I learned something very important today while reading American Gothic, Amy Gentry’s haunting review of Shirley Jackson’s life and newest book, in the Chicago Tribune’s weekly Printers Row. “Like James, Jackson was a master of understatement, not subtlety,” Gentry writes. “Her stories telegraph every nuance with a crispness, giving them an accessibility that accounts for their ubiquity in mid-century magazines and high school syllabi; by withholding the final piece of the puzzle, she made sure she would never have to write her own punchlines. Agonized readers wrote them in for her, or, if they couldn’t, wrote to the New Yorker in anguish.”
I tried to write like Jackson in each of the 20 very short stories of The Devil Made Me Do It: Twenty Contemporary Tales of Subtle Horror. Unlike my novels and later stories which tend to be more explicit (heh heh), I revealed the gun hanging on the wall over the mantle in the first scene but never let you hear the shot when the gun was finally fired. I would reveal the knife in the murderer’s hand, but never the cruelest cuts. Those scenes were left to the reader’s imagination to supply. That worked incredibly well in some stories, not so well in others.
Stephen King builds up his reveals slowly over time, and when he finally does reveal the face of the monster hiding in the closet or under the bed he lets you hear the gun going off, feel the blade penetrating flesh, taste the blood. He doesn’t hold his punches. Or, rather, he does hold his punches until the knockout round. And then he lets you have it with both fists and both barrels. By the time he goes for the gross-out, readers are ready for it, hungry for it. Steve has readers hanging on his every sentence as he drags out the excruciating anguish. He knows how to build expectation, and he always delivers on his promises.
We writers study the works of other writers with a combination of gratefulness and envy. Gratefulness that they showed us how it’s done; envy at the seemingly effortless way they did it.
But mastery of the craft is far from effortless. Everyone who writes realizes that writers we admire anguish over words the same way we do. Stories are a dime a dozen, but the right word in the right place at the right time is priceless.
Subtlety and understatement have their place in horror. The written works that stay with us longest are not the ones that hit us over the head but that gnaw away at us from inside. Like Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Or like King’s The Green Mile. There are hidden universal truths in great literature that endure long after the last word is written or read. Stephen King hinted at that in Finders Keepers, King’s latest novel. He has hinted at it in other works, too, if you bother to look.
William Faulkner is the writer who has probably influenced me most. Like Jackson and King, Faulkner knew the old universal truths and embedded them in his writing. When I read, I mine for hidden nuggets. Reading and writing has made me a rich man. Like Pete Saubers in King’s Finders Keepers, when I discover hidden gold buried in my backyard, my life becomes changed forever.
Thank you Amy Gentry for giving me insight today. Thank you Shirley Jackson, William Faulkner, and Stephen King for giving me insight that lasts a lifetime.