Friday, November 29, 2013

Assault of the Garruloids

One step forward, eight steps back: that seems to be a trend in 21st Century narrative prose.

As an example, here's a passage (altered slightly) from a book that I will never buy:

We were in the kitchen trying to find a new way to cook rutabagas when Janie burst through the ceiling. We spent a lot of time doing that --

Bursting through ceilings?

-- working together in the kitchen of the ski lodge; in groups, laughing and sharing tea, or alone, staring at pots that never boiled, trying to find a purpose in life, trying to find the garlic butter. I was usually alone. I had been an only child, and my early years were bitter. I always thought that my parents blamed me for their inability to have any other children, and so, instead of enjoying my childhood, instead of playing with doll parts and setting fire to cockroaches, I spent those years feeling a terrible sense of guilt as my parents longed for a larger family. It's a cliche, I know, and pointless in the context of my tale, but I'm being paid by the word, and readers tend to skim a lot these days. Who can blame them? I certainly can't. Even when I read my own stories, I skim a lot. It saves time and it keeps me sane.

Janie fell to the floor and lay there in a heap.

Back in the 20th Century (that age of dinosaurs), most writers would have maintained narrative tension by focusing on what happens when someone bursts through a ceiling. What's more, to keep the story in motion, they would have provided these childhood background details in passing.

But steady pacing and economy seem out of fashion, these days.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Brutality and Poetry

Les Yeux sans visage. Georges Franju, 1960.

There can be a fascinating conflict in horror between confrontation and comfort.

I suspect that many people find reassurance in the rituals of horror; they know that Dracula will be forced back into his tomb by daylight or by cross; they know that Cthulhu will fail to destroy the world because "the stars are not right;" they know that an exorcist will clean up all the cold pea soup. Everything strange, every threat, will become familiar and predictable and pleasingly bland.

Yet horror can also confront our fears and preserve their power. No cross, no stars, no cleaned-up soup; instead, the abyss. The grave. The darkness at the end of all things.

Comfortable horror wins fan clubs and imitators, but confrontational horror tends to be distrusted. We never see long lines of people eager to buy tickets for Shame or Seconds or Eyes Without A Face.

Eyes (Les Yeux sans visage) is an interesting hybrid. The elements are familiar: isolated house, mad surgeon, terrible experiments, a ghost -- all very comforting. Yet the house is a modern medical clinic, the surgeon is torn between parental guilt and a doctor's drive to dominate everyone and everything around him, the experiments are the sort that you can read about in medical journals, the ghost is a deeply sad woman who has lost everything she loves.

The plot, as well, might seem familiar, but here again, the standards never quite match our expectations. The police are active, alert, intelligent, and useless. The grieving fiance does everything a sane and loving person would do, but achieves nothing. There is human retribution and punishment, but always, lurking in the background, the cold stare of the abyss.

In the end, this brave and beautiful film, with its brutality and poetry, leads us into the dark and lets us go. It will never be popular, but it is unforgettable.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Angry readers please apply

Damon Knight: Science fiction means what we point to when we say it.

Some readers (not to mention writers, editors and publishers) may be unpleasantly surprised by the pugnacious tone of the reviews that follow. I won’t apologize -- not very often, anyhow -- but I will explain. As a critic, I operate under certain basic assumptions, all eccentric, to wit:

1. That the term 'science fiction' is a misnomer, that trying to get two enthusiasts to agree on a definition of it leads only to bloody knuckles; that better labels have been devised (Heinlein’s suggestion, 'speculative fiction,' is the best, I think), but that we’re stuck with this one; and that it will do us no particular harm if we remember that, like 'The Saturday Evening Post,' it means what we point to when we say it.

2. That a publisher’s jacket blurb and a book review are two different things, and should be composed accordingly.

3. That science fiction is a field of literature worth taking seriously, and that ordinary critical standards can be meaningfully applied to it: e.g., originality, sincerity, style, construction, logic, coherence, sanity, garden-variety grammar.

4. That a bad book hurts science fiction more than ten bad notices.

The publishers disclaim all responsibility; angry readers please apply to me.

-- Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder, 1956.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Peter Tennant's List

Once again, a story of mine has been listed by Black Static reviewer Peter Tennant as one of his favourite horror stories of 2013 (so far).

Other stories listed are by the brilliant M. John Harrison (whose collection, The Machine in Shaft Ten, was for me a highpoint of the 1970s), along with John Langan, Nina Allan, Anne-Sylvie Salzman, John Howard, Steve Rasnic Tem, Conrad Williams, Daniel Mills, D. P. Watt, Terry Grimwood, Joseph D’Lacey, Jason A. Wyckoff, Anne Michaud, Livia Llewellyn, and Elizabeth Stott.