Sunday, February 27, 2011

Can Dark Shed Light?


I got my start in the Christian fiction market. It was a natural fit for me because I've always been interested in the great questions surrounding life, the universe, and everything––what theologian Paul Tillich called matters of "ultimate concern." (And what Douglas Adams called 42).

Basically, how do we figure out this journey we're all on?

In college I loved philosophy, though I didn't major in it. I took a much more practical major, film. But all through college and after, I continued to read philosophy and theology. Love Plato. Love Pascal. Love the Stoics. I tried reading Kant but my head exploded. Aquinas was tough but fair. I've tangled with Nietzsche and the existentialists.  

The point is, I guess, that I just find compelling the threads of great thoughts as they wind down through the centuries.

Even now, with a general market publisher (Hachette) for my Try series, I find my characters involved in the big questions. Ty Buchanan is a lawyer whose fiancée is killed on page one of the first book, sending him reeling spiritually and every other way. He is befriended by an African American priest and a basketball playing nun who have one view of things. He hangs out at a coffee place run by Barton C. "Pick" McNitt, a former philosophy professor at Cal State who went insane, recovered, and now pushes caffeine and raises butterflies for funerals. He's an atheist.

Buchanan finds himself bobbing and weaving between these characters even as he's trying to find out the truth behind his fiancée's death. 

And so it goes. The fiction I love best has characters going through inner as well as outer challenges, dealing with a dark world and trying to find their way around in it.

My recent release, Watch Your Back, has generated some responses from my established readers. One comment is that the tales seemed "dark" and unlike my previous work. This, I note, in spite of the fact that I do not use gratuitous elements in my fiction. I like to write in a style that would fit a 1940's film noir (noir, of course, is French for dark).

So here's why I chose the material I did for Watch Your Back: Dark tales can often be the most moral of all.

I believe in what John Gardner, the late novelist and writing teacher, said in an interview in Paris Review. Good art is about "creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life that is worth pursuing." He contrasted this with art that is just "staring, because it is fashionable, into the dark abyss." And staying in the abyss. That doesn't interest me.

As I look back at my work, the thread that seems to run through all of it is the pursuit of justice. Maybe that's in part because of how I was raised, by an L.A. lawyer who fought for justice for the indigent as well as for paying clients.

Now, a dark story, in my view, ought to explore the consequences of human actions. Indeed, isn't that what Greek tragedy was all about? By showing the audience the catastrophe of hubris, the theater was training citizens in virtue. There was a cosmic justice in the tragic fall.

Cut to: Stephen King. I would argue that King's "dark" fiction is highly moral. Much of it shows, for example, what happens when one trucks with evil, even with good motives. Pet Sematary is perhaps the most lucid example of this. He has many others. I would call your attention especially to the fabulous mini-series he wrote, Storm of the Century. I won't give away any spoilers, but you ought to watch it to see how this sort of thing is really done.

So, in my stories in this latest collection, you will find criminals, rip-off artists, adulterers and liars. But I believe you will also see I am not dwelling in the dark. When characters get it "wrong," that's another way of showing what's right.

On the other hand, I'm not being didactic. I'm not a professor. I'm a writer whose first job is to keep you turning the pages. My favorite writers of all time do that for me, and then leave me thinking about the book when it's over. I don't know if you can ask much more of a fiction writer than that.

And that's what I try to do in my fiction, including Watch Your Back.

So who are some of the writers who have taken you through a dark story with a candle in their hands?

17 comments:

  1. In his famous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler writes:

    "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man."

    He then goes on into the classic "mean street" paragraph.

    I have a hard time with a lot of what's called neo-noir, largely because too much of it is the staring into the abyss Gardner mentioned. It's the redemption, or at least the chance of it, that gives a story it's value, at least to me.

    It's not that I only like happy endings; bittersweet are often best, but downers can work, as well. It's just there's onyl so much I can read if I know going in it will end badly, and develop early on a pretty good idea of exactly how badly. "Everyone dies" is not a resolution to a conflict; it's just an ending.

    ReplyDelete
  2. My darkest tale of memory was The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. I read it while in the air to Europe, and I remember finally putting the book down because I was afraid I was going to somehow invoke a demon that would crash the plane (I was 22 and very impressionable). Looking back on it, I suppose there was a "candle" in the story--the younger priest's faith is restored at the end, and he gives his life for the possessed girl--but it seemed mostly dark to me at the time.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Dana, thanks for the great Chandler quote, and the well thought out comment.

    I like "bittersweet" endings, too. When an author leaves you with complex emotions, or cross-currents, it's so much more memorable.

    I watched the movie Red the other night. I'm a big Bruce Willis fan. It was non-stop action and fun, but I've already started to forget it. OTOH, I still remember the ending of Lethal Weapon when Riggs hands Murtaugh a certain item.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Kathryn, the horror genre is a good one for thoughts about this. I think perhaps The Exorcist was one of the last of the great horror movies to do what we're talking about.

    Think of the classic horror films of the 30s and 40s. Cautionary tales all, weren't they? Compare them to the sort of stuff being made today, so much of it just that "abyss dwelling." What does it say about our times?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Your "dwelling in the dark" comment made me think.
    I enjoy tales that dwell/visit badness and strife as I suspect all kill-zoners do. But I do not enjoy stories that suggest the world is nothing but dark. For me that is the difference.

    Two authors that make me feel the suspense and visceral pull of dark events and characters yet never yield to a world view of blackness are James Lee Burke and Deon Meyer.

    Bad people, horrific events and human failings are part of stories that somehow also unfailingly reflect the essential goodness and nobility of their struggling protagonists and the values that drive them.

    Jim-neat post. (caution to language sensitive KZers...Deon Meyer character language is profane - worth overlooking imo)

    ReplyDelete
  6. tjc, thanks for reminding me of the amazing James Lee Burke. I'm not familiar with Deon Meyer. I always like getting a good tip. Do you have a suggestion on which title to start with?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jim, Ray Bradbury took me to some dark places years ago. Not scary so much as feeling that I was walking down dimly lit hallways inside the human heart. Later, it was Thomas Harris. I still remember, while reading RED DRAGON, glancing at Mr. Harris' photo on the back jacket and wondering what was going on inside his head to enable him to go to such places and take me with him.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Right on, Joe. Bradbury is like that completely...and you're so right about Harris. I find it telling that he finishes RED DRAGON with a biblical quote from Ecclesiastes. It's a brilliant bit of resonance.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Oh, and how about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

    ReplyDelete
  10. John Irving's stories manipulated me into dark places before I'm aware of it, because his characters' darkness is hidden by their quirkiness. Then when these characters are faced with the worst possible moment of their lives, somehow, they emerge from their personal tunnel of hell and into the light. I'd love to master his manipulation skills.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Jocosa, thanks for adding another author to the list we have here.

    ReplyDelete
  12. JSB -
    Definitely agree with Cuckoo's nest and share Joe's thoughts on what goes on in the mind of Thomas harris (does he give himself nightmares?)

    Deon Meyer is S. African and his works are translated from Afrikaans. I recommend reading in order. The first, I believe, is "Dead before Dying". I discovered him and read all six within two weeks. I put him near James Lee Burke for impact and for me that is the top of the heap.

    I recognize you aren't a fan of harsh language and apparently we have nothing on the S. Africans in that regard so you are forewarned. The language doesn't bother me(wondering if translation a factor in harshness?) and I think his writing is strong enough that you will overlook it.
    Hope yopu enjoy.
    Another neat post/thread, have enjoyed the comments.

    ReplyDelete
  13. tjc, thanks for the list. And the caveat. As far as reading "harsh" language, I just overlook it if it seems really organic to the story. It's usually like a speed bump for me, because I find it mostly unnecessary, but if the writing is strong enough I'll continue on. OTOH, I've seen plenty of writing that isn't strong enough to justify it.

    ReplyDelete
  14. How about Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre? Is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstien too dark?

    Also wanted you Killzoners to know I plunged into e-readership and bought my Kindle and all the while I was planning on a Nook. Go figure. And Jim, I bought Watch Your Back last night. :)

    ReplyDelete
  15. Jillian, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is exactly the type of story I'm talking about.

    Congrats on the Kindle! And thanks for making Watch Your Back one of your first purchases.

    ReplyDelete
  16. The Hewlett Packard Laserjet 8000DTN Technical Manual was like that for me. Scared the willies out'a me and really made me rethink my moral position in regards to printers/copiers in general.

    To be quite honest, the darkly moral stories of the Bible have been the major impact on my own life.
    Jacob: lover, liar, rebel, in the end God chose him to become the progenitor of Israel but not until he went through a lot of pain trying to do it his way.

    Moses: Led the people out of Egypt but because of a burst of disobedient rage was never allowed to set foot in the promised land.

    Jephthah: unwanted step-brother, son of a whore, outcast, mercenary warrior, called back to rescue his own tribe, made a foolish vow, won the war, lost his beloved only daughter

    David: shepherd, musician, giant, killer, warrior, outlaw, king, adulterer, murderer, his own son tried to kill him and raped several of his wives, he repented and found forgiveness of sins if not relief from his self-made struggle.

    Having made it a large part of my life, and frequently dramatizing these very stories as well as many others I have found that they are much, much more than what many kids are taught in Sunday School. Tragedy, triumph, rebellion, love, war, crime, peace, justice...its all there.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Jim--
    David Goodis spent more time staring into darkness than any other author I can think of, and yet even he was capable of "holding the candle". His great novel, CASSIDY'S GIRL has what, for Goodis, might be called a "happy ending", although there's no real happiness to be found anywhere and it doesn't go where you think it will.

    On the other hand, his novel BLONDE ON THE STREET CORNER, is utterly without hope, and for that matter, without much of a plot. But you know, you can't put it down. His incredible prose keeps you turning the page, and when you read the finale, you realize you've just read a great novel.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that there can be stark exceptions to the candle requirement.

    ReplyDelete