Storytelling and American Horror Story

american-horror-story-coven-2Why are novels so often around 300 pages?

Why are fantasy series so often trilogies?

Why are TV shows so often 20 episodes to a season?

Do stories inherently fit into this structure? Obviously not. These common structures are rarely ever driven by story. They are driven by outside factors, the story twisted and contorted to fit into these semi-arbitrary boxes. Dickens wrote his stories knowing they would be serialized in chapbooks. Novel lengths have always been restrained by the physical size of the printed book; over one thousand pages and the book falls apart and if a book is too large it may be too expensive for readers. Thus, long fantasy epics are broken into trilogies.

Television has imposed the same artificial story structure on its creators. The season length is driven by advertising revenue streams and promotional schedules.  More importantly, television also has a unique structure that has demanded a story never actually ends. Most shows tell a story for a season, 20 or so episodes over 8 months, and then find some way to continue that story the following season. And then the season after that, and that, and then ratings or creative ideas or actor contracts make the creators introduce some conclusion to the story, if that is even possible.

This works great for some types of story telling. Procedurals like Law and Order work well since they are not telling a long form story. But those longer stories with a defined beginning and end have always had to twist their stories into the format of the medium.

But the times they are a changing. Technology has the ability to free creators from these artificial restraints. Book length means less in the e-book age and yearly TV schedules are less important with NetFlix, YouTube and on-demand viewing.

This is a huge boon for the horror genre, specifically classic horror stories. Horror tropes have been used in successful teen shows like The Vampire Diaries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and long running shows like Supernatural or shorter lived shows like Twin Peaks.

The short run of Twin Peaks is indicative of the historic problem of the TV schedule on a story.  David Lynch asked us to follow him in finding out “Who killed Laura Palmer?”  Terrific story telling followed. It was weird and creepy. It was filled with amazingly unique personalities. It was full of the supernatural and the mundane.

But the story was about “Who killed Laura Palmer?”  Once that story was told, one we knew the answer to that question, Twin Peaks was not sure where to go. They were a television show and every season assumes a following season. There was no appetite for investing in a series that would automatically go off the air in only 1 or 2 seasons, killing any chance at syndication, the holy grail of television.

So Twin Peaks continued on. It puttered about and then eventually came a movie. It was at one time the most exciting show on television, but it had petered out. But this was caused not by David Lynch, but the structure of television itself. The show should have ended after the original story of Laura Palmer was told. That was the story. It was fascinating and didn’t need more.

This brings me to American Horror Story and why I am so excited about this admittedly over the top show. Each season is a single story. This singular, contained story structure allows them enormous freedom. Do you want to kill off the most popular character on the show? Sure, why not. She can come back the next season as an entirely different character. Want to chop off a characters legs? No prob.  Who are the bag guys and who are the good guys? American Horror Story keeps us guessing because each season we are following new characters played by the same stable of actors.

This structure is perfect for the horror genre. Everyone should be in danger in a classic horror story. Horror, or at least a certain type of horror, does not work if you know they will never kill off a popular character. It is impossible for Supernatural to kill off, at least permanently, either Sam or Dean. True Blood cannot kill off Sookie. They are the stars. The shows dies without them. But when telling a singular story, with a defined ending, and then allowing those actors to come back the following season for a new story (which pulls fans in), American Horror Story is free to do whatever they want.

This upcoming season we have the third installment, American Horror Story: Coven. The first season was the classic haunted house and the second about a twisted insane asylum. Now we get witches. I love witches. The Salem Witch trials have always been a deep pool for horror to draw from. It is also wonderfully american, much like the southern gothic of Faulkner or the New England terrors of Stephen King. And we get Jessica Lang, Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett. We get Salem styled witches and southern Voodoo. We get great actors from previous seasons like Lily Rabe and Denis O’Hare. It does not matter whether their characters were killed off during Asylum or Murder House (the first two seasons). And we have no idea who might live and who might die. We don’t know who is good and who is bad.

All we know is that over 13 episodes we will get a singular story with a concrete ending and everyone and everything else is up for grabs.

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In Memorium–Robert E. Howard

Image3Today, June 11th, is the 77th anniversary of the death of Robert E. Howard.

Howard (or “REH”) is one of those writers who is well known by fans of a specific genre but not widely known to the general public.  Some may remember that he created CONAN and will probably think more about a certain ex-governor than they will the author.  I’d venture to say that many newer fans of fantasy and sword & sorcery fiction may know who REH is but haven’t really read much of his work.  (This is a symptom that is happening with Lovecraft as well.  Many know Lovecraft’s name but few people, even fans, have actually read his work.)

This is somewhat of a shame for REH in that his writing was often so much more than just fantasy or barbarians or even horror.  Especially powerful are his tales of his native Texas where REH’s voice is powerful and unique.

REH is truly one of the great figures in fantasy literature and one of the founders of the mini-genre of sword & sorcery with his many Conan stories.  A lost of what we see today in these genres is built upon the foundation that REH created.

But, I have a bit of a problem with REH.  (Which, if you’ve been reading my columns, you’ve probably been waiting for me to say.)

I’ve never been a huge fan of REH.  I’ve read and enjoyed the Conan stories along with the Soloman Kane tales as well as his pure adventure yarns.  But they’ve never made a big impact with me.  (To be fair, I know many people feel the same about William Hope Hodgson whom I have championed in the past and continue to do so at my other blog. Different strokes.)  I find myself mystified at the popularity of some of his horror stories particularly the often praised, “Pigeons from Hell”, which left me cold.  So, while I admire his achievements and applaud his reputation as a writer, I just don’t see it.  Which is why I only have a few REH books in my collection and will likely sit down again and see if my coolness towards him was simply an inability of me to appreciate him due to my youth.  (This has happened several times and so has the reverse.)

One of the issues I have with REH will likely not make me very popular either.  You see, REH killed himself.  At the far too young age of 30, REH blew his brains out.  A large part of that hinged upon the probably very unhealthy dependence/relationship he had with his mother who laid dying in a coma as REH sat in his car and pulled the trigger on the borrowed .380 Colt Pistol.

I am no stranger to dark thoughts.  I can safely say that one of the main reasons I am still on this planet is because I did not have access to dangerous items during particularly bad times.  So I understand some of the pain and emotions which drove him to this decision.  It is indeed a dark place when you find yourself considering this to be your only solution.

But part of me is angry too.  Angry that REH had so many other stories to tell that we will never hear.  Angry that he never got to experience so many things or the opportunity to add more to the lives of others.  Mostly, though, it just makes me sad because it was such a waste.

Our culture has a tendency sometimes to glamorize suicide.  Hemingway.  Cobain.  Even ones who die young due to their chosen lifestyle like Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison.  But there’s really nothing glamorous about this.  It wasn’t glamorous to REH’s father who had to deal with a son who now had a catastrophic head wound along with a wife dying from tuberculosis.  (REH was still alive for 8 hours before dying from his wound and his mother outlived him by not dying until the next morning.  There’s nothing noble about it despite biographers who explain Hemingway as being true to his ‘manly’ mystique.  It wasn’t ‘Conan-esque’ for REH to shoot himself.

It’s just a waste and that’s tragic.

An Era Comes to an End at DC Comics

It was recently announced that Karen Berger, Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of the Vertigo brand at DC comics, is leaving.  The announcement is crouched in the most perfect of “newspeak” with Berger leaving to pursue “exciting new opportunities”.  You can read the report on this along with the official announcement here.

Before I go on to condemn DC comics for yet another boneheaded move designed to not only eliminate any creativity in their books but to also alienate their long-time fans, let me add my few words of praise for Karen Berger.

In my mind, Berger created virtually all that was good about DC Comics in the 1980s and 90s.  It was because of Berger’s vision that Alan Moore was hired to write SWAMP THING.  It was Berger who brought over many of Britain’s reigning comic talents and created a new era at DC Comics with such visionaries as Neil Gaiman.  Berger guided the creation of a completely new imprint at DC called “Vertigo” where creators would work free of the constraints of regular DC comics and produce work that was actually intelligent, mind-expanding and entertaining.

Those last three words are concepts which are not seen at DC Comics today.

The Vertigo imprint will soon no longer exist.  The titles and characters are being absorbed into the regular DC line like some disgusting flesh-eating bacteria.  The result will be a return to bland, unmotivated and mass-production comics that, all in all, will be forgotten soon after their publication.

Berger was the last hold out of an amazing period of creativity and imagination in DC comics.  She leaves an industry that will suffer greatly from her absence.  And the mindless, creativity bankrupt zombie that DC Comics has become shambles onward.

Redemption Within The Good-Evil Binary.

The role of redemption in the story of humanity is foundational. It goes back to original sin and before. Humanity is inherently flawed. Nobody is perfect. In post-lapsarian man all are sinners. Redemptive struggle is the constant drive to better ones self, to realize that ones life is imperfect and existence is defined by a constant quest to do better.

Yet, too often this nuance is thrown aside for the easy binary of good versus evil. This is seen constantly in fantasy and supernatural fiction. The vampires or demons are simply evil at their core. They have no chance of redemption. Their very existence itself is evil and should be snuffed out without remorse.  In this model, the villain does not need to actually commit any evil act.  On Buffy, The Vampire Slayer the vampires have no soul and are simply evil.  Buffy destroys vampires who have simply risen from the grave, before they have even pulled themselves out of the ground.

This is a simplistic way to place the human (good) character in a place of righteousness in doling out violence. It removes any moral responsibility from the human protagonist to actually understand the “other.” The vampire has no soul, nothing more needs to be understood.  It is simply their “nature” to do evil.

So how does man’s ability for redemption come into play when man commits evil. If man is not by “nature” evil, but is evaluated on the acts he commits how is he allowed redemption. The vampire has no moral choice in committing evil (in the binary good versus evil paradigm). The human who commits an evil act does so with full command over his decision. Yet, we allow for redemption in man. We strive to see those who have made mistakes repent their actions and attempt to atone for their sins. This is the complex, nuanced struggle of man for over a millennia.

It seems to me that, too often, fantasy (Sauron is simply evil) and urban fantasy/supernatural (vampires are simply evil) not only removes any possibility for redemption, but actually removes any responsibility for evil from the moral decision making of such villains. They are shallow, flat villains without complex motivations. Their decisions need not be evaluated or understood. The protagonist human is by definition good, regardless of motives simply because he is the binary opposite of evil.

Yet man is not the binary good. Man is fallen, he is flawed, he is constantly seeking redemption. His motivations are encircled by greed, lust, anger and pride. By placing man against a binary evil it places man as the binary good and too often removes any reflection on humanity through this clean delineation. It diminishes the breadth of story telling by removing the constant redemptive struggle of humanity. It denies any reflective evaluation of humanity and the moral agency within which evil acts occur.

Happy Birthday, H.P. Lovecraft!

H. P. Lovecraft

Today is H. P. Lovecraft’s 122nd birthday.  Born in Providence, Rhode Island, HPL would go on to completely change the field of weird fiction.  His influence is virtually everywhere today from music to films to comics to literature to games to toys and much, much more.

My good friend Annie Riordan has a great article about all the stuff we wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for HPL.  Go read it here because she says it all a lot better than I could.

Lots of people will be posting about HPL’s life and works today so I’ll let them handle that.  What I want to talk about is what HPL meant to me.

When I was in high school in 1978, I wasn’t having a particularly good time.  I was bullied a lot and didn’t really have a lot of friends.  I spent most of my time alone either reading or drawing or watching TV.  One day, I was in the school library (where I spent virtually all of my time when I wasn’t in class), idly flipping through the card catalog, looking for something to read.  I’d always had an interest in horror (both movies and literature) as well as true crime which meant that I would have been at home with the Addams Family.  Anyway, this was back in the day when we didn’t have computer catalogs that can search the entire library in seconds.  If you wanted something, you had to look it up in the card catalog or just meander through the stacks until something caught your attention.

I was flipping through cards when I came upon this entry:

“Lovecraft, H.P. (1890-1937)

THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK AND OTHER STORIES”

This sounded interesting so I wrote down the name, title and call number and went into the stacks.  I’d never heard that name before and, in my ignorance, felt sure that it must be some kind of pen-name.  Surely that couldn’t be his real name.

This is the book that I found:

This is not the actual copy I read but one I bought years later because it was my first HPL book.

“Well, this is weird,” I thought so I took the book home.  I read it through three times before finally, reluctantly returning it to the school library.  The first story in the book was “The Outsider”.  When I reached that terminal climax, “… a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass”, I just held the book down in amazement.  Even though HPL would consider this to be one of his lesser stories, it had an amazing impact on me.  The story, narrated by someone who is forgotten and apart from not just humanity but life itself showed me that this was an author who understood me, who knew what it was like to be an “outsider”.

The Phillips Family Plot at Swan Point Cemetary in Providence, RI.

The next story in the book was “The Rats in the Walls” and I was instantly hooked.  I’d never know anyone who had written like Lovecraft and, until that point, I never knew that anyone could.  The next stories went by in a fevered dream; “Pickman’s Model”, “The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Dunwich Horror”, “The Whisperer in Darkness”, “The Colour Out of Space”, “The Haunter of the Dark”, “The Thing on the Doorstep”, and “The Music of Erich Zann” were devoured eagerly.

I could no longer be stopped.

I made it my mission to find out more about this “H. P. Lovecraft” and read everything he had written.  Back in those days, it was a lot harder.  There was no Amazon so I had to haunt used book stores and check the Books In Print references for titles.  Eventually, I discovered Arkham House and when that first box arrived with copies of DAGON AND OTHER MACABRE TALES, THE DUNWICH HORROR AND OTHERS, AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, THE HORROR IN THE MUSEUM, I was happier than I’d probably ever been in my adolescence.

To say that those books had an impact on me would be to vastly understate the event.  Finally, I had found an author who wrote the way that I felt and his view of man’s insignificance to the cosmos aligned with my own.  Eventually, I discovered that there was a magazine devoted exclusively to Lovecraft called, fittingly, LOVECRAFT STUDIES, published by Necronomicon Press in Rhode Island (I was living Connecticut at the time) and I ordered copies of those.  Shortly after, I began corresponding with the editor of the magazine, S. T. Joshi, who eventually invited me to visit him in Providence and meet others of similar ilk.

Close up of the family marker.

That was my first exposure to others who also enjoyed the writings of Lovecraft.  During that first visit, I met not only S.T., but Marc Michaud (publisher of Necronomicon Press), Jason Eckhardt (artist for Necronomicon Press), Bob Price (writer/editor/publisher of CRYPT OF CTHULHU) and Don & Mollie Burleson (Lovecraft scholars and writers).  As odd as it may seem, I was finally accepted.  I was a member of a group who shared my interests and didn’t think I was weird or ‘odd’.  Through Lovecraft and these friends I gained the confidence I never had before.  It gave me the confidence to become a writer myself.

None of which would have happened if I hadn’t found that slip in the card catalog back in 1978.  For all the great stories, I thank you, H.P.L., but I thank you mostly for helping me realize that I wasn’t alone in the universe and for all the friends and great people I’ve met through the years simply by saying, “Have you read H. P. Lovecraft?”

Forgotten Masters of the Weird Tale: William Hope Hodgson

William Hope Hodgson

William Hope Hodgson is considered one of the early masters of horror and science fiction and yet he is not nearly as well known today as he should be.  His novels earned praise from H. P. Lovecraft and his psychic detective, Carnacki, is still popular today.  Let’s took a look at this Forgotten Master!

William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) is known not only as the writer of such sea horror tales as “The Voice in the Night”, “From the Tideless Sea”, The Ghost Pirates and The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” but also for the pioneer science-fiction classics The Night Land and The House on the Borderland.  His works have been hailed by many critics and writers including H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.  Not surprisingly, his life was just as interesting as his stories.

WHH (known as “Hope” to his family and friends) was born in 1877, the second son of Essex clergyman Samuel Hodgson and his wife, Lizzie.  The family would eventually grow to include twelve children but three of WHH’s brothers would die in infancy before their second years.

By all reports, Samuel Hodgson was a difficult man to live with.  This is perhaps supported by the fact that he was constantly transferred throughout most of his career.  Samuel was moved at least twelve times during the years 1871-1890 and, in 1887, the family was sent to do missionary work in Ireland at Ardrahan, County Galway.  This would provide the setting for one of Hodgson’s most famous novels, The House on the Borderland.

During his youth, WHH was in love with the sea and made several attempts to run away but was always returned to his family.  Finally, through the intervention of his uncle, Reverend Thomas Lumsdon Brown, WHH was apprenticed to the firm of Shaw and Savill for four years as a seaman in the Merchant Marine in 1891.  This would begin his long association with the sea which would leave him with such a depth of anger and hatred that WHH had no choice but to express it in his many sea stories.

In 1898, WHH would rescue a fellow crewman from shark infested waters after the man fell overboard.  For this act, WHH received a medal from the Royal Human Society but even this could not keep him at sea which he finally abandoned for good in 1900.

After Samuel Hodgson’s death from throat cancer in 1892, the family was plunged into poverty.  This state would exist until the death of WHH’s paternal grandfather in 1900 when he left the family an inheritance.  Still, money would be a constant concern in the Hodgson home.

In 1901, WHH opened his “School of Physical Culture” in Blackburn.  After devoting much of his attention to ‘physical culture’ during his time at sea, WHH would remain an avid follower of health and strength development.  WHH had worked at increasing his own strength and physical power in order to protect himself from the bullying of other seamen even including some junior officers.  He would use this interest to write several articles on the subject which were published in various physical culture magazines.

During his European tour of 1902, Harry Houdini appeared at the Palace Theatre in Blackburn where his traditional challenge to escape from any handcuffs was accepted by WHH.  The result was a two hour ordeal for Houdini who finally escaped and would later remember the occurrence as one of the worst in his performing career.  Hodgson, with his knowledge of muscles and physical culture, had shackled Houdini so thoroughly that Houdini would still bear the physical scars from his escape twenty years later.

Unfortunately, the “School for Physical Culture” did not last and WHH closed it by 1903.  Having some little success at writing before, WHH now turned his attention to becoming a full-time writer.  For the next several years, WHH would spend his time writing his four novels and many of his most well-known short-stories.

Even though faced with many initial rejections, WHH persevered and his first short story, “The Goddess of Death” was published in 1906.  WHH would now publish frequently for the next ten years.  His first published novel, The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”, appeared in 1907 followed by The House on the Borderland in 1908, The Ghost Pirates in 1909 and The Night Land in 1912.  Recent criticism has presented the theory that these novels were written in the reverse order of publication which would make The Night Land (a SF masterpiece) as possibly his first novel and The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” (a combination of adventure and horror) his last novel.

Each one of these novels is a remarkable achievement.  Together, they form much of Hodgson’s legacy.  In The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”, an adventure on the high sea takes the reader through many supernatural events and ends in WHH’s own infamous Sargasso Sea, a part of the ocean choked by immoveable seaweed and giant sea monsters.  The Ghost Pirates chronicles the last voyage of a cursed vessel and the specters that haunt it.  In The House on the Borderland, a man finds himself in an isolated house that is besieged by outside forces and features passages of incredibly imaginative science fiction.  Hodgson’s masterpiece, The Night Land, presents an Earth in the far future when the sun has burnt out, humanity lives in a giant metal pyramid and there are great evils that walk the land.

Sadly, despite many positive reviews, WHH did not make a great deal of money with these novels.  This is likely why he abandoned novels to concentrate more on short stories.  Many of these tales would become recognized as classics of weird fiction including “The Voice in the Night” which has been reprinted many times and also adapted (most notably as the Japanese film, Matango, in 1963).  Adrift in the ocean, several sailors are hailed by a mysterious figure in a distant rowboat that begs their mercy for supplies for he and his fiancee but refuses to come closer or into the light.  When pressed, he tells the sailors a gruesome tale of horror that remains long after the story is read.

One of Hodgson’s most famous creations was the Sargasso Sea.  First appearing in print in “From the Tideless Sea” in 1906, this setting appears several times throughout WHH’s fiction.  It is a real spot in the North Atlantic Ocean where the tides cause the seaweed to grow large and thick.  In WHH’s fiction, this seaweed actually traps ships inside it much in the same way that ice traps ships in the Artic Ocean.  But, to make matters worse, the Sargasso Sea is the home of many huge sea-monsters who constantly attack those ships unlucky enough to get caught in the weeds.

Undaunted, WHH created one of his most famous characters, the occult investigator, Carnacki.  Appearing in several stories in 1910 (collected into an anthology in 1913), the Carnacki stories remain one of the most popular of WHH works.  Carnacki is a ‘ghost-finder’ but, where he differs from more traditional psychic detectives, Carnacki uses modern devices such as photography and vacuum tubes to combat the evil.  “The Whistling Room” is one of the best of these stories and remains WHH’s most reprinted story.  Carnacki himself has remained popular and new stories by other authors featuring the ‘ghost-finder’ have appeared and the character himself has made an appearance in Alan Moore’s graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

In 1913, WHH marries Bessie G. Farnworth and the couple move to France apparently in an effort to save money.  WHH continues writing but most of his most notable stories are now behind him.  When England declares war on Germany in 1914, the couple returns to England and WHH joins the Officer Training Corps of the University of London.

Ever patriotic, WHH receives his commission as a Lieutenant in the 171st Battery of the Royal Field Artillery but, while training new soldiers, WHH is thrown from his horse and suffers a broken jaw and a concussion.  Due to his injuries, WHH is discharged and sent back to his family in Borth.

But Hodgson refused to sit out the war on the sidelines.  Due in great part to his lifelong physical training, WHH recovered and re-enlists in October, 1917.  He is assigned to the 11th Brigade which is sent to Ypres.  From there, he joins the 84th Battery which, in turn, relieves a forward Battery south of Rugby Dump.

In March of 1918, the 84th Brigade takes over positions at Brombeek and suffers heavy gas and high velocity shelling at the Tourelle Crossroads.  After being relieved by Belgian Artillery, the 84th marches to Ploegsteert area and takes position at Le Touguet Berthe.  A German attack briefly hospitalizes WHH but he recovers in time for the 84th Battery to withdraw and set up a Forward Observation Post (FOP).

Despite it being virtually a ‘suicide mission’, WHH volunteers for duty at the FOP with another soldier.  On April 19th, 1918, the FOP suffers a direct hit from German mortar fire which kills both men and leaves little in the way of remains.  They are buried by French soldiers on the eastern slope of Mont Kemmel in Belguim.

After WHH’s death, Bessie returned to her family and oversaw WHH’s literary estate until her death in 1943.  At that point, the estate reverted to WHH’s sister, Lissie, who handled it (not the best way) until her own death in 1959.

Since WHH’s death, his fame has increased.  Despite some episodes of rarity, much (if not all) of Hodgson’s fiction is now available either online or via Print on Demand publishers.  As we move towards the 100th anniversary of his death, let us take up the banner of this talented author and carry it forward into a new century!

Please feel free to visit the William Hope Hodgson Blog for more about this great writer!

(I would like to acknowledge my debt to those Hodgson biographers who have gone before me.  Much of the information here is a result of their work so I thank R. Alain Everts, Sam Moskowitz and Jane Frank.—Sam Gafford)

Coming Soon!

We are just getting started. More to come!

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