Horror vs Fantasy Redux

I’ve written before about the key differences between horror and adventure (a term I use to include all the flavors of fantasy that are not horror), specifically here: horror-vs-adventure

Now I have a reason to talk about this subject again as what was previously an intellectual exercise now has real-life implications. I am taking the dark fantasy YA novel I had been submitting and rewriting it into an adult horror novel.

Why even do this? Honestly, the attempt to make the material YA friendly was a mistake. I had to buff and shine the truly horrific nature of the narrative to the point where it didn’t seem like anything at all was really happening. Secondly, I feel like the YA fantasy market is just absolutely awash in mediocre manuscripts. Thirdly, I prefer adult horror and have only read a smattering of YA.

Let’s call it what it was: I manipulated a manuscript to target a specific audience rather than write my book. That’s a violation of rule #1 for writers. Write your book.

So how hard can it be to change a dark fantasy to a horror novel? You add a little sex, throw in some gore, kill off a character or two and boom there it is. Right?

That’s what I thought. As it turns out, though, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Let’s start with the protagonists. In my case, four teenagers and three adults. There are successful adult horror novels that have teenagers as the protagonists (It and The Talisman come to mind), but it’s rare. Teenagers tend to lead YA novels, for obvious reasons.

So step one was to rewrite every teenager in the novel with a much older voice. I left them as teenagers, that’s critical to the plot, but I put them through much more difficult trials, the kind of stuff you normally see adults go through.

Next comes scope. Even a gothic horror novel like Ghost Story has to limit its scope because horror is much more intimate than fantasy. We need to spend time with the characters if we’re going to care when the plot pushes them into extremis. Too many characters and locations can spread out the dread too thin and far between.

An excellent example of this is The Stand. Technically, it’s a horror novel, but it feels like a science fiction novel and the sheer breadth of the story and wide-ranging scope of the characters diffuses the horror of the plague and it quickly becomes a science fiction adventure story even though it has one of the most powerful villains of all time.

Imagine if The Stand took place on a farm outside a small town. And that was it. You hear about the plague spreading on television until you actually see the effects in town. People begin drifting in to join the farm. The evil surrounds the farm, cuts it off from the world. Now you’ve got a proper horror story.

Isolation. A limited number of characters. Existential dread looming at the edges.

Step two was to cut a lot of characters so I could narrow the scope of the story. The ones who were the cogs and wheels of the very busy story structure of the fantasy all had to go. That allowed me to focus on my seven protagonists as they assemble in the isolated location hoping to survive the coming apocalypse.

In the YA dark fantasy version of the story, the evil elements were dealt with in the way of adventures: as hurdles to overcome so the protagonists could arrive at the ultimate showdown. In a horror novel, the evil has to be existential and mounting.

Think about Shirley Jackson’s awesome The Haunting of Hill House (the book, not the “This Is Us With Ghosts” remake or the ridiculous 90s remake) and how the house starts small and works its way up until it has everyone’s sanity coming loose from its moorings. The protagonists don’t overcome the writing on the wall or the banging on the door, they just get more and more scared. Soon, they turn on each other and, by the end, it’s just pure chaos.

Step three was to remove all the intermediate obstacles the protagonists overcame. In their place, a single night of hell that arrives in waves and ends with the crescendo of the final conflict from which only two of the seven will emerge unscathed.

That’s a lot of work. It’s basically a rewrite requiring the characters be recreated and moved around, their backstories retold, their adventures heightened and many, many cuts to the narrative.

But that’s what it means to write my book instead of one tailored to mass-market appeal.

Finding Your Voice

Everyone starts the same way, I think, by imitating their favorite authors. I was a Heinlein clone, then a knockoff Hemingway, for a while I was a poor Vonnegut. No matter who you are impressed with or how hard you try to fashion your work after theirs, your own style will inevitably work its way to the surface.

Take Mr. Stephen King and one of his stylistic elements that appears repeatedly in his books: The sacrificial character we get to know way too well.

Suppose we get to a point in the story where the bad guy is going to kill some random person, the mailman, for instance. King will open the chapter with a quick introduction to the character – “Barry Converse had been on this route for twenty years, ever since they put the bypass in off of Route 28 out near Sheffield. Being former Army and a man who always prided himself in staying in shape, he parked at the top of the hill and made his deliveries on foot…”

This will go on for pages, long enough that we will temporarily forget the larger story we were reading, and then the last four paragraphs will cover his grueling murder at the hands of whichever death bringer haunts this book.

Here are two true things about these King diversions:

  1. They are unnecessary, verbose, diverting and I wouldn’t accept them any other author dead or alive.
  2. I relish them in King’s books.

I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. If someone else were to pull that kind of performative character sacrifice on me, I would put the book down and happily move on. But I read and enjoy every one of these damn things in a King novel.

When it’s my turn to write the scene, no one who isn’t a character in the larger plot or the lesser arcs even gets a name. “The postman was the first to go, three red dots stitched across the front of his blue USPS jacket and emerged as three fist-sized holes in his back. He went down. The mail skittered into the street. The wind kicked up as if trying to finish the deliveries…”

How did I discover this was my style? By trying to copy King and just hating every minute of it. By going through the editing process and noticing I’m always removing these superfluous characters. By doing what feels natural and noting how it differs from my (unwilling) mentors.

The author who most shaped my style would have to be Raymond Chandler. I started as a detective novelist and I studied him so hard my first book was a 1940s noir detective story. But even then, when I was listening to Glenn Miller and reading old newspapers online to get the voice right in my head, I still felt like some of the similes (“She had a shape I could feel in my wallet”) were performative so I dropped most of them.

An artist friend of mine once likened the process to copying someone else’s picture. “Whatever comes out, that’s your version because it’s in your style.”

Arriving Late Ep. 20: A Human Reaction

Crichton jumps into the first wormhole he comes across and ends up home, giant puppets not made out of wood and performances that are, join us for a discussion of the latest Farscape episode.

Arriving Late Ep. 19: Durka Returns

Durka returns, Mike screws up the episode order, we talk about Rhapsody in Blue anyway, we get a new cast member!

Farscape: Durka Returns

Neon Genesis Evangelion (Netflix dub)

NGE is an extremely popular anime, one whose brilliance its fans tout rather vociferously online, so you would have to be some kind of dolt not to like it.

Therefore, I present a list of reasons why I was not worthy to watch Neon Genesis Evangelion.

  1. Anime is known for dub artists who really turn the emotions up to 11. Therefore, turning it up to 22 should be twice as good. I apologize for my sensitive hearing that caused me to think Shinji and Asuka had been voiced by tortured cats.
  2. NGE is a foundational document in Anime, a seminal work that changed everything that came after. As a fan of Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Cowboy Bepop, I am only an Anime tourist and had no right to attempt to drink from the fountain of the gods.
  3. As someone who grew up reading and loving the Heinlein juveniles, I should have been able to accept that, of course, they would put 14yos in charge of giant, hugely destructive mechs. I apologize for my lack of vision.
  4. I apologize for being confused by the scattered, chaotic references to Judaeo-Christianity coming from a country not traditionally known for its adherence to Judaeo-Christian teachings.
  5. I also apologize for repeatedly screaming out, “What the fuck do the Dead Sea Scrolls have to do with anything?”
  6. As a sometimes fan of Anime, I should have realized that its style is reductive and therefore should not have been bothered by an “animated” series being mostly still images talked over by characters we can’t see.
  7. I apologize for my lack of vision in not seeing how putting them into giant killing machines is the perfect therapy for emotionally disturbed tweens.
  8. I apologize for my silly western sensibility that thought sexualizing 8th graders was a hideous, Jared Fogle kind of thing to do.
  9. I apologize for writing this apology because I assume I shouldn’t have watched NGE in the first place. I think the strong support it gets from the community is because most people watch it when they themselves are fourteen when childish behavior, over emoting, and constant neediness wrapped up as existential philosophy seem quite normal.

I’m sorry.

Arriving Late Ep. 18: Farscape “The Flax”

Note: I realize I haven’t written a blog post in a while. I will cop to being lazy and distracted, but also I’m binge watching Neon Genesis Evangelion for a future post and it’s not going well.

This episode, The Flax, finds us having fun with the oft reused plot trope of the trapped/out of fuel scout ship and shriveling at the thought of Luxon Lovemaking. Join us, won’t you?

Arriving Late Podcast Ep 17: Farscape “Till The Blood Runs Clear”

An iffy episode of the beloved series as it tries to find its feet. Some important developments for some of the characters, though, so we had to talk about it.

Arriving Late Podcast Ep. 16: Farscape “They’ve Got A Secret”

Moya’s pregnant! And she’s in a mood that doesn’t tolerate passengers. Join us for a chat about this dramatic turn of events for the Farscape series.

Arriving Late Ep. 16: They’ve Got A Secret

Arriving Late Podcast Ep. 15: Farscape DNA Mad Scientist

The show makes a quantum leap in quality as it turns serious and begins to show us the true nature of the characters. Join us for a discussion of what we both agreed was an excellent episode of Farscape.

Farscape: DNA Mad Scientist

The Twilight Zone

When I heard they were rebooting The Twilight Zone my first concern was that they would do what had done before and just remake some of the old episodes in color (although I will stan John Lithgow’s performance in
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” all day). Then I heard Jordan Peele was going to helm it and I was fairly sure it was in good hands.

But the first episode I saw was “Replay” followed by “A Traveler” and then “The Comedian.” I want to say that it is a complete miracle that any episode of TV is produced and the result is always, always going to be a subjective experience unique to each viewer. In this case, my experience was mostly dull disinterest.

“Replay” was so obviously told and the message hammered home so hard that I was way ahead the entire time. One thing you never want when watching a suspense show is to be thinking, “Yeah, I get it. Move on.” We live in a world where we know full well that calling the police on a person of color can be a death sentence. We see black lives not mattering to cops on a daily basis. It’s good to call this stuff out. Absolutely. But this is also supposed to be entertainment and the story was so superficial that everything was in the text. It was a sermon. Again, to me. That’s how I received it.

“A Traveler” was just confounding and dumb. The ending was so unsupported by the story that it felt like a twist that was added later. Although, I did like the part of the story that showed the Inuit point of view regarding their European colonizers.

“The Comedian” was done well, but it’s a story that’s been told a dozen times and this iteration added nothing new.

So I quit watching the series until I found out that one of my favorite Twitter follows had written a couple of episodes I hadn’t seen. Heather Anne Campbell has one of the freshest minds working today and she’s just getting started. When I saw her name on two of the episodes, I headed back in with renewed optimism.

So I fired up “Six Degrees of Movement” and then “Not All Men.” They were so good that I remembered the original Twilight Zone series had more clunkers than home runs. It also had a tendency to get caught up in the text and forget to be subtle. And, more than anything, it could get sloppily sentimental.

“Wunderkind” was another sermonesque disappointment, but their version of “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” starring Adam Scott is excellent and as eerie as any from the original series.

“Point of Origin” returned to the model of all text though it did a good job showing the terrifying circumstances of people in custody of a fascist organization with no oversight. It was only average, but that’s okay because the last two episodes absolutely killed.

“The Blue Scorpion” has a twist worthy of Rod Serling himself and “Blurryman” calls back to every other episode as well as the original series in a way that leads to a magical ending.

In a world where Black Mirror exists, every paranormal show has to up its game, even one that’s riding on the shoulders of a giant. Twilight Zone ups its game admirably with a bunch of episodes that are infinitely re-watchable.