griffinwords: (profile)
Following on from minutes-ago post about going from Stephen King's Dreamcatcher to Cormac McCarthy's The Road...

A reasonable first reaction would be to say that these two are about as far apart as two writers could be. The sun-bleached lines of McCarthy, which manage to be terse even when they are poetic, stand in dramatic contrast to the casual, slang-filled conversational style of King. One is less, one is more-more-more.

On the other hand, both are quirky with punctuation, and both frequently construct sentences to feel like internal stream-of-consciousness.

Beyond that, there's another similarity I would like to discuss. Both have written genre fiction (McCarthy dabbling in SF or apocalyptic horror this once, King obviously working in horror most of the time) that appeals widely to readers outside those genres. This ability is rare enough -- and make no mistake, most genre writers very much want their work to appeal to readers outside the genre ghetto -- to bear consideration. Why is Stephen King's work so popular among readers who never read horror except King's work, and more often read mainstream books or thrillers? Why do critics treat The Road with the same respect they give All the Pretty Horses or Blood Meridian, rather than saying "I'll pass on this one -- he's just writing end-of-the-world shit?"

Despite the stylistic gap between these two writers, I think the explanation for trans-genre appeal is the same in both cases, and also explains writers like Vonnegut, Palahniuk, Atwood, and even Tolkien reaching way beyond the usual genre boundaries (in some cases to the point they are no longer considered genre writers even when what they're doing plainly uses all the tropes). That is, the placement of the characters' emotional drama at the forefront of the story in such a way that we are tangled in their experience. We experience their fears and hopes, and directly project ourselves into their place.

This seems a simple matter -- all writers know they're supposed to engage the reader on an emotional level -- yet very rarely does that engagement occur in such an intimate way as with these writers. It's about putting the "people stuff" ahead of the "trans-warp tachyon drive" or "vampire/zombie plague" or "Venusian cloud colony" bullshit. Most genre writers think they're doing this, but they're not. That's because most genre writers get their start out of a love for the tropes and McGuffins, and not out of pure storytelling. They may try to figure out how to write relationships and emotions, but it's not what drives them.

I haven't read enough about McCarthy to know if this is true, but from reading him I'd say he's strongly influenced by Hemingway and Faulkner (which probably says a lot about why I'm so smitten with him, because those are two of my favorites). Obviously King has more roots within horror than without, but I think it's telling that his favorite writer is Elmore Leonard, and not Lovecraft or Machen or Blackwood or Shirley Jackson. Leonard is another writer whose primary focus is individual fears and desires. It's incidental that his characters are murderers and thieves, con artists and detectives.

Sometimes a genre writer wants to break out, give themselves a shot at appealing to a broader readership, outside their own genre. Sometimes they try a different style to which they're not really suited , such as Greg Bear writing an awful supernatural thriller with minimal SF content, Dead Lines. I think a better idea would be to focus on writing stuff with a more human appeal.

Lots of people love Friday Night Lights who don't care about high school football. Normally I don't like Westerns, yet I loved Deadwood crazy-much, because the characters and conflicts were so compelling. To my mind, the foremost goal of any writer should be to make their work appeal to people who normally dislike the subject matter or genre.
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My reading time has been short lately so I've been limited to audiobook listening during my long-ish commute. I just finished Stephen King's Dreamcatcher and I'm about to start The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

I've been thinking a lot about writers who create work that transcends genre, and these two writers are noteworthy in that regard. I'll post something about that later today.
griffinwords: (Default)
Just finishing up Horns by Joe Hill, in audiobook format. Hill's first novel Heart Shaped Box was one of my favorite new discoveries of last year, a somewhat dark, edgy book of clever, compact nastiness. If you didn't already know this, Joe Hill is Stephen King's son, and decided to try writing under a pseudonym to see if he could have a career of his own without his dad's influence. Eventually his cover was blown, but he continues to use the name. His real-life name is Joe Hillstrom King so the pen name is really just the first half of his full, proper name anyway. Hey, maybe I should try to get published as "Michael Jay?"





The earlier book followed a somewhat washed-up rock-and-roller whose life is turned upside down when he purchases an old man's suit that turns out to be cursed. Hill's follow-up, Horns, likewise observes the intrusion into a character's life of a dark influence. In this case, a year after Ig Parrish's girlfriend is raped and murdered (a crime for which he was the main suspect, though no case is ever brought against Ig or any other culprit) Ig Parrish finds himself with a pair of devil-like horns sprouting from his forehead. And not just horns, but a strange influence over everyone he comes across, a certain power over their will, and insight into things they've done before that they wouldn't want anyone else to know.

His life has already been essentially ruined as the book begins, as his girlfriend is gone, and everyone who knows them, including Ig's own family, thinks Ig killed her and got away with it. Having hit bottom, Ig follows the power and influence of the horns, and though they bring him a lot of trouble they also help him to discover some facts about troubling events in his life, including his girlfriend's murder.




Hill's short story collection Twentieth Century Ghosts, followed by the top-notch debut novel Heart Shaped Box and now his sophomore novel effort Horns, are enough to establish him as one of the strongest talents working in the field of suspense and horror fiction. His writing has a lot of similarities to his own father's early work, in particular such high points as The Shining, Dead Zone, and Carrie.

Overall I'd judge Horns to be slightly below the standard of the first novel, though still worth reading and still indicative of the likelihood of strong future work coming from this writer.

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