Joseph Halden

Playing a Cruel God: An Interview with Joseph Halden

Joseph Halden explores the evil psyche of an evolutionary scientist in “G,” included in the speculative fiction anthology E is for Evil. The following interview was conducted over Google Docs.

E is for Evil, edited by Rhonda Parrish book cover

Joseph Halden is a wizard in search of magic, an astronaut in need of space, and a hopeless enthusiast of frivolity. He’s shot things with giant lasers, worn an astronaut costume for over 100 days to try and get into space, and made his own soap. A graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, he writes science fiction and fantasy in the Canadian prairies. His story, “G,” is included in E is for Evil, the fifth volume in Rhonda Parrish’s Alphabet Anthologies series.

In “G,” two scientists experiment with the accelerated evolution of a strain of krillids in a time conservatory, subjecting them to repeated irradiation in order to hasten their development. This naturally raises the question of whether scientists should play God by accelerating this process. Can inflicting harm on scientific subjects ever be justified? Why do human beings have such a cruel streak? Joseph Halden’s story explores these questions and more.

Matthew Rettino is a speculative fiction writer and freelance editor based in Montreal, QC. He manages Archaeologies of the Weird.

MR: Each story in E is for Evil is titled after a different letter of the alphabet. How did you find working with Rhonda Parrish’s prompt? Did the story or the letter come first? What’s it been like to write for this series?

JH: I’ve really enjoyed the process of creating stories for Rhonda’s anthologies. The way it works is that she gives you a letter, as well as her overall vision for the anthology. Once I’m given a letter, I usually go through a list of all the interesting things I can think of tying the letter to that particular theme. Because of the way the anthologies are written, with their reveal of the word at the end of the story, I try to make the word I choose something unexpected.

There were obvious choices that came to mind at first, such as “G is for Ghoul” or “G is for Ghost,” but I wanted to shine a light into places that weren’t so clearly good or evil. I had the idea bubbling in my head about an evolution accelerator beforehand, and once I tied that notion into playing God and the potential for evil, everything fell into place.

I absolutely love working with Rhonda. She maintains a great balance of professionalism and fun, while adhering to her commitments and making her expectations really clear. It takes a lot of the uncertainty out of the whole process, and it’s really just refreshing to work with somebody you know you can rely on. It lets me focus on crafting the story rather than administrative aspects of the process.

MR: In your story, Professor Victoria Manassa is a scientist who feels betrayed by God for not being allowed into space. She channels her frustration by inflicting harm on the krillids, based on the belief it will make them hardy enough to survive in space themselves. While she is cruel, her motives make her deeds believable. As an author, what was it like trying to empathize with such a cruel person? Is she evil, as the title of the anthology suggests?

JH: One of my favourite shows is Breaking Bad. Something it made me think about was how a person can go from good to evil by making a series of choices and compromises that consistently move in one direction. I really liked this idea, and thought it was probably the most realistic way to depict evil, and kind of used it as a guide.

I also used “G” as an opportunity for some self-examination, because I created Victoria partly from my own desires to go into space and associated disappointments. That made it a lot easier to empathize with her ambitions and goals, but I diverged from her thoughts as far as how to respond constructively to these disappointments (as well as her distorted religious beliefs). It’s always interesting for me to try and come up with legitimate reasons why people might do terrible things. To me that is a recipe for situation that will leave the reader thinking long after a story’s done, which is the kind of story I most like to read.

As I progressed in writing the story, it was hard not to fall into the trap of making Victoria a caricature, a cartoon cut-out of a villain. I think the temptation to fall into that trap might have been an instinctive need to distance myself from a person capable of such cruelty. I didn’t want to think of such a person as a real human, and especially as someone I could relate to. However, that was ultimately what I was trying to get at: the potential for evil exists in everybody.

While this realization is uncomfortable, I had to sit with it as I wrote the story as much as I wanted readers to sit with it when they read it. Ultimately, there is a trajectory, where Victoria becomes what most people would agree upon as evil. My hope is that her starting motivations were human enough that it caused readers to reflect upon the ways their own distorted beliefs might lead them down dark roads.

Joseph Halden, author of "G"
Joseph Halden, author of “G” in E is for Evil

MR: You and I both attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and one of the novellas we read for the workshop was the novelette “Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin, about an owner of monstrous pets who abuses them and who gets abused by them in turn. I couldn’t help but read “G” as a gloss on “Sandkings,” since it explores similar themes of evolution and cruelty. Of course, your story goes in a different direction. Were you inspired by “Sandkings”? If so, how? What did you decide to do differently?

“Sandkings” was a definite inspiration for the story. The horror George R.R. Martin created and sustained by writing such a cruel and sadistic tyrant stuck with me long after I read the story. The whole setup was such a beautiful way to highlight and exaggerate the effects our decisions can have on the world. Usually, there are checks and balances, limits to how much cruelty a single person can exert. With the setup of “Sandkings,” however, a person’s true nature can come forth in a(n) (almost) limitless way. The consequences have to scale up to match the increasing horror of the main character’s actions and psyche, which allows for some really unique explorations of character and morality.

In “Sandkings,” the protagonist was pretty evil from the outset. I remember reading it and wanting him to suffer early into the story. The horror he receives is really well-earned, and it made it satisfying to sit through on a long, scary ride.

What I wanted to do differently, however, was to try and take somebody on the trajectory from relatable motivations all the way to monstrous extremes. I also wanted to have a general framework around the whole situation, even outside of the characters, that people might find excusable. I think examining those instances of evil is one of the most important things we can do is writers, to ensure that we don’t fall into the same traps as our characters.

To be honest I’m not sure if my ideas for the evolution accelerator came from “Sandkings” or not. I hope other people will think I did something new and interesting with the premise.

MR: As Manassa subjects the krillids to torture, they eventually develop sentience and an advanced civilization. It’s Darwinism in action. But could such advanced evolution be possible without cruelty? In your opinion, is compassion or cruelty the better educator?

JH: That’s a really tough question. I don’t know if I have a clear answer. I know people who have suffered great tragedies and ended up developing greater compassion, but I also know people who get ruined by acts of cruelty and almost never make their way out.

I think the research for parenting styles can give us an indication of the effects of compassion versus cruelty as a teacher. The parenting research shows that a mixture of compassion and accountability yields the most balanced adults. In our modern age, that would tend to lead toward higher survivability and therefore procreation.

I think there are two key points, though: (1) our modern times are arguably different than evolutionary history, and (2) the struggles are not faced alone. The latter point is the more important idea for me.

Studies show the parents of well-rounded children have firm rules and expectations, but are also responsive and understanding. So there’s no needless cruelty, but there’s not endless compassion, either. We’re still talking about parenting, though, which is a bit different from natural selection.

In evolutionary history, I suspect features that weren’t essential for survival were weeded out. So a harsher environment would lead to a wider variety of traits that would make a creature more capable of thriving on the grand stage of the universe. I don’t think, however, that such a long term benefit justifies the moral choice of inflicting such pain upon creatures. While it is good to be able to deal with life’s challenges, I don’t think we should choose to inflict them upon anyone. The research I mentioned above shows that there are other ways of instilling grit and life-skills in people than the crucible.

As to the other part of your question, no, I don’t think advanced evolution is capable without a reason for evolution to take place. I think anthropologists have theorized that complex social interactions led to the development of larger brains, and these complex social interactions were in turn a way for human tribes to be larger to pass down knowledge of survival more readily. Ultimately it all came down to adaptability, and I don’t think the heavy resources to develop such advanced brains would have been allocated without a really high need for them.

However, the label of cruelty gets a bit tricky. If someone believes there is a superior intelligence willingly inflicting this on everyone, then it is indeed cruelty. I choose to instead see it as random consequences of the structure of our universe rather than anything specifically chosen. Because seeing tragedy as a God’s choice to toughen us up is kind of a bleak outlook for me personally, and I’d like to believe that a benevolent creator could think of better ways to help us grow.


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Featured picture background by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

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Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part I)

mosque
Photo by Ali Arif Soydaş on Unsplash

Writing the other is an inherently political act, especially when the dominant culture wants to turn the other into a “them.”

An “us” is a person of dignity with whom we can empathize and recognize as a human being. An “us” is someone we can relate to and sympathize with, the kind of character we storytellers aspire to write: a fully complex, independent, contradictory human being with flaws, positive traits, and childhood wounds.

When we see psychological realism in a character, we recognize that character as an “us.” An “us” can be a real person. An “us” is someone we aspire to be, someone we could call our friend.

A “them,” on the other hand, is the enemy. “They” live outside the community and do not share “our” values.

A “them” can be a stereotype, an assembly of negative traits that “we” impose on “them.” “They” can also be an outright villains, feared not because they are evil, but considered evil “because [they are] Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar” (Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 115).

When we encounter a villain in an action movie, western, or adventure story who seems to exist for no other reason than to make trouble, they’re a “them.” They may be mysterious or all too predictable. They can be a preternatural consciousness engaged in a massive global conspiracy, or a roving horde of bloodthirsty raiders.

Either way, “they” are faceless, undeserving of our sympathy or empathy.

anonymity
Photo by Jaroslav Devia on Unsplash

Of course, in real life, “they” are a social construct. “They” does not designate evil but an out-group. However, when this group is not considered equal to other human beings, they can unjustly be seen as a sinister force.

Through storytelling, an “us” can be othered and become a “them,” a pariah blamed for society’s ills, an object, a potential target for retaliation and violence. This is the process of dehumanization that can lead to the committing of atrocities.

Media and the Other

What’s important for us storytellers to recognize is that media representation plays a huge part in this process of dehumanization, just as it also plays a role in the humanization of the other.

When a character who is brown or black, or who is a woman, appears as the hero in a popular film like Black Panther or Captain Marvel, they are being included as an “us.”

However, when when precarious economics strike, when nationalism rises to a fascist pitch and wars are declared, the community may blame an entire group for its communal ills. People may start using the pronoun “we” in nationalistic ways, promoting xenophobia and intolerance.

We’re living through that moment now. There are “we”s who are being transformed into “them”s in front of our eyes.

pro-immigrant rally
Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Under this climate, asylum seekers have become represented in the media as others, as criminals—as “them.” The same is happening to Muslims across North America, whether or not they are recent arrivals. Rather than treating them as fully integrated citizens, there is a xenophobic tendency in our culture to deny their right to exist within national borders. And this is as equally true in Canada as it is in the United States.

Even second and third generation immigrants are being asked to justify their existence. How long does a family have to live in a country until they are universally acknowledged to be a part of it?

Bill 21 and Xenophobia in Québec

This perception of immigrants’ separateness from society largely comes from the media and the stories we consume. For example, since Québec history is largely told from a French-Canadian perspective, the contributions of new arrivals in Québec are frequently minimized or excluded from nationalist narratives. This encourages a perception of Québec’s destiny as residing solely with the success of the French-Canadian “experiment” in North America and not with immigrants.

(Of course, the French-Canadians are immigrants as well; the only people who can claim not to be immigrants in North America are Indigenous Peoples).

During the hearings for Bill 21 on the wearing of religious symbols for civil servants in the public sphere, religious Quebecers, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Sikh, were not adequately consulted. One senses they were excluded because they do not represent le peuple, the French-Canadian “core” of society. Some but not all those affected were recently arrived immigrants, but all the same, the decision to exclude certain people from certain jobs in the province–to limit access to our society–had broad support.

This fact should awaken us to the true force xenophobia has in Québec and Canada. The very fact that it could be perceived as “natural” to pass this law in Québec is a sign of how much these ideas have power.

The voices of those most affected were not respected or adequately listened to; the victims the law is now affecting were treated as objects and with ignorance, as potentially sinister and radicalized “they”s  who are not part of the Québécois “nous” (“us”).

two hijabi women talking
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Telling the Right Stories

Media depictions have real consequences. If Muslims were not depicted in media as preternatural, radicalized terrorists plotting against the West, such a restrictive law as Bill 21 would probably never have passed, since there would be no perception of a threat. Neither would Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. As a group, Muslims have become lightning rods for society’s blame, not only in Québec, of course, but across North America.

The stories we tell can other people, transforming them, in the perception of society, into an evil, collective “them” that is somehow fundamentally different from “us.” However, at the same time, we storytellers have the agency to push back against xenophobic narratives by questioning what kinds of characters we cast in which roles and why.

Think about it. Governments reduce an “us” into a “them” when it wishes to justify a war, when it wishes to justify overriding internationally recognized human rights, when it wishes to use force against members of the human community. The war could be external or internal to the boundaries of the nation state. Either way, our representations can turn the individuals they may be targeting into a mass–or it can do the opposite and show them as who they really are: human beings.

The wrong story can transform people into objects that can be killed, stolen from, or detained. But the right stories can lead to empowerment.

The dehumanizing narratives are all too common. When refugees and immigrants are described by the media as an ungovernable horde, the public’s perception of their individuality and humanity is destroyed, opening the way for the toleration of xenophobic policies.

This has been case with the Syrian refugee crisis and the asylum seekers on the U.S. southern border. In keeping the media away from concentration camps where children are detained in squalid conditions, ICE encourages their perception by the media as a mass. They become objects to manage, instead of emotionally traumatized human beings.

As creatives, we contribute to mass culture with practically every word we publish. We have the ability to resist these processes of dehumanization—or to become complicit in them and thus with the crimes they make possible.

Beat the Drums of Peace

Who gets to be an “us” in the stories we tell? Who gets to be a “them”? These casting decisions are always more than a “creative choice.” In our day and age especially, choosing is a moral act.

In May 2019, Saladin Ahmed, an Arab-American comic book writer and fantasy novelist, posted the following Tweet:

His message, written in the spectre of a potential U.S. war with Iran, is an urgent call to action.

How we choose to depict Muslim characters in fiction carries consequences, as it does for every group that has ever been labelled “other.” In the stories you tell, are Muslims an “us” or a “them,” if they are even there at all? If you’re writing a story about immigrants or refugees, how do you show them integrating, or refusing to integrate, into their new society? Do you find yourself gravitating towards tropes of the immigrant-as-criminal?

As storytellers we must all reflect on how our depictions may feed into the current climate of xenophobia.

Why? Because dehumanization beats the drums of war. When the U.S. military instructed marines to think of North Vietnamese soldiers as “gooks,” the change in language brought a change in mentality. The marines no longer felt like they were shooting human beings; they were killing gooks, not Vietnamese soldiers.

When we tell stories that implicitly dehumanize groups of people, it’s as if we’re calling them gooks. It’s the act that precedes the pulling of a trigger. It enables that process, but it can also reverse it.

Too often, however, the genres I love—romance and adventure—dehumanize those who are other, portraying them as inherently evil because they are other. In particular, fantasy has a tendency to depict otherness as a sign of evil. As writers, we all have to do better, no matter our genre.

I’ll cover the reason for why adventure stories carry this baggage in part two of my reflection. Next week, I will explain how fantasy’s tendency to other goes all the way back to the moral binaries of the chanson de geste, a medieval literary genre that could be best described as the medieval equivalent of Frank Miller’s 300 meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail–the obscenely bloody Black Knight sketch in particular.

Read Part II.

N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.

If you’d like to learn more about how to write the other in your fiction, read Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.


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At the Blue Met: The Children of Mary Shelley

This past literary season, I attended several events, including the Blue Metropolis festival and Le Congrès Boreal. Posts on each event are forthcoming. Today’s post is about the panel discussion I attended at Blue Met entitled “The Children of Mary Shelley.”

Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein
Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein

Frankenstein, which celebrates its 200th publication anniversary this year, has often been called the first science fiction novel. While Frankenstein’s monster is a recognizable figure in pop culture, it has its origin in the nested epistolary narratives of Shelley’s Gothic bildungsroman. To what extent can today’s science fiction trace its roots back to Frankenstein, given the vital, diversified, and increasingly popular genre it is today?

The moderator, Su J. Sokol, asked the panelists what was so groundbreaking about Frankenstein when it first appeared in print in 1818. Was it the first SF novel?

Amal el-Mohtar, the first panelist, responded that it was certainly “a first,” even if not “the first” SF novel. She referenced Awaj bin Anfaq, North African alien contact story written in the thirteenth century, to suggest that science fiction has much earlier, non-Western origins. However, there is something to be gained, she said, in tracing SF’s origins back to Mary Shelley, since women authors tend to be underrepresented in SF, a genre often defined by how “STEM-y” it is.

Cyrano de Bergerac’s Voyages to the Moon and the Sun could qualify as science fiction avant la lettre, so I would concur with Amal: Frankenstein is by no means “the first” SF novel, even in the West. But it remains a politically meaningful gesture to trace the genre’s origin’s back to Mary Shelley.

Melissa Yuan-Innes, the second panelist, made the interesting point that Frankenstein is not terribly “STEM-y” when you look at it closely. Though there is some (pseudo)science in what Victor does to reanimate the dead, he is highly irresponsible ethically. Furthermore, he works in isolation, while scientists typically work in research teams, sharing the results of their knowledge. Perhaps it is this isolation that makes Victor’s experiments with reanimating the dead seem so wrong.

David Demchuk, the third panelist, dissented. He paraphrased Samuel “Chip” Delaney’s observation that Frankenstein isn’t really science fiction at all–it’s Gothic fiction. The book is less about hard scientific inquiry and more about an ethical question: “How do you imbue something with the spark of life, and if you do that, what is your responsibility?”

David also pointed out that Victor tends to look towards past knowledge, such as alchemy and the works of Paracelsus and Galen. However, science fiction is a genre that typically looks toward the future. Thus, Frankenstein exists simultaneously as a past-focused Gothic novel and future-oriented proto-science fiction novel; it stands at a crossroads between old and new ways of understanding nature.

Listening to the panelists, I remembered just how different the novel is from various Frankenstein films. Amal pointed out that the monster’s interiority is mediated through several levels of epistolary narration, which is usually lost on film. (As an aside, I remember that the Frankenstein episode on the 90s children’s TV show Wishbone showed the framing narrative, which takes place in the Arctic.)

The monster’s self-education is another feature of the novel that doesn’t get enough attention. In Shelley’s novel, the monster learns how to speak clearly and in an erudite fashion by reading Milton’s Paradise Lost. Though he may be ugly, he speaks like a rational soul. Melissa underlined this point, stating that the monster’s physical ugliness should not be taken to correspond with an ugly morality, just as Victor’s handsomeness does not mean he is a moral person.

What really interested me was when Amal pointed out that feminist scholars have interpreted the monster’s self-education as an analogy for the reality of women’s education at the time. Mary Shelley was self-taught and read novels on her own because women were denied the full education men received. Furthermore, at the time it was thought that women should be discouraged from reading, because reading novels “inflamed” women’s minds, much like reading Milton “inflames” the monster’s mind. But really, the reason the monster acts violently is because of educational neglect, suggesting how detrimental the neglect of women’s education can also be.

This argument appealed to me because I’d assumed most femininst interpretations of Frankenstein followed the idea that the monster’s story is an allegory of childbirth-gone-wrong. The monster’s education as an analogy for women’s education seems a more authentic analogy for women’s actual experiences, especially the experiences of a self-educated, literary woman like Mary Shelley.

All this goes to show that Victor Frankenstein’s monster is not really a monster, but a creature who has suffered horrendous neglect. And it is Victor’s neglect of his creation that turns him into the true monster.

Overall, “The Children of Mary Shelley” was a highly productive and fascinating panel. Although the Blue Metropolis festival tends to focus more on literary fiction, I hope to attend more science fiction and fantasy-based panels at the festival in the future.

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My Critters List of the 5 Most Common Weaknesses in Fiction

Ever since I became serious as a freelance editor/proofreader and a participant on Critters.org, the oldest online writer’s critique group, I have encountered the same weakness in fiction over and over again. Partly, I think this is because people send early drafts to critiques and forego revision until they receive their first round of feedback.

In my opinion, writers could benefit from self-revision before submitting to critique groups because many weaknesses that make a story unreadable can be fixed by the writers themselves. Beta readers and critique groups are useful resources, but writers can improve their craft more reliably through deep practice.

As a tool to help writers improve their own work, I have provided the following list of common weaknesses in fiction.

1. Too little exposition, especially at the beginning.

Young or inexperienced writers are often advised to avoid exposition at all costs. It’s an info dump, boring, and uninteresting to read. But given the volume of fiction I have read where I did not feel grounded in the story, I am no longer convinced that this advice is unimpeachable.

Writers are told by creative writing teachers to begin in media res, but often, they begin their stories before they establish the res. In other words, they begin in ‘the middle of things‘ without establishing what those ‘things’ are, or where they are, or when they are. The characters are already running around doing things, but there is a certain level of knowledge the reader is presumed to have before they come to the text.

Unfortunately, there is no way for readers to access this information if it is not on the page! This is a problem especially frequent with speculative fiction openings, where a common reality between the reader and the fictional world is not necessarily assumed.

“Once upon a time, there was a young princess who loved to play with her toy ball.”  This establishes a time, a character, and a setting. It is a perfect window into the “before” state prior to the main action. Every word is exposition: “telling” instead of “showing.” Yet, the words have a solidity and sense of narrative confidence that grounds the reader.

Writers often forget to use the narrator’s voice to convey important details of the story. This likely has to do with how most writers are raised on the visual formats of TV and movies instead of the nineteenth-century novels of yore. Since writers think they can see their characters in the movie of their mind’s eye, they think the reader will have no problem seeing that movie. But in these cases, this movie does not exist on the page.

Simply showing events does not ground the reader automatically. A certain  amount of telling is often necessary. Keep exposition minimal in the middle of your story and at the end, but do not forget that exposition at the beginning may be necessary.

In modern literature, stream-of-consciousness and multiple viewpoints give a greater sense of the fragmentation of experience. But even if the narrator’s  perspective no longer carries the authority it enjoyed in the nineteenth century, it must still anchor itself in those very limits. From that base, that creative center, the story expands outwards, growing steadily more complex, like coral.

N.B.: I would highly recommend writers, especially speculative fiction writers, to consult How to Improve Your Speculative Fiction Openings by Robert Qualkinbrush, which I have read. It goes into more detail about this issue.

2. Opening at the wrong time.

On occasion, a story might begin too early or late in the action.  Introducing your story in media res can sometimes feel like filling a reader in about what happened when they were asleep during the first half of a movie. If you find that this is true for you, you might have begun the story too late.

On the other hand, when you write a character traveling or walking towards a fateful destination, chances are you have begun the story too early. This is called “walking to the story” and is a crutch writers fall back on. This is fine to do in rough drafts as a way to connect with your characters. But in subsequent drafts, it is usually a good idea to cut these moments out.

Sometimes the story begins with the right scene, but the wrong thing is being described. For example, there might be a few sentences of purposeless description done in the interest of painting a picture. Perhaps the colour of the sky is described or the colour of the protagonist’s hair. Often, this information is uninteresting to the reader who does not yet have a reason to care what the world looks like. They want to know what’s happening or at least have some unusual, privileged insight into a character presented to them.

Sometimes a story begins at the wrong moment simply because the reader tries to express an emotional reaction that has been given no context. In About Writing, Samuel Delaney provides a model for the three units of narrative that build on one another like blocks. Setting/location must be established firstly, followed by situation and conflict. As a result of this conflict, the reader lastly experiences affect, or emotional reaction (payoff). This model can be applied on any fractal level of narrative structure: paragraphs, beats, scenes, acts.

In cases where an emotional reaction begins a story but falls flat, the writer may have used the three units of narrative in reverse, beginning with affect without describing setting or situation. Unless the emotion is primal and/or the context swiftly provided, the reader may feel disconnected from the events.

Sometimes the story begins at the wrong chronological moment. Other times, it begins with the wrong details being described. Sometimes the fix is as simple as rearranging the order of a few sentences in a paragraph; other times, the story’s initial event must itself be rethought. Ideally, a story begins at a moment of dramatic interest where the relevant details can be shown and/or told in exposition that appears relevant to the action.

3. Unclear, unfelt stakes.

The next biggest weakness is a lack of clear, emotional stakes. By stakes I mean the question, “Why is this character performing this action?” Stakes have to do with risk and all the things the character has to lose or gain. The clearer the stakes, the more reasons to read on to see whether the protagonist gains or loses what they most value and love.

Unclear stakes often occur because readers have forgotten to make them explicit.  Too much subtlety can sometimes result in a vagueness with regard to a character’s goal. But there is nothing wrong with a line that puts all the cards on the table for everyone to see: “Velma couldn’t let Clarice beat her at Bingo, or she’d never be able to look her knitting circle in the eye again.” The circumstances may appear trivial to a reader, but given the above example, no one can deny that Velma needs to win the Bingo tournament at Shady Maple Retirement Home to earn the regard of her peers.

Exposition can go a long way to making stakes clear, especially at the beginning of a story. Later in the story, stakes can be shown instead of told. For example, there might be a scene where Velma loses the Bingo game and the knitting group has a meeting without inviting her. Now the stakes are bigger: will she confront her knitting group and stand up for herself or wallow in self-pity about her loss? This is an escalation.

These stakes must not only be clear, but carry an emotional impact. The stakes of a story might be world-ending–a nuclear war scenario, for instance–but if the protagonist remains unaffected, the reader does too. Thus, the urgency of a stake has nothing to do with the volume of people affected but by the specificity of the emotions associated with it.

Velma’s need to earn the respect in her knitting circle might engage readers, while scavengers surviving in a post-nuclear Toronto might elicit no sympathy whatsoever. If the scavengers’ stakes have no emotional context, they will simply not matter to the reader.

Think of all the things George Bailey loses in It’s A Wonderful Life when he sees what Bedford Falls looks like in a world where he has never been born. He loses the Building & Loan, his family, and the optimism of the town itself, which has nowhere to turn to escape Mr. Potter’s exploitation. George stands to lose everything he cares about and the audience feels it.

The more particularized the stakes, the better. If the fate of the world is literally at stake in your story, a bland emotional reaction on your protagonist’s part, even if noble (“We have to save it!”), will not give an especially compelling reason to be interested in the character per se. If, however, the scavenger’s grandmother is alone at Shady Maple Retirement Home on Bingo Night and unaware of the danger of the incoming nuclear apocalypse, the stakes for the scavenger are more particularized–that is, specific for him. We might also feel a little sorry that grandma was never able to resolve the drama with her knitting circle.

Think of the reader’s attention as a tent on a windy mountaintop. You need many specific and poignant stakes to pin that tent down, keep your reader’s attention tethered to your story, and hold it there.

4. A lack of frontwork to prepare readers for revelations.

A revelation in your story that does not ‘land’ often confuses the reader instead of delivering the emotional or intellectual impact you desire. Fixing revelations involves hard work. In order to reveal information in your story in an impactful way, you have to do some frontwork.

For instance, in one story I read, a character was working on a mystery surrounding a crime, but before they could establish a baseline of assumptions about the case, the writer threw a curve ball: a surprise revelation revealed that the crime the character was investigating was itself a deception. The suspects, who were only vaguely described, were actually a cover-up for other criminals, who were even more vaguely described.

This was ineffective because I did not have a baseline of assumptions about the criminals already. This came from a lack of exposition. But the main issue was that the clues to the deception were not planted in advance. I was not engaging with this revelation on an intellectual level. I was just seeing it happen. One set of criminals were as good as the other.

At Odyssey, I learned the distinction between ‘surprise’ and ‘answer’ revelations. The distinction between these types of revelations lies in how they each generate a different kind of expectation in the reader. An answer revelation comes as the answer to a specific, limited question posed by the story. An example would be the classic whodunit. A surprise revelation comes out of the blue, but still creates the anticipation in the reader that the information revealed will cast a new light on what came before. For example, the characters might reinterpret specific clues, correcting an illusion or a misdirection.

To these two types of revelation, I would like to add the type of ironic revelation. In an ironic revelation, the reader or audience is aware of the content of the revelation, but specific characters in the story may not be. This is particularly common in comedy (Ex: “Nina’s been lying to you about being a Hollywood starlet ever since you first met.”).

Surprise revelations work because clues interpreted one way can become reinterpreted in another. But if these clues are unclearly indicated, or even absent, the revelation can fall flat or confuse the reader.

In another story I read, a character’s father was a supernatural being, but clues that could have served as subtle hints of this were skimmed over. This is where illusion or misdirection can help. For instance, if the father was trying to hide that he was a vampire, perhaps the son could be suspicious that he is a cocaine addict and find evidence to reinforce this idea–at least until the surprise revelation tells him otherwise.

The surprise revelation casts the specific clues placed earlier in the story in a new light. But it is fundamentally important to ensure those clues are doing the right work. Choose a specific, convincing way for the viewpoint character to misinterpret the clues. This misdirects the reader. Then, after the surprise revelation, those same clues are reinterpreted.

5. Stock or manipulated gestures.

This is probably one of the hardest issues to fix, but it is certainly one of the most common to find in fiction, especially in scenes with a lot of dialogue. “She smiled”, “he walked”, “he nodded”, “she raised her eyebrow”: If any of these short phrases sound familiar, you probably know that these expressions are overused. These body language beats are clichés and so often repeated, especially in early drafts, that it reduces writing to a boring sameness and repetitiousness.

It’s not that these gestures are an absolute evil. Plenty of published works throw in the odd eyebrow raise. It’s just that these expressions are rarely ideal. They often misrepresent the particularity of your characters’ personality and stifle their fullest expression. Having a startlingly unique character raise an eyebrow, nod, and walk around is almost like placing such a character in a straitjacket. Instead, they should express themselves using telling gestures authentic to themselves, their own setting, and their own situation.

Write stock gestures to get past the first draft. But after you have gained a better vision of your character and their personality, specify. Particularize. Instead of saying they smiled at someone, you can say they smiled at someone while looking the other way across the room. This implies inner conflict, that their attention lies elsewhere. Gestures demonstrating inner conflict can go a long way towards representing a character’s particularity.

Gestures can also seem like they are manipulated by the author. For example, a character who is usually depressed and/or self-critical would likely not smile to express happiness. Depending on their personality, they might not even smile to express sarcasm. Every character comes with an emotional range. You must ask yourself how this character would express happiness, or how that character might react to jealousy, and so on.

To recap, my advice comes down to two major themes: making sure the reader has all the information they need to enjoy the story and ensuring that characters are depicted in their particularity to generate deeper interest in those characters.

Your first draft will always be rough, but once you train yourself to spot these weaknesses in your own writing, you will be that much closer to developing better second drafts and becoming a more self-reliant writer.

A Kiss with Teeth by Max Gladstone

I have never read a more Halloween Father’s Day story than “A Kiss with Teeth” by Max Gladstone.

In this dark but ultimately heartwarming tale, Dracula has moved to suburbia to raise a family, but begins to grow apart from his wife Sarah and his son Paul as he suffers from the seven-year itch. It is one of the stories collected in the anthology The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman, which presents some of the strongest up-and-comers in the fantasy genre. Weeks ago I promised to review stories from his landmark anthology of new voices and today I make good on that promise.

“A Kiss with Teeth” is remarkable for the way in which it draws upon centuries of vampire lore to construct a portrait of a vampire dad who must suppress his primal killer instinct beneath a veneer of suburban normalcy. Every moment in Vlad’s life is spent hiding his monstrosity and his uncanny supernatural abilities from not only the normals around him, but from his own family. On the surface, Vlad seems surprisingly well-adjusted to the white picket fence American way of life. He has retracted his bright-white fangs and instead wears false teeth “blunt as shovels,” which he “coffee-stains … every night in a mug with WORLD’S BEST DAD written on the side” (73). But deep inside, Vlad remains a medieval bloodsucker from Eastern Europe. Like the classic all-American dad, he may wear “a baseball cap” (74) while watching his son swing from home plate, but he will do so while entertaining fond memories of cavalry charges breaking onto walls of Turkish pikes. Vlad prefers the sound of cracking sterna to the sound of a cracking baseball bat.

Soon, Vlad must take time off from his day job as an accountant to speak to his son’s teacher about Paul’s bad report card. As a dutiful father, he makes the appointment and enters the school while “squeaking the soles of his oxblood shoes against the tiles every few steps–a trick he learned a year back and thinks lends him an authentic air” (77). This movement, carefully rehearsed to conceal the surreal lightness of his step, betrays his sense of being an impostor. It is but one of the many carefully rehearsed movements that enable him to live normally in our world. Upon meeting the teacher, however, Vlad is taken in by her scent of “bruised mint and camellias” (76). Vlad’s marriage to Sarah has dulled over the years, but Paul’s teacher provides the tantalizing opportunity to go on the hunt again.

Sarah, who used to be a vampire hunter, “has not tried to kill him since they married” (73). They met during an epic confrontation in a Transylvanian castle, but these days, there’s a sense that the romance of that relationship is gone. The temptation to suck Paul’s teacher’s blood is powerful and begins to dissolve his carefully constructed identity: “This is no way to be a father. No way to be a man. But Vlad was a monster before he was a man” (86).

Vlad gives into his instincts. He stalks Paul’s teacher from the rooftops of the city as she returns to her apartment one night. The thrill of the hunt is exhilarating. But as he watches her sleep from outside her window, he cannot decide on the opportune moment to strike. He begins to question whether the school teacher can really satisfy the fantasy he craves. Vlad “wants her to chase him around the world, wants a moonlit showdown in a dark castle” (90), but she cannot give him that. After all, she’s a normal person, a school teacher. The badass woman he craves, the only woman with whom he can ever feel complete, is his own wife, Sarah.

Also back on the hunt after all these years, Sarah spots him on the rooftops and places him in the sites of her vampire hunting rifle. He swoops down to reconnect with her. What results are probably the most emotionally wholesome moments in vampire literature ever written–at least, based on the vampire stories I have read.

“What made you stop?” asks Sarah.

He answers, “She wasn’t you” (91).

This, and the final, heartwarming scene where Vlad and his son play catch in a park–one of the most Halloween father-son moments you will ever read in literature–together conclude a self-affirming and heartwarming story that will leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that Vlad is worthy of the title World’s Best Dad.


You can read “A Kiss with Teeth” at Tor.com
My review of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Endless Things by John Crowley

20141217_202835If you arrived at a crossroads, would you take the right or the left fork? We are faced every day of our lives with choosing a path. Once our decision takes us onward, we cannot return. The past that once was–and the path we might have chosen instead–grows more and more distant with each ‘Y’ junction we pass.

The courses of history and personal lives divide at such moments. The Germans invaded Poland in 1939 on Y-Tag, or Y-Day, the same day that New York City’s World’s Fair expressed a utopian optimism. Barbarism or civilization: which path did history take at that moment, and where did it go after?

Endless Things by John Crowley is the final book in his Aegypt Cycle. It is the culmination of thirty years of thinking, research, and writing on the part of the author, and an ending to a series that is thematically preoccupied with endings. Endless Things is a completion without an ending per se. After all, the thousands of possible futures that might come into existence at any moment are as endless and infinite as the universe itself.

Pierce Moffet has left the Blackbury Jambs for Old Europe on what sounds like an epic quest–to find the Holy Grail, or the Philosopher’s Stone, in either case an artefact that can prove once and for all that the world has more than one history, that its laws are mutable. Alchemy, once briefly possible for John Dee and Edward Kelley, is in our modern world no long possible–at least, Fellowes Kraft’s last unpublished novel claims so, which Pierce is supposed to copy and rework into a book. He follows Kraft’s old notebook through cities such as Rome, Florence, and Prague, which was once the centre of European civilization and scientific experimentation, circa 1588.

The setting of Prague, Pierce’s destination, is a central setting of the Aegypt Cycle, given its historical relevance. Once long ago, two diplomatic officials were thrown out of a window in that city, an event that led to the Thirty Years’ War, which tore apart Europe and the metaphysical certainties that bound it. Catholic fought Protestant for control of the Holy Roman Empire. Like Y-Tag, this is another juncture in history, and it forever changes the face of religion, diminishing its epistemological importance while the scientific method becomes, gradually, the new paradigm for truth.

All this is preceded by an ideal royal wedding that for all its purity, becomes the reason for strife. Traveling players perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest to celebrate the union. At the play’s end the sorcerer Prospero vows to drown his books and end his magical career, just as magic has come to an end in the wider world.

Prague, now part of the Czech Republic, is behind the Iron Curtain when Pierce goes on his quest. The author’s bio at the back of the book shows John Crowley’s own passport that he used on a research trip to Prague earlier in his life (photo undated), suggesting a certain level of identification between the author and Pierce. Combined with the author’s metafictional reflections through the character of Kraft himself, this autobiographical suggestion makes Endless Things into a novel about writing novels–and about narratives, especially endings.

The story of Giordano Bruno’s martyrdom is one example of a tale that doesn’t end when history suggests it did. The heretic philosopher, who was the first to suggest that the universe was infinite and the earth not at its centre, was burned at the stake in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori for his crimes of belief–but at the last moment, his soul transferred, by metempsychosis, into the body of an Ass, a sacred donkey. This Ass, living as the metamorphosed Lucius does in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, that is, as a human in a donkey’s body, in turn transforms into the mysterious originator of the Rosicrucians, Philip à Gabala, who claimed to possess the deepest secrets of the universe’s meaning, but who never revealed them.

There are many surprises in Endless Things, the story of which substantially departs, in its first half, from the familiar settings and characters that direct the first three books. My biggest shock was that in one scene, Pierce appears to hold conversation with Dame Frances Yates, whose study, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, is one of the central research texts that Crowley consulted when writing Aegypt. Crowley’s identification with Pierce, which is implicit throughout the cycle, was made here nearly explicit, though never untactful. If there was any doubt the Aegypt Cycles’s earlier books are postmodern metafictions, Endless Things puts those doubts to rest.

The final chapters of Endless Things move towards an ending with graceful meditation–and it is an ending in a changed world, yet a world that we can all recognize. We see the advent of computers and the fall of the Berlin Wall, so the it leaves off some time in the 1990s–connecting events that happened as far back as the sixteenth century to the years of my own childhood. Prague once again becomes the locus of a revolution–the Velvet Revolution–that quietly forges a new world. With the fall of Communism comes the beginning of an increasingly globalized and history-less Western society. And in the midst of this, Pierce, with his rocky romance with Rosie in his past, has, upon his return from Europe, one last chance to find true love.

Endless Things ends my first reading of Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, but it will not likely end my involvement with it. I plan to include some kind of discussion of Crowley’s work in my MA thesis, if I can, and I could think of no worthier object of study.

Brian Attebery in his 1996 essay “Tolkien, Crowley, and Postmodernism” argues that Crowley’s previous novel Little, Big makes the “fantasy tradition descending from George MacDonald, William Morris, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis … formally indistinguishable from postmodernist uses of the fantastic” (21). I would gladly extend Attebery’s observation to the entire Aegypt Cycle, although I note that Little, Big has much more to do with the tradition of Tolkien and MacDonald than Aegypt does. Gnostic allegory and Renaissance philosophy are closer to the real tradition behind Endless Things.

Bringing New Left theorist Fredric Jameson into the conversation, I would like to quote the introduction to his study Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in which he says that the postmodern “looks for breaks, for events rather than new worlds, for the telltale instance after which it is no longer the same” (ix). If fantasy is a genre in which new worlds are built, then the Aegypt Cycle looks, rather, for events, these breaks that alter history.

These are the Y-junctures that result in changes we cannot go back on, the decisive moments in a society that alter even our ontological perceptions. The change from medieval animism and superstition into Enlightened science comes as a result of just such a break. Crowley accomplishes a dramatization of exactly how the former metamorphoses into the latter, how the world became what it is today and why it is no longer what it once was, explicitly addressing that age-old question, “Why is the world the way it is and not some other way?”

 

Daemonomania by John Crowley

DaemonomaniaAn old world is dying; a new one struggling to be reborn. What was possible, during the old age, becomes something that had always been impossible, in the new.

Daemonomania is John Crowley’s third novel in his Aegypt Cycle. It continues the story from Love & Sleep and The Solitudes, which blends New Age occultism, historical fantasy, postmodern metafiction, and realistic narrative into a characteristic mix. Modern-day melancholic Pierce Moffet is losing faith that his transcription of Fellowes Kraft’s posthumous novel will ever be complete. Rose Ryder’s child, Sam, is epileptic, forcing her to find medication and to live between her daughter’s seizures as if the next one will never happen–all the while fighting a custody battle against her ex-husband Mike Mucho, who has lately fallen in with the Christian cult known as The Powerhouse.

Meanwhile, in the sixteenth century of Kraft’s novel, John Dee and Edward Kelley are deeply engaged in the task of transforming base metals into pure gold. In the court of Rudolph II in Prague, Kelley speaks with an angel through Dee’s crystal glass: Madimi, who appears to him at first as a young child and leads them onward to enlightenment. In another part of Europe, the heretic philosopher Giordano Bruno is wandering and lecturing at various venues, before his fateful trip to Venice, where he is finally arrested, a prelude to his execution in Rome for daring to prove that the universe is infinite in size.

‘Daemonomania,’ rather than meaning “mass craziness about demons,” means “Sorcerers stuck on demons or maybe Demons stuck on sorcerers, or witches. […] Mania means attachment, obsession: the maniac is somebody obsessed with or stuck on something” (117). The novel is itself stuck on the idea that demons might be present–or perceived to be present–in small town Kentucky in the 1970s, an unlikely time and place if I could ever think of one. But this was the New Age, the era of hippies and draft dodgers, cults, and new sects, known as the Age of Aquarius. Ghosts, werewolves, and spirits can all be found in this strange, alternative world, which shares a space with the familiar world of car brands and drafty apartments.

Pierce, having a melancholic disposition, meaning he is a cold and lonely scholar who rarely shaves, educates himself in the art of magic bonds from a treatise of Giordano Bruno, which suggests that love forms the tightest of bonds. Crowley derives some of these ideas from Couliano’s Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, and soon he tests his knowledge on his girlfriend Rosie Rasmussen–engaging in another type of bondage. He wishes to have her all to himself and constructs a magic emblem to tie her to him more strongly–but soon she comes within the gravitational pull of The Powerhouse.

Ray Honeybeare leads the cult, which teaches that God only wants the best for everyone, and, since Jesus saved humanity from our sins once and for all, we are now capable, with God’s help, of attaining whatever we wish for: a new car, a new house, a winning lottery ticket, a daughter saved from epilepsy. Rosie feels empowered by this possibility for wish fulfillment, as do Mike and Bobby, the hospital worker with an ancestry of lycanthropy that stretches back at least to the sixteenth century. But when Rosie begins to say that history is a sham and that the Holocaust never happened–because God could never let such an evil thing occur–Pierce begins to see the danger in this supposedly harmless prayer circle.

The universe is coming to a crisis; Pierce and Rosie find themselves on opposite sides of divide in history that will see the birth of a new world and the destruction and forgetting of the old.

Brian Attebery in his essay, “Tolkien, Crowley, and Postmodernism,” calls Crowley’s previous novel Little, Big the point where fantasy fiction becomes indistinguishable from postmodern fiction. The same might be said about Aegypt in general and Daemonomania in particular. Crowley invokes the classic test of proving the Holocaust as a way to question excessive historical relativism, which tends to creep up in postmodern intellectual experience. Furthermore, his frequent pastiching of Kraft’s non-existent novel and his multifaceted allusions to Renaissance literary genres align this fantasy novel with a distinctly postmodern aesthetic.

Which raises the question: can we even call Daemonomania a ‘fantasy novel’? Does the name of this genre do it justice? Around 95% of the novel is plausible, give or take, allowing that the sixteenth-century scenes, in which the magical is more likely to occur, are understood to be diagetic fictions, that is, excepts from a novel written by Kraft that exists as a text in Pierce Moffet’s world. The fantastic is communicated either in a deadpan manner or by implication–in one scene, Mike sees something like a rat flit down a corner of a hallway, but it is also suggested that it is another character’s disembodied, traveling soul. Is a car crash a portent or an everyday setback? Is an epileptic young girl truly possessed by demons during a seizure? This is the sort of fantasy in Daemonomania, the kind that makes you entertain the thought that pre-scientific and scientifically enlightened readings of nature are somehow both legitimate descriptors of the world.

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The final book of the Aegypt series Endless Things promises to be about Pierce Moffet’s quest to modern Prague, where he will likely try to uncover the discoveries of Dee and Kelley, while following in Fellowes Kraft and Boney Rasmussen’s footsteps, who made a trip to Europe decades ago. Where shall this brilliant series end? I cannot wait to find out.