Storyville: Supernatural and Speculative Fiction—Getting Weird Without Losing Your Audience
To be honest, I often get bored writing straight literary fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I think it's a challenge, and there are some fantastic journals and magazines out there, but many of them will just not take a story if you do anything outside the realm of the realistic. In order to make your writing more marketable, and to stretch yourself creatively—to keep from getting bored—let’s get weird, shall we?
What does it mean to be supernatural, to be speculative? I’m going to try and avoid looking up the words in a dictionary, or hitting up Wikipedia, and just speak from my own experience, what they mean to me. To be “supernatural” just means to be MORE than natural—Superman implying he is a super man, more than a man. So anything that is out of the ordinary can be considered supernatural. I also think of “natural” as coming from “nature.” Speculative fiction tends to refer to fantasy, science fiction, and horror as well as anything weird. So really, if you take a look at all of these words, the one that keeps popping into my head is weird (or strange) which can also include the surreal.
(NOTE: Okay, many years later, I thought I'd look up the definitions to add depth here, so here is Wikipedia. Supernatural typically refers to unexplained or non-natural forces and phenomena. Speculative fiction is a broad category of fiction encompassing genres with certain elements that do not exist in the real world, often in the context of supernatural, futuristic or other imaginative themes. These include, but are not limited to, science fiction, fantasy, horror, superhero fiction, alternate history, utopian and dystopian fiction, and supernatural fiction, as well as combinations thereof (e.g. science fantasy).)
One genre, or sub-genre that has really gotten my attention lately is magical realism. Why? Well, it allows me to write fiction that can find a broad audience—appealing to both the literary as well as the fantastic. It’s based in reality, but takes a strange turn someplace. Maybe you have a woman that dies and comes back to life as a group of fireflies, but otherwise, the story is set in a hut, on a hill, and depicts a fairly normal life? Maybe a boy misses his father so much he builds a rocket out of Tinkertoys. That’s not so strange, right? But what if at the end of the story the rocket actually launched, leaving behind scorch marks and broken bits of wood? Everyone thinks of Marquez and Borges. I think of authors like Karen Russell, Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison, and Aimee Bender. I mean, just the title The Girl in the Flammable Skirt implies something strange, dangerous and kind of wonderful, right? What separates it from straight fantasy? It’s the realism—the average days and settings, the normal people in typical lives. If it was fantasy, it would be set in a world very different from ours from the minute it started. If it was science fiction, we’d see a lot of science and technology—maybe a distant colony on a new planet, perhaps. And magical realism is never explained, merely accepted. F/SF is explained at great length.
The main difference between magical realism and surrealism is that magical realism has a focus on the banal, whereas the surreal is often focused on hallucinatory visions and a slippery reality. One novel that comes to mind immediately is Naked Lunch, by William Burroughs. There is so much going on in that book, so many breaks in reality that you never really know what is going on. A lot of times in surreal writing there are drugs, so that the hallucinations make sense, as far as their origin. It can also be attributed to possession, by demons or other dark forces, or even split personalities. And many times it deals with a mental break—from an accident, some purposeful event (surgery, alteration), or even genetics.
FABLES AND MYTHOLOGY
Another way to bring the strange into your fiction is to take up classic fables or mythology and make them your own, more contemporary. What exactly is Little Red Riding Hood all about—a dark male wolf preying on an innocent girl. I don’t think it takes much imagination to see how that could be turned into a modern story. What is a wolf, exactly, and what is innocent? Pantheon Magazine has been doing themed issues for their magazine since their inception. What does it mean to write a story where the idea of Dionysus (god of wine and ecstasy) is at the center of the narrative? What about Aphrodite (goddess of love, beauty, and pleasure)? For me, the first meant a man going to an underground sex club and auditioning for a part, being directed by a dominatrix to do what she wishes. For the latter, it meant a single mother in the suburbs who can’t keep a man, her desire and need so great, that it scares away most mortal men. Sure, a nymphomaniac might sound exciting, at first, until you find out your girlfriend is sneaking into alleys on the sly, with other women, or playing fluffer for a photo shoot, without your knowledge. In theory, of course—this is merely conjecture. If you look at Grimm’s fairy tales, for instance, you’ll see that many of them are not sweet stories to be told to children—kids roasted in an oven, babies snatched, and hands chopped off—some dark stuff for sure. Whatever the fable or myth, happy or sad, see if you can innovate these classic stories and make them your own. And be sure to look to other cultures, less known stories, other than Greco-Roman tales. Look to Africa, Asia, the Arctic, Nordic myths, etc.
What the hell is this, you say? It’s assigning human traits to otherwise non-human elements, objects, or animals. That Little Red Riding Hood from earlier, that’s an example—the wolf speaking, and acting as if he’s human. A talking river or tree, maybe. Could be Watership Down, Alice in Wonderland, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, or Japanese manga, like Squid Girl. In the firefly story I mentioned earlier, there are also wolves. What makes them more than wolves, in a later story set in the same world, is when they bond together to move a large tree limb, and spare our protagonist's life. When they behave in ways that are not normal, that are human, they hint at something more—a curse maybe, a punishment, a previous life. There are a million ways to do this, so whether it’s assigning a spirit to the wind, a face to a campfire, or human qualities to your pets, it’s up to you to take your story into these new directions.
SPIRITS, DEMONS, AND GHOSTS
Another way to tap into the supernatural is to introduce entities from beyond the grave. A staple of the horror genre, in both film and literature, these creatures can go a long way towards creating tension, exacting revenge, or maybe just finding a way to move on and leave this mortal coil behind. When I think of some of the literature that scared me the most, whether it’s The Shining or The Exorcist, a lot of those books involve spirits, demons, and ghosts. It really taps into my personal fears that if there is a God, there must be a Satan; if there are angels, good spirits, then there must be demons, or bad spirits. While you can certainly trot out a demon all covered in red leathery flesh, with his horns prominently displayed, and a long curving tail with a spike at the end, what scares me more are the subtle ways to depict possession. It really depends on your audience—everything from Hubert Selby’s The Demon, to Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, to Sara Gran's Come Closer. The same goes for ghosts. Are the spirits good or bad, are they there to ask for forgiveness or right a wrong? Look at the range from A Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson to Peter Straub's Ghost Story to The Grip of It by Jac Jemc. By balancing the tension of the limited human characters in your story or novel with the seemingly invincible spirit, ghost, or demon, you have a story that is going to be hypnotic from the beginning—if you do it right.
Another way to craft a weird story is by tapping into the bizarre. There is plenty of bizarre fiction out there, which typically deals with the satirical or absurd. Why even bother with reality, why not go straight to the strange? I mean, just look at a few of these titles: The Baby Jesus Butt Plug: A Fairytale, The Haunted Vagina, and Satan Burger. And that’s just the work of Carlton Mellick III. If you can imagine the deformed love child of William Burroughs and Dr. Seuss, you are well on your way towards writing bizarre. I’ve written only one story that I consider to be bizarre, and it involved a couple that has a mundane sex life. They get new body parts, a strange mix of different animals, until eventually they can’t even leave their apartment, and are captured by the very doctor that performed their surgeries, selling them to a Japanese zoo. It was titled "Animal Magnetism," and was my first published story—at the now defunct Opium.
I’ve listed only a few ways here that you can stretch yourself as an author, how to get into the whole new weird movement—a mixture of terror and wonder. But what I haven’t elaborated on is HOW you keep that audience, across all of these strange, fascinating, and unique stories. I’ve saved this for the end, because it’s the same no matter which of these supernatural and speculative methods you use, no matter what world or protagonist or myth you perpetuate. You need to find a way to get your audience to relate. You need to find the emotion in each of these stories, the conflict and resolution of the everyman, the superman, the mortal, and the god. You can’t get weird just for the sake of being weird (even in bizarro fiction), you must still focus on the classic structures and challenges—what is the motivation of your protagonist, what are they fighting against, what problem do they need to solve, and in the end, did you tell the story you promised to tell? We want to be inspired, we want to be warned, we want to learn, and we want to survive. Find a way to do these things, and it doesn’t matter if you are focusing on a rabid dog, a possessed little girl, or a momentary void in the universe. We can only care if we can understand the emotions (love, loss, sacrifice, desire), if we can find sympathy or empathy, and root for or against the powers of your story. So be as strange and unique as you want, just make sure that your story still has heart.
READING LIST: Consider China Mieville (especially Perdido Street Station), Jeff VanderMeer (especially Annihilation), and Brian Evenson (especially his novella The Warren), as well as Kathy Koja (The Cipher), Micaela Morrissette (love her story, "The Familiars,"), Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, Gemma Files, and Karin Tidbeck.
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Great stuff in this one. Thank you, Richard.
Love this. Fun little nuggets of writing prompts hidden within a post. Can't beat it!
So glad you included the bizarro section. Your article helped to confirm my second novel may be on the right track, as a bizarre minimalist story of food, aliens dressed as angels, and infatuation with death, with the focus being on the characters' relationships with each other.
As always, an education in a nutshell.
thanks, everyone. hope it helps. was worried that this wandered a little bit.
Finally! I've been looking everywhere for such concise and informative definitions. Thank you!
thanks, mandy! you just made my day.