On Genre Mashups


January 25, 2018


So what do you do if you have a story to tell and you realize that the best way to tell it will require introducing an element that’s not quite, shall we say, of this world? Should you worry about narrowing your market or having your work be pigeonholed as fantasy, supernatural, science fiction, or some other category that doesn’t really fit your vision of your tale?

Consider Diana Gabaldon’s hugely successful Outlander series.Here we have eight novels, ranging from five hundred to nearly eleven hundred pages long, which collectively depend on a single premise: a post-WW2 British nurse time-travels back two hundred years. There are no other supernatural gimmicks, nor does the author explain herself with quantum physics or wormholesin space; it’s just there, presented as it is, take it or leave it. Don’texplain the inexplicable; it only makes readers’ minds go into critical mode,which is not the mode you want them in. You want them to care about yourcharacter and to want to know what’s going to happen next.

Then there’s Haruki Murakami’s 1Q94, a multi-faceted miracle involving parallel universes. One has two moons, but with just a fewexceptions 1Q84 is primarily a mystery and a love story.

I spent a lot of time reading so-called speculative and supernatural fiction when I was a kid, plowing through the science fiction classics, Edgar Allen Poe, ghost stories, and, later, early Stephen King, but my tastes changed, tending toward mysteries, thrillers, and the occasional oddballs like Cloud Atlas that defy categorization. I was far removed from my otherworldly roots when I conceived my first published novel, Down Solo. In fact, the premise, which just spilled out of my brain on its own, was so foreign to me that I didn’t know how to proceedafter the first paragraph, which went like this:

They say once a junkie, always a junkie, but this is ridiculous. I haven’t been dead more than a few hours and I already need a fix. It doesn’t make sense; my blog isn’t even circulating, but it’s the process I crave—copping, cooking, tying off, finding a vein, the slow, steady pressure of thumb on plunger, and now it’s my first order of business.

Okay, clearly a throwaway idea. Who cares about dead junkies?And if he’s dead, how do we account for him narrating? At best, I had a sketch for a story that would appeal to a very narrow slice of the general readership.

But then the character’s predicament stuck with me. How did heget that way? Maybe he had been murdered. Hmmm . . . Maybe he was a private eye. On a case. A case that got him killed.

A detective story! A noir gumshoe tale, where the gumshoe has to solve his own murder. Noir, as in dark, and what could be darkerthan death?

Now, technically, noir fiction is distinct from the hardboiled genre in that the protagonist is not a detective but instead a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Other common characteristics include the self-destructive qualities of the protagonist. But my guy is a victim with self-destructive qualities, so I’m going to blur the distinction. Another defining feature of noir is a regular Joe, out of his element, in over his head, bumbling through a series of escalating dangeroussituations with limited information and resources. I can work with that.

Maybe I can actually go somewhere with this. So I elaborate on Charlie’s condition:

One of the advantages of being dead is that people don’t expectyou to get up and walk away. I don’t imagine it happens often at the morgue, anyway, or they would take precautions against it. Not that I think I’m the first to remain awake through the entire process of dying, or even of one’s own murder, perfectly aware of the bullet smacking into my skull, tunneling through my brain, bouncing off bone and ricocheting around like a bee in a bottle.

I must have blacked out for a bit after it happened. There was a roaring sound, like a hurricane, that drowned out anything from the outside and made thinking impossible.

When the roaring subsided, I woke up disoriented before I realized where I was: disembodied and looking down at the mess that was once me, lying naked on a gurney. I roamed around the room, light as a whisper, fast as a thought, and then returned to the body. When I got close enough, it pulled me in like an inhalation, and suddenly I felt the heaviness of physical being again. It took me a while to figure out that I could move my fingers, stretch, sit up, and even see through my own eyes. Running the body was cumbersome, like wearing a gorilla suit.

So now that I’m in familiar territory—a hardboiled detective story—I can proceed as if nothing extraordinary has happened, although along the way I give Charlie a few gifts consistent with his predicament. For one thing, he can leave the body and “roam,” which gives him some convenient eavesdropping opportunities. He also, in one sequence, taps into a latent ability to self-repair.

At this point, I have a structural puzzle to solve: how do I reveal the events leading up to Charlie’s murder? Well, since he has a bulletin his brain, let’s give him a faulty memory. Now we can dish the backstory out piecemeal, similar to the way Leonard Shelby’s recent past is revealed in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant film, Memento.

This structural plan ran into trouble when the backstory and real-time events within the narrative finally converged, at which point all the elements of my story would dovetail neatly, the villain vanquished and the hero intact and wiser as my novel reached its brilliant climax. The problem was that I reached this point at page 90, a nice count for a novella but not what I had in mind.

The Greeks and the Romans had their pantheons of gods representing aspects of the mind, Freud and Jung had their respective maps of the human psyche, and now we have modern explorations of consciousness using brain scans to see what lights up during arousal, fear, craving, pleasure, and pain. All theories of the mind indicate that most of the processing happens below the threshold of awareness. This is especially apparent in the creative process, as once you get past being stuck—like I was when I seemingly finished my book at its eventual midpoint—new ideas arrive like welcome guests dropping by on their own. What began as a problem became a stepping stone, a pivot point or fulcrum for the story to evolve on a bigger canvas.

Throughout all this process, I was simply creating a crime story, albeit with a twist. In my eventual pitch for an agent, I would write:

Down Solo borrows from Stephen King only to the extent that, generally, people don’t reanimate their bodies and continue daily life. Otherwise, the novel is more or less a straightforward Chandleresque mystery.

Once I inhabited Charlie Miner’s world, which I had to do in order to create it, I took the supernatural twist for granted and just plowed on. Of course, it’s imperative that we pay attention to internal consistency and maintain a sense of logicality—there should be some rules that govern our inventions, no matter how outlandish they might be. Time travel has its intrinsic problems and paradoxes; parallel universes require some sense of order so that character motivation and cause-and-effect remain intact; and animating a dead body must have its governing laws.

Speaking of which, it’s important when you rely on an extraordinary element to limit it. In Down to No Good, my upcoming sequel to Down Solo, Charlie Miner sets the parameters on his abilities by telling us this:

Let’s get clear on my condition. I don’t know what it is, but I know what it is not. I am not a vampire, or a zombie, or a ghost. I’m not a thousand years old, Ihave no superpowers, and I’ve never been a hero.

When I first jotted down the initial ten pages of Down Solo, I showed them to a friend who is a successful writer/director. He told me he loved the junkie detective idea and that I should just go with that and leave out the waking-up-dead part, which sounded to him like a gimmick. I pondered this. I trusted Michael’s opinion, and I wanted him to like the novel once it was finished, but I wanted to see it through on my own terms.

What I found is that the only way to redeem a gimmick is to give it purpose. The supernatural or fantasy element can’t just be window dressing, something to spice up an otherwise conventional story. Nor should it be a way to allow impossible things to happen so that an otherwise untenable plot can move forward. My hope is that I succeeded in transforming my gimmick—CharlieMiner wakes up dead at the morgue and re-inhabits his body—so that it provides a subtext of deeper meaning than would be possible without it: redemption, the nature of being, the question of life after death. Not that these themes can’t be explored without invoking the supernatural, but in the last analysis this isthe way my gut told me to carry on.

The Canadian writer Brian Moore’s Cold Heaven gave me a template for Charlie Miner. A woman is on vacation with her husband when he is apparently killed in a boating accident in the Mediterranean. Confirmed dead at the hospital, he nevertheless gathers his things and disappears, reappearing sporadically throughout the novel. His condition is never explained, but his wife—who had been about to leave him for her lover—is now faced with the impossibility of his existence. Is she delusional? Is she the recipient of legitimate spiritual visions? Is there a God, and is God’s will benign? Or is it so alien as to be chilling, something to turn away from?

Let’s try an experiment in creating a story that is in the main pretty much straightforward but has a single extraordinary feature. I’m going to spin out a theme and then invite you to plug in your own variations (I’m notpromising originality here, just winging it).

Will knows that he’s different from other kids by the time he’s six years old. Before that, he thought everyone could hear each other’s thoughts, but on his sixth birthday he found out just how wrong he was. On that day—one he would never forget—Will realized he had a secret to keep, and that the cost of sharing it could be drastic. (The point here is to introduce your special element, or supernatural talent, early, as it can be jarring to a reader to be immersed in a story—thinking it’s a traditional one—and suddenly be confronted with something otherworldly.)

His parents invite the entire family—all his aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents—plus his best friend. When it’s time to open his presents, his mom’s new boyfriend, Frank, gives him a wrapped box. Frank is smiling as he hands over the gift, but Will distinctly hears him say, “You’re a little prick like your old man. I might have to smack you into shape someday.” Except that his lips aren’t moving and the sound is in Will’s head. And his mom is smiling, so she can’t have heard it. Feeling like he’s about to explode, Will says, “You’re the prick! And besides, I already have a baseball glove,” and he storms out of the room. His mom and Frank break up that night and Will gets sent off to summer camp in the Berkshires.

Now, at thirty, Will is used to keeping the constant chatter of people’s thoughts at bay, only using his ability when it seems useful. Like now, as he sits in a police interrogation room . . .

Like I said, I’m improvising. But what we have is an introduction to a character, an extraordinary ability, a significant past event, and a current challenge.

Now, jot down your responses to these questions: 

  • What’s your special element? 
  • Can your character see, or dream, future events? Heal by touching? Communicate with animals and see through their eyes? 
  • When did he or she first become aware of their unusual ability? 
  • Did they tell anyone—a parent, a sibling, a friend? Or did they learn to hide it? (Invent an anecdote or two about growing up with a strange talent.)
  • How old is the character now, in the present time of the narrative? 
  • What is his or her situation? 
  • What is the challenge that will require employing the talent? 
  • Are there moral/ethical considerations to using it? 
  • And, will the adversary have the same (or another) extraordinary ability? (If so, you may be committing to a clearly defined genre, one that is outside the scope of this article.)

One thing I would caution against is the “It was all a dream” ploy, as in the ending to The Wizard of Oz, unless the dream serves a larger purpose in explaining something about the dreamer. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis gives us an alternative life for Jesus, one in which he marries, has children, and experiences life as a normal human. When he awakens on the cross, he realizes that it was all a vision, a dream of what might have been. But instead of a being a storyteller’s copout,the dream gives meaning to Jesus’ surrender to his larger purpose.

One of my favorite books in the last few years is Michael Gruber’s Tropic of Night. This detective thriller involves Siberian shamanism, Yoruba sorcery, powerful psychotropic agents, and ritual murder. It takes us from Miami to Africa and back, delving into anthropology, ethnography, and madness as we try to unravel, along with Detective Jimmy Paz, the mystery of a serial killer of pregnant women. There are passages that test the limits of the psychological and take us into the spooky realm of darker possibilities than we admit to in normal life. Is this a transgression, a violation of a genre boundary? If so, it is done so compellingly that I welcome it at every juncture. Alternatively, all the strangeness might simply be a matter of altered perception: smoke and mirrors and a few hallucinogenic powders sprinkled into the atmosphere, skewing reality for our protagonist. Tropic of Night teases the edge between the world as we know it and the supernatural and keeps a tight grip on the reader’s attention without requiring a leap of faith or even suspension of disbelief. As Gruber himself states, “The point is, there’s no supernatural. It’s all part of the universe, although theuniverse is queerer than we suppose.”

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