The next DIY MFA prompt asks us to identify our favorite type of story and to look at recurring patterns in our own work. So…
…what’s my favorite story type? This is a harder question to answer than it might first appear, at least for me. One of my strengths as a reader and a writer – and oddly enough one of my greatest challenges – is that I really love a very wide variety of stories, genres, formats, etc. One day I’m reading a graphic novel, the next it’s an old pulp story by Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. Then it’s on to a modern literary novel like The Virgin Suicides, then I’ll pick up an anthology of weird fiction or horror before switching over to nonfiction on science, history or biography.
So, I tend to read widely across fiction, nonfiction, genres, novels, short stories, etc., but not necessarily deeply within a genre. I’m a bit of a dilettante in that way. However, in the end I do notice two common threads throughout much of what I read – and what I write.
The first is that I still greatly enjoy the pulse-pounding, two-fisted action stuff with which I grew up. My earliest memories of reading beyond typical kid’s picture books are rooted in the comic books of the late 60s and early 70s. (“I was born in ’67, the year of Sergeant Pepper’s and Are You Experienced,” to quote Porcupine Tree.) My two older brothers both bought a lot of comics, so I had their collections to dip into. I then embraced characters like Doc Savage, Tarzan, Conan, etc., as well as epic fantasy like Lord of the Rings, the Thomas Covenant books and the like. Common throughout all these books is the struggle of good vs. evil, fast pacing (well parts of the Lord of the Rings maybe not so much), action, superhuman feats and powers, etc.
I still greatly enjoy this type of story, and I’m currently working on a novel that is in the pulp action-adventure and pseudoscience tradition, but with a good dose of horror mixed in, which brings me to my second thread – horror and weird fiction.
I have long enjoyed reading tales of terror and the supernatural, from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King to Edgar Allan Poe. King led me to Koontz and Barker and the great (and very underrated) McCammon in the late 80s and early 90s. For a time, I eagerly consumed many of the horror novels that were so popular in those years.
And then I stumbled onto Thomas Ligotti. This singular writer got under my skin and invaded my waking dreams like no other had before. Surreal and dream-like, his stories lingered in my mind and changed the way I looked at writing – and at the world. Bleak and pessimistic though his work is, I do not find that it depresses me. Rather, it is a bracing tonic against a world where too often we delude ourselves with illusions of meaning and purpose where none exists.
Ligotti, along with the classic authors and the late 20th century novelists mentioned above, got me to dig deeper into dark fiction. I discovered writers like T.E.D. Klein and had a renewed appreciation for the darker works of Lieber and Bradbury. I had long been a fan of the original Twilight Zone, which fit right in with these interests.
Not long after this deeper interest in horror developed, I picked up the massive short story anthology The Dark Descent. And that was when I discovered Robert Aickman, British author extraordinaire of what he dubbed his “strange stories,” odd tales where things are just a bit “off” in a way that is hard to pin down but certainly leaves an eerie, unsettling sensation on the reader.
All this eventually led me to the modern weird renaissance, with supremely talented writers like Laird Barron, Jon Padgett, Nathan Ballingrud, Livia Llewellyn, Brian Evenson, Paul Tremblay and many others who consistently put out excellent, compelling work.
So, how do these two threads reconcile? Can they intertwine and become one? Can pulp action heroes battle the forces of evil in a work of weird fiction? Of course, anything is possible, but it’s hard to imagine sustaining something like that. I’m currently working on a pulp action novel that incorporates horror elements – ancient beings a la Lovecraft, the eating of brains, etc. – but it’s hard to see this veering into the truly strange and off-putting territory of Ligotti or any of the writers I’ve mentioned above.
So for now, I think I will have to keep one foot in each camp. Even as I work on my pulpish novel, I’m regularly jotting down ideas about tears in the fabric of the universe that threaten to plunge us all into madness, or desperate people coming to terms with their end at the hands of brutal, unstoppable, unexplainable forces.
Perhaps one day I will come up with the perfect fusion of these two very different interests I have. In the meantime, I’ll just try to keep writing and covering both types of stories as best I can in my work.