A Literary Question

I have spoken of this before, but it continues to worry me. Should my fiction contain meaningful insights into the human condition? Or should it just tell a good story?

There may well be times when I have highlighted something of the suffering so many go through, or have even used metaphor to tell a greater truth, but if I have it has always been secondary to the plot in my mind.

I admit it! When I write, I don’t set out to edify anyone, or raise questions of morality or justice, or challenge the prevailing views of society. What I am hoping to do is tell a good story without my writing getting in the way of it. It’s true there is an underlying comment on racism and immigration in A World Of Assassins, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about a series of murders and the detective sent to another world to catch the killer. There are comments and views on depression throughout much of Hard Winter, but it’s not the driving force of the novel. I try to write believable characters that readers will invest in, and stories they can get involved in. If anything else hitches a ride at the same time, it’s a minor issue compared to the narrative whole.

Let’s turn the tables. What about me as a reader? Do I choose the fiction I read to be educated, to grow as a person? Do I f… no, I don’t. I read non-fiction books for that kind of thing. I read fiction to be entertained, to escape, to bury myself in a good story well told. A quick look at some of my favourite writers will show that. Wonderful writers and story tellers like Richard Laymon, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H Rider Haggard, Steve Gerlach, Brian Keene, Guy N Smith, William Meikle, Arthur C Clarke. It’s true that within the full (and growing) list of my favourites there are some “deeper” writers, people like H G Wells, Frank Herbert, Douglas Clegg, who often have some very serious thought and meaning behind stories (and the previous list are not above the occasional foray into more “serious” passages in their fiction) but the one thing they all have in common is the ability to tell a good story and not let the message get in the way. Ok, so maybe H G Wells was guilty of it occasionally, but not generally when it came to his science fiction, which is what I enjoy the most.

Where does this leave me? Well, if many of the authors above are considered “pulp” writers (as they are) then I hope I am worthy to be included, at some time in the future, in their ranks. Pulp is not an insult. Pulp is a history of writing where the story is the most important thing, not some hidden (or not so hidden) message, and not some attempt to be “literary” by focussing on the minutest detail with a plethora of long words that send most of us rushing to Google to find out what the hell they mean.

What set all this off? We’re beginning to see the lists of “best *** books of 2015 so far” (fill in the genre of your choice) and, as is so often the case, the books that tend to be chosen are the most “literary” of the genre – the ones with deep meanings or, alternatively, worlds so weird that the reviewer feels they must be deep and they are just missing the point (which they will never admit to of course). Where are the lists that are the great stories, the exciting tales? Believe me, this is not bitterness at never being on any such lists (I have a long way to go before I can even think of such a thing) but rather just the disappointment I feel when I read another list and find no books on there (or at least very few) that I would even read, let alone enjoy. The lists make me feel inadequate, then they make me angry for feeling inadequate.

In the end, of course, it’s all down to personal taste, and there is more than enough room for all types of storytelling in the world. But don’t look down on “pulp”. It takes a lot of skill and hard work to be a good “pulp” writer. It’s not easy telling a really good story and making sure your use of language assists, rather than hinders, the telling. I know. I’m still trying to get it just right.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, find and read some books by all the authors mentioned above. Every one of them is worth your time and effort (and your money). Good reading 🙂

Too many vampires and zombies?

I have an occasional habit of trawling through the kindle horror books that are available for free (I do the same for science fiction, but let’s stick to horror for this one). I do it because I’m a cheapskate looking for bargains by authors I know and like, and also because it’s a great way to try out new authors (new to me at least) and see if I’m going to be adding them to be “must be read” list. Now, having laid the ground, so to speak, let me state that I’m NOT going to be making any comments about quality of writing or layout etc. Both of those things go up and down more than a pervert’s zipper at a Justin Bieber concert, but that’s not what I want to talk about here.

What I find depressing in the freebie horror list is the vast number of vampire and zombie books. It can be a battle to find a horror story that isn’t about one of these two creatures.

Now, I am not without sin myself… yes I have a vampire novelette out there, The Evil Incantation, and yes I have a zombie novella sitting with a publisher waiting for release, but in my (weak) defence I want to say I have tried to give them a slightly different angle – not saying I’ve succeeded, but I’ve tried. The vast majority of the books I’ve looked at this morning seem to be very much in the traditional zombie/zombie holocaust mode or star romanticised vampires (somewhere between the erotic humour of Kim Harrison and the sickly sweetness of the Twilight books and movies). Where there are more vicious vampires (which I personally prefer) they are generally of the classic type with little originality about them.

Originality, that’s what it comes down to. Zombies can be done with a nice twist (my personal favourites being the zombie books by Brian Keene) and vampires can be entertaining (Kim Harrison, again, succeeded in her Hollows books to make them amusing, erotic and vicious all rolled in together). In fact all those traditional monsters can be done well and, personally, I love the old werewolves, demons and yes, even vampires and zombies. But they have to be done with some originality!

Disclaimer: I haven’t read all the vampire and zombie books available for free on the kindle, I’ve only read synopses and looked at covers, so I can’t comment on individual titles and I could even be way off the mark.

But my comments here aren’t just about free books on the kindle, they apply to the horror genre in general – books and movies. By all means use the old creatures, I’d hate to see them disappear, but please bring something new to them. I know it’s difficult, VERY difficult, but at least try. I will applaud the effort and, in all likelihood, enjoy the end result. And while we’re at it, drag out some other old friends – Greek and Egyptian Mythology are full of them for a start. And then there’s folklore from all over the world. There’s so much to choose from, and that’s before we include new creatures, created by the author just for their book.

I love horror, fiction and film, and I love creature features and monsters. The old Hammer movies are among my favourites (Dracula, Plague Of Zombies, The Reptile, The Gorgon and so on) as are some of the classic books (Dracula, Frankenstein, Werewolf In Paris, The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde and others) but if we’re going to continue using these much loved figures we need to bring something new to them to keep the interest alive, and to draw in new readers/viewers.

I hate the way genre fiction in general is looked down on by the “literary” world, and often they are unable or unwilling to see past the numerous variations-on-a-theme to the hundreds of amazing, original and well-written books that are out there. I don’t think that’ll change any time soon, but we could at least make sure our variations are attempts at original variations and not the same old themes and characterisations that have been done thousands of times before.

Before the personal attacks on my own books begin, can I at least claim to have tried to take a different view on things in my stories. I’m not saying I’ve always succeeded, but I have tried. At least be good enough to acknowledge that.

And to my horror writing co-workers around the world I would say, keep writing and turning out so many fantastic and wonderful works, but let’s use the old themes sparingly and with some kind of different twist that’s all your own (at least, as far as you know because, as they say, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’).

We should at least be trying.


Unpublished/Work In Progress Opening Lines

Following on from the last post, I’ve decided to list the opening lines (well, opening sentence really) of novellas/novels that are either finished and awaiting publication or are Works In Progress. Given their nature, both the opening sentence and titles are subject to change (particularly with the WIP). Question is, have my opening sentences improved? In no particular order…

“The pain he felt as he lay dying in the gutter, aged 27, the victim of a random, frenzied knife attack, could not compare to the agony he felt four years later when he was reanimated.”

“Earth Controller, he liked the sound of it.”
Liberation Of Worlds (Book Two in The Szuiltan Trilogy)

“She sat on the headstone, claws flexing, wings furled, as she had sat for almost four centuries.”
The Village Witch

“Six minutes before he died, Dr Lau Ka Ting knew they had killed him.”
The Wizards Of Yradion