Storyville: Writing the Grotesque
One of my favorite sub-genres, next to neo-noir and transgressive, is the grotesque. It’s actually quite similar. Let’s talk about what this style of writing is all about, and how it can help you to write better fiction and tap into your veiled weirdness.
In the dictionary, the word grotesque has origins in the Latin root grotto, which means, “hidden place.” Obviously this architectural term has other meanings when it comes to literature, this part of you that you keep a secret—your inner freak. Merriam’s dictionary goes on to define it as distorting “the natural into absurdity, ugliness, or caricature.” It’s also synonymous with monster, bizarre, unexpected, atypical, and unnatural.
WHY LABEL AND DEFINE
Many people will say, “Richard, who cares what you label your fiction? Why do we even need to talk about this, trot out all of these rules and definitions and categories of fiction?” Thanks for asking—I’ll tell you why. Part of being a writer is understanding your writing, your point of view, the motivation behind the work you do. You need to see where your work fits in amongst the masters. And while you’re at it, you will certainly be studying these experts, reading their novels and short stories, absorbing their greatness. And within each genre (or sub-genre) you will also study the components that define that genre: how to create tension and disgust in horror; how to build worlds in fantasy; how to interact with technology when writing science fiction; how to slowly reveal the conflict and answers in mysteries and crime; how to tap into emotional truths when writing literary fiction.
Part of evolving as an author is finding your own voice. But while you are doing that, you need to know what makes a horror story, what makes a story magical realism, what exactly splatterpunk is. Why? So when an editor calls for a story, or when a themed anthology is looking for work, or when a magazine defines itself as wanting to publish certain genres, you’ll know what they are talking about. When you send off your writing, whether it is via Duotrope or some other means, you certainly already know what the main genres are: fantasy, science fiction, horror, crime, mystery, western, romance, erotica, YA, and literary. But it’s always good to try new things, to stretch yourself and find new audiences, which could be comprised of fans of bizarre, transgressive, neo-noir, and grotesque fiction. Study, learn, absorb, and then create your own work—understand the rules, and then break them.
A LITTLE HISTORY
In literary fiction, the grotesque has evolved over the years, originating in stories and fables, in mythology. What a great place to create these monsters, these aberrations, these fascinating beasts, gods, and mortals. I’m reminded of the cyclops, Medusa, the hydra, and of course—the kraken. I wonder how many kids watched Clash of the Titans (the original, or the re-release) just waiting to see what the hell a kraken was? I think the same applies for other more contemporary beasts and urban legends: the chupacabra, the werewolf, and the yeti, for example. There’s a reason that vampires and zombies are so captivating, why we are interested in a character like Gollum, and I’ll get to that in a second. The carnivals of the 1920s and 1930s are another atmosphere where the grotesque was commonplace: the sideshow freaks such as the bearded woman, the elephant man, Siamese twins, and the lion-faced boy.
GROTESQUE, NOT MERELY DISGUSTING
What makes a character more than a monster, more than a villain grotesque is the pairing of disgust with empathy. We see Gollum as a failing mortal, he has made his choices, and while he is certainly disgusting, a horribly disfigured creature, he was once innocent. And he still has feelings, still desires the ring, his obsession—his precious. We have compassion for these outsiders, whether they are Edward Scissorhands, or Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, or the variety of strange creatures in Alice in Wonderland. It’s a built-in conflict—the Beast from Beauty and the Beast, the desire for the monster to change, to evolve, to become more human, more forgiving, to find love. You find this a lot in fairy tales and fables. We root for the abomination to renounce the inherent evil within, and change.
THE GROTESQUE AS AN EVENT
When reading an article by Flannery O’Connor on the grotesque last year, I realized for the first time that this term doesn’t just refer to people—it can also be an event. Written in 1960, her essay titled "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" is a brilliant perspective on her Southern Gothic roots and stories. If Gothic fiction taps into the combination of horrific and romantic, Southern Gothic merely takes those trappings and moves them to a specific place and time. These stories examine the values of the south, while showcasing flawed, disturbing, and lost characters, as well as decayed and derelict settings. Within that window of focus we often find the grotesque. This particular passage really spoke to me:
In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected. It is this kind of realism that I want to consider.
These are the kinds of stories I love to write. Not only do I like the transgressive (a sense of anarchy and loneliness, man vs. the world) and neo-noir (the “new-black” of contemporary dark fiction), but I like a tale that hinges on a moment in time, a tipping point, that inciting incident that we talk about when creating a dramatic structure to hold up our dark musings. You don’t have to go far to see this in Flannery O’Connor’s work. You can look at the aforementioned Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The Misfit is certainly a dark character, but you can also look at the grandmother in the story, her hypocritical behavior, her slanted view of her family and the Misfit, as she gasps in her final words to him, “You’re one of my own children.” It’s disturbing—and powerful. The same goes for her work in “Good Country People,” when a traveling salesman steals the wooden leg of Joy, the entire scene in the hayloft a strange unfolding of events.
THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE GROTESQUE WRITER
Flannery O’Connor said one other thing that really resonated with me, and it speaks to the perspective of an author who chooses to write the grotesque:
…if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don't understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than in probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not.”
This is what draws me towards the grotesque in fiction. I love creating a mystery, something to be solved—something to be revealed over time. It’s much more compelling to me to focus on those things we don’t understand: why do we hurt each other; how do we lose control; what is satisfying about vengeance; can we survive a broken heart? I find the expected, the probable, to be a boring and well-trodden path. This is why I rarely plot out a story in advance. I want to start with an idea, a philosophy, a character and then see how they react to a tough situation—a dying child, a cheating spouse, a failed dream, a violent destiny. By exploring these situations and characters, I plum my own personal depths, my demons, the failures I’ve had—the mistakes I’ve made. These stories speak to me—these grotesqueries and revelations.
I hope that some of these aspects of the grotesque will speak to you, as they have spoken to me. In the end, yes, you are correct, we don’t need these labels, these categories—these definitions. But, be a student anyway, keep learning, keep absorbing—apply these inspirations and motivations to your own work. In the end it doesn’t really matter if an author like Stephen King is considered a horror writer—if you know and love his work, all that matters is that you enjoy his work, what he does to you, how he works you over, spirits you away, and brings you back a bit bruised, but intact—and maybe, evolved. In time, you will simply be who you are. Your fans will simply say, “I really can’t wait to read a new Richard Thomas story, or a Rebecca Jones-Howe story, or a Bryan Howie tale.” They will come to your work because it moves them—so find your voice, and write what matters to you—that is the goal.
This week, I'm going to link the essay that Flannery O’Connor wrote, "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" and I hope you’ll read it. If you have a chance, also pick up her short story collections, even if it’s only at the library. I’m a big fan. I’ll also link to “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
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