oh, the horror

Full disclaimer: I’m not, nor have I ever much been in my life, a horror fan. Coraline and Over the Garden Wall is about as spooky as I get, and that’s mild-kiddie-Halloween level. Just like the occasional sprinkling of paprika is about as spicy as I get: it’s not spicy in any way that actually counts.

Gore? Humungously not my thing. Jump scares? Nope. Psychological shenanigans? If it’s got cannibals/incest/people turning into mindless monsters and losing all their humanity? Yeah, that’s a no.

Hey, I watch Game of Thrones for the politics, not … that other stuff. And I can always plug my ears and take off my glasses when the going gets grody. But I won’t read Poe’s “The Black Cat” more than once, and there’s an episode of Doctor Who that I will not watch because of the whole humans-losing-humanity-unwillingly thing. Yeah, the water on Mars one. That one. Awful. Does it technically count as horror? Maybe not to veterans of the horror genre, but it gives mid-twenties me the same willies that a cartoon brain-eating alien gave seven-year-old me.

Actually, that brain-eating alien still gives me the willies.

So take what I say with a big old honking grain of salt.

On the other hand, I freakin’ love the Resurgam trilogy by Joan Frances Turner, which is from the point of view of a zombie and absolutely involves the whole cannibalism thing, and goes into meticulous and nearly poetic detail about the process of corpse decay. It even has the personification of death as this eldritch non-being that is everywhere and everything, and – spoiler alert – is about to swallow the entire planet into nothingness.

But despite the whole zombies-and-existential-dread thing, I don’t think that DustFrail, and Grave count as horror books. Because even with the apocalyptic setting, there’s always a shred of hope, and – spoiler alert – the characters we care most about make it out unscathed. Or, if not unscathed, at least scathed in a way they can accept.

In the horror panel at LTUE, they talked about the horror genre as a loss of control, as something horrible and irrevocable happening, as fear being present and inescapable throughout the story.

In a horror story, even victory counts as a failure. It is impossible to win.

… Huh. I guess that one Doctor Who episode does count as horror after all.

But all of that only means that the dressing of the story, the setting and the species and the time period, are very nice and indeed important things to pay attention to — and must be integrated with the plot — but they do not drive the plot. The Resurgam trilogy takes place in a world where mind-numbing hunger razed society to shreds, but it is never hopeless, and the characters’ victories matter. Zombies and all, they cannot be horror books.

Meanwhile, a story with no supernatural trappings whatsoever can be the worst living hell a body can imagine. Have you looked at the battered women statistics recently?

Horror lives wherever it can. It isn’t where and when you are that counts — it’s what you do.

It’s all in how you look at things

In other news, I aten’t dead, just … restin’.

Perspective is probably the first thing you notice when you crack open a book. Whether it’s first-, third-, or second-person — yes, I have encountered second-person — it’s going to make an impact on the reader, and of course on the story itself. I don’t usually like first-person stories, though there have been notable exceptions (the Resurgam books by Joan Frances Turner immediately come to mind). Second-person immediately gets jettisoned, unless it’s a choose-your-own-adventure story, and I haven’t read one of those since I was in middle school.

That’s a prompt for another blog post, though. There are other kinds of perspective thay matter in a story, and those are the ones I want to focus on today.

Innocence versus experience is probably the one used most in Western literature. You’ve got Wordsworth of course, and then you also have writers like Philip Pullman who prod at the notion, unravel it, and stitch it back together to make something new. Then you’ve got the hero’s journey where a character gets dragged kicking and screaming into caring about other people. There are other shifts in perspective, but usually they can be boiled down to innocence versus experience, or selflessness versus selfishness.

And these are interesting character arcs in and of themselves.

But — and I refer back to my favorite zombie book Dust by JFT– sometimes, using a changing perspective to look on the same event (or using the audience’s different perspective) can be just as interesting, and just as thought-provoking.

In one of the flashbacks, Jessie (our undead protagonist) meets up with a group of other undeads and becomes particularly attached to Joe, a Chicago biker who died sometime in the seventies. At the time of their meeting, Joe has been undead for over thirty years; Jessie, meanwhile, is fresh out of the grave, and was just fifteen when a drunk driver killed her. So we, the audience — as well as Joe, who keeps reminding her of the age difference — know that he has a huge psychological advantage over her, even if she can pound him into a pulp just as much as any of the rest of the undead crew. Jessie, freshly dead and twitterpated, stays with Joe when she has every ability to leave, and Joe of course is perfectly happy with this outcome.

But the main story takes place nine years after Jessie died, and when she narrates this flashback, it’s from a position of experience and disillusionment. “Like I said,” she tells the audience, and we can hear the bitter wistfulness, “I was fifteen.”

It’s that darn verisimilitude at work again. We’ve all had something happen that we feel differently about years after the fact. And if we can identify that same feeling with a zombie? Then maybe the rest of the story will feel real, too.

First Sentences

My favorite opening line in a story is from The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. “She scowled at her glass of orange juice.” It’s such an immediately unusual thing to read, and yet not very out of the ordinary in terms of situation. I mean, who hasn’t scowled at a glass of orange juice, especially when it’s got pulp in it? And yet, as far as I can remember, Harry Crewe is the only character I’ve read who does it — and McKinley lays out the reason why over the next few pages. It’s a subtle hook but it’s there, and I’m delighted every time I read it.

Another favorite opening line (or lines) comes from Dust by Joan Frances Turner. “My right arm fell off today. Lucky for me, I’m left-handed.” A lot less subtle than Harry Crewe, but it’s so casual that it becomes funny, and the best way to snag a reader is to make them laugh. I know it worked for me.

Opening lines are pretty hard to write. There are whole Books On Writing dedicated to how much they matter. You have to give some exposition, but not too much or you’ll bore the reader. You have to get them interested, but don’t start the action too suddenly or you’ll overwhelm the reader. There are so many do’s and don’t’s that it’s pretty difficult to navigate. So when you’re trying to write that perfect opening line, what do you do?

Practice and study. It’s all we can do.

And I know that my particular method of writing, at least so far, means that I have to churn out a first draft of a first chapter just to scrap it. I can feel it while I’m working on this new project. It isn’t a bad thing, though. Sometimes you just have to write crap so that you can even get to the good stuff. And once I have the first draft of the beginning done, then when I go back after finishing the whole thing, it will make a lot more sense, and I’ll know how to properly start it. And that’s exciting.

But okay — you practice and practice, but what kind of opening line do you write? It sounds like a platitude to say “whatever fits your story,” but there you go. A lot of writing advice sounds like something you get from a fortune cookie. Still — I suppose the real advice is, write something that would make you the writer want to read it. If you think you’ve written a genius line, but writing it bored you to tears, scrap it. I’m pretty sure that readers can sense when you’re having a difficult time. (I know my editor can.) So write something that you like. Don’t copy, but draw inspiration from the books you already love. After all, reading is what makes a writer.