Genre Bender

[October 2009] The biggest problem with my first novel, I think, was the fact that it straddled genres or defied easy classification. I used to refer to it as a “maybe ghost story.” It’s not all that unusual a concept. There’s a ghost in the book if you believe one character, and it’s all in the character’s mind if you believe another.

Graham Joyce does this all the time, to great effect. For every putative supernatural event in his books, there is almost always an equally mundane alternate explanation. Mass hysteria. Delusions. Dreams. The affects of mind-altering substances. Misperception. Psychosis.

As a reader, I have no trouble whatsoever allowing my imagination to accept ghosts and vampires and any of the other tropes of the supernatural. The only time I have problems is when the author tries to explain something using real-world science that doesn’t make sense. That’s one of the reasons I disliked Cell, for example. The pulse worked for me as an inexplicable event, but once the hand waving about rebooting brains and save-to-disk memories kicked in, I checked out.

However, I have a much harder time with the supernatural as a writer. I’ve written stories where inexplicable things happen, some I’m quite proud of. I think of “Special Delivery,” published in Cemetery Dance, where a writer has boxes of ideas delivered to his door. That’s clearly supernatural, but to me it falls more into the realm of the inexplicable.

I have a hard time pulling off ghosts and werewolves and vampires and zombies with a straight face. My clinical, methodical mind almost always looks for the mundane explanation. I’m not very interested in these supernatural creatures themselves. In the stories where I’ve used them, my focus is more on the other characters’ reactions.

I’ve written two zombie stories that don’t have a single active zombie in them, for all intents and purposes. In one, “Groundwood,” workers in a converted paper mill dispose of zombie carcasses. In another, a group of survivors make a last-ditch attempt to flee to somewhere safe. The zombies are almost McGuffins in those cases. In my only werewolf story, the protagonist only thinks he’s a werewolf when, in fact, he’s just a homicidal maniac.

I like writing suspense stories, and the supernatural can be used to generate suspense, but it’s not strictly necessary. My first published story, “Harming Obsession,” concerns a man with an obsessive-compulsive disorder that is amplified by something he has to do on Halloween.

These days, I read more crime fiction than anything else, and my writing is evolving in that direction, too. I was recently asked to write a contemporary vampire story for the eVolVe anthology. It didn’t take me long to come up with an idea, but it was an idea for a crime story rather than one that involved vampires as a menace. What if vampires were the objects of hate crime, I asked myself. The protagonist is a cop who has to investigate vampires as victims rather than as victimizers. I was delighted by this idea, because it let me explore something classic and—let’s be honest—somewhat overexposed these days from a different angle.

The novel I’m working on now is far easier to classify. It’s a straight crime novel with a private detective protagonist, although I’m throwing in a couple of other angles to make it more interesting. For this book, at least, I plan to abandon anything supernatural, because that just feels right to me. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up the ghosties and the ghoulies for good. There are a couple of crime series where eerie and inexplicable things happen, and I’m open to that possibility in future works.

For the time being, however, I’m sticking to the real world. That’s scary enough for me, most of the time.

Comments are closed.