Rules of Fiction with Ken Brosky
Steven Graham Jones’ Ethereal Slasher
I’ve been dying to write about Stephen Graham Jones’ book, The Only Good Indians. The problem is, every time I start writing about something specific, someone else gets to it first! That’s the downside with such an amazing novel, I suppose: there’s no shortage of people singing its praises. I’m not going to waste your time repeating what’s already been said. Suffice it to say, you need to read this book. It’s far and away the best horror novel I’ve read in a long, long time.
I want to talk specifically about the monster in the book, so don’t go any further until you finish it. I’ll have a couple spoilers below.
One of the weirdest tropes to come out of 1980’s cinema was the “teens who deserve it” in slasher films. And when I say “weird,” I’m talking specifically about the fact that many of the teens who “deserve” their deaths at the hands of Jason, Freddy, and Michael Meyers (among countless others) were simply having premarital sex. The idea of an unstoppable being going after people wasn’t really new in the 1980’s, but that decade definitely left its stain on the genre. Suddenly, the Final Girl became a hero–marked, often, by her unwillingness to commit the cardinal sin of premarital sex. It became a difficult cliche to avoid, and only the best (like, for example, the fantastic movie It Follows) were capable of utilizing it.
But Elk Head Woman, the ethereal monster in Jones’ novel, is a different breed entirely. She’s seeking a form of revenge that’s normally reserved for human beings. She wants her victims to die for the hurt they caused her. And what drove me giddy throughout The Only Good Indians is I could never tell who the protagonist was. Jones does such a good job of humanizing his characters and making them real people, that I found myself again and again thoroughly surprised at their inevitable demise.
It wasn’t until I reached the end that I found myself wondering if I should just start rooting for Elk Head Woman and be done with it. And that’s not because I wasn’t rooting for her victims–I totally was! I love a good redemption story! The problem (in a good way) is that Elk Head Woman is as thoroughly realized as any of the other characters. Consider, for example, one of the later scenes told from the perspective of the novel’s killer:
From the herd, you have the scent and the taste and the sound of Richard Boss Ribs getting beat to death in that parking lot in North Dakota, and you felt Lewis Clarke catching bullets with his chest, his body dancing against your own, his arms holding you like you were all that mattered, but this time you’re going to see it happen … It’s going to be different. It’s going to be better. It’s going to have been worth the wait.
Aside from the incredible writing, look at how Jones uses “you” to force the reader into Elk Head Woman’s perspective. Her victims are so richly detailed, so deep and well-developed, that you want every single one of them to get through this. But at the same time, you begin to feel the pain of Elk Head Woman, too! How does Jones do this so well?
I think it goes beyond the well-developed characters (but that’s definitely one of the novel’s strengths). I have another idea, one you can try for yourself in your own writing.
Writing Exercise: The Creature You Fear Most
The best monsters in horror have subtext. They represent something greater. For Elk Head Woman, you can read about how she’s been interpreted as a representation of a clash of cultures, and of course the guilt of a tragic event that took place in the past. In other words, she’s not simply a monster out for blood.
We’re going to learn from this and build our own monster. Then you’re going to put the monster into a story. And we’re gonna have a ton of fun doing it. All you need to start is a simple character who’s become lost in a forest.
The monster: A mushroom. Not just any mushroom: this is a strange, white mushroom that grows everywhere in a lush forest. Underground, its mycelium stretches everywhere. Roots of trees and bushes and grass all connect to this mycelium network (read more about this process here).
The Metaphor: Guilt (an easy emotion to work with in this situation). Something happened in this forest. Something bad. Your protagonist is haunted by it–or maybe not just yet–and now finds him/herself lost in the forest. The mushrooms are spreading. He/she can’t touch them because they appear to be acidic. Everywhere your protagonist steps, the mushrooms rise out of the ground.
More stuff: The forest is communicating through the mycelium network. The mushrooms are spreading rapidly, closing in on your protagonist as he/she ventures deeper into the forest. Your protagonist must come to terms with the past. Maybe your protagonist even has to make an offering to the forest for the past transgression. However you decide to approach this, be creative. What if the story was told from the perspective of the trees? What if your protagonist becomes part of the mycelium network?
In the end, monster horror scares us precisely because it represents something familiar. Make this a weapon in your writing arsenal.
Rules of fiction with Ken Brosky