Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘How to Write Tales of Horror Fantasy and Science Fiction

The Outsider

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Colin Wilson

When you achieve your greatest success at an early age, a long life can be a liability as well as a blessing. The headline for Peter O’Toole’s obituary was always going be “Star of Lawrence of Arabia,” despite the fifty years of performances that came afterward, and while there are far worse fates for an actor—it’s the most striking debut as a leading actor in the history of movies—it also reminds us of how shapeless a lengthy career can seem after its early peak. O’Toole belonged to an honorable tradition of great British or Irish actors, ranging from Olivier to Ben Kingsley, who were always happy to show up for a role and a paycheck, cheerfully willing to skate through a few weeks of filming on little more than a sonorous voice and superb bag of tricks. They’re great players, schooled in a theater tradition that emphasizes artifice and the cultivation of clever devices that can deployed at a moment’s notice. (Kevin Spacey may be the closest American equivalent, which goes a long way toward explaining why he seems most comfortable at the Old Vic.) And the results are a joy to watch, to the point where I sympathize with Olivier’s famous question to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man: “Why not try acting?”

Still, the result is often a strange, uneven career, marked by long periods of slumming, and it grows all the less comprehensible as you move away from those definitive early roles. The same fate often awaits authors of a certain eccentric mindset, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, ever since the death of the British writer Colin Wilson. His life coincided almost perfectly with O’Toole’s: he was born almost exactly a year before and died a few days earlier, and although his passing has gone almost unnoticed, their lives have some striking parallels. Both were born into working-class families, had their first big hit at an early age, and spent the rest of their careers trying to live up to that initial breakthrough. In Wilson’s case, it was The Outsider, which is the kind of book that so many ambitious authors in their early twenties have yearned to write: a study of Camus, Sartre, Dostoyevsky, and others, fueled by months in the reading room of the British Museum, with its central figure as, yes, T.E. Lawrence. I can’t say for sure that a copy ever crossed the desk of Lawrence screenwriter Robert Bolt—although both he and Wilson were close to the theatrical director Stephen Joseph—but its hard not to hear an echo here: “His most characteristic trait is his inability to stop thinking. Thought imprisons him; it is an unending misery, because he knows the meaning of freedom…”

Peter O'Toole

After The Outsider was published, Wilson was pigeonholed as one of Britain’s angry young men, alongside the likes of John Osborne and Kingsley Amis, but his work took him into weirder and more interesting directions. Wilson was fascinated with the occult and the psychology of murder, and his later career superficially resembles that of a pulp novelist and hack popularizer of the paranormal, although flavored with unexpected influences, like that of his mentor Robert Graves. He displayed an unfashionable tendency to follow his nose wherever it led him, resulting in works on Jack the Ripper, Aleister Crowley, and Wilhelm Reich, and such novels as The Space Vampires, later adapted into the movie Lifeforce, which Wilson famously hated. And although I can’t claim to be deeply familiar with Wilson’s work—I own copies of The Outsider and The Occult, his two most famous books, but I’ve done little more than browse through them—he’s still a figure I’ve long found intriguing, particularly in his prickly mixture of skepticism and credulity. (In many ways, he reminds me of Robert Anton Wilson, another literary genius who was most at home in disreputable subjects and genres.)

Wilson was also the author of one of my single favorite essays on the craft of writing, “Fantasy and Faculty X,” which I first encountered in the anthology How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. Wilson defined Faculty X as a union of the conscious and unconscious minds, or of the left and right sides of the brain, that allowed writers, mystics, and other creative types to move beyond the present into another world, and although his terminology may be dated, the underlying principle remains sound. Intuition, and the ability to draw on it at will, is the most powerful tool that any artist can possess, and Wilson did as credible a job as any writer I know of describing its essential workings. The trouble, of course, is that intuition can lead you into strange places; it doesn’t lend itself to neat, easily classifiable careers, and it can result in the writers of obituaries straining to find a connective thread. Wilson may not, as he openly hoped, go down as “probably the greatest writer of the twentieth century,” but like O’Toole, he was an odd bird of a kind that may never come again, and the world is a little poorer for his absence.

Learning from the masters: Stephen King and The Shining

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Room 237

Last week, in my post on the mirror scare, I noted that most of the conventions we see in horror movies don’t really work on the printed page: a book can’t startle us, or throw a cat at us, or use a scare chord to make us jump in our seats. When a commenter asked if I could think of any tropes that could be utilized by authors of horror fiction, I replied that they could all be found in a short scene of four pages or so in The Shining, when little Danny Torrance enters Room 217 for the first time. (It was changed to Room 237 in Kubrick’s movie, apparently at the request of the hotel where it was shot.) Looking back, this strikes me as worthy of a blog post in its own, so if you haven’t read the novel, you can at least check out the scene in question here. I’d recommend only reading it in a brightly lit room, where no one is likely to sneak up behind you. When you’re done, read it again. And if you’re at all interested in writing literary horror—which is only a highly refined and intensified version of suspense itself—I can’t imagine a more useful exercise than taking this scene apart to see how it works, once most of the gooseflesh has subsided.

Let’s consider the sequence beat by beat. The most striking thing about the chapter is how beautifully it builds. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken about the importance of cutting the beginnings and endings of scenes, and how directors like Kurosawa will intentionally omit purely transitional moments, such as shots of a character opening or closing a door. The one place where this rule can be ignored, and where it truly begs to be broken, is when there’s a monster waiting in the next room. As I’ve said before, the scariest image in the world is that of a closed door, once you’ve established what might be lurking behind it, which is why King spends so much time getting Danny into the room itself. Once he’s inside, the narrative continues to unfold slowly, with lots of homely little details, like the closet with its “clutch of hotel hangers, the kind you can’t steal,” as Danny moves inexorably toward the bathroom—and the tub. And once we have time to collect ourselves, we find that we’ve been given a perfect illustration of Orson Scott Card’s distinction between dread, terror, and horror. In the excellent collection How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dean Koontz says much the same thing:

Does King start the scene with Danny in the room? No way. The scene begins with Danny outside 217, the passkey in his pocket, and he takes more than two hair-raisingly tense pages just to open the door and step inside. Anticipation. King makes us sweat. But when Danny finds the dead woman in the bathtub, and when she opens her eyes and reaches for him, the rest of the scene moves like a bullet and climaxes one page later. We are given more time to dread the encounter than to experience it.

Saul Bass artwork for The Shining

This is all perfectly true, although I should also point out that, contrary to what Koontz says, the dead woman doesn’t open her eyes at all. Her eyes are already open when Danny slides the shower curtain back, as described almost as an aside within a longer paragraph—”Her eyes were fixed on Danny’s, glassy and huge, like marbles”—which makes the image even more horrible. She’s been waiting for Danny for a long time. And that’s the kind of touch that makes King the best author the genre has ever seen. The rest of the chapter is a terrifying master class in just about every tool a horror author can use, and it’s been imitated by other writers, as well as King himself, ever since. Once the dead woman comes out of the tub, she moves slowly, which is far more terrifying than the alternative: this isn’t a monster you can outsmart or outrun. Danny spends much of the scene trying to convince himself that nothing here can hurt him, when we unfortunately know better. And once it seems that the horror is over, it’s really just getting started—at which point King cuts away, crucially, to leave us to imagine what happens after Danny turns around to stare into that dead and purple face.

King has written scarier books than The ShiningPet Sematary is probably his greatest sustained work of this kind, even if it falters a bit near the end—but I don’t think he’s ever topped this sequence. (It’s especially scary when reading the original Signet paperback, in which the scene takes place on page 217.) I’ve written about my admiration for King before, but I may as well say again that he’s one of the few popular novelists who have only grown in my estimation over time. He’s good in ways that you can only appreciate after you’ve read the work of talented but lesser novelists working in the same genre. I recently read Koontz’s Phantoms, for instance, and while it’s a nice propulsive read, it feels two-dimensional and calculated in comparison to King’s work. In fact, I’ve often thought it would be worthwhile to go back and systematically seek out all of the books from King’s classic period—which I’d arbitrarily say stretches from Carrie through Needful Things—that I haven’t read yet. Growing up, I devoured just about everything King ever wrote, but for whatever reason, I managed to skip over The Dead Zone, FirestarterCujo, and the entire Dark Tower series. I’ll need to back and check them out one of these days. But I’ll make sure to turn all the lights on first.

“When Maddy emerged from the train at Southampton…”

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(Note: This post is the eighteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 17. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of my favorite works on creativity of any kind is a short essay titled “Fantasy and Faculty X,” by the British author Colin Wilson, which I first encountered in the excellent collection How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction, edited by J.N. Williamson. Wilson believes that because the left and right hemispheres of the brain operate at different speeds, it’s necessary for both readers and writers to bring the two halves into sync, usually by slowing the left brain down, in order to fully immerse themselves in a fictional world. With respect to the writing process, this partially explains why writers often get their best ideas in the bus, bath, or bed, when a state of relaxation naturally allows both hemispheres to move at the same pace. And for readers, it sheds light on why a long, slow, descriptive section of a novel can plunge us into its world far better than nonstop action ever can—as long as we’re willing to follow the story wherever it’s trying to go.

This is why authors like Proust or Thomas Mann can immerse us in the details of a party or other social gathering, sometimes for a hundred pages, and leave us feeling as if we’d attended it ourselves. And it also applies to more mainstream works of art. For readers and audiences to really believe in the world they’re about to enter, it’s often useful to slow things down, which is why the languorous shots of spacecraft in movies like 2001 and the early Star Trek movies are so crucial in setting the tone for the story. (As much as I liked the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek, I felt it was missing some of this fundamental sense of awe, which it might have achieved if it had eased up on the action for a moment or two.) And this is part of the reason why both Thomas Harris and Jonathan Demme spend so much time on those long walks down the hallway to Hannibal Lecter’s cell. It builds suspense, but it also puts us squarely into a particular state of mind before introducing us to the monster at the end of the corridor.

In a thriller, such a change of pace can be tricky to manage, which is why it’s often best to save it for times when the reader knows that something big is coming. This is why Chapter 17 of The Icon Thief, in which Maddy finally attends the party at the Hamptons that has been built up for much of Part I, is structured entirely as one long scene of arrival. If I were operating entirely by the principle of starting each scene as late as possible, I could have begun the chapter at the gate of the mansion, or even halfway through the party itself. In this case, however, it seemed better to take my time: I’ve spent several chapters leading up to this moment, establishing that this is where the various threads of the plot will finally converge, and if I’ve done my work properly, the reader will see this chapter as not just another transitional scene, but the overture to arguably the most important set piece in the entire novel. And having invested so much time and energy in preparing the reader for what follows, it doesn’t make sense to hurry past it.

This is why the chapter begins, not at the mansion itself, but with Maddy’s arrival at the train station in Southampton, and why I devote several pages to her preparations for the party, all of which I might have covered elsewhere in a paragraph or two. It helps that the details here are a lot of fun: the contrast between the sketchy share house, in which Maddy has arranged to sleep in a walk-in closet, and the opulence of the party itself, and between her own insecurity and the guests she encounters. In fact, this is one of the rare sections in the novel in which both my agent and editor actively encouraged me to add more detail, both visual and sociological, until the reader fully saw it in his or her mind’s eye. (In an earlier draft, Maddy overhears a guest say, enunciating carefully, “Fuck the endangered piping plover“—which my editor rightly flagged as being a little too on the nose.) As a result, when Maddy finally passes through the ranks of guests and comes face to face with the man she has come to find, the oligarch Anzor Archvadze, the moment has the impact it deserves. And I hope the reader also senses that there are some big things around the corner…

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