Monday, April 30, 2012

Malevolent and Odious Ghosts

"... the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story."

Amen to that! Guess, everyone. Who said it? Here's a HUGE hint: whenever I speak of ghost story writers, I mention him. He's my favorite. He was The Master. Nothing I write could ever compare to what he wrote, but he is always on my mind when I'm writing ghost stories.

At least, I hope he said it. It certainly sounds like something he'd say (who else would use the words "malevolent" and "odious" and "amiable" and "apparitions" all in the same sentence?), but, sad to say, I have no proof of it and am left trusting Zachary Graves, author of Ghosts: the Complete Guide to the Supernatural (Chartwell Books, 2011). I read books like this (which are never "complete" no matter what their titles would like you to believe) for inspiration for my own ghost story writing, and I've come to realize that their authors often do what Graves did here. He informed us that Montague Rhodes James ("M.R." to us friends) wrote that, but (shame on him) he doesn't tell us when nor where.  One has to suspect books that don't source their quotes and question why so many books about demons, ghosts, vampires, etc. seem to be in the habit of ignoring copyright laws, as well as studies that back up claims, but that's a subject for another blog post.

The subject of this post is what M.R. James seems to have said, and I so hope he really said it, because, well, he's my hero, and we hero-worshippers need very little encouragement when it comes to finding evidence that "He's so much like me!" But, really, someone please tell me: what is the point of a friendly ghost? Okay, I will admit I was once touched by some ghost story about a kind ghost who cared for some woman's young son who babbled from his crib about the man who visited him. The ghost ended up saving the son in some way, but I don't remember how, which shows, that (quite obviously) I wasn't touched enough to remember the key elements of the story.

I also have to admit that, yes, when I was a child, I got up at some ungodly hour to watch Casper every Saturday morning. Casper the Friendly Ghost, if I remember correctly, was the first in my siblings' and my Saturday morning cartoon line up. Again, if I remember correctly, I have a sneaky suspicion that one of the reasons I was so attracted to it had nothing to do with its content and more to do with the fact that we were (for some inexplicable reason. Maybe because my father loved to watch Bugs Bunny? Maybe because my parents wanted to lie in bed and read on Saturday mornings and not be bothered by us?) allowed to watch cartoons all morning on Saturdays. You have to understand that this was in a household in which we were barely allowed to watch television. The rest of the week, we were allowed 1/2 hour of television-viewing a day, with the exception of things we watched with my parents -- such exciting fare as the nightly news and "What's My Line?" But on Saturdays, glorious Saturdays, we were allowed to get up, fix ourselves big bowls of cereal, and plop down in front of the TV until late morning. Is it any wonder I was up by 6:00, just waiting for Casper? I think I tolerated this friendly ghost because of the other ghosts -- the scary ones -- who sometimes appeared (and one could always hope they would this time) and Wendy. I was never all that into witches, so a good little witch was no problem (besides, I'd seen The Wizard of Oz), and Wendy was a girl, all reasons to like her. Casper himself, though? Meh! What a little goody-goody, huh?

I was much happier with any ghost who appeared on the scene in my favorite Saturday morning cartoon Scooby Doo. Nothing held a candle to that show, not only because Scooby was cute and funny, but also because he and his pals had the sorts of adventures I longed to have. They just happened upon mysteriously haunted places every time they piled into the Mystery Machine and headed down the road. You could always count on that road to become an unpaved one, surrounded by dark trees sporting oddly-bent branches and rickety wooden road signs that read "Beware" and "Turn Back Now."Malevolent, odious ghosts, indeed, would occupy such terrain. Too bad the ghosts always turned out to be some greedy human who would've raked in a fortune had it not been for those "snoopy kids and their dog."

When I reached the age at which I started attending and hosting slumber parties, forget all that stupid talk of boys and prank phone calls, my #1 goal was to spend as much time telling ghost stories and scaring ourselves out of our wits. It helped that I lived in a house that had a mysterious tombstone (you can read my brother's take on that here and my take here) hidden in the crawl space off the basement. I could give "tours" of the "grave under our house," which guaranteed a wonderful atmosphere of horror that sequed into terrifying story telling that kept everyone up until dawn.

These days I like to think I don't scare so easily. Nonetheless, in my masochistic desire to be scared out of my wits, I want the ghosts in any story I read to be the sort of ghost James wanted in his stories.  An evil ghost, one that's come to drag me into the pits of hell with it, not one that's come to sing, "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands" with me. I want to walk down my basement stairs at night, push open the old wooden door that scrapes noisely along the floor of that part of the basement (the little room that should feature it's own "Beware!" and "Turn Back Now!" signs) and to be confronted with a floating skull, clacking it's teeth or a see-through child wielding an ax above her head. I do not want a chatty little golden-haired apparition here to bear witness to all the happiness and love that abounds in my life if only I'll acknowledge it (shouldn't that entity really be tagged an angel and not a ghost?).

Ghosts, from what I understand, should be creatures who died before their time -- violently. I will admit that they don't, necessarily. have to have it in for me. A sad woman carrying the arm her abusive husband severed with a saw, causing her to bleed to death, is fine. She can show up in my house, seeking revenge on her husband, and I'll probably help her. As a matter of fact, because I'm a chicken at heart, I'd much prefer any ghost I encounter to have it in for someone else and not me. I'm perfectly willing, goose-bumped, white-haired and all, to help some poor malevolent and odious apparition (in fact, let's make sure it's particularly odious, because I so love that word) do what it needs to do in order to "cross over." But a friendly ghost? He's on his own if he shows up in my house. Just like my good friend M.R. I have no use for helpful apparitions, most especially in any fictitious ghost story I might read or write.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

But the Emperor Has No Clothes

A couple of months ago, I read yet another critically acclaimed contemporary novel that made me want to scream, "But the emperor has no clothes!" This one happens to be Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon a River, which will probably be announced tomorrow as this year's Pulitzer Prize winner. I won't be surprised because I had to slog my way through it, which seems to be a pretty good indicator for something winning a major prize like the Pulitzer. I only slogged my way through it because it was on our list for the One Book One Community committee I'm on, and I felt it was my duty. I really wish I hadn't bothered. (Other members of the committee are not so diligent, gleefully announcing about some book they hated that they didn't bother wasting their time after the first 40 pages -- probably wise, given how many books we have to read.) I have to admit, though, that I often slog my way through such books, even when I have no call of duty, always hopeful that I'm going to find some redeeming quality, something that will make me think "So, that's what all the fuss is about!" I rarely do, and you'd think I'd learn, but I don't, and so I plod on until the bitter end and then want to throw the book across the room (or hit all the critics over the head with it).

Meanwhile, shortly after I read that catastrophe, I read a brilliant book that, as far as I can tell, has barely gotten any attention at all: Amor Towles's The Rules of Civility. In fact, I only discovered it because someone had returned it to our library, and I had to check it in and send it off to the other library in our system where it lives. I was immediately drawn to its cover (yes, I do judge a book by a cover, which is usually a better indicator than what the critics think of it). Shortly after I first saw it at the library, it, too, ended up on our One Book, One Community list. It's a wonderful rags-to-riches and riches-to-rags tale of Depression-era New York City, full of lovable characters, not the least of which is the city itself.

So, why does a book like Once Upon a River get picked up and carried around on all the critics' shoulders while a book like The Rules of Civility sits on the bench? I'm quite sure it's because contemporary critics like a certain mix of ingredients. In fact, take these ten ingredients, mix them up in any way you'd like, and you're bound to win some sort of literary prize.

1. The book must be grim. grim. grim. Avoid humor, levity at all costs. This is, of course, what will make it real, what will help you garner endorsements that say, "This gritty portrayal, reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, will make you question all you hold true about the grim realities of becoming a man in 21st-century America." The likes of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Mark Twain probably wouldn't be published today since readers might actually laugh at the things their characters do and say, and, you know, laughter is just so unreal.

2.  All settings must be bleak, and your characters must be uneducated and poor (another reason Trollope and Austen wouldn't be published today). If you're going to write about the American South, you must write about people living in shacks in Appalachia during a horrible drought when babies and beloved grandparents die from heat stroke. If you're writing about New York, you must write about those living in sub-standard tenement housing during the worst winter on record, babies and beloved grandparents freezing to death. Writing about London? Your characters are squatting in squalor. You get the picture, which has not even a slight hint of a bright color anywhere.

3. If you're writing a coming of age novel (why do I say "if"? It is, of course, a coming of age novel), and your main character is female, it's no longer enough for her to deal with the fact that she was orphaned at age 14. No, not only was she orphaned at age 14, but she was also sent to live with the uncle who has been sexually abusing her since she was three. She will go on to be raped at least three times by three other men before she is 21. She will also wind up pregnant. Oh, and yes, the boyfriend who got her pregnant is an abusive drug addict. Despite all she goes through, make sure that even your most empathetic readers won't really care less what happens to her by the end of the book.

4. If your main character is male, he either never knew his father, or his father is a drunk who is more absent than present and who "loves" with his fists. This boy's a wise-beyond-his-years high school dropout with a vocabulary that belies this status but who still manages to do so many stupid things that he is certainly headed for prison, especially since he thinks nothing of fighting back with his own fists. Provide a great hope that he might turn out differently from his father -- here's an idea: some kind, idealistic man who takes him under his wing and gives him the chance to live somewhere else. Or, even  better, a girl from a loving family who thinks he can be saved -- then yank that hope away as painfully as possible, so that, by the end of the book, your "hero" has become a clone of his father. Your last sentence might read, "The prison door echoed as it slammed behind him."

5. Mix up your tenses as much as you can. Write in the present tense and the past tense. Write in the future tense, too, if it makes sense (and even if it doesn't. If it doesn't, the critics are sure to think that you are deep and clever beyond all imagining, especially if you are a "bright young thing").

6. Likewise, mix up your narrative voice. Switch back and forth between first-person and third-person narrative, especially if you've begun with the first-person but need to explain something your narrator couldn't possibly know. Apparently, unlike me (who might be so cruel as to judge you a lazy writer), the critics will marvel at your "clever use of voice."

7. Get your characters to provide all kinds of lengthy background information via dialogue, because, you know, we all talk like this, "Well, cousin, as you will recall, your sister went off to New York when you were six years old. If only she'd stayed home where she belonged. You were too young to receive the phone calls all about Ronnie this and Ronnie that, but your poor mother was beside herself with worry over that guy, who, of course, turned out to be a drug dealer. If only Suzie hadn't gone to New York, we wouldn't be sitting in this rehab center today." The critics aren't bothered by such dialogue. Maybe they talk this way. Maybe they're also in the habit of explaining things to people's siblings that shouldn't need explaining.

8. Hit your readers over the head with symbolism. When your 16-year-old protagonist decides to tell her 36-year-old boyfriend she's pregnant, make sure you open the scene with a description of the fried egg breakfast she's cooking him, something like, "She watched the clear liquid turn to white and take shape, hoping she wouldn't overcook the yolks and wondering how he would take the news." A mother cat nursing kittens would be a good addition to such a scene. If your young male hero is headed for a life in prison, send him to a dog fight where he witnesses poor, weak dogs, stuck in their small crates, destined to die.

9. Make sure there are elements in your book that will encourage critics to compare it to classics. For instance, you can set it on a river (any river, apparently. It doesn't even matter if it's not the same one) a la Bonnie Jo Campbell, and it will draw "inevitable" (at least, according to one critic I read) comparisons to Huckleberry Finn. Set your book in an English village, and you will be a 21st-century Austen. Write about a teenaged boy, even a deaf, dumb, and blind one lost in Mongolia, and he's bound to draw comparisons to Holden Caulfield. Then again, if he's blind, he might be Oedipus. Don't make him blind. Caulfield is "edgier" than Oedipus, and you, of course, must be "edgy" (a favorite word amongst the critics).

10. Finally, most important of all: make sure your ending is ambiguous. Do not tie anything up -- or even together -- if you can possibly help it. The more you can make the reader think, "Huh?" the better. Besides, the more ambiguous it is, the easier it will be to write the sequel.

That's it: Emily's recipe for an award-winning book. Please let me know if I've missed some killer ingredient that will make it even better. I'm off to eat some dessert. Sophie Kinsella (who is actually an excellent writer and never pretends to be anything she isn't), anyone?

Wednesday, April 04, 2012


Okay, so things are changing in the blogosphere, and I just don't like it. First of all, Planet Blogger has changed it's "compose" page, and I'm not real fond of the new look and format. Maybe I'll get used to it, but, really, I don't know why a change was necessary. As far as I can tell, nothing new has been added, and I don't like having to go to the right-hand column to do things like label my posts. I liked the old composition page much better, with things like "scheduling" and "labels" down at the bottom of the post area. In fact, in the old format, you didn't even have to click on "labels," you could just type them right in. Why, Blogger, add that extra, unnecessary click? But, right now, this new format is just a little annoyance, and I can deal with it and will, probably, one day, even get used to it.

More problematic has been what's happened to me over on Planet Wordpress. Sometime last year, when commenting on all the blogs I like to read on that planet of many marvelous thoughts and ideas, I discovered that my signature image was just whatever random design was assigned to me at that particular day and hour. I didn't like this, so I went on to Gravatar to create my own image for my Wordpress comments, a cute little frog prince that some of you might recognize. I have to admit that I probably contributed to my own problems on Planet Wordpress by establishing a second home there, the blog I write for my library as PV Reader. This means that unless I remember to step out of that lovely home and lock the door, any comments I make on any blogs come up as comments being made by PV Reader and not by Emily Barton. Still, this was never a huge problem, because most of you know that PV Reader and Emily Barton are one and the same. Of course, PV Reader's images, when she comments, are randomly chosen designs, but she tries to comment so rarely that I'm not too bothered by that.

The huge problem surfaced about two weeks ago, when I suddenly discovered that the Wordpress government was holding my Emily Barton i.d. hostage. I could still leave my PV Reader home, but if I wanted to visit anyone else, I had to do so as PV Reader, or remain silent. I could no longer log on as Emily Barton with my Telecommuter Talk URL. Apparently, long ago (so long ago I honestly don't remember creating it), I created a blog called "WorldCitizenshipChallenge" on Planet Wordpress, using my Planet Blogger (located in the Google Galaxy) email address. Despite the fact that I had set up my Gravatar account with the Telecommuter Talk URL, which has worked fine for me ever since I set it up, I was told that my email address was already associated with some other Wordpress home and that I needed to either log into that or log into Gravatar in order to comment on blogs as anything other than PV Reader.

Did I ask the Wordpress government to do this? No. So, why did it suddenly become important to link me to some crumbling, empty home that is probably haunted with the sorts of ghosts I don't like? Especially since getting rid of my connections to that house was damn difficult to do. Until recently, I'd been on such friendly terms with the Wordpress government, their allowing me to comment in their realm, despite being from a different planet, and we'd been running along so smoothly. Now, suddenly, Frog Prince Emily Barton had been exiled from Planet Wordpress.

Seems the only thing to do, despite my opposition to war and violence, was to blow up the old World Citizenship Challenge home. Still not sure that worked, though. The Wordpress government still seems to be keeping an eye on me and trying to figure out if I have secret associations with a home that no longer exists.