December 13, 2016
Some people . . . claim that there’s nothing new in horror. In a sense, that may be true. More than sixty years ago, H.P. Lovecraft drew up a list of the basic themes of weird fiction, and I can think of very little that the field has added to that list since then. But that’s by no means as defeatist as it sounds, because the truth is surely that many of the themes we’re dealing with are so large and powerful as to be essentially timeless.
For instance, the folk tale of the wish that comes true more fully and more terribly than the wisher could have dreamed is the basis not only of “The Monkey’s Paw,” but of Stephen King’s Pet Semetery and of my own novel, Obsession, yet the three stories have otherwise far more to do with their writers than with one another. That suggests . . . that one way to avoid what has already been done is to be true to yourself.
That isn’t to say that imitation never has its uses. Here, as in any other of the arts, it’s a legitimate and useful way to serve your apprenticeship. . . . If you’re writing in a genre, it’s all the more important to read widely outside it in order to be aware what fiction is capable of. It’s less a matter of importing techniques into the field than of seeing the field as part of a larger art. Depending wholly on genre techniques can lend too easily to the second-hand and the second-rate. There’s only one Stephen King, but there are far too many writers trying to sound like him.
It’s no bad thing to follow the example of writers you admire, then, but only as a means to finding your own voice. You won’t find that, of course, unless you have something of your own to say. I did, once I stopped writing about Lovecraft’s horrors and began to deal with what disturbed me personally. I began to write about how things seemed to me, which was more important and, at first, more difficult than it may sound. I tried (and still do try) to take nothing on trust to describe things as they really are or would be.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the horror field is riddled with clichés. The house that’s for sale too cheaply, the guy who must be working nights because he sleeps during the day . . . , the attic room the landlady keeps locked, the place none of the topers in the village inn will visit after dark—we can all have fun recognizing these and many others, which is by no means to say that they haven’t been used effectively by masters of the craft. But I think there are more fundamental clichés in the field, and I think today’s writers may be the ones to overturn them.
Take the theme of evil, as the horror story often does. Writing about evil is a moral act, and it won’t do to recycle definitions of evil—to take them on trust. Horror fiction frequently presents the idea of evil in such a shorthand form as to be essentially meaningless—something vague out there that causes folk to commit terrible acts, something other than ourselves, nothing to do with us. That sounds to me more like an excuse than a definition, and I hope it’s had its day. If we’re going to write about evil, then let’s define it and how it relates to ourselves.
All good fiction consists of looking at things afresh, but horror fiction seems to have a built-in tendency to do the opposite. Ten years or so ago, many books had nothing more to say than “the devil made me do it.” Now, thanks to the influence of films like Friday the 13th, it seems enough for some writers to say that a character is psychotic; no further explanation is necessary. But it’s the job of writers to imagine how it would feel to be all their characters, however painful that may sometimes be. It may be a lack of that compassion that has led some writers to create children who are evil simply because they’re children, surely the most deplorable cliché of the field.
Some clichés are simply products of lazy writing. Tradition shouldn’t be used as an excuse to repeat what earlier writers have done; if you feel the need to write about the stock figures of the horror story, that’s all the more reason to imagine them anew. . . . It’s only fair to warn you that many readers and publishers would rather see imitations of whatever they liked last year than give new ideas a chance. But I’ve always tried to write what rings true to me, whether or not it makes the till ring. If you don’t feel involved with what you’re writing, it’s unlikely that anyone else will.
There’s another side to the field that is overdue for attack by a new generation—its reactionary quality. A horror writer I otherwise admire argued recently wrote that “it has been a time-honoured tradition in literature and film that you have a weak or helpless heroine”—implying, I assume, that we should go on doing so. Well, tradition is a pretty poor excuse for perpetrating stereotypes (not that the author in question necessarily does); time-honoured it may be, but that certainly doesn’t make it honourable. In fact, these days, so many horror stories (and especially films) gloat over the suffering of women that it seems clear the authors are getting their own back, consciously or not, on aspects of real life that they can’t cope with. Of course, that isn’t new in horror fiction, nor is using horror fiction to define as evil or diabolical whatever threatens the writer or the writer’s lifestyle. But, at the very least, one should be aware as soon as possible, that this is what one is doing, so as to be able to move on. I have my suspicions, too, about the argument that horror fiction defines what is normal by showing us what isn’t. I think it’s time for more of the field to acknowledge that, when we come face-to-face with the monsters, we may find ourselves looking not at a mask but at a mirror.
Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death
From: On Horror Writing, edited by Mort Castle
October 2, 2016
Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colours in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvellous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.
10 Criteria for a good reader
Lectures on Literature
May 1, 2016
Diary 1st May
Sunday, bloody Sunday. The 1971 film directed by John Schlesinger and written by Penelope Gilliat who died, sadly, from her alcoholism. She was a fine writer, but is today almost forgotten.
Triangles figured prominently in Gilliat’s fiction, commencing with her debut novel “One by One” through to the playlet “Property”, a devastating portrayal of a woman caught between her two ex-husbands. The script of Sunday, bloody Sunday explores the relationships of Daniel Hirsh, a Jewish doctor and a middle-aged woman, Alex Greville who are both having affairs with the same bisexual male artist, a sculptor named Bob Elkin. Not only are Hirsh and Greville aware that Elkin is seeing the pair of them, but they actually know each other as well.
Poor Gilliat had to give up a promising piano career as a young woman because of a bout of anorexia; she attempted suicide at least once in her life, and her drinking became so bad that she was unable to look after her daughter. Eventually, of course, it killed her.
I love vulgarity and kitsch. The bathroom at the old house was decorated shocking-pink and canary-yellow and everyone without exception said how vile it looked. So what? I loved it and that’s all the matters.
Although I must confess, I’m nowhere near as bold now days…
Novels aren’t sociology textbooks, nor are they history or language books, either. The goal of learning through observation, questioning and research is to draw a character that is a product of such influences, without making the reader feel they are reading long passages of background narrative…
Or then again you could do a Sinclair Lewis and faithfully record reams and reams of “overheard” conversation for inclusion in your novels.
Lewis, of course, was another author who died from advanced alcoholism…
And Peedeel has a hangover this morning…
As often happens, while sitting on the loo this morning, I find myself beset with difficult questions. Was Teflon nonstick coating worth the billions of $s spent on the US space programe? What about super glue?
Like S. She climaxed quickly and often, but was never ever fully satisfied. Sex for her was an unending chase from one exploding bubble of intense pleasure to another…a plateau of sensation to be maintained, not a series of crests to be climbed.
April 23, 2016
April 22, 2016
April 20, 2016
I leaned back against the wall and kicked out and up with a slashing toe that nearly tore him in half. He tried to scream. All I heard was a bubbling sound. The billy hit the floor and he doubled over, hands clawing at his groin. This time I measured it right. I took a short half-step and kicked his face in.
Vengeance is Mine
March 24, 2016
March 21, 2016
March 2, 2016
The time now comes finally to move the book. I have dawdled enough. But it has been a good thing. I don’t yet know what the word rate will be. That will depend on many things. But I do think the hour rate should be fairly constant. I am about finished with these long and characteristic meanderings. It is with real fear that I go to the other. And I must forget even that I want it to be good. Such things belong only in the planning stage. Once it starts, it should not have any intention save only to be written. All is peace now. And all is quiet. What little things there are, are here and good. Posture and attitude are so very important. And since these things have to go on for a very long time, they must become almost a way of life and a habit of thought. So that no one may say, I lost by being lost. This is the last bounce on the board, the last look into the pool. The time has come for the dive. The time has really come.
I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one. It is as though the words were not only indelible but that they spread out like dye in water and color everything around them. A strange and mystic business, writing. Almost no progress has taken place since it was invented. The Book of the Dead is as good and as highly developed as anything in the 20th century and much better than most. And yet in spite of this lack of a continuing excellence, hundreds of thousands of people are in my shoes—praying feverishly for relief from their word pangs.
I learned long ago that you cannot tell how you will end by how you start. I just glanced up this page for instance. Look at the writing at the top—ragged and angular with pencils breaking in every line, measured as a laboratory rat and torn with nerves and fear. And just half an hour later it has smoothed out and changed considerably for the better.
Now I had better get into today’s work. It is full of strange and secret things, things which should strike deep into the unconscious like those experimental stories I wrote so long ago. Those too were preparation for this book and I am using the lessons I’ve learned in all the other writing.
I have often thought that this might be my last book. I don’t really mean that because I will be writing books until I die. But I want to write this one as though it were my last book. Maybe I believe that every book should be written that way.
I hope I can keep all the reins in my hands and at the same time make it sound as though the book were almost accidental. That is going to be hard to do but it must be done. Also I’ll have to lead into the story so gradually that my reader will not know what is happening to him until he is caught. That is the reason for the casual—even almost flippant—sound. It’s like a man setting a trap for a fox and pretending with pantomime that he doesn’t know there is a fox or a trap in the country.
I split myself into three people. I know what they look like. One speculates and one criticizes and the third tries to correlate. It usually turns out to be a fight but out of it comes the whole week’s work. And it is carried on in my mind in dialogue. It’s an odd experience. Under such circumstances it might be one of those schizophrenic symptoms but as a working technique, I do not think it is bad at all.
I do indeed seem to feel creative juices rushing toward an outlet as semen gathers from the four quarters of a man and fights its way into the vesicle. I hope something beautiful and true comes out—but this I know (and the likeness to coition still holds). Even if I knew nothing would emerge from this book I would still write it. It seems to me that different organisms must have their separate ways of symbolizing, with sound or gesture, the creative joy—the flowering. And if this is so, men also must have their separate ways—some to laugh and some to build, some to destroy and yes, some even creatively to destroy themselves. There’s no explaining this. The joy thing in me has two outlets: one a fine charge of love toward the incredibly desirable body and sweetness of woman and second—mostly both—the paper and pencil or pen. And it is interesting to think what paper and pencil and the wriggling words are. They are nothing but the trigger into joy—the shout of beauty—the carcajada of the pure bliss of creation. And often the words do not even parallel the feeling except sometimes in intensity. Thus a man full of a bursting joy may write with force and vehemence of some sad picture—of the death of beauty or the destruction of a lovely town—and there is only the effectiveness to prove how great and beautiful was his feeling.
My work does not coagulate. It is as unmanageable as a raw egg on the kitchen floor. It makes me crazy. I am really going to try now and I’m afraid that the very force of the trying will take all the life out of the work. I don’t know where this pest came from but I know it is not new.
We work in our own darkness a great deal with little real knowledge of what we are doing. I think I know better what I am doing than most writers but it still isn’t much.
I guess I am terrified to write “finish” on the book for fear I myself will be finished.
Suddenly I feel lonely in a curious kind of way. I guess I am afraid. That always comes near the end of a book—the fear that you have not accomplished what you started to do. That is as natural as breathing.
In a short time that will be done and then it will not be mine anymore. Other people will take it over and own it and it will drift away from me as though I had never been a part of it. I dread that time because one can never pull it back, it’s like shouting good-bye to someone going off in a bus and no one can hear because of the roar of the motor.
John Ernst Steinbeck
Journal of a Novel
February 25, 2016
Ah, not exactly a PC title, boys and girls, no, but you can purchase this book under the safer, later title of The Doll’s Bad News! From the cover:
“When a curvaceous, beautiful girl walks into your office, strips, and offers you a 6,000 retainer to help her out of the trouble she’s in, it’s hard to refuse. Especially if you’re private eye Dave Fenner, the man who busted the notorious Blandish case. But by the time Dave had been beaten half to death and been forced to shoot his way out of a load of unhealthy situations, he realised that chivalry – even if it was paid for a hard cash – was no way to stay alive.
Only one man could satisfy Glorie Leadler’s craving for love and affection. And though this golden-haired bit of feminine dynamite could have had a dozen men at her feet for the asking, it was a solitary Asian who made her heart beat fast. When jealous rivals tore that midnight love from Glorie’s arms, her over-heated emotions burst forth in a volcano of love-stricken vengeance that rocked Florida and left a mark on many men’s souls.”
So hardboiled the pan must have run dry. Even the cops keep out of Dave Fenner’s way. Very topical in many ways: people smuggling – the 12 Chinamen of the naughty title refers to the number of people who can fit in a boat from Cuba to the States; once in the United States the passengers (who are all chained together so they can easily be thrown overboard if the boat is intercepted by the US Coast Guard) are “sold” as slave labour to various concerns around the country.
Be warned: it is a product of its time, and misogyny and racism abound. It is also very, very violent!