large dead patch in the lawn — both due to the presence of Nelly the Newf, the canine member of the household).
Finally, some actual blooms…
And now, back to bee-watching.
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Originally posted on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog:
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