My Critters List of the 5 Most Common Weaknesses in Fiction

Ever since I became serious as a freelance editor/proofreader and a participant on Critters.org, the oldest online writer’s critique group, I have encountered the same weakness in fiction over and over again. Partly, I think this is because people send early drafts to critiques and forego revision until they receive their first round of feedback.

In my opinion, writers could benefit from self-revision before submitting to critique groups because many weaknesses that make a story unreadable can be fixed by the writers themselves. Beta readers and critique groups are useful resources, but writers can improve their craft more reliably through deep practice.

As a tool to help writers improve their own work, I have provided the following list of common weaknesses in fiction.

1. Too little exposition, especially at the beginning.

Young or inexperienced writers are often advised to avoid exposition at all costs. It’s an info dump, boring, and uninteresting to read. But given the volume of fiction I have read where I did not feel grounded in the story, I am no longer convinced that this advice is unimpeachable.

Writers are told by creative writing teachers to begin in media res, but often, they begin their stories before they establish the res. In other words, they begin in ‘the middle of things‘ without establishing what those ‘things’ are, or where they are, or when they are. The characters are already running around doing things, but there is a certain level of knowledge the reader is presumed to have before they come to the text.

Unfortunately, there is no way for readers to access this information if it is not on the page! This is a problem especially frequent with speculative fiction openings, where a common reality between the reader and the fictional world is not necessarily assumed.

“Once upon a time, there was a young princess who loved to play with her toy ball.”  This establishes a time, a character, and a setting. It is a perfect window into the “before” state prior to the main action. Every word is exposition: “telling” instead of “showing.” Yet, the words have a solidity and sense of narrative confidence that grounds the reader.

Writers often forget to use the narrator’s voice to convey important details of the story. This likely has to do with how most writers are raised on the visual formats of TV and movies instead of the nineteenth-century novels of yore. Since writers think they can see their characters in the movie of their mind’s eye, they think the reader will have no problem seeing that movie. But in these cases, this movie does not exist on the page.

Simply showing events does not ground the reader automatically. A certain  amount of telling is often necessary. Keep exposition minimal in the middle of your story and at the end, but do not forget that exposition at the beginning may be necessary.

In modern literature, stream-of-consciousness and multiple viewpoints give a greater sense of the fragmentation of experience. But even if the narrator’s  perspective no longer carries the authority it enjoyed in the nineteenth century, it must still anchor itself in those very limits. From that base, that creative center, the story expands outwards, growing steadily more complex, like coral.

N.B.: I would highly recommend writers, especially speculative fiction writers, to consult How to Improve Your Speculative Fiction Openings by Robert Qualkinbrush, which I have read. It goes into more detail about this issue.

2. Opening at the wrong time.

On occasion, a story might begin too early or late in the action.  Introducing your story in media res can sometimes feel like filling a reader in about what happened when they were asleep during the first half of a movie. If you find that this is true for you, you might have begun the story too late.

On the other hand, when you write a character traveling or walking towards a fateful destination, chances are you have begun the story too early. This is called “walking to the story” and is a crutch writers fall back on. This is fine to do in rough drafts as a way to connect with your characters. But in subsequent drafts, it is usually a good idea to cut these moments out.

Sometimes the story begins with the right scene, but the wrong thing is being described. For example, there might be a few sentences of purposeless description done in the interest of painting a picture. Perhaps the colour of the sky is described or the colour of the protagonist’s hair. Often, this information is uninteresting to the reader who does not yet have a reason to care what the world looks like. They want to know what’s happening or at least have some unusual, privileged insight into a character presented to them.

Sometimes a story begins at the wrong moment simply because the reader tries to express an emotional reaction that has been given no context. In About Writing, Samuel Delaney provides a model for the three units of narrative that build on one another like blocks. Setting/location must be established firstly, followed by situation and conflict. As a result of this conflict, the reader lastly experiences affect, or emotional reaction (payoff). This model can be applied on any fractal level of narrative structure: paragraphs, beats, scenes, acts.

In cases where an emotional reaction begins a story but falls flat, the writer may have used the three units of narrative in reverse, beginning with affect without describing setting or situation. Unless the emotion is primal and/or the context swiftly provided, the reader may feel disconnected from the events.

Sometimes the story begins at the wrong chronological moment. Other times, it begins with the wrong details being described. Sometimes the fix is as simple as rearranging the order of a few sentences in a paragraph; other times, the story’s initial event must itself be rethought. Ideally, a story begins at a moment of dramatic interest where the relevant details can be shown and/or told in exposition that appears relevant to the action.

3. Unclear, unfelt stakes.

The next biggest weakness is a lack of clear, emotional stakes. By stakes I mean the question, “Why is this character performing this action?” Stakes have to do with risk and all the things the character has to lose or gain. The clearer the stakes, the more reasons to read on to see whether the protagonist gains or loses what they most value and love.

Unclear stakes often occur because readers have forgotten to make them explicit.  Too much subtlety can sometimes result in a vagueness with regard to a character’s goal. But there is nothing wrong with a line that puts all the cards on the table for everyone to see: “Velma couldn’t let Clarice beat her at Bingo, or she’d never be able to look her knitting circle in the eye again.” The circumstances may appear trivial to a reader, but given the above example, no one can deny that Velma needs to win the Bingo tournament at Shady Maple Retirement Home to earn the regard of her peers.

Exposition can go a long way to making stakes clear, especially at the beginning of a story. Later in the story, stakes can be shown instead of told. For example, there might be a scene where Velma loses the Bingo game and the knitting group has a meeting without inviting her. Now the stakes are bigger: will she confront her knitting group and stand up for herself or wallow in self-pity about her loss? This is an escalation.

These stakes must not only be clear, but carry an emotional impact. The stakes of a story might be world-ending–a nuclear war scenario, for instance–but if the protagonist remains unaffected, the reader does too. Thus, the urgency of a stake has nothing to do with the volume of people affected but by the specificity of the emotions associated with it.

Velma’s need to earn the respect in her knitting circle might engage readers, while scavengers surviving in a post-nuclear Toronto might elicit no sympathy whatsoever. If the scavengers’ stakes have no emotional context, they will simply not matter to the reader.

Think of all the things George Bailey loses in It’s A Wonderful Life when he sees what Bedford Falls looks like in a world where he has never been born. He loses the Building & Loan, his family, and the optimism of the town itself, which has nowhere to turn to escape Mr. Potter’s exploitation. George stands to lose everything he cares about and the audience feels it.

The more particularized the stakes, the better. If the fate of the world is literally at stake in your story, a bland emotional reaction on your protagonist’s part, even if noble (“We have to save it!”), will not give an especially compelling reason to be interested in the character per se. If, however, the scavenger’s grandmother is alone at Shady Maple Retirement Home on Bingo Night and unaware of the danger of the incoming nuclear apocalypse, the stakes for the scavenger are more particularized–that is, specific for him. We might also feel a little sorry that grandma was never able to resolve the drama with her knitting circle.

Think of the reader’s attention as a tent on a windy mountaintop. You need many specific and poignant stakes to pin that tent down, keep your reader’s attention tethered to your story, and hold it there.

4. A lack of frontwork to prepare readers for revelations.

A revelation in your story that does not ‘land’ often confuses the reader instead of delivering the emotional or intellectual impact you desire. Fixing revelations involves hard work. In order to reveal information in your story in an impactful way, you have to do some frontwork.

For instance, in one story I read, a character was working on a mystery surrounding a crime, but before they could establish a baseline of assumptions about the case, the writer threw a curve ball: a surprise revelation revealed that the crime the character was investigating was itself a deception. The suspects, who were only vaguely described, were actually a cover-up for other criminals, who were even more vaguely described.

This was ineffective because I did not have a baseline of assumptions about the criminals already. This came from a lack of exposition. But the main issue was that the clues to the deception were not planted in advance. I was not engaging with this revelation on an intellectual level. I was just seeing it happen. One set of criminals were as good as the other.

At Odyssey, I learned the distinction between ‘surprise’ and ‘answer’ revelations. The distinction between these types of revelations lies in how they each generate a different kind of expectation in the reader. An answer revelation comes as the answer to a specific, limited question posed by the story. An example would be the classic whodunit. A surprise revelation comes out of the blue, but still creates the anticipation in the reader that the information revealed will cast a new light on what came before. For example, the characters might reinterpret specific clues, correcting an illusion or a misdirection.

To these two types of revelation, I would like to add the type of ironic revelation. In an ironic revelation, the reader or audience is aware of the content of the revelation, but specific characters in the story may not be. This is particularly common in comedy (Ex: “Nina’s been lying to you about being a Hollywood starlet ever since you first met.”).

Surprise revelations work because clues interpreted one way can become reinterpreted in another. But if these clues are unclearly indicated, or even absent, the revelation can fall flat or confuse the reader.

In another story I read, a character’s father was a supernatural being, but clues that could have served as subtle hints of this were skimmed over. This is where illusion or misdirection can help. For instance, if the father was trying to hide that he was a vampire, perhaps the son could be suspicious that he is a cocaine addict and find evidence to reinforce this idea–at least until the surprise revelation tells him otherwise.

The surprise revelation casts the specific clues placed earlier in the story in a new light. But it is fundamentally important to ensure those clues are doing the right work. Choose a specific, convincing way for the viewpoint character to misinterpret the clues. This misdirects the reader. Then, after the surprise revelation, those same clues are reinterpreted.

5. Stock or manipulated gestures.

This is probably one of the hardest issues to fix, but it is certainly one of the most common to find in fiction, especially in scenes with a lot of dialogue. “She smiled”, “he walked”, “he nodded”, “she raised her eyebrow”: If any of these short phrases sound familiar, you probably know that these expressions are overused. These body language beats are clichés and so often repeated, especially in early drafts, that it reduces writing to a boring sameness and repetitiousness.

It’s not that these gestures are an absolute evil. Plenty of published works throw in the odd eyebrow raise. It’s just that these expressions are rarely ideal. They often misrepresent the particularity of your characters’ personality and stifle their fullest expression. Having a startlingly unique character raise an eyebrow, nod, and walk around is almost like placing such a character in a straitjacket. Instead, they should express themselves using telling gestures authentic to themselves, their own setting, and their own situation.

Write stock gestures to get past the first draft. But after you have gained a better vision of your character and their personality, specify. Particularize. Instead of saying they smiled at someone, you can say they smiled at someone while looking the other way across the room. This implies inner conflict, that their attention lies elsewhere. Gestures demonstrating inner conflict can go a long way towards representing a character’s particularity.

Gestures can also seem like they are manipulated by the author. For example, a character who is usually depressed and/or self-critical would likely not smile to express happiness. Depending on their personality, they might not even smile to express sarcasm. Every character comes with an emotional range. You must ask yourself how this character would express happiness, or how that character might react to jealousy, and so on.

To recap, my advice comes down to two major themes: making sure the reader has all the information they need to enjoy the story and ensuring that characters are depicted in their particularity to generate deeper interest in those characters.

Your first draft will always be rough, but once you train yourself to spot these weaknesses in your own writing, you will be that much closer to developing better second drafts and becoming a more self-reliant writer.

Advertisements

Venera Dreams: A Weird Entertainment by Claude Lalumière

Back in November, I met Claude Lalumière at the Yellow Door readings, where he read from his phantasmagorical mosaic Venera Dreams: A Weird Entertainment. His latest book details the history of a mysterious city-state and its erotically-charged populace of artists and madmen. It is a visionary piece of work filled with atavistic rituals, ancient goddess cults, and superheroes.

My interview with the author over the phone was published with Cult Montreal. Check it out!

You can order Venera Dreams as an ePub and Kindle edition from the publisher, Guernica Editions.

A Kiss with Teeth by Max Gladstone

I have never read a more Halloween Father’s Day story than “A Kiss with Teeth” by Max Gladstone.

In this dark but ultimately heartwarming tale, Dracula has moved to suburbia to raise a family, but begins to grow apart from his wife Sarah and his son Paul as he suffers from the seven-year itch. It is one of the stories collected in the anthology The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman, which presents some of the strongest up-and-comers in the fantasy genre. Weeks ago I promised to review stories from his landmark anthology of new voices and today I make good on that promise.

“A Kiss with Teeth” is remarkable for the way in which it draws upon centuries of vampire lore to construct a portrait of a vampire dad who must suppress his primal killer instinct beneath a veneer of suburban normalcy. Every moment in Vlad’s life is spent hiding his monstrosity and his uncanny supernatural abilities from not only the normals around him, but from his own family. On the surface, Vlad seems surprisingly well-adjusted to the white picket fence American way of life. He has retracted his bright-white fangs and instead wears false teeth “blunt as shovels,” which he “coffee-stains … every night in a mug with WORLD’S BEST DAD written on the side” (73). But deep inside, Vlad remains a medieval bloodsucker from Eastern Europe. Like the classic all-American dad, he may wear “a baseball cap” (74) while watching his son swing from home plate, but he will do so while entertaining fond memories of cavalry charges breaking onto walls of Turkish pikes. Vlad prefers the sound of cracking sterna to the sound of a cracking baseball bat.

Soon, Vlad must take time off from his day job as an accountant to speak to his son’s teacher about Paul’s bad report card. As a dutiful father, he makes the appointment and enters the school while “squeaking the soles of his oxblood shoes against the tiles every few steps–a trick he learned a year back and thinks lends him an authentic air” (77). This movement, carefully rehearsed to conceal the surreal lightness of his step, betrays his sense of being an impostor. It is but one of the many carefully rehearsed movements that enable him to live normally in our world. Upon meeting the teacher, however, Vlad is taken in by her scent of “bruised mint and camellias” (76). Vlad’s marriage to Sarah has dulled over the years, but Paul’s teacher provides the tantalizing opportunity to go on the hunt again.

Sarah, who used to be a vampire hunter, “has not tried to kill him since they married” (73). They met during an epic confrontation in a Transylvanian castle, but these days, there’s a sense that the romance of that relationship is gone. The temptation to suck Paul’s teacher’s blood is powerful and begins to dissolve his carefully constructed identity: “This is no way to be a father. No way to be a man. But Vlad was a monster before he was a man” (86).

Vlad gives into his instincts. He stalks Paul’s teacher from the rooftops of the city as she returns to her apartment one night. The thrill of the hunt is exhilarating. But as he watches her sleep from outside her window, he cannot decide on the opportune moment to strike. He begins to question whether the school teacher can really satisfy the fantasy he craves. Vlad “wants her to chase him around the world, wants a moonlit showdown in a dark castle” (90), but she cannot give him that. After all, she’s a normal person, a school teacher. The badass woman he craves, the only woman with whom he can ever feel complete, is his own wife, Sarah.

Also back on the hunt after all these years, Sarah spots him on the rooftops and places him in the sites of her vampire hunting rifle. He swoops down to reconnect with her. What results are probably the most emotionally wholesome moments in vampire literature ever written–at least, based on the vampire stories I have read.

“What made you stop?” asks Sarah.

He answers, “She wasn’t you” (91).

This, and the final, heartwarming scene where Vlad and his son play catch in a park–one of the most Halloween father-son moments you will ever read in literature–together conclude a self-affirming and heartwarming story that will leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that Vlad is worthy of the title World’s Best Dad.


You can read “A Kiss with Teeth” at Tor.com
My review of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Weird #5 Casting the Runes by M.R James (1911)

Book reviewing can be a perilous profession, especially when the author of the book in question knows a thing or two about alchemy and Runic magic. In such cases, it is not advised to write an overly negative review, for fear of reprisals on the part of the sorcerer in question. Unfortunately, in M. R. James’s 1911 weird tale “Casting the Runes,” the reviewer, Mr. Harrington, learns this lesson the hard way, and let his fate be a lesson to those in his profession!

M.R. James is a classic author of weird fiction and one of the more influential writers included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales. According to the anthologists, he has influenced H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Ramsey Campbell, and Tanith Lee. His ghost stories are “widely regarded as among the finest in English literature” and they forego the “Gothic trappings” of the supernatural tale to innovate the evolving genre of the weird tale (56). There are no dark castles, vampires, ghosts, or stormy nights in “Casting the Runes,” but there is a bizarre ad on an electric tramway: a notice of the death of Mr. John Harrington, who once negatively reviewed Mr. Karswell’s History of Witchcraft and lived just long enough to regret it.

The man who sees this notice is Mr. Dunning, a specialist in alchemy working for the British Museum and a consultant responsible for the rejection of the same manuscript. Karswell seeks revenge for the rejection of his poorly punctuated book of sorcery, which was, “in point of style and form, quite hopeless” (58). But are the evil rituals of Mr. Karswell more credible than the book’s grammar?

It turns out that Mr. Harrington died shortly after receiving a program at a musical concert that contained a slip of paper printed with a set of red and black runes. The cunning Mr. Karswell, who wrote a chapter on “casting the Runes” in his book, speaks of this form of magic in a way that seems, to Henry Harrington, the deceased’s brother, “to imply actual knowledge” (64). Dunning becomes his next target. Thus, it is up to himself and Henry Harrington to stop Karswell from taking out an uncanny form of revenge.

“Casting the Runes” offers a variation on the empiricism versus supernaturalism dialectic at play in much supernatural fiction. It is fairly common to see supernatural fiction writers pit a scientific explanation of uncanny phenomena against a supernatural explanation, like Blackwood does in “The Willows” and Crawford does in “The Screaming Skull.” Most frequently, the narrator struggles to resolve this epistemological conflict, but falls victim to the supernatural forces at play. However, M.R. James follows a different tact from the authors included thus far in the VanderMeer anthology.

Harrington and Dunning are able to put this epistemological conflict aside to deal with Karswell’s threat as a solvable problem, treating magic under the assumption that it works. In the end, after executing a switch of luggage with Karswell on a train, Dunning and Harrington cast the runes that had been intended for Dunning back onto Karswell himself. Later, he is “instantly killed by a stone falling from the scaffold erected round the north-western tower [of St Wulfram’s Church at Abbeville], there being, as was clearly proved, no workman on the scaffold at that moment” (67). Harrington had learned the rules of rune casting from his brother’s death and puts this knowledge to use in order to help save Dunning. This is a substantial innovation. It is almost as if, by shedding the medievalism of traditional Gothic fiction in which modern people become victimized by the ghosts of the past, James has led the weird tale into the brave new world of the modern era, where this ancient phenomena can be controlled by humans and put to utilitarian use.

As a final note, it is interesting to see how the supernaturalism/empiricism dialectic maps onto a conflict between print culture and oral culture in “Casting the Runes.” Karswell’s book is not only unbelievable, but incompetently written, and one senses that the reason the publishers were so dismissive of Karswell had as much to do with his incompetence at the printed word as his being a magician. Yet, when communicating orally, Karswell’s competence is undeniable. The book “was written in no style at all–split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise” (64). Yet, Harry Harrington admits that Karswell “spoke of all this in a way that really seemed to me to imply actual knowledge” (64). The conflict between empiricism and the supernatural is here drawn along lines of print literacy; though Karswell’s magic is unbelievable in print, the truth of his magic is apparent when communicating orally. The runes themselves, an “odd writing” (63), may even suggest an uncanny in-between form of writing that blurs the boundaries between a largely oral pagan culture and our print-dominated modern culture.

This concludes my discussion of “Casting the Runes.” Next week, I will discuss “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles” (1912), a work of weird fiction by that classic author of fantasy Lord Dunsany.

Weird #4 Srendi Vashtar by Saki (1910)

In “Srendi Vashtar” (1908) by Saki, a sickly boy named Conradin has a lively imagination exasperated by the dreariness of his Edwardian childhood. Having been given five years to live by a doctor whose “opinion counted for very little” (53), he declares, in the midst of his loneliness and boredom, that his polecat-ferret is a god. Founding his own personal religion, he names the “great ferret” Srendi Vashtar (54), an appellation whose syllables could have been lifted from Vedas.

This fourth story in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, is a short story by one of Edwardian England’s most satirical wits who was also a master of the macabre. Saki is the pen name for Hector Hugh Muro, who likely based Conradin’s puritanical cousin on his personal experience growing up in North Devon. According to Wikipedia and Emlyn Williams, he chose the name ‘Saki’ not because he was overfond of sake, the Japanese rice wine, but because ‘Saki’ is the name of a cup bearer in Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. 

“Srendi Vashtar” not only skewers the stuffiness of Edwardian society, but strikes me as a send-up of the pagan revival trope. More than anything else, this story reminded me of Lord Dunsany’s The Blessing of Pan, in the sense that it too comes across as a variant of the Greek myth of Bacchus and Pentheus. Ovid in The Metamorphoses describes how the cult of the god of wine and sex, Bacchus, gains high popularity in the city of Thebes. Pentheus, roughly the ancient Greek equivalent of a puritan, tries to shut the cult down but after denouncing it exhaustively, he is torn to pieces by a frenzied crowd of Bacchus worshipers.

In the same way, Mrs. De Ropp, Conradin’s guardian, tries to get rid of the great ferret, Srendi Vashtar. In the end, Conradin prays to his god, chanting “loudly and defiantly the hymn of his threatened idol:

Srendi Vashtar went forth,

His thoughts were red thoughts

and his teeth were white.

His enemies called for peace,

but he brought them death.

Srendi Vashtar the Beautiful.” (55)

In the end, Srendi Vashtar gets the better of Mrs. De Ropp and “Conradin made himself another piece of toast” (55).

Next week, I review another classic weird tale, “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James (1911).

Weird #3 The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (1907)

No weird tale that I have read captures a sense of dread and impending doom so subtly and beautifully in its descriptions of the natural world as “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1907), the third story included in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales.

In this story, two canoeists journey down the Danube and wind up stranded on a sandy island in the middle of a swampy part of the river that arrests their progress toward Budapest. This part of the river is described as a “region of singular loneliness and desolation…covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes” (27). No one can imbue the natural world with quite the same sense of terrifying, pagan dread as Blackwood. His other story, “The Wendigo,” also captures a sense of a predatory natural world, but nowhere near so exquisitely as in “The Willows.”

The willow forest the canoeists have entered is a living entity, a character in itself that is “full of tricks” and holds a “secret life” (29). The plants and creatures that inhabit it leave an undeniable affect on their human observers. Though the river may be treacherous at times, the two men “forgave her because of her friendliness to the birds and animals that haunted the shores” (29). But it is not long before the river matures and leaves the men at its mercy, aware of their “utter insignificance before this unrestrained power of the elements” (30). In one of the most memorable images, what at first appears to be a man’s body floating in the water–perhaps the body of a fisherman spotted earlier–turns out to be nothing more than an otter that “looked exactly like the body of a drowned man turning helplessly in the current” (32).

In the wake of the Second Industrial Revolution, rapid industrialization and urbanization triggered a pang of guilt in the minds of those who revered nature as a  Romantic entity and as a sublime refuge from the bourgeois city. Blackwood’s species of the weird represents this contradiction in literary terms through its othering of nature, which has turned into an active predator. Representing this breathless terror in the content and style of his writing, Blackwood writes about how the narrator’s emotions of awe, wonder, and uneasiness

seemed to attach [themselves] more particularly to the willow bushes, to these acres and acres of willows, crowding, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach, pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting listening. (31)

Something of the paranoia in “The Wendigo” emerges here, except that the terror is not associated with some separate, carnivorous entity (a First Nations flesh-eating monster) but with the natural world itself. This demon is a projection of the guilt of the industrialized world and a premonition of the environment’s ‘revenge’ upon humanity. Blackwood’s weird tale is all the more horrifying a hundred years after its publication because of our retrospective knowledge that mass extinctions and climate change have been triggered by industrialization.

Perhaps the strangest moment in this story occurs when the narrator thinks he perceives the shapes of non-human entities in the willow branches:

They first became properly visible, these huge figures, just within the tops of the bushes–immense, bronze-coloured, moving, and wholly independent of the swaying branches. […] They were interlaced one with another, making a great column, and I saw their limbs and huge bodies melting in and out of each other, forming this serpentine line that bent and swayed and twisted spirally with the contortions of the wind-tossed trees. (35-6)

These creatures are of the kind that overtired eyes might spot in the complex, swaying patterns of a willow tree in a breeze. After all, humans like to see patterns in random shapes. Yet, for all that the narrator acknowledges the possibility he might be seeing things, he becomes utterly convinced of their absolute reality: “I understood quite well that the standard of reality had changed. For the longer I looked the more certain I became that these figures were real and living, though perhaps not according to the standards that the camera and the biologist would insist upon” (36). These creatures exist according to a different set of laws than Enlightenment science provides. In this singular willow grove, scientifically-defined reality no longer holds sway, suggesting modernity has spread unevenly across Europe, leaving this glade untouched. As one of the characters states, “The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world” (39).

Next week, I will review Saki’s much shorter, though no less bizarre, “Srendi Vashtar” (1910).

Weird #2 The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford (1908)

“The Screaming Skull” (1908) by Francis Marion Crawford, the second story in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, takes us into the mind of disturbed retired sailor as the skull of a possibly murdered friend haunts his guilty conscience. Told in the first person in what the editors call “an outstanding early example of modern monologue, verging on steam-of-consciousness at times” (11), Crawford’s story is also an outstanding example of the fantastic literature of uncertainty.

“No, I am not nervous,” the narrator assures us. “I am not imaginative, and I have never believed in ghosts, unless that thing is one” (11). Those familiar with the concept of an unreliable narrator will see through the narrator’s posturing and recognize the equivocation at play. However, the narrator’s commitment towards finding a naturalistic, rational explanation for the screaming skull that haunts him earns enough of the reader’s trust.

Tzetan Todorov defined his idea of the ‘fantastic’ in his study The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. His definition of the term was much narrower than what we consider fantastic literature today, but the concept he describes fits this story perfectly. Todorov’s fantastic is “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (25). Todorov famously breaks down Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Black Cat” to highlight how the narrator switches back and forth between being convinced that the events he witnesses have a naturalistic explanation and being convinced that what he sees must be supernatural. This narrow genre relies completely on the narrator’s feeling of uncertainty as it struggles to decide whether a haunting is genuinely supernatural or not.

Todorov could have called “The Screaming Skull” a paradigm of ‘fantastic’ literature–except that the uncertainty is ultimately resolved at the end. In this supernatural tale, the rational mind of an ex-sailor, one Captain Charles Braddock, the narrator, is pitted against a suggestion of a supernatural cause lying behind the death of his friend Mr. Pratt, a country doctor.

Mr. Pratt tells the narrator that he suspects his wife is planning to poison him. During their conversation, Charles alludes to a legend about a woman who poured molten lead into the ears of her four husbands, murdering them while they slept. After Mrs. Pratt turns up dead, Mr. Pratt suffers profound grief and anxiety. He “grew thinner and thinner, till his head looked like a skull with parchment stretched over it very tight” (12). Finally, he is found dead on the beach with markings on his neck and a human skull lying in the sand, placed in such a way that it appears to be staring at his face.

Did the skull itself kill Mr. Pratt, or did his death and the coincidental placing of the skull have another explanation? This question comes to obsess Charles until the very end of the story, when the supernatural reality of the skull is confirmed. Thus, “The Screaming Skull,” though it features strong elements of Todorov’s ‘fantastic,’ ultimately becomes what Todorov would call the ‘marvelous,’ or a genuine supernatural tale.

Charles’s sense of guilt also has something to do with why he feels such a powerful repulsion at the thought of the screaming skull. He suspects that it might be Mrs. Pratt’s skull, screaming at him to remind him of his terrible guilt. If Mr. Pratt actually murdered Mrs. Pratt, which Charles suspects, then it would also be true that Charles as good as killed Mrs. Pratt himself, since Charles, in a spirit of grim amusement, suggested the M.O.: the pouring of molten lead into the ears of a slumbering spouse.

Charles becomes obsessed over whether he will find a ball of lead rattling inside the skull. Its existence would prove that it was, in fact Mrs. Pratt. His need to avoid the terrible burden of guilt by association motivates his intellectual hesitation.

“[M]y taste never ran in the direction of horrors,” Charles tells the narrator, “and I don’t fancy you care for them either, do you? No. If you did, you might supply what is wanting to the story” (15). Equivocal statements like this suggest that a supernatural explanation for Mr. Pratt’s death does exist, although Charles is suppressing his admission of this reality. Acknowledging the existence of the marvelous would resolve his ambiguities, but he remains meticulously stubborn. As Charles proceeds, like a detective, to locate any evidence of the skull’s commonplaceness, all he uncovers is further proof of its supernatural properties, until it becomes increasingly clear that he is latching at straws and is on the cusp of madness himself.

Next week, I will dig into the next strata of my archaeology of weird fiction and review Algernon Blackwood’s florid descriptions of the natural world in his famous weird tale, “The Willows” (1909).