Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Unexpected Incidents, Another Feature of Horror Fiction

Finder’s Keeper’s may belong to the mystery or thriller genre, but it is still the work of Stephen King, a king of the horror genre. So Finder's Keepers naturally shares some of the characteristics of horror fiction. One of those is the use of unexpected incidents.

Two characters take a bullet, one early in the novel and one much later. Both inspired a sense of dread, a feeling that their lives could end at any moment and painfully, but both were still, for me at least, unexpected, shocking me into remembering that evil resides in the human heart. Sometimes that evil surfaces and claims the person standing in an evil-doer’s line of sight.

John Rothstein’s death is the first unexpected event. He is an acclaimed author who has retired from public view after bringing a beloved character to a vainglorious end, at least in the opinion of one of Rothstein’s biggest fans, Morris Bellamy. And that character note for Bellamy should remind us of Annie Wilkes, another devoted fan who didn’t like the way novelist Paul Sheldon ended a beloved character in King’s Misery.

But Sheldon survives. Hobbled and suffering PTSD, Sheldon lives so I suspected Rothstein would as well. He didn’t. Defiant while facing armed, masked intruders who’ve interrupted his sleep and peaceful isolation, he dares Morris Bellamy to shoot him or shut up and get out. Bellamy shoots without hesitation.

The second unexpected incident is another shooting. Young Pete knows his family could be in danger, and he warns them to lock up--not admit any strangers. Pete’s mother doesn’t heed the warning. She continues playing Solitaire on the computer and lets her daughter continue to swing on the swing set in the family’s backyard. Bellamy simply walks right in the door, determines where Pete’s sister, Tina, is, and shoots Pete’s mother in the head.

Even more unexpected is the mother’s survival. Bellamy is a poor shot; the bullet never enters the woman’s brain so King deftly moves us from dread to horror to relief--the proverbial emotional roller coaster so satisfying in mystery, thriller, and horror fiction.

Poem by Connye Griffin. Photo by Al Griffin.
Will you heed the advice found in Finder's Keepers?
Will you be the secretary for your characters and not their creator?

Reading Challenge:

Read Finder’s Keeper’s. As you do, make note of unexpected incidents that illustrate the genres of both mystery and horror fiction.

Writing Challenge:

In Finder’s Keeper’s, you will read these words:

A good novelist does not lead his characters, he follows them. A good novelist does not create events, he watches them happen and then writes down what he sees. A good novelist realizes he is a secretary, not God.

Can you accept King’s challenge? Will you accept your role as a secretary rather than a creator?

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Shakespeare and Stephen King in Finder’s Keepers

Shakespeare’s study in the seductive, corrupting influence of ambition is Macbeth, a fine warrior gone rogue when he believes he’s destined to become King and refuses to wait for Fate to deliver the crown. He seizes the moment, slaughters his trusting king and kin, and cuts a savage swath through Scotland to secure his tenuous hold upon power. His victims include peers, his wife, and a boy brutally tossed from minion to minion until he’s skewered on a sword.

Before he draws first blood during peacetime, Macbeth hesitates. He knows that dread deeds succeed at great cost. He knows that the deed itself will not be the end of his dance in the shadowy world of evil. He recognizes that those who perpetrate evil must accept that evil returns to plague (9-10) the perpetrator:

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips. He's here in double trust;
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other
. (1. 7. 1-28)

Morris Bellamy, the villain of Stephen King’s Finder’s Keepers, remembers the opening lines of Macbeth’s soliloquy provided above. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to remember the rest of Macbeth’s thoughts about murder. Bellamy simply tells himself it’s best to commit savage deeds quickly, better not to hesitate or second-guess his plans. Bellamy doesn’t recognize what Macbeth did: bloody instructions… return / to plague the inventor (9-10). 

So King’s allusion suggests Bellamy’s fate well before the final pages of the novel: Bellamy’s ambition to possess Rothstein’s work and his savage deeds to obtain them cannot--will not--end well for him.

An allusion opens windows and doors beyond the first; it
enriches understanding and adds layers of meaning.
Photo courtesy of Megan McClendon

Reading Challenge:

Read Macbeth to enrich your appreciation of Stephen King’s Finder’s Keepers.

Writing Challenge:

King also alludes to Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” a poem entered into the novel by way of a teacher, Mr. Ricker. He explains that some of his students--perhaps most of them--will not fully appreciate Owen’s poem when read and studied, but some of them will be unable to forget it. He says,

Time will pass! ‘Tempus’ will ‘fugit!’ Owen’s poem may fall away from your mind, …. But for some of you it will recur. And recur. And recur. Each time it does, the steady march of your maturity will deepen its resonance. Each time that poem steals back into your mind, it will seem a little less stupid and a little more vital. A little more important. Until it ‘shines,’ …. Until it ‘shines.’  (King, Stephen. Finder’s Keeper’s. New York: Scribner, 2015. 101)

That is the power of allusion, isn’t it? An allusion is the wheat gleaned from the chaff, and its power grows and grows with time. It becomes a gem radiating meaning.

Pluck another gem from Finder’s Keeper’s and explain how it radiates to enrich the reader’s understanding.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

D. H. Lawrence in Finder’s Keepers by Stephen King

The Rocking-Horse Winner” by D. H. Lawrence is a horror story. A young boy named Paul dies because he has assumed the role of the adult in the home. He tries to provide enough money to meet his mother’s insatiable appetite for upper-class living; he compensates for his father’s impotence as provider. He accomplishes these feats by riding a child’s toy: a rocking horse in a frenzied run to sort statistics about horses and trainers in search of a winner.

Paul has access to the stats because Bassett, the family’s groundskeeper, and Paul’s uncle are betting men. Paul can listen to the races while visiting Bassett and read tout sheets, too. As a clever boy, Paul puts this information together well, but being driven to earn his mother’s love and admiration are more important than being clever. Paul wants to prove that he is lucky, a trait most admired by his mother who, we’re told, has a stone at the center of her heart. Paul also wants to hush the voices in his home, the ones whispering “There must be more money.”

Writers are readers, and readers recognize allusions that
enrich their understanding and shape meaning.
Photo from the Coe College Memorial Library, Cedar Rapids, IA.
Stephen King also seems to find Paul’s story horrifying. He alludes to Paul to help explain Pete, the boy at the center of Finder’s Keepers (2015). Pete doesn’t ride a rocking-horse to find money; he finds buried treasure instead, but like Paul,  he also finds there is never enough money to silence the desperate voices in his home.

Unlike Paul’s mother, Pete’s parents are not greedy. They are merely trying to survive after a national economic catastrophe and the one perpetrated by Mr. Mercedes. To help them, Pete tries to leverage the rest of the buried treasure consisting of collectible notebooks for more money.

Like Paul, Pete is clever, but both boys are ill-equipped to navigate the adult world, and both boys are ill-equipped to face off against Greed.  Pete's greedy opponents are not merely psychological foes; they are dangerous criminals. These men not only threaten Pete’s life, they threaten the lives of the family Pete hopes to improve, then save.

Paul cannot survive the psychological stressors. He dies from the strain of being an adult. So does Pete even though he lives. Pete loses his youth--his innocence about the ends to which men and women come. King's allusion to D. H. Lawrence’s Paul serves to inform readers about the unnatural pressures put upon children when they are forced to provide for adults and interact with adults who never have and never will care about the needs and dreams of children.

Reading Challenge:

Read D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner” before reading Stephen King’s Finder’s Keepers in order to enrich your understanding of King’s allusion.

Writing Challenge:

Explain your reaction to Paul’s uncle’s words of consolation to his sister after Paul dies.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Horror Fiction: Extraordinary Situations. Ordinary People.

Alfred Hitchcock often told stories about ordinary people caught in intricate, seemingly inescapable webs. How they comport themselves is the measure of the man or woman. It is also how we measure ourselves. We too are ordinary people entangled in day-to-day routines. We cannot imagine turning a corner to find a web that arrests us and forces us to summon skills we aren’t even sure we possess so we look at Hitchcock’s characters with a certain degree of horror, afraid to be in similar circumstances and in awe of the character’s resourcefulness.

That contrast between ordinary and extraordinary is at the heart of our sense of dread. It is also a key ingredient for horror fiction.

Ordinary Steel forged into powerful links secures ordinary wood weathered
and dry, both suggesting something extraordinary, even ominous, behind the two.
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography.
The Man Who Knew Too Muchstarring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, pits two ordinary Americans against international intrigue, kidnappers, and killers because one man whispers a cryptic message into the protagonist’s ear. He is thus thrust into extraordinary circumstances that will test his intellect and require raw courage in order to save his son and protect his wife. He proves equal to the challenge.

Accidental encounters are the heart of many Hitchcock films, and some fall more naturally into the horror category. The Birds and Psycho are two that feature other elements of horror stories, including the malevolent streak in human nature, a sense of foreboding from frame to frame, extreme events, and violence.

Another making use of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances is author Stephen King whom some call the King of Horror.  

Carrie, the title character in Carrie, is an ordinary school girl, na├»ve and sheltered, the daughter of a woman so subsumed in her religious fervor that she weaves an extraordinary web exacerbating Carrie’s high school torment and igniting Carrie’s peculiar talent as she saves herself from extreme bullying and shaming.

Ben Mears, the protagonist in ‘Salem’s Lot, encounters the ancient horror: the undead who feed upon the living. He moved to ‘Salem’s Lot to write a book, but he’s forced to fight for the lives of others and his own life against monsters. His journey carries him through the horror manufactured by malevolent creatures.

King’s latest novel, Finder’s Keepers, published in 2015, is the second installment in a trilogy that began with Mr. Mercedes, a novel recommended last year and used to review an editing principle. You will not need to read Mr. Mercedes to enjoy Finder’s Keepers, but you will enjoy each a bit more if you read both in order. And you will find ordinary characters caught in extraordinary circumstances.

The protagonist of Finder’s Keepers is Pete, a boy who stumbles across buried treasure. Inside a stream bank is a trunk containing cash and notebooks, the last words of Rothstein, a writer who wrote and retired, hoarding both cash and his words from the world. But a malevolent force named Morris Bellamy finds Rothstein and his stash; Morris kills Rothstein just to read those words, to find out what Rothstein did for a character Morris loved.

Morris hides the treasure he stole behind his home, then goes to prison for a different crime and a very long time without ever having read the notebooks he craved. Years later, his childhood home becomes home to the Saubers family when they must downsize after Mr. Mercedes cripples Pete’s dad at a time when the U. S. economy crushed job opportunities and incomes for America’s middle class.

Pete’s family is on the edge of a black hole, being inexorably pulled into oblivion when Pete finds Rothstein’s cash and notebooks. He begins sending that money to his parents anonymously, and it saves them. The terrible stress of being broke and broken, accusations about good and bad spending choices, and the wrenching sorrow of never being able to see a way out come to an end. Family members find each other and begin to heal.

Young, ordinary Pete has rescued his family from horrors inflicted by Mr. Mercedes and unbreakable glass ceilings--until the money runs out. Then Pete creates a new set of extraordinary circumstances when he tries to sell the notebooks to raise more money. Pete unleashes greed in a bookseller, fear in his sister who guesses the source of the money, and the trio who stopped Mr. Mercedes. Worse, Morris Bellamy finally earns parole and grows vengeful when he finds the buried trunk empty.

Pete faces his own desire to keep the notebooks for himself and their potential to bring more money to his family. He faces people who will help him and spurns them--at first. He faces off against malevolence in the body of Morris Bellamy. He witnesses the violence Morris inflicts upon others. Pete also learns the weight of violence when he must be violent to save himself. More important, he understands the consequences of spurning help and hoarding when his actions endanger the lives of his family. He has put them in jeopardy while crafting a web of his own.

Pete breaks through the intricate web he helped to build and the one Morris built. He proves to have both sufficient intellect and courage. He shows that ordinary people can overcome horrific circumstances even if those circumstances do not include Carrie’s telekinesis or taking up residence in a town of vampires. In showing the triumph of ordinary people, Pete and King reassure readers and remove much of their dread about a web that might be just around the corner.

Reading Challenge:

Read Finder’s Keepers, taking note of King’s use of extraordinary situations.

Writing Challenge:

Narrate a story of ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What Matters in the End: We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Poetry dwells in the concrete world and from it, elevates our understanding to matters abstract and epic. We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is poetic. It too resides in the graphic and real details of Ed Leary’s life disintegrating as an Alzheimer’s mind destroys the body and reshapes the lives of Ed’s wife Eileen and son Connell. Bearing witness to the Learys' story informs us about what truly matters: reaching the highest career point possible or being loved by those we choose to admit into our inner circles? Thomas answers that questions with these words:

For now, while he [Connell] breathed and moved, while he felt and thought, there was still, between this moment and the one of his dying, the interval allotted to him, and there was so much to live for in it: the citrus snap of fresh black tea; the compression and release of a warm stack of folded towels carried to the closet between two hands; the tinny resonance of children in the distance when heard through a bedroom window; the mouth-fullness of cannoli cream; the sudden twitch of a horse’s ear to chase a fly; the neon green of the outfield grass; the map of wrinkles in one’s own hand; the smell and feel, even the taste of dirt; the comfort of a body squeezed against one’s own.

These fleeting moments are both immediate and timeless, personal and universal, concrete and abstract. They are the sensual delights to which we are all invited. They are the bone and breath of a life. They are poetry in prose.

Sunlight and shadow, clouds on high and grass below--these are things that matter.
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin.

Reading Challenge:

Read Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves.

Writing Challenge:

Write a list of what matters in the end to you.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.