Writing Beautifully Disturbing Things

“Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin.”

—-  Mary Shelley, from the novel “Frankenstein” (public domain)

Although I have read almost more books that I can count by Stephen King, my favorite book wasn’t written by him. I also enjoy books not by “commercial authors,” of which – for better or worse – Stephen King is considered one of. My favorite book is “A Prayer for the Dying” by Stewart O’Nan. He writes dark literary fiction, but when I stumbled upon this book and finished it, I was shocked. This was horrifying to its core. And, delightfully beautiful.

By Stewart O’Nan

It was this book that inspired me to write in a new fashion.

“A Prayer for the Dying” is the story of a lawman, minister, and undertaker – all the same person – in a time of plague. But it’s not just his story – it’s yours as well, because the novel is written in second person.

Not many writers can pull this off, at least, not that I’ve seen. But this book is brilliant. You feel the emotions stronger, you feel the desperation as if it was yours, and you know the horror is real, because you are the one confronting it. Stewart O’Nan scarred me for life with this one, and I liked it.

But more than the unique perspective, this was the first modern horror(ish) novel I’d ever read that payed as much attention to the prose as it did to the events. The way he uses the language is an essential part of the story, for it puts you in the proper time, and the right place to see the things that are happening. It takes place before cell phones and the internet and the automobile. It is about a time when people rode trains, and bicycles, and sent messages by telegraph. I think in that time, attention spans were longer, and people looked to words not just to be thrilled, but to be enraptured.

When you think of horror as a genre, a few authors come to mind – Lovecraft, Stoker, Poe, Shelley. None of these writers would be given a chance today, because “literary horror” is not considered marketable, at least, by many in the business. But I wonder why? “Dracula” still scares me when I read it, and I’ve read it more than once. The words keep bringing me back. Poe frightens me with poetry – an art form that is decidedly on the out in popular media – and the line I presented at the beginning of this post – a line from “Frankenstein” – shows how deeply we can connect our fears to the beauty of our existence.

I wonder what you think? Is there a place in the market for a book that tells what could only be considered a “horror” story, and yet does not follow the pattern or the style of modern commercial fiction?  Would we have such staples of our culture as Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster if writers of a century ago were concerned with churning out as many novels in a year as they could? Or is it our fault for wanting something much simpler to read, that doesn’t challenge us to take note of the more subtle uses of the language? Will literary horror – like a mummy rising from a tomb – live again?

Learning from Sensei

Stephen King Books

Stephen King Books (Photo credit: o5com)

Okay, I’ll just say it. I LOVE Stephen King! I know you’ve heard that before, but maybe not from someone who yearns to be a literary writer. So I’m going to tell you why.

I started reading his books when I was in Middle School, I think. I hated to read. I thought books were boring, they took a long time to finish, and they weren’t as cool as video games (sounds a lot like a conversation probably taking place in someone’s family room right now). Then, one day, my aunt gave me a copy of IT. She was a teacher, and determined to get me to love reading. It was an uphill battle, but she had heard that this guy, this Mr. King, wrote spooky stories that young people liked to read. So I started that thing – and it is a THING at over 800 pages in paperback – and was hooked from the opening scene. “It” gave me what I wanted – scary stuff that made me want to skip to the end of the page. But it also gave me something else that I didn’t really understand then, and am only beginning to understand now. It told me the story of myself.

Now I know what many of you are thinking. “Huh? Are you an idiot? He only writes trash.” “He says the “F” word too much.” “His stories are about monsters. I want to write books that have a deeper meaning!”

Tisk tisk. Book snob.

After devouring about 5 of his books, I wrote a paper in my junior year Advanced English class where I said, “Stephen King is the only writer to really understand the human condition.” My teacher gave me an “A” with this comment – “Be very careful when you say something like that. You sound foolish.” Looking back on it now, what I should have said was, “Stephen King was the writer who first made me enjoy reading, and made me realize that to write well, you have to describe the human condition, even if you are talking about monsters in sewers.”

I’ve probably read over 30 books by Mr. King (that’s why he’s so rich, I guess, because everybody has). In that same period, I’ve read hundreds of books by other authors. I can say, even now, 20 years later, that he is still one of my favorites. Right up there… pretty close to the top. Why? How can that be? Let me show you.

I just started reading “Cujo,” a novel he wrote in 1981, and one which he confesses in his book “On Writing” that he can’t remember writing because he was intoxicated through much of the process. Nonetheless, it is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. I haven’t seen the movie, and hadn’t read the book before. I passed on it the first time because I thought the notion of a scary dog wasn’t “scary” enough. Shame on me. Sure, this book is simply about a big dog that goes stark raving nuts, and attacks people. That’s apparently it. But man, oh man, is there so much more.

About 1/4 of the way through, we see two of the main characters confront an affair by the wife that has been brutally exposed. They face each other as the secret comes out, and in the process, Stephen King tells us everything we know about how we would react, and then more that we didn’t know about how we would actually react, and then about the conflicting feelings, and loyalties, and how men always look for an efficient way to explain problems, and how for women it is always so much deeper. How, for a man, the weight of the world and a mountain of stress can provoke bad behavior, but for a woman, sometimes all it takes is one gray hair that sparks an insurmountable fear, and the world comes crumbling down. And how the yearning inside to reconcile is so often overcome by the urge to hurt, to make things even, to destroy everything because some part of it is broken. I read those three or four pages over and over, swimming in his knowledge, and his graceful, yet deeply agonizing, way of telling me what these two people were feeling, how their lives were coming apart at the worst possible time. I saw the situation through the man’s eyes, and then through the woman’s eyes. I blamed them both, I hated them both, and I cared for them both, and wanted them to stop hurting.

This is a story about a mean dog, mind you.

And this is why he is one of my favorite writers, and why he is so damn prolific, and why writers love him or hate his guts. Because he does it so well, and then ends it with a chainsaw.

If you’ve seen “Shawshank Redemption,” or “The Green Mile,” or “Stand By Me,” you know how good he can be at grabbing your heart-strings. He is also a master of tension, of building something huge out of almost nothing. And reading this book, trapped away in a box in my attic for over a decade, has reminded me once again what my job as a writer is. My job is to tell you who you are, and I can’t be wrong.

I don’t know how Stephen King came to learn what he told me about women’s emotions, but from everything I know, he was 100% right. Maybe his wife helped him out. I know he was right about the guy’s reactions. And half of the stuff he told me, even though I instinctively knew was true, I’d never really known before.

That’s our job as writers. We are not telling stories to throw out of the car on the way down the road, hoping someone will find it,  pick it up and like it. We are telling bedtime stories to one person (or to thousands, hopefully millions, if we’re lucky) sitting in a quiet place. We are saying words to make them happy, make them sad, make them angry, make them brave. We want them to imagine a place they are comfortable in, somewhere that feels “real” to them. It doesn’t matter if the story is happening 200 years ago, or on a planet in a distant galaxy. They have to believe it. And in order for the reader – you and I – to believe it, we have to be told who we are, and agree.

Thank you again, Mr. King, for showing me how to do it right, and also telling me I still have a long ways to go. I’ll keep following, if that’s all right with you.

Good Morning (to the same day, writers)

English: Sunset at Porto Covo, west coast of P...

English: Sunset at Porto Covo, west coast of Portugal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Writing is a very strange occupation. I’m not sure why anyone wants to do it. I’ll make it easy to understand – a writer spends hours, weeks, even years involved in a world that is totally made up by them. This place is so personal, and so damn interesting, to the writer that they put off chores, going outside, regular meals, conversations with real people, and sometimes give up really great opportunities to do something else, just so they can write down the things they make up in their heads.

Sounds ridiculous, huh?

Well, in a way it is, and in a way it isn’t. Books have really impacted my life. I’ve been entertained, taught lessons, and even been told (more than once) that I was okay, all by books. Writer’s want to do that, too. That is the only real goal of any writer – to have someone else read what they’ve written, and have it matter.

This need is no different than other human needs. We want to be loved, we want to be understood, we want to say something into the world and make things different with our voice. But it’s a big world, and our voices are very quiet.

And this brings me to the real reason I’m writing this post – rejection. I know, I’ve already touched on that. But I want to touch on it again, because there is more to say. When a writer is rejected, it can be for a number of reasons. Perhaps their writing isn’t good, or great, or perfect. Perhaps the story isn’t compelling. Perhaps the reader didn’t “connect” with the characters. “Don’t worry. It’s nothing personal,” they say.

But it is. For writers, this is us. This is our focus, our interest. These are our secret thoughts, the heroes we wished we were defeating the bad guys that we couldn’t beat ourselves. These are the adventures we’ll never take, the loves we’ll never experience, and the dreams that are dying in ourselves. When writer’s hear a “no,” it’s like that moment in school when all of your friends left in one moment, or when you weren’t good/fast/smart/pretty/funny/rich/cool enough to do whatever everyone else was doing. Writer’s only write for one reason – to give someone else something to enjoy. If they don’t enjoy it, then it is a failure.

So what then? We’ve all – us writers – had to face this moment. What do we do? Revise? Start over? Keep trying? Give up? The answer is different for everyone. There is a large dose of fate or luck in this endeavor, and many of us are perpetually unlucky.  And it’s tempting to want to run into the corner and hide.

But this morning, something started becoming more clear. Writers – you and I – we are the readers, too. We are the ones who buy books, love stories, think about them every day and night, study other writers, and talk about books with our friends. I’ve bought more books than almost anyone I know, who isn’t a writer. I think we are in this together. Perhaps we should be a protected class. At the least, we should at least have our own club. We give each other support, and we help each other get to where we need to go. So I’ll be the first to say that I need help. I have a computer full of my stories, but they won’t live unless they are read. Maybe some need new shoes, others might need a haircut. Maybe some need to take a bath. But they are good kids, all of them, and I want them to be loved and accepted.

I think many of you know what I’m talking about. I would love to hear your thoughts. We are all in this together.

And I know I’m right, because a fellow writer Kristina Blackwell wrote about the same thing a couple of days ago, so I’m not the only one thinking about this. You can read her take here. And also check out her bone chilling writing here.


Finish Line

Finish Line (Photo credit: jayneandd)

I’m a believer in the notion that anyone can do whatever they put their mind to. At least, I struggle to be a believer. I tell myself that as long as you don’t give up, and focus, and never take “no” for an answer, that things will turn out your way.

But that obviously isn’t always the case.

Take an Olympic race. Hundreds of people from all around the world have the same goal. They train, focus, and become the best in their events. Then, one day, all of the best compete. And only one person wins. The rest lose.

Or do they? Maybe being among the fastest in the world is winning? Maybe if a runner hasn’t become the fastest in the world they should think about what they can do better than others? Maybe not being fast enough isn’t the goal, just the satisfaction of running?

If we haven’t achieved what we’ve set out to achieve, then perhaps the race isn’t over. Maybe we need to train more, learn a lesson, maybe we just need to have a better day. Perhaps we need to realize that we were made for another calling.

I still believe that if you don’t give up, you will make it somewhere. It may not be to first place, but it might be very close. If we are wise, we will be thankful just to be in the race.

Not everyone can be the best. But hopefully, everyone, all of us, can be among the best. We just have to keep running.

Sarah Winchester

English: Winchester Mystery House Category:Ima...

English: Winchester Mystery House Category:Images of California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I took the extended family for a tour of the “Winchester Mystery House” in San Jose, California. The home began as an eight room farm-house in the late 1800’s, but today is a sprawling mansion of labyrinthine hallways and 160 rooms , many never finished. The story of this house gets much stranger, though. After the death of her husband (of Winchester Gun fame) and her infant daughter, a distraught Sarah Winchester began consulting a Spiritualist medium, where her dead husband warned her that the family was cursed, and that she would die if she didn’t obey what the spirits told her.

She moved from Connecticut to San Jose – just a rural farmland at the time – to “follow the setting sun.” There she purchased a small home, and began immediately it’s improvement. The spirits had told her to begin building a house, and never stop construction. And she didn’t, for almost four decades.

Deep within this sprawling estate filled with doors to nowhere, bookcases that open to walls, and an obsessive amount of 13’s, is a smallish, blue room. This, we are told on the tour, is where Sarah Winchester held seances with the spirits of those killed by the weapons her family made – a large number of the dead being Native Americans.

It was to this room that Sarah would come alone, close the only door that leads in, and do whatever she did. There are two other doors in the room. Both can only be opened from the inside. One leads to a hallway – this is the exit. The other leads to a drop of over 18 feet, right above a kitchen sink a floor below. Sarah came to this room alone, forbidding anyone else to attend her “meetings.” In a closet are 13 coat hangers, presumably for her thirteen “guests.”

English: Hand-tinted ambrotype of Sarah Winche...

English: Hand-tinted ambrotype of Sarah Winchester taken in 1865 by the Taber Photographic Company of San Francisco (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As our tour stood in this room, some fidgeting on their feet, talking amongst themselves, laughing, peering though the one window, I began to wonder what it must have been like when she was here alone. I tried to imagine the room without the people, with all the doors closed, and with one small little old woman sitting in the center, holding court for the dead. And then suddenly, I began to feel nervous, anxious, like a panic attack was coming. I felt a little sick to my stomach. I felt like I shouldn’t have been there. No one else looked disturbed, and the guide persisted with her dry humor, but I was scared. I may have been the only one.

Maybe because I was the only one seeing what really might have been going on in that room. Maybe because there is something still going on.

I can’t say for sure what happened there. But I know a couple of things. The Winchester House is very old, and it smells like houses that I  lived in and visited when I was a child. The scent reminded me of the mystery of old places. The other thing I know is that when you invite something into your house, it usually doesn’t leave. That’s why I only allow friends into my home. People can sometimes bring things in with them that they do not see. She directly invited spirits into her home. I’m pretty sure they haven’t left yet. And the last thing I’m sure of is that Sarah Winchester believed that she was talking to spirits, and that they were helping her plan her masterpiece to insanity. Whether they were or weren’t really doesn’t matter. If these spirits were actually things from beyond, or just delusions in her own imagination, what happened was real just the same. Something dark happened there, and is still happening.

I was glad when the tour moved on.

Good And Evil

English: [detail].

English: [detail]. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s my question: Can one still be a “good” person and like (write) horror?

I’ve thought about this quite a bit. I think about horrific scenes I’ve seen in movies, or read in novels. Things that really get under your skin. Things that scared the crap out of me, honestly. And I wonder – “How did someone think this up?” and “If they thought it up, does that mean they might be capable of doing it themselves?”

I was fortunate enough to meet a very special person a few months ago. If any of you have seen the movie “The Rite,” this man is the priest who this movie was based on. He is an exorcist. That’s right. He casts out demons.

You may think this is all just more “fiction,” some kind of antiquated fable. But he says he gets hundreds of calls a month, more than he can handle. And he just works in a small section of California. There are literally thousands if not tens… hundreds of thousands of people who believe they are possessed by evil spirits. But that’s not the scary part. While he finds that most of them have other problems – drugs, mental health issues – he does say that a significant number of them… are right.

I can’t remember the exact number, but he said that something like 80% of people in Italy are regularly involved with the occult. He said that the exorcists there are overwhelmed with work. He said this country is getting very busy as well these days.

I find this all disturbing, and fascinating. He confirms the things shown in that movie. I know others who have witnessed exorcisms themselves. It was terrifying for them, but they are not doubters anymore.

I think horror in fiction can be gratuitous, if it is glorified. I see nothing commendable about having a story where the evil wins, where people are destroyed, and that is the happy ending. But I do think it is a good thing to scare people. It’s being honest. Because it’s something that is really happening in our world, whether you believe in it or not. It’s happening.

I didn’t realize that every parish in the US has an exorcist. Yes, there are litterally hundres of exorsists in this country engaged in a full time war against demons.

Think of that. Did you know?

Many of my stories are about what happens to people when they involve themselves with dark, powerful things – things they don’t completely understand and can’t control. I don’t want to glorify it… but I do want to scare you.

I hope that doesn’t make me a bad person.

Are Audiobooks Really “Books?”

An old microphone

An old microphone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many authors these days – both indie and otherwise – are venturing into new territory, and releasing their novels, or parts thereof, as audiobooks, or podcasts. Audiobooks have been with us for some time in various forms, from radio episodes to “books on tape” and now in electronic file format. But I wonder, can we still call it a “book?”

I remember once seeing a picture of one of my favorite radio personalities after hearing their voice for a long time on their broadcasts. I was shocked at how they looked. Not that they were hideous, but they didn’t look anything like I had expected. A similar feeling struck me when I first saw a picture of one of my favorite authors. It changed the way I thought about the story. I hadn’t expected that.

I recently heard a podcast of a recently independently released book. The tone of the reader was flat and uninterested, the background music rather bland. I was instantly turned off. Another author’s reading sounded like a bad imitation of what a thriller should actually sound like. Again, quite a turn off.

In fact, I have yet to hear an audio version of a book that I’ve liked better than the book. Or even liked a little bit. I still hear that this is a marvelous way to promote your story, but it seems most of the people saying it are writers trying to get you to listen to one. 

I would like to know what others think about audiobooks. Do you listen to them? Do they make you more interested in a book? Less interested? Should we even call them audio”books” or something else completely?

When I read something, the words have a very definite sound in my head. Does listening to someone else read it detract from the story?