There’ve been a fair few enquiries about this lately. I would just like to report that the matter of ebooks is in hand, and steps are being taken. Plans are in development, and preparations are in an active mode. Talks are said to be ‘at an advanced stage’, emails have been sent (and, indeed, received), and there is generally an increasing sense that further progress can be expected.
Sheep is likely to be the first title, followed by Virgins and Martyrs, A Sickness of the Soul and Methods of Confinement. Sheep should, all things being well, be available by March 2012.
It would be fair to say I struggle with plot. I really do. One of the reasons is that I just don’t care that much about it. It’s never what really interests me.
Some of my favourite books don’t have plots. Obvious examples would include Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, of course, but also more recent examples. Independence Day (Richard Ford), Hawksmoor (Peter Ackroyd), Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf), just to take examples at random. These have no plot, in the sense of a sequence of events and situations that lead consecutively to an end. They just give you some life, some vivid representation of what it feels like to be alive.
Whenever I read anything, I am always uncomfortably aware of the clanking plot machinery going on in the background. I just had to abandon reading a bestselling thriller by ‘one of our leading crime writers’ because I could see, not only exactly where it was going, but that that was all it was going to do. Characterisation, description, mood, atmosphere, sense of place: nope, just the story. There might have been some pallid pleasure in finding out if I was guessing right or not about the trajectory, but, ultimately who cares? I could invent my own ending. Who cares what such a bad author wants the story to be? And yet clearly, a great many people do.
I ploughed all the way to the end of a Jeffery Archer novel once, in the vain hope of working out what other people see in him. There were four ‘characters’, all of them simple cardboard cutouts with names attached to them. One of them was going to win an election, and I imagine you were supposed to be busy guessing which one. But again, how could anyone care which of four interchangeably one-dimensional characters ultimately won? The author clearly didn’t: they were simply a means to his tiresome end, and were no more than shop dummies with different coloured suits on. (I think the blue one won, but I couldn’t swear to it.)
There is a theory that men go for plot, women go for character. (A creative writing teacher recently reported that one of his male students had told him he would ‘fill in the characters later’.) I suspect there’s more to it than that, though. People go to books for a huge variety of reasons, and plot is just one of them. But film and TV have prioritised plot over everything else, to the extent that ‘what is it about?’ now can only mean: ‘what is the story?’ I think that’s a shame. Book are about life, and life hasn’t got a plot, it just goes on for a bit, there’s some shouting and drinking and so on, and then it, sort of, stops (round about page 235, just after the chase but before the shock twist that makes sense of it all). Plot is just a lie we tell ourselves that things have an order, a logic, a (deep breath) meaning. Well guess what, they don’t.
I read an interview with Keanu Reeves once. He was having what appeared to be a very, very bad day. ‘What is your new film about?’ he was asked. Long Pause. ‘It’s about the human condition,’ says Keanu. ‘Tell me about your next film.’ Long pause. ‘It’s about the human condition,’ says Keanu, at which point he gets up and starts, slowly and gently, to bang his head against the window. But that’s my answer from henceforth. ‘What’s it about?’ ‘It’s about the human condition.’ End of.
No one ever ‘munched’ anything. People eat. They, on occasion, may eat with a certain relish, possibly even an unattractive avidity. And of course some people are just nasty eaters. But ‘munching’? Don’t believe I’ve ever seen it done. It has a cloyingly false ring to it. It has a wet-lipped, smacking-your-chops feel, a cartoonised version of pleasure. It’s like watching Keanu Reeves trying to ‘act’. Coupled with ‘delicious’ (‘He munched a delicious sandwich’,) its baleful power is monstrously amplified, morphing it into an intolerable, unprincipled assault on all that is decent. Stop it.
I think Martin Amis says somewhere that if you do ever see someone grinning, run like the wind. It simply would not be an acceptable expression, in any imaginable circumstance, the sole exception perhaps being that you are a spree killer toying with his victim whilst The Carpenters plays quietly in the background. As for the ‘mischievous grin’ which seems to survive in some secret bunker of the collective unconscious, I pray I may never witness it. And if I ever do, I’m going to smack it square in the gob.
Laugh (as a verb of speech: “What?” he laughed.)
Try it some time. Just try doing it. You’ll find that you are either laughing or speaking, but if you are achieving both simultaneously you are playing with forces you barely begin to comprehend: you are a profoundly troubling new development in the species. Anatomically it is just not on the cards, but there’s more: to ‘laugh’ a comment would be to behave in such an unendurably smug manner that you wouldn’t survive the week without injury or – better – death. How could anyone bear the company of anyone else for even a minute if people were ‘laughing’ their comments to each other? There would be a species extinction event, as perfectly tolerable conversations descended into spurting, gleeful slaughter, sickening orgies of bloodletting. Is that what you want? ‘He joked,’ ‘he chuckled’ and ‘he chortled’ are just the gibbering idiot cousins of ‘he laughed’ and should never be approached from behind.
Jot (as in ’to jot some notes’)
Jot. Jaunty little number isn’t it? ‘Oh I just jotted some notes down.’ It’s not the same as ‘making’ some notes, no, ‘jotting’ is the pepped up, bright-as-a-button, prettiest-cheerleader little sister of ‘making’ notes. ‘Jotting’ exists on a wholly different plane of being, one that is composed entirely of bubble gum and gymkhana trophies and neat little notebooks with shiny pink covers. ‘Jotting’ is an activity which only the pert, the primped, the intolerably perky are qualified to perform. If you see someone ‘jotting’, or even just suspect that they are about to, break their fingers. This simple, robust precaution should be sufficient to prevent any further incidence, at least temporarily.
‘Make’. ‘Make’ notes.
I have spoken.
A study by psychologist Adah Maurer in 1965* showed that childhood fear of ‘wild animals and spooks and the supernatural’ peaks at age 6, and has largely disappeared by age 11 and 12, to be replaced with a fear of ‘people’ (ie, bad people). The study suggests that what we fear as young children is improbable, fanciful events, such as being mauled by a bear or seeing a ghost. What we fear as older children is starting to reflect our more adult understanding of the world: there probably isn’t really a bear outside, or a monster under the bed, but there could easily be a bad man nearby. The six year old fears live on in masquerade form as Halloween.
Mainstream horror – vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts – puts these six year old fantasies centre stage. Far from being an attempt to scare us, it is an attempt to soothe us, to tell us that everything is alright. By deliberately relocating the object of fear from a real life possibility (such as, for instance, lonely death), to a carnival of grotesques, familiar since early childhood, it seeks to persuade us that our fears, really, have no validity. We are playing with our outgrown terrors, inventing colourful and exotic versions of fears we have long since overcome. Practising, perhaps. Pretending.
Recently, horror has embraced simpler, gorier, sillier scenarios: the Saw franchise for instance, and The Human Centipede. But again, these are pantomimes of fear, tongue firmly in cheek (literally, in the case of The Human Centipede). Horror fiction, no matter how extreme it strives to be, cannot of course compete with the visceral, sickening jolt of real life – what you can see on the news any day of the week – and makes no attempt to do so. Most of the time it is content to stay in safe, comfortable territory, with clearly defined, clearly identifiable monsters, and rules for how they can be defeated. These monsters have become set, made rigid and inflexible and harmless through constant re-use. They are nursery figures, unchanging, well-understood, unthreatening. If we fear what we don’t understand, then we have nothing to fear from this kind of horror fiction, because we understand it all too well. We should do: we lived it (when we were six). Mainstream horror doggedly lumbers on, preferring to become a kind of heritage spectacle of creaky old tropes.
This is perhaps why it is so easy, and so tempting, to parody it. The history of horror parodies is as long and respectable as the genre itself: as early as 1824, a mere 6 years after the original, a spoof called Frankenstitch was a popular hit in London. Jane Austen parodied Gothic romance, the 18th Century’s version of horror, in Northanger Abbey (1818). Horror has danced uneasily hand in hand with parodies of itself since its inception. Southpark: The Ungrounded, a spoof of the Twilight franchise, is a notable recent example. The teen slasher phenomenon has always had a knowing sense of its own absurdity, and is happy to parody itself.
I would hope it doesn’t need saying that some horror fiction is excellent, and is the result of a serious-minded attempt to grapple with fundamental human issues: fear of contagion, shame, defeat, disgrace, loss of status, loneliness. Spend any time at all in the genre and you will find work of depth, brilliance, daring and originality. But such writing will always be marginal to the genre, and for the most part mainstream horror fiction is content to be unreflective, undemanding and uninvolving. Everyone will have authors and stories they champion: for the record, I would defend Stephen King’s Apt Pupil to my last breath as a great piece of writing, of any kind. But it would be hard to claim, on current evidence (Human Centipede, Twilight, The Walking Dead) that this is a genre that is currently in robust good health, bursting with new ideas. Box office may be great: creatively, though, what you hear is the sound of bottoms of barrels being scraped, again and again. In troubled times, people seek the familiar, and that’s what these old stories deliver. Not fear, but actually the opposite of fear: certainty.
The fundamental problem, I think, is one of shape. A monster story really only has one way to go. It doesn’t matter whether vampire, mutated lizard or psychotic torturer: a monster is a monster is a monster. They will attempt to harm us, we will be partially defeated by them, then we will mount some kind of fightback. We will succeed, but they will come back in the final frame. Ready for their sequel. There just isn’t much else a monster story can give you, because monsters, by definition, are not human and so do not share human characteristics. They remain stubbornly ‘other’, unavailable for psychological inspection, in much the same way that a plank of wood is. What motivates a zombie? What motivates a psychopathic torturer? Questions in fiction are always ‘why’ questions: why did he do that, why did she think this? But mainstream horror fiction takes away the possibility of these ‘why’ questions by removing the very quality that would make them germane: psychology. A ghoul or a vampire or a psychopath hasn’t got any psychology, because if they had they would become human, and if they were human they would be messy, complicated, unpredictable. Real. Horrifying, in fact.
If you have only got one story shape at your disposal, things are going to get repetitive fast. Once you’ve been on one ghost train, the next one is not likely to hold too much in the way of surprise. Mainstream horror fiction is, seemingly, condemned to endlessly re-enact the same few tattered nursery fantasies, never quite being able to render them as anything other than fancy dress outfits, put on in a spirit either of nostalgia or kitsch or affectionate mockery. But what any of this has got to do with fear – real fear, the kind of incapacitating, debilitating anguish that grips us all sometimes in the middle of the night – is far from obvious. For that, you will need to look outside of the genre. Because mainstream horror fiction doesn’t appear to want to scare us at all, but rather to reassure us.
Unless you’re six, of course, in which case you probably shouldn’t be watching it.
(*Maurer, A: What Children Fear, Journal of Genetic Psychology, Vol 106, pp265-277)
‘I, Vampiryirya, have come to collect my dry cleaning.’
‘Okie dokie then. Have you got your ticket poppet?’
‘Ticket? I have no ticket! I, Vampiryirya…’
‘No problem, I’ll just have a look on the computer. When did you bring it in?’
‘It was when the moon was at its apogee, when the owls filled the darkling vault of the sky, when the…’
‘Was it within the last fourteen days? Cos if it was longer than that it’ll have gone off the system. If it’s not collected within fourteen days it’ll have been put in the back.’
‘It was a day of tempest, a day of torment, a day of ecstasy…’
‘What, when we had that really heavy rain? That was, hold on, last time it really pissed down was Monday before last, I remember because I was booking my holiday on my lunch hour and all my brochures got soaked.’
‘Monday? All days are days of sorrow. For I am Vamp…’
‘So that’d be the 8th then. I’ll have a look for you. Could I just have that name again?’
‘My name is Va…’
‘Hold on, I have a Ms. V. Ampiryirya.’
‘Ms?’ She laughed scorn at the assistant, swirling her raven tresses, thick as blood, black as night. ‘Do you not see the bloodstone on my finger? I am the bride of darkness, the bethrothed of pain…’
‘Oh sorry, he must have taken it down wrong. So it says here it was three tartan wool skirts, and a floral duvet cover, yeah?’
‘You would mock me!’ Vampiryirya flashed her eyes, those pools of molten pitch, like the tarns at the gates of hell, like the pits of endless night that await the souls of those begotten in damnation’s fire. ‘Tartan! Floral! I, Vampiryirya…’
‘Was that not it?’
‘My gowns are of midnight’s hue, my cloaks like the moonlit backs of ravens!’
‘Right. See, it would be so much easier if you’d kept your ticket. Cos what it says here is tartan skirts, three, and floral duvet cover, one. I can’t see any raven’s hue or, what was the other thing you said?’
‘Midnight! When the souls of the lost dance, when the antic musicke of longing creeps upon the tarry waters of the…’
‘Yup. No, sorry but it just isn’t in the system. You sure it wasn’t the tartan…?’
‘Be silent! Your chatter is distasteful to me!’ She turned, and addressed the queue that was building up behind her. ‘I am not mocked! Be warned! Cower before me! For I, Vampiryirya, will return!’
The girl behind the counter smiled and nodded.
‘With your ticket, yeah?’