17 January 2013

Unusual Plots of the Early 20th Century

So there's this idea out there that every story that can be written has been written, and there's no truly new or innovative story left. It may be true that there are some well-worn paths through the Forest of Story, and it may even be that there's a superhighway shooting through it (I think I'll call it Chosen One Road, with major routes through the towns of Don't Go Down There It's Not Safe and Happily Ever After....Or Was It?). I am even a champion of the idea that you don't have to be original in your ideas and plots in order to tell a good story. Shakespeare wasn't. It's just that he knew how to treat a story right. (Most of the time. I still think Much Ado About Nothing is a bit of a hot mess.)

Anyway, I've been doing my best to do a lot of short story reading lately, and in the name of having complete coverage in the field of horror, I picked up The Century's Best Horror Fiction (Vols. 1 and 2), edited by John Pelan. This monster of an anthology is unwieldy, my friends. It is not the kind of book you take with you on the bus. It is a commitment.

The fact is, though, that it is also lovingly and knowledgeably curated. Pelan's task was to select one story from each of the years of the 20th century, the best that each year had to offer. His only limit was that any given author could only be represented once. The stories are absolutely wonderful. The results are well worth reading. (Sure, you can pick up some of the more popular early stories online for free, but you can't get them all, and you won't get Pelan's terrific editorial notes on each one. I've worked on similar anthologies in the past. It is a lot of painstaking work to put something like this together.)

What's really interesting about the earlier stories is that among them are some of the best-worn horror tropes. (He was really a ghost! Be careful what you wish for! The family curse is real!) There are also some stories that are just quirky enough or somehow maybe not easily represented on film or...something...that I've never quite seen their type before. For sheer audacity of storytelling and a pretty creepy use of a framing device, you must read Arthur Machen's "The White People." If you haven't read it before (and I hadn't), you're in for a treat. Last night Dave and I read "Thurnley Abbey" by Perceval Landon, a writer Pelan identifies as a kind of one hit wonder. Despite a long preamble, "Thurnley Abbey" is such a revelation. I was really glad that I was reading it aloud to Dave, since it has a moment of such total absurdity that I needed a witness to share it with me. Really weird ghost story.

It's just so nice to know that, once upon a time, there was something that could maybe only have been said in that storytelling moment, and it was said, and it was a pretty unique thing unto itself. I don't want to say more than that, because I don't want to spoil it for you guys if you're inclined to go read either of those stories. If you've read them, let's discuss in the comments.

13 January 2013


Oh joy! Oh bliss! So there's this new horror movie, Mama, coming out. Guillermo del Toro produced it, and I must say I'm excited. It's been a tricky couple of weeks over here at command central, since we haven't been able to haul ourselves out to the movie theatre. Yesterday we seriously considered Zero Dark Thirty or Gangster Squad...such is our sadness. It's been all downhill since Django Unchained.

Anyhoo, a new horror movie with del Toro's thumbs up is all good to me. Here's a little taste of the short film that inspired it.


06 January 2013

My Big Break

Caveat lector: this post includes some detail about physical injury. If you're squeamish about these things, please don't read this! ETA: I mention this later, but the accident I'm describing happened a couple of decades ago, so I am absolutely fine. 

In my last post (a million years ago), I mentioned that I've experienced a pretty serious accident that resulted in a lot of injury to my upper body. Some of you asked about that or commented on it, so I thought I would elaborate on it for a few reasons: first, it is a dramatic tale about me, and, uh, this is my blog. Second, if you've never suffered a serious injury, broken bone, or skull fracture, it might help you to know what it's like from a writerly perspective. If you're not a writer, it might help you to know what it's like from a human perspective. Finally, although I was a horror / grimdark fan before the accident, going through such a visceral experience really helped me appreciate body horror that much more.

Also, because of this event, I am a cyborg. (Or, at least, titanium-reinforced.)

Here's what happened. In the summer between second and third year university - about 22 years ago - I moved back home with my parents. Second year of school was the first time I'd lived away from home, and that was really good in all the ways that a first taste of independence can be. Moving back in with them, not so much fun. I wasn't having much luck finding work, and I wasn't sure how to go about supporting myself when I moved out in third year. Also, I had fallen in love with someone deeply inappropriate for me, and who I knew my parents didn't like.

To soothe myself, I got into cycling. I rode my bike all over the small town where my parents lived and deep into the concessions and farmland outside of town. I felt a sense of freedom on the bike that I couldn't feel in my living situation. It was a weird summer, full of arguments and testiness and ingratitude and the kinds of big feelings one has at age twenty.

One day in late July, my dog escaped from the backyard. He was a little white terrier, the dog my parents gave me when I was thirteen. He was pretty much the only family member with whom I wasn't chronically annoyed that summer. It wasn't anybody's fault: the gate latch just hadn't caught. My mom and I set out to find him. She took off in my grandmother's Toyota. I got on my bike. At a major intersection in town, I was trying to turn left. The oncoming car was turning left too, so no problem. As I was heading into my turn, a van pulled around the oncoming car and sped through the intersection. It struck me, or I struck it - things get fuzzy at this point. Basically, I bounced off it, flew twenty feet, and crumpled into the road.

For years, I had vague impressions of what happened in the next couple of hours. Those impressions seemed dream-like, or as if I had made them up: a certainty that I was going to die; a memory of swearing at people who were reaching to touch me; a trip in an ambulance; people shouting. Later on, I worked with a hypnotherapist to recover the memories and to release some of the trauma associated with the accident. I know now that what I thought I'd invented was the memory. It was just shrouded in a kind of veil, where I couldn't access it directly.

I was taken to a burn / trauma unit. They didn't give me pain meds because I had a head injury, and they needed  to figure out how bad it was first. My experience of having a severe injury and no medication is that I seemed to retreat into a little room in my mind, where the pain wasn't really directly accessible. Whatever I was going through, I think didn't really get written into memory, or wasn't experienced directly. When people talk about prey animals going into a kind of trance as they die, I think about what happened to me during those hours. Nature has its mercies.

Eventually they took me in for surgery. I remember sucking hard on the anaesthetic. I wanted to be knocked out.

Sum total, these were my injuries: two broken wrists; one broken elbow, one smashed elbow; one broken humerus (that was a compound fracture, my only compound fracture); one broken collarbone; one broken head. I was not wearing a helmet. (Sue me: I was trying to save my dog.) My brain was pretty much fine. The fracture was hairline. It bled like a mofo, though, so much so that the blood poured out of my ear and knocked loose my bones of hearing. Those are the little bones that sit in your ear canal and amplify sounds. The accident partially deafened me. I also lost my sense of smell - caused by damage to the sensory area of the brain - but it eventually returned. (This is a pretty interesting phenomenon: more info here).

Because everything was stabilized through plates and pins, I was able to start moving my right arm very soon after the accident. There was more swelling in my left arm, which prevented me from using it at first, but it soon followed. I had a big bruise on the inside of my left leg where the bicycle seat had hit me as I flew off the bike, but that was my only lower body injury.

The doctors told my parents that I would be in the hospital for five weeks. They told them to tell me it would be three weeks (I had a bit of a bad attitude about the hospital). I was out in two. I think the main reason for this is that I was in relatively good shape when I had the accident. After all, I'd been cycling all summer. I was able to hook my feet under the metal rung at the end of the hospital bed and use that to sit up. I was soon walking around freely. Miraculously, I didn't experience any vertigo. A few days and a blood transfusion after the accident, I was feeling pretty energized. The pain was bad, the hospital food was terrible, but I was healing. I went home after two weeks.

The dog, by the way, was fine. Somehow he crossed the highway on his own without anything like the problems I'd had. One of my cousins spotted him trotting down the street. She nabbed him, checked his tags to verify that he was indeed our dog, and deposited him back in our yard.

There were a few long term aftereffects from the accident. I went on my own course of rehabilitation after the surgeon who worked on me turned out to be a bit of a dick. I took up tai chi, and that, as it turned out, opened up a huge vista of all kinds of cool stuff for me. I suffered from PTSD for a lot of years, which mostly involved feeling really nervous any time I had to cross the street. I don't much care for cycling, although I can do it and do somewhat enjoy it, so long as I'm nowhere near car traffic. I have a good sense of what it's like to be wholly dependent on others for the little things you take for granted (brushing your teeth; independent bathroom usage; feeding yourself). I was told that I would have arthritis by the time I was thirty-five. I didn't, and I still don't, mostly because I stretch all the time. I was also told that the range of motion I had six months after the accident was all I'd ever have. That was also not true - see above re: stretching all the time.

A lot of people who pursue a spiritual path (as I do) will talk about an event in their lives that really started them on their path. One of my mentors calls it your "Mac truck moment." I think of my accident as a big spiritual redirect. Without the accident, I might have taken a lot longer to try tai chi, and thus might have taken a lot longer to learn about energy and energy healing, about the holistic approach to healing, and about meditation. In the context of my life as a whole, that's how I assign meaning to this absolutely dreadful event. In the context of my life as a writer, it goes into the big bundle of things I've experienced that will probably show up in my fiction at some point.

Questions: ask 'em if you've got 'em. Stories of your own: tell 'em if you want.