Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu

LeFanu

Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu

1814-1873

Over lunch, I was reading the Wikipedia article on horror fiction and came across a reference to Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, of whom I had never heard.   I went to the article and found out some interesting things (granted, Wikipedia is not the most respected source, but if even half of this article is accurate, Le Fanu bears some investigating by avid horror aficionados).

Le Fanu was a respected writer of ghost stories and Gothic tales in the 19th century.   I read his “The Ghost and the Bonesetter” (1838), which Wikipedia describes as “his first-published and jocular story”.   For our generation, this is more humor than horror, but Le Fanu’s talent is patently obvious from this work.  I look forward to reading more.

It fascinates me that, as well-read as I am, I have never heard of Le Fanu, but then I have only recently begun to delve into the horror genre to any great degree.   Based on the Wikipedia article, he was very well-known in his time and influenced 19th and 20th century writers such as M.R. James, Bram Stoker, and James Joyce.   His best known works are the vampire novella Carmilla and The Purcell Papers (a collection of short stories).   Apparently, he has also had something of an influence on modern cinema, with movies still being made of his work occasionally (Le Fanu’s mystery novel “Uncle Silas” was made into a movie in 1947, and then remade, starring Peter O’Toole, as The Dark Angel in 1987).

Here is a paragraph from the Wikipedia article to whet your appetite for further investigation  of his work:

“Le Fanu worked in many genres but remains best known for his mystery and horror fiction. He was a meticulous craftsman and frequently reworked plots and ideas from his earlier writing in subsequent pieces. Many of his novels, for example, are expansions and refinements of earlier short stories. He specialised in tone and effect rather than “shock horror”, and liked to leave important details unexplained and mysterious. He avoided overt supernatural effects: in most of his major works, the supernatural is strongly implied but a “natural” explanation is also possible. The demonic monkey in “Green Tea” could be a delusion of the story’s protagonist, who is the only person to see it; in “The Familiar”, Captain Barton’s death seems to be supernatural, but is not actually witnessed, and the ghostly owl may be a real bird. This technique influenced later horror artists, both in print and on film (see, for example, the film producer Val Lewton‘s principle of “indirect horror”). Though other writers have since chosen less subtle techniques, Le Fanu’s best tales, such as the vampire novella “Carmilla“, remain some of the most powerful in the genre. He had enormous influence on the 20th century’s most important ghost story writer, M. R. James, and although his work fell out of favour in the early part of the 20th century, towards the end of the century interest in his work increased and remains comparatively strong.[1]

Thoughts?  Comments?

Watching Stephen King on YouTube

This evening I have been working on the second edition of Nocturne with YouTube playing in the background.  Currently, I am watching “Stephen King, His Books, and Their Origins at Lisner Auditorium (published on Nov. 22, 2014 by Politics and Prose).   I always love hearing about the origins of a writer’s works and King touches on several briefly followed by a reading from Revival.  The most interesting part I have seen so far is his comment that he thinks plots are for weak writers.  He follows his characters, so to speak, and doesn’t have an idea of where a book will end, so its ending is a surprise to him.  Quite an interesting video.  I recommend it.

Tonight’s Trivia: Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson Portrait by Girolamo Nerli  (1860-1926)

Robert Louis Stevenson
Portrait by Girolamo Nerli
(1860-1926)

[From The Writer’s Home Companion, 1987]

“Robert Louis Stevenson was thrashing about in his bed one night, greatly alarming his wife.  She woke him up, infuriating Stevenson, who yelled, “I was dreaming a fine bogey tale!”  The nightmare from which he had been unwillingly extracted was the premise for the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

With your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord: Foreword, issue the 11th

Source: With your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord: Foreword, issue the 11th

Do not judge this article by its title; it’s not what you expect.  Check out this neat article from The Stockholm Review of Literature on publication, rejection, and J.D. Salinger (pictured).

Thoughts?  Comments?

The Dark Language

Working on a play in Hasting's Hardback Café, late evening, October 16, 2015.

Working on a play in Hasting’s Hardback Café, late evening, October 16, 2015.

As I was preparing to go to the local theatre this evening, I was thinking about how I can improve my writing and what distinguishes the great writers of horror.  Of course, the first two that came into my mind as being easily discernible from all others were Poe and Lovecraft.  Obviously, what distinguishes them is their use of language.  Both use very intense, muscular language with a distinctly archaic tone.   Not knowing if there a precise term already exists for this style, I decided to call it “the dark language”, because of its tight connection with the horror genre and with the horrifying in general.   For me, there seems to be something archetypal about this, arising out of the Jungian collective unconscious.   Perhaps it is just that Poe bound the Dark Language so intimately with scenes of horror, terror, and suspense, which is also bound with genres such as the Gothic novel, that the sound of it automatically brings forth societal memories of dread.

I need to finish dressing if I am to dine at my favorite local sushi restaurant before heading to the play.  Somehow, I just have the taste for something raw tonight.

Thoughts?  Comments?

Types of Horror

Grand Guignol poster  from grandguignol.com

Grand Guignol poster
from grandguignol.com

Just now, I finished pasting Stephen King’s famous quotation on the three types of terror into my page on “Thoughts on Horror from the Masters” and I remembered that yesterday I was trying to remember the quotation, but could only recall a vague impression of it.   Thinking on that impression now, I think that it was just as valid and true a one as the one by Mr. King, but simpler, more compact, and easier to remember.  The concept is (I’ll refine this a little for the sake of clarity):

The three most common types of horror are:  suspense (knowing someone runs the risk of decapitation at any moment), terror (seeing him/her being decapitated), and disgust (watching the head roll down the stairs).

I don’t think this idea should replace Mr. King’s by any means, but should probably be viewed as a simplification of his rather lengthy statement.

There are also probably a hundred more different flavors (i.e. variations of the sensation) of horror but these are the three that seem to me to be the most common, at least in movies and other popular media.

Thoughts?  Comments?

Gogol

Portrait of Nikolai Gogol circa 1840 from Wikipedia

Portrait of Nikolai Gogol circa 1840 from Wikipedia

This morning I have been going through all the daily updates I have been getting from Goodreads, but have not read. Here’s an interesting one.

“I am fated to journey hand in hand with my strange heroes and to survey the surging immensity of life, to survey it through the laughter that all can see and through the tears unseen and unknown by anyone.”   –Nikolai Gogol

Goodreads notes:  “Novelist and playwright Nikolai Gogol (born March 31, 1809) feared being buried alive. When his grave was exhumed, his body was lying face down, giving rise to the rumor that the author’s greatest fear had come to pass.” I read some of Gogol’s most famous works as an undergraduate and loved them.  I need to re-read them just for the sheer pleasure of reading them. Gogol was an eccentric Russian (though born in the Ukraine) author/satirist of the early nineteenth century and is best known for his unfinished novel “Dead Souls” about a man who travels through the country buying up the dead.   He is also known for his short stories, particularly “The Nose” a fantasy about a nose that detaches itself from its owner one day and takes on a life of its own and “The Overcoat”, a story about an impoverished government clerk (copyist, if I recall correctly), whose prize possession is a beautiful overcoat and who comes back from the dead to find it.   He was known for being a satirist, rather than a writer of horror, but a few of his most famous works verge on what might be termed ghost stories or fantasy as can be seen above.  He is a master author, however, and his works bear checking out no matter what your preferred modern genre is. Wikipedia has this to say about his style:

D.S. Mirsky characterized Gogol’s universe as “one of the most marvellous, unexpected – in the strictest sense, original[28] – worlds ever created by an artist of words.”[29] The other main characteristic of Gogol’s writing is his impressionist vision of reality and people. He saw the outer world romantically metamorphosed, a singular gift particularly evident from the fantastic spatial transformations in his Gothic stories, A Terrible Vengeance and A Bewitched Place. His pictures of nature are strange mounds of detail heaped on detail, resulting in an unconnected chaos of things. His people are caricatures, drawn with the method of the caricaturist – which is to exaggerate salient features and to reduce them to geometrical pattern. But these cartoons have a convincingness, a truthfulness, and inevitability – attained as a rule by slight but definitive strokes of unexpected reality – that seems to beggar the visible world itself.[30] The aspect under which the mature Gogol sees reality is expressed by the Russian word poshlost’, which means something similar to “triviality, banality, inferiority”, moral and spiritual, widespread in some group or society. Like Sterne before him, Gogol was a great destroyer of prohibitions and romantic illusions. It was he who undermined Russian Romanticism by making vulgarity reign where only the sublime and the beautiful had reigned.[31] “Characteristic of Gogol is a sense of boundless superfluity that is soon revealed as utter emptiness and a rich comedy that suddenly turns into metaphysical horror.”[32] His stories often interweave pathos and mockery, while “The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich” begins as a merry farce and ends with the famous dictum, “It is dull in this world, gentlemen!”

Thoughts?  Comments?

Writing between the Lines

mod 130419_0008A thought occurred to me tonight as I was watching another episode of the X-Files.  I was “reading between the lines”  of a dialog between Scully and Mulder, when it dawned on me that part of the art of writing is to write between the lines, i.e. to construct a dialog so that the reader will be able to read between the lines what you want him/her to read.   I always think of Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” when I think about talking around something or reading between the lines, because is the classic example.   One of my earlier posts, “Talking about Dogs” is on this same subject, when I say that part of the art of writing is like talking about a dog, without using the word “dog”.    Anyway, that’s my thought for the night.

Thoughts?  Comments?

“Summer Thunder” and the Horror of Tragedy

Relaxing by the front yard firepit on a chilly New Mexico evening circa 2013.

Relaxing by the front yard firepit on a chilly New Mexico evening circa 2013.

I picked up a copy of the latest issue of “Cemetery Dance” this evening and read the Stephen King short story “Summer Thunder”. This is a very interesting piece. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but the story is about a man, his dog, and his neighbor, who have survived a nuclear holocaust and are slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning.

This story was quite different from the other Stephen King stories I have read (which have been quite a few, though not all by any means). There is no supernatural factor in the story. There are also no twists or surprises. The story maintains the same pace throughout, just as the protagonists face the same things day in and day out until they die.

I would classify this story as horror-tragedy, because, even though it has very little of the blood and gore normally associated with the horror genre, it definitely has a horror “feel” to it, but that horror is subtle and understated. “Summer Thunder” sets up a tragic scenario and the horror finds its basis in watching these people suffer through no fault of their own. They were not involved in starting the war in any way; that was done by world leaders thousands of miles away. These are the common citizens, the “Everymen” that normally populate King’s works as protagonists, and who must pay the horrific price for their government’s actions. That is the tragedy and that is a large part of the horror.

What is also horrifying about the story is not the action described in it, but the scenario it describes, because this scenario is definitely one that could literally happen to each of us, should our government and/or other governments decide for whatever reason, to push the proverbial button. Each of us can (or perhaps should) see ourselves as the main character, who will be forced to watch his or her world disintegrate after a nuclear apocalypse.

That concept alone should be enough to bring the true horror of this story:  that this scenario is, and has been for a long time, a real possibility for each of us.

Thoughts?  Comments?

The Final Re-Post from Open Culture: John Steinbeck’s Writing Tips

John Steinbeck  (from the website  Letters of Note)

John Steinbeck
(from the website
Letters of Note)

Here is my final re-post from Open Culture: http://www.openculture.com/2012/02/john_steinbecks_nobel_prize_speech_and_his_six_tips_for_the_aspiring_writer.html.

The article is brief, but I won’t copy it here, because everyone with an interest in the art of writing should watch the accompanying five minute video of Steinbeck’s profound acceptance speech of the 1962 Nobel Prize.  I will, however, copy below a short paragraph immediately preceding his six tips (I also highly recommend following the link to an entertaining and insightful Paris Review article on his observations on the art of fiction):

And for insights into how Steinbeck reached that pinnacle, you can read a collection of his observations on the art of fiction from the Fall, 1975 edition of The Paris Review, including six writing tips jotted down in a letter to a friend the same year he won the Nobel Prize. “The following,” Steinbeck writes, “are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.”

Enjoy.

 

 

More from Open Culture: Twelve Writing Tips from Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury  by Lou Romano

Ray Bradbury
by Lou Romano

http://www.openculture.com/2012/04/ray_bradbury_gives_12_pieces_of_writing_advice_to_young_authors_2001.html

In earlier posts I mentioned that if one is to learn the art of writing, one must study the masters–regardless of genre.  Writing well is writing well whether in mainstream literature, horror, romance, mystery, or whatever.  After the basics of writing are mastered, then one can tailor stories to the accepted practices and traditions of his/her chosen genre.  That is why I have been posting these articles with advice from horror and non-horror writers.  Most of what they say is as applicable to horror as it is to mainstream literature or any other genre.

Tonight’s post is from Ray Bradbury.  If you have not read The Martian Chronicles, run out and buy a copy or download one before you finish reading this article.  You will find that it contains some of the most beautiful, poignant writing that you will ever encounter.  I wish I could develop the skill that Bradbury shows and apply it to anything I write, whether it be a horror novel or a shopping list.   Although this article will not help you do that, it will show you some of the important lessons that Mr. Bradbury learned in the school of literary hard knocks.  The focus of the Open Culture article is a fifty-four minute video.  The author of the article, Colin Marshall, summarizes the video into twelve points immediately below the video.  I recommend watching the entire video before reading the twelve points, because you may or may not agree with Mr. Marshall’s summary.

Enjoy.

More from Open Culture: Humor and Writing Advice From Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, 1972

Kurt Vonnegut, 1972

Here’s a brief video with Kurt Vonnegut giving a fun presentation on the shape of a story:  http://www.openculture.com/2011/04/the_shape_of_a_story_writing_tips_from_kurt_vonnegut.html    Be sure to read the short article below the video.  It contains a link to Vonnegut’s eight rules for writers.

From Open Culture: Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers

Stephen King at Comicon, 2007 Photo by Penguino

Stephen King
at Comicon, 2007
Photo by Penguino

http://www.openculture.com/2014/03/stephen-kings-top-20-rules-for-writers.html

Great article.  Over the next week I hope to post more writing tips from great authors as they appeared in Open Culture.  They have a wealth of good advice that I would like to share.

Observations on “Baby Shoes” and Hemingway’s Iceberg Principle

Ernest Hemingway Thought I do not know who the creator of this work is, I must ask that you respect their copyright.

Ernest Hemingway
(Though I do not know who the creator of this work is, I must ask that you respect their copyright.)

There is a story that Ernest Hemingway wrote the following to win a bet with other writers that he could write the shortest story:

“For sale:  baby shoes.  Never worn.”

Even a little research on the Internet shows that there is considerable doubt that Hemingway wrote this story, with the earliest reference to it as a Hemingway work not appearing until 1991.  There is also considerable evidence that the story existed in various forms as early as 1910, when Hemingway was 11 and well before his writing career began.   Whatever the facts, it is an extreme example of the lean, muscular writing for which Hemingway was famous.

In an interview with The Paris Review (see The Writer’s Chapbook, 1989, pp. 120-121), Hemingway did say:

“If it is any use to know it,  I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg.  There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.  Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.  It is the part that doesn’t show.  If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story…First I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened.  This is very hard to do and I’ve worked at it very hard.”

So “Baby Shoes” is a good example of Hemingway’s iceberg principle, even if he didn’t write it.

“Baby Shoes” is also a good example of what I like to think of as the Tao of writing (see my earlier posts):  creating a story by a careful, strategic use of what is not said.  No where in the story does it state that a couple had apparently been expecting a baby, that they bought shoes for it, but then something happened to the baby to cause its death, and now the parents want to sell the shoes.    None of that is stated.  It is all implied, but yet we know what happened–or at least we have a good idea of what happened, even if we do not know the concrete facts of the matter.

There are also other facets of the story that we can infer, albeit tenuously.  From the fact that they bought baby shoes we can infer that the parents were probably eager to have the child.  From the fact that the parents want to sell the shoes we can infer that they probably don’t want them around any more as a remainder of a painful experience, but at the same time they may want to see someone else make good use of them or that they are hard up for money.

But one question I have that concerns human psychology is why is it that most people can read these same six words and come away with the same perception of what occurred?  Does it have to do with Jungian Archetypes floating around in each of us or is it that each of us has had the same broad experience(s) so that we can interpret these six words in a very similar way?

In the art of sculpture, those areas of a work that are empty, yet give the work its form, are called “negative space”.  An example is the space between each of your fingers.  If there were no space, there would be no individual fingers.   In that sense, a story like “Baby Shoes” makes maximum use of what might be termed “literary negative space”.

It is not really the words that give this story its power, but how we psychologically connect the ideas behind the words that fuel this extremely brief, but epic and poignant tale.

This is part of the magic of writing:  conjuring worlds out of nothing.

Thoughts?  Comments?

 

Guest Blog: ‘The Raven’ – Nevermore

Edgar Allan Poe, 1848

Edgar Allan Poe, 1848

Guest Blog: ‘The Raven’ – Nevermore.

Interesting article, though I tend to disagree with his descriptions of what was going through Poe’s mind when he wrote this.  Though I am not a skeptic, I tend to be skeptical when someone tells me in effect “yes, that is what he says, but this is what he meant…”  Poe definitely hyped the bejeezus out of the poem (and his ego) by calling it the best poem ever written, but as for the rest…who knows?

Thoughts?  Comments?

 

Just a few quick thoughts…

The blogger relaxing by the front yard firepit on a chilly New Mexico evening.

The blogger relaxing by the front yard firepit on a chilly New Mexico evening.

I was just sitting here trying to choose one of my many first drafts to work on for tonight, when I started thinking about the different “approaches” (for lack of a better term at the moment) to horror.  By “approaches” I mean a very brief synopsis of a writer’s general outlook on or method of writing horror.    Maybe a better way to express it would be to say the way the author approaches his genre (still not quite right, but I am getting closer to the idea).

An example would be to say that Poe’s approach was to bring out the horror in realistic situations (mostly, he did dabble in the fantastic occasionally).  “The Black Cat” is about a murderer who unknowingly seals up a cat with the corpse of his victim.  Nothing fantastic there.  “The Tell-Tale Heart” is about a murderer whose conscience drives him to confession.  “The Fall of the House of Usher” is about a family with an inherited genetic trait of hypersensitivity.   So forth and so on.

Lovecraft’s approach was to spin tales of the fantastic, especially about a race of elder gods who once dominated the planet millions of years ago and of which mankind encounters remnants on rare occasion.

Stephen King’s approach is to plant an element of the fantastic among ordinary people in ordinary places and watch them react to it.

Clive Barker’s approach seems to be to take something that is fantastic, bloody, cruel, evil and gruesome and either drop it somewhere a single character can deal with it or bring it out of the shadows where a character can deal with it.

Seeing these different approaches in relation to each other makes me think about how do I want to approach an idea or a draft I have of a story.  Do I want to drop the fantastic into the real or bring out the horror in the everyday or in realistic situations or can I come up with something else, my own approach, that is none of these?  That is the challenge of creativity:  to come up with something no one else has done.   Maybe I can just go with the purely fantastic.  Maybe I can try to find the real in the fantastic.

How many different ways are there to horrify an audience?

There is the real and the fantastic and all those subtle shades of gray in between the two.  Can there be anything else?

Thoughts?  Comments?

Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and the X-files

mod 130419_0008I just finished watching an episode of the X-Files entitled “Chinga” [note to Spanish-speakers out there:  I don’t know who chose the title, so please forgive my language] from Season Five and I  noticed that it was written by Stephen King and Chris Carter (the creator of the X-Files).  The story’s antagonist is a talking doll that can force people to injure or kill themselves in gruesome ways.   Like many, if not most, of King’s stories, there is no explanation of how the came to exist.  All the viewer finds out about it is that a lobsterman pulled it up one night in a lobster trap and his daughter comes to possess it after he meets his own gruesome fate.

I find in my own writing that I like to provide an explanation or background as to how things originate.  This is just my nature.  I like to know the origins of things.  However, I have come to believe of late that, in terms of horror, that is a very nineteenth century  concept.

Lovecraft said in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”:

“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and protentiousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only daily safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

For me, what Lovecraft is saying is that if the laws of nature are negated, then anything is possible and monsters like Cthulhu really could exist and are capable of doing us harm at any moment.  Combine this with his statement that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” and it becomes apparent that stories like “Chinga” derive much of their horror effect from the fact that the origin of the threat to a story’s protagonist(s) is unknown or that there is no explanation for the threat.

This would mean that one of  things that provides to “Chinga”  the element of horror that it has, is the fact that origin of the doll is unknown.  Therefore, any of us when we are fishing or scuba diving or swimming in any body of water, could discover a doll that would turn his/her life into a nightmare.   That is a scary thought.

Of course, this means that Stephen King would be one of the greatest practitioners of this technique, which I believe he is.

I think I shall try to experiment with this in the near future.

Thoughts?  Comments?