W. P. Johnson

Love of Horror

In Uncategorized on August 12, 2009 at 8:06 pm

So much for puns.

I’m a fan of speculative fiction. I think the first book I ever read as a kid was My Teacher is an Alien by Bruce Coville. In fact I read the entire series, could not get enough of it (My Teacher- Flunked The Planet, Glows in the Dark, Fried My Brains). The first serious book I ever read on my own without school forcing me to was John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, something I tore through while I was grounded for two weeks in the middle of SUMMER VACATION of all times, so I couldn’t even see my friends at school before lock down. I was isolated, suffering from cabin fever and it made me burn through a couple hundred pages a day before moving on to other Steinbeck books, followed by Hemingway, and so on.

My stories are speculative. What does that mean exactly? It’s an umbrella word, something that encompasses science fiction, horror, fantasy, bizarro, and whatever other genre I can’t think of right now. Each one of those genres has subcategories. For instance you can break down science fiction as: soft, hard, cyber, time travel, alternative history, military, apocalyptic, and space opera. As of recently, meaning within the last ten years, I’ve noticed certain books that may have been classified as science fiction making their way into the literature section of bookstores, blurring the line between literary fiction and science fiction. Some titles: The Time Traveler’s Wife (time travel), The Plot Against American (a brilliant alternative history book by Philip Roth), Rant (Palahniuk’s first attempt at soft sci fi), Pattern Recognition (Gibson’s cyberpunk), and collections of Philip K Dick, a science fiction writer that died relatively unknown compared to his current popularity. Don’t recognize the name? Yes you do. He wrote Blade Runner, Total Recall (originally a short story titled “We Can Remember it for you Wholesale”), Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly.

Genres are slowly becoming gentrified by literary heavyweights, or maybe they’re moving into the classy neighborhoods already occupied by Faulkner and Henry James and at some point writers of high brow literature will practice some “write flight” and develop a new wing of your local bookstore, demanding that Dostoevsky isn’t  sullied by the likes of Philip K Dick.  Imagine Mark Twain staring at Tolkien as he moves his stuff in, hoping that maybe acting like an inconsiderate prick will prompt that hobbit fuck to get the hell off his block.

In talks about writing and the type of stories I’d like to tell, some people roll their eyes, ask sincere questions about whether or not I’ll ever try to write something serious (the answer is “no”, thank you very much LSD). And if there’s anything I’ve learned about writing, one of the most important lessons is that a artist has to be able to defend his work. Otherwise it’s just senseless and lazy. I don’t condone that hippie bullshit of just free forming man, just feeling it man. Things have to have meaning.

A recent workshop intensive prompted me to write a vampire story. I’ve learned a lot from this particular experience, most of which I may divulge into later, such as the value of third person vs first person, the length of a story, showing instead of telling, and the conquest of finding a voice that is unique and yours. But this is about genre, speculative fiction. In particular, it’s about the vampire sub genre of horror (interesting to note- horror, via wikipedia, is given only a paragraph or two. Maybe the sub genres are too big too big to be sub genres).

Within this story the main character Denis has a fear of the dark due to a childhood experience wherein his parents are brutally murdered in front of him by Germaine and Jacob (two vampires, the first a large man, the second only a boy, but thousands of years old). Denis is unaware of this memory because Jacob brainwashes him into forgetting, but darkness sends him into a panic, and the only thing that helps him fall asleep on a pitch black night without any moon is exhausting himself making love to Samantha. His love for her, mostly lust, is also the one thing that helps him face this fear and experience complete darkness. Other things happen, but I won’t go into much else besides to say that Samantha is turned into a vampire by the end of the story. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find a home for it once it’s finished (will update for anyone reading).

During my last semester at Temple I wrote my senior thesis paper on The Brief Wondurous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (whom I creeped on while in Boston and scared off- sorry Junot, I was star struck). In reading the numerous interviews with Diaz I came across this piece, something that ended up becoming a huge focus of my paper and states clearly how I feel about science fiction in general:

…if you’re a person writing about a Dominican diasporic experience, to hew too closely to canonical ideal of what literature is would limit you. The conventions of what is canonically known as literature can’t hope to encompass these radical experiences that you undergo when living in a diaspora like the Dominican one. And sometimes the only way to describe these lived moments—the surreality and ir-reality of some of the things that people like myself have experienced—is through lenses like science fiction. The joke is you’re Dominican living in the Dominican Republic in 1974, and you get transported to the U.S. from the campo, where you started out living in an open air house with no electricity, with no bathroom, living in a world that’s extremely closed and sealed in some ways, with no access to education, and almost a sense of living outside of time, though of course you never will live outside of time. It’s the sense you then get, when you’re transported to a place like central New Jersey. I think the narrative that would logically be most useful would be not only space travel—traveling between two planets—but time travel… It’s like having this huge, wonderful, gorgeous, rich, ripe, delicious mango hanging over your desk. But because you’ve been trained that mangoes are not the kind of food that one eats at a desk, you just willfully ignore them. How could you ignore such wonderful interconnections? And that’s why I find science fiction important and useful. (http://www.webdelsol.com/Other_Voices/DiazInt.htm)

For me, it’s always been about what can best drive a story or a character. And often times I find that while it seems as if I am writing about one thing (vampires and shit), I was writing about something completely different the entire time (how something like love, or lust, can inspire us to overcome something terrible). It was a choice to express this idea through speculative elements. Why? Because sometimes, as Diaz said, canonical conventions prevent us from properly expressing how something truly feels. Maybe it would be easy to have Denis overcome some conventional fear but how does this truly express how hard this thing was to overcome? People think they know how someone feels when they understand their experience, but the truth is no one fully understands the experience because they bring their own history with them; they already have a pre set approach. But having your lover become someone that will die if exposed to sunlight when you yourself are terrified of the dark is something I don’t think anyone can say they can relate to. It prompts a response, maybe some form of needed catharsis to an experience that no one can assume anything about. New emotions are experienced, not a memory of something that person already thinks they understand. In short, speculative elements are useful when trying to express an idea conventional literature is unable to.

Denis faces his fear of darkness because of his lust for Samantha. And after she becomes a vampire, he stays with her even though they’ll never be able to share a day together ever again. He is willing to sacrifice something, to face an enormous challenge all because of love and sex. And vampires are an element that drive this story due to the mythology that surrounds them, that they’re unable to live during the day time, are immortal, drink blood, are able to hypnotize or, to quote True Blood, glammer people. And there is something about this element that drives the story and helps express certain truths that would’ve been hard to come across in a world that follows all the normal rules. Big deal if someone went through a hardship for his love; we’ve all done that.

Well, this is how that shit felt.

-Bill

Original Vampire.

Original Vampire.

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