TWIR: Life as a restless manner of being

Here is a modern tragedy: My hold on Carry On came in at the library this week, so I had to pick it up. But I’m out of town for the next few days, and this book, while not heavy, is THICK. No way I was making room for that. So I have to wait until next week to start it.

My Kindle will always have my back, at least.

Dune is a good book, did you know that? What a surprise! No, really. For some reason I had been put off by it for years, despite it being a book my mom loved (along with many, many other people). But over the holidays I picked it up and suddenly the first page appealed to me. If I were a more morally sound and upstanding person, I would be writing an essay about it. Including some thoughts about the women in it, because while I appreciated that there were significant roles for a few women, I have some unease about how that was executed in the larger story, and the implications of it.

I may have more thinking to do.

In other news, I listened to Modern Romance last week, but only reviewed it this morning:

Modern RomanceModern Romance by Aziz Ansari

My rating:💛💛💛💛 (4/5 heart emojis)

You know what’s great? Having a big ol’ Photoshop project, needing an audiobook to listen to, and something on your “It’d be amazing to listen to this rather than read it, because I know it’s read by someone good” list is immediately available at the library. Thank you, Library Deities. (read full review)

Short things

some other animal’s meat


Look, this is a new Emily Carroll. For some people you already went back up and clicked the link, in some feverish state of excitement. For some of you, I should say: Emily Carroll makes carefully drawn comics of a subtle and effective horror. Over the years I’ve been following her, her work has shifted from dreamlike, fairy tale horror, into horror weighted with a more modern reality, with living, with the discomforts and unease of life. And dreams and fairy tales.

My Father, the Church, And Why I Left — I always like Mindy’s writing. I’m terribly jealous of her ability to write about her life. In some ways I could relate to this essay (growing up in a church and leaving in gradual way) and in some ways our experiences are completely different (obviously! Hi, I grew up as mostly white in the Midwest where every church had a place for someone like me, using my language, focusing on one denomination). What makes this essay great is not church, but family.

But the story of my relationship to Christianity is also the story of my relationship with my dad. Growing up, we were close. We were both sloppy to the great annoyance of my mother. We were handy with languages and musically inclined. And my dad was the one who would listen to my doubts.

Why life is not a thing but a restless manner of being — On the origin of life, and alternate ways of looking at what life is, which I really enjoyed.

In that sense, life isn’t a thing so much as a manner of being, a restless fit of destruction and creation. If it can be defined at all, it is this: life is a self-sustaining, highly organised flux, a natural way that matter and energy express themselves under certain conditions.

Let’s talk about horror.

To repeat myself: I’ve been developing my understanding of horror as a genre for a while now, and while I don’t feel like I’m much closer to unlocking the key to horror, I do have Thoughts. Thoughts about what breaks a horror story, and what strengthens it. Please, let’s talk about scary things!

Illustration of a girl in a white dress holding a lamp, surrounded by shadows
From Through the Woods

Verisimilitude is scary. Straight reading of a story like an audiobook often fails for me, maybe because it’s too removed from the content. What has worked, however, is Limetown (which is set up like Serial/This American Life), Dionaea House (website/blog, capturing emails and texts, updated “as it happened” in 2004-2006), House of Leaves (scrapbooked and collected notes, except Johnny Truant. Go away, Johnny Truant.), The Innocence of a Place. There’s a reason so much horror has a framing device, or is as close to first person as a given medium can get. On some level, not being entirely sure it’s fiction is thrilling. Plus it tries to strip away a layer of narrative that separates the reader from the story. Distance throttles fear.

Gore is not scary. It’s gross and uncomfortable, which isn’t the same thing. Being incredibly grossed out by something happening to a character’s eye isn’t scary! But for another definition of horrific it can fit. Especially if it’s executed right — not just a slasher story. I’m thinking more of a particular Emily Carroll story, in which you see something disturbing to do with a characters face. (I don’t want to say more because the turn of it is so great.) But even in that story, there’s more going for it — suspense and not-knowing and an unnamed threat. Body horror is not the same as gore is what I’m winding toward, I think.

Innocuous turned sideways is scary. Small children! A dim hallway! A stranger’s smile! A man in a gray suit! The 66 bus! An itch under your skin! In the right hands all of these are terrifying. The familiar made unfamiliar. Your own reflection in the mirror, but something’s off.

Stupid characters are not scary. I can’t emphasize this enough. This goes for every genre. Don’t let your characters be stupid, writers. Please. You get like one colossally stupid decision for a character, and even then only if the character is established as having a weakness or habit that would lead them to that. You know what? Just to be safe? Don’t. Make your characters smart. It’s so much more terrifying if a smart character can’t avoid or defeat the terrible things.

So: Inevitability, but not predictability, is scary. If I’m rolling my eyes because that’s always the way this story goes, that’s not scary. But if I can’t blink because the characters have done everything right and the terrible thing is still coming? Ooh. Or they’ve done what seemed innocuous, but set them on a road with no exits that leads straight to Horrortown, which they oh-so-slowly realize? Nice.

Incomplete stories are not scary. There’s a difference between leaving things open or unsaid and not finishing the story. Explaining everything kills fear (see a later note) but there has to be some sense of completion. Finish a character arc, give an emotional resolution, do everything but. Everything but showing the monster, everything but naming the demon, everything but explaining the origin. The thing that is scary can be unfinished, inexplicable, unseen, but the story still needs an ending. Cutting off before the resolution is a way of preventing yourself from over-explaining the story, but it can ruin what you’re working toward. Like undercooking brownies.

No, scratch that. Undercooked brownies are delicious. Undercooked chicken. That’s what it’s like. Slightly undercooked, so it’ll be gross and make you ill if you eat it. Don’t undercook your stories.

Related: Lead-up and aftermath are scarier than the thing itself. I.e., shadows, not monsters; imagined threat, not reality. Be wary of showing me the guy in the monster suit. My imagination is more personal, and therefore more scary.

In the end, the biggest thing is that horror, like love, is personal. So no matter what anyone does, there may be some deep-seated part of my personality and my past that makes it fail for me, even as it works for a hundred others.

TWIR: Small bites

A few articles I have enjoyed this week, as I try to make my Instapaper backlog less atrocious (it’s still atrocious):

Black Girls Hunger for Heroes, Too: A Black Feminist Conversation on Fantasy Fiction for Teens: This interview is short and great. There were moments that were a bit of a wake-up call for me, in that these two ladies noticed issues in The Hunger Games that completely passed me by. I suppose I was caught up in the thrill of it, and the thrill of seeing explicit class issues in a YA book.

IBI: Reading [The Hunger Games], I had to wonder why the hero didn’t come from District 11 if they’re the most oppressed. I remember thinking Rue’s role in the whole novel is what this comic book writer calls “fridging.” Women in comic books serve to bring out the male hero’s deep humanity. The woman dies and then the hero taps into—

ZETTA: His sense of justice.

A Tentacled, Flexible Breakthrough: Robot octopi! Tell me so much more. Can I have one as a pet?

They aim to replicate the key features of an octopus: eight arms to provide an almost infinite range of motion; the ability to squeeze through any opening larger than its chitinous beak; and an unusual nervous system in which the arms are semiautonomous and the central brain is thought to do little more than issue general commands (“Arms, let’s go catch that crab!”).

Monsters at the Door: Yes, I’m still reading about Emily Carroll. I love her. In a completely appropriate way.

My day with Emily Carroll passes in the presence of the moth; I’ve never seen a bigger one. “It’s so meaty,” she says, sounding gleefully disgusted.

TWIR: It came from the woods (most strange things do)

I have trouble finding things that scare me. In stories, I mean. When a movie is supposed to be terrifying, it often turns out “terrifying” means “jump cuts and gore,” which is not what I consider scary. It’s a trick! It’s a trigger for my autonomic responses! Surprise and disgust are not the same things as fear. On the other hand, if it’s trying for a more subtle terror, I don’t even notice. Which is also what happens with books.

But I think I’m figuring it out. (You’re also free to argue that I need to watch more movies, which is valid.)

Movies have too much going on. The backgrounds, the actors, the music, the framing. It distracts from the creeping terror of a black night and an unknown sound.

Novels and short stories are too distanced. When it’s words on the page, I get engaged, but I’m not involved. I read The Haunting of Hill House and had no idea it was supposed to be scary. Atmospheric, internal, psychological. But scary?

Maybe I expect too much. Maybe I define scary too narrowly.

Then I come to my current read: On Sunday I picked up Through the Woods by Emily Carroll. I’ve been reading no more than one story per night, and should finish up tonight, only to re-read it all, I’m sure. Only one of the stories is already online: His Face All Red.

Cover of
Beautiful and spooky

I love Emily Carroll’s work. It’s beautiful, and her horror comics are slow-burn terrifying, the unexplained creeping up through the blackness of each page (or the stark whiteness of snow). The new stories in this book are just as good as I’d hoped, if not better (because my imagination is not Emily’s).

This is my theory: Comics are better at terror for me. In the hands of the right artist and writer, I have the visuals to connect me with the story, but not so many distracting elements to distance me again. The pacing is deliciously excruciating, so long as I can keep myself from peeking ahead. The restraint in the art, the cadence of the words, even the choice of when to turn the page…

This merits further research. Is it the medium of comics, or is it Emily Carroll and the style she uses? Are there movies that are Carroll-esque?

As a side note, I was concerned about this being in paperback but there was clearly a lot of care taken creating this book as an object. The cover has tantalizing textures, and the entire thing is printed well on high quality paper so the illustrations are vivid and the colors pop. It really is worth having on your shelf.