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June 25, 2004

Installment #8: Of Contests, "This Is Supposed To Be A Horror Story!", and Mediocrity Conditioning 

As some of you might know, I was asked to be one of the judges for this year's Chiaroscuro/ Leisure Books Short Story Contest ; Michael Rowe and Stewart O'Nan are the other two judges, with Don D'Auria from Leisure Books serving as the tie-breaking judge, should it come to that.

While I'm not going to talk too much about the contest (I will tell you that, as I write this, we've narrowed it down to the 15 Finalists, from among which the winners will be chosen), I am going to talk briefly about the overall quality of the submissions -- at least, the overall quality of the nearly-100 submissions that were sent my way.

On a scale of 1 - 10 (10 being the highest), the stories came in at a solid 6 1/2 to 7, which, I have to admit, surprised me -- if for no other reason than a handful of past judges from other contests (not just this one) had led me to expect otherwise.

To be honest, I wasn't prepared for there to be such originality among the submissions; for every mad slasher, ghost, vampire, and (insert tired horror cliché here) story I read, I found there to be at least one story whose content, writing, or central idea outshone the more predictable tales (and even the predictable stories displayed a level of technical craftsmanship that was refreshing).

But even in a majority of these original stories, certain disquieting similarities began to pop up, the most predominant one being that, somewhere past the mid-point of the story, it seemed that the writers suddenly thought: Whoa, wait a minute -- this is supposed to be a horror story!...and subsequently grafted obviously horrific elements onto the narrative so it more resembled the popular concept of horror.

Example: one story dealt with a young boy's imaginary friend whose physical form and behavior changed to suit the young boy's mood; if the boy had been mistreated by his friends, the imaginary friend appeared to him as beaten-up and angry; if the boy's mother had scolded him for something he did wrong, the imaginary friend appeared to him as smaller and sadder.

You get the idea.

Now this was -- for the first 6 pages -- an absolutely wonderful piece, reminiscent of the best Twilight Zone episodes, but then--

-- Whoa, wait a minute -- this is supposed to be a horror story! --

-- the imaginary friend shows up, unbidden, in the shape of a deformed whosee-whatsits wielding an axe, tells the boy that he's "...sick and tired of pretending to be something I'm not", and chops the little boy up into bloody chunks (the death of the boy takes almost 2 pages, and is unnecessarily graphic).

Now, had this turnabout been set up anywhere beforehand (which it wasn't), I might have accepted it; it might have been a terrifically vindictive morality play about allowing reality to intrude too far into one's fantasy life (which it is, at least for the first 6 pages, and beautifully done); the ending might have been interpreted as the death of one's fantasy life equaling the spiritual and physical death of the Self; in other words, it might have resulted in something deeper and infinitely more disturbing than the cheap, bloody shock that the writer chose to end it with because, gosh-golly-gee, it's a horror story and you expect this sort of thing, right?

What made this doubly alarming is that, in almost every case, the writers who grafted these ham-fisted horrific elements onto their stories had demonstrated a level of skill that led me, as a reader, to believe they were going to stay true to their voice and vision (and no, I won't apologize for using that last word); until these grafted elements intruded, each story had suggested that its writer was not only well-read and intelligent, but trusted their own instincts enough to know that it's okay to do Something Different in horror; yet near the end, some mass-market, don't-challenge-the-expected-norm, lowest-common-denominator gene kicked in, and something SPOOOOOOKY or Shocking!!!! (read: recognizably horrific) arrived to bust up the party and send everyone home way too early.

And I keep wondering: Why?

Flashback to a month ago, on the Shocklines discussion board. The subject was something like: What Do You Think Of These Writers? Someone listed half a dozen or so writers, among them Yours Truly, and one of the responses was: "Gary Braunbeck? Too dark and depressing for me. Sorry, Gary, if you're reading this, but I like some light at the end of my darkness." The response of the other Shockliners was basically along the lines of: "Yeah, I have to be in a certain mood to read him, so I can understand how you feel."

That both hurt and made me smile; it hurt because I realized that I am never going to see the kind of commercial success enjoyed by those writers who always offer a little "...light at the end" of their darkness (which I think I've always known, it was just a little jarring to see it spelled out in such direct and honest terms); it made me smile because it also means that, when readers are in "...a certain mood", only stuff like mine will suffice.

Yeah, my work is definitely an acquired taste, and I think it's because I refuse to graft "lighter" elements onto stories to make them more palatable to readers who have come to expect a certain formula from horror: meet the main character, get to know/like him or her, follow him or her through the horrific darkness that ensues, and emerge alive and triumphant with him or her into the light at the end.

Mind you, I've got nothing against happy endings - providing that they emerge naturally, are consistent with the overall tone of the piece, and (this is the important point) are justified. Otherwise, it's just bad plastic surgery.

I did this once (in truth, I allowed myself to be bullied into it) with my novella "The Sisterhood Of Plain-Faced Women" as it appeared in Things Left Behind. (For those of you who haven't read the story, worry not, I'll offer no spoilers.)

The argument was made to me by several people that, considering all the horrible experiences she'd been put through, it was "...unsatisfying" to have the story end for the main character on such a dark and hopeless note. Well, wanting to be widely-read (and any writer who claims they're happy being a "...best-kept secret" is one of two things: independently wealthy or delusional), I thought it over, re-read the story, saw an "out" for a "happy" ending, and re-wrote the last three scenes. The result is, I think, an immensely forgettable finale that reduces an otherwise pretty solid story to something that's just okay. You think. If you remember it at all.

The reason this "happy" ending doesn't work is because it does not fit within the world-view presented throughout the rest of the story; it's inconsistent with the tone, it does not emerge naturally from the sequence of events, and it requires that the central character suddenly put all of her faith into an act that is, for her, reckless (she is not reckless by nature, and even though this change in character might be acceptable under other circumstances, it would hinge on her having faith in her fellow human beings, which she does not; and since this particular form of faith is what's required to justify her final reckless act, the ending gets trapped in a Mobius-loop, Chicken-or-the-Egg logic that does not hold up to even passing scrutiny).

In short: I grafted a happy ending onto a story where it did not belong, and as a result fatally damaged the piece -- which is why, when Shocklines Press releases my next collection From Beneath These Fields of Blood (Redux), it will contain "The Sisterhood" with its original (and better) ending. No, it ain't a happy one, there's no "...light at the end", but it is the only ending that works because it's the only ending that's justified. (I can't get more specific without citing events from the story and thus possibly ruining it for those who've not read it, so I hope you'll forgive the generalizing.)

Happy endings only work when they're justified from within the natural progression (both tonal and narrative) of a story, and in my fictional universe, that rarely happens; horrific elements only work when they're justified, and in the case of many of the submissions to the Chiaroscuro/ Leisure Books Short Story Contest, this just wasn't the case; too much grafting, not enough 2nd or 3rd -drafting: the writers didn't trust their own instincts enough to not take the obvious way out.

Consider if you will Stephen King's remarkable novel, Pet Sematary; here you have a story that is incredibly dark, with only the briefest flashes of light and hope sprinkled throughout. The dark (and, at best, melancholy) tone of the novel is set early on, as are the ground rules of its microcosmic universe, and King never once betrays those rules or the novel's tone: because of the expert way he sets up everything, he can't betray them and remain justified in the world-view he presents. Many readers were shocked that King ended the novel as he did, and the reason behind this shock? As a friend of mine put it: "After all the horrible things that had happened, I was expecting a happier ending."

Not if you read it correctly, you weren't.

From almost the very beginning, you know there's no way in hell that this is going to turn out for the best. So how would you have felt if King had betrayed his story to give readers an "expected" happy ending? And even if he had found a way to cop-out with touching warm fuzzies at the end, do you think the novel would have had the effect on readers that it did? That it still has, over 20 years later?

King never flinched here, never pulled back, never hoodwinked for the sake of making things more palatable or comfortable for the reader; the result is a novel that is not only one of the most emotionally rich he's ever written, but arguably the single most horrific of his career. (And for you "...light at the end" folks, ask yourselves this - and be honest: how many of his novels and stories have had "happy" endings? I can think of maybe four - and even those aren't "happy" endings in the traditional sense. So why does his work endure? Because it's honest unto itself. From A Buick 8 may not be the best-written story he's ever told, but it's arguably the best-told story he's ever written, simply because he remains true to the tale. And sometimes that means not ending things with a gaudy display of horrific fireworks; and sometimes it means not ending things on a happy note, lest the story and the reader be betrayed.)

Old Willy S. said it best, folks: "To thine own self be true."

That is, in reverse, the answer to my question about the contest submissions: these horrific elements were grafted onto the stories because their writers (for whatever reasons) have been conditioned -- be it through uninspired films, television programs, or from reading work by writers whose only influence has been said films or television shows -- to believe that readers will only accept a story as being "horror" if it has certain readily-identifiable elements -- i.e. gore/violence/zombies/ vampires/what-have-you -- that are popularly mistaken as being the only elements that horror is concerned with.

There is a new generation of upcoming writers who are being conditioned for mediocrity; they will not -- or cannot -- trust their own instincts because the popular misconceptions about horror are threatening to become the accepted rules. If that happens, if the tired, formulaic, tried-and-true become the norm once again, then I'll be more than content to make due with being a writer whose work is only read when people are in "...a certain mood."

But I will not be content to sit idly by and let the upcoming generation of horror writers betray themselves, their stories, their craft, and their chosen field by giving them the impression that it's all right to shove a bloody shock down a reader's throat because this is supposed to be a horror story.

The solution is simple: Don't Do That.

If you get to a point in a story where you say to yourself, Damn, I'd better have something horrific happen pretty soon, do yourself and the rest of us a favor and walk away; come back to it in a day or two when you can approach the story fresh, on its own terms, and not those you have been programmed to think are applicable; yeah, you might not end up with a wide readership, but odds are the readership you will have will be a fiercely loyal one.

You'd be a fool to expect more.


Italics.

After exclamation points and profanity, the horror writer's third greatest enemy.

Like profanity, italics are most effective when used sparingly. From my point of view, italics should only be used to: A) place emphasis on a particular word or phrase; B) cite the name of a book, film, television or radio program, or musical work (as in the name of a symphony or a specific album, such as Mahler's 1st, The Who's Tommy, Warren Zevon's Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, etc.); C) to insert a brief flashback - be it a sequence of events or a snippet of recalled conversation - within the body of the current narrative; and, D) to set apart the contents of a letter, excerpted lines from a poem, or a snippet of song lyrics (which could arguably be accomplished with the use of block quotes instead, making this last "rule" more of a stylistic choice on the part of the writer).

(Second parenthetical pause here: when citing the name of a song or a story, quotation marks are what's required, as in: Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or Stephen King's "Sometimes They Come Back". The title of the album or collection in which the piece is included would be italicized, as in: Simon and Garnfunkel's Greatest Hits and Night Shift. The differences are subtle, but profound, and not necessarily as easy to discern as one might at first think.)

Remember the Dragnet-theme warning I suggested when it came to using exclamation points? (Quick recap: imagine that every time you use an exclamation point outside of dialogue, it comes accompanied by the first four notes of the Dragnet theme; you'll use them sparingly as a result.)

Well I've got a similar warning cue to employ when it comes to italics: imagine that whatever is italicized is being either whispered or Shouted Through A Bullhorn (however circumstances dictate); it's a matter of extremes, like it or not.

An italicized letter or quoted poem? A whisper.

A panicked warning (as in: "Look out!")? A shout through a bullhorn. (And bear in mind that when you combine italics with all caps -- "LOOK OUT!" -- it's overkill; the circumstances under which something like the above is italicized give the words or passage an immediacy that presenting them in all capital letters only diminishes; it's hitting the reader over the head with your intent: DEAR GOD, THIS IS REALLY, REALLY IMPORTANT AND I'M GOING TO MAKE DAMN SURE YOU KNOW IT!. Overkill. Don't do that.)

There is another -- and less directly acknowledged -- reason that it's a good idea to use italics sparingly: like it or not, a prolonged passage of italics quickly tires the eyes while reading. It's that simple.

As a writer, whenever I come to a passage that I know is going to have to be italicized (such as a letter or brief flashback), I apply the same rule to my own work that I do to anything that I might choose to read: no more than 3 pages. That is all that my eyes can take as a reader, so I assume that's my readers' limits, as well. After 3 pages, it just gets annoying; and the last thing you want is for a reader to become more aware of how you're presenting something than of its content.

So: a whisper or shouted through a bullhorn, no more than 3 pages, and you just might find that italics can be a useful ally, rather than the horror writer's third greatest enemy.


Realizing that my earlier comments might be disheartening to some, I want to close this installment by saying to all the writers who submitted to the Chiaroscuro/Leisure Books Short Story Contest that none of you need feel slighted; I had a great time reading all the submissions (even those of the well-worn-out trope variety), none of your stories had anything wrong with them that another pass or two couldn't fix, and when it came down to picking my final 5, I had a much more difficult time than I'd foolishly led myself to believe I'd have; in a couple of cases, it was almost painful to decide which story went on to the finals and which one didn't. In the end, I elbowed aside the writer in me in favor of the merciless reader that I can be...and even then, the choices were tough. We're down to the 15 Finalists now, and it doesn't appear that it's going to be any easier. That's it's been this tough just to get to these last 15 stories should tell you folks something about the overall quality of the submissions.

I know this smacks of blowing smoke up the old ying-yang, but it's the truth; you should all be proud of just how damned difficult you've made it for the judges this year.

Stay tuned....

 

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