Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Art of Pretending

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. In fact, aside from Christmas, this is probably it. I should, in the grand tradition of thing, devote this to my top horror reads or something, but the truth is I don't read a whole lot of horror. Nor do I watch a whole lot of horror films, in part because so many of them are just so very, very bad or else very, very stupid. Sometimes both - looking at you, Saw franchise. I'd have a tough time coming up with a top ten list, and it would likely be derivative of somebody else's.

Instead, I thought I'd try and figure out why I like the holiday so much. After all, I don't eat a lot of candy anymore, and I've not been to a costume party since I stopped being home for the annual church party - which was back when I left for college. My daughter and I do make a big deal out of it, creating our own costumes and taking months to plan out what we'll be. (Don't hate me. My costuming skills rely largely on a hot glue gun, a minimalist approach, and heavy imagination.) So sure, some of that enthusiasm rubs off. But my love of Halloween goes deeper than that.

I think part of it can be explained by the same part of me that likes the creative part of the writing process. In writing stories, I get to imagine different people, different settings, and to some extent pretend to be them. I don't see myself living vicariously through my characters, nor are any of them extensions of myself beyond the usual psychological borrowing we all do when we write. But by the same token, when I put on a costume I don't really see myself suddenly getting to do everything that person or creature would do, either.

Which is good, because one year I was a fish, and really, who wants to be a fish? It's not like it was in Finding Nemo, folks.

But there is a bit of that vicarious aspect to it. We can, by putting on a costume, pretend to be something. We can play at being someone we're not, from a Star Trek redshirt (should that be capitalized?) to a shuffling zombie, from a mermaid to a rock star. And if we're not pretending to be something, we get to capitalize on our sense of humor, or irony, or whatever other trait we put on display via our costume. It's not perfect, it's not complete, but it is there.

Which makes Halloween the only holiday where as writers we can vent the kind of creativity we normally only get to display on the printed page. Unless you're the arts and crafty type that does all those homemade Martha Stewart-esque home deco things. In which case you probably don't write, because I have no idea how you'd manage to find the time to do both. Assuming that's not the case, though, Halloween is the one time of year our creativity gets turned into something tangible. Something that can be - is meant to be - displayed, in probably the most welcoming venue any of us will ever submit anything to. (Neighbors and friends tend to be far more forgiving than editors and critics.)

Plus, there's candy. Lots and lots of candy.

PS: I was sorely tempted to start this little missive with the opening credo from The Pretender, but I'm not sure how many people would have actually remembered that.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


It is better to be haunted by the dead than the living. The dead are, by far, more easily dealt with. The dead tend not to want much, just someone to listen to them. To observe and note that they are still around, still have something to say. Once so acknowledged, they move on or fade into the background. The dead are largely ambivalent to our existence beyond that need to have someone notice them.

On the rare occasion when the dead become more persistent, more pernicious, there are ways to deal with that. These ways are effective, and permanent, and guaranteed. Banish a ghost and it is gone. Destroy a spirit's link to our world and it remains forever sundered. Be gone and haunt no more.

I was visited by a spirit, once. Not a ghost. Ghosts are more permanent fixtures. This spirit was passing through. It did not shake me to my core. It did not alter my perceptions. I do not see dead people unless I visit a funeral home. The spirit had a message to convey, and that was all, and I have not heard from it since.

The living are different. They can be thousands of miles away, living out their lives, oblivious to the ways in which the ghostly memories of them constantly intrude upon another. Unlike ghosts, which can be ignored (you would be surprised at how quickly your mind relegates the ghost on the landing to just another personal landmark, like the table with the vase of flowers at the end of the hall), the phantasmic souvenirs of the living command your attention.

This is not about obsession. This is not about wanting to be reminded, about looking for signs and portents in the mundane minutiae of the cereal aisle or the particular path a leaf takes when falling. This is about trying to forget, then coming around a corner and finding yourself face to face with a reminder that is as specific to that person as it is out of place in its location. Not just one item, but half a dozen, each unique and specific, each undeniably linked to that person.

Like a bumper sticker in support of a college a thousand miles away, suddenly there on the car in front of you, when all you were thinking about was what to make for dinner. Or a news article about how hard it is to find this little spot, this little piece of something, that you found once before, and not by yourself. As out of place as a palm tree in Maine, as random as a star falling into your backyard.

The dead do not apologize for haunting. It is what they do. The living, if confronted, say that they are sorry, though rarely what they are sorry for. And what have they done that they should be sorry for? It is not on them, they are not doing anything but going about their lives, oblivious to what is inadvertently left in their wake.

The dead know they haunt.

The living do not.


The above is part of the October 2012 blog chain over at Absolute Write. There are a number of other great writers (and soon to be great writers), some you may know, some you may not, participating in this event, and I don't really have space to list them all. That said, you can find the two in front of me here: and here: and I encourage you to check them out. (Hillary Jacques also has a new book coming out, which you should preorder.)

And the full list can be found over at Absolute Write.

In case you're wondering, my entry is entirely fictional. Except for the parts that are not.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

C.S. Lewis, Heavy-Handed Bastard

I am coming to realize that, sometimes, an attempt to enjoy a classic work of literature can be marred by the attitudes of the author. This came about over the past week or so as I have begun reading the Chronicles of Narnia to my daughter. Now, I know all about the Christian overtones, though to be honest I never noticed those as a kid. When I first read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I missed all the religious symbolism. It wasn't until much later that I read about the amount of allegory lurking in the Chronicles, and I didn't think much about it afterwards.

But, having seen the first movie one rainy Sunday, we thought we'd read the books. Aside from learning that TL,TW,&TW was not the first book, narratively speaking, I learned some other troubling facts while reading The Magician's Nephew.

First, TL,TW,&TW is downright subtle when it comes to the religious stuff in the rest of the books. Chapter after chapter was "Hey, this is Genesis in Narnia! Look, there's a tree! With fruit you can't eat!" and other things where I found myself wanting to say "Yes, I get it, can we please move on with the story?" I did not say this, because I was reading to my daughter, and I try not to editorialize when I do so.

(I do stop, at the beginning of each new Lemony Snicket book, and ask my daughter if she wants to go on after we've read the part where the author advises us not to. It's become a thing now that we're halfway through the series, and it's in fun. But that's a different sort of narrative aside.)

I'm not sure how I feel about this heavy-handedness, not because it's religious - I go to church, and I drag my daughter with me, although Lewis' persistent proselytizing gets old - but simply because with the first book in the chronicles, it feels like the allegory got in the way of the story. I can foresee this becoming a bit of a problem later on in the series. (I am familiar with Neil Gaiman's short "The Problem of Susan" for example, in which he, too deals with some of this.)

Second, and by far the more troubling, is the sheer sexism in the book. Now, I know that books are a product of their times. Kipling was heavily influenced by the English Imperialism than ran rampant over everything at the time, and reading some of his works today leads to some cringing. Fenimore Cooper's portrayals of the Native Americans are nowhere near as balanced as that last movie made them out to be. But those were books for adults. Narnia is for kids. Lewis had to have known young girls.

And as far as I can tell, his message to them is "Know your place." He makes blunders in biology (it is the female elephants that are in charge, not the males- which may or may not have been know at that time) based solely on his own chauvinistic leanings. Of course the men are called to a meeting and the women left behind; that's the men's job. And the female character is not only shunted to the sidelines, but is physically cowed by the male character at one point, and it's all very casually dealt with. Too casually.

So, while we will continue to read the series, I foresee the need to have conversations with my daughter about what's going on. We've had similar conversations about the Disney Princesses, too, because as a general whole they are piss-poor role models for young girls.

Or maybe we won't have to. She may not be quite old enough to grasp some of the connotations lurking beneath the surface (which are not as direct as Ariel's whining or Cinderella's "I need a Prince") and I confess to editing some as I read. Where Lewis wrote "he-elephant" and "he-beaver" I left off the gendered pronouns, as it changed nothing in the narrative to do so. And I'm hoping that the rest of the chronicles, most of which were actually written before the first book, will not be as bad.

But if they are, then we'll deal with them, and have a talk about why they are the way they are, and how you go about separating the message from the story. Because this won't be the last thing she reads where that may become necessary.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Letdown

Let me start by saying I stuck with the X-Files from beginning to end, even after they'd clearly gone off the rails. (Then again, I also liked the last movie, though that took a couple of viewings. On first viewing it was kind of like watching one of those last seasons. It grew on me, though. And not like a mold.) So with that clear caveat and embarrassing reveal of just how long I will stick with something, there are times when you just kind of have to give up on things.

I say this in the wake of the new Fall TV season, and also in the aftermath of a couple of books I was disappointed in. However, this isn't about having just one bad book. Every author is entitled to at least one of those, if not two or three depending on how long their career lasts. These things happen, for various reasons, and an author can and should be forgiven so long as they don't continue to repeat the error.

Sometimes, though, they do. Sometimes the error seems to become the norm, and where once I looked forward to an author's latest output, I start to have that internal debate with myself. Is this one going to be better? Are they going to "snap out of it?" Will it be worth my time? Now, maybe someday when I am old and less active and return to the halcyon readership days of my youth where I could sit around for hours and hours with a book, maybe then that last question will be less pressing. But now? I've got things to do, or things I should be doing, and spending time on a bad book isn't one of them.

So how do you know? When do you quit? As I said at the start, I'm inclined to give authors a bit of leeway. I know many were disappointed in the last couple of Robert Parker's books, and perhaps had been for a while. I kept reading him, and while I might be generous in saying his last few outings he was maybe batting .500 (maybe only .300), there were still good reads in there. I was saddened when he died, and am sorry there will be no new tales of Spenser, Sunny Randall, or Jesse Stone. (Books penned by other authors using those characters do not count. I am always leery of such things, but that's for another post.)

On the other hand, I gave up on Tom Clancy over a decade ago, when after a hundred pages into his China vs Russia book, nothing interesting had happened. When his characters started making long, dull speeches instead of doing things, I quit. Though I add, it was not something that started with that book, but that had actually begun happening the moment Jack Ryan became President, if not before. If Tom Clancy is still writing (is Tom Clancy still writing?) I honestly neither know, nor care.

There are other authors I could beat up on (Laurell K Hamilton and Jack Higgins for instance), but the point wouldn't change. In most instances, the author got lazy, and stayed lazy, or wandered so far afield from the earlier style or tone or premise that made their early works good that it was impossible for them to come back. Sometimes they do. I think Dean Koontz cycles through unreadability every so often, but that also implies that I keep coming back to check. Which I do. I've not quite stricken him from the list just yet.

Quitting on television shows is easier; once they start feeling like a chore, it's easy enough to cancel that particular weekly appointment. Authors are harder. Each time they put out a new book, each time I see it in the store or on the bestseller list or Amazon or wherever, that little bit of hope rises. I pick it up, leaf through it, and cross my fingers. (Which makes it hard to turn the pages, let me tell you.)

It's not an endless cycle. Authors can crush that hope too often. The trick, as a reader, is knowing when to quit, even if the authors don't.