Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Floating Around on Her High Cloud

I didn't like The Lovely Bones. I didn't read it in high school when all the girls I knew couldn't stop raving about it. I didn't read it after the movie came out, and I didn't see the movie. But Peter Jackson directed the movie, and I thought maybe I wasn't giving the book enough credit. So, when this came up as a required reading, I went into the story with an open mind, and when I finished it, I watched the movie with only a slightly less open mind. After the reading and viewing, I still didn't the story.

Two things really disrupted my reading of this book. The first was the POV, which is easier to explain than the other. After giving some thought to the POV and discussing the issue with friends on Facebook, I concluded there are two problems with head hopping or reasons why writers are steered away from it: logic and clarity.

Logic is the reason in the story the narration jumps from character to character. It tends to be the reason writers use when arguing against head hopping, but it’s actually less important than clarity. Let’s face it, if a story flowed smoothly and was understandable, readers would have little problem with head hopping. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves serves as an example of this. Many readers would argue the story makes sense without a logical explanation of spinning around the heads of the characters. Writer’s can get away with head hopping as long as clarity is not an issue.

The real problem with head hopping is readers do not stay grounded. They don’t grow attached with a single character and are constantly floating around trying to understand how they’re supposed to be relating to the story. Logic comes second to clarity, and although The Lovely Bones explains the head hoping through the presence of a ghost, it lacks the clarity of a cohesive story. Basically, the reason the narrator's POV is a ghost feels like a gimmick to add logic to the head hopping, and the explanation does nothing for readers as they try to keep track of who is thinking and doing what at what point in time.

My second issue with the book was a bit more tricky to pinpoint. Bear with me as I try--the voice of this book comes off as an arrogant teen. On top of that, the voice takes on a too-wise intelligence, which causes the narrator to sound worse and more irritating than the epitomical conceited teen from Dawson's Creek or some other unrealistic teen melodrama.

Susie was not a vampire, but I associated her with to two vampires in popular fiction: Claudia from Interview with the Vampire and Eli from Let the Right One In. The difference between these two girls is wisdom. Claudia gains wisdom and matures due to it--she becomes an adult stuck in a child’s body. Eli does not gain wisdom and does not mature into an adult. Both characters are interesting and demonstrate the paths immortals can take. Susie’s voice attempts a third unbelievable route. She dies and almost immediately gains a superior intellect. She still partakes in childish games, like chasing dogs, but when she looks down on humanity, her balanced emotions are too mature. For instance, watching one’s mom have an affair and leave his or her family or watching one’s sister make love would incite a great deal of emotion in most people. A character such as Susie, preciously naive, should not become whimsical yet so astute, kind of like the Dalai Lama, just through death. She did not work as a character and fell apart as a narrator.

I also want to touch on the climax. Susie came back to earth just long enough to make love. This supposedly balanced her death by giving her the kind side of the physical act of love. The movie changed this scene to a kiss, and I'm glad they did. Beneath the teen romance, the book sent a terrible message regarding the types of sexual assault. Susie possessed a girl and made love using her body. The owner of the body did not consent to this act. A person intoxicated with alcohol or other drugs is not in a frame of mind to consent, and likewise, Ruth was not conscious to consent to this act with her body, so the book’s attempt to idolize this act was inappropriate. Regardless of how the book handles the topic, this form of rape is still rape. Again, the movie version used a kiss, which still worked and was much more acceptable.

The Lovely Bones was not clever, the POV did not work, and a terrible message was buried under the text. The only kudos I can give the book relates to the reactions of the family. Their reactions came off as realistic because unpredictability rings true in tragic situations. If the narrator had been a living family member, I wonder if I would have enjoyed this novel more.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Get Away Quickly: Illuminating the Horrible Messages Portrayed in The Others

I should have liked this movie. It had so many positives going for it: lots of fog, a creepy house, rare illnesses, obscure tombstones, an awesome possession scene, and ghosts. Still, I didn’t connect with this film. While watching it this time, I came to the conclusion the problem resides with the characters. Even though the film did many things right, the characters were so despicable, I couldn’t connect and truly enjoy the movie. Then, upon further examination, I realized it wasn’t just the characters. The film itself presented terrible messages, which disturbed me.

The mother, Grace, was abusive. She related to Jack in The Shining in this manner; however, Jack had redeeming qualities, at least in the start. Jack wanted to change, and he loved his family and wanted to be the best father he could. Grace cared more about social standards and herself than her family. Notice how she reacts when the priest “won’t” come visit them. Or consider the conversation she has with her children who claimed they would lie about their religious affiliations if it mean saving their lives. Instead of worrying about their safety or even mental well-being, she criticized them for not sacrificing themselves for their beliefs--they’re like ten! Of course, [spoiler] she also killed them, which really made her the villain, and the story frustrated me because she’s portrayed as somewhat of a heroine. At least Jack was painted as the bad guy in the end of The Shining. I guess these examples illustrate how, in reality, men are easily portrayed as villains when it comes to domestic abuse, yet society has a unfair misconception of women in the same situations.

The daughter wasn’t any more likable than the mother. She harassed her brother, was snarky, and overall, not pleasant. I suppose, if anything, the character was realistic since she inherited her mother’s attributes. The daughter does, at least, have the creepiest incident in the movie--her possession. This even seems suitable as a subliminal punishment or warning to change her ways. From there, even though she never becomes likable, she does change her ways--she starts to dislike the intruders, and eventually, after a few other events, builds up the gumption to escape and goes through her own path of discovery. Her initiative makes her the most interesting character, yet because she was so cranky, I didn’t shed any tears when I found out she was dead.

The brother was a bit relatable because I felt so bad for him, yet he was so young and such a coward, I didn’t find myself really captivated by him either. He seemed like a secondary character the female leads dominated in order to demonstrate their dynamics. There were also the three helpers, who I felt somewhat connected to, but they were secondary characters and were not given full characterization. There was also the father, who remained in a hazy stupor for his stay; I had to wonder if his state of mind was from the war and his death or if his family’s incorrigibility had left him a broken man. I sympathized with his hightailing it.

So, even though this move had a high-level of creepiness, I couldn’t enjoy it because I found myself hoping bad things would happen to the vile characters. However, the ending seemed like the worst-case scenario regarding my disposition. The abusive mother got to stay with and abuse her children for eternity--which is absurd when compared to The Shining where the abuser is removed from the family unit. The children in The Others were left being subjected to abuse for eternity. And the helpers were trapped being servants and doing yard work for eternity. None of the evil was resolved and all the good characters were punished. Well, except the father, who was rewarded for abandoning his family by getting away from the hell they’d created at the house. This movie has some truly disturbing messages.

Friday, March 15, 2013

You Should Be Scared: An Exhumation of The Realism Buried Beneath The Overlook

A few months ago, a friend asked me what book I’d recommend as a strong example of my genre and my view of writing in general. The answer was fairly easy: The Shining. I can’t say this is the best book I’ve ever read, and it’s not the scariest one either, but it’s one of the best examples of what horror should strive to be. I’ve seen the movies countless times, and this is the third time through the book. I read it with a more critical eye this time, and although I found some errors, I still hold this book with the highest esteem. This book gains my respect because it associates the terror of the supernatural with the horror of the natural. The story covers domestic abuse and alcoholism yet disguises them with the analogy of an evil hotel.

When the tale is dissected, the isolation of the oversized hotel becomes a dysfunctional home from a child’s perspective. The kitchen being too large, the halls stretching on forever, the yard being immense--the description of the hotel is the description of a house from an imaginative child. Even in a tight-knit community, a child can see his or her house isolated from the world, especially if the community turns away from what might be going on. In the time of this book, that might have been the case, too, which is illustrated as the doctor just accepts when Jack admits he abused his son. Times have changed, and if Jack were to admit breaking his son’s arm today, Danny would be taken away from the house. Even if Jack wouldn’t admit it, Danny would most likely be taken away on the assumption of abuse. Still, a child can feel as though no one will help.

Alcoholism is also discussed in The Shining. Jack is a reformed alcoholic with a anger-management problem; however, the influence of the hotel becomes a metaphor for his lapse into drinking. His problem becomes the emotional struggle in the story. He loves his family and tries his hardest to get his life right, but the stress of seeing his life swirling down the drain--a failing writing career and a failed teaching career--becomes too much to handle. Although the story explains Jack is corrupted by the hotel, the horror behind this analogy is that men and women can become corrupted and violent by their failing lives. The truths behind the fiction in this story ring true with realism, which makes this book frightening.

Of course, even though the book serves as an allegory for domestic abuse and drinking problems, the book does have some fantasy elements involved. My favorite scene involves such elements. This scene, which was not in either movie, relates to the terror of claustrophobia and kids getting locked in refrigerators, but the fantasy element is the imagination of a living corpse. When Danny is outdoors playing, a small avalanche imprisons him in a concrete tunnel. As he’s digging his way out, he hears sounds behind him and imagines they are coming from the corpse of another child who has died nearby. Corpses don’t come to life, but this plays on the unrealistic anxieties that spin forth when one is trapped in darkness. It’s a good example that the strongest fear is of the unknown--what Danny, and readers, imagine to be crawling in the darkness is more terrifying than being confronted with the creature. I love that scene.

The Shining might be one of the most famous horror stories ever written, and it deserves every bit of credit it receives. Its connections to the real horrors of life provide an excellent example of how horror writers can take the tribulations of life and spin them into fiction for terrifying results. It’s also a fun (if you enjoy being scared) story. It may not be the best or scariest book I’ve ever read, but it’s one of my favorites for a good reason.

Friday, March 1, 2013

A Ghostly Glimpse: The Tale Entwining the Tails of Ghost Story

I’m unsure if the phrase ghost story has become synonymous with scary story, but I remember asking my mother to specifically tell me ghost stories when I was a lad living on the dusty, wind-blown fields of Kansas. The misnomer may not be fully inaccurate, though. These stories are designed to haunt listeners much as ghosts haunt homes and tenants. Thus, Straub’s book Ghost Story lives true to its name, not because it’s full of ghosts, as the title might suggest, but because it’s full of tales that illustrate the terrors that haunt the characters and that entwine to create an all-encompassing tale readers keep with them long after they finish the story.

Ghost Story is arguably a work of metafiction; it’s a tale of a group of men who tell tales. Each of these tales was “the worst thing that ever happened to [each of them]” (Straub 38). The story turned as the worst thing the men had ever done came back to haunt them, and in turn, the worst things ever to happen to them also showed up in town. Basically, the scary stories the men tell began to literally haunt them.

This technique was fascinating as it demonstrated how a writer can diverge from his story, expand the world, and yet tie the tales back together. For example, the story of a school boy and his wicked older brother was told, and their likenesses appeared in town and haunted the area. At times I felt that the ties were too loose, too coincidental, but overall, Straub’s technique was a fine example that stories do not need linear plots. I’d also argue that this technique can be taxing on the reader and risks confusion, but it can add a terrific amount of depth to a story.

To tell this story, Straub needed to add that terrific amount of depth. This necessity was due to the need to show the existence of the evil, not just tell of its existence. Sometimes I meet people who seem to confuse the hyper-utilized rule “show, don’t tell.” Either they apply the rule to everything, though there are times the rule needs to be broken, or they quibble over line edits as a method of employing this rule. The best use of this rule is when characterization is demonstrated, not just summarized. For instance, if a woman is a great lawyer, the story needs to show her in action, not just say she’s won many cases. Worse yet, the story should not simply say, “she’s a great lawyer.” Ghost Story, similarly, shows the terrors that haunt the men and the town. It would not be enough for to simply say a monster, Gregory, was scary enough to kill. Gregory became much more terrifying as his brother, Fenny, dropped dead of fright after having a confrontation (Straub 78-79).

Likewise, as other stories built around people dying, the tension in the story built for the final confrontation with the monster. The creature itself was a shape-shifter, which meant it could take the forms of every fear presented. The only way to create a fear of a creature that can be anything is to define that creature through scary stories, or ghost stories. The book was filled with dread, yet it still concluded with the notion that facing one’s fear will belittle that fear, and in doing so, the protagonist caused the monster to turn into a wasp, which he then rips it apart (Straub 566). This ending might seem anticlimactic, but it works. The group of story tellers had already faced the monster, and defeated it, once before--they faced their fears, and this final battle was just one more step in defeating the beast. Of course, it should be pointed out that the final battle was very psychological. Without knowing for sure if the child was the monster in disguise, the protagonist was forced to kill the kidnapped girl. Making the decision to murder the child despite the uncertainty of the outcome was the challenge the book left off with. Of course, there was a happy ending.

I also wanted to mention I watched this film adaptation when I was about six years old. My sister and I happened to catch it on television at my grandparents house. It was around that time I also saw Pet Sematary. I doubt these were the first horror movies I ever saw, but they were two of the most memorable ones. I actually forgot the name of this film until I picked up the book a few years ago and realized this was that old movie. It may not be my favorite Peter Straub book--shout out to Shadowland--but Ghost Story certainly holds a special place in my heart.