|If you squint really hard, you can see Gozer standing at the top.|
I've been thinking about the relationship between history and fiction this week, especially thanks to a post by Eileen Wiedbrauk over at Speak Coffee to Me.
As a former literary scholar, I have a strange relationship with history. I've played in archives. I've held 400 year old manuscripts in my hands (and been dismayed as tiny bits crumbled off the edges, but shhh...no one was supposed to know about that). But any research I did into history was always performed not in order to discover facts or truths about the past, but to help me understand literature better. Why did people write what they wrote? That was what I was seeking to understand. When you study literature, it's always in service of interpretation, rather than cold hard facts.
So when Eileen complained about the intrusion into a perfectly decent witch / vampire / time travel novel she was reading of "passages where it feels like the author stopped writing a novel, and started writing a paper," it really got me thinking. What is the ideal relationship between history and fiction?
Here's my tentative theory. Only a history buff is going to care if you get the little picky details right, or which version of "the facts" you decide to use in your story. As a reader, I am much more interested in how you use history to engage me in your story. To that end, it matters way less to me that the history is accurate or even remotely true than how that history plays out in the novel.
The last two novels I've read have been ghost stories. One was The White Devil by Justin Evans and the other (which I'm in the middle of, and totally in love with) is Audrey's Door by Sarah Langan. Both feature main characters who perform historical research in their efforts to figure out why they are being haunted. I recommend both, but my point here is that these books have complex relationships with history.
In The White Devil, Evans draws on a couple of different interludes in the biography of Byron - yes, the poet - to create a quite creepy ghost. He confirms that Yes, All that Stuff about Byron Is Really True in an article on his website, but qualifies that immediately: "Or most of it." I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but Evans makes it quite clear that he has mashed historical figures together with his school experiences in England in service of his story. In other words, he's painting with history rather than sticking pedantically to the "truth."
Sarah Langan takes the use of history a step further in Audrey's Door, a book that features a building that seems designed to hold disturbing energies. As far as I can tell, she pretty much made up a style of architecture for the novel (a satanic style, no less). Like Evans's website, the site for Audrey's Door offers up some historical backdrop. Chaotic Naturalism sounds like a valid name for a style of architecture, doesn't it? The article I've linked to there even appears researchy, and goes so far as to offer a small bibliography. Some of the links are real; but the relationship between these slices of history and the history constructed in the novel is ephemeral at best. There are hints of intersections with reality. On another page, Langan mentions "Medium and Occultist Helena Blavsky," a clear riff on the name of Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the spiritualist group The Theosophical Society. This is not history: it's a super-clever riff on history.
(The links to Ivan Reitman's and Harold Ramis's IMDB pages, contained in the bibliographies, are clever - who ya gonna call? I see what you did there, Sarah.)
In the book itself, Langan has constructed an impressive array of faux-historical documents as background to the story. Each one of them builds tension. Each one could have been taken from the pages of an academic journal or a newspaper. If some of them were real, I wouldn't be surprised at all.
Do you see how brilliant this is? By nestling her novel's history in real world history, Langan has freedom to create story elements that suit her needs, but still feel real. She's obviously done her research, but she's used it for inspiration rather than staying wedded to it.