(Note: This was originally the article I wrote for my weekly column, over on the BBT web-site. I really like it. So I’m posting it here too.)
You will forgive me if, this week, I fail to write about Pirates of the Burning Sea, which I have played not at all. Video games must actively work to hold my attention, which is inclined to slip away at any moment and go find a book, a movie, a song, a thought. Pirates are fun, but my attention has slipped. For now.
I knew all week that I wasn’t going to write about a video game this time around, and so I’d been stewing on what to write about. Mostly, I think I already knew what was coming. It’s been coming for a year or so, and I think it may as well go here, because this is a good place. We do not always speak seriously or meaningfully, but we are capable of it. I’m sorry, there are no laughs I expect in this article. I could write about my twilight zone trip to the Twin Cities, but I don’t think the joke would come across properly.
So I will write this instead.
Clive Barker once said, about comic books, that they are incapable of inspiring terror, of making you laugh or cry the way a movie can, or a book can. Clive Barker — who is not only an excellent writer, but also a genuinely cool person — seemed to be wrong on this point, as a couple of writers (Neil Gaiman, friend of Clive, was one of them) pointed out. For me, I was mostly on the fence. This was the first time it had really gotten me thinking about the subject.
I’ve been reading comics since I was old enough to hold them. Monthly comic book issues, Archie comics, super hero comics, newspaper funnies…Like books, I read them. I’m wired to read, that’s all. I read until my eyes hurt and I can’t seem to focus properly on things further away than book-reading-distance.
Comics never hugely made me feel, though. Not really. And for that matter, as I thought further on the subject, I realized that neither did books, did they? I read them, I enjoyed the stories, but like I never felt strong emotion about any of them. No more than you would get teary-eyed when a friend relates a sad sort of dream he had the night before. It’s not your dream. It didn’t make your heart jackhammer.
Mostly, I didn’t think about any of this, I just accepted it. Movies and TV shows could move you, sure enough. There’s something about the mediums (and I think it’s because they’re passive mediums) which allow you to feel what they tell you to feel. Books and comics told good stories, right enough, but there was no emotion.
The Clive Barker comment got me thinking, when I happened across it a year ago. It got me thinking, but I did nothing about it. It just gradually built in my mind, because that’s what happens. It’s been said that with writers, thinking mostly just gets in the way. As it happens, I believe this. I think that when you think too much, it’s like focusing on your feet as you try to go down the stairs. Mostly, you wind up lying on your butt, at the bottom.
What this means is, I can’t give you my actual thought process. I can just tell you that it took the past year-and-a-bit to get here, and this is what I’ve got.
Books and comics do move you, specifically they do move me. When I was young (you know, way back), I read a book about a boy and a girl who made a pretend land and a tree fort, across a river. I was in love with the girl and enchanted by the book. The book ended very sad, very badly for the girl. I remember clearly, as a young boy, walking around just stunned, just absolutely heartbroken. I sat on a tree, outside, and just stared and stared at nothing. She could have died in my arms and it would have gotten me no harder.
For a long time I didn’t know what book it was. I tried to remember, I would retell the story to people and no one usually knew (partially because I mussed up the details along the way). I would perenially go hunting for the book and come up empty handed.
Then, a while earlier this year, my wife and I went to see the movie Bridge to Tarabithia. Ten minutes into the movie, I was crying. Openly, brokenly, as I realized that this, this was the book I’d read all those years ago. It all came back. It hurt watching that movie, which was well done (it may have been horrible, actually, I was somewhere else watching it) and knowing what was coming. I spent two hours after the movie not speaking. I doubt I could have. It wasn’t the movie that hurt, it was a book reaching out to me across eighteen years or so.
But what else? I remember finishing Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. I remember reading the second-to-last volume and I reached the end of it and going oh shit, oh SHIT, because suddenly I knew what was coming and desperately wanted it not to come. When I finished the series, I was heartbroken and miserable for days. I was older now (I came late to Sandman) and it really shattered me. As always, there’s a piece of a writer’s mind who looks at your own emotions, as if from a distance, and says So this is what it feels like, so this is how you act. It doesn’t matter. You can be divorcing your wife, your child can be dying, and ruthlessly, somewhere in the back of your mind are the traitorous writerly words so this is what it’s like.
I think back now and remember the Death of Superman arc, which also messed me up. Superman was a hero for me as a kid (not as big as Captain America, or Hal Jordan) and I was crushed when Doomsday killed him. Shortly thereafter, Bane broke Batman’s back. What a place to be as a kid. I remembered all this when Captain America died, and I was already mulling in the subject. THis added to it.
But fear? Sadness, perhaps. But fear?
FEAR, I discovered from Stephen King. A movie can make me jump, or revolt me, but while I was beginning to accept that a book could make me sad, break my heart, tear me up, a book could not make me jump, could not terrify me.
It was only three months ago, or so, that I read Steve King’s Misery, for the first time. It was not my first Stephen King book. Cell wasn’t scary, it was a rollicking good zombie book. The Dark Half wasn’t scary, it was another damn good story. Secret Garden, Secret Window (and the other stories in the collection Four Past Midnight) was one of my favorite stories ever (and the Johnny Depp/David Koepp movie is stunning). They didn’t scare me, though.
Misery did. I remember reading further and further into Misery. Specifically, I remember reading a scene while sitting in the bath where something is cut off. The description of it isn’t emotional and full of exclamation points, it’s just there. The words may as well be invisible, I’m seeing it more than I see any movie. I realized, dimly, as I read this horrifying scene and headed further into a horrifying book that I was holding the book at arm’s length, and I was pushing back into the tub, as if trying to get away from the book, this bunch of pulped paper in my hands.
That fascinated me. That’s when all of this thought about writing and emotion came up into my thoughts. The parts of my mind that are always thinking, always running, always saying so this is what it’s like, finally gathered up what it had and handed it to me up front.
What caused me to write about this now is that I just, ten minutes ago, finished reading Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, which I started because I’m writing a book that’s hard and I needed a good read. I also needed a book that had nothing to do with Romans in any way shape or form.
Bag of Bones doesn’t have the outright horror that Misery did, but it had quiet terror built into it. It’s not a horror book, it’s not a ghost book, it’s a love story and a story of redemption that happens to have ghosts in it. Nevertheless, there’s one early scene I read, while sitting on the couch after everyone had gone to bed. In it, our hero Mike Noonan looks under his bed and sees his dead wife lying there with a book across her face. When she tries to take it, she snatches it back and says Give that back, it’s my dust catcher.
I shut the book. I got up. I went to bed.
There were more scenes like that. I mostly didn’t read this book in the bath, because while most of the book is a story that fails to be supernatural or scary at all, every now and then it comes to a scene that is just spookier than shit. When I hit those, that’s it.
It was a powerful book, all through. The emotions never quit. It wasn’t just terror. It was sadness and hatred and a need for revenge and a need for justice, and a longing for a happy ending that was impossible, and a longing for the happy-enough ending that was possible, and a dozen other things. It’s the kind of book that will leave me thoughtful and a little bit quiet the rest of the evening. I’m not thinking so that’s what it feels like, because I know already. But I will be thinking about the book and the people in it and the what if’s and the emotions.
When I read a book that floors me, or that really gets to me — like Tarabithia did when I was young, or Narnia, like Bag of Bones did now — I find myself going I want to write like that. Of course. Who doesn’t? Mostly, it means that I don’t want to write Bag of Bones, by Pete Tzinski — because knee-jerk imitation is as pale as any other form of imitation; witness the dozens of authors trying to write their own Frodos and Sams — but it means I want to write a book that hurts you when you read it, that makes you love and laugh and cry and be deeply uncomfortable.
I haven’t done it yet. I have, in some short stories, creeped out, or made sad. Not much. Not enough. Mostly, that’s fine by me. If I could go “I want to do that,” and then do that, then where’s the challenge, where’s the learning, where’s the joy? They say getting there is half the fun. I’d say it’s all of the fun. Once you’re there, sooner or later you’re going to start thinking about the next journey to the next place. It’s human nature. We can spend hours and days climbing a mountain, and then spend twenty minutes at the top.
There’s no revelation here. I’m telling you that books and comics can emotionally effect you as much as television and movies, as much as music can. You probably already knew that. I think I came at it all wrong, trying to think about it too much. I think they’ve affected me all along.
The final thing I want to talk about is perceptions. This is mostly unrelated, but it fascinates me, and I want to touch on it. Bear with me just a bit longer.
When I first read Neil Gaiman’s children’s book Coraline, I thought of it as the adventure of a brave and definitely odd young girl. One thing Neil said about the book was that kids love it and adults are creeped out by it. He theorized why, and mostly I didn’t understand properly. His theory was this: For a kid, the book is an adventure story, of a young girl who beats the odds. For adults, it’s the story of a child in danger.
I read the book three or four times, and it was a little brave girl having an adventure. I loved it. I read it out loud to my wife
I read it again, last month, eight months or so into my wife’s pregnancy which will result — as pregnancies tend to — in the birth of my son. This time, when I read it, it was very definitely the story of a child in danger, and this time, it scared me.
There’s a bit in Terry Pratchett’s Thud! where Sam Vime’s young son is in danger, and it was the same thing. I read it before and got on with it. I read it now, and it terrifies me, as it must have terrified him, as it terrified Sam Vimes. If you’ve read the book you know the scene I’m talking about. These are the scenes that come back to haunt me, that haunt any parent I think.
And always, there’s the thought in the back of your mind. It’s not your thought. It’s the thought of parts of you that aren’t yours to control or command. Your better parts. It always says So this is what it’s like…