Archive for June, 2010

Real-life ghost story books: Wonderful and annoying

I’ve had a—well, not a love/hate relationship, but a love/annoyance relationship with real-life ghost stories for most of my life. In the small public library in the town I grew up, there was one of these books that I must have checked out a dozen times. It had a few of the most famous ghost pictures in it, like the one of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, or the National Museum in Greenwich photo (what is it about ghosts and staircases?), and I read over and over about the Bell Witch and the ghost of Anne Boleyn and other fun stories. I loved that book. So as I grew older, I branched out and read other books of real-life ghost stories. I continued to love them. Even as they increasingly annoyed me.

The biggest problem I’ve had with these books is a simple one—way too often, the people writing them don’t know how to tell a story. There’s a whole lot of telling not showing in these books—you could probably start a drinking game for the number of times the word “eerie” is used in an attempt to create unearned atmosphere. And they often don’t know how to organize the information they’re presenting in an interesting way. Sometimes this seems like a little journalistic overzealousness—the writers of the books are so interested in showing that they are dealing in real information, not just made-up stuff, that they list what this person said and what that person said in a rush of information without taking the time to show why this information matters or assemble it into a coherent narrative. They coast too often on the inherent interest of ghost stories, feeling people don’t need to be brought into the story because, hey, it’s a ghost story—of course you’re interested! So they lay out the information and don’t bother to tell the story.

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A Short Flight from a Tall Tree

[Versions of this story for mobile devices are available through Feedbooks. Or you may download the PDF.]

I would like to thank Dr. Stanton for his macabre tale of mayhem. It was by no means a pleasant story, but there are stories that need to be told regardless of how pleasant they may or may not be. I do not believe that “pleasant” and “good” necessarily overlap.

I have a story of my own, and it also is not entirely pleasant, though its unpleasantness is of a different variety than that of Dr. Stanton’s account. I believe my tale should be told, if only because I have seen enough questioning eyes looking in my direction as I sit in our club, and I believe those questions deserve some answers.

I would appreciate it, Dr. Winstrom, if you would allow me to proceed without interruption. I am telling the story, and this time you are not going to stop me. I am well aware of your opinion of my tale, and I don’t care. I believe the others in attendance want to hear it. See? See them nod? There now. You can let me speak. No one will make you believe it, and I do not believe it will harm you to hear it.

Unless you believe my condition is contagious. Then perhaps you would wish to keep your distance

Ladies and gentlemen, you need not back away! ‘Twas a mere joke at the good doctor’s expense! Come back, come closer, and I will share my story with as few digressions as I can muster.

Now, the first thing you must understand is that there is a mountain near a vast plain in northern Africa, and very close to the top of that mountain is a tree that has long been dead, and that has absorbed the essence of the mountain on which it rests so that it feels more like stone than wood. There are no other trees in the area, as the altitude is so high that the air is too thin and cold to allow for significant plant growth. And yet somehow, at some point in time, this tree grew to a tremendous height, greater even that redwoods or the mountain ash, and the constant winds at that height have somehow failed to bring it down, or even weaken it.

The tree, known as the Mirkanthol tree, stretches a full six hundred feet above the ground, its trunk ramrod straight to the top. There are branches on it, not many, but enough to make it clear that this is a tree and not some sort of telegraph pole.

Now I will tell you what you truly need to understand, and that is that if you are able to climb the full height of that mighty tree, and you are able to steel you nerves despite the fact that clouds are passing beneath your feet and the people you have left behind on the ground appear to be no more than insects, and if you are then able to stand firmly on one of the topmost branches, and let go of any supports, and hurl yourself into a leap from this lofty perch, then a simple thing will happen.

You will fly.

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Being good when things are bad

I just finished Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch, and saw a note at the end of it that put VanderMeer’s Ambergris books in a category with House of Leaves and Perdido Street Station as books that have “redefined the possibilities of fantastical literature.” I think VanderMeer belongs in that lofty company, but as I read Finch I noticed one other similarity between those three books–they all present settings where making a choice you might reasonably call “good” is incredibly difficult.

Interestingly enough, the book of the trio that’s marketed as a horror novel, House of Leaves, is in some ways the gentlest. The house at the center of the book, with its unending hallways of nothingness, is certainly a horror, but the horror is not unremitting. It’s cast against things like the relationship at the center of the book, that of photographer Will Navidson and Karen Green, along with that of Will and his brother Tom. Indeed, the book needs those relationships–the house has to be a threat, to have something to devour, if it is going to be truly fearsome. The reader has to have some sympathy for the relationships and has to believe that the relationships both could and should survive. If everyone in the book is dysfunctional, then the house is only working on things that would fall apart on their own anyway (which, to be fair, is sometimes the point of the book–the house often amplifies what people already carry with them).

So the relationships give the book some light, but in those dark corridors good choices seem to be hard to make. Possibly the best choice people can make is to ignore that abyss altogether, but that’s the one choice some of them are incapable of making.

The situation in Perdido Street Station is direr. New Crobuzon is a fascinating city, but not necessarily a good place to live. China Miéville’s politics are always present in his work, but they are not foregrounded here as much as they are in, say, Iron Council. Still, the oppressiveness of the city is clear the more time we spend in its streets, at Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin’s actions in the book–his attempts to do things that possibly shouldn’t be done–just add to the problems. It gets to a point where, as Isaac navigates the situation he has helped create, the reader hopes he could find reliable allies, but despairs of that actually happening. There may be some decent people in New Crobuzon, but there are no really good organizations. Every group has their own agenda, and none of them seem to have any regard for, or even concept of, the common good. Individuals are left to make the best choices they can, knowing that the machinery they are caught in will limit the efficacy of whatever they attempt.

The situation is, if anything, worse in Ambergris. None of the relationships John Finch has are untainted by the politics and intrigue going on in the city, and as I was exposed to the representatives of the various factions, I had trouble generating sympathy for any side in the struggle (an effect that seems wholly intentional). Finch seems to be a decent individual, but everything around him is so compromised that the choices he makes can be difficult and have brutal effects on himself on his surroundings–but that’s all he’s left with.

Part of these books’ redefinition of fantastical literature (I’d prefer just to call it “fantasy,” but I know that some people view that term as tainted, and how can you resist the caché of that magic word, “literature”?), then, is to take away the heroic quest element that has been so common in fantasy for years. There certainly is evil in all three books, but it is far beyond the protagonists’ abilities to vanquish it. Their best hope is to survive and try, in some way, to keep themselves distinct from it.

Story time!

Each night, around nine o’clock, my son jumps into bed and yells out “How many stories do I get?” He’s asking because if he’s gotten to bed on time, he gets his full allotment of three stories. Usually he gets it–when he doesn’t, he tends to drop his head, make that bottom lip tremble, and see if he can use parental sympathy to regain what tardiness cost him.

The point is, I’m sure I’ve made many, many mistakes as a parent, but at least I got my son to like stories. Or maybe I didn’t, because the love of a story seems pretty hardwired. But I at least nurtured it, and I’m gonna take credit for something here, dammit. I’ve loved stories for decades, from the first story I ever wrote, which was a blatant ripoff of Frog and Toad Are Friends. I’ve been lucky enough to have six novels and a few dozen short stories published, but I’ve got others sitting on my hard drive, and I thought I’d try to get them out right to readers. Hence this blog.

There’s more to stories than just ones I’m writing, of course. I love reading new stories, including the current book I’m almost done with, Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch. There will be time and space here to discuss books, too.

I look forward to interacting with people here–to reading your thoughts, criticisms, reading recommendations, etc. It’s an experiment, and I’m curious to see how it will work out!

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