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Posts tagged ‘horror’

Ephemeral Horror and the Diffusion of Genre Markers


Content, when it comes to genre taxonomy, is king: we categorize stories based on the conventions they employ and the devices that show up within their texts. Spaceships, time travel, aliens? Let’s call it science fiction. Magic and knights? Let’s go with fantasy. A five-act structure centered around mutual attraction and misunderstanding? Romance. A crime that needs to be explained? Mystery. (Yes, I know this is a gross over-simplification – but that doesn’t make it wrong.) These devices, the objects and tropes of most genres, can easily be slapped on a cover to communicate the story’s category to booksellers and readers.

But then we come to horror. Peter Straub is right (hat tip to Robert Jackson Bennett for pointing this essay out) when he says that horror is the only genre whose defining characteristic is absent from the text: horror gets categorized as horror because of the reaction it produces in the reader, not because of the devices it employs (although those devices do contribute to the reaction). The ephemeral nature of horror’s defining characteristic is both a strength and a weakness for the genre.

The Strength and Freedom of Ephemera

Creatively, Straub is exactly right when he writes:

…this absence of specificity is not at all a limitation but the reverse, a great enhancement. That no situational templates are built into horror grants it an inherent boundarilessness, a boundlessness, an inexhaustible unlimitedness. If the “horror” part is not stressed all that overtly and the author spares us zombies, vampires, ghosts, haunted houses, hideous things in bandages, etc., what results is fiction indistinguishable, except in one element alone,  from literary fiction.

Horror lacks the constraints that more solidified genre conventions impose. We can write a horror story – like Shirley Jackson’s classic “Flower Garden” – without a single element of the supernatural or the inexplicable. But even such a “mundane” story can still evoke a sense of horror similar to The Haunting of Hill House.

This freedom means that – in order to be effective – horror must sneak past the reader’s natural defenses, must directly speak to the reader’s perceptions, values, and fears. This is the kind of deep-seated, emotional and perceptual communication that the literary fiction genre has traditionally claimed for itself. But where literary fiction uses such emotional and philosophical intimacy to explore comfortably distanced morality, horror uses a highly sensitized point-of-view to get as close to the nerve as possible, to map even the most painful experiences from the inside.

When a horror story fails to achieve this effect, when it fails to develop such a reaction, it fails to be a horror story. There is a reason why vampires and werewolves and zombies now fill shelves of urban fantasy and paranormal romance: fictional devices that once terrified, now no longer do so. And herein lies the weakness of ephemeral genre definition.

Content is (un)Dead

What is the taste of blue? That is the same kind of unanswerable question as “how can you tell a horror story from its cover?”

There was a time – not all that long ago – when vampires were horrific. Their stories evoked the frisson of terror and repulsion that characterizes the horror genre, and so slapping a vampire on the cover sent a message to the reader that said “This book will horrify you.”

But over time, and in paticular over the last thirty years, we have become acclimated to vampires. They stopped horrifying us, and so have oozed into science fiction (e.g. Peter Watts’ Blindsight or Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series), romance (e.g. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake stories, etc.), fantasy (Jasper Kent’s Danilov Quintet), and so on. When we see a vampire on a cover today, we are more likely to think of these genres than of horror.

This dissolution of the communicative value of fictional devices is a normal part of the creative cycle, and it affects every genre (and is particularly accelerated in YA). But because horror is defined by the reaction it produces, the genre is more exposed to this danger, and its covers (and sales) are disproportionately affected by it.

The Future of Horror?

I think the future of horror will be much like its past: subject to boom-and-bust cycles closely tied to society’s fluency with and acclimatization to the devices which evoke the reactions that define the genre.

For designers and publishers in the field, I think that the challenge is to disentagle cover design from the devices used in the content. Thrillers and (to a lesser extent, mystery) have both broadly succeeded in doing so: their covers tend towards the iconic, rather than the representational. It is worth noting that cover designs for horror perennials like Stephen King and Peter Straub seem to employ this exact strategy, and I suspect that it helps to smooth the genre’s traditional boom-and-bust cycles.

For authors in the field, I think that the trick to continued artistic success will be to focus on that reaction, on the emotional and perceptual effects which define the genre. Essentially, to stick to our knitting. Those who manage to evoke that sensation of visceral repulsion or terror will continue to sell, will continue to have readership, because the darker facets of human nature have and will always fascinate.

And with that being said, I have to wonder: how does reader reaction and the diffusion of genre markers extend or impact on other genres, like science fiction and fantasy?

On Where Genres Come From and How to Stitch Them Together


Victor Frankenstein had it easy. He had to muck about with viscera and body parts, and though the result was an eight-foot tall, sallow-skinned monster, at least human anatomy provided him with a map to follow. Writers don’t have such guidelines: the scope, direction, and style of our art is only constrained by the scope, direction, and style of our imaginations. And while such a wide-skyed vista might be freeing, our desire to navigate its uncharted expanse is precisely why we create genres.

Mommy, Where Do Genres Come From?

Most of what I’ve read about genres centers on three concerns:

1. Taxonomy What [set of] characteristics determine membership within a particular genre?
2. Interpretation How does a title’s membership within a genre affect the way it is interpreted?
3. Historical Application How do a critic’s views on genre taxonomy and interpretation work when applied retroactively to works that predate them? or When did a genre begin?

All three are interesting concerns, but they fail to address a fourth question that is – to me – just as interesting: for what purpose and by what process are genres created? To say that genres are created by booksellers or by readers puts the cart before the horse: a book has to be written before it can either be shelved somewhere or read. And this suggests to me that writers are the creators of genre: we develop genre as the scaffolding on which to assemble our stories. They are the blueprint that we use to stitch our monsters together.

Why Genre is Helpful to Writers

It is rather silly to look at a piece of writing – any writing – in isolation. All writing, all art, is in dialog with the writing, art, and culture which preceded it. Sometimes, that dialog may be overt and the writer conscious of it. Other times, that dialog may be inadvertent: a consequence of the writer’s subconscious interpretation of and response to their own idiosyncratic stimuli. But communication requires a shared substrate to be functional, and all writing uses words to produce its artistic effects. Our words are the cells in Frankenstein’s monster.

When we assemble those words into particular narrative constructs, when we structure our story in certain ways, we are building the muscles, sinews, and bones of our creation. These components, taken together, constitute the morphology of our story and help to guide the reader’s experience along the route our artistic vision demands. In that, the conventions of genre are a helpful shorthand, a finely-balanced compass that gets the reader to our destination.

Different genres have different strengths: thrillers get the blood pumping, category romance provides an escapist catharsis (note, that’s not a pejorative!), realistic literary fiction excels at intellectual exploration, science fiction produces a sense of wonder, etc. These are the responses that different narrative conventions evoke in the reader. When we understand how the text produces such responses, then we can begin to understand the art of storytelling.

And when we write, we apply – either knowingly or not – the tools and techniques that we have learned from other stories. We might say “That’s a cool trick – let’s play with that” or we might say “That’s an overplayed cliche – let’s subvert it”, but in each case we utilize our inspirations in our own work.

When one of us applies a particular technique, it is an individual act. But when enough of us use the same tool, our individual applications rapidly accrete to create a convention. When enough such conventions have accreted, then we look around and find that we have created a genre, or a style, or an artistic movement. And eventually, these conventions become tropes at which point their subversion becomes another convention, and the cycle repeats. In other words, genre is an emergent property of the act of writing.

Hybrid Monsters: How to Merge Genres

Much as I love readers, much as I respect booksellers, at a general level this process has nothing to do with either: it has everything to do with how writers experience stories and respond to them in our own work. But when we look at individual stories, at a particular writer’s specific application of a set of techniques, the (unknown and unknowable) reader’s experience becomes relevant. Will they be able to interpret it? And will they be able to enjoy it? The answers to these questions are, alas, never discrete. They are always found somewhere on a continuum that varies across readers, from one story to the next, and that are changeable in time. That’s why applying conventions from one genre alongside those from another can both be incredibly rewarding, and incredibly risky.

When done well, our words serve double (or triple) duty, eliciting the responses familiar from each of the genres we endeavor to blend. Consider John Crowley’s Little, Big or Jeffrey Ford’s The Physiognomy: on the one hand, each story clearly employs the narrative conventions of disparate traditions of fantasy (interstitial/wainscot fantasy in one case, and secondary-world fantasy in the other). And yet both incorporate stylistic techniques more common to mainstream literary fiction.

When done poorly, the result is a story that is impossible to interpret or that fails to satisfy its audience. In one sense, this ties to the concept of the author’s contract with their reader: the reader goes into the story with a particular set of expectations, and if the story neither conforms to those expectations nor distracts the reader sufficiently to change them, then the reader will be dissatisfied. One example that comes to mind is the criticism often leveled against Joss Whedon’s Serenity, which in its attempt at existential philosophy broke with the prevailing thematic conventions established by the television series that preceded it while maintaining its aesthetic and structural conventions.

So what, then, is the trick to merging genres? I think the answer is to focus on the core of each genre. Though the creation of genre is an accretive process, at the heart of every genre there lies a kernel of convention so intrinsic to that genre’s function as to be indelible. That kernel is the core of the genre, what makes that genre distinct from its siblings. More often than not, that kernel even forms the root of the genre’s name: thriller, romance, mystery, fantasy, horror, realism, etc.

The narrative devices that comprise the conventions of each genre contribute – in some fashion – to that kernel of genre truth. Identifying what that kernel is, and then determining particular narrative techniques that contribute to it gives us techniques that can be ported across genre lines.

For example: looking for a faster pace and heightened tension in your fantasy? Many commercial thrillers use short chapters, short paragraphs, short sentences, and cliffhanger chapter-endings to contribute to that effect. Looking for a hint of the numinous in your realistic novel? The language of realized metaphor found in fantasy and myth might be just the ticket.

Though these are just two simple examples, the same principle can be adopted at all levels of storytelling: linguistic, structural, thematic, emotional, etc. So long as we focus on techniques that contribute to the genre’s core, I believe those techniques will play well outside of their “original” genre.

Maps Are Not the Journey

While genre conventions provide us with techniques and guidelines for how those techniques interact, they are no substitute for skillful storytelling. I do not advocate turning to genre conventions as a “paint-by-the-numbers” guidebook for aspiring writers. If that’s all you want, then I urge you to check out Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots by William Wallace Cook (which, incidentally, is a fascinating morphological study of classic pulp plots – an interesting theoretical read in its own right, even if one doesn’t take its prescriptions to heart).

No amount of theory can make up for poor execution. The quality of our execution comes from a variety of factors, not least being our own creativity, the vibrancy of our imaginative vision, and our ability to communicate that vision to our audience. Without the skillful application of whatever genre-derived techniques we employ, we risk stories far less interesting than Victor Frankenstein’s eight-foot tall, yellow-skinned monster (though, to be fair, writing stories that interesting is hard!).

It is not the quality of the map – nor even that of the roads – that determines the quality of the journey. It is the skill of the navigator.

REVIEW: Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs


Title: Southern Gods
Author: John Hornor Jacobs
Pub Date: July 26th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A reasonably-well structured debut novel with near-perfect Southern Gothic world-building.

Fiction has been mining myth since the first storyteller hushed a campfire crowd. Myths are – at some level – the foundation of every story, and in speculative fiction we often rely on them to shortcut the audience’s emotional response: to get the reader “in the mood”. In doing so, we rely on the oldest, most primal images: eyes glowing red in the night, footsteps behind us in the fog, etc. These images are rooted in our reptile brains, and there’s no way we won’t respond to them. But what about myths of newer vintage? The kind that haven’t been percolating in our collective unconscious for centuries? In his debut novel, Southern Gods, horror author John Hornor Jacobs does a solid job mining two recent American myths: the Blues, and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Southern Gods tells the story of Bull Ingram, a WWII-vet hired to find a missing radio promoter, and Sarah Rheinhart, a single mother from a wealthy Arkansas family who comes back to her childhood home. The book opens with an incredibly well-written prologue set seventy three years before the events of the main story. Too frequently, I find that such prologues merely delay the story’s real beginning and serve no narrative purpose. And looked at unemotionally, one might accuse Jacobs’ prologue of being superfluous: the information it imparts might have been easily revealed through the principal narrative. But in this case, I am more than willing to forgive Jacobs’ his prologue because it is hands down the best writing in the entire book. The prose is mellifluous, rich, and evocative. It draws you in, and makes you feel every moment of emotional heartache and fright. By the conclusion of the prologue, I found myself thoroughly engaged with the story and the unfortunate character the prologue introduces us to. From a plot standpoint, it might not have been necessary, but from an emotional standpoint it earned my complete engagement with Jacobs’ world.

After the prologue, the story jumps seventy three years to 1951 and introduces us to our real hero: Bull Ingram. The main story opens with a classic noir setup: a world-weary and battle-scarred vet is just scraping by as muscle for a Memphis gangster when he gets hired to do a seemingly simple job that turns strange and very dangerous. Noir fiction is just as much about feeling as it is about its tropes, and Jacobs executes very well by taking his time. While the prose in the main storyline is not quite as evocative as the prologue, Jacobs focuses just enough attention to give us a real feel for Ingram’s values and personality. We understand that he is a hard man, able and willing to do hard things when he has to. But he’s also not a bad guy: he’s just trying to get by, like everyone else. By not rushing into frenetic action, Jacobs more fully earns our investment in his hero and our engagement with his southern world.

I found Sarah Rheinhart, the female protagonist, to be far less engaging than Bull. While thematically much of her story arc revolves around re-establishing her own agency (we first meet her leaving her abusive husband), I nevertheless found found her overshadowed by supporting characters for much of her storyline. In particular, her childhood friend Alice upstages Sarah throughout the book’s first half, only to recede to unimportance in the book’s second half. I understand that Sarah’s storyline is necessary for the book to function as a whole, but the role she is given is by nature more receded than I would have liked. If the supporting character of Alice were less engaging, or evidenced somewhat less agency than she does, perhaps I would not have noticed this relative weakness. But as it stands, I found Sarah to be less engaging than Bull.

Bull gets hired by a Memphis music promoter to find a radio promoter who went missing somewhere in rural Arkansas, and to track down Ramblin’ John Hastur, a mysterious Blues musician whose powerful songs are played on a pirate radio station that nobody knows anything about, and which drive people to commit primal acts of lust and rage. And here, within that one sentence description of the book’s plot, we already have the merging of those two quintessential American myths: Hastur’s name is itself taken from Ambrose Bierce’s short story “Haita the Shephard“, from which it was lifted by Robert W. Chambers and then H.P. Lovecraft, and August Derleth in turn. This progression – from benign god of shepherds in Bierce’s story, to the spawn of Yog-Shoggoth in Derleth’s work – is plainly an example of the “folk process” at work on fiction. It also gives the reader an immediate insight into the Cthulhu-flavored horror that awaits them as the book progresses.

Jacobs’ depiction of Ramblin’ John Hastur also reconfigures the legend of Robert Johnson’s Faustian deal, in which the Delta blues legend supposedly sold his soul at a crossroads at midnight in exchange for mastery of the guitar. This legend is probably one of my favorite aspects of the Blues as American myth, and I love encountering it time and again whether it’s in books like Southern Gods or in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Both this legend and the harsh peripatetic lifestyle of early Blues musicians infuse Jacobs’ lush descriptions of the music, his immersive imagery of the early 1950’s rural south, and especially his characters’ dialog.

Jacobs has an excellent ear for southern dialect, and his characters’ speech patterns do a fantastic job of grounding the story in its setting. He does a particularly good job conveying characterization through his characters’ sentence structures, which is done so subtly that I didn’t even catch the mechanism until my second read through of the book. The dialog is easily my favorite part of this book’s writing, because unlike the prose, it is consistently excellent throughout the entire book.

Much as I enjoyed Southern Gods, I did find a number of weaknesses. I have already mentioned the relative weakness of the female protagonist. But in addition, I felt that themes, characters, and plot points introduced in the first half either fade into insignificance in the second, or get ignored fairly completely. Alice, a strong, compelling supporting character is marginalized once Bull and Sarah get together. The intimation of Alice’s ability to perform little acts of magic is dropped with only a cursory handwave. And I found a frustrating asymmetry between the themes of family explored in Sarah’s storyline and the corresponding themes in Bull’s arc. And finally and perhaps most significantly, I found the treatment of religion to be the one glaring weakness in Jacobs’ otherwise excellent world-building.

The Cthulhu Mythos have a long and complex relationship with Judeo-Christian religion. In one sense, the Great Old Ones are an American myth purposefully divorced from traditional religious concepts. But regardless of the cosmogony employed by Jacobs and gradually revealed in the text, the human characters in his Deep South setting would be steeped in their own more traditional religious heritage. Yet religion is almost completely absent from Southern Gods, unless one counts a Roman Catholic priest’s proclamations of atheism. The story repeatedly references Ramblin’ John’s Faustian deal as a deal with the devil, yet nowhere is there any other religious dimension applied to the whole affair, or even referenced in passing. I would have expected some nod towards Southern Baptist or Pentecostal traditions, but I didn’t find any.

By its very nature, Lovecraftian horror operates in opposition to traditional Judeo-Christian religious concepts. That is one of the reasons why Cthulhu and his ilk are so unknowable and terrifying: they are gods inimical to our more comfortable conception of divinity. And yet Jacobs leaves this opposition implied, without even a cursory exploration in the text. In a less well-written book, this weakness would not have stood out so strongly for me. It is precisely because the rest of Jacobs’ world-building is so excellent that this omission becomes so prominent.

Nonetheless, Southern Gods is a very well realized debut novel. It is atmospheric horror that skews into blood-and-guts when necessary. From a violence standpoint, it is not for the faint of heart, and yet both the execution and the narrative purpose of its violence is well considered. When Jacobs depicts violence, he does so well and for a good reason. Nevertheless, squeamish readers may find it a little off-putting. Fans of Southern Gothic will particularly enjoy the book’s first half. Fans of the Cthulhu Mythos will probably get a kick out of the book in its entirety. Southern Gods is a really solid book, and I am definitely looking forward to Jacobs’ next book (This Dark Earth, due out from Simon & Schuster in July 2012).

And to close out this review, here’s a clip of Robert Johnson playing some awesome Delta blues:

REVIEW: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre by Tzvetan Todorov


Title: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre
Author: Tzvetan Todorov
Pub Date: 1970 (French)
1975 (English)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A relevant exploration of a narrow sub-genre within fantasy, applicable beyond its borders.

Happy New Year! Now that the formalities are out of the way, I thought I’d take a few moments to share with you what I did between Christmas and New Year’s: In addition to remodeling our library, and turning our dining room into a library annex, I also spent the week slowly and carefully reading Tzvetan Todorov’s classic book of genre criticism, appropriately titled The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.

Our Library Annex (aka the Dining Room)

Our Library Annex (aka the Dining Room)

Of course, I’d read about Todorov many times before. I’d even read a couple essays he’d written (I particularly recommend his typology of detective fiction). But I figured that it was best to see for myself what he had to say. And though in the end I was very satisfied, this book really defied my expectations.

The book’s title is misleading. From the adjective-cum-noun “Fantastic” it is a short leap to the modern genre of “fantasy” – and so when I first bought the book, I expected to find a master critic expressing his own Unified Theory of Fantasy, like a Northrup Frye or a Wayne Booth for the speculative genre (for two excellent analyses more in this vein, I recommend Farah Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy and Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy). Instead, Todorov uses a much narrower interpretation of fantasy, placing it on a spectrum between stories where ostensibly supernatural events are explained through rational means (which he calls the “uncanny”) and stories where supernatural events are shown to actually be supernatural (which he calls the “marvelous”).

Todorov's Spectrum of the Supernatural

Todorov's Spectrum of the Supernatural

To put it another way, Todorov’s uncanny stories are Scooby Doo episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are ostensibly beyond mortal ken (ghosts, monsters, strange worlds, etc.). But by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences are explained away in a naturalistic and rational fashion, thus erasing the supernatural from the story. It’s like Old Man Withers being unmasked by the gang. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Todorov’s “marvelous” stories are Buffy episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are beyond mortal ken, but by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences can only be explained by an acceptance of their supernatural reality. Todorov’s “fantastic” genre, however, is the Twilight Zone: neither the characters nor the reader is ever really certain whether the supernatural events are to be accepted.

This is a much narrower definition of “the fantastic” than “fantasy” would imply. It excludes almost all secondary world fantasy, and almost all science fiction. Even most wainscot fantasies would fall into Todorov’s “marvelous” camp. Which is a shame, because anything beyond his narrowly defined borders gets brushed off as beyond the scope of his analysis.

The first half of The Fantastic is an interesting, if dry, exercise in critical philosophy and semantic hair-splitting. He defines what he means by the fantastic, and provides a definite set of criteria for use in its identification. Given my (incorrect) expectations, the book initially frustrated me. I wanted to gleam sweeping insights with applicability across a broad swathe of fantasy titles and sub-genres. Todorov’s painstakingly detailed definition of “hesitation” or what I would call ambiguity: the uncertainty felt by the character and the reader as to their implied frame of reference for experiencing the story. According to Todorov, if a story has no ambiguity, then by definition it falls outside the bounds of his fantastic. Now, I love ambiguous stories. But most fantasy, and most science fiction, eschews the degree of ambiguity described by Todorov. Let’s face it: there are few Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever or There Are Doors out there.

Yet once Todorov establishes his definitions, he begins to dissect his ambiguous stories in much more painstaking detail, parsing their themes and structures. And here, The Fantastic becomes a treasure trove of insight. The conclusions Todorov draws regarding the fantastic are not, in fact, particularly interesting. They may be thought provoking, but they have limited applicability beyond his caged genre, and furthermore I suspect his reliance on the psychoanalytic school of criticism ignores too many other factors. Yet the techniques that Todorov applies, independent of the genre against which they are applied, are quite impressive.

In a very real sense, Todorov draws the treasure map to a very narrow sub-genre. But by doing so, he shows us how to draw such maps for any other genre in existence. I wish that Todorov had taken the trouble to do the same for both his uncanny and marvelous genres. But the process of structural analysis that he applied to his ambiguous stories can just as readily be applied to secondary world fantasy, portal/quest fantasies, wainscot fantasies, liminal fantasies, intrusion fantasies, and all the rest. And that is why this book remains significant: on the one hand, it adds to our critical toolkit, and by using much-analyzed “classic” texts of the Gothic age, it helps to bring the tools of genre criticism into the “respectable” light of academia.

In that sense, later critics like Farah Mendlesohn or Brian Attebery both benefited from Todorov’s work. On the one hand, they apply to a broader body of work the universal techniques that Todorov pioneered. And on the other hand, they benefit from the fact that Todorov dragged ghosts and demons into the light of critical respectability.

All in all, this is a book on criticism well worth reading. But not for its conclusions: more for its methods.

Why do we love science fiction, fantasy, or horror?


Over on the Absolute Write Forums, GreenEpic posted a fairly thought provoking question:

Does anyone have a theory as to why science fiction and fantasy are so popular?

While the thread there has a bunch of really good answers, most of them tend towards the anecdotal. And as this is the Internet, and I have a generalized opinion, I figured I’d share it for public consumption. Here’s what I think:

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are all marketing categories. They loosely describe a set of fictional conventions that can be expected within a given work. Does a story have robots? Odds are it is science fiction. Does it have magic? Most likely fantasy. Does it have undead monsters out to eat your flesh? I’d guess horror. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification. As a lot of my earlier posts on genre observations suggest, the reality is a heck of a lot more complicated. But your typical reader or movie-goer isn’t terribly concerned with the minutiae of genre theory (which I think is unfortunate, but I’m both nerdy and pedantic). Why do so many respond – in one fashion or another – to speculative storytelling?

Psychological, Physiological, and Neurological Levels of Storytelling

Rational, Emotional, Physiological, and Neurological Responses to Storytelling

Levels of Response to Story

Experiencing a story affects us on both psychological and physiological levels. Have you read stories that put you on the edge of your seat? They tugged on your subconscious emotions to increase tension. That sensation of your palms sweating or your heart beating faster? The story, and the tension it engendered, elicited a physiological response. Or have you ever fallen into a story so lovely that the world around you and the passage of time faded into mere background noise? The story produced a neurological trance-state, not unlike meditation or hypnosis. Have you ever read a book and realized you might be wrong about something? The story’s rhetoric affected your rational thoughts and values.

There’s a connection between our brains and our bodies that good storytelling can powerfully manipulate. It is simultaneously a positive and negative feedback system, where if a story affects one aspect of our beings it has ripple effects that impinge on every other aspect. When a creator manipulates this system skillfully, the effect is transparent and immensely powerful. And here’s why this is important: a story’s marketing category has no bearing on the audience’s response.

That’s right. Whether we’re reading mainstream literary fiction, watching Blade Runner, or flipping through a comic book, our brains and bodies will still respond to the underlying story. When we participate in ludic reading (reading for pleasure), we are looking for a certain configuration of those four responses. Of course, we can’t possibly articulate what that configuration might be (I can’t imagine anyone looking for a story that produces a 40% emotional, 30% physiological, 20% neurological, and 10% rational responses). And the components of those configurations are likely to have fairly fuzzy borders, because they are greatly affected by our state of mind/body at the time of the experience. But when we experience a satisfying story, when a story has elicited a satisfactory configuration of responses, we know it. We say “That was a good story” or “That was fun” without trying to really take it apart and understand why. And a story’s marketing category does not affect how it manipulates our responses. Instead, it describes the conventions appropriate to correctly interpreting its plot.

Basic Modes of Storytelling

Put away your Northrup Frye. I’m talking about something much more essential than mimesis or myth. If we just focus on a story’s plot and how that plot is constructed, we find several different modes of storytelling. Each of these modes relies on a certain configuration of those responses I mentioned above.

For example, an adventure story is going to produce a certain kind of physiological response. Our heart rate might increase, our breath might grow short, we might be eagerly looking to see how the hero will get out of a particular jam. But a mimetic (for the sake of simplicity, let’s call it a representative or slice-of-life) story is unlikely to produce that kind of response. Instead, it is more likely to be quieter, slower.

Basic Modes of Storytelling, with Realistic & Fantastical Examples

Basic Modes of Storytelling, with Realistic & Fantastical Examples

These responses have nothing whatsoever to do with whether a story has fantastical elements or not. Consider two adventures: Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards. They make for an interesting comparison, in that the latter is explicitly modeled on the former. But while Dumas’ most famous work has no fantastical elements to speak of, Brust’s novel is replete with them. Yet both stories produce similar responses in the reader, particularly if we are familiar with both works.

So if a story’s fantastical elements (or the lack thereof) has no bearing on the mode a story is told in, then why do some folks prefer speculative fiction over realistic fiction?

Gateway Drugs, Sense-of-Wonder, and the Multitudinous Genre

I believe that fantastical storytelling has an inherent advantage over realistic storytelling. There are no boundaries on what we can do with it. If a concretized metaphor (*cough* the one ring *cough*) adds value to our story, then why not run with it? Just because it isn’t realistic does not mean such images or metaphors are valueless.

Realistic storytelling is actually a subset of fantastical storytelling: by design, it chooses to limit its images and narrative devices to those which can be found in real life. If we love good storytelling, then it’s perfectly natural that we would love the speculative genres. Like Whitman, they contain multitudes. Every single realistic story, from Shakespeare to Joyce, can be presented using fantastical imagery. That a particular execution of a story remains realistic is merely the consequence of an authorial decision as to its ideal presentation.

Yet despite the fact that good stories do not need fantastical devices to remain good stories, plenty of folks out there read exclusively in the fantastic genres. Why? If they can find equally enjoyable stories among the “realistic” shelves, why stick with SF/F/H? I suspect it is because of a positive feedback loop imprinted on our brains early on. When we first consciously encounter storytelling, we look for patterns. It’s a consequence of our highly-developed simian brains. So if in those formative years, we learn that science fiction, or fantasy, or horror is statistically more likely to produce a particular configuration of responses that satisfies us, we treat it like a drug. We learn to love it, and to equate that particular marketing category with the pleasure it produces. And then sometimes, we never stray beyond that gateway.

This gate swings both ways, of course. The same holds true for many readers of realistic fiction, or for many movie-goers who never pick up a book. It’s all about the positive feedback loop that gets imprinted on our neurons at a formative age. I suspect (on the basis of absolutely zero neurological knowledge) that this imprinting can be changed as our experiences change us, but it remains a powerful driver of our experiences.

I suspect the tough-to-pin-down “sense of wonder” is actually a consequence of this gateway drug. If we are adequately self-aware, we learn to recognize (through a meta-cognitive experience), the response we are seeking. That recognition produces that scintillating sense-of-wonder fans of SF/F/H use to justify our genre habit. Speaking for myself, I can elicit that same sense-of-wonder reading outside of genre (Patrick O’Brian’s books come to mind, as do Yasunari Kawabata’s). I don’t believe wonder is genre-specific, although the experience is statistically more common among the fantastic shelves.

And this brings us to the core reason why the speculative genres are so popular: they are a marketing category that encompasses all of the basic modes of storytelling found in realistic fiction. You’ll notice there is no such marketing category as “realistic fiction”. If we want to balance “SF/F/H” we would need an equally broad “realistic fiction” category. But instead, the “realistic fiction” section is fragmented into literary fiction, thrillers, romance, mystery, historical fiction, etc. If you want to find a realistic story told in the romantic mode, well your odds are pretty small looking under literary fiction. If you want a piece of mimetic fiction that deepens your understanding of the human condition, you should probably avoid the thriller shelves.

Yet all of these storytelling modes can be found side-by-side in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror section. Fans of genre fiction need never wander outside of those shelves to find stories that satisfy their every need. And that’s why, as a marketing category, it is so popular. It contains multitudes. And those increase the odds that a story from that marketing category will produce a satisfying response. Of course, much as I love fantastical fiction, I still think folks should read outside of their beloved genres every now and again. But if they don’t, well that’s fine, too: speculative fiction’s got a lot to love.

What do you think? Why does speculative fiction push a lot of our buttons and keep our attention the way it does? Why does it produce such fervent loyalty on the part of readers and viewers?

REVIEW: Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse by Otsuichi


Title: Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse
Author: Otsuichi
(translated by Nathan Collins)
Pub Date: September 21, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A carefully constructed collection of unsettling horror stories with purposeful use of language.

Maybe it’s because I spent a decade living abroad, or because both my parents are immigrants. But for whatever reason, foreign techniques in storytelling and art have always fascinated me. Now and again, I find myself going on a binge of reading from a particular part of the world, and several months ago I started a Japanese binge – made all the harder knowing nothing about the language, and having only local sushi joints and the little otaku pop-culture I’ve been able to observe as culture references. But in my blind stumbles around Japanese literature, I picked up Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse written by Otsuichi and translated by Nathan Collins.

This is subtle, literary horror from Haikasoru (an imprint of Viz Media that specializes in bringing Japanese genre titles to the United States). Reading it brought to mind old-school Gothic works by folks like Sheridan le Fanu or Daphne du Maurier, with some of the creepiness of Edgar Allen Poe. What made this three story collection stand out were the prose techniques employed by Otsuichi (or possibly his translator). Using word choice and sentence construction as the subtle thematic bedrock is a rare treat in the horror genre.

The first (titular) story was written when Otsuichi was still in high school, and it shows some of the still-rough techniques that he would hone in his later works. Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse is told from the perspective of a nine year-old girl’s corpse, and I consider it to be the weakest of the three stories in this book. I cracked open the spine unfamiliar with Otsuichi’s writing or Nathan Collins’ translations, having been stung by particularly poor translations of other Japanese books in the past. As a result, the opening pages made me very concerned. The sentences were simple. Almost each one was a declarative statement. They were stilted. Choppy. The narrator’s observations were superficial and factual: this happened and then that happened and then something else happened. Reading these initial pages, I thought: “Great. Another lousy translation.” But I was wrong.

The unsubtle language that opens the story is purposeful. Otsuichi (and his translator) use simple sentence construction to put us in the head of his nine year-old narrator. As the story progresses, we watch through her eyes as her friend (and murderer) and her friend’s older brother try to hide her corpse. The narrator, in a child’s spare and simple language, tells us the facts of what happened, but the narrator’s understanding is limited by her age. Once she dies, the language grows more complex as her after-death experiences change her perceptions of the world. The transition happens subtly over the course of the story, and Otsuichi and Collins manage to make this transition smooth. If I were not looking for it, I might not have noticed it.

Once I realized that the author was doing this on purpose, I could get past the unsubtle prose and into the story. Despite being satisfied, I remain troubled by how superficially the narrator’s perceptions are presented. There was precious little introspection or abstract thought, and most nine year-olds I’ve met have some capacity for both. While this technique may be a cultural trait of Japanese fiction (Yasunari Kawabata excels at such purposefully superficial presentation), the degree to which it is employed in this story made it difficult for me to engage emotionally with any of the characters. However, the story’s disquieting ending relies on the narrator lacking an adult reader’s understanding of its implications.

The second story in the collection, Yuko is much shorter, much more powerful, and from my perspective, the best story in the book. Taking place in an indeterminate time period (could be present day rural Japan, could be any time in the last couple of hundred years), it follows a young, uneducated housemaid who takes care of a writer and his bedridden wife, Yuko. The housemaid, however, never sees, speaks with, hears, or interacts with Yuko, only with her husband. Scenes are presented from both the housemaid’s perspective (where Yuko never appears) and from the husband’s perspective (where he interacts with Yuko).

Reading this story, the beautiful language matters tremendously: the author and translator use lyrical, literate language and style to pull a fast one on the reader. That is not a bad thing. Throughout the story – almost to its end – the language evokes a conviction in the reader’s mind of one reality. And then with just one word – one word placed in just the right spot – it flips the reader’s genre expectations from horror to mystery. I had to go back to the beginning, and read it all again, before finishing the story with a new set of reading protocols.

That one word is the hinge on which Yuko pivots: before the hinge, the story is horror, generating that delightful sensation of creepy, disquieting terror. After the hinge, the terror is gone, replaced with an intellectual curiosity seeking an explanation: a mystery. When that explanation comes, the terror returns – but it is subtler, deeper, and darker than the Gothic terror inspired before that hinge.

Since reading this story, I’ve been wrestling with this technique. It is excellently executed, and manipulates the reader brilliantly. I had thought I was reading a Gothic horror story, and suddenly I found myself reading a Gothic mystery. Cleverly done. Yet at the same time, the technique stood out as a technique. It was like a slap in the face: there was no way I could have missed it. And I do not know if that is good or bad. Should the impact of word choice and sentence construction be noticeable to the reader as they are reading? Does seeing the mirrors ruin the trick? I loved this story, and the emotional ride it took me on. So I suppose it works. “Good” might be like pornography (and science fiction): I know it when I see it. But as a writing technique, I think it might be extremely risky.

The last and longest story in the book, The Black Fairy Tale, takes far fewer risks. It is a short novel told in three parts: the first is a grizzly, frightening tale about a raven who steals peoples’ eyes as a gifts for a blind girl. This was my favorite part of the story, with beautiful lyrical prose that tells a heart-breaking story of love, devotion, and the light and darkness of memory. The second part is told from the perspective of a teenage girl who loses her left eye, receives a transplant, and now sees her new eye’s memories. The final part is told from the perspective of the raven fairy tale’s author. On a superficial level, the teenage girl and the author’s story are linked: they come into gruesome conflict. Below that superficial level, the stories are unified by the fairy tale itself, with its focus on memory, vision, and detachment.

The emotional terror evoked by the story is its most powerful aspect. The story’s violence is depicted and described, and some of it gets fairly rough, but throughout it is handled tastefully; its horrific nature is in the emotional implication of what it does (or has done) to its victims. The story’s language, and in particular the gradual evolution and progression of imagery throughout the three parallel parts, makes this story a delight to read.

The book’s biggest problem is its organization. The Black Fairy Tale makes up over sixty percent of the book, yet it is the third story. The opening story – Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse – is the book’s weakest: I almost put it down before realizing that its unsubtle sentence construction was purposeful. I can imagine that many readers unfamiliar with Otsuichi or Collins might have given up without getting to the good part. A better way of organizing the book would have been to start with either Yuko or The Black Fairy Tale.

Regardless, the book is well worth reading. Fans of western horror will enjoy a title that hearkens back to the strong, subtle, emotionally resonant horror of du Maurier, le Fanu, and Poe. I think this is a good intro to Japanese horror and I’m definitely going to be checking out more from Haikasoru.

O Canada! Travels in Canadian Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror


As I mentioned last week, I’m off on my honeymoon at the moment. What I don’t think I mentioned is the fact that I’m honeymooning in the United States’ neighbor to the north. When the Professor and I mentioned honeymooning in Canada to most people, their reaction was usually one of considerate bewilderment: why not go someplace with warm, sandy beaches and fizzy drinks with little umbrellas? Well, both of us like rocky coastlines, lighthouses, cabins in the middle of nowhere, and tons of wonderful used bookstores. All this makes Nova Scotia pretty ideal.

And with a couple of days spent wandering through the stacks of some great used bookstores in Halifax, I thought I might give a shout-out to some of the Canadian genre creators who I’ve enjoyed:

Author Comments Good Titles to Start On
Margaret Atwood Putting aside Atwood’s semantic quibbles as to the definition of science fiction versus speculative fiction, her novels tend to be solid sociological treatises reminiscent of the 1970’s New Wave in science fiction. Her writing often reminds me Ursula K. Le Guin’s, although with a more starkly dystopic sensibility.

William Gibson Gibson’s name is synonymous with the cyberpunk sub-genre, and he is often hailed as one of the luminaries of early steampunk. His cyberpunk novels combine noir storytelling techniques with an often-prophetic depiction of near-future technologies, with his more recent works relying more heavily on prescient sociology sensitivity.

Guy Gavriel Kay Kay is an excellent fantasist who models his secondary worlds on real-world historical settings. Whether it is medieval Spain, Italy, Byzantium, or 8th century China, Kay’s depictions of settings and character paint a vibrant picture of times and cultures that most of us only know from history books.

Claude Lalumière Lalumière tends to produce dark fantasy short fiction notable for eliciting a quiet sense of unease. Language and characters are put to deft – though dark – use. His most recent novella (The Door to Lost Pages) stands out as particularly compelling.

Robert J. Sawyer Sawyer is a prolific science fiction author whose novels utilize hard science to probe more humanist concerns. His work tends to deal with the relationship between science and religion, as well as focusing on issues of self-identity. His books are fun, fast-paced reads whose seriousness sneaks up on you (at least they did on me when I first discovered his work some fifteen odd years ago).

Karl Schroeder A hard science fiction author who – for whatever reason – is grouped in my mind with Robert J. Sawyer and Robert Charles Wilson, Schroeder writes action-packed, fast-paced novels which rely on hard scientific conjecture for their settings and underlying premises.

Peter Watts Watts is a hard-SF author whose particular passion seems to be the biological sciences. If “genepunk” were a subgenre (and I think it damn well should be), then I would argue Watts for its doyen. His novels tend to be fairly dark and hard-hitting, and while they are not light on the science, they still manage to play effectively with the tropes of related genres (horror in particular).

Robert Charles Wilson Most of Wilson’s work is hard SF, though his earlier works veer towards the softer side of hard. My particular favorites are some of his earlier novels which play delightfully with concepts of time travel and most importantly reader expectations.

So without having the benefit of browsing through my bookshelves, that’s a list of fun Canadian genre authors I thought I’d share with all of you. Anyone have any others they’d like to recommend? Since I’m in Canada at the moment, I’d love to hear of any Canadian authors whose work has yet to appear in the United States. Does anyone have any suggestions?

REVIEW: Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke


Title: Let’s Play White
Author: Chesya Burke
Pub Date: April 26, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An quiet, emotional ride.

Meeting a book is a lot like meeting a person for the first time. The setting, the company we find ourselves in (the book included), and the general ambiance all have an impact. The honest truth of the matter is that if I – a middle-class white guy in my late twenties – had not had the pleasure of meeting Chesya Burke at Readercon this past year, I probably would have skipped over her collection Let’s Play White. I would have judged it solely on the title, and Jordan Casteel’s excellent cover, as being intended for a different audience. And if I had skipped it, I would have missed a quiet collection of emotionally powerful short stories that remind me of Shirley Jackson at her best.

It’s tough to try and identify a common theme across the eleven stories in this collection. Yes, they all deal with race, class, and gender to some extent. But the stories avoid both strident polemics and simplistic allegory. Instead, Burke focuses on the more emotionally intense inner experiences of her characters, thus going beyond the superficial trappings of race, gender, or class. It’s tough to bring the totality of a character – incorporating both their personality and societal context – to life in a work of short fiction. There just isn’t that much room to build that reader/character relationship. But in each of the book’s stories, Burke pulls it off by giving us vibrant, powerful, and vivid characters that we can follow and feel for. Which is why the horror of their experiences is so powerful.

The stories in this collection are tough to classify. They skirt the liminal edge between horror, dark urban fantasy, noir, and straightforward mainstream literary fiction. Stories like “Walter and the Three-Legged King” or “He Who Takes the Pain Away” have a magical realist flavor to them, but the magic does not produce horror in the reader. Instead, the choices the characters make, and the consequences of those choices evoke that sense of horror.

Several of the stories stand out as being particularly effective. “I Make People Do Bad Things” is an excellent noir story set in early 1930’s Harlem. Anyone familiar with the history of post-Prohibition gangs in New York will enjoy Burke’s spin. Most of the stories and movies (like The Cotton Club) I’ve come across that focus on that time period tend to zoom in on the larger-than-life personalities of Bumpy Johnson, Dutch Schultz, and Lucky Luciano. But “I Make People Do Bad Things” instead focuses on Madame St. Clair, who was the Dutchman’s primary competition in the Harlem numbers racket. Burke opens up an interesting (fictional) window into her life and times, and in particular into a relationship she develops with a young girl with mysterious powers. The story pulls no punches, and portrays the kind of hard-as-nails toughness that is particular to all great noir stories. Yet at the same time, Burke manages to make St. Clair a more human character than most noir heroes, with fully realized flaws, regrets, and acceptance of choices made.

Both “Purse” and “What She Saw When They Flew Away” are quiet, heartfelt stories of loss that have few – if any – fantastical elements to them. The former evokes horror both on an emotional and visual level, while the latter is difficult to even call horror, unless that is the horror of deep sorrow. Were it not for the powerful visuals in “Purse” I suspect both stories would fit well within mainstream literary magazines, opening a window into the sad reality of women coming to terms with the loss of daughters and sisters. In many respects, I thought that they blended the quiet humanity of Shirley Jackson’s best work with Richard Matheson’s tactical use of violence.

Of the stories in this collection, “The Room Where Ben Disappeared” brought Shirley Jackson most to mind. In particular, it reminded me of my favorite Jackson short story (“Flower Garden”, which I’ve written about before). From a plotting and a stylistic standpoint, the two stories are very different. For one, “The Room Where Ben Disappeared” is more insistent. For another, it is much more direct than the Jackson story and represents bigotry head-on in its action. Yet despite this directness, it evokes similar sensations of horror and judgment, while retaining a quiet depth that will stay with me for quite some time.

Not all of the stories in this collection worked for me. In particular, I found the plot of “Walter and the Three-Legged King” unsatisfying at its conclusion. Much as I love ambiguous endings left open to interpretation, I felt that this story’s ending was too rushed, missing out on a symmetry to balance its excellent beginning and middle. Similarly, “CUE: Change” stood out as being a touch more simplistic than most of the other stories in the collection. In and of itself, it was not a bad story: the narrator’s voice was excellent (arguably one of the best executed voices in the collection) but I found that the story’s resolution lacked the subtlety and quiet resonance of its neighbors. Of the eleven stories in the collection, only three didn’t really work for me.

If you’re looking for a gore-spattered mess of horror, then Let’s Play White is probably not the book for you. Sure, Burke has scenes of visceral blood and guts, but they are rare in these stories, and then only used to evoke horror tangentially. Like Jackson, Burke taps into that eternal font of the most horrific aspects of humanity: our twisted desires, reasoning, and emotions. She shows what happens when we are pushed too far, but she does it with a deft hand and subtlety that is refreshing. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work in the future!

REVIEW: Supernatural Noir ed. Ellen Datlow


Title: Supernatural Noir
Editor: Ellen Datlow
Pub Date: June 22nd, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Excellent storytelling, though slightly more supernatural than dark.  

 

First, let me start by saying that I love noir fiction and film. Give me a good hard-boiled detective story, and I’ll lap it up – typically not looking for much beyond entertainment. I also love dark fantasy and horror, and so the thought of blending them in a new anthology fittingly titled Supernatural Noir sounded great to me. Throw in one of the best editors working in the business today – Ellen Datlow – and I am definitely there. Having read a digital review copy, I can say that Dark Horse’s Supernatural Noir delivers as advertised, even if it may lean closer to dark fantasy than I would have liked.

With Datlow’s editorial pedigree, this should come as no surprise. On my shelves at home, I have over fifteen anthologies edited by Datlow (often with excellent collaborators like Terri Windling). I admit, I’m a bit of a fan. Historically, her anthologies have demonstrated a particularly consistent ability to showcase top-flight authors and stories, and to assemble them into collections unified along whatever dimension is relevant to a particular book. The table of contents for Supernatural Noir is no different in this regards.

The authors read like a “who’s who” of dark fantasy (more so than noir): Gregory Frost, Melanie Tem, Paul G. Tremblay, Laird Barron, Jeffrey Ford, Joe R. Lansdale. Sixteen authors contributed original short stories for the anthology, and all of them come from a dark fantasy / supernatural / horror background in their writing. This is not a complaint, but it should be an indicative fact: the authors selected for this book skew by experience towards the “supernatural” part of the anthology’s title, so it should not be surprising that their stories lean in that direction. If you are looking for horror stories written by hard-boiled mystery writers, you won’t find them here. Instead, this collection offers dark fantasists’ spins on the hard-boiled crime story. Which – I would argue – is just as fun, although it means the noir elements might get a little de-emphasized in some places.

A large number of stories (either explicitly or plausibly/implicitly) are set in the time period from the late ’40s to the late ’70s. Considering noir‘s roots in the late ’40’s and ’50’s, this makes sense to me: the square-jawed hero (or stalwart heroine – more on this in a sec) in a worn trenchcoat is emblematic of the post-War period. But the difference in tone between the stories set in this post-War period and the stories set in a contemporary (or vaguely futuristic) setting is striking. The stories set closer to WWII – like Richard Bowes‘ “Mortal Bait”, or Joe R. Lansdale’s “Dead Sister” – tend to employ a greater number of noir tropes. The later a story is set, the less prevalent noir‘s emblematic elements become. What does this say about modern society and the evergreen qualities of noir as a sub-genre? Is noir possible in a world with mobile information and instant access? Judging by the excellent contributions from Melanie Tem (“Little Shit”) and Nick Mamatas (“Dreamer of the Day”), the tropes of traditional noir fiction need to be adjusted and updated to operate in our modern reality: the tropes that worked in the days of vacuum tube televisions may not work any longer.

The second stand-out was the number of female and queer heroes featured. In many ways, this is representative of noir‘s original values: it should be only natural for a genre typified by a frank treatment of violence and sex to grow beyond the “haunted square-jawed hetero male detective” trope. The variety of heroes employed in these stories was encouraging, although at times it stretched some bounds of credulity. For example, while I thought Caitlin R. Kiernan‘s story “The Maltese Unicorn” was great fun, I was haunted by an inability to completely buy its heroine in 1935 New York.

Coming to it looking for fantastical noir, the anthology will be reasonably satisfying. If you come to it looking for noirish dark fantasy, I suspect you will be more satisfied. All of the stories here are competently executed. Some including Jeffrey Ford’s “The Last Triangle” and Elizabeth Bear‘s “The Romance” (which snuck up on me delightfully) will stay with me for a long time. Others, like Laird Barron’s “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven” just didn’t suit my own tastes, although I recognize their quality. Only two stories (Joe R. Lansdale’s “Dead Sister” and “Mortal Bait”) didn’t work for me for critical reasons: in both cases, they featured characters/voices that did not stand out, and plot structures that I found predictable. Interestingly, both were among the stories that adhered most closely to traditional noir structures. I believe their weaknesses highlight the single greatest challenge in modern noir: crafting a hero and voice that is distinctive and interesting. Most of the stories in this anthology – even those that did not particularly appeal to me – manage to get it right.

If I have one complaint to register, it’s a relatively minor (and inordinately geeky) one. I really enjoyed reading this anthology for its entertainment value. But I would have loved to see one or two critical essays discussing noir and its long relationship with the fantastic (and the Gothic). While I would have loved to see that, I freely admit to being a the kind of dork who likes reading literary analysis.

I recommend Supernatural Noir for fans of hard-boiled detective fiction who want to dabble in the fantastic, or for fans of dark fantasy/horror who want a touch of hard-boiled crime. And that recommendation really says it all: Supernatural Noir delivers as advertised.

REVIEW: Chasing the Moon by A. Lee Martinez


Title: Chasing the Moon
Author: A. Lee Martinez
Pub Date: May 25, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An engaging, amusing read with decent characters.

A. Lee Martinez’ books are characterized by their serious plots, sympathetic characters, and an infectious humor that bubbles out of the cracks in his characters’ fictional lives. His latest novel, Chasing the Moon is a solid, enjoyable book that continues to showcase Martinez’ facility with genre tropes.

Chasing the Moon follows Diana, a vaguely-down-on-her-luck coat salesperson, who manages to land a great apartment. However, that apartment opens up Diana’s mind to all of the dark, Lovecraftian monsters that have stumbled into our reality. Diana must deal with the creatures in her apartment, the twisted realities of her entire apartment building, and ancient gods who want to devour the moon. All in a day’s work, right?

Martinez’ singular strength lies in portraying normal people in absolutely extraordinary situations. His ability to depict humanity, with all its shortcomings and strengths, is what imbues his books with humor. For Martinez, every monster – however alien, however monstrous, however evil – is just trying to get by, like you or me. Sure, that may mean destroying our universe, or devouring anything and everything in its path, but hey – nobody’s perfect. Martinez’ humor bubbles out of the clash of expectations created by these characters. Genre fans will expect the eternal embodiment of hunger to devour everything. That he might view his hunger as an eating disorder is unexpected, refreshing, and makes the character instantly sympathetic. Martinez places his heroes – human and inhuman alike – squarely before the abyss, and time after time he perfectly nails that moment when a nice person would reach out to shake the abyss’ hand.

While Martinez often gets compared to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, I think a better comparison might be Tom Holt. Like Holt, Martinez tightly controls the lunacy of his worlds. Chasing the Moon – like Martinez’ earlier books – lacks the gonzo anything can-and-probably-will happen world-building of Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And while it shares Pratchett’s serious-story-grounded-in-a-comedic-setting framework, Martinez’ world is more firmly grounded in our reality than Discworld, where everything becomes grist for Pratchett’s parody mill. I would argue that Chasing the Moon is not a parody at all, but that Martinez uses humor to show what makes us human.

While I greatly enjoyed Chasing the Moon, there were two aspects that left me vaguely unsatisfied. It’ll be a little difficult to explain without giving any spoilers, but here goes nothing:

The speed with which one of the principal secondary characters gets shuffled out of the story left me a little surprised. I suspect that was partially Martinez’ point: that someone we have invested in for much of the book, someone who bears under the strain for a while, may suddenly crack, or that the cracks might have been there all along and then suddenly give way. I also understand the need to contrast that character’s attitude and approach to the heroine’s. But that being said, the resolution to their interaction struck me as rushed. I would have preferred to have lingered on it a little longer, to explore that secondary character’s evolution a little more deeply. It was a choice, and I don’t necessarily think Martinez made a bad one. Just one that left me a little dissatisfied (which might equally well have been his point).

A less significant concern for me was the aspect of horror in this novel. Martinez clearly knows his science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes, having played them like a violin in his earlier novels. The influence of Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith on Chasing the Moon is clear. But while Martinez manages tension very adroitly, that tension never veers into the gut-wrenching, abyssal horror that was emblematic of the classic Weird Tales pulps. Perhaps I’m a little jaded, or perhaps Martinez’ heroine is a little too plucky, a little too ready to deal with the horrors she faces. The tension escalates nicely, but I found myself reading it more like an adventure story than a cosmic horror tale. That being said, it reads as a very strong adventure story.

Overall, I strongly recommend Chasing the Moon. It is a fast-paced, really engaging read. Much like life, it has its moments of laugh-out-loud humor, coupled with moments of deep emotion. If you enjoy Tom Holt, John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars, or Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, I expect you will get a particular kick out of it. It’s a great summer book, perfect for reading on the beach…although beware of tentacles reaching up from the depths.

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