Sunday, April 26, 2015

Late-night Visitor

The noise came from outside. I couldn’t tell you much about it except for it sounded like two cinder blocks scraping together, really loud and unpleasant. I looked behind me because it almost sounded like car wheels on gravel, something that happened when people got hung up on the embankment on the other side of our dead end street. 

No headlights though so I’m searching around the room when I hear the scraping, growling noise again and then this sharp, loud bang against the glass doors to the porch. Now Finn is up, tail wagging, looking out on the porch. I pull aside the curtains and find this tiny black cat on the porch, looking at my dog with burning yellow eyes of pure, undiluted fury. It's looking at him like the force of its glare alone would cause my dog to spontaneously burst into flames.

Finn goes up to the glass all enthusiastic because he thinks he’s just found a new friend. Meanwhile the cat arches higher up on its claws, hissing at the dog, basically taunting my dog WWF style.


“Hey! Jabroni! Why don’t you come out here and see what I got for you! Hey!” Its paw vipers out and bangs the glass. "Are you listening, jabroni?"


I rapped against the glass, and the cat gave one more menacing glance over its shoulder before vanishing into the night.


We’ve been warned.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Paragraphs

When my students ask me “how many sentences should a paragraph have?” I give the standard answer, the one most people give:  as many as you need. And for most writers, as many as you need falls within the three to five sentence range, a good figure for introducing and developing a paragraph without causing eye-strain.

Pablo Picasso "Sketch of a Bull"


Most writers.


One of the most obvious features of horror writer John Langan’s style is his embrace of long paragraphs, to the extent that his work appears as long rectangles of unbroken text.


I’ve read a few stories from Langan, including his 2009 novel "House of Windows" and admire his work greatly. There’s plenty I could say about his writing technique, but “Bor Urus,” included in the Year’s Best Weird Stories anthology, displayed his effective use of extremely long paragraphs. Bor Urus explores the self-destructive quality of obsessions, in this case uncovering places where our world bleeds into others. In contrast to most writers in the anthology, Langan has no trouble filling a page or two with the same stanza. As it goes with many things, this ‘rule-breaking,’ can be instructive in understanding what a paragraph actually represents - a complete idea.


Within the story's tumult are two very distinct registers of writing. In the first we have a narrator describing the grief an obsession brings to his marriage and life, the stability of his life pulled down by his personal demons. Towards the end of the story, the metaphorical becomes entangled with the literal, as an enormous beast chases the narrator in a strange and other-worldly woods. In another author’s hands (say, myself) these two distinct agendas would be communicated through the style of writing: long and leisurely descriptions of the narrator’s life and habits at the beginning, and then short sentences, abbreviated paragraphs as the action picked up. Short punchy sentences are faster to read, and tend to bring a sense of action racing forward on short bursts of description and active, precise verbs.


That’s the model I learned in my undergrad days, at least.


Langan follows a different course. Check out this passage from late in the story:


From this direction, the edge of the grove seemed to take much longer to reach. Already too close behind me, the bull was a wave of sound, rushing to overtake me. A glance over my shoulder showed it swerving from side to side as it sought gaps among the trees wide enough to allow its horns. Had its path to me been clear, the bull would have run me down in no time. As it was, I wasn’t wild about my chances. My days of running high-school track were a quarter-century gone. If I could reach my truck, the odds would improve in my favor. But between the thunder of the bull’s hooves on the ground, and the pounding of the blood in my ears, I had yet to hear the rumble of the engine — and that was assuming it hadn’t stalled. The bull roared, and adrenaline fired my legs, carrying me out of the grove into the forest proper. To my left, my right, the scattering of the shining trees that had drawn me deeper into the woods flashed past. The ground here was slicker, slippery with storm-soaked leaves, treacherous with fallen branches, a couple of toppled trees. I hurtled a trunk thick with moss, slide under another whose collapse had been arrested by one of its companions. The first tree I had seen was ahead. Not too far beyond it, my truck appeared to be running. With a pair of titanic cracks, the bull struck and shattered the trees I had dodged over and under. I cleared the treeline. The truck was forty yards away, thirty-five. The bull’s hooves pounded the earth. The truck was thirty yards away, twenty-five. The bull snorted like a steam engine. The truck was twenty yards away, fifteen. I could hear the engine’s roll. The ground drummed under my feet; the bull was nearly on me. The truck was ten yards away, five. I could see the dome light on because I hadn’t closed my door completely. The bull was burning behind me.


Even though Langan isn’t breaking his paragraphs into smaller chunks, he’s still creating a scene of propulsive force. The bull roars, the narrator hurtles, and the trees shatter, all words that punch through the dense layers of description. He also picks out details creating questions for the reader. Will the screen of trees continue? Will the truck be running? Langan counts down the yards to the truck, which is an age-old technique embedded within a frenzied stream of conscious. Certain details glom together, the shining trees and the burning bull echoing the dome light still on. The bull thunders through the woods while the narrator longs for the rumble of a still running truck. These are details that pull together the long passage, motifs to guide the reader through the rush of words.


Try reading the passage out loud. These paragraphs contain considerable forward momentum, an undeniable rhythm. Particularly at the end the paragraph develops a panting, breathless quality.


So why does Langan end this paragraph where he does? Because this paragraph fully explores one idea - the escape from the woods to the car, the exodus from the other-worldly grove where he encounters the bull to the solid, operating reality of his pick-up truck. Embracing the long form of writing, by lumping together ideas into one enormous circus tent where others would parcel them out into discrete packages, Langan displays a clear logic to his paragraph breaks. The next paragraph after the one quoted at length finds the narrator at the truck, a clear shift in the action of the scene. The narrator has accomplished one significant goal in saving his life, so the paragraph shifts.


Is this the model for every writer then? Or even writers seeking to emulate Langan’s brand of erudite, hyper-aware speculative fiction? Of course not. Every writer has to find their own voice, and use whatever devices, tricks, and styles needed to bring that voice to life. What Langan shows is that there are many, many ways of writing strong action and compelling horror, and that an extended paragraph can be just as tense, properly crafted, as a short one.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"We're Home"

The difference between a good trailer and a great/legendary trailer lies not so much in what the trailer contains but rather in what it does. The new Star Wars trailer does more than simply remind fans of why they might want to see the movie, it creates demand for something they didn’t realize they wanted. The opening shot of the trailer, a land speeder glinting in the desert sun as it passes first a downed X-wing and then the derelict hulk of a star destroyer creates instantly a sense of place and time, it generates a question to be answered. How did the enormous spaceship come to this place. Who is passing in front of it? Where and when is this exactly?



The place is familiar but different (Jakku instead of Tatooine). The time is clearly after, a period moved on from what we know. There are echoes of what came before - the mysterious and already much-disected pronouncement from Luke Skywalker, the storm-troopers, and of course the double cameo in the final shot - but there are also disturbing changes.

This clip works because it explictly acknowledges what the prequels implicitly denied - that time passes. Entire generations of children have come of age and grown old under the shadow of this one story. The ruins of the original trilogy tower forlorn in the background of the new world. Star Wars, with all of its Cambellian trappings make a whole hell of a lot more sense than the world does right now. Instead of one iconic, fair-haired hero, we have a plucky staff-weilding young woman, an (ex?) storm-trooper of color, and a very gleeful X—wing pilot, almost as though the simple narrative of the original trilogy has fragmented and moved past simple descriptions even as it tightens focus away from galactic machinations back to the heart of the original story. The destiny of families.

The trailer embraces nostalgia. The music swells, the action on the screen builds towards a simple and powerful climax - the reappearance of Hans Solo and Chewbacca. The statement here is not so much fan-service as it is a communion with a segment of the population.

An overture.

J.J. Abrams seems to understand that images, simple, well-framed images, have the power to drive the imagination. To encourage us dream again.

This trailer forms a compact with fans: trust us and we will do the impossible - return home.

That’s a lot to ask of fans who sat through Jar Jar Binks, gobs of superfluous CGI, and bad dialogue, but the gesture is appreciated.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Review of Year's Best Weird Fiction (edited by Laird Barron)

Anthologies like the Year’s Best Weird Fiction are a great place to catch up on favorite authors and discover new favorites. This anthology took a rather broader look at the meaning of weird fiction than I initially figured it would. Not much of the work was explicitly or even subtly Lovecraftian, which probably increased my enjoyment of it honestly. Tim Jeffrey’s offering, for example, was a twilight zone-style puzzle box rather than anything resembling his Punktown stories.



The stand-outs:


"Swim Wants to Know If It’s as Bad as Swim Thinks" by Paul Tremblay. I really liked this story, from the compelling point of view character to the dread filtered through a broken soul. The way Tremblay walks up to the edge of an impending apocalypse without ever letting us look straight at it, is masterful.


"Bor Urus" by John Langan: Stylistically Langan’s offering was in keeping with the beleaguered protagonists of other works I’ve read from him, but perhaps the work was slightly less bent towards horror and more concerned with an uneasy intersection between rage and forgiveness. Ironic considering this story was one of the few in the collection with an explicit and active monster.


“Furnace" by Livia Llewellyn was a compelling work, from an author I expect to hear more from in the future. She released an anthology this year and if this work is any sign, I can’t wait to read more of her complex, intricately wrought style. Her hallucinatory imagery creates an interplay between alternate realties. Without ever becoming explicitly horror, Llewellyn creates a world invested in malignant supernatural menace.


The one more or less Lovecraftian work, “A Quest of Dream” by P.H. Pugmire was actually very good, all things considered. Leaning towards Thomas Ligotti’s dense prose poems in style, the story follows a jovial and already damned dreamer on his quest to find the Dreamlands. There is a thread of current Mythos literature I’ve noticed that plays around with this idea - what if the unimaginable horrors of Lovecraft’s imagination were altogether more human scale than he made them out to be.


Kathe Koja will be editing this year’s Weird collection and I’m curious what side of the ledger another genre writer would tip towards. If the next volume charts as deftly the grey-zone between horror and fantasy, I’m in.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

What I Read in March

March turned out to be a busy month and I fell behind, way behind, on reading short stories. Having caught up, I’m putting down my thoughts on a selection of stories that really grabbed me last month.

- Once Lost, Gone Forever by Gwendolyne Kiste (Electric Spec). Good creepy story about two friends able to disappear people they meet. The theme here is ancient - the ends don’t justify the means - but the horror comes from how thoroughly the casually amoral behavior of the protagonists seeps into the fiber of the story.


- Dogs by Bruce McAllister (Tor.com) Excellently creepy tale of the death dogs of Mexico. Far and away my favorite work from last month. The atmosphere of this story, a visceral and relentless dread, really worked for me. One of those stories that makes other writers very, very jealous.


- Cassandra by Ken Liu. (Clarkesworld) Ken Liu is on fire. I put him on my top five last year for short fiction with "Clockwork Soldier" and here he finds a way of making superhero fiction really resonate. Liu paints a picture of an alternate Superman (Showboat) as he would appear to a precog super villain. What works in this story is how even as the reader comes to understand the villain’s motivation that doesn’t really make her any less of a villain. Loved this story.


- Universe, Sung in Stars by Kat Howard (Lightspeed) A soft sci fi story from Lightspeed about an artist working in miniature universes. She is attempting to find a new home for one tiny white dwarf, and so the conflict I suppose is whether or not she can find a suitable universe for that star. Very strange but beautiful all the same.


- The Museum and the Music Box by Noah Keller (Tor.com) Beautiful slipstream piece about two lovers obsessed with a decaying museum of improbable relics. What I liked about it was how it compared the thrill of discovery embedded in love with the slow destruction that museums represent. With every warehoused treasure there is a a chance for destruction and loss.


- All Original Brightness by Mike Buckley (Clarkesworld) Military cyber-punk centered on injured Marines attempting to carry on their life hooked up to ‘immersos’ or VR rigs that allowing their shattered bodies to still interact. Some aspects of the story felt vague to me and the ending while evocative was a bit abrupt. Still, the bleak and weary tone of the story punched through.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Characters versus Plot

Because a novel is enjoyed over a more extended time period, structure becomes an important component of making sure the experience of reading the novel is, in fact, enjoyable. Structure allows the average reader to follow along with plot, make certain assumptions later borne out or revised, and generally feel grounded in the events of the story.

Novels come in all manner of shapes and sizes obviously but today I’d like to highlight the differences between a plot-driven and character-driven story.
A plot driven novel is one where events drive the course of the story. The protagonist may play an active, even determative role in those events, but the force that compels each page to be turned is the need, on the reader’s part, to see how ‘things will play out.’ We can call this suspense, but I think that suspense is only one thread tying together a novel of this type. One recent example of this is John Scalzi’s very fun “Lock In.” Scalzi’s protagonist, Chris Shane, a well-rounded character, acts almost exclusively in the service of a murder mystery. What drives him is the same thing driving us through each page, a need to know and understand.

A character driven novel is one where the events are secondary to the exploration of the characters. I’ve read a number of books in this vein, but for me I’ll always attach this writing style to Elmore Leonard. In novels such as Get Shorty and Tishimongo Blues, Leonard draws together a cast of compelling individuals, makes plain their driving needs and fears and then lets the plot flow from their actions. Again, there might be external forces that mix this dynamic up, but fundamentally a character-driven novel is one where the characters determine and drive the story.

Recently I finished reading M.R. Carey’s zombie novel “The Girl with All of the Gifts.” This was a nearly perfect example of how to marry these two diverse elements together effectively into a balanced and proportional whole. While there are certainly events external to the characters of the story: the zombie plague itself, the creation of the Echo Base to investigate the intelligent zombies - most of the events flow from the concerns of the five main characters.

Carey has a clever way of introducing these characters. For the first third of the book it isn’t necessarily clear this book will even be an ensemble work. We are introduced to the world of Melanie’s confinement through Melanie’s own limited perspective. Names are withheld, suggested unimportant, a reader might even wonder if this story will be solely taken up in this child’s experiences. Then there is a perspective shift, and another, and finally we have five compelling characters trekking out over the blasted post-apocalyptic world of the novel.
In terms of events in the novel, there are really only two: the attack by ‘junkers' that marks the end of the first act of the novel and a final confrontation in the shadow of a vast fungal mass blighting central London. However, one of the joys of this novel is that it doesn’t really drag during its long middle section between these two events. The reason is Carey effectively balances the characters against each other, placing them together increasingly fraught and compromised situations as the novel progresses through its second act. One can envision Carey drawing up a spreadsheet with each chapter involving two or three encounters with characters, making sure that each character has a chance to share a room with one or two of the others.

Carey’s gift, as a writer, is that none of this feels like the result of anything so antiseptic as a plot spreadsheet, it feels like the organic product of a long and arduous journey through the wilderness. Each conversation supplies a bit more information about the characters and the world. As the revelations build on top of each other, each of these encounters becomes more charged with conflict and drama.

Writing a novel is a different exercise than a short story or even a novella. Where shorter pieces can focus in one single event or conflict, novels must, by necessity, make greater demands upon a reader’s patience and attention. The plot-driven style of novel writing seeks to hold a reader’s attention through action and the responses of the characters. At it’s worst, a plot-driven novel can feel like nothing more than a bad comic book, where each chapter is a big splash page grabbing at the reader’s attention steadily building up a immunity to such flashy overtures. Character-driven pieces can feel claustrophobic and hermetically sealed. If the four or five characters given prominence in the story are really the only forces in the world of the novel, it begins to strain credulity.

Of the many reasons to read “The Girl With All the Gifts,” certainly one of the best, for me, was reading a talented writer unroll a different path, a hybrid narrative driven by characters but unafraid of them coping with circumstances beyond their control.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Public Reading of My Work

As part of a writing workshop I've joined, I'll be participating in a public reading of my work on June 25th, 2015 at the Woburn Public Library. The details are a little hazy at the moment, but it will be in the evening and I will be joining Nick Mancuso, a writer leading the Woburn Writing Workshop. Hopefully other participants of the workshop will also be reading, as I've had the good fortune to join of group of truly talented writers!

I'll give a quick shout-out to Andrea Bunker, the Assistant Librarian at the Woburn Library, for being so receptive to this idea. As I've mentioned before, reading my work before audiences has been one of my absolute favorite aspects of writing so far. Hopefully there will be other possibilities to announce in the near future.