Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

Talking Shapes: The ‘Cycle’

In the first few weeks of his writers workshop, Tom Spanbauer used to hold weekend work parties.  Workshop members would show up on Saturday morning, wearing gloves and boots and we’d help Tom clear the littered property around his house in Southwest Portland.  We pulled blackberry vines and hauled rusted metal to the dump for recycling.  We raked up broken glass and bagged piles of garbage.  Tom made tuna sandwiches, and we quit by the late afternoon.  No one was paid, and we still had to pay our workshop dues – back then, twenty dollars per week to attend the Thursday night meeting around Tom’s kitchen table, which grew into the dining room, then the living room, until the workshop broke into two separate nights to accommodate all his students.

The purpose of the Saturday work parties was, in addition to landscaping Tom’s yard, to introduce writers to each other and give them a way to work together until they became friends.  If we could see each other as people, instead of just other competitive, needy writers, we wouldn’t be so frightened and defensive in workshop.

People, Tom said, tend to see  themselves as outsiders, especially writers.  And they tend to see other people are united and comfortable together.  Anyone approaching a group is certain that group is bonded and sure it will exclude them.  Saturday work parties were a way to introduce ourselves before the spooky, vulnerable process of submitting our work for discussion on Thursday nights.

This tendency to feel excluded, and consider the world as united against us, maybe that’s why ‘Cycle’ stories are so popular. 

To define my term – and I’m the only person who calls them ‘cycle’ stories – I’ll just list a few.  From my shelf of DVD movies and their original books, the stories include Burnt Offerings, The Haunting of Hill House, The Hunger, The Stepford Wives, The Wicker Man, The Lottery, The Sentinel, and Ghost Ship.  In each story, an innocent person happens upon what looks like a bright new beginning, a fresh start, and an escape from the misery of the world.  The victim flees to this sanctuary, then discovers it’s a trap and this entire new reality has been organized to destroy victims as a means of perpetuating itself.

In Burnt Offerings, a summer blockbuster book and a campy Karen Black movie, a  harried city family finds a crumbling country mansion they can rent for cheap.  Over the course of their isolated summer – and isolation plays a key role in all Gothic stories – the family members begin to fight each other, some become ill, some go crazy, but they realize that while they suffer, the house has begun to regenerate itself.  They try to escape, but it’s too late.  In their panicked, weakened state, the house keeps them trapped and digests them.  At the end of the ‘cycle’ we realize this is a process that must take place regularly in order to keep the house intact.  Dozens of families have been eaten by this house, and dozens more will be.  We only have to see one ‘cycle’ of this process to extrapolate the past and future.

The formula changes slightly.  In The Wicker Man, a police detective goes to an isolated island to investigate a murder, then finds himself trapped and sacrificed.  In The Lottery, a housewife arrives late and joking at a village gathering where she finds herself the human to be sacrificed in hope of a bumper corn crop.

Almost always, the steps in the process are the same.

First, the victim discovers a sanctuary.  A happy new day.  In The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor Lance has been caring for her ill mother for years.  Now, the mother is dead and Eleanor is middle-aged and sleeping on the sofa of her smug, married sister.  A doctor writes to invite Eleanor to an experiment in a ‘haunted house,’ and she jumps at the chance to escape her dull life.  In The Sentinel, a fashion model wants an apartment of her own, unfortunately she finds this great apartment in a building filled with demons.  A key clue is:  the sanctuary is always really, really under priced.

Second, the victim rationalizes and denies the sinister events that start to happen.  In Ghost Ship each of the victims refuses to believe the ghosts that appear to seduce or warn them.  In The Hunger, the victim is so charmed by the vampire that she dismisses the vampire’s attention and gifts as normal.  “She’s just that way,” Sara says, “she’s… European.”  No, actually, she gave you the gold necklace because she’s a vampire.

Third, people start dying.  Yes, it’s time to slaughter your secondary characters.  In The Stepford Wives, kill the best friends and replace them with robots.  In Burnt Offerings, kill old Aunt Elizabeth.  But keep your main victim in denial.

Fourth, cripple and trap your victim.  Even if they’re not marooned in an isolated country manor house, the doctor can still prescribe them pills that will sedate and slow them.  That’s why Misty gets her un-broken leg wrapped in plaster in Diary, another ‘cycle’ story.

Fifth, let your victim gradually discover undeniable proof of the conspiracy and the ultimate doom.  Let Joanna in Stepford Wives find proof that her neighbors weren’t always perfect housewives.  Of course, this is always too little knowledge, too late, but…

Sixth, let your victim just try to escape.  People are dead.  The victim is drugged or sick or crippled.  The trap is closing.  But the protagonist should always make a last-ditch effort to survive.

Seventh, show the aftermath.  Ideally, show the next victim being led into the trap, thus beginning a new ‘cycle’ of the story.  And show some lingering trace of the last victim, just to confirm her fate to the audience.  In The Haunting of Hill House, the book’s opening passage is repeated, but revised to include Eleanor, now dead and absorbed into the identity of the house.  In Burnt Offerings, the victims’ photographs appear on a table, amid a sea of dozens of now-dead people.  In Ghost Ship, we see the gold ‘bait’ being loaded aboard a new ship, ready to generate a new ‘cycle’ of the story.

Sometimes the ‘cycle’ ends in consumption:  the house as Venus fly trap, or the vampire.  Sometimes the ‘cycle’ is an experiment, like in my book Haunted, where the villain hopes to process through people until he produces a specific outcome: a ghost.  Sometimes, the ‘cycle’ is a sacrifice or gesture intended to bring good fortune, like in The Lottery or The Wicker Man.  But if done in the classic formula, it presents a single episode in a chain of identical episodes you can imagine stretching forward and backward in time.  It depicts an unending, systematic horror.

One reason why these stories resonate so well is that they portray our worst fear:  The world is an organized conspiracy to kill you.  Everyone at the party is united in hating YOU.  They only pretend to like you, just long enough to use and discard you.  You’ve trusted, and now you’ll die for your trust and faith.  You idiot.

Another reason the stories resonate is the way they depict cruelty and destruction as an automatic process.  No one questions the process, they only know it works so they perform it.  They stone the victim to death.  The individual must be destroyed so the rest of humanity can survive.  My pet theory is that Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery was an attack on the military draft system: lotteries where someone would always die violently, against their will, to further the goals of the larger society.

Likewise in Stepford, the men don’t fret over killing their wives, they just want the end result of sexy, obedient robots with big boobs.

Maybe that’s why we’ll always see new ‘cycle’ stories, and we’ll always enjoy them in a bittersweet way, knowing the protagonist will fail.  Because… No matter how well you dress, someone will always be ‘randomly selected’ for further security screening at the airport gate.  No matter how hard you study and perform, if your teacher grades on a ‘curve,’ someone will always get an F.  Someone will always get stuck in the hotel room beside the noisy elevator.  A few individuals will always be sacrificed for the rest of society.  Life isn’t fair or perfect.

Maybe the pleasure of ‘cycle’ stories is watching that shit happen to someone else, instead of you.

For homework, look around for examples of the ‘cycle’ story.  And look for variations.   I didn’t include The Shining or Christine because their plots don’t depict a repeating ritual for attracting and destroying victims, but both books have elements of the ‘cycle’ story.  The Overlook Hotel comes alive as its victims suffer, and Christine rebuilds herself as her driver goes nuts, but neither seem to be part of a larger, societal conspiracy.  Nor does one of my favorites, Session 9.  Again, look for other ‘cycle’ examples.

Also, note how the ‘thumbnail’ and the ‘O’ form of story telling don’t seem to work for a ‘cycle’ story.  The ‘cycle’ relies on a gradual, then sudden ‘reveal’ of information – “the house is renewing itself” – so you can’t reveal too much at the beginning.  Sure, you can plant clues to suggest the doom – the usual clue is the lingering presence of the last victim.  But the beginning of a ‘cycle’ story is always about seducing the reader in the same way the victim is being enrolled and seduced.  The brighter, the better.  The first pages of the story should promise a deliverance from all misery and suffering and frustration.  From that point, this will be a fairly linear story. 

As a writing exercise, write a total escape fantasy for yourself.   Be it the perfect lover (The Hunger) the perfect home (Burnt Offerings) or loads of money (Ghost Ship), develop a story opening where you discover the way to obtain your greatest desire.  Or, consider a scenario about finding your dream job.  With great pay, glamorous perks, and fun duties – now, what’s the incredible downside?  Develop the history and culture that surround that goal, and try to recognize how you’re being courted and seduced in order to power some hidden, evil cause.

Okay, ‘evil’ is debatable.  Half the time, I find myself rooting for the evil trap, and not wanting the victim to escape.

Again, no storytelling form is perfect.  We’ll discuss a few more shapes before the end of this year.  As you read or watch stories, be aware of the ‘shapes’ the author uses to present the information.  Notice how a specific shape presents each story to its best effect.  A complicated story that spans decades will benefit from a “Citizen Kane” thumbnail on the front end.  A story with a slow initial ‘build’ will catch more attention if the opening is a grafted moment of excitement from the end, and you present the story in a long flashback ‘O’ shape.  By staying aware of the possibilities, you can present your work in the ‘shape’ that serves it best. 

The story Guts has been included in this year’s anthology, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, published by St. Martin’s Press.  As a feeling, the honor compares only to the big Percodans I took after my wisdom teeth were yanked.  Like a warm, sunny day inside your mouth.  Just looking at the book’s cover and seeing my name sandwiched between Joyce Carol Oates and Peter Straub leaves me a little dizzy.

My thanks to everyone who came on-line to participate in the Barnes and Noble book club.  With the price of gasoline rising and the world so upset at the moment, I hope you find peace and strength in practicing your craft, and working with other writers.

As always, thank you for reading my work.

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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