Memories that Haunt and Linger, Composing, 30/07/2013

Of everything that My Son My Son What Have Ye Done suggests, one aspect on which I want to concentrate is how it depicts mental illness as a kind of haunting. Herzog never meant to depict what he called “clinical insanity,” giving an accurate picture of what medically goes wrong in a case of violently deranged mental illness. He wanted to create a kind of lyric poem of violent mental illness.

This post is the first in over three weeks about my fiction writing. For the moment, most of my projects in fiction are either with editors, under review, or still so nascent that I don’t have much to say. But Herzog’s film made me think about some of the themes in my novella that have become more obvious to me after I’ve gone back over the manuscript.

When it comes to my writing, I’m a meticulous planner. In terms of plot and character, all the points are very specifically assembled. And my novella, Under the Trees, Eaten, is the most tightly planned of them all. I wrote it in five months, the shortest time it has ever taken me to assemble a project of this size and detail. In its initial conception, and throughout writing, I had several key ideas in mind. First was its nature as a genre collision, or more accurately a genre explosion. This is another idea that I sourced from Phil Sandifer, that genre fiction best progresses not by executing genres, but by mashing them into each other and seeing what new narrative shapes emerge. His analysis of Rose, the first episode of the revived Doctor Who series, illustrates this technique in excruciating and fascinating detail.

Imagery related to ants is also very important for Under the
Trees, Eaten
. But this post isn't about ants.
Under the Trees, Eaten does this with the stories of H. P. Lovecraft. I was reading Lovecraft again for a philosophical essay I was working on in late Fall when the man who is now my editor contacted me to see if I had any novella-sized ideas. I read his email in the morning, and by the time I wrote back that afternoon, I had the entire book sketched out. It collides the structure and setting of a typical story in the style of Lovecraft with a middle-class intelligent female protagonist often created by Joss Whedon or Russell T. Davies. A Rose Tyler who lives in Boston, never met the Doctor, and became a property manager. She instead meets the mysterious man who takes her to a town that should not exist.

My central focus in designing the novella’s narrative and writing it in detail was the genre collision. The Lovecraft aesthetic is about our ordinary world being invaded and pressured by the totally alien, epic monstrosities that overwhelm the human. The story of Under the Trees, Eaten shows how the violence of this alien invasion is no match for the destructive force of humanity’s petty cruelties. Cthulhu’s power is abstract and empty compared to the visceral terror of domestic abuse or rape. 

Yet when I went back over my manuscript, another idea jumped out at me, which I hadn’t noticed before. I take this as a good sign, that a piece of writing contains so many interpretive possibilities that even its writer doesn’t see all of them at once. Under the Trees, Eaten also examines how we are haunted by our past: regrets, missed opportunities, personal tragedies, loss. The character whose actions are the catalyst for the main plot, the protagonist’s father, is haunted by the death of his wife to the point of mental instability. The protagonist herself is haunted by the death of her mother, and then the derangement and death of her father. This isn’t a spoiler: the first sentence of the first chapter describes her father’s funeral. This haunting transforms the world into a hostile place, filled with dangerous and destabilizing spaces. The protagonist’s legs collapse out from under her as she faints on entering her father’s apartment for the first time in years, which is paralleled at later, genuinely spoiler-constitutive, events. 

The traumas of her past weigh her down and halt her movement. And the arc of the novella is her regaining power over her past. Most stories about overcoming trauma I find quite unrealistic, because they tend to speak a language of getting rid of the past, leaving the tortuous parts of your history behind you. But one can’t leave the past behind this way. Your past isn’t like an article of clothing, but like a part of your body. Your past, your memory, makes you who you are. Her traumas are still heavy, and they are still with her, but she deals with those traumas in the way that I think most people do, or at least attempt to do, in real life. 

She grows strong enough to carry them.

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