Provenance

My Muse is abundant. She has an orchard full of crisp apples, plump blackberries, and chestnut trees laden with dreams of braziers on damp Parisian streets. At the very edge of the grounds, beyond the field of lavender and the beds of profligate zinnias, there is a bee hive. Five-pound glass jars full of golden honey slumber in the root cellar, summer’s sweetness saved. These are the elements of inspiration, the ingredients of artistic creation.

I have written before about wondering where stories come from, and have told you that when I write, it feels like a conduit opens up and the story is transmitted to me. It is a little like waking up each morning and finding a basket of fresh produce and a bouquet of wildflowers tied with twine on my doorstep. It is beautiful and humbling. Who am I to receive this largess?

More importantly, is any of it mine? Yes, I spend the time stringing words together. I give them expression, but the underlying form of the story is something that I believe – and quite literally feel – is beyond me. The story is independent of me. It exists whether I write it or not. It is a Platonic idea that my words only aspire to approach. In that sense, I am a conveyance, not a creator.

This leads to all sorts of awkward questions clustered around the concept of ownership. Can a story belong to any one person, even the author? What is the provenance of a story? Do I own the fruits of my Muse’s inspiration?

Maybe the most I can claim is that I own the final product because I harvested it, cleaned it up, and shipped it to market. I try to tell myself I am charging for the convenience of the packaging; i.e., you could have extracted this Platonic form from the ether yourself, but I have extracted it, translated it to English, and made it readable on a Kindle. I tell myself that because otherwise, I can’t justify what right I have to charge for something that belongs to the universe. I could solve the problem by not charging, but it costs me money to transfer the story from ether to Kindle, and I’m an obligate financial being like any other working Joette. I could solve the problem by not sharing the stories, but that seems even more of a blatant travesty. How selfish would that be, to take the bushels of apples, the jars of honey, the fresh roasted and still fingertip- scalding chestnuts and then keep them all to myself? If I did that, the apples would grow mealy, the honey would crystallize, and the chestnuts would grow cold and then molder. It would be wasteful and wrong to withhold the bounty. My Muse deserves better than that, and the stories she gives me deserve the highest-quality production I can afford. The question of ownership aside, it is my duty and my honor to share what I have gathered in the orchard of my inspiration.

 

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All Round the Table, “What is Horror?”

Horror is the implacable reality of death. I once heard the phrase, “All love stories end in death.” I would simplify the statement, shorten it.

All ends in death.

As a genre, horror embraces that truism. It may do it in a nearly slapstick way, overdosing the audience with gore and gross. It may do it in a calculated, bloodless way, and approach the cold reality by gut-wrenching degrees. Horror pays homage to the innate and powerless truth of our existence: all ends in death.

Marie Loughin is chief of  The Emissaries of Strange (TESSpecFic), a speculative fiction group of which I am a member. Marie posed the question: what is the difference between horror and dark fantasy? The Emissaries are taking a round-table discussion approach to answering Marie’s question, each of us posting a response on our own blog on a predetermined day. Today is my day, and I am the fifth member of TESSpecFic to reply.

Marie’s answer is Aristotelian, giving a categorization of elements that must be present for a work to meet her definition of horror. I challenge anyone to come up with a work of horror that does not contain at least one, if not several of her elements. Marie’s elements are:

1)   Creepy atmosphere.

2)   Suspenseful.

3)   Victims experience psychological trauma (i.e. they are aware and helpless).

4)   Inspires fear and/or dread in reader.

Jaye approaches the question from a more Platonic stance. She locates the definition somewhere beyond the bounds of plot or story elements. The ultimate determination of whether or not something is horror, for Jaye, is to be found in the effect it has upon the reader. A work is horror if the reader is left with the question: “How do you live with that?”

Paul takes a Utilitarian approach to answering the question, stating that the purpose of any genre label is to help guide potential readers to a particular type of book. Definitions of “horror” or of “dark fiction” fall to the side, replaced by the  practical question of how to least mislead potential readers. The difficulty is that the definitions the publishing industry uses may not match the definitions that the general public applies; muddy as they are, these are the linguistic waters upon which our marketing terms float – or sink.

Kim chimes in with  characteristic metaphysical flourish, giving a response as Phenomenological as they come. She says the roots of what can be defined as horror are found in the psychological reaction of a person to reading a particular work. Horror is a core emotion, and as such is subjective. Like Jaye, Kim takes the onus of definition and puts it out there, in the reader. However, Kim agrees with Paul that labeling has a purpose, and feels the angst of trying to find the right term to categorize her work.

I argue that to fully define horror, you need to include the work and the audience. A horror story is the sum of its elements plus the effect it has on the reader. Of course, the same could be said of romance, sci-fi, dark fantasy. The difference between genres, then, would seem to be given by the specific, intended effect a collected set of story elements has on the reader.

I don’t mean to say that only the author’s intentions matter; no, the elements that the author arranged will have varying effects on different readers, although the general reaction might be in the same vein. In that sense, I agree with Paul that the labels matter because they help readers winnow their choices. I have a general impression of what I’ll get when I pick up a supernatural thriller, or a gaslight romance, or a steampunk fantasy. Do I think that a particular label, even these compound varieties in vogue of late, give me the full picture of what I will experience within a given book? Of course not. It is a label. It is a guidepost. It is not the substance of the work, it is not the thing-in-itself. I am happy to find that my gaslight romance has a dash of horror, or that my horror has a sprinkling of steampunk. The wonderful thing about art – and life, for that matter – is that labels can’t contain the essence of the thing. When it comes to books, not even the book itself can contain what it truly is. A story, no matter how labeled, does not come into true existence until it has interacted with a reader’s psyche. Only then is it real, and only then can it horrify.

To answer Marie, I would say that horror has the intent of making the reader feel the inevitable approach of death. Dark Fantasy, to me, would have the intent of giving the reader the option to believe there is something beyond death, something beyond the boundaries of our implacable outcome. By my own definitions, I would have to class Marie’s novel, Valknut: The Binding, as Dark Fantasy.

Please visit the other Emissaries for the full round-table discussion  – and don’t forget to mark your calendars to catch Penelope and Jonathan’s upcoming posts!

Marie Loughin: Just what the heck is “Horror,” anyway, and how is it different from Dark Fantasy?

Jaye Manus: What is Horror? The Answer is in the Question

Paul Dail: Potential Perils of the Horror Label… or … The Difficulties of Defining a Genre

Kim Koning: Shivers down my spine…

Jonathan D. Allen: Monday, May 14

Penelope Crowe: Tuesday, May 15

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