The Battle

Neutron Stars Rip Each Other Apart to Form Black Hole

They can’t live at the same time, in the same place. They vibrate at different frequencies, but they both resonate, and there’s only so much room. This town, as they say, isn’t big enough for the both of them. It would be fine if they would just learn to take turns like nice polite unformed bundles of energetic potential. But they’re not nice, and they’re not polite. Each of them is insistent that they have to go now, that they cannot wait, and that I will only ever have the energy and inspiration required for one of them.

It’s difficult to stop talking about them in the abstract because they are so abstract. That’s part of the problem. It’s hard to even pin down exactly what they are, but I’ll try, or else that first paragraph is never going to make sense to anyone but myself.

They are novels. Or rather, they’re the ideas for novels. No, that’s not right either. They aren’t ideas in the sense of premises. I have no idea what either of them is about, or rather, I have lots of ideas. Most of my many potential novel ideas–and half-written novels–are composed of wisps of one or the other. Or both, which is its own problem.

They aren’t genres, either. The closest I can say is that they are styles of novel. That’s accurate, but it’s a different use of the word “style” than is usual.

How about I describe them. Maybe that will help. They’re enthusiastic about that. Right now, in my head where they’re constantly fighting, they’re getting excited. Or rather, the first one is getting excited. The second one doesn’t do excitement, as such. That will make more sense in a minute. But yes, describing them is the best idea. Or rather, I’ll let them come out and describe themselves.

The first one I’ll call KAPOW! KAPOW! is big and bright and vibrant. An explosion of a novel. It’s definitely fantasy, or science fiction, or science fantasy, or science fantasy horror dread-punk post-post-modern psuedo-apocalyptica. It can be any or all of these things, because whatever it is, it’s a lot of it.

KAPOW!’s defining trait is that it bursts with ideas. It slams the reader with new, intriguing, fascinating, original concepts and twists of reality and imagery on every page. It uses a lot of adjectives, especially in describing itself. Think China Meiville. Think Planescape. Those are the obvious examples because they play so freely with setting, but I also include such works as John Dies at the End and–get ready to disagree with me–Harry Potter. Okay, Harry Potter isn’t all that original, nor is it trying to be, but it throws new bits of magic and wizard society and whatnot at you will obvious and infections glee, and that’s the point.

KAPOW! isn’t necessarily super-fast paced high adventure, but it does lend itself to that kind of storytelling. Those are the kind I generally come up with when I plan a KAPOW! novel, whether I want to or not. But they’re not critical. The important point is that the work scours the vast reaches of creativity.

The second novel style we shall call Masterwork. Masterwork is a piece of literature. It is contained within what is colloquially referred to as “genre,” as all of my interests lie therein, but it should not be sullied by associations with pulp or other forms of fiction intended merely as entertainment. Masterwork strives to tell a story about characters, about themes, and to impress upon the reader that such things can be meaningfully explored amidst the workings of the otherworldly and the supernatural.

Masterwork is quiet, at least in comparison to KAPOW! When composing an idea for Masterwork, I eschew such concepts as adventure and engagement. It’s a stretch to say that it is an attempt at Art. To say such a thing would be highly pretentious. However, should someone else partake of Masterwork and use such a word, Masterwork might not be taken upon to dispute the assertion.

Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is a good example, as is Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Or Watchmen. Steven King writes a lot of novels that sit comfortable in this range. It’s not necessary for a work to be considered literature by the sorts of people who care about that sort of thing. I’m not one of those people. It’s enough that fans of the genre would label it so.

These two styles, KAPOW! and Masterwork, these are the novels that I want to write. Both of them have a lot of room inside. The problem is, they don’t play together. Sure, a Masterwork can have KAPOW! elements, and a KAPOW! can have compelling characterization and quiet moments. I honestly wouldn’t be interested in writing either that didn’t contain some of the other.

But at their foundation they are different. So different that to start one I have to press down all of the forces inside of me urging me to write the other. This is usually pretty easy, since I’m both obsessive and fickle. If I just read something KAPOW!y, I probably want to write a KAPOW! Which is great. For a few weeks.

But I’m fickle. Oh, so very fickle. It won’t be long before the urge to write the other starts to tingle. I’ll become dissatisfied with my current outline or treatment or manuscript, and long to start the other. What’s the point of writing a cross universe heist story about a team of thieves who all possess a different form of immortality? That’s trying way too hard. Instead I should write about the development of two people’s relationship over seven winters, while strange things walk through the drifting snow.

Many writers have problems that keep our productivity down, and this war in my head is one of mine. There’s only room for one at a time, and matrices of possibility don’t like to take turns.

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More Than Just Fear

candyman

 

“Candyman’s not as scary as Freddie,” Alexis said, leaning on her desk.

“He’s much scarier,” said Gene. “Freddy’s not scary.”

“Freddie kills anyone. With Candyman you have to say his name three times in front of a mirror. Who’s gonna do that?”

“Well, yeah, but with Freddie you have to say ‘Kruger Kruger Kruger.’ So it’s the same.”

I watched the conversation with abstract anthropological interest. Or at least, that’s how I describe it now. As nerdy as I was, even I didn’t see myself as a pop-culture anthropologist among my peer group in sixth grade. But I did find it fascinating to listen to people talk about their passions, even those I didn’t share.

This conversation further cemented something for me: I hated horror movies. After all, they were all about making you feel scared. That was their entire purpose. Who would want that? Fear is terrible. I spent enough time frightened of dark and impossible things as it was. Adults wax about they miss innocent joy and belief in the fantastical children possess. But they forget about the fear.

Children spend so much of their time afraid, because they Believe. How can they not? We only know that the world is round, that certain mushrooms can kill us, that there used to be a thing called the Roman Empire where they spoke a language no one speaks anymore except the Pope and some Catholic school teachers, because someone you trusted told us, and we believed them. To a children, the world is full of dark, hungry things. They are just as real as Santa Claus, life after death, and the Boston Tea Party. Things that are never seen or touched, but that, in the right moments, cannot be doubted.

I just watched Candyman for the first time the other day, more than twenty years after Gene and Alexis made me never want to watch it. It sprang to my mind because I saw Tony Todd, the actor who plays Candyman, in two separate episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Playing two separate characters, although in their defense one of them was a Klingon. To many people I’ve known, Todd is and always will be Candyman, no matter what other roles he plays. Seeing the actor made me realize I’ve never seen the movie, and that was a gap in my knowledge. Because now, as an adult, I love horror movies.

I love them in a way I never could as a child. There are two major reasons for this. The first is that I came to realize that my middle school classmates had a very unsophisticated view of the purpose of horror. They were after what might be called “popcorn horror.” Popcorn horror is all about the fear. It’s about the thrill of being scared, decontextualized from any exploration of themes or interesting narrative or character work.

A friend of mine, writer and filmmaker Evan Alexander Baker, summed it up perfectly with the following quote:

As a lifelong horror fan, I ABSOLUTELY DO NOT prioritize being “scared out of my wits.” I watch horror movies because I want to be confronted with interesting, resonant images and ideas relating to the abject and the uncanny.

I am not there for a “thrill ride.”

Are there some genuinely scary horror movies that are also masterpieces of the genre? Absolutely. Are they masterpieces of the genre BECAUSE they are scary? Nope; they’re scary as a byproduct of their ideas and imagery.

When filmmakers set out, first and foremost, to be “scary,” they produce hollow technical exercises.

It took me years to appreciate that it’s not horror that I don’t like. It’s cheap horror. A lot of people gauge horror on the “scare” scale–like it’s a love-tester with “love” replaced with “fear”– and there’s nothing wrong with that. Popcorn horror has its place, for the people who like that kind of thing. I’m just not one of them.

I still don’t exactly enjoy being scared, but I love being unsettled. I love engaging in the vast landscape of imagination that exists in the places of the human mind that make us uncomfortable. My favorite kind of horror is the type that makes me doubt my view of reality and the world.

I love it for the same reason that I love really fantastical fantasy like China Meiville or AD&D Planescape setting, or conceptually experimental science fiction like the works of Philip K. Dick or John C. Wright. I love them because they are mind-expanding. At its best, horror is even better at this than any other genre, because it is unafraid to stretch your worldview until it breaks. Until it bleeds. It expands the mind in a way that is both intellectual and viscerally primal. Cartesian radical doubt for the senses.

The other reason I love horror as an adult, when I could not as a child, is because I can take it. I no longer Believe. Not the way that I did. I still get scared walking into the basement in the dead of night, but it’s not the paralyzing dread it was as a child. I can grit my teeth and make myself do it, because this basket of clothing isn’t going to wash itself. Hopefully. When something is frightening enough, it is real. As a child, you might understand intellectually that the shadow on cast by the door doesn’t contain a smiling beast with teeth for eyes. But emotionally, you know it is there. In your brain you feel it as strongly and completely as if you had seen it walked across the living room floor.

Adults have this kind of fear, too. You can see it when a parent loses track of their child in a crowded grocery story. They might go into complete panic until they find them. The odds that the child has been abducted in those three minutes are very small, but the fear is so real it feels like a certainty.
As we grow older, we learn what the world contains and what it does’ t. We come to rely on these patterns. They’re comfortable. The world becomes a safer place because we’ve seen its shadows enough times that our belief that they are harmless is stronger than the monsters. I can watch horror movies now, even though they still frighten me, because that fear is no longer the threat that it once was. It won’t slip under my skin and whisper in my blood for years, the way it did when I was small.

But it still frightens me, because I still Believe. Not as much as I did, but it’s still there. I dread the person I’ll become if I ever lose that entirely. I don’t think humanity will ever fully understand the world, and so there are places for the things that live in the cracks and lap at the wounds of our nightmares. I did not find Candyman to be that frightening, but I’m not going to say the name out loud. Because I just don’t know. And even now, as I write these words, I’m happier than I like to admit that there are no mirrors in this room.

Undreaming Places

Chapter Two B

Now that my horror phase has passed, as we knew it must, my newest obsession is with highly creative and unusual settings. Much like horror, this is a life-long interest that never quite leaves me alone, even when it’s nestled around my brain-stem rather than trying to chew its way through the front of my skull.

Apparently, the horror imagery has left its mark. Oh well.

In any case, unusual settings have been a deep love of mine forever. I am easily bored by the familiar, and my love of fantasy stems fundamentally from the fact that I am intrigued by the possibilities allowed us by the imagination, and can’t see why anyone would want to dwell solely in the real world when so many others are open to us. This is all sounding a bit pretentious, but I think that’s what this kind of mindset does to me. Hopefully I’ll get it all out of the way here, so it won’t worm its way into my prose.

I’m definitely interested in hearing about fascinating and highly original settings people have run into, especially in well-developed worlds. For context, some of my favorite are Planescape, Fallen London, and Bas Lag.

Naturally I’m developing a crazy setting of my own. It’s very nebulous at this point, and I’m not sure which of the ideas I’ve come up with will make the cut and which will be purged, or if it’ll go anywhere at all. I started to write a story about it, but then realized it was too long and I really wanted to put something smaller and self-contained up on the blog. So I began a different story set in the same world.

Which of course ended up as the first sliver of a much longer and more intricate story. Oh well. At least it works fairly well as a stand alone. Anyway, here it is:

The One of Keys