Month: June 2015

Literary Horror — Too Much of A Bad Thing?

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.

 

 

 

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The Garden in Early Summer, and Life in the Shoe

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.

Calla lily by the pond

Calla lily by the pond

The rosebuds I noted a few weeks ago have burst into bloom, with more to come.

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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.

Rose "Fragrant Cloud"

Rose “Fragrant Cloud”

 

More "Fragrant Cloud"

More “Fragrant Cloud”

The mulleins are getting into their rather lengthy season of bloom, lighting up the garden like yellow torches.

Mullein (Verbascum chaixii)

Mullein (Verbascum chaixii)

Big mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

Big mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

With almost no rain since April, and the hottest weeks of the summer soon to come, this may be as good as it gets…

The back garden in full bloom

The back garden in full bloom

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.

Bewick's wren on nest in shoe

Bewick’s wren on nest in shoe

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.

 

 

Local Author Book Review #4: The New Fire by Ada Robinson

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The New Fire by Ada Robinson is a historical novel about a history that never happened set in a place that does not exist. But it reads as though rooted in a real place and time.

This is from the back cover:

Imagine a land blending the geography of California, the technology of medieval Spain and the theology of pagan Rome. Isolated by distance and slave-hunters, the community of Iktalan has diverged from its Hispani roots.

Ada Robinson has taken pains to craft her fictional world and its inhabitants, rendering vividly its geography, economy and cultures. The Iktalai and a related people, the Zalatai, are the native peoples of the region. The Iktalai have had more contact with the Hispani, who come from Nueva Hispania on the other side of the mountains; indeed, they have intermarried at some point. Then there are the fearsome Bakai, enemies of all three peoples, who raid coastal settlements to take prisoners and slaves, using repugnant means to subdue them.

The story plays out over a period of months, during which a treaty is negotiated between the Iktalai and the Hispani, guaranteeing protection of Iktalan from the Bakai by the Hispani army in exchange for tribute.

Woven into this tapestry is the story of Sakela, a young Iktalai woman who represents her community in the treaty negotiations and serves as a herbalist and healer. She encounters dangers and challenges, not least among them the need to overcome a personal tragedy. In the course of these adventures she meets the new Governor of Tierra Ermosa, Don Francisco Montoya, and a warrior of the Zalatai who is also her cousin.

Robinson’s prose is clear and direct, outlining with equal clarity religious ceremonies, community feasts, military operations and issues around land claims and taxation. The human stories are nearly obscured by the volume and detail of this information, especially in the opening chapters. Some readers may be discouraged by this, but persistence is rewarded by several tense situations and their resolution, only to be followed by additional complications.

The technique of creating a fictional world that engages readers by its similarity to the real one, while allowing the writer freedom to plot, has been used in several well-known novels by Guy Gavriel Kay. Robinson has accomplished something similar in this novel, with less drama and intensity, perhaps, but with admirable sincerity and thoroughness.

My rating: 8 stars out of 10.

The New Fire is available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and at the iBookstore, as well as in print from Amazon. It is also part of the Greater Victoria Public Library’s Emerging Local Authors Collection.

Time is Treasure

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.

Local Author Book Review #3: PsyBot by Nowick Gray

PsyBot

The Plot: Computer programmer Joe Norton juggles a series of awkward relationships with women while working for a tech company that’s facing a merger. As if this isn’t bad enough, he experiences strange and disturbing hallucinations and nightmares, in some of which he is offered a rifle for an unknown purpose. Maybe they’re psychotic episodes. Or worse — maybe he’s somehow caught a virus from one of the computer programs he works with. Accident, conspiracy or karma? Joe struggles to make sense of it all, growing ever more flummoxed and distressed. He seeks answers from coworkers, girlfriends and a psychiatrist, embarking on a search for his “home brain.”

The Characters: Joe is a middle-aged guy with a pretty drab life. His reality doesn’t quite measure up to his rather modest expectations. He goes to work, eats TV dinners in front of the “UltraScreen,” changes girlfriends frequently and anxiously. To be honest, it’s pretty hard to care much about him. The other characters, seen through Joe’s eyes (since he’s the narrator) range from quirky to repellent. The most sympathetic ones are Harry, a coworker, and Giselda, the boss’s assistant, but even they are somewhat peculiar.

The Setting: Philadelphia in the fall — as described by Joe, a pretty bleak place. Gritty streets of drab brick buildings. Joe’s girlfriends’ apartments, the office where he works, the eateries he frequents. And a variety of “virtual” situations — airplanes (or airships?), transit stations in space, windowless rooms, festering jungles.

On the plus side, Gray produces good prose. He assembles well-chosen words into coherent sentences, often creating vivid images or displaying a sly humour:

Distracted from the flimsy newsprint, I rode forward carried along on a wave — no, a rising tide — of compulsion toward a greater reality, a more expansive dimension than I had known. At the same time neither joy not freedom beat in my heart. Too much instead of that dark dread, the taste of black ooze in my mouth. And I don’t mean the coffee.

Even though the plot revolves around computer programs and virtual reality, the occasional occurrences of technical language are not incomprehensible. Readers who can relate to metaprograms, branching logic and metamovers that window to lot-caches may derive more from the story than those who do not, but the latter can skim over those sections without losing the thread.

The premise of the novel is interesting and original. Unfortunately, its execution bogs down in excessive detail soon after the opening scenes. The first quarter of the book, in which the drabness of Joe’s life is contrasted with his bizarre visions, is excruciatingly slow. Finding little to charm or captivate me, I nearly bailed around page 40; only my resolve to finish the book in order to write this review kept me going. By page 100, I was intrigued. Joe was starting to engage with his problem and trying various strategies to solve it.

Sadly, this promising thread frayed out into a repetitious series of further bizarre incidents with little coherence. Reaching the end of the novel became my primary motivation again, rather than a desire to discover the reason for Joe’s weird experiences and curiosity about how things work out for him. I wasn’t willing to wallow in disembodied strangeness again and again. “Goodbye Joe, and good luck,” I thought, but since the end was in sight, I kept plugging away.

I’m happy to say that the final 20 pages brought a fairly satisfying resolution. Despite (or perhaps because of) its denseness, PsyBot is a book that gives a reader plenty to think about.

My rating: 6 out of 10 stars. In my 10-star rating system, 6 stars means “Good but unremarkable.” In the case of PsyBot, I would change this to “Potentially good but hard to engage with.”

PsyBot and other books by Nowick Gray may be obtained through his website:  http://nowickgray.com or through his author page at Smashwords:  http://smashwords.com/profile/view/nowick

And, of course, there is one copy of PsyBot available to users of the Greater Victoria Public Library as part of its Emerging Local Authors Collection.