I hope everyone had a sufficiently terrifying Halloween. I know I did: dealing with Amazon’s author platform and the Lone House Hill setup, trying to get a free short story out. [Insert Exorcist barf.]
We did, for the record a get an ebook out. Last year the decision was made to distribute this way rather than publishing on a website. Isn’t it all a grand experiment? The end result this time around is a ten page story that’s free for a five days and until the situation can be rectified (anyone use Kobo out there?)
So, if you want to feel that last flake of Halloween ash as the spirit exits on the November wind, this it To Be a Wolf: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07ZT5FQHL.
Chess and watching a film: I’d finished the latter and immediately messaged a friend. He’d just wrapped up a four hour marathon of the former, leaning over the black and white squares, trying to comprehend every move on the table, and projecting himself moves ahead. The analogy was immediately obvious: opponents at a chess board aren’t so different than an audience on the line of a storyteller.
You spend hours trying to notice every detail, trying to consider every ploy. You store and regurgitate the data while you try to see the next move. He’d spent hours straining his eyes on every millimeter of movement, and so had I. He’d spent hours trying guess his opponents next move, and so had I. The only difference was that I wanted my opponent to win.
Unfortunately, this analogy fails in most scenarios. You note the details and most of them come up meaningless. In the horror genre, in particular, the opponent too often chooses not to finish the game. Horror and thriller films are built on the accumulation of details leading to a series of conclusions, possibly one big one. In these genres the audience immediately knows that they’ll be challenged to deduce what’s happening behind the scenes. They’ll try and curb the scares by making conclusions about the plot. It’s just nature.
The problem with this game is that there is no obligation to finish. There is no sportsmanship. I suppose the best sportsmen build the most recognizable names, but truly masterful games rarely come along. The chess analogy pays off when all of a storyteller’s moves accumulate to deliver a concussive blow, lingering in the addled mind of the audience member for days… or a lifetime.
That’s hard to do. Most genre storytellers are lazy with the details, scattering oddities for ambiance and only using a few to scaffold their plot. Most horror films and stories suspend disbelief by entombing themselves in vagueness and staggering through their conclusion. In essence: the chess player sitting opposite decides they’re proud of a few clever moves and chooses to walk away. The real knockout checkmate is a rarity. That perfect game where every move leads to the absolute destruction of the opponent, with them blind to the end result– that’s when a story becomes peerless.
The inspiration for this post, and the film I was watching, is Hereditary. Ari Aster’s first feature film is a game of chess like no other. The precision of his every decision draws a remarkable conclusion, and in a way that only the perfect marriage of script and direction can execute. Toni Collette is as incredible as ever and is surrounded by a deeply affecting cast, including some young talent that will shake you from your moorings.
Hereditary delivers a profoundly unnerving plot that is largely fueled by offscreen and past events. You can tell that the details matter immediately. Toni Collette’s protagonist is an artist who creates miniatures, an appropriate medium for such a careful film. Like all art, her work invites self-reflection, but with an intensely voyeristic quality. It also amplifies her history and her sense of place in it. The first shot of the film invites us into a miniature of her own home, drawing us closer until the recreation become the film itself. As mundane as the subject matter seems to be, in thinking of the conclusion (no spoilers) and the character who crafted what we see (under a magnifying lense), it’s the perfect, subtle, opening. What boggles my mind about the film is how much time it spends quietly telling you what’s important and how willfully blind I was to its insistence, only to be gobsmacked in the final act.
I could talk about the implications of the opening shot as a reflection on art and life and perception, and how it introduces a clever interplay between the real and recreated, or how the cinematography amplifies it beautifully, or how it lets us explore the character’s histories without jarring us from the narrative… but I won’t. The miniatures are a powerful and thought provoking tool that invite the viewers imagination to run amok, but there are other invitations to alertness. Every single detail matters. With repetition, and significant moments of focus and silence, Ari Aster invites us to pay close attention.
It’s hard to fathom the importance of these flourishes when you see them. They come off as simple nods to Polanski or Kubrick, and I dismissed them as attempts to create atmosphere in the beginning, but I’m still thinking about them. The film is bountiful with onscreen horror, but the pieces it lays out early invite the viewer to imagine the history that led to the events the film portrays. The implications are haunting and the ultimate result is a masterpiece. We’ve been fortunate to have at least one very good horror film each of the last few years: The Babadook with it’s terrifying exploration of doubt (The Wailing expertly charted similar themes with gut-punching effect), It Follows with its primal approach to confronting the most pure and inevitable of horrors, Train to Busan with the world crashing in on the most vulnerable thing a parent can imagine, and The Ritual with its show stopping creature design. These are all wonderful films that use the genre of horror to tell an impactful tale, but Hereditary transcends them in its mastery of the details. It’s canon, sitting high with the Shining and Rosemary’s Baby, for its devotion to craft.
You could watch this film a hundred times and piece together the nightmare that led to this film’s plot, but your own nightmares would increase with each conclusion. The subtext is haunting and artfully implied. It leaves you staring at the black and white squares. When your king is lifted from the table, a piece of your sanity goes with it. You can’t even move, your lame and unused pieces left splayed out, inept with your assumptions. Your mind races around your skull trying to remember each exacting move, and each realization weighs more on your rattled mind. You’re done, left with one conclusion: that’s how you play chess.
“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?”
– John Milton, Paradise Lost
Milton famously made the Christian devil relatable for a crowd that would never have expected it. That’s the crowning achievement for any writer who’s self reflective, or ambitious, or literary, or working with a purpose in a volatile period. Most of us though, we just like to write– and, if you like to write, it’s easy to turn this quote on it’s head. For someone who makes things there is always the Pygmalion-esque question: what if my work could see me? What if my creation could respond to what I have wrought?
The short answer is “no”. Poetic as Satan may have been in his lament, this is a “yes” or “no” question. The more complex answer is that “I did not make you alone and once a thing is made, who is to say that it does not gain a soul and begins to make for itself?”
We like to think that we are in control. We view most everything this way, from the impressions we make to our very fates. We are the keepers and judges of the information that crosses our paths; stories, news, and fictions alike. Sometimes we glom onto a piece of information, and its reshaped, turning over and over in our obsessive mind. Once we have this gem, what the author has given us is never enough, we have to nurture it and encourage its growth. It’s who we are. It’s love and fandom, literary criticism and cosplay. It’s obsessing over something that has touched our definition of humanity. The Tempest is 2,283 lines made of words, made of lines that form characters that are part of a system, all captured on paper, or in a database. Factually, it’s nothing more, but tell that to someone who has “acknowledged a thing of darkness mine”, or praised the promise of a “brave new world”. The Tempest has made us soar and tormented us for hundreds of years, despite the fact that it can be distilled down to a very simple object. It’s characters, and their world, are alive in us today, but never will they be the characters trapped in the head of the busy play-write circa 1622.
What makes the written word transcendent is the tragedy of imperfect communication paired with the beauty of imagination. There is a theory that written words, having left the hand of the author, become something anew in the minds of readers. The author’s intention is lost as soon as the memories of creating begin to dull. The recorded words then spark something new in the minds of those who read them, interpret them, and reform them with their own tools. That is the tragedy of imperfect communication. It’s also the beauty of art, and why we can celebrate the self with reckless abandon. Their will only be ONE you, as far as anyone will ever know. (Can you hear the Google AI laughing at me?)
Now I extend my exposition into a shameless, and self-reflective, plug. I’ve been working. I’ve been working a lot, and most of the writing I’ve been doing takes place in a single, imaginary, world. My world has not come together in seven days. It’s been years in the making. What started as a fun idea (wait for my next post on making monsters) turned into something else. While I do believe that a narrative passed to another becomes something new each time its enjoyed, I also believe it changes as it grinds through the mind of the author. Characters mold themselves as they travel their path many times, and through many drafts. Their world changes too. There is also the authors limited retention to contend with. There is no moment where I’m aware of everything on earth. Making an additional world where I understand everything is comparable. Yet, I am making a world. I make it every day I think, every day I dream, and especially when my fingers touch these keys. I have a dark new world.
If I had to answer Milton’s question, looking down on one of my little monster hunters, I’d say that it’s all connected. I would say “I wrote your name and you ran.” I would also say to grow the hell up. Milton’s passage rang loudly in my teenage skull, but sounds petulant and obnoxious now. So yeah, I wanted to make stories about monster hunters and, as a result, I made a world for them to live in. It’s called Pan Humana and it’s thriving– but only by the people who live there’s standards. They think they have it made. They live in a world with dwindling daylight and where terrifying monsters thrive in the dark and lurk in every corner. Horrible things happen to people all the time, but, by their historical standards, they live in the “Promised Age”. There are more details, lots more details. Writing a fantasy, or fantasy horror, collection of narratives pretty much requires you to write a book of facts, some mundane. Maybe I should record my successes and failures in regards to this archiving process, but what I’m really focused on is getting our first book out this October.
That’s right, my partnership with Lone House Hill is about to produce its first publication: an introduction to this (often) dark new world. 3 Hunters will be free for a few weeks (Details? I don’t know, ask them: @LoneHouseHill on Twitter) and then be a couple of bucks. It’s truly helped me shape the world that will be featured in the core narrative of the Maxus Hunter series and I think the short story format will continue to help me share and explore this wonderful place. 3 Hunters will have some illustrations with excerpts from Pan Humana, but will mainly feature three stories depicting the protagonists from the first arc. If you want to see through the eyes of a revenant bound to a snarky and drunken werecreature rampaging across a horror-fantasy world with monsters, casinos, trains, assholes, and lies aplenty, join me… I’ve already forgotten the rest. What clay?
Follow me here for updates (or Twitter: @RaelMarak) or subscribe to the sleepy Lone House Hill mailer at LoneHouseHill.com.
For the last few years this site has been the home of short stories, of dream journal entries, and of dark fairy tales. Compositions drifted until formed, got shoved through the steel teeth of the editing cycle, and then came here; but not anymore.
The scarcity of new material on this site is due to a change, a new partnership, and a new destination for my writings. The direction is largely the same, but the scale is larger. The work in the tank, which will be unveiled and discussed at this location soon enough, will be published in digital editions.
Enter Lone House Hill, my new partner in publishing. While this site will host news and links to my available work, Lone House Hill will be in charge of the publication. Visit them at LoneHouseHill.com.
This site will hopefully become more personal, filling the duties of my blog and keeping readers in the know.
It’s an exciting time for everyone involved and we’re grinding away to get you the next evolution of terrifying work this year.