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 paid 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?

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.