Tuesday, February 26, 2013

STL #109: Father and Son, and Some Exercises for Editing

Like last week, I am writing on a strict deadline (I just spent 30 seconds dithering between "strict" and "tight" and then picking the word "dithering"--time to move on). This style might be appropriate because one of the two writers I want to talk about probably writes with minimal editing, letting words pour out without agonizing them. I'm talking about Stephen King, the old man on the mountain of horror fiction (the mountain being made of words he has written). The other writer I think might be a little more judicious (I had "measured," but that doesn't project the quality of character (not character attribute") that  I want--on with it) though I think his novel could be trimmed too. This other writer I is Stephen King's son, Joe Hill.

Both writers are clearly horror genre writers, though of different generations of course. They are both well beyond the raw weirdness of pulp writers, but not a part of the 'cooked' type of mainstream novelists for whom horror is just a trope ("really, aren't the only real monsters of our own making? Another glass of chardonnay?") Both King and Hill I'm sure recognize the metaphorical implications of horror fiction, but they also really want to scare the shit out of their readers. Hill's novel, Heart-Shaped Box, had some of the scariest scenes I read last year--the ghost on the radio, the girlfriend with the pistol... as far as the scare-factor goes, I might only add a scene in John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel The Harbor in which two supernatural rednecks drown a girl in a mop bucket, and scenes with Pennywise the clown from It (see below). HSB  is maybe a little two long, and the explanation of the haunting is disappointing, but for pure scariness it really delivered. It took me longer to read because I had to stop reading it at night before bed. 

As I said I got spooked by It, too. I may have mentioned that I read four King books last year-- my first (and maybe last) four ever: Carrie (sketchy, in the sense of undeveloped), The Shining (good characterization of Jack Torrance, but the fact that King was figuring it out as he goes along really shows), and On Writing (fine) were the others. The Shining and It were both good, but also too long. The worst thing a horror novel can do is explain to much, and late in It the characters travel back in time to see this great evil land on planet earth (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE!!!). Somehow Lovecraft, in his raw state, can get away with something like that, but my point is that even if this scene doesn't detract it certainly doesn't add, and the novel would benefit by losing at least  200 pages. I've heard this verbosity has gotten even worse as King career progress and his editors stopped bothering to tell him to cut (because a)they were too busy counting their money and b) apparently editors don't do that anymore.) I imagined teaching a creative writing class in which It is used for a series of editing exercises. Keeping every sentence, reduce a portion the text by 10, 20, 35 percent. Reduce the novel by 20 percent by selecting sentences to strike. Reduce the novel by 35 percent by deleting chapters. Reduce the novel by 50 percent by deleting chapters, sentences, words. And so on. I think any of these exercises could be done, and the result would be better.  

I'll be moving on from this disquisition into horror next week. While this year I'm planning on delving into fantasy in an organized way, I still plan on reading more horror. So where to next? Though I said I might not read more King, thinking about how his novels would be better if shortened subliminally convinced me to try some of his short stories, like his early collection Night Shift or the novellas in Different Seasons (or Danse Macabre a nonfiction book about horror, for further recommendations). I might also try Hill's short stories in 20th Century Ghosts. In fact, I can easily put together a little list of short stories, from M.R. James to Joyce Carol Oates (Nightside  is the name of one collection, and there's another I can't recall) to a writer named Thomas Ligetti who sounds interesting (Songs to a Dead Dreamer). To that, I would add Shirley Jackson (based on Lethem's recommendation), Peter Straub's Ghost Story and a book by Andrew Vachss, who I know as an ultra-hard boiled crime writer, called Sacrifice