Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Book of Ezekiel

“A freezing horror took hold of him…”

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"The copilot shook his head..."

Note: This post is the forty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 44. You can read the earlier installments here

I’ve always been fascinated by horror fiction, but I’ve rarely drawn on its conventions for my own work. A few of my short stories—notably “The Boneless One” and “Cryptids”—employ horror tropes, and “Kawataro” is essentially an extended homage to the genre. In my novels, though, there’s little if any trace of it. Part of this is due to the fact that I’ve ended up working in a category that doesn’t accommodate itself easily to that style: suspense fiction, at least of the international kind that I write, operates within a narrow tonal range, with heightened events and purposeful violence described with clinical precision. This air of constraint is both the genre’s limitation and its greatest strength, but it also means that horror sits within it uncomfortably. At its best, horror fiction comes down to variations of tone, with everyday mundanity disrupted by unknown terrors, and a writer like Stephen King is so good at conveying the ordinary that the horror itself can seem less interesting by comparison. (Writers in whom the tone is steeped in dread from the beginning have trouble playing these changes: I love H.P. Lovecraft, for instance, but I can’t say that he scares me.)

The big exception is Chapter 44 of City of Exiles, in which horror comes to the forefront of the narrative to a degree that doesn’t have a parallel in the rest of the series. City of Exiles isn’t a perfect novel, and I’ve been hard on it elsewhere in this commentary, but I still think that the last ten chapters or so represent some of the strongest writing I’ve published, and the sequence kicks off here, as a neurotoxin is released inside a private plane with horrifying results. If the scene works, and I believe it does, it’s largely because of the kind of tonal shift that I describe above. It opens with Powell and Chigorin discovering that there may be a lethal device on board the plane, and for several pages, the action unfolds like something out of a Tom Clancy novel, complete with detailed specs on the ventilation system. (The couple of paragraphs spent discussing the ram system and the mix manifold were the product of a lot of tedious hours paging through aircraft manuals online.) But once the poison is released, the tone shifts abruptly into nightmare, and the result is a page or two like nothing else in these novels.

"A freezing horror took hold of him..."

In describing what Powell sees, I consciously turned back to the likes of King and Lovecraft, and there’s also a sentence or two of deliberate homage to “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” a Sherlock Holmes short story that turns on a similar device. (“The Devil’s Foot” also provides the epigraph to Part III, and there are subtle allusions to it throughout the novel. Justice Roundhay, who sends Ilya to Belmarsh Prison, is named after one of Conan Doyle’s characters, and the two aliases that Karvonen uses—Dale Stern and Trevor Guinness—are nods to the names Sterndale and Tregennis.) The notion that Powell would see a monstrous version of one of the cherubim from Ezekiel’s vision of the merkabah is one of those ideas that seem obvious in retrospect, although it didn’t occur to me until fairly late in the process. It also involves a small cheat, since Powell is never directly privy to Wolfe’s conversations on the subject with Ilya, so I had to insert a short line in a previous chapter to explain why he’d have Ezekiel on his mind.

And although the result works well, at least to my eyes, I’m glad that it’s restricted to this chapter and nowhere else. Horror, as we all know well, is more effective the less it’s described, and as it stands, the description of Powell’s hallucination goes on just as long as necessary. It doesn’t feel like anything else in these books, which is part of the point: it’s a momentary disruption of the evenhanded tone I try to maintain even in scenes of great violence or intensity, and it casts a shadow over the more conventionally suspenseful scenes that follow. I’d love to write a real horror novel someday, mostly for the challenge of sustaining that kind of mood over a longer stretch of narrative: the number of novels that really pull it off would fill maybe a single shelf, and it’s no accident that King’s short stories are often so much scarier than his books. Still, I suspect that this scene works as well as it does because it’s embedded within a novel that otherwise seems so removed from the emotions that true horror evokes. And as with the poison that triggers these visions, a small dose is usually more than enough…

“So what are we saying here?”

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"A plane with Menderes on board..."

Note: This post is the forty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 43. You can read the earlier installments here

When you’re constructing an argument, whether in fiction, science, or philosophy, when it comes time to lay out your reasoning step by step, you’ll often end up presenting it in the reverse order from which it originally occurred. Sometimes a big idea will arise through accident, intuition, or the need to justify a preexisting position, and after taking it as a starting point, we search retrospectively for the evidence required to support it. Yet when we publish our findings, we pretend as if we arrived at the conclusion through a sequential chain of logic, proceeding from small to large, rather than the other way around. It’s clear, for instance, that scientists often proceed intuitively, at least when it comes to identifying a promising avenue of research, and that major discoveries can be the product of happenstance, luck, or trial and error. In most finished papers, that unruly process is reshaped into a tidy progression from hypothesis to conclusion, which seems only reasonable, given how deeply science depends on a shared language and set of standards. But it also skims over the mistakes, the dead ends, and the unquantifiable factors that affect any kind of intellectual activity.

We find much the same principle at work in fiction, most obviously in the mystery genre. While some authors, like Lawrence Block, can write most of a detective novel with only the vaguest idea of who might ultimately be responsible for the crime, most writers determine the identity of the guilty party early on, then go back to lay down a series of clues for the protagonist to follow. Unlike scientists, writers are careful not to make the progression seem too neat: it isn’t particularly satisfying to read a mystery in which every clue is handed to the hero on a silver platter, so a smart author builds in a few red herrings, wrong turns, and setbacks, an illusion of chance that has been as meticulously crafted as the solution’s apparent orderliness. In the end, though, the hero is moving through a series of encounters that the writer has put together in reverse, and if he often seems absurdly insightful, it’s only because he’s being steered on his way by an author who knows the ending. That’s equally true of puzzle mysteries, of the kind exemplified by Dan Brown, in which the protagonist is presented with a set of enigmas to solve. It doesn’t take much skill to come up with an anagram that the hero can crack at sight, but the reversed order of presentation makes it seem clever rather than a simple trick.

"So what are we saying here?"

In the real world, this kind of backwards reasoning can be dangerous: reality is sufficiently dense and complicated that you can find evidence to support almost any theory, as long as you hide your work and present only a selective subset of all the available facts. One of the factors that makes conspiracy fiction so intriguing is the way in which it edges right up against the point of unforgivable distortion: unlike a pure mystery, the conspiracy novel takes real people and events as its material, but the result is little different from a whodunit that begins with the knowledge that the gardener did it, then scatters bloody gloves and shoemarks for the detective to find. In City of Exiles, for example, I make the case that the Dyatlov Pass incident—in which nine mountaineers died mysteriously in the snow in the Ural Mountains—was a test, conducted at the last minute, of a neurological weapon that was intended to bring down the plane of the Turkish prime minister Adnan Menderes. Menderes was, in fact, in a plane that crashed outside Gatwick Airport on February 17, 1959, or only two weeks after the Dyatlov Pass incident, and though he survived, the pilots were killed, and no convincing explanation for the accident has ever been found.

As presented in the novel, the links that join one incident to the other are structured as a chain of inferences leading inevitably to one conclusion. (It’s inevitable, at least, within the context of the story, although for reasons I’ve mentioned before, I was careful to pull back from the theory in the book’s penultimate chapter.) The writing process, however, was altogether different. I’d started with the Dyatlov Pass, and I knew for reasons of plot and symbolic resonance that I wanted to tie it into a plane crash—an image that occurred to me, in a totally arbitrary fashion, as a way to tie the story back to Ezekiel’s vision of the merkabah. With this in mind, I went back and searched for plane crashes that had taken place within the proper window of time, and the Gatwick accident had all the right elements. Everything else, including whatever motivation the Soviet security services might have had for killing Menderes, came after the fact. Laid in a straight line, it feels like it was conceived that way from the beginning, but it could have been very different. While doing my research, my attention was drawn to another plane crash that took place on February 3, 1959, just one day after the Dyatlov Pass incident. It was the crash that killed Buddy Holly. But if I’d gone in that direction, I don’t know how this novel would have looked…

Written by nevalalee

August 14, 2014 at 9:08 am

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