Showing posts with label Mary Shelley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mary Shelley. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Character: Contains Perishable Goods (Michelle)

Yesterday, I sat down at Starbuck's (ugh) to work on the novel for the first time in about a week and a half, and I made an interesting discovery: characters are perishable. They can go stale.

I was working with a character I hadn't touched in about two weeks, and I discovered that I had completely lost the feel of her. There was something completely undefinable that was missing.

I could explain her, obviously. I could list her physical features and her emotional tendencies and her personal history. But all those things didn't amount to a character. She had become - the horror! the horror! - a collection of quirks, exactly as I had criticized in the characters in Heroes and Lorna Doone. Such amalgamations result, at least in cinema, in this sort a thing:
Do creations go wrong because they receive insufficient attention and love from their creators? Mary Shelley might say so. Frankenstein is supposed to be one of those dark-side-of-art kind of novels, isn't it?

Anyway, since my character was insufficiently human but rather seemed to be a mere amalgamation of traits, all the dialogue I wrote felt like it belonged in the sequel to the Fantastic Four movie. I can think of no greater way to describe its deficiencies.

It was fascinating to realize that this could happen not though some active mistake on my part but through the simple failure to keep giving her life by writing about her. I left her alone too long, and like a plant unwatered, she died.

I feel fairly confident that I can resurrect her - that decrepit house plant you forgot about while on vacation is rarely actually dead - but it's going to take some time and reinvestment of energy, and it took me months to get her "living" and "rounded" the first time around.

It's made me realize that I need to be spending at least a little time with the novel every day, lest something like this happen to its other hapless denizens! Consider this reason #692 that writing is never just a hobby. Hobbies don't require daily attention.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Showing the Monster: Cthulhu and Frankenstein (from Michelle)

I appear to be on a bit of horror-reading jag, which is surprising from the girl who got nightmares from Bunnicula as a child. Nevertheless.

I've been thinking about the issue of Whether or Not to Show the Reader the Monster. The story that I'm currently working on has a bit of a monster in it - or a strange creature, at least - so it has some personal weight. In any case, I am undecided about whether it's effective to describe a frightening sight when you're trying to scare a reader.

Mary Shelley and H.P. Lovecraft, two acknowledged giants of the genre, seem to take somewhat different approaches. In Frankenstein, Shelley does some initial description of Frankenstein's monster (black lips, yellow skin, etc.) but mostly she relies on the horror he inspires in others to convey his supernatural ugliness. She says: "No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived" (Signet edition, p. 43). In other words, there's a lot of it's-too-horrible-for-words going on here.

In contrast to Shelley, Lovecraft (prone as he is to heaping abstract nouns on top of each other) is actually pretty specific about what Cthulhu looks like in "The Call of Cthulhu": squid head, dragon-body, yet somehow humanoid. He's also very specific about the slimy trail he leaves behind. It's all very Ghostbusters.

The problem is that I found neither Frankenstein's monster nor Cthulhu terribly frightening - at least not in visual terms. If I had to choose, I think I would come down on Shelley's side, because the horror you don't see is always more terrifying. In fact, the most chilling part of "The Call of Cthulhu" for me wasn't the actual emergence of the monster but the weird rituals of his cult and the vaguely referenced "strange disfigurements" of the people they stole for their practices. Yikes.

The tricky thing about horror, I think, is that it so quickly can become dated. "The Call of Cthulhu," for instance, reminded me strongly of Ghostbusters, but of course Ghostbusters only exists as it is because of Lovecraft. (Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, as the Doctor would say.) To scare people, you must constantly be finding something new or surprising. In actual fact, a book hasn't scared me properly since Bunnicula gave me nightmares. The closest I've come to being scared has come from particularly shadowy psychological moments in Harry Potter (like the explanation of the Unforgivable Curses; or the conjuring of the Dark Mark; or the exploration of Voldy's early life). Then there are, of course, some of the lovely creepy characters on Doctor Who, particularly Steven Moffatt's creations. Unfortunately, I don't think the chills Moffatt creates are available to me as a writer, because they rely on the visual shock of, say, a gas mask or a twisted clockwork harlequin.

What gives me chills now are brutalities such as you see in the proliferating crime shows like Law and Order, films about serial killers, and even the latest BBC adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. And frankly, I'm not at all interested in emulating those chills in my fiction. They are not the fun and thought-provoking chills of classic horror: as far as I'm concerned, the degree to which they rely on the victimization of women is incredibly disturbing and says something about the sadomasochistic impulses of our current culture. But that's another story.


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