Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Corpses and Gang Bangs and Bears

by James Swingle

A bit of a treat here: this one is by Jim, for a new publication, Black Ink Horror, billing itself "The Illustrated Digest of Dark Fiction." And it's a dark story, but with a bit of mirth that helps make the ending work. What this story can teach a horror writer is, I think, at least these three things: 1) The first horrible thing in the story need not be what the horror will ultimately be about; nor must the second horrible thing, either. 2) If you want to have a sly ending, you will make a friend of the reader if you have a sly beginning and a sly middle, too. 3) A horror story's horror is all the more horrible if its events could all come true.

By the numbers, then: 1) The necrophilia at the start put me off, a bit, but the story moves away from that into a less disturbing direction. However, even that new direction turns out not to be the heading the reader is on at the very end. Jim and I have long agreed that "There was a horrible monster and it ate everyone in a horrific way and that was really horrible" is not a horror story. Yet, one sees it all the time. Here, we have a piece that avoids that. 2) The ending is humorous, which is a challenge in a horror story because, well, funny horror is challenging. I think this piece meets the challenge by the simple, yet effective, method of sprinkling the same sort of humor over every scene. It's the difference between, say, having this dialog:

Joe: What the fuck was that?
Tom: Shhh, keep it down!

And having the same dialog with these extra lines:

Joe: I am keeping it down! You keep it down!
Tom: You're not keeping it down. You're telling me to keep it down.

Finally, 3) Horror stories are nightmares and they grip us because they are told as nightmares that have come true. Some nightmares can, some can't. For example, no monster is actually going to emerge from my son's closet. But, one actually can fall from a high place. Monsters seem more horrible than falling does, but falling can actually happen. This is a story about events that are truly possible. No monsters, but a nightmare that could come true, for real. That's scary.

There were some glitches in the prose, mostly alternations between third-person omni voice, and first-person subjective voice, that I found confusing. A bit of exposition, too. But an instructive, commercial piece.

5 comments:

Jim said...

Heh.

Definitely a shock to pull up Morning Mug and see my mug staring back at me. :-O

Steve said...

Well, if you think it's too horrible...

liz said...

Steve touched on all the essential points, I think.

I thought the discussion Dogger overhears about thawing times was hilarious. As was the initial internal back-and-forth that Gill has with himself about the dead body and his friend's spoken comment.

The only improvement that could be made is to see how much narration could be taken out and either skipped entirely or replaced with dialogue.

Steve said...

That bit was pretty funny and, coming early in the story, helped set the tone that made it all seem less ghastly than it might have been. Agreed that Pradeep's comment should have ended the scene. The comedian's rule of "just tell 'em, don't explain 'em" applies to humorous fiction, I think.

Jim said...

I admit a certain reluctance to talking about my own work in a post-publication critical forum, for the same reason that it usually makes sense in a writer's workshop to just listen to feedback and say thanks, not get into exchanges about what you intended vs. what a reader experienced. However, I did find this story presented a couple of interesting--if not new--technical problems. And I certainly learned things working through them. So, in the following my point isn't to argue about anything anyone offers in terms of their experience reading the story. But simply to discuss a couple of issues I had to deal with in writing the story. I leave the success of my choices up to the individual reader to decide.

One challenge had to do with voice. I really wanted the third person narrative voice to sound from section to section like the the way current POV character (this story does shift POV character between sections) would talk. So the third person narrative voice uses the language and phrases the characters themselves would use, and also ducks into the characters' heads to convey their thoughts directly at times. Of course, it's always an open question whether something works for a given reader (I was generally happy with my choices, but I know the shifts into the POV character's thoughts seemed too abrupt to Steve at times, and pulled him out of the story, particularly in the first scene). But forgetting for the moment whether it worked or not in each case, I did find this piece an interesting challenge in terms of creating that third person narrative voice that matched the different characters' ways of speaking in each section, without seeming inconsistent between section.

The other challenge was the age old one of keeping the reader at the point just before something happens, in order to build suspense, without slowing things down so much that the passage loses the reader. There were points at which I didn't want to move too quickly to the next event, as that would wreck the pacing, the rhythm of the story. That old problem of writing the paragraphs before the dead body is discoverd. You don't want to reach the big event too quickly--sometimes you want to give the reader a chance to breather, sometimes you want to hold the reader in that state of suspense. However, if your descriptions of those moments just before the big events aren't interesting enough in themselves, or they go on too long, the reader just jumps ahead to the paragraph with the dead body. Anyway, whether individual readers agree with all my choices, it was an interesting challenge to slow the pace enough at times so that the reader could experience that suspense--rather than simply get a series of abrupt events--without giving the reader cause to just skip ahead to the next corpse, gang bang or bear, as the case may be.