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June 01, 2005

Installment #11: Of Re-Writes, Re-Thinking, and Reprints 

When I decided that an on-going column was going to be a permanent part of this web site, the one thing I promised myself was that I would never fall into the easy out of reprinting something. It seemed to me (and still does) that if you good folks are going to keep coming back here on a consistent basis, then you by-God ought to find fresh, new material for your time, faith, and effort.

I had a dandy new installment all set to go -- a multi-parter, in fact, dealing with reviews and reviewers, how readers and writers react to them, how sometimes the manner in which an opinion is expressed overshadows any salient points that may or may not be contained in said opinion ... all sorts of nifty stuff -- and was giving it a final once-over when, well, something happened.

To be a little more specific, a couple of things happened, via the Shocklines discussion board (still one of my favorite virtual hangouts), that caused me to to re-think the content and tone of the column. I don't want to go into any more detail because you'll find out about it soon enough (the incidents have almost run their course, and I want to see how it all ends before tackling the re-write, so I think it's safe to say that All Will Be Revealed soon enough).

But that still left me with a column space that hasn't seen an update in six months. So -- for what will be the only time I intend to resort to this -- the majority of this column will be a reprint of an essay I wrote a few years back that has been referred to -- as well as outright quoted -- by several other columnists and reviewers since its original appearance. I'm doing this because a lot of you have e-mailed me and asked that I make this available on the site. So, in a moment (for those of you who haven't seen it before), you can read my "Storytelling Unbound" essay.

I did want to offer an explanation concerning the prolonged silence. I know it's been a long time since last I cornered you with my thoughts and opinions, and for that I apologize. I'll do my best to make sure this doesn't happen again.

So, what happened? As a lot of you know, Lucy and I purchased and moved into our new house, that took a lot of time and effort; the custodial gig kicked into serious High Gear (as it always does this time of year); writing deadlines had to be met (and, in some cases, extended, thanks to the patience and faith of a couple of wonderful editors and publishers); some personal family business arose (as it always does when one has a family) ... any one of these, I know, would have been accepted by you, along with my apology for the silence.

But you know what? None of them were the real core reason. Yes, they're contributing reasons, but even taken in totality, they don't justify six months of silence.

One of the things that I've always tried to do -- not just with these columns, but in my speaking about writing in general -- is to share with you good folks what exactly I bring to the table as both a writer and human being when it comes to storytelling. I have almost no patience for those who would lead you to believe that writing is some mystical, ethereal thing that you could not possibly hope to understand. I think that kind of attitude is arrogant. Any writer with the common sense God gave an ice cube should have no problem describing the creative process to a non-writer (I went to great lengths to illustrate this in some sections of my non-fiction book, Fear In A HandfulOf Dust: Horror As A Way Of Life). If one is to de-mystify the creative process, then one has to be willing to talk about those corners of one's heart and psyche that are usually not considered acceptable topics of polite dinnertime conversation. This is a roundabout way of saying that I try to be honest with you, so, the reason for the silence?

I have been seriously re-thinking what value my work has to the horror field.

This is not whining or self-pity or anything cheap like that. I know that there are many other writers out there who respect my work and do not hesitate to step up to the podium and say so, and I am grateful to all of them; I also know that my readers -- bless you -- are a fiercely loyal bunch, and my gratitude and affection for you knows no limits; but I also know that the term "...it's both horror and not" has been applied to my work so often that many people have come to assume that it falls more on the "not" side of the coin.

So I'm re-thinking some things. Have been for a while.

This is not an attempt to trick you into sending ego-boosting kudos my way, it's not an attempt to gain sympathy, and it sure as hell isn't an attempt to get any worried word-of-mouth going. It's a simple statement of fact. I proudly lay claim to being a horror writer, and stand by everything that I say in the essay that follows (as Pollyanna-ish as some of it strikes me now). I sincerely believe that the horror field can expand its boundaries if publishers, writers, and readers are willing to take chances.

It's just that I don't think the majority of them are. I think a lot of lip-service is paid to the idea of "expanding the boundaries" of the field, but the sales say otherwise -- not my sales, but the overall sales within the field. Every time you blink, it seems, another novel about zombies, vampires, serial killers, cursed houses, and evil cults seeking human sacrifices has taken the place of the one before it.

No, I do not look down on these books or their writers; I begrudge no one their success; and I am just as willing as you to see what fresh angle a writer if offering to the, say, zombie or haunted house theme. The reason Brian Keene's zombie novels are so successful is because he has a genuine affection for the subject, one that comes through in his writing, and he also can pace the living shit out of his novels. The reason that Rick Hautala's ghost stories (now being released under the name A.J. Matthews) do well is because Hautala -- as he proved time and again back in 80s -- is our modern equivalent to M.R. James; his work is drenched in atmosphere, his affection and respect for his subject rings true on every page, and he is a master at building cumulative terror.

So don't think I'm looking down on anyone, because I'm not.

What it boils down to is this: you, as readers, come to the horror field for a single core reason: to enjoy being scared. Sure, you want solid characterization, you want humor to be present to break the tension, you don't shy away from topicality, and you wont refuse any food for thought (provided it's not rammed down your throat), but, primarily, you look to horror for the scares, for the suspense, for those books and stories that keep you glued to the page, that agitate you, that cast such a spell on you that when you're reading late at night and the phone suddenly rings, you damn near jump out of your skin. Keene is scary. Hautala is scary. Tim Lebbon. Elizabeth Massie. Tom Piccirilli. Caitlin Kiernan. Jack Ketchum. Karen Taylor. Kealan Burke. Ray Garton. Mike Laimo. Sephera Giron. The list goes on, as well it should.

At this past World Horror Convention, a book reviewer you all know by the name of Bloody Mary confessed to me that she couldn't read my stuff because it was "...too upsetting." She meant this as a compliment, and I took it as such, but whether she intended it to or not, her comment encapsulated for me precisely what is that keeps a wider readership away from my work. Jack Ketchum -- God bless 'im -- sent me a wonderful e-mail after finishing In the Midnight Museum wherein he told me how much he enjoyed it, and commented that it had "...a lot on its mind." Combined with Bloody Mary's remark, I realized that I might be missing the boat on something. (And, no, I am pointing a finger at neither Bloody Mary nor Jack Ketchum; they simply and eloquently gave voice to those aspects of my work that I've always secretly suspected keep it from reaching a wder horror audience.)

For all of the wonderful things that have been said about my work, there is a single, short, simple word that has almost never been used when describing it: scary.

And someone whose work doesn't fulfill the core requirement of being scary has no business calling himself a horror writer.

So I've been re-thinking things. Hence, the prolonged silence.

Just being honest; just wanted you good folks to know.

Okay, here's the promised essay. Check back here toward the middle of the month for an actual new column.

Anyone who writes fiction for a living, who has to put food on the table and make mortgage payments with money earned solely from practicing this holy craft, has to accept at some point that labeling is part and parcel of the bid-ness: It's something that's slapped in front of your name or on the spine of a book in order to promote and move a product -- and like it or not, all aesthetics aside, once a book or story has been written, polished, submitted, sold, and published, that's all it is: a product. Any writer who screams otherwise should be contented with their contributor's copies and day jobs and live out their lives knowing their artistic integrity remains solidly in tact ... of course no one else will ever know this because anything they've written will have been read by maybe 500 people who, odds are, forgot the writer's name before they reached the end of the story.

Not for me, thank you; I can't speak for other writers, but I'm aiming for a small piece of immortality: the stories in my head (and, since we're being honest here, my ego, as well) will not allow anything less. I'm not, absolutely not, in no way and under no circumstances, saying that writers should turn themselves into a cottage industry and only crank out slick, disposable, hollow work to make themselves commercially viable in the marketplace -- not by a long shot. It's theoretically possible (though increasingly and depressingly more uncommon) to establish yourself in the field by writing exactly what you want to write precisely the way you want to write it; you just have to resign yourself to the cold fact that you're going to be labeled, and then set about making your work as good as you possibly can in hopes that its quality, its craftsmanship and honesty, will either attract new readers all by itself, or make the Powers That Be give it a second look and think, "Hmmm; you know, we may be missing out on a larger reader demographic here by selling this guy/gal as only a fantasy (or whatever) writer." That is the ideal; it rarely happens, but at least you can cash the advance check without feeling like you've sent your soul down to the nearest street corner to turn a dozens tricks before dinner.

Literary prejudice is an affliction each of us suffers from, whether we're willing to admit it or not, and that prejudice -- which seems to me so much more rampant among readers and writers of horror fiction --can not only poison one's potential interest in exploring new and different forms of fiction, but can also create an intellectual vacuum that will eventually force readers and writers of genre fiction to do an Ouroboros and begin feeding on themselves, with readers forced to endure uninspired rehashes coughed up by writers cannabilizing concepts already dealt with in a derivative copy of a derivative copy of something that was derived from something else -- and if you want a concrete example of what this can lead to, pick up a copy of the novelization of John Carpenter's remake of The Thing and get a load of the writing credits: a novelization by so-and-so, based on the screenplay by such-and-such, inspired by the screenplay for the 1951 film by what's-his-name and that other guy, based on the novella "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell writing as... You'd almost laugh if it weren't so sad.

It embarrasses me to admit this, but at one point in my life -- and it wasn't all that long ago that this happened -- I thought myself above literary prejudice, considered myself to be well-read, open-minded, literate, intelligent, analytical, cha-cha-cha.

I try every month to read at least one novel or a couple of short stories in a genre that I've not read much before, if at all. High fantasy, sword & sorcery, historical fiction, romance fiction, children's books, mystery, suspense, erotica, even the dreaded western. And the more I read across the board, the more I see that all forms of genre fiction have a great deal in common; the more I see that all forms of genre fiction have a great deal in common, the more convinced I become that in order for genre fiction to prevail as we stumble through the first decade of this new century, a form of communion must take place -- merging numerous forms of fiction into one -- so that speculative fiction can take the next necessary step in its aesthetic evolution.

But this communion cannot be forced, it has to come about naturally. Yes, I'm talking cross-genre fiction; storytelling unbound. The type of richly imaginative, wildly exciting, joyously unpredictable storytelling where you get everything from a straightforward character study to a hard-boiled mystery and even a ghost or two; not only ghosts, but cowboys, as well, if the writer feels they need to yippee-ki-yi-yea their way into a chapter or two. Time travel and high-tech intrigue, alternate universes and comedies of errors; passionate romance and nerve-wracking terror -- hell, throw in the kitchen sink and a robot domestic while we're at it. Go for broke -- just don't go for the easy out. Read everything you can in as many different genres as possible. Don't feel that you as either writer or reader have to restrict your interest to "only cyberpunk" or "just the gaming-related fiction" or "SF, SF, and only, only only SF!" And God please don't exclude the opinions, observations, or insights of those readers and authors who toil in fictional fields beyond the boundaries of yours.

This goes so much deeper than simply wanting all forms of speculative fiction to march to a different drummer; it's a ferverent prayer that all of us will learn to foster a need and desire beyond all the needs and desires that have come before to catapoult ourselves into the burning core of our imaginations and meet the whirling, winged, wondrous things that have been waiting for us to take that next step in our creative evolution. "Look at us," they'll whisper. "See what we are and know that you musn't ever settle. Don't just be -- become! And don't just become -- transcend!" It's a prayer that we'll someday be able to get rid of all the mushbrained labels that insultingly oversimplify what the work is about because it will be impossible for anyone, no matter how hard they try, to put a label on our fiction. Storytelling unbound, wherein we can do anything we want, anytime, in any manner, knowing that there are truly no limits -- and God, is that kind of knowledge power! We'll know, then, that a summer sky can be poured into a silver chalice and drunk down like Bacchus's headiest brew, that the touch of a lover's fingertips against the skin or the brushing of lips holds the answer to what love and life were supposed to be, every emotion revealing the sensual, smoldering, staggering beauty of the cosmos.

Storytelling unbound. To live a thousand lives where every second is drenched in overpowering wonder, then turning yourself loose on an empty sheet of paper to see if you can possiblty convey this amazement to others, rejecting rationality enough to have faith in the unnameable something that drives you to want more out of your fiction than simply "a good read," that pushes you to push yourself and your work to new heights and maybe, just maybe, capture a piece of the Divine.

Yes, I'm calling for a revolution ... and you know where this revolution should start?

Down there in the darkness that I have loved all my life, that darkness in Literature's basement, with that drooling, hunched-over, scab-picking embarrassment of a bastard child called "horror" that no one wants to admit exists. No one's paying attention to it, not really, and those chains on the wall won't hold forever, so why not start now, while the shadows are there to protect us? By the time the lights come back on and the chains fall away, we'll be armed to the teeth with our stories and ideas and memories of drinking the sky from a silver chalice, and then just let 'em try to ignore us or lock us away once again.

Let 'em try.

My favorite poem is "I Saw A Man" by Stephen Crane. God, I think I get chills every time I read it or hear it read:

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
"It is futile," I said,
"You can never--"
"You lie!" he cried.
And ran on.

That should be the writer's battle cry against those who would tell him or her that their work must conform to specific genre boundaries and never, ever, ever dare venture beyond those boundaries because something that is too different isn't acceptable, even in speculative fiction.

"You lie!" we cry, and then on we go, chasing the horizon, freed from illusionary boundaries implied by terms such as SF of Horror or Magic Realism or Dark Fantasy or What-Have-You. Don't you want that from our fiction? To capture the horizon, to drink down the sky, to know that, whenever you need it, a dream will call and raise its head in majesty? Storytelling unbound!

But know this: You may be forced to live outside their city walls when your fiction “doesn't quite fit anywhere” because they'll be scared of you. "He must be mad,” they'll say. "How else do you explain his producing this sort of stuff?" Then they'll go on coughing up safe, derivitive fiction, ocassionally looking down at the asphault to make sure their feet are still on the ground while you, you'll be kissing the hem of Venus's gown and flying alongside Daedalus and solving crimes with Marlowe and dancing with Gatsby atop the Pyramid of the moon at a celestial ball given by the gods of ancient Mexico.

It's really nice outside those city walls, trust me. You don't have to write what they tell you you should write, you don't have to settle for reading the same old same old thing repackaged and rewritten for the umpteenth time. You can be, you can become, you can transcend.

So come on, all ye Cyberpunks, ye Gamers and dreamers of darkness, ye technofiles, X-filers, Babylon Fivers, and Trekkers true; come on all ye mystery mavens of the hard-boiled and cozy schools, ye romance writers and historical scribes with your sense and sensibilities refined, ye rusty-spurred cowpokes and poets of brilliant brevity; over there, ye comics connisuers and artists, with pencils and paintbrushes and airbrushes raised high, step outside, join us beyond the city gates; you'll see our campfires burning in the night as we gather round to spin our tales in the manner, any manner, we damn well choose. Join us. Our ranks are growing. You'll find no prejudice here by our fires, no one who'll say “It just doesn't fit.” Bring your dreams, your angers, your sadnesses and passions as we begin our communion: all fictions merging into one.

And when you hear them calling to you from behind the city walls to come back, come back, come back here where everything is safe and in its place, remember the sacred words as you reach toward the horizon's hands:

"You lie!" we cry.

Storytelling unbound.

Until next time, then.

Stay tuned....



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