25 October 2015

Halloween: The Sequel!

'Tis the end of October and the spooks are about, so it seems the thing to do is wax poetic on Halloween and Samhain themes.

For the quick studies among us, I offer these "cheat sheets": Some Halloween history  and Some Samhain history.

I haven't cared much for the day. Love the season, but not the rituals. I've never been a ritual kind of guy. But I have history on my side.

First Halloween I remember was in a distant realm where costumes were crafted by hand. 
I perfected the robot by combining several boxes, a larger one for the body, a smaller one for the head, still others for feet. Arms and legs remained sheathed in cloth. In the second grade I won a prize for having the best costume. What was special about the robot costume was that the non-steam-powered device was also an early form of the personal computer. If someone were to write out a question and introduce the slip of paper through the designated slot in the body of the robot, the robot would [eventually] produce a verbal answer to the question. The robot proved to be 90% accurate which was, pre-MSWindows, quite a remarkable feat.

Then came other costumes full of commercial interests: characters from TV shows, classical monsters, space aliens (the fierce and loathsome kind, not ET), and finally the minimalist kind of costume. Minimalist? You know the type: you put on a clean shirt and glasses and say you are dressed as a "nerd". Later, as an adult, I graced one, maybe two, adult Halloween parties where others went full out as sexy witches and vampire studs. I was still dressed as a nerd--still long before nerds were cool.

I often went trick or treating with my cousin, but our chief goal was less about collecting candy than harassing his sisters. Gradually, we forgot the costumes and simply ran wild through the night, sending rolls of toilet paper up into the trees of houses where girls who did not like him lived. We could, by then, buy our own candy--and we did. Then the reverse happened. We became candy givers! Definitely less fun. Ah, I have not given out candy for many years now. You see, congruent with my emerging adulthood came the cultural shift away from children ringing doorbells and begging for treats. Too dangerous now--pins in candy, creepy pedophiles, whatever. What a shame!

Well, it was never really about the candy or the costumes, anyway, I soon learned while hanging out with people who called themselves witches

Real witches. Though they dressed like "ordinary" people, they had many of the same beliefs I held at that time. None of us threatened people nor begged for snacks. A few preferred to dress in black year-round, and all wore the pentacle around their necks or emblazoned on their black t-shirts. All in all a friendly, charming bunch of social rebels whose chief activity was "raising awareness" of their existence--then complaining that everyone disrespected them.

Other cultures celebrate death and welcome back the dead at this time of the year. That's fine with me. I've had it both ways--err, well, perhaps not both ways in the way you might be thinking. Someday I will, of course. 

What I meant was the fun side and the serious side of the day. Now, however, it seems like just another commercial venture: Halloween "memorabilia" is present in stores hours after Labor Day sales have ended. I can deal with fake cobwebs and spiders and bats, even a few talking skulls or laughing zombie heads, but let's be real.
Death ain't so great. That's what I was told by a rather decayed ancestor of mine who happened to pop up in the middle of the night beside my bed--a day early, no less--just to warn me that on one of these Halloween nights I might not be around to celebrate much of anything. I said, in my sleepy voice, "Fair enough."

The laughter that followed my ancestor out through the cracks in the walls was unnerving enough to get me up from bed. I had to splash cold water on my face and awaken fully, just to be sure I was still alive. Shaking my head in front of the mirror with all the lights on, I knew it had not been a dream.

So, carefully, I made my way back to bed yet lay awake for hours, unable to close my eyes, afraid of the next snap, squeak, creak, breath, sigh, or moan--most of them, thankfully, coming from my neighbors arriving home late after the bars closed.

And the dawn sprite told me to go to sleep; my time had not come.

But wait! There's more! Have you ever wondered what the first sign is for transforming into a vampire? I wondered... and here is the amazing result!

Read a review in The Oklahoman newspaper here

(The only vampire romance story to be set in Oklahoma City... among other places.)

Turn, Mr. Stoker! Turn quickly in thy grave!

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

17 October 2015

Understanding the Horror of Horror

"I ain't dead yet!"

As Halloween approaches, it's a good sentiment to have. However, as we accept the once a year opening of the door to the underworld and the unseen and possibly the undead, as well, it may be the best time to also reflect on what makes horror horrible...er, uh, scary. (You knew what I meant, right?)

Ever have a scary dream? Maybe it awakens you in the middle of the night and you don't know where you are. Maybe you still feel those pin picks or knife cuts in your skin. Perhaps your throat feels tight and the skin is rough from where the rope scraped. You might have been sensing the increasing pressure of heavy stones laid upon a barn door which was itself laid over you, all the better to extract a fictitious confession. 

Or perhaps your brand of scary is biting into a chocolate birthday cake and instead of pleasure, finding crunched up bits of cricket or other "foreign" matter there. Perhaps the beverage served reminds you a bit too much of freshly squeezed blood, donated by the kid who did not bring any gift. Or the sandwich you packed for lunch today somehow tastes strangely like human flesh instead of what it is: braised cow tongue. You open the lunch box and there are cockroaches squirming about. Is that your kind of scary?
Still another kind of scary is logging on the Internet--or, just as easily, flipping on the television--and there they are: so many stories of horror happening all around us and across the world. Killings of all kinds done in many creative forms. Solo assassins, self-designated mayhem artists, gangs of revengers, harmful idiots out for their own entertainment at the folly of anyone who gets in the way. Or the larger forms of them: armies of nations or parts of them doing the same thing: creating chaos for its own sake or the sake of someone's power structure. Where is the candy?

Or take it down to street level in your local town. Same thing: street thugs, simpletons with weapons, angry for anger's sake, and loners with axes to grind, guns to shoot, people to kill--for the sake of Halloween? Nope. Just people afraid of people, shooting before shaking hands. People afraid of their own shadows--or the lingering shadows of the previous night's dream. "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" It's all the same in an unsettling way: a spark of angst in the middle of the brain and we shriek.

Whether the horror is on the screen in a movie theater or on the page in a book, the mind provokes the body into a certain set of sensations and we act or react. Let the horror be real or let it be a fictitious fright. We feel it the same way biologically. And yet, the fictitious kind usually leaves us stronger, more confident, even less afraid, while the real horrors leave us in constant terror, constant stress, that we cannot simply put down or walk away from when we've had enough. That is the true horror of the horrors around us. 

Halloween is coming. Is it too little now? Is it too unscary compared to the real world today? Is it more trick than treat? Is it becoming a little better, or are we not yet at the peak? Be safe in your own little world and, at least for a night, pretend that all you have to worry about is a bad dream that will go away when you open your eyes. Or (it's happened to me too often), a lot of children ringing the doorbell after you've already given out your last bag of candy corn.
Looking forward to a day when this is the scariest thing we will see.

If you liked this rant, I accept donations of Kit-Kat and Jelly Belly jelly beans (any flavor). Thanks.

And don't forget our own library of horror--the fictitious variety (except for my contribution, which is 87% real)--and enjoy your midnight read!

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

04 October 2015

To Write PC or Not to Write PC?

Do you write what you preach? Are fiction authors supposed to promote their personal values? Or is the story a self-contained entity with its own political views? Must or should the author reveal personal positions on every social and political issues undergoing discussion in the public arena? Or is the story just a story and everything political is throw to the wind for the sake of the story? 
(Apologies for using a white, male, middle-class, heterosexual image.)
Once upon a time, a writer wrote a book. In this case, the writer is a "he" and the story involves a "she" as the main character. What could go wrong? one might ask. Many male authors have written female protagonists, and certainly many female authors have written male protagonists. Still, perceptions exist. "Write what you know" is an old axiom, and yet if that were to be followed religiously, a writer would only be allowed to write his (or "his or her") autobiography.

Conversely, the writer is supposedly imbued with a welter of imagination, able to leap tall plots in a single bound, about to stop dastardly antagonists with bare hands (obviously, on a keyboard). So it should go beyond the "write what you know"--shouldn't it? It is the mark of an author that he/she can make you believe he/she knows what he/she is writing about. So, if we allow for rule number 3, then anything goes. 

However, there are plenty of instances where readers get in the way. I mean that is a wholly innocent sense. If writing for a particular class of reader, the writer may shape the story in a certain way to appeal to that reader, say in genre-driven stories. Part of that may be, say, to use initials instead of a name or to use a pen name complete;y to hide the gender of the author. Because a Romance author cannot be a man...in theory. And a hardcore sci-fi author cannot be female...traditionally.

I don't intend to focus on, say, gender issues, but today we seem surrounded by issues of all kinds, political and social, which make me wonder. Do authors include their personal values and views in their fiction writing? For example, if you are opposed to same-sex marriage, do you write stories in which the traditional opposite-sex marriage is the only option? Granted, the world of the story may demand such, but if the author feels strongly about the issue, might there not be some occurrence in the story of a same-sex marriage?

If an author is against, say, guns...would the story be gun-free? If the author believes in a nation having a strong military and the government protecting its citizens by militarizing city police forces, would that idea be reflected in the author's latest book? If the author is a card-carrying conservative opposed to abortion, would the character in the story who gets pregnant have an abortion or, more likely, have the baby and offer it for adoption? It starts to get complicated. Or perhaps it's very easy. Do your characters act as you would act?

I have to say here that the examples in the preceding paragraphs were cherry-picked and do not reflect my own personal positions on those issues--or perhaps they do. You can never know for sure, because we like to keep our beliefs private. Or do we? Plenty of us speak up and speak out on whatever we believe is right or should be right, and we either find those who agree speaking with us or those who disagree trying to shout us down. The third column, which I suspect is the largest one, remains mostly silent--or dabbles in subtle sarcasm just to be able to vent when necessary to maintain personal mental health. 

And then there is the marketing question. If an author writes books in which the characters act as he/she would, espouse views the author would espouse, act as the author would act with regard to a whole host of political and social issues, views, and positions, where does that leave the reader? Could that reader like a story enough to buy it even though the reader and the author may have different views on, say, immigration reform? Or do we authors censor ourselves so as to be as mild-mannered as possible and not offend anyone who just might be tempted to buy our book? Tough questions--or non-issues?

Perhaps many writers, authors, dabblers in words, whatever the label, just don't care about such matters because just writing an interesting story is hard enough and we don't have time to be concerned about things outside the story. Or are we politely disingenuous, hiding our true nature and our true beliefs and values for the sake of that interesting story, afraid to speak out about something we feel strongly about because we worry about offending fellow authors and potential readers. 

Fiction writers, as a clan, do not generally deal with pontification; we do not write a work of fiction solely to push our view of how the world should be. Or do we? Or should we? Or...why shouldn't we?

In my latest novel, still in the final tweaking stage, my protagonist uses guns. She hunts for food. Later she is a soldier. (You may notice the pronoun "she"--which may imply to some that I have a second strike against me in that a male writer shouldn't write about a female protagonist.) Two valid uses of guns. However, the recent (yet again!) mass shooting on a school campus brings the issue of guns to the forefront once again. I almost feel the need to apply a "trigger warning" to a book where there is (or may be) the shooting of a gun. Is that where we are heading as writers? 

I am quite aware of the three strikes already against me as I step up to the plate with my book in my hands, ready to swing at an outfield full of readers (personally, I am opposed to sports metaphors being used in subjects unrelated to sports, but I do so here strictly for the potential humor): 1) I'm a male writer with a female protagonist; 2) I'm not the same ethnicity/race as my protagonist; 3) I grew up in a city with two married parents and I'm writing about an orphan in a small village. 

But let me plunk down that huge weight on the other side of the scale: imagination, research, and a beta reader who is female, the same ethnicity as my protagonist, and an orphan from a small village. I hope I got the story right--and by "right" I mean authentic, no matter what social and political issues are swirling around the social media forums and bookstores of this world as I write it and offer it to readers.

Sure, the literary canon is full of writers who pushed agendas, who wrote dogmatic tales, who left strongly-worded suggestions of how we should behave, what we should think, what we should do or stop doing--woven more or less subtly through a fictional narrative that served to entertain us long enough to get the message across. Or were they simply good stories which only in hindsight do we see a message or a warning? 

And yet, in this present day world of saying the right thing, being politically correct or decidedly not, what is the author's responsibility...or compulsion?

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.