Saturday, November 24, 2012

Death and Literature


            I just sent in the manuscript of Necropolis Now to the editor. My fingers are still shaking, and I feel the need to type a sort of confession. A scream against the creative world. Something else needs to be said…
            I thought I knew how to cope with character deaths after writing my first two books, because the characters who died in those books… I wasn't too surprised, although I did try to save them. In this case, however, there were things I just couldn't do. I felt helpless too many times as my characters faced insurmountable odds. These characters literally died on the computer screen in front of me, and no matter how much I wanted to bring them back, to do something for them, I just… couldn't.
            Characters are not killed off. A series of events leads to their demise.
            In a good story, it happens all the time. One of my favorite shows, Boardwalk Empire, pits characters on a sure-fire collision course with doom, and as a viewer, you keep thinking these people will overcome their own flaws and save themselves, but it never happens. You are a witness to their destruction.
            Is that what Shakespeare wanted of his audience? To watch his doomed characters grasp the truth right before they realize their folly? Macbeth dreams of success and Hamlet contemplates suicide, and because we know them, we understand that there is no way out for them. We watch, horrified and captivated, as they walk the edge of an abyss throughout an entire story before plunging into it forever.        
            We often like to think, "What if?" I think it's a rather silly proposition, because to contemplate an alternative would be to deny truth itself. For example, I watched the hapless Detroit Lions lose yet again on Thanksgiving this year, and there were too many Lions fans wondering what might have happened if a certain play had been blown dead when it should have been… but it wasn't. History cannot be changed, yet our perception of it can.
            Too many topics. Head is spinning. A book has been written, and with my shaking fingers, I have committed lives to the void of eternal literature. Before my characters died, so did Romeo, and Othello… and we cannot save them.
            The horror genre has an opportunity to transcend the accomplishments of the authors who helped establish the modern standard. In other words, a new standard can be achieved, although I would argue, in a separate and more lengthy blog post, that horror has been severely weakened by these "giants." There are too many stories that feature character death for the sake of shock value, and characters that are, themselves, relatively useless as far as plot and theme are concerned. One of the greatest elements of literature--the tragic hero--consists of a character whose flaws make them believably human, though because of their imperfection, their fate is written into the very first chapter.
              While I won't get on a rant about The Walking Dead here (I despise the show, but I will discuss that at a later date), I should mention that American Horror Story gives us a thematic enterprise that entertains while making character action, and death, relevant to the story's concept. I believe this show has both masterful storytelling and professional acting. I only mention the two television shows because they do provide opportunities to observe meaningful character death within a story. As much as I don't like TWD, I did find Shane's demise to be meaningful and well-written... I just gave the show too many chances because I was locked into the crowd mentality regarding the show's success, no matter how much I had to convince myself that it was good.
               Another popular author, George R. R. Martin, has mastered the art of character death within the fantasy genre. Yes! Genre fiction! If we may treat Tolkien's work as literature, than I believe Martin is just as relevant. The characters who die in his work do not die randomly, as many people mistakenly complain. Their deaths are inevitable from the first moment we read about them! We should not be surprised when characters die within his story; the problem is that most stories don't feature major character death until the climax or conclusion, but within a series, character death takes on a whole new meaning because the events are NOT centered around ONE character. As far as horror authors are concerned, I will give Jack Ketchum credit for writing meaningful character deaths. Of course, a book that concentrates on one major character cannot delve too far into this territory... I am mostly talking about pieces that utilize an ensemble.
             My intention was to keep this post brief, considering that I could easily write an entire dissertation on the subject with some ease. The point is simply this: horror can become a relevant LITERARY genre if we consider that characters die beyond the control of the author, and death can be significant, and not a useless mechanism for gore or action. I wanted to leave some room for discussion, and perhaps some of you might be willing to share experiences about authors whose use of character death was executed well.
             Stay tuned for further rants that are also incredibly opinionated...