Monday, June 29, 2015

The female villain in horror fiction: random thoughts

My short story “Whatever” contains one of my favorite types of villains: the female villain. 

“Whatever” is a story about a young woman who is a sociopath—and quite possibly a homicidal sociopath. 

But more about that later. First we need to talk about the traditional roles of the female villain in a broader sense—especially as she appears in horror fiction. (I am going to discuss some films here, as well.)

I first became aware of the potential of the female villain in horror fiction back in 1987, when I watched Fatal Attraction. This is the movie that stars Glenn Close as Alex Forrest, the seductress turned stalker. Michael Douglas was cast as a happily married attorney, Dan Gallagher, who gives in to an all-to-common temptation: He decides to have an illicit extramarital affair, believing that it would be a “no strings attached” encounter.

Alex, however, is playing by a different set of rules. When Dan attempts to leave and go home to his family, she slits her wrists in a bid for sympathy. Dan patches her up; but there is much more awry with Alex besides a couple of razor cuts. She begins showing up at the most inopportune moments and places. Her obsession escalates, finally turning violent. One of the creepiest scenes of the movie occurs when Alex furtively enters Dan’s home and boils the family’s pet rabbit.

Fatal Attraction turned out to be one of the highest grossing films of 1987, striking a unique chord with audiences as well as critics. 

From one perspective, the premise of Fatal Attraction was by no means unique. There are plenty of movies about stalkers, and spurned lovers who become enraged, and then violent. 

But most of these movies have a common characteristic: The villains in most stalker movies are men.

Can a male stalker be scary? Sure he can—especially if you happen to be the woman who is the object of his obsession. About twenty years ago, Julia Roberts starred in a particularly suspenseful stalker movie called Sleeping with the Enemy (1991). This film was tense, filled with edge-of-your-seat scenes like the famous “bathtub scene” that is depicted on the movie’s theatrical release poster.

Sleeping with the Enemy was another high-grossing film; but audiences tended to remember the tense scenarios and the emotions of the victim more vividly than they recalled the performance of Patrick Bergin, who was cast as Roberts’ abusive ex-husband. This wasn’t because Bergin did a poor job of the role, nor can the reason be attributed to a weak script.

The problem, as I see it, is that the male stalker has become something of a stock character. He almost always falls into one of two prototypical categories: The first is the socially inept male loner who develops an obsession for an acquaintance or stranger. This was the real-life John Hinckley Jr., who stalked Jodie Foster for months before shooting President Reagan in a bid to “impress” her.

The second is the charming, more socially adept man who is a hyper-egotistical control freak. Many women find him more frightening: Until he shows his abusive and manipulative side, this sort of stalker might have the skills to win a lady over. Depending on what you believe about the truth behind the most famous celebrity trial of the 1990s, this sort of stalker might be an O.J. Simpson.

O.J. and John Hinckley Jr. might be scary under the wrong circumstances; but the mere idea of either man isn’t going to keep anyone awake at night. The male stalker’s basis in cold, hard reality limits his potential for becoming a truly effective horror movie/fiction antagonist. He is kind of like a car crash: A car crash is frightening enough in real life; but it makes mundane material for horror fiction (unless the car crash happens to take place in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, as was the case during the opening scene of Dawn of the Dead (2004).)

A female stalker, conversely, is extraordinarily frightening because she is doing what women are not supposed to do. The rules of courtship ordain that men do most of the pursuing, while women do most of the choosing, rejecting, and “playing hard to get.” The overly aggressive pursuit of a love object is a distinctly male form of misbehavior. When a woman won’t take “no” for an answer, it is disorienting. It contradicts our paradigms regarding gender roles. (Even though the role of stalker is decidedly negative, it is still a “role;” and it has usually been associated with men.)

Another suspenseful movie that shows the dark side of obsessive female desire is The Hole (2001). This movie stars Thora Birch (the teenaged daughter in American Beauty) as a private school coed who orchestrates a devious—and ultimately deadly—deception in an attempt to place herself in the arms of the popular boy on whom she has a crush. The female antagonist in this film is less immediately threatening than Glenn Close’s obsessive Alex character. However, the fundamentally mundane nature of her motivation is in some ways even scarier. Many young people (including young women) are capable of engaging in darkly manipulative behavior when hormones and adolescent crushes are involved. Some of this behavior has the potential to turn deadly.

There are only a handful of movies about female serial killers. Among these, Monster (2003) is the one that most often comes to mind. Monster stars Charlize Theron as an unattractive, drug-addicted, mentally ill streetwalker who murders her clients. Based on the real-life case of Aileen Wournos, Monster is disturbing enough. 

But a better job was done by James Patterson in his 2005 novel Honeymoon. Patterson’s female serial killer, Nora, is drop-dead gorgeous and methodical. Her victims are not the patrons of low-priced prostitutes, but highly successful men who believe their lives to be safe and secure.

Thus far we have talked about worldly female villains—evil female characters that technically could exist. Now we’re going to delve unto the otherworldly. Supernatural films and literature provide additional possibilities for the female villain, because she can be endowed with extraordinary powers and a deeper level of evil. A female murderer is bad enough; but what about a female murderer sent from Satan himself?

The supernatural female villain is a construct that storytellers have recognized since time immemorial. 

One of the secondary supernatural villains in Beowulf is Grendel’s mother. An Anglo-Saxon heroic poem composed in Old English, Beowulf was conceived for a pre-Norman society that afforded women a relatively high status by the standards of pre-modern times. 

Women, however, were not expected to be warriors in Anglo-Saxon England; and the original audience for Beowulf may have had their imaginations stretched by the notion of a creature that was a woman, a mother, and also a monster

In addition, this female creature is one of the first examples in English literature of the sympathetic villain. Although the narrator of Beowulf is clearly against her, it is not difficult to understand her desire to kill the tale’s eponymous hero. After all, Beowulf has killed her son.

Even older than Grendel’s mother is the demonic creature known as Lilith. Her legend can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia. Like the story of the Great Flood, Lilith’s precise nature was transmuted as she was adopted by different cultures in the region.

Lilith likely originated with the Assyrians. The Assyrians described female demons known as lilitu. These had the basic body of a woman, but also the talons and wings of a bird. The lilitu were believed to sexually prey upon men.

The concept of the lilitu was subsequently adopted by the Hebrews, who combined multiple demons into a single entity. Lilith is referred to in a number of ancient Jewish texts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

In a Jewish legend that serves as an alternative twist on the traditional story of Genesis, Lilith is Adam’s first wife. She was created at the same time as Adam. Unlike the subsequent Eve, Lilith was not created from Adam’s rib. She is a completely independent person in her own right.

Adam wanted Lilith to be subservient to him, but she refused. She then left Adam, and took up with the archangel Samael, who is usually depicted in the Talmud as “the angel of death.” 

In this way, Lilith was an early, malevolent version of the willful feminist.

Lilith later assumed her place in early Christian lore. The sexual anxieties of the European Middle Ages gave rise to the succubus, a female demon who tempts men (especially priests) with the promise of illicit sexual intercourse. Lilith, the wayward first wife of Adam, was associated with the succubi, and believed to be one of their number.

In more recent times, Lilith has appeared as a demonic antagonist in various horror movies and novels. The HBO series True Blood even cast Lilith as "the mother of all vampires.”

The ancient Greeks also had their share of supernaturally endowed and fearsome women. Medusa is the best known of these; but she is by no means the only mythological lady in this category. As ancient Greece was a pre-Christian society, many of these figures are supernatural femme fatales rather than more blatantly demonic creatures. In one leg of the journey of The Odyssey, Odysseus must be lashed to the mast of his ship in order to resist the song of the sirens, a group of female entities who lured (male) sailors to their deaths on the rocks that surrounded their home island.

Women have always had sexual power, and men have always been uneasy about it. The ancient Greeks considered feminine temptations to be a distraction; the Victorians of the late nineteenth century viewed them more darkly. During this period, the view of femininity was sharply split along the lines of the old whore-Madonna dichotomy.

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the motherly Mina Murray Harker is the personification of the Madonna. Mina is devout, prudish, and platonically admired by Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. In the novel’s closing paragraph, Van Helsing reflects on Mina’s goodness while bouncing her young son on his knee:
“’This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care. Later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.’”
Attacked by Dracula, Mina is threatened with the horrible prospect of becoming a vampire herself. But she is able to resist with the help of Van Helsing. 

Another female character of Stoker’s famous vampire novel is not so fortunate. Juxtaposed against Mina is the flirtatious and flighty Lucy Westenra. Only nineteen years old, Lucy attracts more than her share of male attention. She is as sexy as it is possible for a young woman to be within the constraints of Victorian morality. Lucy has three suitors, who find themselves hopelessly drawn to her. For a while she frustrates all of them, before finally agreeing to marry Arthur Holmwood, the dashing son of a British lord.

But Arthur is not to have Lucy, either. Before the two can marry, Lucy succumbs to the darkness of Count Dracula. Unlike Mina, Lucy is transformed into a female vampire. Her fiancĂ©, Arthur, is compelled to drive a stake into her heart, lest Lucy suffer eternal damnation.     

The link between unchecked feminine sexuality and damnation is established more overtly in one of Dracula’s earlier scenes. Jonathan Harker, the love interest of the pure and motherly Mina, encounters three female vampires while staying in Castle Dracula during his journey to Transylvania. One does not have to be a professor of English Literature in order to detect the sensual undertones in the following passage:

“They whispered together, and then they all three laughed, such a silvery, musical laugh, but as hard as though the sound never could have come through the softness of human lips. It was like the intolerable, tingling sweetness of water glasses when played on by a cunning hand. The fair girl shook her head coquettishly, and the other two urged her on. 

One said, ‘Go on! You are first, and we shall follow. Yours is the right to begin.’
The other added, ‘He is young and strong. There are kisses for us all.’

I lay quiet, looking out from under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation. The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me. Sweet it was in one sense, honey-sweet, and sent the same tingling through the nerves as her voice, but with a bitter underlying the sweet, a bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood.”

This is one of the creepiest and most memorable scenes of Dracula, and it retains its power a century after the book’s original publication. 

I liked the scene so much that I adapted elements of it for my own vampire story, “The Vampires of Wallachia.” (My female vampires, however, are more modern; and they appear in a Chinese restaurant rather than in a European castle.)

Story Spotlight: "By the River"

A reader of Hay Moon and Other Stories recently sent me an email about the short story entitled “By the River.” 

If you have read the short story (and if you haven't, then what are you waiting for?), then you'll already know that “By the River” involves a scenario in which sharks are present in the Ohio River, in the area between the states of Ohio and Kentucky.

The reader's question was relatively straightforward and simple: Is the premise of the story feasible––even possible?

"By the River" is one of the stories included in Hay Moon and Other Stories: sixteen modern tales of horror and suspense

Well, let me explain....

"By the River" is by no means the stuff of pure fantasy. For those of you who aren't into sharks, let me tell you about a creature called the bull shark. 

While not as large or ferocious as the great white featured in movies like Jaws, the bull shark is an aggressive predator that is credited with numerous attacks on humans.

But what makes the bull shark unique among sharks is its ability to survive for long periods of time in fresh water.

Bull sharks are thought to be––if not common—then not exactly rare in the southern reaches of the Mississippi River, near the Gulf of Mexico. 

Bull sharks have been caught as far north as Cairo, Illinois, which is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. A few years ago, a frozen (and obviously dead) bull shark specimen was even found in Minnesota, in a creek system that empties into the Mississippi.

Based on these precedents, it would be theoretically possible for a bull shark to swim as far north as Ohio. (If Minnesota, then why not Ohio?) And I would be willing to wager that at some point in history, the fin of a bull shark has indeed broken through the surface of the Ohio River where banks of the Buckeye State face the hills of Kentucky.

But here is the big letdown....

Such as scenario is extremely unlikely in present times. The waters of the Ohio River are now broken up by a complex system of locks and dams. For a shark to swim up the Ohio River, it would have to swim upstream through all these locks and the dams. This would be more or less impossible, even for the great white shark in Jaws.

And yes, I find this realization more than a little disappointing.

Therefore, “By the River” is mostly a speculative piece of fiction. 

But readers living downstream of Cairo, Illinois are advised to exercise caution when venturing into the waters of the Mississippi, nonetheless. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Robots of Jericho: Mysterious crate scene

Synopsis: What's so scary about industrial welding robots? Well, plenty--if those robots are not what they appear to be.

This excerpt is from the opening scene of the short story, "The Robots of Jericho." In this scene, college student Pete Greer begins to suspect that his summer job in an automotive components factory may turn out to be anything but routine. 

"The Robots of Jericho" is one of the stories in Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense

“Hey, college boy! Are you gonna unpack those crates?” Ralph Stevenson barked. “Or are you just gonna look at ‘em all day?”

The maintenance crew boss looked upon Pete with rheumy, bloodshot eyes. His hands were on his hips and his considerable beer belly hung over his utility belt. A smoldering cigarette was clamped in the boss’s mouth. Smoking was forbidden in the plant area of the Stillwater Manufacturing Company; but Ralph flouted this rule whenever the general manager wasn’t around. And he knew that Pete would never dare to say a word to the higher ups.

“I’m on it,” Pete Greer said, as if the older man could not see him straining against the long end of the crowbar. The hooked end of the tool was wedged between two planks of one of the giant crates marked: JERICHO ROBOT COMPANY. Pete was slight of build; and even when he used all of his weight as leverage the task was difficult.

Not wanting to give Ralph the satisfaction of seeing him fail completely, Pete took a deep breath, summoned all of his strength, and threw himself backward, his hands clenched tightly around the crowbar.

This effort only succeeded in dislodging the tapered hook end of the crowbar from the crate. There was the sound of wood splintering; then the crowbar went clattering to the factory floor with a metallic jangle. Pete fell back on his butt, knocking his tailbone against a protruding electrical floor outlet. These pesky things were scattered throughout the floor of the manufacturing area.

Ralph threw his head back and guffawed, his belly jiggling. “That was real good, college boy,” he said through his laughter. Ralph used the term “college boy” as a curse, as if everyone knew that university students were all either subversives, pansies, idiots, or worse. “Why don’t you pick yourself up and give it another try, huh? Only like a man this time. Jeez.

He shook his head contemptuously.

“If you need to, college boy, fish around for a bigger crowbar or a wedge and a hammer in the tool room. But just get it done. I want all five of these crates unpacked by noon. Work through your lunch break if you have to. Then you and me and Walt are goin’ to start on the installation.”

“Okay,” Pete said, lifting himself from the floor. He patted his legs in an attempt to brush the dust from his heavy polyester and cotton twill workpants. His tailbone still smarted horribly; but he was not going to let Ralph know that. “I’ll get it done.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it.” Ralph headed off in the direction of the office area. No doubt he was going to park himself in the company cafeteria, where he would smoke and drink sodas while reading the paper. The plant was closed today for the Fourth of July weekend. No one was here but the maintenance crew, so Ralph could loaf around while collecting time-and-half holiday pay.

When Ralph had gone, Pete paused to assess the task before him. There were five crates, each one about eight feet high and five feet across. They were placed in a long row opposite the loading dock, not far from where the truck had delivered them the previous Friday.

Pete walked along the row of crates toward the loading dock. Each one bore the simple inscription JERICHO ROBOT COMPANY in black stenciled letters. The Stillwater Manufacturing Company made welded body components for the automotive industry—door panels, floor panels and the pillars that separated the front and rear seat areas. The robots inside these crates would be huge, like the ones already installed on the production lines.

Pete had been working at Stillwater since early June, when classes at West Virginia University broke for the summer. Next summer he would try to land something better in Wheeling or Parkersburg. Thanks to constant harassment and hazing from Ralph and Walt, the job here had turned out to be a fairly miserable summertime gig.

But he did enjoy watching the welding robots.

Pete had never set foot inside an automated manufacturing plant prior to June, and he had never seen a welding robot in action. Maybe that was why they fascinated him so much. A welding robot consisted of a tall jointed metal body, tipped with a beaklike apparatus that welded workpieces as they traveled along an assembly conveyor.

When welding robots executed their programmed routines, they vaguely reminded Pete of dinosaurs—or better yet, dragons. Like a flock of prehistoric reptiles, the robots dipped their elongated avian heads and bit down on the metal pieces that flowed past them, producing a shower of sparks and an ozone smell with each bite.

The robots were powerful—no doubt that was part of their fascination. When a robot was in its automated operational mode, it was isolated behind a locked metal cage and a prominent warning sign. These precautions were well warranted. One of these beasts could easily crush a man.

And perhaps they were waiting for a chance to do just that.

This last thought made Pete feel foolish, even as it made him shiver. The welding robots were driven by electricity and pneumatic force, nothing more. They only appeared to be sentient beasts. Any notion to the contrary was simply his mind’s way of alleviating boredom—killing time by playing tricks on itself.

12 Hours of Halloween: Village Market scene

(from Chapter 5)

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Jeff Schaeffer is having a rough day: He’s quarreling with his sort-of-friend, sort-of-romantic interest, Leah Carter. The school bully is pursuing him. Yesterday he and his two friends saw the “ghost boy” transform into something horrible—but neither of his friends is willing to talk about it.

And now Jeff is confronted by a mysterious old man in the parking lot of the Village Market. The man with the maroon Oldsmobile.

And Halloween of 1980 hasn't even arrived yet…

During the morning break and the lunch hour I did my best to avoid Matt Stefano. To my pleasant surprise, the rogue eighth grader didn't seek me out. Maybe he had found another target. Maybe he had forgotten me.

During the post-lunch break I participated in a H-O-R-S-E game with some of the other seventh grade boys at the basketball hoop at the front of the primary school building. When I could, I snuck glances at Leah: Seventh grade was the year that the girls in our class stopped playing jump rope and hopscotch during recess and started actively gossiping. I saw Leah in the middle of a group of the other girls. I didn't dare walk up to her—not with all those other girls around, and not after yesterday.

I did make it my business, though, to coincidentally reenter the school building at the same time as Leah at the end of the lunch break.

“Did you know that Bobby is out sick today?” I asked her. There were two seventh grade homerooms at St. Patrick’s. Leah was in the other one, so she might not have been aware of Bobby’s absence. 

Leah rolled her eyes. That could have been a good sign, and it could have been a bad one. “Bobby is probably playing hooky. That’s Bobby for you.”

“Well, the two of us can still walk home tonight, right?” I asked. I wondered if I sounded as desperate as I felt. Hadn’t Leah said yesterday that she would take the bus home today?

“I told you, Jeff: I’m riding the bus. No way I’m walking by that freaky kid again.”

“What do think that really was?” I asked her. “What he really was—or is?”

“Jeff, I don’t want to talk about it. I thought I’d made that clear.”

With that she separated herself from me, and headed for her homeroom. I had been doing a lot better with Leah before I decided that I liked her, I now realized.

At the end of the day, I toyed with the idea of riding the bus home with Leah. She certainly hadn’t invited me—not that I needed her invitation; I had as much right to ride the bus home as she did. But my presence on the school bus would not go unnoticed by her, and it might send the wrong signals.

Did Leah realize that I “liked” her? I had by now concluded that she must have at least a vague idea, some inkling. Leah was a sharp girl, after all, and I'd been acting differently around her of late. Heck, I’d been acting differently when I was by myself, inside my own head, for that matter.

The previous summer I’d heard, for the first time, that old Four Seasons song, “Walk Like a Man.” The moral of the song seemed to be that if you tried too hard to show a girl that you liked her, then you came off as desperate, and actually ended up driving her away. The full how and why of this were as yet too foreign and complicated for me to grasp, but I did grasp the general concept.

I therefore decided to walk home that day by myself; and would later wonder (I still wonder) if I could have prevented everything that followed by simply riding the bus home. I’ve been contemplating this question for well over thirty years, and I’m no closer to the answer than I was in October of 1980.

When the 3 p.m. bell sounded I walked outside, past the rumbling school buses that were all lined up at the parking lot exit that emptied into the four-lane highway, Ohio Pike. That road, also known as State Route 125, is a very old road. Its eastern half is built atop the path of a nineteenth-century horse and wagon route; and sections of it are said to be haunted. But those are other stories that will have to wait until another time.

Directly across from the school was a little pony keg and convenience market called The Village Market. It wasn't one of those slick franchise places, but an independently owned establishment that had been there since the early 1960s, at least.

It was a warm day, and I felt more than a little thirsty. I decided, half on a whim, to cross the highway to the Village Market and treat myself to a cold Coke or a Pepsi. This wasn't a normal indulgence for me, but I was feeling self-indulgent at the moment. Or so I told myself. I knew that this would also give me a chance to walk by bus number 55, the one that Leah would have already boarded. Maybe she would see me and change her mind. Maybe.

I waited at the crosswalk. I was disappointed to see bus 55 roll past me when the light changed, presumably with Leah still aboard. I couldn't see her, and I didn't dare try to spot her face behind one of the bus’s sun-reflecting windows. If she had changed her mind and decided to walk home with me, she would have presented herself by now.

The crosswalk flashed WALK, and I started across the highway with a group of two or three other students. The Village Market received a lot of business from the St. Patrick’s afterschool crowd, and it was probably the grade school’s only real off-campus “hangout”. The St. Patrick’s administration tolerated the Village Market’s status uneasily; there was something vaguely unseemly about an establishment that sold beer, cigarettes, and soft-core skin magazines like Playboy. (The latter were stored discreetly behind the counter.) But there wasn't much the school administration could do about the place.

Having reached the other side of the highway, I once again made a wrong turn. I should have followed the other students into the Village Market without looking at the old man with no legs who sat in the wheelchair beside the ancient maroon Oldsmobile. I should have averted my eyes and kept walking.

Or maybe I should have gone over to him, and did what he asked. Maybe that would have changed the outcome, broken the chain of events that I would later come to regard as the “curse”.

I was already trailing behind the others when he caught my attention, my thoughts bouncing among their recent mélange of topics. He was a very old man, dressed in old green work pants, a stained button-down dress shirt faded to an indistinguishable color, and the sort of round-rimmed dress hat that men had stopped wearing several decades ago.

And he was beckoning to me.

He extended his hands in a gesture that was simultaneously a supplication and a command.

“Come here, boy!” he croaked. “I need your help.”

That was when I also noticed the pile of groceries at the base of his wheelchair. The man had apparently made a purchase in the Village Market. Then while wheeling out to his car, he had lost control of the bag. The split brown paper sack had disgorged its contents onto the gravel: a plastic bottle of milk, a few canned goods, and several other packages that I could not distinguish.

I started to do as he asked. Turning decisively away from the market’s entrance now, I walked toward him.

It might have been only my imagination—though subsequent events would convince me that there had been more than my imagination at work. As I drew closer to the shriveled, legless man, his face seemed to contort into something sinister and lupine. His nose seemed to grow sharper and more angular with each step of mine. His face elongated into something not quite human.

And inside that mouth that I had believed to be toothless, I saw—or could have sworn I saw—a row of canine incisors.

I flinched, my heart in my throat. I took a step backward.

Then he was just a harmless old man again.

“Help me,” he pleaded. He pointed to the mess in the gravel, pleadingly. “I’ve dropped my things.”

I continued to walk backward, without turning my back on the old man. I was afraid to help him. I was afraid to do what I would have previously believed to be the right thing. I was afraid of the risk it would have entailed.

In a different frame of mind, I might have chosen differently. I might have been able to write off the old man’s momentary shift in appearance as an illusion. But this was coming on the heels of the ghost boy’s hideous transformation yesterday. I was still confused about the reality of the situation; but I knew that I was not going to step within lunging distance of the old man in the wheelchair.

And anyway, I thought. How could the old man have driven here with no legs? The scene strongly suggested that he had arrived at the store in the maroon Oldsmobile—a Cutlass sedan that had probably rolled off the assembly line when JFK, or maybe even Ike, was in the White House. But how could the old man have driven it?

On "popular fiction" (mailbag)

A reader writes:

"Dear Ed: 
What do you think of most of the so-called popular fiction nowadays, like the novels one can typically buy in the grocery store?"

My answer may surprise you.

It is sort of faux intellectual nowadays to claim that most popular fiction is "crap". Such claims are especially common among novelists whose books aren't sold in mass market outlets. (This is basically every author who isn't a household name, since there is a premium on shelf space at Walmart, etc.) 

However, I'm not about to make that argument, simply because Blood Flats, The Maze, or Eleven Miles of Night aren't (yet) on the New York Times bestsellers list--or on the shelves at Walmart.

There are a few exceptions and disclaimers here, of course: I have to admit that I don't see much redeeming value in the Fifty Shades of Grey books. But then, I also have to admit that a.) I haven't read them, and b.) the Fifty Shades of Grey series was specifically targeted at a subset of the female market. Which doesn't include me.

Stephen King--probably the most widely recognized American writer--has called fellow bestselling author James Patterson an author of "dopey thrillers". Patterson's books are admittedly formulaic, and won't usually please the voracious, habitual reader. But that, you see, is the point: James Patterson writes simple (but highly accessible) novels for folks who only read three or four fiction books per year. Patterson writes not for me (I read at least a book per week) but for the person who picked up a novel in the airport bookstore, because he discovered that there would be no in-flight movie. 

I've read most of the Dan Brown books--The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, and, most recently, Inferno. These were neither the best nor the worst novels I've ever read. But again: Brown writes fast-paced novels that can be devoured by almost anyone, even those who don't ordinarily "like to read".

That said, there are quite a few popular novelists whom I do like. These include: John Grisham, Michael Connelly, John Sandford, Brad Thor, Clive Cussler, and Gillian Flynn. 

These are all "Walmart authors"--in the sense that their books can be readily purchased at convenience marts and grocery stores. (I discovered John Sandford at Walgreens, incidentally.) 

John Sandford and Michael Connelly are masters of police procedurals. John Grisham's novels repeat plot elements and themes, but Grisham changes each story just enough to keep the reader guessing--and most of his novels are page-turners. Gillian Flynn's work is dark but still somehow compelling--and compelling for a large number of readers. Brad Thor is the master of post-9/11 spy fiction (a distinction he shares with the late Vince Flynn.)

Cussler's novels are often unrealistic, and yes--some of the dialogue is cheezy. But they're great fun. And at the end of the day, fun is the name of the game where fiction is concerned.

So...yes, I do like so-called "popular fiction". Even at the mass market level, there are a lot of highly competent writers doing quality work. And while those authors are competitors, in a sense, they are also building potential audiences for every lesser known author--including yours truly. Fiction writing, alas, is not a zero-sum game.

The book market and the rise of the "mini-influencer"

"Ask authors and publishers about the biggest challenge they face, and chances are the top answer you’ll get is book discovery.  
Yes, it’s been the No. 1 issue in the industry for years, but it’s getting increasingly difficult. Millions of books are now published every year. Mass media, already the preserve of the rarified best-selling book and author, is scaling back its book coverage. Doom and gloom reports are coming from all sides."

The above article discusses the shift away from major influencers like the New York Times, and toward the more dispersed communities of "mini-influencers" (like the millions of readers on Goodreads).

At first glance, this all seems beneficial because it's more democratic. Yay! People power and all that. 

However, the trend is a disadvantage for authors who are not persistent self-marketers (regardless of whether they are independently or traditionally published).

The old system of book marketing usually involved communications between a few high-level gatekeepers: PR folks on the author's side, and editorial staff on the reviewing side. 

Everything was very dignified, and the author was able to keep herself at a distance from what was essentially a philistine marketing operation.

On the other hand, marketing books today, to dispersed reader communities, is far messier, and requires communication skills that are not strong points for the typically introverted author. 

These communications involve interactions with thousands of people, some of whom are more polite than others. This new process requires every author to be a performer--at least part of the time. 

How many authors would enjoy selling encyclopedias door-to-door? How many would do well at such a task?

That metaphor isn't exact, of course. But it's a rough approximation.

These changes are neither good nor bad. Nor do they add up to a conspiracy against sensitive artistic types in an impersonal digital age. 

The changed requirements for authors are simply results of the changes in the economic landscape where books are published, marketed, and (hopefully) sold. 

It's always about the writing, yes. But it's also always about the marketing of what is written.

Jeffrey Archer on self-publishing

“Self-publishing is a complete waste of time and money, said bestselling British author Jeffrey Archer, while getting up, close and personal with his admirers at the Sharjah International Book Fair on Wednesday.”  
“It doesn’t work, don’t do it. The only person who reads it is the person who gets it published,” he said. 
 When a member of the audience pointed out that he wrote a book, published it as well as marketed it and sold 100,000 copies of the book, the literary icon said, “You can get lucky, but only one in a million get this chance.”

The self-publishing “debate” attracts zealots on both sides. Both groups of zealots are wrong, seeing the question as a false dichotomy.

Sometimes self-publishing makes sense, sometimes it doesn't. It all depends on the author’s platform, the type of book(s) he or she writes, and the author’s entrepreneurial skills and inclinations.

I’ve gotten rather tired of reading self-publishing manifestos that condemn the entire mainstream publishing industry as a pack of sclerotic dinosaurs. The traditional publishing industry has its flaws, but it is simplistic to dismiss them en masse. They continue to successfully market a lot of books, and to make a lot of money.

It is equally silly to assert that an entrepreneurial approach simply “doesn't work”—when there is ample evidence to the contrary.

Archer, though mainly known as a traditionally published author, successfully self-published a book (as the article notes) himself. Do as I say—not as I do.

The future of the publishing industry will consist of a mix of both strategies, with some authors (like Archer, for example) moving back and forth between the two.

This isn’t a religious debate, and we should not try to make it one.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Dads and reading habits

Here is yet another source of potential parental anxiety (as if there aren’t enough sources already):

“Research suggests many children are copying their fathers’ bad habits by shunning reading for easier, technology-based activities.” 
Perhaps. My father has never been an avid reader and I’m a bookworm.

On the other hand, though, my mother devoured a book a week throughout her life. So there may be something to this.

Clive Cussler's "Piranha" reviews: the consensus

I've been following the reviews for Piranha and the vast majority of them run positive. 

This novel belongs to one of Cussler's recurring series, the Oregon Files. 

Of all the Cussler series, I've found the Oregon Files to be the most uneven (with the Isaac Bell books being the strongest, overall.) But as I said, the reviews for Piranha run overwhelmingly upbeat.

As I've also written here before, no one's life was ever changed by a Clive Cussler novel. They don't explore controversial social issues. But they are fun.

A fun, dark family drama

I recently finished the Kindle version of Lauren Grodstein's A Friend of the Family.

Amazon blurb:

"Pete Dizinoff, a skilled and successful New Jersey internist, has a loving and devoted wife, a network of close friends, an impressive house, and, most of all, a son, Alec, now nineteen, on whom he has pinned all his hopes. But Pete hadn’t expected his best friend’s troubled daughter to set her sights on his boy. When Alec falls under her spell, Pete sets out to derail the romance, never foreseeing the devastating consequences.

In a riveting story of suburban tragedy, Lauren Grodstein charts a father’s fall from grace as he struggles to save his family, his reputation, and himself."

Ed's mini-review:

A fast-moving book that doesn't contain much fluff, despite it's suburban setting. The 30-year-old villain, Laura, manages to be seductive, creepy, evil, and oddly sympathetic, all at the same time. 

Although the downfall of the main protagonist, Pete Dizinoff, is a foregone conclusion, the reader can't help but feel for him on his way down. Pete only wants the best for his son, but this turns out to be a thankless pursuit. 

In this regard, A Friend of the Family highlights some of the challenges of modern parenting--especially fatherhood--in which it is no longer taken for granted that "father (or mother, for that matter) knows best".

A degree in self-publishing?

"Self-publishing is becoming a global phenomenon," …"Everyone has a book in them – and many of us have a manuscript sitting in the drawer, unsure what to do with it. Think of all the literary treasures that have never had the chance to see the light of day because their authors were put off by the traditional publishing model. Our new MA will help guide these individuals through the process to help them realise the dream of seeing their book in print."

Well, why not? They offer degrees in everything else--including entrepreneurship, which is the mainstream, non-literary cousin of self-publishing.

The rise of "talking point" books

"When it comes to high-calibre non-fiction, risk-averse trade publishing houses are producing too many copycat ‘smart thinking’ books that promise more than they deliver… Where 15 or 20 years ago the big trade publishers were, oddly, swamping the market with sort-of-scholarly micro-histories of salt or longitude, they now seem, with exceptions of course, to be tiptoeing away from specific, knotty, deeply researched and nuanced books about things. The sorts of book on which they tend now to rely are investigations of “big ideas”. Their lodestars or exemplars are the Malcolm Gladwells and Daniel Kahnemans and Nicholas Carrs. I do not mean to denigrate those individual authors, rather to say that they produce a particular type of work."
I partially agree with the analysis. The article doesn't mention the works of Seth Godin, but the business book genre is in particular is filled with nonfiction books that are little more than glorified PowerPoint presentations. 

I do also read the "talking point" books, for what it's worth. Whenever possible, I try to get the audio version, as this is the type of book that is easy to listen to while driving or working out. (Right now, as chance would have it, I've got one of these "talking point" books in my iPod: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.)

While I concur with the objective assessment of the Guardian article, I don't necessarily see the situation overall as a crisis. When I visit Amazon, I'm still able to find plenty of new doorstop-sized history texts that provide an in-depth assessment of German military strategy during WWI, or the evolution of global currency wars since the 1700s. 

I usually glean at least a few valuable insights from the "talking point" books. (Otherwise, I wouldn't read them at all.) I just remind myself going in that these books are going to consist of a few key ideas wrapped within a lot of fluff.