Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Perils of "Perilous" Tales

Wrote this as an Afterword for an upcoming (maybe) e-book pairing of my two "horror" (or Dark-something-or-other) tales.

Science fiction writers aren’t supposed to write “horror” or “dark fantasy” stories. If they cross any genre lines, they’re supposed to gravitate toward fantasy. At least that’s what I’ve been told.

Science fiction writer or no, I’m more attracted to emotions than to technological or magical systems, or traditional narrative structures.

And the first emotion I remember experiencing to any significant degree was fear.

Fear. Peril. A Google search on the latter brings this definition up first: “Serious and immediate danger.” Peril is what every story, to one degree or another, should have.

Truth is, and this may be truth for more folks than just weirdo writers like me, is that if I’m not in peril I feel a little, well,  neglected.

Some of my earliest memories are of awaking from nightmares, looking around the darkened bedroom I shared with my brother, and seeing the little images on the china lamp on a little stand at the far end of my bed – some sort of eighteenth century pastoral scene where the men wore powdered wigs and the women wore billowing skirts. I watched them move around, sometimes dancing, sometimes chasing each other. Pictures on lamps aren’t supposed to move. That’s scary.

In the dark, all sorts of inanimate objects came to life. Sometimes, the darkness itself came to life. And shadows took silhouetted shapes and approached my bed – until I started screaming. One or the other of my parents had to come in and stay with me until I calmed down or fell asleep.

I developed a healthy dread of the supernatural, though I was enough of a Junior Philosopher to wonder if the “supernatural” were not just the region of the real world we hadn’t quite figured out yet. I had trouble accepting a differentiation between the two. Reality was reality, and I didn’t – couldn’t – believe it could run on two sets of rules.

Which meant I was probably headed toward science fiction from the get-go, but before I arrived –

I watched all the creepy, mysterious television my parents allowed me to watch. Old Universal monster films, episodes of Thriller and The Twilight Zone, even when they kept me up all night.

I read all the monster magazines I could find. I read Creepy and Eerie. I read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Haunting of Hill House. I loved all the Hammer and Amicus films I was able to see.

And about middle school age I sought out books about “real” ghosts and other supernatural manifestations. I was hooked on Hans Holzer and Susy Smith and Fate magazine. At one point I was convinced I would become a parapsychologist.

I refused to look at a mirror in the dark, convinced that Mary Worth would come out from it and scratch out my eyes.
And that went on for some years – at least until I found myself more afraid of what the real world had in store for me than anything in the arsenal of the supernatural.

Even so, I have a healthy respect for ghosts. Not that I “believe” in them (What does that mean anyway? What does “belief” have to do with objective reality?), but in a universe put together the way ours is, you don’t have to believe in a thing to have it come out of nowhere and bite you in the ass.

One way or another, it’s a perilous world. And one way we try to work our way through that peril, that fear, that uneasy sense of danger, is to lay it out in a story.

Turns out that every so often the sense of peril isn’t confined to the story and its world, but becomes part of the process of writing it.
*     *     *
“Surfaces” started when my wife and I lived in a little apartment in Rogers Park, on Albion Avenue. The previous tenant had run a little day care center from the place. We found crayon scribblings around the edges of some of the walls. Other walls had been painted by the tenant – no professional painter or decorator to say the least. One night, while sitting in the bathroom (yes, and on the most obvious object one sits upon in the bathroom) with no reading matter, I stared at the walls – the uneven application of paint, the shaky brushwork – and I imagined a few squiggles of paint looked more than a little like a hooded figure. I was brought up with thick paint and texture – my dad was a painter, the sort of painter who openly admires the thick application of pigments. He was more happy painting with spatulas than brushes. And he taught me to look closely at paintings, to notice how the complex figures could often be broken down into a network of simple lines and curves.

It was possible to look at an apartment wall as one big Rorschach  Test. From there, the scary part became figuring out the limits of obsession: how far can you follow the madness before it consumes you?

Writing a story about obsession can become an obsessive act in itself. I went through many drafts, with many casts of characters and many different outcomes. And once I settled in with my narrator, her sister, Wilford and Patrick, it still took many more drafts before I had sorted out my story.

In those days I had a friend, a former college instructor of mine,  who liked to take me to galleries on the Near North Side of Chicago after lunch. At that time, the whole “River West” neighborhood was booming, and part of that boom was measured in little art galleries. It seemed to fit in with a story where the main threat was created by a person with no “artistic” pretensions whatsoever, and yet what he painted came to frightening life. In contrast, I was looking at plenty of paintings that were void of any life.

It was about then that I also took note of how certain trends always created a coterie of experts. People who went to galleries learned to talk a good “art game,” just as later they learned to talk basketball while the Chicago Bulls were winning championships, or learned to talk hockey when the Blackhawks earned their first Stanley Cup in ages. Now, they talk about food and cuisine. But in each case, these aficionados don’t really “know” a thing about their subjects. They talk the talk, but can’t walk the walk.

Another aspect of the story that was important to me: I wanted the gay relationship between Wilford and Patrick to be just a matter-of-fact detail – an acknowledgment that there are gay people in the world, but that their gayness doesn’t bring about their outcomes in this story, either fortunate or unfortunate. I wanted to depict gay characters as being as much a part of the world as heterosexual characters, and to do so without it seeming that I was pointing it out to the world. “Hey! Look! I’m including gay characters! See how open-minded I am?”

The explosion of the house was inspired by a real incident. The owner of an apartment building blew up his building by trying to fix a gas leak on his own. It was less than half a mile from the building Pam and I were living at the time. I heard the explosion and felt the concussion – the saw the black smoke rising from the rubble. A few other homes were taken out by gas leaks around this same time. One fiction editor referred to my explosion scene as a “cop out.” I saw it as a simple Chicago fact of life. 

At the time I wrote “Surfaces,” I believed (and still do, though manifest in different ways) that truly subversive writing was (or should be) invisible. I want to subvert the use of the “supernatural” in a dark fantasy story. I wanted to write a female narrator that didn’t sound like a man pretending to some great knowledge of female psychology. I wanted the “real” places to be fully integrated into the unreal circumstances. I wanted the narrator’s intellectual questions to reflect her emotional insecurities and fears. And I wanted a reader to get through the entire story without being aware of any of it.

And after sending the story to dozens of places, and after getting some energetic feedback from editors scrawled on their printed slips, Gordon Linzner sent me a simple letter with a contract, saying that he was taking the story, that it should appear in such-and-such issue of Space and Time, and the check would be arriving shortly, which it did.

I never heard much in reference to the story after that. The magazine came out, I read the story at the dear, lost, fondly-remembered Twilight Tales reading series at the Red Lion Pub. And that was it.

At least until I met Jonathan Vos Post who, at the time “Surfaces” was published, owned Space and Time magazine. He said he thought it was the best story they had published during his tenure. I’m sure he was exaggerating, but I appreciated the exaggeration and was in no mood to contradict him.

Not too long ago, “Surfaces” was presented on a podcast that old friend and author Larry Santoro hosts, Tales to Terrify. Whoever handled the production did a great job, as did the woman who read the story, though the voice in my head that’s supposed to be Cath’s doesn’t quite match hers. A small matter. When I sat down and listened to the podcast, it was the first time I’d heard the story in years, and I didn’t squirm half as much at my bad writing as I thought I would.
*     *     *
Flannery O’Connor wrote: “St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.”
In “The Ambiguities,” Billy Elkrider became one of my most formidable dragons. He’s based on a “real” guy (or two, or even three), as much as you can consider anyone like Billy “real.” Yeah, he’s pretty much like I described him in the story and I say this in the present tense because, for all I know, he’s still out there. Older, maybe, but out there.
Way out there.
The comments about the Melville book were pretty much from the guy’s mouth when I encountered him on a CTA train heading for Howard Street from Wilmette late one stormy winter afternoon.
The “Joe Bazooka” story has not been especially embellished. I saw the guy with the busted, swollen hand pass out from pain at the bus stop on Devon and Clark Street as the big guy accompanied him to the nearest hospital.
Like most of my stories, it started out one thing and turned into another. I think I first tried to write it for a webzine Larry Santoro was launching at the time. I fumbled my way through it and took way, way too long working out a storyline with no strong resolution. By the time I turned it into Larry, he’d moved on to other things. Larry knew plenty of horror writers, so he wasn’t hurting for good stories. I was relieved he never got around to using it.
A similar thing may have occurred with a project Bill Breedlove was working on. I started revising the story, but the project fell through.
Then, in Madison at the World Fantasy Convention in 2005, I ran into Roger Trexler, who told me about an anthology he was co-editing, Hell in the Heartland. It sounded like an interesting project, and I knew a number of the authors who would also be contributing. I took out “The Ambiguities” again and decided to give it another try. I said, “I really want to make it into this anthology. Do . . . or die trying!”
The two big problems I had to solve with the story were 1.) presenting Billy’s humanity without diluting his scariness, and 2.) coming up with an ending that wasn’t nihilistic but not soppy or compromising. Of these two, the hardest by far was the latter.
Objectively, I can look at the older versions now and it's perfectly clear that my narrator’s encounter with Billy might have been an episode, but it didn’t make for a story. In my work, since I use a number of protagonists over and over again, I can’t just kill ’em off. And I don’t do the sort of stories where some poor schmuck makes a bad decision and pays the ultimate price, like a very literary version of an EC comic story. Other writers are much more successful with that strategy. It doesn’t work for me.
Not that I was consciously thinking of it at the time, but in retrospect I can see fairly clearly that I solved the problem of the ending (if I solved the problem at all) not by concentrating on Cath’s immediate problems (dealing with Billy, making her airline flight for the job interview), but by backing up and taking in the problem that’s at her core at the core of many of us making bad decisions as a way of life and, eventually, dealing with them.
In the earlier drafts, I wrote her scenes, thinking, “What does she do wrong? Where does she take the wrong step?”
In the later drafts, my concentration shifted to “What does she do right? And . . . does it matter?”
Of course it mattered. I just had to figure out how it mattered.
So, how do you pass the dragon in the road?
Some may view Cath’s nearly magical transport to her flight at O’Hare a deus ex machina. Maybe it is. I don’t see it that way. Billy may be the means by which she makes the flight, but only after Cath earns Billy’s respect. She acknowledges him (the most important thing), she deals with him honestly and ultimately she chooses to trust him – not without cost. She may have chosen to trust the Devil; or she may have chosen to trust a Jesus in disguise. Is Billy the former or the latter? She can’t know, but she still has to choose.
And thus the ambiguities.
Does that mean I chose Melville’s novel deliberately to reflect that aspect of the story?
I didn’t choose Melville’s novel. Melville’s novel chose me – with an assist from Billy – or the version of Billy I encountered on that CTA train. Pierre was the book I was reading, the one I had in my hand, when a giant guy in a Frankenstein jacket sat down next to me and asked, “Whatcha got there? Dirty book?”
In that moment, I had the story. It just took a mere two decades to figure out that’s what I had.

That’s what I love about writing. It’s on-the-job training until you die.

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