Break coming up

So Christmas is coming up, and that means time off work. This year, the day job has been particularly time-consuming, and a large part of the work has been writing articles, grants, abstracts, presentations, more articles… This year, I have more often than not put the pen down at the end of the work day, not able to produce a single extra word. I am, and have always been, an opportunistic writer – one who writes when and if rather than at set times. This approach is particularly vulnerable to other tasks encroaching upon writing time. I have written much less than normal this year, which is annoying and depressing in equal measures. But Christmas is coming up…

Every year, I always hope to spend a part of the Christmas holidays catching up on writing (a futile hope, as the year is long and the Christmas break is short). This year, the hope is more desperate and more important. I know the day job will return in January with just as much, if not more, pressure, and the writing habit will need to be solidly in place by then. So this year’s Christmas writing is not just a band aid on a meagre output, but a tool to get the train back on track. Fingers crossed!

Wishing you all a nice run-up to the holidays, and here is a Christmas tune for the occasion:

(Why, yes, this blog post was partly an excuse to play the Darkness a few times. Thank  you for noticing, and keep those bells ringing.)

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The road ill-advisedly taken

I have been given a slot to write a very short creative piece for a small publication as part of the Academic Writing Festival at my University. Exciting stuff, and I am looking forward to getting my teeth in, except… I am not quite sure how to go about doing it.

Not in the sense that I don’t know what to write. I could write the piece in half an hour with time to spare for editing. It would be a quasi-science mock-up poking fun at academia, because I have been in the business long enough to see the foibles and caricatures. Heck, I embody a great deal of the silliness I want to convey. Easy-peasy. No, I’m stuck because I want to write it differently. I want to try on a new hat.

I want to write it to be read as spoken word. Sadly, however, I am not a particularly experienced poet, and I have a strong suspicion that my talents (if any) lie elsewhere. Having read the feeble poetry written by my teenage self, I should possibly know better than to revisit this particular brand of writing. Nevertheless, I think it is useful to try something new every once in a while, if only to explore (and rule out) roads not yet taken, scary though they may look.

So, wish me luck?

exorcist-poster2

New places, new roads. What could possibly go wrong?

[UPDATE: I got the piece written and submitted. Not sure how well it worked, but am happy to post it here if anyone is interested in giving feedback]

On the worst of villains

There is an interesting post up at ejfrostuk‘s blog, on the implacable villain. If you are interested in the workings of villains and how to write them, I recommend you go read it, as there are some interesting ideas on what makes a villain truly scary. But I also thought I’d add my own thoughts on the matter here.

The question raised on the blog is whether it is realistic with an opponent that simply won’t stop. My answer is, that depends.

For villains such as the Terminator or the vampires from 30 Days of Night, it is absolutely reasonable to go about their business (in these cases, killing the protagonist(s)) with relentless persistence. The Terminators are machines that act as such, and the vampires are predators that behave in their natural way as well. Both operate under rules that do not afford humans a special place, and so there should be no reason for them to hesitate or turn back as long as there is a war to be won or food to be eaten. This, logically, means continuing until the humans in their way are dead or devoured.

But what about a human villain? Is it realistic for a human to be relentless? My gut feeling is that it would take special circumstances. Villains without empathy could be one such circumstance. The psychopath would have no reason to stop. But we don’t always want to write psychopathic villains. What about villains that are empathetic in some ways, maybe even most ways, just not when it comes to the protagonist? That is a harder sell, in my opinion. Still, it is not impossible.

One way in which a ‘normal’ human might fit the bill would be if they have utterly dehumanised the protagonist. Why stop if what you seek to destroy has no inherent value? We find this in real-life crime, where the victim is not afforded human status by the perpetrator. We find this in assaults, in murders, and in war. The victim is not addressed, is not even talked to, and when the victim is discussed by the perpetrator(s), he or she may be referred to as animals, lesser-than, even an ‘it’. This allows the perpetrator to act without hesitation, relentlessly and without apology. This is the villain that won’t stop, that won’t negotiate, that might not even talk to their victim. Is it realistic? Yes, unfortunately. Is it going to work in a story? Yes, in some stories. Is it scary? I honestly can’t think of anything more frightening.

Go read the post over at ejfrostuk. It’s good.

The opportunistic writer

Here’s a confession: I don’t write every day. I don’t follow that most cherished piece of advice from writers much more successful and no doubt better than myself. I don’t apply my bum to my chair every day and work on my craft. Not for a moment do I think that it isn’t possible for me to find the time every day. I could. I simply choose not to.

Sometimes, 24 hours aren’t enough. Not enough to do well at the day job, to eat, sleep, relax, and then also to write. I am very fortunate in that I’ve got a job I enjoy, but this also means it can be hard to turn it off at the end of the day. It means I’m frequently so engrossed that I work long days, leaving little time for anything else. Certainly, little time for anything that requires more brains than a remote control and a sofa at the end of the day. Add a strict writing regime to that, and it can become a bit much.

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I have tried to develop the habit of daily writing, adopting quite a few strategies to force myself to carve out a writing-shaped piece of the day. A notification app to remind me to write? The app was too rigid and my day too fluid, and when my writing invariably decoupled from the notifications the whole exercise turned into one of pointless nagging. A set time for writing? That was swallowed by early-morning experiments, surprise lunchtime meetings and late-night broken equipment. I still wrote, but I felt bad about not writing at the right time. NaNoWriMo? Nope, November is deadline month in my field. A writing group? Ate my best writing hours, and filled it with talk of writing.

Every strategy was sub-optimal, frustrating or downright counterproductive. Tools are no substitute for will. And by squeezing myself into a daily regime, that will dwindled and was replaced by guilt and frustration. I found that it hindered more than helped. So I don’t write every day, at a set time, like a professional. Instead, I write as and when it works. I just make very sure it works a lot of the time. I know which times are likely to work, and I aim for them, but don’t beat myself up on the days that I fail.

I am a contented opportunistic writer. I’ve got a lightweight laptop, a notebook and no schedule. Some days, they gather dust. That’s okay – I just write when the deadline has passed or the conference is done. Or before, after or in between. There’s always an opportunity. It may take me a bit longer to finish a book, but I always finish it.

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How do you find time to write?

Horror, death and isolation

The more I read horror, the less I think of it as genre fiction. Sure, there are things that go bump, there are tentacles and fangs and clowns, but horror to me is not about monsters, it’s about the monstrous. So what is the monstrous, if not some alien beast wanting to devour the terrified protagonist? On the surface, what is and isn’t monstrous will probably differ from person to person, but there appears to be some universal themes. Death, for example, and isolation. Both are inevitable and inescapable, and if we dig deep down, they frighten us. They are part of a bigger pantheon of ‘ultimate concerns’ (according to existential psychotherapy), which also include gems such as meaninglessness and absence of external structure (dubbed ‘freedom’). Horror stories that tap into these anxieties work on an existential level, and may, in addition to terrifying us, help us process these unsettling topics in a safe setting.

Demogorgon

Let’s start with death. We have an instinctive fear of death. It may be conscious or unconscious, but most if not all of us possess a smidgen of death anxiety. It may not be something we think about every day, but it is there, ready to raise its ugly head if the situation calls for it. The loss of a loved one, a threatening disease, an accident – anything that reveal how thin the film of life truly is can bring about death anxiety. A few years back, I read Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy, which is a tome on the theoretical and practical aspects of the same. It was a surprisingly interesting book given how dry the cover looked. In it, Yalom spends a great amount of time discussing death, fear of death and denial of death. “The fear of death plays a major role in our internal experience; it haunts as nothing else does; it rumbles continuously under the surface; it is a dark, unsettling presence at the rim of consciousness”, Yalom says 1.

Horror deals with death like few other genres, from the (usually) imminent death of the protagonist to the perversion of death in your average zombie, ghost, vampire or undead monster. We get the fear of death as well as the denial of death in one neat package. Typically, we also see the avoidance of death as the story tends to permit the survival of the protagonist. A fascination with horror often emerges in teenage years, which incidentally is when most first experience anxiety about death. Horror may thus be a way to contemplate and familiarise ourselves with death – a ‘safe’ venue to experiment with it and analyse it. Even a place to ridicule it, in some genres of horror. The role of stories in dealing with death is nicely put in the following quote:

“When we are young, we deny death with the help of parental reassurances and secular and religious myths; later, we personify it by transforming it into an entity, a monster, a sandman, a demon. After all, if death is some pursuing entity, then one may yet find a way to elude it; besides, frightening as a death-bearing monster may be, it is less frightening than the truth — that one carries within the spores of one’s own death.” 2

Horror may, in short, be a way to process death without having to break down the dissociation between intellectually knowing death is coming and truly being aware of the end. It is a way to deal with death without having to stare into its abyss, with all its associated dread and terror.

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Then there is isolation. When referring to isolation, I am not talking about the trope of exploring the scary basement alone, although I am sure there is a relatively blunt metaphor in there. Existential isolation is more than just being temporarily alone. It is the awareness that there will always be an unbridgeable gap between yourself and others, even in their presence. We are born alone, and we die alone.

Horror is very rarely a rousing exercise in team building: the final chapter usually sees the protagonist alone in the face of terror. Isolation and alienation play key parts, sometimes building towards the end, sometimes existing from the first page. In Richard Matheson’s terrific I am Legend, the horror of the protagonist is both being preyed upon and the unbearable knowledge that he is completely alone. Without spoiling the ending of the book, isolation is a thread that runs through the entire novel and becomes almost beautifully poignant in the final chapter. Kafka’s The Trial is a tour de force of isolation (although arguably not horror in the strict, classical sense). Even the tagline of Alien, “In space, no one can hear you scream”, might not have been half as effective if the horror of isolation was not such a familiar one. In the words of Joseph Conrad: “We live, as we dream, alone” (Heart of Darkness).

gravity

While these themes are prominent in horror storytelling, they are of course not restricted to the genre. However, what horror brings to the table, that other genres may not, are elements of fear and disgust. Horror deals in these elements as a rule and not as an exception. Fear/disgust can act as a shortcut, bringing the reader of horror closer to the anxieties of death and isolation than other genres typically do, such as sci-fi and fantasy. It can also provide a buffer or tool for dealing with such anxieties. Fear, unlike anxiety, is something that can be faced and conquered. By putting these ultimate anxieties front and center, surrounding them with fear and disgust to allow the reader to feel a visceral reaction that is close (but yet safely removed) to the edge of the abyss, horror allows us to be just scared enough. We can play with death and isolation, analyse them and inspect them up close (in a safe setting), before we personify them (using whichever monster that strikes our fancy) and kill them off. Horror, to me, is thus not so much niche genre as a natural part of the human condition.

 

References:
1. Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (1980) page 27
2. Irvin Yalom, Love’s executioner and other tales of Psychotherapy (1989) page 5

Salieri the villain

“I will speak for you, Father. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.”

If I had to choose a favourite film, it would be Amadeus, almost solely because of my appreciation for Salieri. It is Salieri who carries the story, Salieri who narrates, Salieri with whom we identify. Salieri is the protagonist, and Salieri is the villain.

I have pondered this film often enough to figure out why I love Salieri’s brand of villainy so much, and have narrowed it down to four reasons.

First, Salieri and Mozart are similar. They share their love for music and their ambition to compose and be applauded. They occupy the same niche, even as Mozart is vastly more talented than Salieri. A relationship, even an antagonistic one, is built upon similarities as well as differences. The shared traits are amplifiers of the conflict. Without such parallels, the hero-villain dynamic becomes a simple black and white affair, but with them, we get nuances of grey. It is in these patches of overlap that relationships become interesting, but to achieve that, there needs to be common ground. Salieri is hopelessly fascinated with Mozart’s music, adores it like no other in the film. He is touched to the core by reading the sheet music for Serenade for Winds, and while he engineers the failure of The Marriage of Figaro, he attends all of its limited performances in secret. This fuels his hatred for Mozart but also creates complicating moments of sympathy between the characters.

Second, Salieri and Mozart are different. We see Salieri in the beginning of the film, a respected composer with reasonable talent, likable, civilised: a fortunate, content man. Enter Mozart, a loud and crass man, and from Salieri’s (and therefore the audience’s) point of view undeserving of his talent. Where Salieri is reserved, Mozart is boisterous; where Salieri is knowledgeable, Mozart is ignorant; where Salieri is manipulative, Mozart is naive. Interestingly, this is perpetuated throughout the film, but increasingly in reverse. As Mozart’s flamboyance, braying laughter, thoughtlessness and tactlessness give way to a much more subdued and arguably more sympathetic character, Salieri becomes aggressive, overtly nasty (see the scene with Mrs Mozart) and cruel.

This balancing of Salieri’s villainy with the tempered Mozart is crucial to allow the two characters to stay at opposite ends of the spectrum as the story progresses. It maintains the diametrically opposite relationship and forms the contrast against which Salieri’s descent can be more clearly seen. At the same time, the love for music tethers the increasingly villainous protagonist and his increasingly sympathetic antagonist to each other, never allowing them to drift apart.

Thirdly, Salieri’s justification is clear. From Mozart’s introduction and his tactless reworking of Salieri’s welcome composition in a public and humiliating manner, we understand Salieri. Who has not felt mediocre, envious, and bitter at the success of others, and presumably with less cause? His every petty thought is relatable on some level. Upon Mozart’s arrival, Salieri’s talent is instantly dwarfed, his self-image and ambition crushed. He is humiliated and insulted. It is no great stretch to see that he wants retribution. Maybe even deserves it. Unlike weaker villains, Salieri gives us someone with whom to identify, leading us every tiny step of the way into the role of villain. It is a well-crafted slippery slope, each move so easily justifiable almost until the end. Particularly since Salieri’s jealousy is ever tempered by his love for Mozart’s music. Even in his final deceit, Salieri supports the composition whilst working to destroy the composer.

Finally, Salieri is unable to win. Even though Mozart dies, poor and almost alone, Salieri still loses and destroys himself through his own inadequacy, jealousy and rage. If the story had ended with Mozart’s burial, the film would have been a much simpler story of one man destroying another. Instead, we are given the final scene: Salieri wheeled away, old, mad and bitter, having endured a front-row seats to his own destruction for 32 years, watching himself judged by time and found lacking. All to the tune of the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor.

“Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all.”

Exit stage.

Painting the North

Kaare Espolin Johnson (1907-1994) depicted the nature and culture of northern Norway better than any other artist I know. He would typically start with a black surface, then scratch white lines in the pigment, and sometimes overlay this with paint and further lines. The result was dramatic: oddly dark and atmospheric, maybe even a bit eerie, but undeniably strong. The unusual technique sprang from a lifetime of poor eyesight, rendering his world in lights against shadow, rather than shadow against light.

I have visited galleries containing his work on several occasions, and have always come away with a sense of awe. Perhaps unintended, I have also left with the sensation of secrets and undercurrents, of history and stories untold. There is something visceral about the paintings that makes me want to pick up the pen and start writing.

It may be due to superimposing white on black rather than the converse, but these paintings tickle my love for horror. Not in the sense that I think they depict horror – they do not – but from a feeling of seeing things the wrong way around. It is that unusual, almost uncanny, quality that resonates with me. The uncanny is staple fare of horror fiction, and typically linked to representations of the self. Ghosts, twins, dolls, even zombies – they may all inhabit the uncanny valley. With Espolin Johnson, however, it is not the depicted humans or scenes I find uncanny, but the observer. Me. When I look at these paintings, it is my gaze that is the wrong way around. I find that much more interesting.