I love unreliable narrators—my thesis project has multiple narrators, and all of them are unreliable to some extent—but figuring out how to present them can be really tricky. And since I’m writing in first person, what I really mean is that I have to figure out how these narrators present themselves. How do they justify the lies they tell or the actions they’ve taken? Do they believe their own lies, or even realize that they’re lying? How do I know if I’ve crossed the line into mustache-twiddling?
We’ve all heard that every villain is the hero of their own story, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the villain sees themself as heroic. Your villain—your unreliable narrator, in this case, even though not all unreliable narrators are villainous—may admit that they’ve fucked up but place the blame elsewhere, or they may avoid telling us about their fuckups entirely.
R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiarieswas the first book I read this year, and it was amazing for figuring out how to create an unreliable narrator. Kwon’s bestselling novel is about a lot of things, including the loss of faith, the draw of religious fanaticism, and the ways that relationships form and then fracture. All of these themes emerge from the shifting narration of Will Kendall, a working-class student attending a private college. Along with telling his own story, Will relays the stories of Phoebe Lin, his ex-girlfriend who hides her grief under a bubbly personality, and John Leal, the charismatic cult leader she becomes entangled with. He’s also, according to The Guardian:
“A shitty, possessive boyfriend and a chronic gaslighter. When caught in a lie by Phoebe, who realizes he’s been moonlighting at an Italian restaurant instead of studying, he half apologizes, then interrupts the apology to wistfully wonder if he didn’t tell her the truth because ‘sometimes I thought you guessed.’ ‘Don’t fucking pretend I was in on this,’ Phoebe has to tell him.”
Will is a liar, self-admitted: “I’d lied so long, I found how natural it can be.” He lies easily and habitually and especially when talking about the women in his life, even when those women are strangers to him.
While working a summer job in Beijing, Will follows a girl home at night because she reminds him of Phoebe. He tells us that he stays half a block behind her and tries to be quiet. He tells us that “the streets emptied; to keep up, I had to quicken my stride.” When the girl finally looks back, Will tells us that, “Despite the pains I’d taken, she looked afraid. I’d wanted to follow the girl for just a few minutes. But now, accused, I felt insulted.” At another point, Will joins his colleagues in making sexist jokes at his restaurant job. His one female coworker overhears him, and Will seems to feel a pang of guilt, letting his readers know that “in principle” he sided with his coworker’s discomfort: “Until now, I hadn’t added to this kind of machismo, but what could I do?” (I don’t know, Will. Maybe not that? Maybe you could not do that). Will portrays himself as the victim in both of these situations, trapped by circumstances and tragically misunderstood.
Yet because Will shows us over and over again how devoted he is to Phoebe—how he lovingly cuts her fruit, how he overspends on her, how he wants to protect her from her own bad choices—he’s able to mask his own misogyny. That’s Kwon’s magic trick for her unreliable narrator. Will minimizes his possessiveness, callousness, and cowardice towards other women while emphasizing his passion for Phoebe. Maybe that’s why, even after his abuse towards Phoebe turns physical, NPR’s review says that “readers will feel the pain when Phoebe deserts Will and the poor besotted boy crumbles.”
Admittedly, I had the same experience. Will sinks so completely into his belief—his fanaticism—in his love for Phoebe that I was fooled too. I believed him as well. When a character recoils from Will at the novel’s end and tells him that they’d “urged Phoebe to go to the police,” I had to look up from the pages. Why would they report Will to—oh.
I read the last third of the book in one sitting, so it had been only around forty-five minutes since I’d learned why Will should be in prison. In The Incendiaries, Kwon has created an unreliable narrator who is charismatic, pitiable, and terrifyingly understandable, and for about an hour, we formed a cult of two.
I’m trying to keep things simple and organized for 2021—I have this blog post listed in my little homemade planner—because I know that the inevitable descent into chaos will come more slowly if I actively attempt to stop it. This seems intuitive, but when you have so much to remember, it can be easy to forget the simple stuff.
That’s why I’m writing this blog post, actually—to keep track of three simple pieces of advice that I’m using to guide my writing this year. As an unpublished writer and chronic anxiety-haver, I don’t really feel qualified to give writing advice to others. However, I do feel qualified to take advice from people who know more than me and pass it on to others in a fun game of writing telephone. So, let’s get into it:
1. Kij Johnson: 250s
I took fantasy author Kij Johnson’s writing workshop during my first semester at KU, and I’m glad that I did. The imposter syndrome was really hitting hard, but Kij’s writing advice was straightforward and practical; it alleviated a lot of pressure.
One such piece of advice was about “250s.” Basically, as writers working day jobs, or taking classes, or having, you know, the need to sleep and eat and care for ourselves, we can’t always meet our ambitious goal of 1,000 words per day (or more—some of the daily word counts I’ve seen really knock me on my ass). But most of us can find fifteen to thirty minutes everyday to write around 250 words, and it adds up. Plus, it keeps ideas flowing and keeps our skills ready.
It’s good praxis, and since I’m supposed to have a rough draft of my thesis done in June, I’m doing my best to write at least 250 words each day.
2. Twyla Tharp: Rituals
Twyla Tharp is a dancer and choreographer, but her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Lifeis a fantastic how-to for writers (and painters and filmmakers and artisanal dollhouse-makers and everyone and anyone creative). She encourages people trying to develop discipline in their creative practice to create a ritual, which she describes as “automatic but decisive patterns of behavior [that you do] at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”
According to Tharp, rituals can be basically any short process—spiritual or otherwise—that helps you feel motivated to undertake your creative endeavors, like yoga, music, or a light snack. Last year, my ritual was journaling for five minutes before I started writing, and I never felt the pressure of facing down a blank page. This is what rituals can and should do: Empower you.
3. N. K. Jemisin: Don’t Panic
I already talked about Jemisin’s NaNoWriMo pep talk in an earlier post—but over a month has passed, and I’m still thinking about what she wrote, so I’m talking about her again here!
In essence, Jemisin tells every writer wracked by self-doubt a secret: At some point, we are all gripped by the absolute certainty that our writing was, is, and always will be trash. We all want to quit our project or quit writing entirely. And when that happens, we have to take a step back, give ourselves a break, and then reevaluate our work when we’re not feeling so bad.
Chances are, we’ll see that things aren’t as terrible as we thought. And chances are, our work isn’t so bad either.
Fun fact: I could have used all these pieces of advice yesterday, when I sat down to write this post—it was already completely planned, so I even knew what pieces of advice I was writing about and why—and instead I felt a wave of ennui and started googling whether or not I should even have a blog. But that’s part of what practice means, right? We mess up, we reflect, and then we learn.
So, here’s what I’m learning: I can write 250+ words each day. I can hype myself up enough to make writing a daily habit. And I can accept that I’m feeling down without also believing that I’m incompetent.
I think these are good lessons. What about you? What are you learning this year?
I try to post here every week, but the week before last this happened:
And last week this happened:
And now I’m…free? So I wanted to write about one of the few books I’ve made time to read in the last month and a half: Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems.
If you’ve never read Brosh’s excellent and madcap webcomic/personal blog Hyberbole and a Half (look, I’m linking it here so you can fix that), Wikipedia describes it as using “an exaggeratedly simple drawing style as an artistic device.” Since I’m no longer writing for class and since I agree with Wikipedia, I’m using that quote here. Brosh’s storiesdeal with a wide range of subjects, from bananas retellings of childhood adventures to struggles with mental illness to the overwhelming emptiness of grief.
Stories end–it’s actually one of the things that they’re well-known for doing. In Solutions and Other Problems and Brosh’s work in general, these endings are often abrupt, without much follow-up to create a comfortable denouement.
In “Menace,” which you can and should read here because technically I’m spoiling it, four-year-old Brosh gains and loses the power of a dinosaur Halloween costume. The final line, placed just above a picture of Brosh staring at her reflection, reads simply: “And so my reign of power came to an end, and I slowly learned to live as a person again.” Is there a moral here about power or about humanity? Yes, kind of, especially about what power looks and feels like when we’re kids. But the brevity of the ending implies that this was, to borrow a phrase from the 2013 subtitle, a “thing that happened” that has now stopped happening.
The second chapter of Solutions and Other Problems, “Richard,” is about toddler Brosh breaking into her neighbor’s house and stealing small things (and, finally, something not so small). We don’t see the aftermath of this adventure; instead, we get a moment of silence as Brosh stares at her parents and they stare at her and they all just feel “weird about ourselves and each other.” This is another thing that happened that has now stopped happening.
Except…it doesn’t. As Brosh tells us in an interlude called “Karma,” she believes that “there are things that can happen that very specifically force you to understand what an asshole you were.” In Brosh’s case, this is a toddler who is as obsessed with Brosh as Brosh was with Richard. There’s continuity.
And I mean, like, obviously there’s continuity, this is a memoir. But Brosh could have chosen to make these chapters completely episodic or only loosely connected by similar themes, and she didn’t make that choice. The neighbor kid shows up again.
Is there a reason? Sure. The neighbor kid wants Brosh to see her room. But does the reason explain anything meaningful? No, not unless you believe in karma.
Reasons are not the same things as explanations. This is something Brosh makes really clear to us in the chapter about her life during her internet hiatus, which was, to borrow a comparison she makes in the book, “difficult” in the same way that the sun is large. Reasons don’t provide comfort or reassurance or explanations for medical emergencies or relationships breaking apart or losing a family member. As Brosh puts it, we just have to keep going and hope we figure something out that makes sense.
I think this is why I like the endings in Brosh’s stories–because they don’t really feel like endings at all, despite their abruptness. They matter in ways that reverberate throughout the book in both plot and theme.
Like, okay, she tells a story about a dog she knew that she calls the pile dog. The second sentence about the pile dog is, “Before you get all attached to the pile dog, you should know that the pile dog is dead.” The fourth and fifth sentences about the pile dog are, “However, we–all of us–should not just allow this to prevent us from making fun of her. Dead dogs used to be just as ridiculous as alive dogs, and the pile dog leveraged our sympathy to get away with some particularly bogus shit.”
This is an argument against endings as final, for the value of telling stories (particularly ridiculous ones) and I love that. In Brosh’s work, the things that happened–good and bad and nuts–are still happening, or, to use the fancy version from Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Some things persist, whether we want them to or not. And other things that could end completely–well, we can make them persist, if we choose to.
That’s why I like Solutions and Other Problems.
One last thing: I found Hyperbole and a Half shortly before my own problems with anxiety started, and it helped. So thanks, Allie Brosh, for making comics that were my piece of corn under the fridge.
About ten days into 2020’s NaNoWriMo, I got so discouraged with my work that I almost walked away from it entirely. My very supportive partner was asleep in the other room. I didn’t want to wake him and demand a half-coherent pep talk, especially when I knew everything he’d probably say (and I’d agree with all of it too): You’ve done this before, you can do it again, NaNoWriMo isn’t about the quality of what you’re writing, you can’t edit an empty page, etc. etc. etc.
Instead, I went to NaNoWriMo’s pep talks, and they were…actually pretty helpful.
I mean, when you’re writing productively, you’re letting your imagination run wild. But when you have writer’s block, all that imagination turns away from envisioning a hot orc’s independent bookstore (just as an example) and towards visualizing all the ways in which you are Just The Worst, Worse Than Literally Everyone Else. You get isolated inside your own head, and NaNoWriMo pep talks are about reminding you that everybody gets stuck in their head. Everyone has been where you are, you wonderful novelist.
So. Here are some NaNoWriMo pep talks, conveniently organized so you can find someone with a similar brand of writing despair to your own. Enjoy(?)!
Bitch, it’s 2020 Despair
This year sucks. This year sucks so hard, and that makes it almost impossible on some days to remember why we write in the first place. If you’re having trouble with facing 2020, check out Alexis Daria’s pep talk.
Internal Critic Despair
Your internal critic is a sneaky little loser who masquerades as the smartest person in the room. For help with naming and dismissing your critic, check out these talks from Karen Russell and Kami Garcia.
I Kept Listening to the Internal Critic and Now I Want to Burn My Laptop Despair
It’s the dark night of the soul for your writer’s block. The abyss is swallowing every good idea that you ever had and ever will have. You’re wishing you never learned to read. Before you drag your files over to the recycle bin, read what N. K. Jemisin has to say about this kind of despair.
40k Words and Crying Despair
Technically speaking, you’re really close to being done. But you’re close to being done in the way that someone who is 80% up Mt. Everest is close to being done, meaning you’re…not done. Regain some motivation with Jason Reynold’s pep talk.
I Thought Writing was Supposed to be Fun Despair (Optimist Edition)
When you started writing, you felt like sweet Bilbo Baggins running out of Bag End and into an adventure. But now you’ve endured threats from a weird nerd obsessed with riddles, faced giant spiders while wrapped up like a burrito, and sent your friends downriver in barrels. It’s not a good time anymore. It just feels like gross, messy work. For help reclaiming the magic, read this talk from Charlie Jane Anders.
I Thought Writing was Supposed to be Fun Despair (Pessimist Edition)
Guess what: It feels like gross, messy work because it is gross, messy work. Get back to it after reading what Justina Ireland has to say.
I Just Need Hot Cocoa and Practical Advice Despair
At this point, you might be thinking, “all of these ways of thinking about writing are really nice, but how do I actually, you know, buckle down and do it? How do I write when I have writer’s block? How do I write when I have a bajillion other obligations? Why won’t someone just give me some advice?” Don’t worry, reader. Jeff VanderMeer and Deb Olin Unferth have that covered.
Happy/productive writing, everyone! No matter what your word count is, writing something is better than writing nothing.
Which is pretty funny, actually, because, you know, practice makes perfect, and I’ve practiced being a perfectionist for about twenty years.
I was (am?) the kind of perfectionist who does a few things “perfectly”–writing, school, baking autumnal variations of Toll House chocolate chip cookies. For a while, this made me very powerful, because I was also the kind of perfectionist who classed into mild narcissism. Perfection was the only possible outcome.
Like, when I was a junior in high school, my creative writing teacher set the class a challenge: If anyone completed the NaNoWriMo challenge, she would take them out to dinner.
And I just…did it. I wrote 50,000+ words of a novel called A Chimney Without a House, which was about a disillusioned young dude going on a roadtrip after his abusive best friend died in a car crash. When my parents and I met my teacher for dinner at Outback Steakhouse, she told me over coconut shrimp that she had been surprised by how much swearing my characters did.
I still want that review on a dust jacket.
Afterwards, I never finished the manuscript. I never even really went back to the story at all except to make character sheets with minute physical descriptions, like whether the characters had red, blue, or yellow undertones to their skin. The next year, when November came around, I didn’t try NaNoWriMo at all. If I couldn’t be perfect, then what was the point of being?
I know this is a familiar story–perfection paralyzing us–but I’m telling it because I can’t stop being surprised at how hard it is to believe the narrative that perfection isn’t healthy and how easy it is to keep saying that I need to be the exception to the rule, and I need to produce an immaculate piece of fiction the first time around. It’s difficult for me to grasp that I don’t need to get it right the first time around and that the whole point is to try over and over and over and over.
It’s easier for me to believe the story that I need to be perfect because that’s the only story I’ve been telling myself. But it’s not a story–there’s no plot or conflict or characterization. It’s just an ending, and you can’t do shit with an ending on its own because you literally can’t get there. So, here’s a different story: I am working my ass off this NaNoWriMo, but not in a way that makes me want to cry, and I think that means that I’m doing the right thing.
I saw a tweet recently (probably when I was supposed to be writing) that said something like, “You can only have good body image if you stop caring whether or not you’re hot.” And at first, I thought, “fuck your principles, I want a bubble butt,” but they’re right. I don’t think I’ll ever really love writing–the thing that I’m going to spend a sum total of seven years on in higher education, the thing that I ostensibly want to do for the rest of my life–until I stop figuring out whether or not it’s perfect.
This NaNoWriMo season, I’ve routinely been anywhere from 1000 to 7000 words behind the target word count. I’ve never been ahead. But, you know, it’s worth it. The work is worth it.
Anyway, if you’re reading this and you’re NaNo-ing too, add me as a buddy @bearika_skye. I’m writing about queer mermaids this year ❤
When I was younger—around twelve or so—I started having these recurring dreams about finding a new door in my room. The door was square, small enough that I had to crawl through it, and it always appeared in a place just out of the way enough to make sense that I hadn’t seen it before: Under my bed, behind the dresser, in the space beneath my desk where I’d kick my legs.
Here is how the dreams went: I would wake up and see the door, and I’d investigate it immediately and without fear. Once, there was just a small, empty space on the other side; once there was a huge dusk-dark room studded with spiderwebbed bookshelves. Once I brought my friends; usually I went alone. Always, I was ecstatic. More space, just for me. Space enough that I could finally fill up my lungs, as though my bedroom were my lungs.
After I actually woke up, I would go looking for the door. I really should have been too old to believe that I’d find it, but I looked anyway, smushing my glasses-less face against the wall to see behind the heavy desk, the dark dresser, crawling under the bed with a flashlight, pushing aside a huge tub of stuffed animals in the closet to see if there was something that I—that my parents—had missed for years. I thought there had to be something about the house that I wasn’t seeing.
And, in a way, I was right.
I spent all my childhood—all of it that I can remember, anyway—in that same house, an idyllic yellow two-story where I had my own room, my own walk-in closet, my own bathroom with bath and shower. Semicircular faux-stained glass crowned my bedroom window. We had a big backyard, woods, a creek, a treehouse my mother designed and built with her own hands. I loved my mom and dad. I had the fears that all kids had about the dark and what lived(?) inside it, but during my early adolescence, I stopped being afraid. Myself and my steady heart were the only things prowling the lightless rooms. I was alone, and safe.
When you live for a while in the same place, it starts feeling like a part of you. Mentally, I can map the number of strides it takes to cross the living room (three and a half widthwise, six lengthwise), and I can place the spot in the upstairs hall where I accidentally smeared black nail polish on the eggshell wall (about eight inches beneath the light switch and six inches over). I know what old shirts are in the guest room closet.
Houses are bodies–though they aren’t necessarily our own, however familiar we might be with them.
In Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, four people spend a summer at a deeply unnerving and reportedly (definitely) haunted house to search for evidence of paranormal phenomena. Here is how Dr. Montague, the leader of the expedition, explains the house to his guests during their first night:
The house has a presence, physical and emotional and spiritual, and that presence is malevolent. This is key to the horror of Jackson’s book. Each guest is, as Eleanor Vance realizes early on, “like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster” which feels their “tiny little movements inside.” The house is a body, and a monstrous one.
“Living” spaces are especially important to Eleanor; on her drive out to Hill House, she fantasizes about three alternate lives for herself, first when she passes a “vast house” with two stone lions at its gate, then when she notices blooming oleanders and envisions breaking a magic spell, and finally when she sees a “tiny cottage buried in a garden.” Later, she cobbles together elements from each of these imagined lives into an equally imaginary apartment and presents it to Theodora, a fellow guest, as her real-life home. Eleanor, who has been neglected during her mother’s long illness and is still neglected by her sister’s family, spends the start of the novel striving to discover herself, and she does this through embodying herself in different homes.
Hill House, though, has been neglected as well, and maybe this is why it attaches itself to Eleanor. Over the course of the novel, it possesses her in both the supernatural and literal sense until Eleanor responds:
Of course, you could also argue this in reverse: Eleanor, recognizes herself in Hill House and refuses to be extricated from it. Either way, the house’s body and Eleanor’s body are inextricably and tragically connected. But is the tragedy that–spoilers–the house kills Eleanor or that Eleanor kills herself?
And what was Theodora’s perspective on this, or Luke Sanderson’s, or Dr. Montague’s? What happens when the house isn’t your body?
In my last post, I included a quote from Carmen Maria Machado’s 2019 memoir In the Dream House. I’ve been thinking a lot about her memoir lately, partly because Machado is such a genius writer, but also because of this post, because Machado writes about exactly what can happen when the house isn’t your body.
In the Dream House is a lot of things. It’s a series of insightful, jewel-like, gutpunch vignettes; it’s a memoir of surviving an abusive relationship; it’s an archive of personal and collective memories of abuse in queer relationships.
The dream house of the title, as Machado informs us directly after the prologue, is a real house once occupied by her abusive ex. Not just occupied–lived in. Lived through, in many ways, since aspects of the house reflect her dysfunction and abuse. The Woman in the Dream House overstuffs the fridge with produce, which rots. She never unpacks from her move, and uses “cardboard boxes stuffed with bric a brac” as furniture. The cardboard is soft and sweet-smelling from age; the floors are uneven; dozens of spiders (a clutter of spiders) populate the basement.
Machado makes this connection between the dream house and the woman in it even more explicit. While analyzing the expression “safe as houses,” she writes:
Houses are sites of power, extensions of a ruler’s authority, and therefore they also have the potential to become sites of disparity and abuse. As the Woman in the Dream House continues to hack away at Machado-the-trapped’s sense of self and replaces it with trembling hyperawareness, Machado-the-author answers the statement posed by Dr. Montague at the end of his introduction to Hill House: “No one knows, even, why some houses are called haunted.”
It’s really unlikely Machado was thinking about Hill House, and it’s not like she needed to in order to make her point. But she gets it, obviously, in a way that Dr. Montague didn’t (can’t?). Here’s what she said about what it means for a house to be called haunted:
“There is something desperate about the house,” Machado writes in part two, “Like a ghost is trying to make itself known but can’t, and so it just flops facedown into the carpet, wheezing and smelling of mold.”
A desperate house, with ghosts as the product of architecture and emotions. Small creatures swallowed whole by monsters. We inscribe meaning on the places we live; we activate setting with our point of view.
But this is individual and interior, and therefore not empirical. Paranormal investigations attempt to make quantifiable data out of ephemeral (Machado uses this definition of ephemera from scholar José Esteban Muñoz: “a trace, the remains, the things that are left, hanging in the air like a rumor”) and elusive states. In these (and other, more mundane) investigations, feelings don’t satisfy. When Machado records a list of her own ephemera from memories of abuse, she concludes the list with, “None of these things exist. You have no reason to believe me.”
But the tragedy–one of the many tragedies–of The Haunting of Hill House is that no one really paid attention to Eleanor until her emotional experiences became too apparent to be ignored.
I said earlier that, as a teenager, I wasn’t afraid of the dark. Our house felt friendly and safe when I walked alone.
When I got older, though, the fears came roaring back. I had to sleep with my face to the wall; I sprinted up the stairs when I turned the lights off. I stopped spending time in my bedroom during the day because I felt simultaneously melancholy and anxious whenever I was inside. During the height of The Walking Dead craze, I woke frozen with certainty that corpses were dragging themselves towards the front door. I feel embarrassed about this. I want to say that I was too old to feel this way, but…I don’t know. I’ve never lived in a haunted house. It’s just that my parents and our pets and me shared the space with the past.
Things weren’t really easy with my parents, but as a child, I didn’t know that. Only once I got older did an awareness start growing, pushing up around the house like a strange garden.
Like, when I was home from college during summer and winter vacations, this involuntary inventory began popping into my mind as I wandered the house: I was standing at the kitchen door when I saw my dad start raging; I was crouching beside this end table filled with National Geographics when I was terrified; I was sitting beside this bookshelf reading about horses when I got yelled at; I was eavesdropping beside this banister when I heard what my dad called my mom; I was eating at this glass dining table when I was told that my mental illness was because I “just liked being sad;” I was curled on this futon when I got yelled at; I was trying to leave this doorway when my mom pulled the door closed in my face; I was opening this magnet-covered fridge when my dad stormed out of the house during a snowstorm; I was hunching my shoulders beside this TV when my mom told me she didn’t know what I was talking about; I was sitting beneath this spotted brass chandelier when I got called a doormat; I was relaxing on this green beanbag chair when I got yelled at; I was etc. etc. etc.
I was a kid.
And this was what I hadn’t seen in the house. It was never hidden doors or secret rooms. It was just fucked-up humans, our emotions as thick and suffocating as mold. The most ordinary thing in the world.
What’s the point of this list? As Machado points out, there’s no traceable proof in those places that any of this happened. I don’t have any physical scars, and the house does not reveal injuries done to its occupants unless those injuries are also done to the house. From a Forensic Files standpoint, my childhood home is all innocence—there’s no battered plaster, no blood spatter, no cut-apart carpets. Furthermore, the house is not my body. The house belongs to my parents, and my mom keeps my elementary school Mother’s and Father’s Day crafts on the fridge. Sometimes–and I still feel too dramatic, too sensitive when I write this–I feel like a small creature.
And yet I have to believe that there is something left over, that the incidents layer over each other like a spirit photographer’s pictures, that this is why I felt something waiting for me in the midnight rooms, that this is why a nervous lethargy (I have to run; I am tired of running) filled me when I stood on the front porch with my suitcases or when I thought (when I still think), on pleasant sunny days, that it can’t have actually been That Bad.
I haven’t lived in my parents’ house for over a year, and I haven’t dreamed of the little door in at least a decade. But I do still dream of the house, and I am still acutely aware of exits, running to the screened porch or the front door, scrabbling at the doorknobs. Once, I sprinted through the front hall, the one with the deep, richly colored wood flooring, and the whole house darkened and constricted around me until I was forced to crawl.
My body remembers. The house, though it admits nothing, must remember too.
While I was info-gathering for this post, every article I read mentioned that the genre’s seminal work was the 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Consider my inclusion of this fact evidence that I’ve done my due diligence with research.
So, gothic horror. Is it a subgenre built on spectacle, more characterized by its atmospheric window-dressing than by any real depth of thought? Or is its effectiveness dependent on deeper horrors of human existence, as TV Tropes claims here:
I’ve probably shown my hand already by including such a long quote, so, yes, I definitely come down more on the side of “deeper horrors of human existence.” If you’re writing a hospital drama, you can’t simply put your characters in white coats, stethoscopes, and comfy shoes and assume that’s enough for your audience. Scrubs is popular with medical personnel not only because Donald Faison exists, but also because it’s a (fairly) accurate portrayal of hospital life. When it comes to creating verisimilitude for the audience, the culture of a genre–its origins, values, and practices–is just as important as setting or narrative voice.
Not to say that imagery isn’t a great tool for writers. Images carry powerful associations with them, and therefore can be used as shorthand to create meaning for readers. Young woman in white running from a castle? Threatened innocence, rejected temptation. Overgrown churchyards blanketed in cold mist? The presence of spirits, the undeath of the past seeping into the present. Lightning strikes? The wrath of God.
(Of course, the previous paragraph assumes that one culture’s symbols can be applied to all cultures, which is not true and which is why it’s important to read widely and deeply and gain greater understanding of the world around you–but this idea deserves several of its own posts).
What I’m trying to do in this post is align gothic horror’s imagery with its impact, not just through exploring tried and true tropes, but through imagining a few fun twists to play with in your next story.
I don’t know about you, but when I think “gothic horror,” I think “counterculture.” I think bookish outcasts and coffeehouse conversations and spooky Halloween. And after I did my research, Dear Reader, I learned that I thought wrong.
According to TV Tropes–an indispensable resource for all creative writing grad students–gothic horror often originated from more conservative viewpoints. It explored characters who transgressed against moral boundaries and the resulting consequences of their actions, which, if not seen as deserved, were at the very least inevitable.
Just look at Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where Lucy Westenra’s vampiric fall from grace is inextricably intertwined with her sexuality and perversion of motherhood (i.e., instead of feeding babies, she feeds from babies). Because she’s now too sexy–and, admittedly, a murderer–Lucy has to be killed by a posse of men, including her former suitors (!).
What the fuck, Bram.
Or let’s revisit Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which, while not exclusively gothic horror, definitely has gothic horror elements. Jane flees across the moors with a) little money, b) little food, and c) insufficiently warm clothes after learning that Mr. Rochester, her boss and a real catch, has been taking part in the totally normal activity of keeping his maddened wife in the attic. You know. Like a gentleman.
Anyway, Jane sees this on their wedding day and nopes out of Thornfield Hall. Her crime? She never should have deigned to rise above her station as a lowly unmarried governess. I mean, marrying a rich man with an ancestral estate? Or living with that man outside of wedlock? Or, heaven forfend, treating a mentally ill woman like a person? Absolutely not! Get thee hence!
This might come a little late, but: Spoilers for Jane Eyre.
Unlike Lucy, Jane gets redemption. Once she’s an independently wealthy woman, she returns to Mr. Rochester, now a convenient widower, and marries. She’s able to find a place for herself within the constraints set by her society. Hooray?
So what’s the twist?: Try playing with political standpoints here–if gothic horror traditionally operated from a conservative political standpoint, then what would gothic horror privileging liberal or leftist perspectives look like? What transgressions would be punished, and, considering ongoing conversations about different forms of justice, what would punishment even look like? Or, what happens to gothic horror when a transgression against society is the right choice?
The presence of the supernatural, whether real or imagined, is a consistent thread throughout gothic horror. It’s one of the things that I love about the genre–good ghost stories absolutely delight me–but it’s also one of the things that’s easy to misinterpret.
Like, a monster just existing isn’t necessarily scary. A werewolf T-posing at the edge of the woods is nowhere near as frightening as a werewolf sprinting at you across an open field. And even that visceral, oh-fuck-it’s-after-me mortal terror can’t really be sustained over long periods. You just get used to being terrified. So you have to ask yourself, “what does the presence of this ghost/vampire/witch show about the character? How does it impact them beyond raw fear? What does this show about the story’s themes?”
For example, in Charlotte Brontë’s (I know this is the second time she’s shown up in this post and I promise that I’ve read more than three authors in my life) novel Villette, the school where the protagonist Lucy Snowe teaches is a former nunnery. There’s a grave in the garden underneath a twisted tree: The final resting place of a young nun who defied the chaste mandates of her order and suffered the consequences. Throughout the novel, Lucy, who fears both her own sexual desires and her increasingly likely future as a spinster, is haunted by apparitions of the nun around the school. Nobody else, of course, witnesses the specter.
Because she’s a poor young woman teaching in a foreign country, Lucy already feels alienated and isolated. The presence of the nun heightens those feelings and intensifies Lucy’s situation–she can’t speak seriously to her few friends or her employer about the vision for fear that she’ll be seen as insane. So, ta-da–there’s how the nun impacts her character, and there’s how it relates to the story’s themes of loneliness.
The uncertainty and foreboding that Lucy feels about the nun’s existence is a pretty common approach to the supernatural in gothic horror. It’s a sign of a character’s possible unraveling, like Eleanor’s growing distance from reality in The Haunting of Hill House or Jack’s ghostly interludes in The Shining.
But the monstrous entities preying on our protagonists don’t have to be real to be terrifying. In fact, revelations of truth are often a key part of horror, and as we’ve learned from Scooby-Doo, a modern gothic horror masterpiece, the real monsters are (almost) always humans. Learning that the person behind the ghost was someone the protagonist trusted, or even just that there’s a greater story to be discovered, is a fantastic way to add nuance to gothic horror and reveal just how fragile our sanity is.
Plus you can do reveals like this: The nun ghost in Villette is actually just a horny teenager. Isn’t that great?
So what’s the twist?: A couple fun and easy options here: What happens to the story when it’s told by the (supernatural or otherwise) monster? What happens when you include a less traditional gothic horror creature, like aliens, or focus on a phenomenon, like time travel? What happens when the monster inspires an emotion other than fear? You might be tempted to just check the paranormal romance section for that last one, but there’s more emotions to consider here: Rage, jealousy, and amusement are a few that I’d recommend exploring.
If gothic horror had travel posters, they’d feature empty moors in late fall, purplish-gray in the twilight and laid low with mist. In the distance, maybe on a cliff, there’s an ancient castle or manor house that’s just beginning to crumble. Once upon a time it was grand–maybe it was even happy. Nobody living remembers that time, though. All you know are the dark, dank hallways trapping you inside, the wide, windswept moors trapping you in every other conceivable way. Even if you ran, where would you go? You’re so lonely here–or at least, you’re hope you’re alone. Those noises you hear at night…
This is a familiar image, right? And it’s revealing as well. The physical landscape of gothic horror is one of unease, discomfort, and alienation, but that’s because the emotional landscape is all about those same feelings. In her memoir In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado writes, “Places are never just places in a piece of writing. If they are, the author has failed. Setting is not inert. It is activated by point of view.”
What this means for gothic horror is that its setting works best when it speaks to something in the characters, when it responds to those characters in some way. Setting is a lot like the supernatural features of gothic horror in that way–it isn’t about scary imagery, but about how that imagery reflects (or heightens) the suffering of the characters.
And this doesn’t have to happen on the moors or in a manor house, either. The apartment building in Rosemary’s Baby is a great setting because its mundanity hides something horrifying and because Rosemary is simultaneously surrounded by people and completely alone. The Overlook Hotel in The Shining works partly because of its size; the family can disappear into different parts of the hotel and have no clue where their loved ones are, what they’re doing, or what they’re becoming. Furthermore, the hotel isn’t a home. It’s a place that so many have entered and (mostly) departed from, which contributes to the characters’ feelings of unease.
So what’s the twist?: One of the easiest twists here is just to find new, strange, fun settings to turn into sites of gothic horror. You can try genre-mixing here: An abandoned satellite, a ghostly railroad town, etc. What history do these places have, and how does that impact the character? Or, if you’d like to mess around a little more with the “horror” aspect of gothic horror, then try seeing what would happen if you changed the emotional tone of the character and the setting. What if your character had an intense devotion to an eldritch place, or what if their home inspired nothing but disgust?
Okay. This is the longest blog post I’ve written so far (hooray!) and honestly the one that I’ve enjoyed the most. Genres like gothic horror have so much to offer us in terms of theme, character, and literary tradition, but we don’t have to feel bound by conventions. Instead, we can use those conventions to shape something new, something that responds just as much to the conditions of our lives as The Castle of Otranto responded to conditions in the mid-eighteenth century.
Concerns like, you know, whether isolation or pox parties were the appropriate response to contagious diseases. Absolutely antiquated stuff.
I don’t remember exactly where I first heard about author and illustrator Emily Carroll. I know that it must have been an online article, a review for her horror comic anthology Through the Woods. But like I said, I don’t remember the review at all. I just remember the artwork. It was this piece:
I saw this and I was gone. Just completely invested in whatever Emily Carroll was doing. I spent the next few hours of that day (a sunny spring Saturday at the beach, to continue our trend of experiencing horror in unlikely settings) hunched over the family laptop and devouring all the comics on her website, emcarroll.com.
I did end up buying Through the Woods later that summer after I justified the cost to my frugal high schooler self, and I still crack open its covers about once a year. Considering Halloween is just two weeks out, it seemed like a great time for the annual rereading.
There’s a lot to love in Carroll’s work, both in print and online. When she uses color, it’s always so rich that,subconsciously, I’m worried that the ink will smear on my fingers.Carroll does novel things with old tropes—creepy dolls, bodysnatchers, nightmares, Bluebeard—and her fluid, organic art style easily transforms into, well, rot. I mean, look at this:
The thing I love most, though, is Carroll’s use of space. She does this really cool thing where her words are inseparable from the rest of her illustration. I know this isn’t a new idea, text as image, and that there are whole art movements about it (although I’ve only taken one art history class, and I’m not sure how reliable it was—we only talked about Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe in relation to their husbands’ work, sooo).
But anyway. I like it. I think it’s neat. Like, check out this spread from “A Lady’s Hands are Cold,” my favorite story from Through the Woods:
The song, in its bloody red ribbon, divides the page into panels while also guiding us through them. We get a sense of movement and time without relying as much on conventional borders. The page feels dynamic, alive—ironic, considering the singer’s current state.
And there are other, smaller examples too:
See how the text bubble’s tail weaves between the comb’s teeth and breaks the borders of the panel? Or how the maid’s next words hover over the dining table, the darkness of “nothing” creeping into the candlelight? It feels like the maid’s words are echoing in the young woman’s head during dinner, and she does not believe them.
Text isn’t a separate layer in these images. Instead, it intrudes into the illustration and its supposedly empty borders. The audience doesn’t get to enjoy the illusion of neat, ordered, separate elements. Instead, those elements break space and time in the story, including the space—the borders—that are meant to be reserved for the readers. We don’t get to draw back so easily. Without the usual divisions, we fall into the page.
Since Through the Woods is a book, though, a definite object with definite edges, Carroll’s work can only bleed to the edges of the page. This isn’t the case with her online work.
“When the Darkness Presses” starts off like a totally conventional webcomic. Well, you have to click a shadowy door to actually access it, but after that totally normal entrance, you’re greeted with a bubbly title font, a standard four-panel comic, and bright, animated ads.
It’s disconcertingly familiar and even nostalgic (that is, if you’re like me and have used adblock religiously since the early 2010s). Pretty soon, though…well, you should read the comic before you move on. It’s worth it.
Pretty soon, our protagonist describes a recurring nightmare, and the whole layout changes. The ads disappear, the four-panel structure dissolves, and the background darkens. We scroll down into parts of the comic that we can’t see. There are terrible things hiding off the edges of our screen.
Things go back to normal, but now that we know that the comic can change, we’re just waiting for it to happen again. And it does, of course, but Carroll doesn’t leave us there. The ads flicker as the protagonist becomes increasingly lethargic, and then they’re replaced entirely by the strange red pattern of the bedspread.
Then the protagonist goes through the door, and we scroll horizontally.
I’d never seen a comic do this before! The use of space was so novel and so fun, because of course when you’re on a screen, you’re not constrained by the borders you have with a book. You can go wherever you want on a screen. You can break your readers’ expectations at the same time you’re breaking the bounds of your fictional world by, say, leading your protagonist into a super sketchy garden.
And in case you still haven’t read “When the Darkness Presses” (why haven’t you?) I’ll leave it at that.
Carroll uses this technique elsewhere as well—I highly recommend “Margot’s Room” for another great read.
This approach is so special and important because we don’t have to treat our digital comics like books or like blog posts. Next page arrows don’t have to look like arrows, and links don’t have to look like links. Stories can literally be “out of the box” made by the screen. And Carroll is doing all of this.
While I was writing this piece, I learned that Carroll published a new book, When I Arrived at the Castle, with Koyama Press in 2019. (2019! I think I need to start paying more attention to the authors I enjoy and less attention to rare Vine compilations on YouTube—but maybe we live in a world where both are possible).
The book is definitely going on my wishlist. How about yours?
My mom told me my first two-sentence horror story while we were driving through a sunny strip mall parking lot (I know, the perfect environment for horror). “This one always made me feel terrible,” she said, and she raised her voice to a squeaky pitch: “‘They’ll never find me in here,’ the little boy said. Then he closed the fridge door behind him.”
I sat, sixteen and impassive, waiting for the light at the parking lot’s exit to change. “I don’t get it.”
“Refrigerators used to have a latch,” Mom said. The light turned green, and she pulled forward into the intersection. “And once you closed the door, there was no way to open it from the inside.”
“Oh,” I said. For a few moments, the hot Southern sun stopped warming my skin.
I guess this is more of a three-sentence horror story, if you count the context Mom needed to give me. But for her, and others of her generation, the first two sentences have an immediate impact–the stomach-drop fear of gasping for air, alone, in the dark. My mom carried those sentences around in her head for years, snippets of pre-internet storytelling.
Of course, now that we do have the internet, two-sentence horror stories are abundant. Whether you find them fresh at r/TwoSentenceHorror or devour one of the collections on sites like Thought Catalog or BoredPanda, you know that the thrill of dread from good two-sentence horror is unmistakable. It lingers.
Others, though, are about as frightening as day-old bread.
So what’s the difference? What makes two-sentence horror stories, you know, horrifying? And how can you create one that lives in someone’s head rent-free?
Here’s the simple answer: If you write short stories, you’ve probably gotten the advice that every little piece of writing has to contribute to the overall narrative. Two-sentence horror stories take this advice and hone it to a fine point–no wasted words. The challenge of two-sentence horror is maximizing fear in, well, two sentences.
Of course, it is possible to extend a sentence ad nauseum: By using punctuation like commas, semicolons, colons, and em dashes and by employing all sorts of subordinate clauses, you can hypothetically create a two-sentence horror story that goes on for pages, but this isn’t the best approach–as you’ve probably already noticed in this extraordinarily long sentence–because the effectiveness of your sentences does not come down to how much information you’re able to fit in that space.
Sentence breaks are places for the audience to take a breather and process what they’ve just read. If they have to process a lot of information, then the horror won’t hit as hard. (At least, that’s usually the case, but writing rules are meant to be broken.) Longer sentences can also deflate a story because sentence structure influences tone. If you have a long, flowing sentence with a lot of clauses, it can often feel relaxing or even musical. Shorter, simpler sentences are tighter, tenser.
To demonstrate, let’s take a look at some examples from the Thought Catalog article I linked to earlier:
Short. Sweet. The longest sentence in this bunch has seventeen words, and most of them just have one or two clauses. Like I said, though, writing rules are made to be broken, so here’s an exception:
The shorter sentence in this example has seventeen words; the longer one has twenty-seven. But take a look at how it works. There are these quick bursting phrases between commas–”him, another him, under the bed, staring”–that cause the sentence to fragment and accelerate in a way that mimics the speaker’s confusion and growing fear. Then, the confusion resolves with the last independent clause: “Daddy, there’s somebody on my bed.” The reality of the situation thunks into place. Chilling.
In all four of these examples, the real gutpunch of realization, disgust, or terror arrives in the second sentence. However, this doesn’t mean your first sentence is off the hook. Since the challenge of this genre is maximizing fear in two sentences, your opening has to deliver a situation that’s unsettling in itself. Take this example from the CW’s anthology Two-Sentence Horror Stories:
Oh my God, this person is holding a corpse. No wait, it’s a doll. Oh my God, the doll is haunted. The horror in this story doesn’t start at zero percent–it’s already been ratcheted pretty high by the time you’re three words into the first sentence. Most of the stories I’ve included here have something unnerving happen right away, whether it’s the shock of seeing a grinning face outside your window or the terror of being unable to move, speak, and breathe.
But after you grab your reader with that initial can’t-look-away feeling, you have to deliver by heightening the horror even further. And like we talked about with sentence length, less is often more here. My mom’s two-sentence story scared me because of what it didn’t say; because I could imagine darker, more terrible things than could be included in a few phrases about darkness, suffocation, and/or bloody fingernails.
See? That detail about the fingernails feels a little excessive, doesn’t it?
Horror here often comes from implications, about the feeling that something awful is about to happen. The doll blinked–what’s going to happen next? One of the sons is a fake–is the father in danger? There’s a creepy floating bastard outside a 14th story window–is he going to break in? Or, here:
I love this one so much! It raises so many questions. What the hell is the other phantom hand? Is it a ghost? Is it malevolent or friendly? Is this the beginning of a rollicking buddy cop horror story between a veteran and his ghost friend? Because I want that so badly.
In any case, you’ll notice from these examples that the horror doesn’t proceed along an uncomplicated plot line; rather, they are horrifying because the situation has become more complex. The pain of losing limbs takes on a new dimension when an unknown hand touches a phantom limb. In the cremation story, the dread of being (temporarily) trapped grows into the realization of eternity. And for the doll story, the horror of holding a corpse transforms into the horror of holding something that should be corpse-like but isn’t. There’s a twist that reshapes our understanding. The situation is worse, weirder, darker than we first thought–and isn’t that always the most horrifying thing?
This is my first blog post, so I don’t really expect to get comments. But that’s defeatist–if you have your own pointers for writing in this genre, I’d love to hear about them! And if you want to share your two-sentence horror with me, I’m always ready for some chills.