Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Role of the Supernatural in Character Development

There are some obvious similarities between The Amityville Horror (the 1979 film; I've never read the Jay Anson book) and The Shining (the 1980 film and, of course, the Stephen King novel). There is an evil house/hotel that terrorizes its inhabitants. Both stories also feature a lead male/father character who is extremely afflicted within the surroundings.
  • George Lutz. James Brolin portrays this real person as a man who doesn't waste words. Gruff, with hints of a temper lurking close to the surface. He recently married Kathy, who has three kids from a prior relationship. The newly formed family is still getting used to life together.
  • Jack Torrance. In comparison to the George Lutz film character, we're given much more insight (via the novel) into Jack and the personal history that led him to The Overlook. Alcoholism, rage, drunkenly breaking his son Danny's arm, hints at his misogynistic nature.
Family tensions fill these stories, before the horror starts
When these stories begin, everything isn't peaches and cream. The families grapple with various tensions before moving into the doomed house/hotel.

In Amityville, there are fragile relationships with stepkids; newlyweds who will have to scrimp and scrape to make mortgage payments. A man who likely led a rather solitary, independant life before marriage, suddenly thrust into the role of family man.

In The Shining, there's unemployment, writer's block. A recovering alcoholic with violent tendencies. A strained marriage, and worry about what's going on inside the son's head.

When the lead male character starts to act out, his behavior plays right into the wife's insecurities, anxieties, and fears about the relationship.

When the babysitter gets locked in the closet in Amityville, George and Kathy ask daughter Amy why she didn't open the door. Amy blames her unseen "friend" Jody. George bluntly tells Kathy that it's about time her kids had some damn discipline. The look on Kathy's face says it all. He just touched a nerve. She worries he will never accept her kids as his own, that he doesn't respect her as a mother, etc.

Later on, when Kathy tries to convince him to abandon the malevolent house, he says, "You're the one that wanted a house. This is it, so just shut up!" Another hint at the non-supernatural tensions that pulled at their lives before they moved into the house.

"I've  always been crazy,
but it's kept me from going insane"
- Waylon Jennings
Did the supernatural create his behavior,
or just push him over the edge?
How much influence does the supernatural have on George and Jack's misbehavior? Does the supernatural possess George/Jack, causing them to act negatively against their will? Or does the supernatural sense negativity within George/Jack, and use it to exploit their natural tendencies? Or do George/Jack sense a supernatural presence, then react to it in the same (albiet more extreme) way they would react to any other external stressor (work stress, family stress, etc.) - i.e. by lashing out?

According to Wikipedia,  Stephen King "viewed Jack as being victimized by the genuinely external supernatural forces haunting the hotel, whereas Kubrick's take viewed the haunting and its resulting malignancy as coming from within Jack himself."

Based on how these lead male characters operate in the beginning (before the horror starts) - and based on the backstories provided - the lead male's intense/undesirable actions (as a reaction to and/or result of supernatural forces) don't contradict the way they've been characterized.

Yes, the walls drip blood and there are bad vibes in Room 217. However, the most compelling aspect of these stories is the unraveling of the lead male and the family dynamic. The supernatural horror and male misbehavior is an external extension of darker impulses glimmering in the depths of the lead male characters - impulses that their wives had previously sensed, but believed/hoped would never surface.

Within the world of these stories, perhaps it is easier for the wives to accept their husbands' misbehavior once they begin to believe that their husbands are influenced by supernatural forces. What's scarier? A supernatural presence that can take over your mind and personality, or realizing that someone you love (and even yourself) has undesirable capacities?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Maintaining Mystery

I recently finished In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O' Brien. This novel is built around an unsolved mystery labeled as fiction, and since it is not chronicling a real life event, the author is free to "solve" the mystery any way he wants to. Except he doesn't.
Unsolved Mystery

John Wade has suffered a crushing political defeat, due in part to public revelations of his questionable actions during the Vietnam War. His time in Vietnam - and the death of his alcoholic/verbally abusive father - haunt John's mind and memories. When the reader meets John, it is clear that he is quite unsettled. His wife Kathy soon disappears, leaving a missing boat as the only significant clue.

Despite a comprehensive search, no one can figure out what happened. The local police, family members, and acquaintances suspect John of killing her. Some chalk it up to an unfortunate boating accident. With post traumatic stress that causes him to drift from reality, even John can't say for sure what he was doing the night his wife vanished.

At first it seems a novel with an omniscent (or objective) third-person narrator. But there are well-placed footnotes and chapters dedicated to collected "evidence." Through these techniques, the reader realizes that the narrator is some kind of reporter/investigative writer, and the novel is the narrator's way of presenting a comprehensive overview of the case. I wasn't sure if this narrator was a fictional character enmeshed in the world of the novel; Tim O' Brien caught up in the midst of creating this novel and speaking directly to the reader; or a fictional extension/alter ego of O' Brien.

I started thinking - why don't we find out what happened to Kathy? Is it a cop-out on O' Brien's part? Maybe he couldn't decide what would sit better with readers: if John actually killed Kathy or if he was innocent? If Kathy died or just ran off and made herself scarce so she could start a new life?

To me, the most acceptable scenario is that the narrator is a fictional character within the world of John Wade, Kathy, and the others. It becomes clear that many of the chapters are pure hypothesis - the narrator's explorations of possible scenarios that could've befallen both Kathy and John. If the narrator is a fictional character, then the fact that we don't find out what happened to Kathy is no longer in danger of being a cop-out on the part of the author, but a more realistic mirror of what so often happens in reality. Watch a few episodes of Dateline, and you remember that crimes and odd happenings can go unsolved for decades, despite the amount of people involved/interviewed/investigated.

Sometimes in life there are no answers, despite how bad we want them. The narrator acknowledges this phenomenon in several of the novel's footnotes (one of which, if you read all of it - not just what I included below - is perhaps the most direct nod to the narrator's role within the novel):

"Our own children, our fathers, our wives and husbands: Do we truly know them? How much is camouflage? How much is guessed at?"

"Mystery finally claims us...The ambiguity may be dissatisfying, even irritating...Blame it on the human heart. One way or another, it seems, we all perform vanishing tricks, effacing history, locking up our lives and slipping day by day into graying shadows. Our whereabouts are uncertain. All secrets lead to the dark, and beyond the dark there is only maybe."
[Excerpts from In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O'Brien]

Writing and exploring the deep psychological well of the human condition  - specifically the premise that we can never know everything about another human - is interesting, yet difficult. There still has to be enough substance within the work to interest the reader, even if the mystery is never fully revealed.

People in life don't walk around with nametags that identify them as this or that. And even if they did, there is never just one nametag/label that can sum up the complex nature of an individual. So should our fictional characters' motivations/longings/personalities, etc. be definitively labelled within our writing, just because as writers, we have the power to create them?