Friday, December 11, 2015

What We Say and How We Say It

I've long believed that how a story is told matters more than what a story tells, that even a story of strong conceptual interest can be ruined by weak prose and poor choices in structure. As proof, I'd offer A. Merritt's "The People of the Pit" (ALL-STORY WEEKLY, January 5, 1918).

Merritt's influence on American science fiction, fantasy, and horror should not be underestimated, but many would agree that the writers he influenced were better craftsmen than he was -- Edmond Hamilton, Jack Williamson, Henry Kuttner, and best of all, C. L. Moore. They responded to his ideas, which again, should not be underestimated, but ideas can only take a story so far, as they understood and reflected in their best work.

"The People of the Pit" does what it can to suggest a mood of alien horror, but it falls prey to Merritt's lack of skill with storytelling and with language.

For one thing, Merritt sets the story in a frame. A frame can be used effectively in a certain kind of retrospective story, in which the suspense of an outcome carries less weight than a narrator's inability to understand what happened. Two of my favourite examples of a frame used well are Walter de la Mare's "The Almond Tree," and William Sansom's "A Wedding;" in both cases, the story would lose its impact without a frame. But in "The People of the Pit," a story about capture and escape, much of the tension and immediacy are weakened, because the tale is told by a dying man who has already managed to get away.

But Merritt does even more to undermine his narrative: he writes badly. He falls back on stylistic tricks that seem ridiculous on their first appearance, and then he repeats them.

"Then -- I ran across the road!"

"The road!" cried Anderson incredulously.

"The road," said the crawling man. "A fine smooth stone road."

- - - - -

"A stairway led down into the pit!"

"A stairway!" we cried.

"A stairway," repeated the crawling man as patiently as before.

- - - - -

"But who could build such a stairway as that?" I said. "A stairway built into the wall of a precipice and leading down into a bottomless pit!"

"Not bottomless," said the crawling man quietly. "There was a bottom. I reached it!"

"Reached it?" we repeated.

"Yes, by the stairway," answered the crawling man. "You see -- I went down it!

"Yes," he said. "I went down the stairway."

- - - - -

"They hurried, they sauntered, they bowed, they stopped and whispered -- and there was nothing under them!"

"Nothing under them!" breathed Anderson.

"No," he went on, "that was the terrible part of it -- there was nothing under them."

I'll spare you -- the rest. Yes! I will! Too much exposure to writing this artless can lead to -- pain. It can lead to -- unearthly pain. A pain that is not -- of this Earth!

None of this would hurt if the story itself were lazy hackwork, something to be tossed aside with a wince, but Merritt has good intentions, here: he wants to convey an experience beyond the human, a challenge for any writer. He fails, not through lack of ambition, but through weakness in craft. C. L. Moore would take up this challenge two decades later, with her "Northwest Smith" and "Jirel of Joiry" stories. I'd like to believe that she learned from his failures and avoided the traps that hindered his work; what saved her was a greater skill with language.

For this one reason, I'd recommend "The People of the Pit" to anyone who writes fantasy or strange or science fiction stories, as an example of good intentions gone wrong. What we say matters, but how we say it matters more.

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