Fetal Alchemy Syndrome [Short Story Sample]

Below is the first couple pages of a horror short story that I wrote earlier this year. If you’re interested in reading the rest of it, or perhaps listening to an audio version, please visit patreon.com/PierreManchot where you can purchase the piece for as little as $1.  Thanks!

Fetal Alchemy Syndrome

by Pierre Manchot

Paris, 1856

A letter from Benoît Marquis to Hugo Undeig

Translated by Brenda Undeig, University of Kansas, 1979

I know now that heaven cannot help me. Man cannot help me. I’ve created something beyond both and I fear that its rapacious hunger will not only end my own life but potentially all of France and perhaps even the world in its entirety. I write this as a confession, in part. I am aware that this screed in no way absolves me of the sin I’ve brought into this world. Forgiveness is not an option for me. I only hope that you, once a dear friend of mine all those many years ago, might understand the gravity of my actions and, if fate can shine more benevolently upon you than it has myself, you might destroy the culmination of my foolish ambitions.

You won’t find my name preserved in history anywhere but this document. My success in the collegiate arena of ideas has been marred by my lifelong fascination with the alchemic arts. Despite holding the title of Professor at Grenoble in the sciences of chemistry and physics, my own word capsized my career after my second year. I had written a sequence of articles during my fledging academic stay at university praising the works of such alchemists as Jean Haville, the German Herst Groundlewerg, and the American George Prowell. That was enough to diminish my works in the honorable sciences right there, but it appears that I could not help myself and submitted two published articles on the theories of the ancient Egyptian Tiem Lazara who was able to conjure unearthly metals out of nothing but sand, water, and primitive electrical conduits. My professorial duties were revoked and my academic record expunged. With the knowledge that my pursuits would lead to what it has, I hold no blame for the institutions themselves.

Yet, wounded by the fragility of the central-thinking university system, I pursued the forbidden sciences with an even more fervent vigor. I furthered my understanding of the metallurgic arts and became familiar with hematology, what that I could. When my mother died, I was drawn back to Paris and, after the good woman was buried, I proceeded to pervert her apartment into a laboratory of my own design. I have little faith that a God, benevolent or otherwise, would welcome her to heaven— and it would only serve as a cruel jape to have my mother bear witness to the fruit borne from my evil obsession. I only hope that she passed into some eternal dream, blind to the mockery that obsession had made of her own home.

Where my mother’s duvet once sat, a table now stands, now covered with vials containing metals, acids, bases, and more— the duvet was still there, only perched on its arm, leaning uselessly against a wall. There are texts, ranging from the scientific to the religious, spread out half-read throughout the floorspace. The kitchen rarely produced a meal as I was more interested in boiling lead and mercury and notating the properties. I had converted what was once a charming flat into an alchemic prison. I couldn’t see that, no, not yet, my friend.

You might be considering that what I am telling you might be the exaggerations of a man locked in a room of malodorous fumes and foul humors, a man who might have lapsed into the loathe madness of milliners and brim shapers. I respond to your supposition without contempt, for I wish that it were so! I have sought treatment for nerves and exhaustion after desperately convincing myself that my mind had been made feeble from exposure to my craft’s metals. I desired nothing less than to assume all that I had seen was simply a waking dream or some grand deceit designed by some malicious fever or poison rooted inside my brain. The fledgling science of the mind could give me no answers and, lest I be subject to the horrors of the sanitarium, I withheld the more colorful details of this evil experience. Physicians, while slightly more competent, were no more able to provide me relief. Alas, the memory of blood and destruction always returned and I knew that it could not be false.

[To finish this story, please visit patreon.com/PierreManchot where you will be able to pay for the full piece.]

 

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A Game of Thrones: Genre Smashing

A Game of Thrones: Genre Smashing

How the fuck did George R.R. Martin fool the general public into a near crack-addictive obsession with his Song of Ice and Fire?

Fantasy had always been this niche enterprise, an interest in which could get your ass kicked around a schoolyard. Even with the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, your dedication to the series determined how big of an ugly nerd you’d be judged as: “Oh, you read the books? Us cool kids only saw the movies! And, yeah, and, and we were necking! Ask Gracie if I wasn’t ploughing that neck like some sex god!”

Fantasy was so niche that the other end of the spectrum held similar defense mechanisms if you weren’t into it enough: “Oh, you haven’t even read the Similarion? Nice try, n00b. Me and Gracie were necking while discussing Idril’s lineage, like, twenty minutes ago before you showed up with your Aragorn-loving ass.”

Yet everyone gets into Game of Thrones. My dad’s read the entire series and I’m pretty sure he has a religious allergy to chocolate milk. My friends are fiends for the latest episodes and they all have theories. The nicest, old, old, ladies that ride the bus with me are holding Fire & Blood.

I wanna know why this polarized genre has found such a universal audience. So let’s start with the aforementioned properties that brought fantasy into the mainstream, shall we?

Twenty two years ago, a down-on-her-luck gal named Joanne Murray (JK Rowling to most) published a little book known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (translated to the Sorcerer’s Stone for dumb American children). I myself read it in fifth grade and had a grand old talking-to with my teacher about the temptation of dark magic and its road to Satanism. Lutheran school. The book, and its subsequent six sequels, became a hit and a filmic phenomenon.

So why did Harry Potter break?

Well, Rowling was able to make the fantastical element of sorcery almost livable, enriching all of the daily elements of being a student, teacher, government employee, etcetera, with the pizazz of mysticism. Her tactic was to bring down magic to the ordinary, the familiar–  all of which would seem magical to the focal character who hadn’t experienced anything of the sort, just like the book’s readership. For young readers, going to school then became more exciting with a magical analogue, knowing that chemistry was potion making, soccer was Quidditch, and email was a bajillion electronic owls throwing messages back and forth.

She broke fantasy into a common tongue. While she didn’t invent Urban Fantasy as a genre, she made it accessible for young readers to grab onto in an empathetic way.

Aight.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, Tolkien managed the same feat. He followed up a fun, happy-go-lucky-go-wrong-go-lucky-again little romp called The Hobbit (ever heard of it?) and then followed it up with the masterwork earned from a life spent in academic research through mythology, Olde English, history, and the horrors he’d witnessed in World War One. And he needed to make it accessible.

Perhaps it’s his skill as an orator– much like the Velvet Underground leading to punk music, his reading of Beowulf apparently sparked a surge of interest into re-investigating the works in the olde tongue. Tolkien put his performative skills to the page knowing that his writing style needed to establish a mythos and lore similar to that of England’s storied history and mythology, while also remaining serviceable to the everyday reader. While he wrote in an archaic format, Tolkien would generally keep his prose fairly modern, allowing the uneducated masses (especially in America, which enabled his success) to finally access that sweet, sweet burgeoning Fantasy genre.

Which brings us back to George Rawr Rawr Martin. How’d he make Fantasy a universal genre? Martin, like Tolkien, was also guided by the possibilities of mythology, European history, and Catholicism (“lapsed” in Martin’s case) and brought the genre once again into the mainstream. Why so popular? Could it have been the more lenient censors? The blood? The violence? The big ole Red Witch titties? Igh…the incest? Sex and violence is nothing new, and while it certainly sells, it’s no guarantee of success. I think the motherfucker had the same instincts Rowling and Tolkien relied upon, updated with a life devoted to pop-cultural nerd shit.

He knew he needed to show us something familiar, whether we realized it or not. Instead of having us draw comparisons between the fantastical and the ordinary, Martin instead draws us into the fantasy by showing us a story we already find exciting:

Game of Thrones doesn’t start off in the Fantasy genre. It begins as Horror. A snowy glen, a doll-like corpse pinned to a tree comes back to life with blue fire in its eyes. It’s after the grisly aftermath of the White Walkers, when the deserter/survivor’s message gets cut short, doth the fantasy begin with a dark promise. The king visits, giving us a personae dramatis for the non-Stark players, and provides a launching pad for several story arcs, each with their own blurred genres. A political thriller foments when the alarming message that John Arryn has been murdered arrives. The forbidden romance between the Lannister twins is discovered. Jon Snow’s hero journey from Bastard to Badass begins by getting hammered. Sansa’s maturation story from a naïve believer in fairy-tales towards a well-versed decoder of deception is well set, as is Arya’s road from misfit to assassin. Tyrion gets his end wet.

All of these threads we are willing to follow. The bulk of the first book, however, is devoted to Ned Stark, who serves as the primary protagonist. And although his character is embroiled in political chaos and familial complexity, his narrative drive is identical to a hardboiled detective’s.

That’s right, bitches. I’m making this about noir. NED DETECTIVE.

Once he reaches King’s Landing, Ned’s arc falls into the classic structure of a steel-jawed man interviewing a sequence of people looking for the truth. His self-appointed charge is to prove that Cersei’s children ain’t his buddy Bobby Baratheon’s. Ned’s story is based in inquisition in search of the truth, for truth’s sake. Hence, he pokes around the government, he pokes around the common folk, pokes Gendry in the shoulder, he pokes around the ledgers. And he uncovers the scandal and confronts the Femme Fatale. Unlike your average noir thriller, the protagonist is beheaded in front of his daughters.

Which serves as the inciting incident for all of the other plot lines, each one a mishmash of genre regardless of the fantasy setting. A broken-man with a soft-spot for protecting naïve children? With a vendetta against his brother who injured him in their youth? Who finds the value of life through working with common, defenseless people? But still likes killing people? Without context, I’d say with 70% certainty, that I was describing a Kurosawa film. You know who I’m referring to.

Genre-smashing isn’t new.

The aforementioned Akira Kurosawa defined a generation of Japanese cinema by imbuing traditional samurai legends with the genre-specific elements of the western. You can follow this thread for awhile:  Blade Runner is pure noir slammed into a complete science-fiction setting. True Detective: Season One is noir, sure, but injected with the DNA of a buddy cop film, TV police procedural, and cosmic horror. Robert Brockway’s The Vicious Circuit series mixes punk-rock and some of the vilest horror I’ve ever put in my brain (and you should too). Evil Dead II mixes horror with slapstick comedy, while Slaughterhouse V mixes a horrifying account of World War II with quirky science fiction.

It comes down to the same science of making a good mixtape. The advice that my brother gave me on mixtape compilation: “You want to balance novelty with nostalgia.”

The reason is digestibility. You’re more willing to eat your first oyster if you spritz some lemon on it. The familiar makes the unknown easier to handle. The dark complexity of Blade Runner makes more sense if you’re slumming through the streets along with Rickard. True Detective: The turn from existential pessimism towards existential optimism would be way too heady and pedantic unless you had both Cohle and Hart find their Yellow King. The the reality of war in Slaughterhouse V would burden the reader with too much emotional weight unless it was delivered in a way that let the reader escape and put things in perspective just as the narrator describes the horrific events.

Taking one thing and smashing it into another thing is the basis of innovation. It’s the proverbial “you got my peanut butter in your chocolate.” It’s the reason pizzas are sold on bagels, the reason your fridge has a freezer attached to it. It needs to happen at a certain point and it happens on a near instinctual level– ask anyone who’s ever had to write music reviews of local artists: “They’re like Modest Mouse meets The Ramones– if Joey had range.” Science Fiction, at a certain point, was essentially a bunch of pulp drivel until pioneers such as Phillip K Dick and Stanislaw Lem came along and embedded a deep sense of meaning into it, reflecting our own lives, views, and the philosophies they were enchanted by. Hardboiled pulp detective fiction was wrangled by Hammet and Chandler until Ellroy elevated it to literary standards. Hell, you look at the progression of comic books, a medium nearly entirely written off because of its fringe appeal– and now those characters are currently dominating the box offices. The success and/or legacy of which comes down to the fact that the creators held the format of one thing in one hand and enmeshed it into the social topics of gender roles, race, sexuality, or insecurity– it stays relevant.

Game of Thrones is rooted in the fantasy world specific to Martin’s brain. What Martin has that other fantasy writers lack, is a cool understanding of the genres around him. He’s the über nerd who understands everything under the banner of geekdom, inside and out. It’s so complete that I’d wager you could remove the fantasy element entirely and you’d still be left with a competent and enjoyable series. Which gets close to answering my initial question:

Because there’s something that anyone could recognize as their favorite genre, everybody can get into it.

 

Pierre Manchot blends Fantasy with Science Fiction and Dystopia in his humorous series The Fish Fox Boys, the third book of which is soon to be published. Get caught up starting with the first novel here re_cover_small

 

Biographical details lifted from Wizard and the Bruiser episodes of JRR Tolkien and G.RR. Martin:

(https://soundcloud.com/wizbru/jrr-tolkiens-the-lord-of-the-rings-pt-i)

(https://soundcloud.com/wizbru/game-of-thrones)

A Comedy of TERRORS Part II: Dracula

A Comedy of TERRORS Part II: Dracula

I recently finished Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a novel that, along with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, defined a goddamn genre. Modern readers might be put off by the dry, elevated prose throughout the epistolary epic, especially since recent imaginings of vampires are either laughably melodramatic or so far up its own conceited, dreary ass that a return to the source material seems like an exhausting task.

Let me tell you, Bram Stoker’s Dracula indulges heavily in melodrama and dreariness. That being said it also reads like a dream, in part, because it is secretly hilarious.

The primary protagonist of Dracula, while an ensemble piece, is ultimately Van Helsing. He isn’t even mentioned until nearly 150 pages into the novel, but once he’s established, he is the primary agent of action and knowledge against the Un-Dead Count. Once he’s introduced, the entire plot revolves around his decisions. And he’s funny. He’s Dutch, so, naturally, his English is broken and jumbled together in long, raving rants. And he’s awkward. He’s blunt when he should he should be tactful, and overly explicative when he should be precise. Nearly immediately after Lucy Westrenra dies, Helsing verbally diarrheas a litany of his research, confusing his poor former student, Dr. Seward, before obtusely saying, “I want to cut off her head and take out her heart,” which only distresses Seward further. It takes another litany and several demonstrations to get Seward on board.

Van Helsing fucks up socially, constantly. He makes Mina Harker, once the vampiric curse is falls upon her, cry by callously saying, in so many words, “don’t forget that a Vampire breast-fed you a couple of hours ago,” before realizing his social mistake.

What’s more is that he addresses his comedy directly. He straight up fucking laughs in hysterics after Lucy has died. Seward attributes it as  “it was only his sense of humour asserting itself under very terrible conditions.” Van Helsing goes on one of his rants, discerning “laughter who knock at your door and say, ‘ can I come in’,” from laughter that says, “‘I am here.'” I’ve gone on before about how Horror and Comedy are nearly one and the same, given their basic elemental makeup. But here Dracula pokes at a baser inclination with its comedy. Which is that laughter, dramatically induced via comedic relief, is a fear response. I’ve written about this before, thinking my modern perspective of irony of tragedy and comedy was somehow a revelation.

Buddy, we’ve been funny for a long while and for the same reasons.

Take this: Lucy Westenra slowly becomes a Vampire. She’s entombed and the fuckers who loved her mourn her passing. Van Helsing says some crazy shit about wanting to cut her head off and stuff her mouth with garlic (again, hilarious in the way he proposes it). Seward pledges to never take a diary entry down again. CUT TO several newspaper clippings of children, desanguined, found in a feverish daze after being lured away by a ‘bloofer lady’:

A correspondent writes us that to see some of the tiny tots pretending to be ‘the bloofer lady’ is supremely funny. Some of our caricaturists might, he says, take a lesson in the irony of grotesque by comparing the reality and the picture.  (229)

It’s not only that this passage implies that Stoker was, on some level, self-aware of how ridiculous his story is, it’s the baffling use of the term ‘bloofer lady.’ There’s no contextual explanation as to what that means in the clippings, nor is it ever repeated after the chapter closes. Furthermore, there’s no footnote (in my copy, at least) explaining the term, suggesting that it went over the heads of scholars for years and years. Thank Christ for Urban Dictionary, which explains that “bloofer” is, in fact, the reported cockney dialect of “beautiful.” Say it out loud in a cockney accent and you’ll get it. Bloofer lady. Hilarious.

Stoker reports dialects of many UK islanders– Irish, Scottish, cockney, Welsh, I think, in addition to Helsing’s strange Dutch accent. Now, the first reaction might be that Stoker’s making fun of the lower classes (Dracula, after all, is the tale of haunted aristocrats) but I’m one to think that Stoker, being Irish himself, was poking at the intellectual class reading his book. I like to think that he knew well that his literary audience would have been confounded by a lot of the more colloquial verbiage in the book, whereas an educated albeit lower-class reader would be able to decipher the language perfectly. Some of the dialogue is so entrenched in dialect that the only reason I was able to understand half of it is due to my fascination with Scottish People Twitter. It ultimately adds a sense of playful levity to the Gothic narrative, because of the playful nature inherent to “vulgar” UK slang and expressions.

At a certain point when I was discussing Dracula with my companions, I was frustrated that the only common understanding of the book was the “I VANT TO SUCK YOUR BLOOD” parody of a misquote from Bela Legosi’s incarnation of the Count. But the more I thought about it, that comedic take on Dracula is almost closer to Stoker’s intention than initially realized. Nearly everyone can agree that the vampires depicted in Twilight are garbage creatures, over-saturated in the poetry of eternal life and shiny, blah, blah, blah. Meanwhile, What We Do In the Shadows nails it, utilizing a comedic tone to play with the wide-spanning vampiric lore without diminishing its potency. Likewise, The Castlevania video game series employs a subtle humor (often in the form of items and certain enemies) that pokes fun at the concepts without taking you out of the experience. There’s a level where you essentially murder everyone in Hogwarts.

And finally there’s the gleeful Sir Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of Van Helsing in Coppala’s adaptation of Stoker’s classic, who seems to be the only actor cognizant of what movie he’s in.

There are yet unmined opportunities to explore with Vampires. Dracula itself is a culmination of many years studying the folkloric traditions and superstitions surrounding the monster and Stoker only scratched the surface. So take heart, horror authors.

But for Christ’s sake, use some humor to blunt the subject’s poetic edges. Vampires are ridiculous and you know this.

Black Box: The Art of Restraint

Black Box: The Art of Restraint

There’s a concept in illustration called artistic restraint– at least, that’s what I call it. It’s knowing when to stop adding texture and detail before you over-complicate the image and make it harder for the eye to engage with it. The idea is that the viewer will fill in the missing pieces subconsciously. The full image is implied by the artist’s “incomplete” rendering.

This applies to fiction and I’m not talking about brevity, either. I’m talking about the pacing of information, because in a lot of ways, the best examples are those that are technically “overly-complete,” in its exposition, while burying the lead– the grander narrative, so to speak– under layers of storytelling .

The classic example of this is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” wherein a couple has an intense conversation without ever directly acknowledging the subject of debate. One of my professors once told me that this story was a failure, in that no one understood what the story was actually about until Hemingway gave it away in an interview. I kind of agree to an extent (anyone who tells you what that story is about was 99% likely to have been told themselves. It’s not exactly evident in the writing.) but I also appreciate that all readers understand that something bigger is going on in this little exchange.

Easier discussed examples are found in the horror genre. I’ve mentioned before that H.P. Lovecraft loves to obfuscate the true horrors of his stories with psychosis, doubt, and scientific reasoning, while only allowing a mere, vague glimpse of the monster before the story ends. His contemporaries, such as John Carpenter, do likewise– you never see what the Thing actually looks like, just the perversion of its replicated host. The doubt and conflict is born out of the fact that anybody could be the Thing.

A modern novel that understands informational control well is Bird Box by Josh Malerman. The premise is this: there are “somethings” floating around outside and if you see one of them, you go insane and kill yourself and those around you. The entire book is therefor written, essentially, blind whenever the characters are not inside of a boarded up house– which also creates a sense of blindness to the outside world, despite the sensory details of a home. The amount of information as to what the hell is happening is minimal, and experienced minimally. As such, there’s a pervading sense of paranoia and claustrophobia throughout the entire book, expressed through these sensory limitations. Also, the climax contains one of the most appalling things that has ever entered my brain.

It Follows takes this concept and makes it one of its primary themes. The horror is only experienced by the protagonist as they’re the only person who can see the monster in pursuit. Furthermore, it’s relevant only to their life, taking on the image of someone they know personally. Essentially, the cursed person’s experience of the horror is filled in by their own subconscious– generally with the broad strokes of Freudian of sexual formation (Jay first sees an elderly naked woman, possibly her grandmother; Greg sees his own mom in a night gown; Hugh claims to see a girl in a yellow dress). The horror experienced is a black box that no other character can access. What’s excellent about It Follows is that it spends just as much time with its secondary characters, usually slasher-fodder, and actually develops them into a unit of friends concerned about the protagonist undergoing a difficult time that they don’t understand– because they don’t have the information that the protagonist has. As much as you sympathize with the main character’s isolation, because you’ve been there, you also empathize with the others’, because you’ve been there today.

Information becomes currency in stories. Look at Silence of the Lambs and pay attention to what information does. The main storyline unfolds like a procedural tracking down Buffalo Bill until Hannibal Lector comes onto the scene. He understands that information is powerful. He delivers information about Jame Gumb to thread the narrative along for what? Information about Clarice Starling. Specifically, personal, traumatizing information about Clarice Starling’s childhood. Quid quo pro. It does something to a reader, having to face a character’s darkest memories. The reader, along with Clarice, has to access their own personal account of darkness and attach the weight of their own traumas to hers. But the character of Hannibal Lector does something even more insidious– he gets the reader to goddamn like him. You do what Crawford always warned Clarice about: you forget what he is. So when he finally bursts out of his cell via the grisliest means necessary, you’re suddenly stuck between cheering him on and personal betrayal accompanied with self-disgust.

It’s called a psychological thriller for a reason.

The thing that you carry away isn’t necessarily the way that the story ends, but how it affected you. Silence of the Lambs is effective because it’s main plot line is almost a red herring for the more subtle horror of Lector accessing Starling’s/your mind. Buffalo Bill is disturbing. Hannibal Lector is seductive. Silence does this by foiling Lector with Crawford, both manipulative men. The story controls its flow of information so carefully, that while you, along with Starling, are wary of Crawford who remains stoic, vague and unyielding of his intentions, you buy into Lector, who’s smart, polite and generous with his knowledge. It makes Starling, and you by extension, despite everything in her power to remain at the head of the curve, naive. 

The Black Mirror episodes, “Shut Up and Dance” and “White Bear” execute this perfectly by stringing along an increasingly cruel set of circumstances for the main character, encouraging our sympathy the entire time, before dropping the curtain and revealing who the main characters really are–a simple revelation that makes us question whether or not our sympathy was deserved. It puts the entire narrative we were just told into another light with a single line of information. That’s the power of limited perspective.

In the batshit crazy House of Leaves the information we are given is… a lot to take in. The worst but only way I can describe it: this is a book about a guy who’s writing about a book he found written by a different guy about a film a third guy made about his house that doesn’t make sense. And that’s just scratching the surface.  I think I’ve mentioned before that reading this book in public makes you look crazy– you have to turn it around to read all of the annotations, flipping through several pages, back and forth, as there are annotations to annotations, forcing you to reference the index in the back and you journey through the narrative only to find that it folds into itself endlessly. And then, if you’ve done the homework, solved the puzzles, educated yourself about architecture, documentary film-making, and cryptology… the real story emerges like a 3D painting.

And it happens weeks later after finishing the fucking thing. It’s a study in forming broad strokes via intricate design.

I know what you’re thinking: how does this relate to True Detective? Funny you should ask because I was just about to go there, you pidgeon-toed, gawking ratfink. Hardboiled noir fiction runs on the engine of gathering information about a crime or infidelity. Usually this is done with a progression of interviews, voyeurism, and clever deceits. Like all stories, it becomes complex and then it simplifies. Which you have in True Detective, expressed as a buddy cop procedural. Within that basic structure, you have the narrative device of flashbacks, contextual to the interviews of Cohle and Hart. It’s a simple thing to point out, but the fact that you see these guys as ruined, possibly insane old men makes you wonder what exactly the hell happened 18 years ago to warrant these changes.

 

True Detective also plays out as a horror story. There’s an encompassing feeling of dread threaded throughout the miniseries. But it’s only glanced at as reverberations in the “psychosphere,” mentioned by junkies, felt but never seen– the closest we come to seeing it is Cohle’s hallucination of the black star while he’s being choked out by Errol. Usually we see it in brief glimpses through Marty’s eyes– his daughter’s recreating a ritualistic murder scene with dolls, or the entropy of of a tasseled tiara stuck in a tree. Likewise, the protagonists never face the shadow society responsible for the historical murders in the area. They get Errol– which disappointed a lot of viewers but is thematically on point. Sticking with concrete leads brings them to a concrete, yet impotent conclusion and Cohle understands that the bigger, elusive (and allusive) culprits are still at large. Hart acknowledges their own limit of understanding by the consolation “We got our guy.” The story becomes complex in its information and then it simplifies, but the difference here is that there is still incomplete, complex, deliberately placed information that hasn’t been digested by the narrative, speaking of a much larger conspiracy that appears unconquerable.

All of this is to say that the most effective story you can tell is one that subtly asks the reader to tell themselves a story along with you. They’ll meet you halfway.

 

A Comedy of TERRORS

A Comedy of TERRORS

Spoiler alert for Stranger Things. And Breaking Bad, kinda. And comedy in general.

If you ask any jackass on the street to define comedy, they’ll likely just say “It’s funny. BURRRP.” Well, that ain’t helpful. So let’s talk comedy. Specifically, let’s talk what comedy looks like in literature and television and study its spine.

Let’s start by saying that comedy, by definition, isn’t always funny. And what’s less funny than talking pretentiously about William Shakespeare? A professor once told me (so it must be true) that Shakespeare* distinguishes comedies and tragedies thusly:

A comedy is the story of an outsider joining an in-group / society. (Integration)

A tragedy is the story of an insider forced out of an in-group / society. (Isolation)

That’s it. Apply it to any modern movie and you’ll find that it works. What about a story about a family man who alienates his friends and family in the pursuit of power at the cost of societal decay?

breaking-bad-hair-art
Tragedy. That one was easy.

What about the story of a guy too cool for school that has to go back to school and falls in with a group of lovable ragamuffins?

community-season-six-yahoo
Also easy. C’mon, it’s in the title.

Dan Harmon is the premiere television comedy writer of the decade(s), having championed Community (above) and half of Rick and Morty. Here are his rules of writing every episode of anything ever:

  1.  A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2.  But they want something.
  3.  They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4.  Adapt to it,
  5.  Get what they wanted,
  6.  Pay a heavy price for it,
  7.  Then return to their familiar situation,
  8.  Having changed.

When you think of the Shakespearean definition of comedy, you see why this works so well episodically, especially with the Community series in which the zone of comfort is literally being accepted by a society. You have the tragic turn of an insider becoming an outsider, and then the comedic reintegration in a linear progression.

Sometimes you have comedies and tragedies playing out in parallel– take the story of a weird girl with psychic powers becoming best friends with a bunch of adorable dorks (integration) searching for their missing dork friend (broad integration):

stranger-things-on-netflix
Exploding G-men brains: comedy gold

…and mix it with the story of a sweet girl hanging out with a bunch of cool kids (integration) who drink beer and have sex and pay no consequences whatsoever.

barb-stranger-things-shannon-purser_article_story_large-large_transsfxwnnhossudzbpg8a9lxgnplncb4jbmotpfyxdp7d8
Oh right.

The tragedy of Stranger Things lies in the alienation of Barb– the cost Nancy pays to trade up into a higher in-group. You can chart out a hell of a whole lot of micro comedies and tragedies in that show and you’d still be hard pressed to label it solidly in either camp. Because it’s rooted in horror.  More on that later.

Now that we’ve covered the macro structures, let’s back up for a bit and examine the basis of all comedy so that we can cover the micro– I’m talking irony. The definition of irony is simply a contradiction of expectations. Now, the primary theory  of laughter is that it creates a social bond between those in a group, signaling that theirs is a safe place. I think of why I laugh nervously– to tell others that I’m not dangerous (or sometimes to awkwardly attempt to make a tense scenario a more amicable one). So let’s blend that with a model that explains why irony is funny to us on an evolutionary level:

A group of hunters are walking through the woods looking for food to kill. They hear some grass moving violently and they think it’s a tiger waiting to pounce on them. They send Kevin, agreed to be the biggest asshole of their group, to go and check it out– Kevin looks in the grass and finds… nothing. It was just the wind. He laughs to the other hunters to nonverbally communicate that everything is fine and they laugh back to confirm everything is indeed fine.

If you dissect that, you essentially have, in my terms:

  1. Set up (We’re hunting!)
  2. Expectation (Kevin’s gonna get et!)
  3. Punchline: A contradiction of that expectation (It was wind all along! We’re safe!)
  4. Return to normalcy (Hahaha! We’re hunting!)

That’s the basis of every joke ever written. You’ll notice it’s almost impossible not to tell a joke without telling a story and that it’s elements are not unlike any other particular scene.

I tend to write humorous books. Here’s the first paragraph of the 9th chapter of The Fish Fox Boys in which our heroes enter a dilapidated mall after the decline of civilization:

Adam and Fred walked carefully through The Mall’s vast, moss-covered corridors, past windows of the storefronts and restaurants that were now strangled by vines and shattered by trees growing through the glass. At first they were startled by what they thought were several people frozen in time, until upon closer inspection, they discovered that these were simply what the old world had called “mannequins.” Fascinated, they poked and prodded a mannequin sporting capri pants and a vest.

Without really thinking about it, I had written through those four steps:

  1. Set up (We’re walking through a scary old mall!)
  2. Expectation (There are frozen people!)
  3. Punchline: A contradiction of that expectation (Oh, those are just giant dolls wearing clothes! We’re safe!)
  4. Return to normalcy (Hahaha! Let’s poke ’em! We’re farting around in a scary old mall!)

A lot of that humor has to do with irreverent tone and pointing out absurdity, but the tone doesn’t become irreverent and the absurd isn’t examined until the end of the paragraph. And I’m going to posit that #4 is where the true humor lies (Let’s poke ’em!), instead of the punchline (Just mannequins!). If you think about how Mitch Hedberg delivers jokes, the laughter is almost always a beat after he says the punchline and comments how dumb his jokes are which also serves to recenter the audience before his next joke. You also have TV comedies like The Office where the punchline is delivered followed by a talking-head shot to capture the more human, often funnier reaction to the punchline (which also contextualizes the audience to the true nature of the characters on screen). The last step is even the funniest in the hunter-tiger model which tells the universal truth that laughter is contagious. You don’t need a joke to make people laugh, you just need laughter.

Back to horror (you thought I forgot! Shame on you!). A while ago, I had to the opportunity to see Robert Brockway read from the second installment of his brutal and genius punk-rock-horror series, The Vicious Circuit, and during the Q&A, a woman asked him how he could take subject matter that’s so inherently foul and horrific and still make it so goddamned hilarious. His answer was that the set up of a joke and the set up of horror is almost exactly the same, just with a different outcome. To use the hunter-tiger model again, there could have just as easily been a tiger waiting in those bushes to eviscerate Kevin. And writers like Brockway prove that the other hunters can still laugh at the end.

In my paragraph from The Fish Fox Boys, the punchline could have been replaced with a horrific payoff– that the people frozen in time were exactly that, stiff inanimate bodies standing around. Again, I think, what counts is the #4 Return to Normalcy (and how you define normalcy in your work). Fred and Adam could have screamed and runaway… or they could still poke the bodies and make fun of their clothing.

It makes a lot of sense to me, that laughter is so closely related to fear. We know that it’s the social cue of safety and the release of anxiety. It’s one of the reasons why going to a standup comedy show feels almost like a more powerful religious experience for me– the catharsis of that internal anxiety being coaxed out by a charismatic comedian and diminished by a room full of other homo sapiens telling each other nonverbally that everything’s fine. But that initial anxiety is necessary. You ever have to switch a sitcom off because it made you feel too anxious? Because you inadvertently mumbled, “Oh God”? Exactly. What makes us feel uncomfortable is also what makes us laugh. As a sidenote, I think that’s why slapstick was/is so popular. (See Buster Keaton’s House Falling on Buster Keaton)

It’s on that anxious axis that all  stories swivel.

But don’t forget that laughter is also the language of play and, whether you’re torquing the tension of a horror or a thriller piece or polishing the jokes and tone of a humorous work, remember that there’s a lot to play with here using the simple mechanics. And if you ain’t hip to this writing scheme, then, well, do what makes you laugh.

Unless that includes, you know, doing real-life horror stuff. GET THOSE KITTENS OUT OF THAT BURLAP SACK, KEVIN.

 

*I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare himself didn’t actually make those distinctions and that definition likely precedes the bad bard by some hundreds of years.