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.


Andrew Leon said...

I've never been all that into horror, although I do like some Poe. There's probably more, but I don't know what it would be.

I like Much Ado, but, you know, it sounds like Billy titled it appropriately based on your opinion of it.

Deborah Walker said...

Wow I'anthology sounds great. I'm really tempted to get it. But soooo many things to read.

However you've inspired me to look up 'The White People.' I'll be back!

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Andrew: There are some sublime aspects to Much Ado, but I think Wee Willy failed to recognize that the most powerful part of the play - Beatrice and Benedick - should have been the main plot. I mean, who really cares about Hero and WhatsHisFace?

I'm a bit surprised by your horror comment...isn't your stuff kind of horror-ish?

@Deborah: "The White People" is so weird and amazing. I hope you are cool with Huge Blocks of Text.

Andrew Leon said...

Well... House is not. It's fantasy.

Shadow Spinner is also fantasy, but it's probably something like horror fantasy, because there are definitely some horrific elements.

Mostly, I'm just dissatisfied with horror that I find. Often (most often, these days), it's really just gruesomeness disguised as horror, and that's not appealing to me at all. Or it's all fluffy horror with misunderstood creatures, and that, also, is not appealing to me at all.

I'm more of a Hitchcock-style horror fan, and that's hard to find done well.

Elizabeth Twist said...

I heartily recommend The Century's Best Horror Fiction as a resource for non-gruesomeness or semi-gruesomeness driven by ideas.

I'd also suggest that horror fiction isn't in the same space as horror film these days. If you're interested in pursuing a little more contemporary reading, John Joseph Adams's Nightmare Magazine has some really great stuff in it. The horror stories in Clarkesworld are equally thoughtful. In terms of the written word, there isn't all that much torture porn or splatterpunk proportional to more subtle horrors, and where things do get torture porny or splatterpunkish, they are often still thoughtful.

Deborah Walker said...

Oh my. Well I gave it my best shot. I really did. It was just impenetrable to me. Which was kinda disappointing, because I've always heard that Machen was the weird writer's writer.

Some elements were cool, but I just couldn't slip into the narrative dream, and it was hard work for me.

Mina Lobo said...

Haven't read the stories, so better not read the comments. But I'm interested! :-) Also, v. cool that you and Dave read to one another. I read to my son from the moment he was able to hold his head upright till he broke my heart when he turned 13 and announced that he didn't need me to read for him anymore. Wah.

Georgina Morales said...

I also think that you don't need to be very original but you need to be extremely good. However, I also think that there are millions of new ideas. Brand spanking new ideas out there that we can't see. Why? Well, only those with a vision can. And when they write those new story arcs for us, they uncover our eyes. It is only the visionaries that can write those new stories that will change the whole ball game. Ask the next Steve Jobs, s/he knows I'm right. ;)

Catherine Stine said...

Thanks for these recommendations. I've been delving into horror (Hawthorne, Poe, Rossetti) and really enjoying it, so I wrote these books down and will check 'em out!

Fantasy Writer Guy said...

BLOG CHALLENGE from Fantasy Writer Guy!

Too many young people are packing up their instruments because they perceive that musical pursuits are in conflict with more legitimate career pursuits, or otherwise losing sight of their musical dreams. Too many beautiful songs will not get written! Please help me try to change that:

Please blog about the most meaningful musical experience you’ve had in your life; an event, song, album, band or concert perhaps. Maybe it was music of your own creation. Anything in the realm of music which changed you or inspired you or was very special in some way: Your own proof that music is a positive and vital part of the human experience.

Please include the following links in your post so that your readers may also have the opportunity to participate!
or email:

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