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MFA

Just Read: Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU

 

It took me quite awhile to get into this book. I was probably about one third of the way through before I really wanted to continue reading. There are a couple inherent drawbacks to reading Phantom. First, it’s from an entirely different time. When this was written, books had a different flavor, a different format. So many things that would be considered mistakes making a manuscript un-publishable (head hopping, lots and lots of exclamation points) were common. Also, this is a translation. The book was written in French, originally, and I’ve found that there are always a few issues when reading a translated work.

So when I read this book, I tried to take those two things into account. I have to admit, the head hopping got to me. From paragraph to paragraph sometimes we were in different people’s heads. As a reader of mostly modern books, this is something that isn’t common anymore. We tend to usually have a point of view character. I admit that this issue was something that really kept tripping me up.

As far as the story itself, this really didn’t strike me as horror. Perhaps I’m jaded, but I found myself more interested in it as a mystery than horrified at it as a monster tale. I’ve never seen the musical based on the book, so I really went into it with fresh eyes and no pre-conceptions. I only had the vaguest notion of the story itself. But I was an avid reader of Stephen King (of course), Clive Barker, Dean Koontz and various other prolific and scary dudes who wrote in the 80s and 90s. So I think my sense of what horror is is very much based on those books I read as a young adult. And Phantom just doesn’t make the cut for me as horror.

I did get drawn into the story because I wanted to know what the actual deal was. I wanted to know just how crazy Eric was. I was a little disappointed in his virtue at the end and how he released Christine, but it really just compounded my confusion about who and what he was. It seemed as though Leroux wanted him to be this horrible bad guy, but then didn’t want him to be this horrible bad guy. I didn’t know whether I was supposed to like him or hate him. Subsequently, I did neither.

I think Phantom would do well as a modern re-telling. I suppose there are a number of books which pay homage to this story, but I think a close re-telling with modern writing styles would make it a really interesting and attention-riveting book. So overall, I was a bit disappointed in the horror element of this one and once I suspended my issues with the writing style, I did like following the mystery of who the O.G. was and how it all got resolved. I probably wouldn’t read it again though.

Just Read: “Pickman’s Model” by H.P. Lovecraft

Horror, MFA, Writing

 

Spoiler alert: The ending is revealed in this blog post.

I’m a horror reader. I spent my teens and twenties devouring horror books like a dragon devours little men with tiny swords. I couldn’t get enough of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Brian Lumley, et al. But one glaring hole in my horror reading is the lack of Lovecraft on my shelf. I don’t know why, but I just never got around to reading the “classics” of horror. So when I found out we would be reading Lovecraft for my Horror Genre Reading class, I was excited.

Our first Lovecraft short story is “Pickman’s Model.” It’s a framed story in that the first person narrator is telling the story to the audience (really to a person named Eliot). He’s explaining why he stopped visiting with a particularly gifted artist prior to the artist’s disappearance. Though the artist was gifted, he had a habit of painting increasingly disturbing canvases featuring dark subjects such as demons and changelings.

In his last interaction with the artist, the narrator is led to a dark part of town and down into a basement which Pickman is using for his alternate studio. In this studio, he paints even more grotesque and frightening paintings. And eventually our narrator, after being scared out of his wits there, returns home to discover that Pickman’s most recent painting – of a huge, frightening demon gnawing on the head of a human – which he saw at the studio wasn’t developed from Pickman’s imagination, but was a real thing, a real model. This is the twist ending (obviously Lovecraft does it much better).

Modern audience are jaded. After all, we’re used to twist endings, a surprise plot twist that we’d never expect. So for a modern reader, the ending is a bit anti-climactic and I imagine some will find it disappointing. After all, so many stories end in this manner. But what the modern reader has to remember is that this story was written in 1926. This was before the “I see dead people” and “Who is Kaiser Soze?” stories of today. Now people expect a twist and are sometimes disappointed if there isn’t one.

So is there nothing for the modern audience? The ending isn’t entirely unexpected, but the vividness of the tale itself is something worth experiencing, as well. The framed story concept makes this even more interesting, because it seems as if we, the readers, are in a conversation with the narrator. He even addresses Eliot as if answering questions within the conversation itself, though we never see Eliot’s inquiries. We are Eliot.

This style leads to an atmosphere of excited dread. The narrator is conveying all of these terrible things he’s seen with specific details but also with the horrified enthusiasm of someone who has been fully and truly freaked out. A reader can’t help but keep reading faster in an effort to rush to the end to see what happens. I think this is a brilliant example of how to build tension in a first person narrative.

Of course, Lovecraft is renowned for his graphic descriptions of all manner of beastie. And “Pickman’s Model” is no slouch in this area either. But what I found is that Lovecraft is very sneaky. As the narrator is being shown the paintings in the personal gallery on the way down to the studio, the descriptions of the scenes are vivid and very detailed. Each room he goes through has more and more disturbing images and Lovecraft describes one or two pieces from each as we go along with the narrator. And they are very graphic. Yet when we get to the final room, the studio, and the final, horrible painting . . . there’s not much detail. It is a giant thing with red eyes, bony, scaly claws, a dog face, flat nose and curling lips. Oh and the body is caked with mold and the feet are half-hooved. And it’s gnawing on a human body, head first. But the description is almost skirted in favor of a ranting about the part that made it most gruesome – the painter’s technique. So the most horrible parts, the things that make it truly terrifying to the reader are left to the reader’s imagination. I find that brilliant, as well.

We have, I think, one or two more Lovecraft works to read later in the term. I’m looking forward to seeing how they compare to “Pickman’s Model” particularly stylistically.

The Art of Fear

MFA, SHU, Writing

 

I think humans have a number of fears which are universal. Some are the biggies: war, famine, pestilence. They’re global issues, community issues, and they’ve been around forever. We’ve heard stories, both real and fictional, about these things for millennia. Diary of Anne Frank, Saving Private Ryan, Red Badge of Courage, Angela’s Ashes, Outbreak, Andromeda Strain. They touch on our fears of destruction, of pain, of suffering. Those are deep-seated fears. But they’re also the ones that feel furthest away for most of us.

People in the United States, up until 2001, had never feared war on their soil. Most modern day people living in industrialized countries have little fear of famine or pestilence. So the movies and books which touch on these fears are still seen as entertainment. They’re far enough removed from our everyday lives that they’re not immediate. They’re almost not real.

The stories which hit closer to home are the ones that really scare us, because we have universal fears which are held very close to our souls. Abandonment, death, being alone, rejection, loss of independence (financial and personal), loss of family members, the unknown, failure. Weaving these fears into a story brings about a stronger reaction in the reader (or viewer). Why? Because they’re more real on a day to day basis.

Trusting in people could lead to abandonment, which would lead to being alone. Submitting a manuscript could lead to rejection (and, in reality, probably will at least for awhile). Random acts could lead to death, or failure, or a palpable loss. Stories about these things resonate with people because they’re even more universal than the biggies. These are things we deal with every single day as humans.

Zeroing in on these fears, as a writer, can be done with a sledgehammer or with a feather. Some of the creepiest stories seem inconsequential on their surface, but we walk away from them with their characters populating our thoughts and their circumstances weighing on our minds. What if that had been me? How would I have dealt with it? Would I have survived?

Good fear-raising stories make us question our own abilities to overcome our fears. They make us imagine how we might have come through the situation, if at all. But beyond that, a good story like that also often makes us see that our fears can be overcome. Can we overcome death? Not in real life. But we can keep our fear of it from controlling us – at least long enough to get away from the axe/chainsaw/sword/needle-wielding murderer.

Horror writing is, arguably, one of the more emotional types of writing. Because horror is the art of fear. A writer’s ability to reach out to the reader and draw out some of the basest fears is the art, like a dance. It isn’t about the blood and the gore. It’s about the deeper, emotional reaction to a metaphorical monster that frightens all of us.

I see strange posts….

MFA, SHU, Writing

 

Okay, maybe you don’t yet, but you will. I’m taking some classes toward my MFA in Writing  Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University (yes, I already have a MA from them. It’s a long story, don’t ask). One of the classes, Readings in the Horror Genre, requires that I post thoughts and observations on our readings on my blog. So if you see a bunch of (brilliant) posts on scary books or horror-ish topics, you’ll know why.

I’ll still be posting the remaining Trip Logs from Europe, it’s just going to take me awhile to finish them. We’ve still got one more post on the Netherlands, then probably three on London. Lots of pics too! So stay tuned 🙂