One of the lovely things about writing is that often your research involves reading other stories. Not to lift work, of course, but to understand tricks of the trade, analyze what worked, or didn’t, and try to figure out why. One of the key things War of Shadow needs, in certain parts, is an element of creepy. I want the setting to feel slightly uncomfortable as the characters move through the landscape. So, in an effort to understand how other writers do it, and discover tricks to how it might be adapted for my ow purposes, I started by picking up Coraline by Neil Gaiman. There are other books in the queue, but that was the first. It’s a book I should have picked up a long time ago. I did see the movie just after it came out, and thought it was very good and pretty darn creepy.
First off, my opinion of the book – Inside the first couple chapters, I felt as though it was more of a sketch, and left me wanting. However, the story really picks up the second time Coraline goes into the world in the other flat. All throughout, the imagery is very good, and the writing excellent. As I went through, I’m not sure I felt particularly unsettled, or creeped-out. The last few chapters were just suspenseful enough, not overdone, and I was compelled to go on to the next page.
From the perspective of a writer, if I take only one thing away from the book, is the suspense at the end. That said, I did read it for the creepy, and I have to say that I don’t know what I was expecting to feel while reading the book. Perhaps that I’d lose a bit of sleep thinking about a disembodied hand because I’m waiting for it to scrabble out from under the bed? Maybe find my self thinking twice about opening a locked door in case I might find button-eyed mockeries of a loved one? No, I didn’t feel any of that. But was that the point? Probably not.
In verbally ruminating upon the story, my wife reminded me that Coraline was meant to be for younger readers. From that perspective, had I read this when I was a child, it probably would have kept me from sleeping. However, as an adult not so much. The reason, I think, I didn’t find it as creepy as I may have been expecting is because Coraline does not, except for one place, seem to be in any imminent danger of certain death from the Beldam. It sort of feels like this is a possible outcome, at some distant point in the future, not an immediate threat. I sort of wonder if that distinction doesn’t tend to temper the ‘creepy’ for me. I also wonder if this was not by design, to make the story a little less horrifying for young readers.
After having read this book, did I learn anything about writing creepy?
I think so. First off, you need to rely on the principle of “things aren’t what they seem.” I can see this being difficult for the writer to pull off in a fantasy novel because the reader already isn’t familiar with the world. I think it’s one of the reasons I’m having some trouble with it. There are so many things being introduced, this concept can be a bit of a challenge to really highlight. How does the reader know that we’re dealing with something that’s not quite right? In urban fantasy, where the world is generally the same as the one we’re sitting in, you can rely on that familiarity to set the bar for ‘normal.’ In this case, unexpected things are going to seem unusual to the reader, and the character only needs to react in a manner generally consistent with things not being as they should be. I think the same trick can be used when you have an unusual world. The reader will have to rely on cues from the characters. Elements of the world that are mundane to the characters should read that way. When things are supposed to be creepy, they should be contrasted with things that the character takes as normal, as well as what the reader would consider normal.
Another thing that I was reminded of while reading this book is the choice of words used for imagery. In one particular example from Coraline, Neil Gaiman uses the look of a spider to describe the color of the other mother’s skin. What he did there was use something generally regarded as uncomfortable (I mean who likes spiders, really?) in the description when other descriptions would suffice. Of course, this is just how it’s done, although it’s also easy to lose sight of when you’re trying to manage some 100K words of text. Think about any particular story that has a bit of creepy to it. Inevitably there are sentences about slithering snakes and the jerky motions of spiders and the like. However, I also think that this can be overdone.
For now, I’m not quite ready to begin going back and polishing in this particular flavor, I’d like to finish a few other books for research, and I’d rather focus my attention on finishing up the first drafts of the last 2 – 3 chapters of War of Shadows (I really need to start working out a name that I plan to use, or this is going to stick.) and also finish fixing up the bits that need help.