Saturday, January 03, 2009

Addendum: What we learn from the House

Despite all the problems I detailed last post about Derleth's continuation, I'm glad the House fragment was published because we get some substantial information on the Conrad and Kirowan characters from it.

We learn that Conrad is a fan of a crazed poet named Justin Geoffrey, to the extent that he's investigating the man's family history and trying to find out just why he was able to write such darkly beautiful poems. It further drives home the impression that Conrad was a goth as a teenager. Not with the attitude that everyone hates him or the eternally depressed outlook some goth kids seem to have, but the sort of goth kid who only reads the work of writers who committed suicide and tries to break into the funeral parlor at 3 AM so he can see what a real dead body looks like. The really creepy kind of goth kid.

We learn that Conrad'll write to public officials in other towns requesting information about supernatural occurances, and that he knows how to phrase those questions so that those officials to answer him. He's a skilled researcher, and despite his really odd interests no one ever dismisses Conrad as a crank. Judging by the info he's gotten in The House he probably comes off as a journalist or a biographer when you meet him in person. His occupation might be somewhere along those lines.

We learn that its understood that Kirowan will accompany Conrad on any stupid venture he decides to undertake, at least as much because of his own interest as because of friendship with Conrad. One of the few lines Derleth cut from Howard's fragment was Conrad's statment about Kirowan: "I don't even bother to ask him to accompany me on my weird explorations any more -- I know he's as eager as I."

And we learn that Kirowan is five feet and ten inches tall. From there we can infer that O'Donnel and Vrolock are both at least a few inches shorter because Kirowan was described as tall in Haunter of the Ring. That really doesn't help with solving the mystery of who's narrating the other stories, but I'm a nerd and I can't help but notice little details that help me get the staging right in my head.

The Story That Should Not Be.

August Derleth is a writer both revered and reviled by mythos fans. While this man did the public service of founding Arkham House and keeping Lovecraftian horror alive, he also took it upon himself to take fragments that had been tossed aside by better writers and continue those stories after the writer's death as "collaborations." The back of my Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard collection includes an unfinished Conrad and Kirowan fragment entitled The House. My Nameless Cults collection includes a copy of The House in the Oaks, Derleth's completion of that fragment. This stroke of luck gives me the dubious honor of being able to compare both forms of the story and conclude that its for the best if writers leave unfinished works alone.

See, it wasn't actually Derleth's parts but Howard's that bogged the story down. This isn't a knock on Howard's skill, because the fragment is an unfinished unedited story. But what Derleth does for the first half of House in the Oaks is reprint all of Howard's fragment The House with only elaboration and no discernable pruning. By the time Howard stopped writing he had introduced Conrad, Kirowan, the mystery about the poet Justin Geoffrey, and the House. All necessary elements Derleth continued with when writing his story. Howard also introduced the artist Skuyler and the mayor of Dutchtown. Derleth kept both of these characters. They serve as exposition that could easily have been given by Conrad and disappear during the second act. And by that I don't mean disappear as characters are meant to disappear in a horror story, but they go off in their own directions and don't have any actual bearing on the plot.

Here's the thing:  Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft? These guys aren't normally found in English books as masters of the art form of the short story but they damned sure knew what the hell they were doing with it. These old pulp mag writers either became experts at polishing and pruning and editing their works or they didn't get published. Even paid by the word they didn't waste a single one getting the point across. Every sentance drove the point of the story home by adding to the plot or by adding to the atmosphere. So when the legendary Robert E. Howard makes a story start with four characters introduced not all at once (as a group in an argument, as he did in Children of the Night) but one by one in their own separate elements, either he's going to fucking use four characters or he's going chuck a couple of them to tighten up the story later in the drafting process.

Derleth came up with a good story, I think. But it was a two person story. There was no reason for all four of them to go to the house as the story unfolded, or even for the other two characters to have appeared in person. The exposition from the conversations with the artist and the mayor could easily have been worked into things said by either Conrad or Kirowan. Conrad was already noted as having corresponded with the mayor, any exposition or permission the character gave in person could have been from a letter. Even Skuyler's big important moment when he tries to break into the house but was stopped by Conrad could easily have been transferred to Kirowan. (I've read nothing of the character to suggest he was above property damage under the circumstances). There was no reason to have those characters there other than because Howard introduced them. Derleth should have either made use of them or cut the last two pages from Howard's prose and started his own part earlier.

No doubt Howard fans would have cried out in horror at the butchering of his words, but when has that ever stopped a writer?

Personally, I'd have preferred if he just wrote his own story because while House in the Oaks actually turns out to be a good tale its hardly a satisfying end for a character like Conrad. In it, James Conrad finds himself preoccupied by the House and spends a night there. He is tormented by dreams and ends up dying after attempting to burn it down. He only explains the matter in a letter to his good friend Kirowan.

Now, an occultist who ends up becoming obsessed with a gateway to the next world is a very satisfying story provided that occultist has not already encountered other worlds on two--possibly three--distinct occasions and been close to other people who have also encountered those worlds. I could see this happening to a brand new character, but not freaking Conrad. There is, I supposed, the slightest basis for an argument that he's a different character because he's called James in this story and John in another. But 1) character names change in drafts and 2) he's best friends with a sensible narrator named Kirowan, a guy who is understood to accompany him on any stupid errand than he embarks on.

Anyone who can read knows this isn't a fitting end for Kirowan, so Derleth's story wouldn't have worked with the roles reversed either.

I'd even go so far as to say it wouldn't have worked with O'Donnel, because while O'Donnel would've burnt down the house I can't see him following it up with suicide. I can see him following it up by digging up the oak trees by hand and then hunting down the Geoffrey family to make sure the weird genes didn't get passed on. (Because when that sort of character loses his sanity, he takes a whole bunch of people with him.)

This story would've worked with any new character, or any unfleshed out names from Howard's series like Taverel or Clemants. It doesn't seem right to off Conrad that way, though.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

December 31st, 2008

On this the very last day of 2008 I would like to take a moment to say something to the entire blogosphere: I'm disgusted with all of you.

Yes, all of you. Even those of you in the corner that don't realize I read your blogs. Yes, I'm disgusted with you.

Why? Well, I keep a very large bloglines file that I read through regularly when collecting WFA links. And in the past couple months I've taken to collecting and posting WFA on a regular basis.

Last week, Heidi MacDonald posted this (in response to a post of Caleb's on Blog@Newsarama) addressing the lack of female writers at the Big Two. She was answered by email and in a few scant places across the blogosphere. Strange, because Heidi and Caleb posted on two of the most widely read blogs in the community.

I had to search for these answers, because in my community we were discussing something else, also coincidentally brought on by a post of Caleb's on Blog@Newsarama. The thin veneer of the conversation was about legal standards for obscene material involving fictional children, the potential harm of these legal standards and appropriate punishment.

The actual conversation was about Val D'Orazio's feelings and whatever crazy thing she said this week.

I ended up with a few links to Heidi's post, a good response from Cheryl Lynn and several posts worth of links to Val. I also got one post that said that WFA was addicted to drama, which got me ranting on twitter (twanting?) about how if no one posts about anything but Val all I'll have to link are posts about Val!

The truly galling part of this--pointed out to me on Twitter by Cheryl Lynn--is that Val is the elected head of the venerable comics charity Friends of Lulu.

From the organization's website:
Friends of Lulu is a national nonprofit organization whose purpose is to promote and encourage female readership and participation in the comic book industry.


This is a worthwhile and noteworthy goal.

The conversation started on Heidi's blog--the one for which she is currently being hammered by the indie community attempting to derail the conversation from the specific topic of writers at the Big Two by calling her too negative, by bringing up artists, by bringing up how many women are in the independent comics community which all detracts from the main complaints which is that the two largest and best known comic publishers in the country--DC and Marvel--who control some of the best loved characters in our culture are neglecting to involve women in shaping their universes (Credit to this list of grievances also goes Cheryl Lynn)--falls directly under FoL's sphere of interest.

And here we are bitching (yes I said bitching with full knowledge of the misogynistic background to the term and its effect) back and forth about her feelings and how appropriate it is for the head of a feminist organization to taking her particular stance while totally ignoring the issue that is the point of that conversation.

I don't blame Val. I don't like Val, but I don't blame her for this. That would be like blaming root beer for not tasting like birch beer. Val is what she is no matter what position she holds. Instead, I blame all of us for talking about her instead of the issues we're pretending to be talking about. (Initially I just blamed all of you because I've been blogging about Robert E. Howard the whole fucking time but now you've got me blogging about Val and I feel disgusted with myself.) We should be better than this.

Happy Fucking New Year, Comics Blogosphere. You've rekindled my deep loathing of humanity.

A Thought

We were goofing around on Twitter and a thought occurred to me. The Spirit was a good property to begin with, and the Frank Miller treatment--Frankification, as it were--has reportedly drained all of the originality and beauty out of the source material. But there are properties out there--popular properties--which the exact same treatment would improve.

Just imagine...
Frank Miller's Twilight.


I think I might be able to fly with that thought.

Monday, December 29, 2008

So it's come to this... blogging about writing.

For the sake of believable narration I've spent the past four days fiddling with wording in a story. I've got the normal problems, how to reveal the setting and the setup without seeming forced. On top of that, I've settled on first-person narration as the ideal point-of-view and the main character is a fourteen-year-old girl.

And to be perfectly honest, even back when I was a fourteen-year-old girl I had a great deal of trouble getting the impression of a fourteen-year-old girl across in my writing. It's my reading history. I started out with the antiquated children's fairy tales we all did, Alice in Wonderland, the Chronicles of Narnia but rather than make my way into more modern and realistic fair I cherished the dreamy atmosphere brought about by a slightly old-fashioned narrator. When I floundered around for older reading material I found myself hunting down Sherlock Holmes stories. I went the way of the goth otherwise, devouring Edgar Allen Poe and other Victorianized literature. Kept to the same fairy tales, though the interpretations I read continued to grow up. I burrowed into the depths of the nonfiction section of the library to consume acres and acres of classical mythology and world folklore, almost all of which is recorded in the antiquated style. When finally I broke free of that library to explore the deeper realms of horror I gravitated towards HP Lovecraft rather than Stephen King.

And somewhere through all of this I developed that sort of voice. That antiquated, slightly dusty voice to my writing (and yes, even my speaking at points) that is just tough to shake.

I know that old and creepy are all acceptably mainstream geekeries, and I'm not saying for one second that I'm the only one suffering from this affliction. (There's certainly enough of us to make it a geek stereotype.) It's just disconcerting to realize that this style of writing and speaking comes so naturally that it's your natural voice, particularly when placed against the voices you hear every day at work, the normal rythm and cadence of human conversation that suits the modern mainstream era and that capturing that is what's necessary to capture the character you're trying to write. It just feeds this paradox where if you write what comes naturally to you it sounds off when you read it back, but you can't seem to naturally write what sounds right when you read it back and I needed to stop and vent a bit about that.

This is ultimately why nonfiction comes more easily. The voice sounds somewhat academic and authoritative and sounds very natural when analyzing art and literature. As part of a work of fiction? Well, this voice was developed in the reading realms of fantasy and horror from narratives specifically aimed towards creating an atmosphere of fantasy and horror. It is not a character voice, at least not for fourteen-year-old girls who aren't already little goths.

Sticking to nonfiction won't do me any good if I want to be anything more than a one-story wonder, though...

Maybe I should go with third-person limited in the future. The normal, natural voice is easier to get across in small snippets of dialogue.