The Big Idea: Christopher Buehlman
Posted on September 16, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 14 Comments
You can admire literature for the craft that an author puts into his or her words, but the words are supposed to be working too — building a world that thrills or chills you — and a writer’s real craft is in creating work that does both. Debut novelist Christopher Buehlman has been thinking a lot about that balance, not just for his own novel Those Across the River, but in how other writers have pulled off the trick… or didn’t. Here are his thoughts.
I spent much of my adult life as a disappointed horror fan; as a teenager, I reveled in the work of Stephen King, whom I will always respect for his massive contributions to the horror genre, and whose early novels remain high on my shelf. As I broadened my reading, however, I discovered that, all too often, the book that thrilled my dark side and the book that made me drunk with its use of language were not the same book.
How many of us, and by ‘us’ I mean the psychic masochists who dare writers to reach into our minds and tickle our amygdalas, have suffered through awful prose, two-dimensional characters or poorly-researched historical passages just to get our spooky little fix? When did horror and literature sign their divorce papers? They got along so well in Frankenstein, after all. I will say that Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is the finest modern example I can name of literature and horror working together. Hill House’s bastard child, The Shining, is so damned scary it can be easy to forget what a fully realized character Jack Torrance is, and how credibly entwined the history of the Overlook hotel is with the ghoulies that set up shop there–but I will go to the mat for The Shining; it holds up.
After that, though, the list gets skinny.
My favorite mainstream books (i.e., books in which all the monsters are on the inside) were mostly written in the first half of the twentieth century, and they usually involve broken protagonists and doomed or unrequited love. Two authors dominate that landscape for me. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the prettiest one. He had such a luscious prose style, and so deeply understood the narcotic effects of love and the need to be in love. Hemingway, too, with his yang, shirtsleeves gallop, knew how to tell a love story and break our hearts with it. And there was something so compelling about the excesses of Fitzgerald’s 1920’s, and the way the Depression knocked everything down and brought us eye-to-eye with Hemingway’s earthiness.
Robert Penn Warren was a big influence, too. All the King’s Men was that rare beast, a high school lit assignment that I actually enjoyed. At fifteen, I didn’t have the palate to appreciate most of the hoary old classics they yoked us with, but in Penn Warren’s masterpiece I found the language so delicious and the story so compelling that I burned through it and revisited it about once a decade thereafter. It didn’t hurt that he was a first-class poet as well as a novelist. The depression-era southern setting, the haunting love story and the idea that secrets won’t stay buried fascinated me, still fascinate me, and resonate in Those Across the River.
My biggest literary debt goes further back than the 1930’s, though. The skeleton of Those Across the River is borrowed from Greek mythology. I didn’t stick to the story slavishly, of course, any more than Penn Warren did in his exploration of the Oedipus myth, or Steinbeck when he used Exodus as the bones of The Grapes of Wrath; but the basic structure is there, and mythology enthusiasts should be able to identify which narrative I’m playing with.
So there you have the Big Idea. Horror, love, myth and historicity. I desperately wanted to read a horror novel that was also a well-written and evocative human story.
So, gods willing, I wrote one.
Those Across the River: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Follow the author on Twitter.
I would say that King has quite a few more contributions that “hold up,” than just The Shining. If this book can compare to the majority of King’s novels it will be an achievement. After checking it out on Amazon it does seem like my kind of book.
I am excited to see this on your blog today…I’ve seen Christopher for several years as “Christoph the Insulter/Insult Guy” at our local Renassaince Festival. He’s actually great fun to watch. :) I’ll definitely be picking up his book.
Wow. I was sold from the cover and the first few paragraphs. Can’t wait to read it!
Please excuse if this is too far afield, but I have a question about titles like this. Why do so many novels have “… a novel” on the cover? Is it a legal thing?
I’ve seen “a novel” mostly on books whose marketing is aiming for out-of-genre literary cachet (whether or not they have genre content). I always assumed publishers used it to signal that.
It may also have something to do with the cover art; we’re trending away from the obvious sci-fi/fantasy covers (thank God!) and towards this more abstract style that could signify a number of things. I, for one, could see this basic cover design being used for a John Krakauer depiction of, say, life in some of those places where water defines how you live. That would be non-fiction, so putting “a novel” on the cover at least signifies something of what’s inside.
That’s my theory anyway. ;)
P.S. By “obvious sci-fi/fantasy covers” I mean lurid pulp art, of course. Any artist who was on this year’s Hugo ballot (for example) is also obviously sci-fi/fantasy, but not that to which I was referring.
It slays me that most of the featured ‘big idea’ books are not available on kindle. Is there a reason they are not?
Shannon, this one is available on Kindle.
Now THAT is how one writes a Big Idea piece! Anyone who is going to do one should read this first.
Well done Mr. Buehlman.
Chris – maybe it’s just not available in Canada? When I search kindle books all that comes up is the Hardcover and audio versions. If you know of a way around this please let me know, I’d love to get a digital version!
Damn you, Scalzi. Every time you post one of these, I buy it, then lose 3 hours of sleep as I read it cover to cover in 24 hours. I’m a couple books behind, so it’s really been cutting into my sleep budget. All that said, the targeted blurbs make it a lot easier to buy these. Now I need to go buy the latest dang one you’ve got posted, and discover yet another awesome author whose back catalog I can all get at my local Excellent Science Fiction Shoppe (Uncle Hugo’s in Minneapolis, naturally).
So I bought this book based on this post and the Kindle sample…and man, did I enjoy it. Thanks for providing this exposure to some good books, Scalzi, and thanks for the thoroughly enjoyable and well-written book, Chris.