Welcome to the Night Land

When even the fans of a particular book have been known to describe sections of it as “virtually unreadable”, there is, at the very least, something worth talking about. And someone  really does need to remember William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, a rather obscure book first published in 1912 by one of the early masters of the genre now most often referred to as weird fiction (also the “dying earth” subgenre, if genre classification is your thing).

What happens in it? Well, a young man in the 17th century falls in love with a young woman, but she dies. The grieving fellow then falls asleep one night and wakes in the body of a far-future incarnation of himself. This incarnation lives inside a gigantic pyramid (called the Last Redoubt) with the remnants of the known human population. Outside, the sun has gone dark, monstrous living forms  called Watchers creep ever closer to the Redoubt, and strange beings scuttle across a landscape lit only by volcanic fissures. Future Narrator hears a telepathic call for help from none other than the future incarnation of his lost love, and, like any good protagonist, he sets off across the nightmare-riddled terrain to find her.

Yes, there are sections that are more or less unreadable, but I’m encouraging you to well, read it. For one, you can honestly tell your friends that it’s like nothing else you’ve ever read. For another, I think there are some legit writing lessons to be gained here, although if you try to copy the style you have probably learned the wrong ones. One that we can appreciate is that what isn’t seen or described in detail can be a lot more unsettling than what is. Take, for instance, the House of Silence, one of the many sinister places our narrator glimpses from the top of the Last Redoubt before setting off on his journey. Lights burn inside it and always have. No sound escapes it, and no one that enters ever leaves. The reader never learns what the House of Silence is or what’s inside it, and doesn’t need to. Its pall has been cast across the entire narrative, and no amount of explanation in the world could imbue it with more dread than it already has. (Obviously, this is a a really important  lesson that anyone attempting to write on the edges of the horror genre should know, and WHH is not the only one to learn it from, but I think we can mostly agree that the early writers did suspense better).

One day I’ll re-read it, but I’m not quite that bedridden at the moment. According to the Wikipedia entry, an author named John Stoddard has essentially re-written the novel as The Night Land, a Story Retold,  in a more palatable style.   I have not yet read it, but I already want to give this man a cookie because someone needed to do it.  Hodgson himself also wrote The House on the Borderland, which some readers might find a bit more accessible, but which never personally resonated with me as much as The Night Land did.

Oh, and there’s a website. Complete with fanfic, naturally.

True Crime Book Recs

One of the things that people are surprised to learn about me is that I have a near addiction to true crime and unsolved mysteries. I am a constant lurker on the Unresolved Mysteries reddit forum. I watch episodes of Disappeared and BrainScratch on Youtube to unwind in the evening,  or else check in on the crew at Thinking Sideways. (Yes, I know, questionable life choices).

The best true crime is, in my opinion, about something more than the just crime itself. It should use that crime as a way of introducing the reader to another time and place, and to figures as well and vividly rendered as any fictional character. I tend not to be especially interested in serial killers or large-scale, multiple crimes—I’m much more apt to be fascinated by isolated cases where, between one moment and the next, something went very wrong.

Today, I’m sharing a partial list of some of my favorite true crime books. Please feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments, although I expect I don’t have too many crime junkies following this blog.

Midnight in Peking by Paul French This is one of my absolute favorites and the one that first comes to mind when I think of the above criteria. It centers around the murder of a young Englishwoman in Old Peking (or Beijing), shortly before the Japanese invasion of China, and is a fascinating look at a time and place with which most readers are unfamiliar.

Murder in the Stacks by David DeKok  A little known case from 1969, in which a graduate student at Penn State was stabbed to death in the campus library. It’s a terribly overlooked case, and the author does an excellent job of researching the life of the victim and the lives of all the other principle players involved in the case, as the well as the social and political mood of college campuses in the late 1960s. He examines several possibilities, and ends up presenting a plausible suspect and summary of what really happened in the silent stacks  that November afternoon.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. If you can stomach another title with the word “midnight”, you will discover another fun, engrossing, atmospheric read. I almost didn’t include this here for a few reasons. One is that it is questionable whether it qualifies as true crime since it there isn’t really that much crime and it is possible that there is not that much truth, either. Berendt is open about altering the names and descriptions of several individuals that feature in the book, and I’m not the first person to comment on the relative implausibility of an outsider being so readily invited to share so many of Savannah’s secrets. While the narrative is centered around a shooting death in the home of a prominent Savannah antique collector (which may or may not have been self-defense), the real reason for the book’s existence is not so much this event as are the many side stories, full of scandals and colorful characters. Also, this book was a popular bestseller in the 1990s and I figured it had been recommended to death and back by this point. Then I remembered just how enjoyable it was to read, and realized that it needed to be on this list anyway.

Cases that Haunt Us by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas, and Law and Disorder by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. I’m putting these two together because they share the same authors and cover some of the same material, These are fantastic primers on several controversial murder cases, both historical and modern, in which the authors apply their considerable experience and expertise and share their own conclusions. These are definitely more graphic than many of the other books on this list, delving more deeply into forensics and criminal psychology, and should in no way be mistaken for light reading. However, I heartily recommend them to anyone with a serious interest in true crime, so long as they have a reasonably strong stomach.

Shadow on the Mountain by Stephen Singular and Joyce Singular. I’m actually in the process of reading this one, but so far I’m liking it too much not to share. Here, the setting is Aspen, Colorado, and the crime is the murder of the well-connected heiress and philanthropist, Nancy Pfister. The story of Nancy’s life, in which she traveled extensively, rubbed elbows with celebrities, and made more than a few enemies, is incredible enough, and things only get more dramatic after her bludgeoning death turns into a murky legal drama involving three suspects, two of them a married couple.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. It’s been a few years since I read this, and writing about is going to make me want to check it out of the library again. In the year 1860, Jonathan Whicher, one of the earliest English detectives, was tasked with investigating the murder of a young boy and became embroiled in the cloistered lives of a well-to-do Victorian household. It soon becomes apparent to both Whicher and the reader just how implausible it was that young Saville Kent was killed by anyone other than a member of his own family.  His suspicion of Saville’s teenage half-sister brings nothing but disgrace to Whicher and the case is nearly forgotten, until, years later, a killer’s confession shocks the nation.

Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar…and another “mountain” title. This might be cheating a bit since this book delves more into a mysterious event that in all likelihood involved no crime at all, but I feel this is the best place to mention a book that deserves mentioning. It was written as an attempt to explain the sad and unsettling Dyatlov Pass Incident of 1959, and is by far the most thorough account I have read about it. It’s the story of nine hikers who died in a mysterious accident in the Ural mountains, an event which has attracted conspiracy theorists and fringe researchers ever since. Eichar lays bare the facts, introduces the reader to all the main players in the story, dismisses the more outlandish explanations, and turns it all into a riveting read.

Most of the books by Ann Rule. You can walk into any given used bookstore and find a few shelves full of paperbacks written by her, and the same goes for most public libraries.  Small Sacrifices, Bitter Harvest, A Heart Full of Lies, and In the Still of the Night stand out as particular favorites. Each of her books is devoted to a murder case, but she has also written some compilations in which she explores several different cases. As far as I’m concerned, she’s everything a good crime writer should be. Rule focuses on the facts and is never especially lurid, while demonstrating great empathy and insight towards everyone involved in one of her cases. Best of all, her books are almost always compulsively readable, indistinguishable from the best sort of fiction.  She passed away in the summer of 2015, but still has some great interviews up on Youtube, where she talks about her writing career and always comes across as a very sweet, likable person.

Now just promise me you won’t read anything that claims to prove the identity of Jack the Ripper. Well, you can read it, just don’t take it seriously.


A Few Favorite Writing Books

I’m going to be open about the fact that I’ll be sharing a lot of recs, random trivia, and assorted oddities here. I really don’t feel compelled to talk much about my personal life, not because I’m guarding any deep, dark secrets but because doing so simply does not interest me, and probably would not interest that many people reading this, either. Right now, I want to keep the focus on the writing life, and there’s only so much to say about my writing life at any given point. So…have some books.

Robert’s Rules of Writing: 101 unconventional lessons every writer needs to know by Robert Masello

First of all, there are actually 102 lessons. The last one is “break the rules.”  Masello’s guide is witty, refreshing, and often hilarious. It’s unashamedly self-contradictory (Rule 30: “Pile it on!” Rule 31: “Reduce clutter.” It’s great to be told that in some circumstances it is totally fine to tell rather than show. It’s also great to be to be told to “Stop reading” while deep in a writing project, or at least to stop reading things that are too similar to what you’re writing. Most of all, it’s incredibly fun to read. Apparently, Masello has written several thrillers, too, which I have not yet read, which you can see on his author page.

Plot Perfect: How to Build Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene by Paula Munier

A fantastic read with lots of great examples to support its points. (You may want to read The Maltese Falcon before this book to avoid spoilers, if you have any interest in reading it at all. The author really likes The Maltese Falcon). There are some great tips here for starting or structuring a novel, from building a complex character through their contradictions to plotting a novel based on its pivotal points.  I’m particularly fond of the index card trick for plotting discussed on page 94, and even if you don’t find some of the techniques here especially useful, the book will at least help make you more aware of the sort of story you’re trying to tell.

Steal This Plot: A Writer’s Guide to Story Structure and Plagiarism (Classic Wisdom on Writing) by William and June Noble

Yes, please. Actually, I think I’ll steal two or three and then throw them in a blender together. And then maybe add a shot or two of tequila, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I often find that books and articles discussing the “29 basic plot templates” leave me cold, and not because I particularly disagree. Almost all stories do tend to be about one of those 29 things (revenge, transformation, the riddle, etc.), but I do not think that stories are or should be only about one of 29 things. In fact, as I sit here writing this I can readily invent one in which there is an underdog main character involved in a bitter rivalry with another character, but then the rivals have to team up to rescue a third character. In the process, they develop some sort of love, romantic or otherwise, for one another. Except it’s a forbidden love. One of the two (probably the original underdog) goes through a process of maturation, while the other heads down the road of wretched excess. Meanwhile, what about the character in need of rescue, whom we have sadly neglected up to this point? Would it be too much to suggest she is trying to escape while this horse hockey plays itself out? And nothing about what I just wrote sounds terribly original or unusual, so you see my point.

But the approach that William and June Noble take here is fantastic. Instead of attempting to reduce plots to one of 29 templates, they celebrate the diversity that any one of these basic ideas can render. They draw on numerous literary examples (really, this book could do the job of several Cliff Notes books), and provide some great inspiration regarding just how much can be done with a single plot as a starting point.

So go ahead. Steal a plot. Just, you know, add some stuff.

Your First Bestseller: How to Self-Publish a Successful Book on Amazon by Mike Fishbein

I found this at the exact moment I needed it. While not as entertaining of a read as some of the others on this list, it is incredibly useful for anyone trying to self-publish. Fishbein has written an easy to follow guide that covers just about everything the would-be author needs to know, from book covers to marketing to the actual process of self-publishing. Since the whole process can be very intimidating, I find it very reassuring to have this concise, straightforward booklet at my side.

MASTER LISTS FOR WRITERS: Thesauruses, Plots, Character Traits, Names, and More  by Bryn Donovan

This one doubles as a prompt collection if one is desperate—I can go through the lists and choose one from column A, one from Column B, a few from Column C and it’s enough for the root of a story. All of the lists are long and highly specific (Ways to describe eyes! 100 interesting settings for scenes! Motives for murder!). The only problem is that you may find yourself spending more time reading through the lists than on the actual writing. Enjoy, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!

On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King

Most people are familiar with this one, but it’s worth recommending again here. I’ve actually only read a handful of Stephen King novels, and while I don’t dislike the author, none of his work has stuck with me enough for me to really consider myself a fan (note to self: I still really must read The Stand at some point). But this memoir is pure gold for any aspiring writer. His “finding the fossil” analogy for developing a story is as good as any I have come across to describe the writing process. I say this as someone who has chased a lot of false fossils in the past months. Enough to construct an entire false fossil Diplodocus, to be honest.

Please feel free to share your own favorites. And yes, I know I should have read Bird by Bird by now. I just haven’t yet.