Peace, Monsters, and Workshop

Quickie reviews of three recent(ish) reads.

Occupied City by David Peace.  Occupied City is the follow-up to Tokyo Year Zero (one of my fav reads of ’08, and a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Awards).  It’s 1947, and a man walks into a bank, claiming to be an Occupation authority, saying that dysentery has broken out in the neighborhood and that everyone in the bank needs to drink his medicine to be protected/inoculated.  The result is a mass poisoning (linked to previous war crimes) that it is the center of the novel.  We experience the murders (pre, during, and aftermath) from 12 different POVs.  The narrative structure is dizzying at times, but always mesmerizing, and like nothing  you’ve read before.  Peace is a new favorite writer of mine.

On Monsters by Stephen Asma:  Less an individual history of famous monsters and creatures of folklore, but more a history of the monster and the monstrous.  Asma does a particularly nice job linking social morays and beliefs with our need to create “the other” throughout the history of civilization.   Highly recommended for monster and social philosophy geeks alike.

Writers Workshop of Horror edited by Michael Knost:  From a small/indie publisher comes a solid compendium of essays and how-to’s from a wide range of horror authors and critics.  I thought the contributions from Mort Castle, Joe R. Lansdale, Brian Keene, Ramsey Campbell, Robert N. Lee, and Jack Haringa (who’s essay is alternately titled, Lies the Internet Told You) were the standouts.

I didn’t agree with every essay/how-to.  For me, that’s part of the fun of this kind of book.  Confronting ideas about fiction, how it works, or doesn’t work.  But there was one essay I hated.  Like wanted to punch a wall hated.  From G. Cameron Fuller’s “The Power of Setting and Description”:

when it comes to primary characters, the less described the better.  Most of the time, especially in genre fiction the main character becomes functionally a stand-in for the reader.  As the story progresses, if the writer is doing the job right, the reader increasingly identifies with the main charcater.

As a consequence, the reader begins to subconsciously imagine the main character as looking, more or less like the reader…. The more colorful the main character–weighs 790 pounds, walks with a pronounced limp, speaks in riddles–the less likely the reader will identify.  And the less the reader identifies , the less likely the reader will feel what the main character feels...”

This is all part of the longer argument within the essay that a horror story equals atmosphere.  It’s all an utter steaming pile of bunk.  I would hope that any beginning writer reading his essay would know that it’s bunk, too.

It’s so wrong I don’t know where to start, really.  What galls me the most about the above snippet is the insinuation that yeah, all readers are just like you, right?  They’re all the same, and they all bring the same personal, gender, and cultural experience to your cipher-character.

Um,  you know, people, we look different, act different, experience different things, and that’s okay.  The differences are  important, and are to be accepted and respected, not ignored, and they should be addressed in your fiction.  Sorry, but you’re creating weak fiction by not making your main character, you know, a real character.

Jesus, man, it’s not about identifying with the main character.  Not ever!  At least not in any fiction worth a damn.  Your job as a writer (no matter the genre) is to–within the framework of the story–to make the reader empathize or want to understand your character and your character’s experience.


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