NaNo Post Mortum
Sure, this is a bit delayed but the world required me to complain about teenage fiction!
Anyway, today I want to natter about my NaNo experience. In case anyone doesn’t know what NaNo is yet (and how can you not?) it’s National Novel Writing Month. It’s exactly what it says on the tin. I’ve decided to make two NaNo events official times in my life. November is my standard writing experiment while April is my “Double NaNo” marathon. Thus, April I write the first draft of something I expect to get published as it’s around 90,000 words. That leaves November as my experimental month to try something new.
My first NaNo really set the tone. I wrote it at the start of the superhero craze which is dominating popular media at the moment. I wanted to do my own Watchmen story which focused more on the real world implications and outcomes of people getting super powers. I hadn’t seen Heroes at the time but the comparison would probably work. I don’t know a lot about Heroes but in my story, a group of random individuals develop super powers after experiencing a horrific subway accident which occurs beneath a biomedical research centre. The story follows three high schoolers (because comic book idealism really only works for a teenage audience) and how developing the powers of telekinesis and regeneration wouldn’t solve all their problems.
It didn’t even turn them into crime fighting celebrities. Course, complications arose when one of their group never gained superpowers and his jealousy sort of developed into an increasing issue for the others. The kids tried to hide from these doubling real world problems by falling more and more into the personas, culminating in a confrontation with one of the survivors who was abusing her powers in a pseudo-villainous manner. That fight, however, made the primary character realize that comic book idealism just isn’t realistic and he ultimately turned himself and his friend over to the biomedical company who was gathering survivors and whisking them away to distant, isolated research labs to examine what exactly went wrong as well to contain a small group of people with abilities well beyond the average individual.
My second NaNo came about after a lengthy discussion with my sister while hiking. She is a huge fantasy buff and she made me realize that, while I do write in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre, I don’t generally hold to the standard format or setting. The closest work I’ve done are the D&D stories which I’ve posted on this blog before. But those were always just short little throw-away stories I wrote between projects. Essentially, the writing equivalent of doodles.
So, NaNo took became a traditional fantasy. Once again “realism” was brought to the forefront as I examined genre tropes and tried to apply them to a setting that focused more on hyper-realism. So, no, there were no wizards, fireballs and pointy eared elves. It was a wandering monk and outcast knight trying to navigate medieval society as they searched for evidence of the mythical and otherworldly at the behest of a bored aristocratic lord. Ultimately, the pair rubbed brashly against the established norms of the numerous Dark Ages communes which they stumbled across. Some where enlightening while others did not appreciate how neither fit their rigid definition of proper social order. This story necessitated a lot of research into medieval society itself which was highly illuminating for me.
But don’t ask my to tell you anything I learned.
This brings me to this year’s NaNo. Once again I set off to write something outside my comfort zone. This time, I was going to tackle the horror genre. I’m not a big fan of it though I do like King and Lovecraft. As with the others, I wanted to take a standard genre set-up and try and navigate it with my own voice. This story was slightly different than the other two: I had tried to write it before. I did the “Novel in a Weekend” challenge and a version of this story was the product of those efforts. Of course, due to its time frame, it was only 25,000 words and well away from anything I had hoped to construct. A full year of rumination had focused more of the narrative I wanted to tell and the story became about a young man working part of a family run ‘medium and exorcism’ business arriving at a supposedly haunted house under renovations. The story examined the relationship between the boy, his mother and the owners with very few of them actually believing in ghosts.
Course, that changed by the end of the story. I feel I learned a lot but more than anything I still feel confident in my prior assessment: horror is dead.
Granted, I am not the best person to make this proclamation. My story was, in my mind, an abject failure. Granted, all my NaNo’s are bad so in that sense, the ghost story is hardly outstanding on that front. However, I still struggled with the essence of the genre itself. As I mentioned in my analysis of Elder Signs, the hardest hurdle for the horror genre to cross is rationality. Basically, in order for my story to work, I had to systematically strip the grounded foundation in which the story was set. For the most part, my characters were too smart for the genre they inhabited. I had to subvert their cozy view of the world but the rationality for that subversion wasn’t any greater than ‘just because.’
In preparation for my novel, I read a number of blogs and articles by horror authors. I have to agree with their assessment that horror is good people making bad decisions. More than that, horror needs to press forth a world view which I inherently disagree. The way horror works is by feeding on ignorance. The primary struggle is of the protagonist standing in the dark while all manner of who-knows-what prowls around them. The hero tries to navigate the darkness with their flashlight, but that light is always on the brink of burning out. They can never truly shine the light on the noises which haunt them or else you banish the horrors which plague them.
The Horror genre ultimately plays on one of the basic, most primal emotions: fear. It and lust are the two fundamentals for an organisms survival and it does not surprise me that they can be found in equal measure in the genre. It is a body of work explicitly devoted to “the feels” and instilling in the reader those primal sensations, attempting to override the fight mechanism and send them into outright flight.
Unfortunately, I feel that we’re progressing beyond that. The human condition is far more than these primordial directives. Our lives consist more than living long enough to continue the next generation. The very act of reading a book demonstrates that. So successful have we been in an evolutionary capacity that we’re capable of more than those two extreme expressions. Hell, we’re capable of holding the flashlight in the first place. Thus, horror is trying to drag the advancement of human development back to those early roots where ignorance and bewilderment dominated decision-making. The author has to cheat in order to tear away the systematic conquering of our environment in order to reach there. It’s why supernatural opponents continue to abound in horror writing despite them never making logical sense within their own world.
For example, if ghosts were both a common phenomenon and as dangerous as they are required to be in order to induce the fear of a horror story, then people wouldn’t be surprised or shocked when they came across them. And, because of our capabilities of passing on survival instincts and information to others, we would readily pass on how to properly avoid if not outright deal with ghosts so they aren’t an issue. As the author, to knock that flashlight out, I have to heavily cheat my character in order to do so.
And this is where horror falls apart for me. It’s that the creator must rely on his “supernatural prowess” (read: the fact that the author is god and is creating a world) in order to get the story to work. So much of Lovecraft’s stories get silly with how predominant cults and dark magic is but yet every new protagonist that stumbles over it is shocked that such things were capable of existing.
Personally, I feel that within humanity at large there’s enough inherent curiosity that no new threat can remain an enigma long enough to function as a continual source of dread. There are enough people that will return to the dark with bigger and better flashlights until the entire darkness is shone away.
Now, Derek loves horror and he enjoys the breakdown of the neat and orderly world which people like me are so inclined to erect. I can understand and respect that even if I can’t share in it. Unfortunately, if I don’t find the topic sincere I don’t think I’m capable of properly doing it justice.
This isn’t to say that all horror fails for me. I think there is still enough unknown for us to be worried or concerned. Lovecraft, at his best, was in driving his characters mad. I also enjoy Sci-Fi horror and coming across alien horrors. There’s a lot out in that starry void that will be bizarre enough that I can see dread returning to our comfortable world. But for Earth and the world we live in now, we’ve driven the darkness so far back that there’s very few corners left for it to linger. We’re no longer cavemen walking out from our shelter to look on the terrifying world of wonders around us. We’ve documented, studied, built and tamed so much of it now.
And with that understanding, horror loses its grip. I don’t know, maybe there will be a way to get it to work but for now I’ll go back to my other speculative fiction. There is, of course, one deep well which I think can always be plumbed for good horror inspiration. While the world itself may become less mysterious, there is almost no end to the actions we will commit against ourselves. No matter how philosophically or ethically we advance, we will never stop being animals. It is so easy to dismiss papers and documents and fall back to those primal instincts, letting disorderly cruelty rule than refined rationality.
That, truly, is a terrifying thought for me.