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Should the reader do all the work?

WiresIn previous columns I’ve looked at the things that make horror comics unique from any other branch of the genre. This month I’d like to have a bit of a gripe about something that isn’t unique to comics and currently plagues the genre as a whole. My bête noire is the writer who ‘likes the reader to do some of the work for them’.

In artistic terms, this preference has often been considered a noble aim. A brave attempt on the part of the writer to go beyond the restrictions of conventional story telling and provoke the reader to think. The only problem for me, as a reader, is that the main thought this type of story often provokes is ‘what was all that about?’ and ‘how can I claw back that hour of my life this writer just wasted?’

Arty craft and crafting art

My problem with the concept of letting the reader do a portion of the writer’s work stems from the emphasis I place on craft as a writer. I’ll happily admit that you don’t need to be a master craftsman to create great art, but the better you get at your craft, the more you stack the odds in favour of you creating something great.

This means I can’t help wondering how we’d react if other people who master a craft took the same high handed stance as these writers. If you paid a plumber to put in a toilet and you came back to find the job half done, how would you react if they handed you a monkey wrench and told you they ‘like their customers to do some of the work for them’? Would you admire their bravery as you beheld a toilet with all its internal workings laid bare? Or would you hand them back the wrench and demand they finish the job you paid them for?

The same pretty much goes for anyone whose talents you professionally employ, from the person you pay to build you a website to the chef at any restaurant you patronise. When that plate is put in front of you, you expect the person who has cooked your meal to have finished the job. You don’t expect them to hand you a spatula and tell you to work out how much longer it’s going to take till your fish is done.

I write for a living, so if I have to do another writer’s work for them, then frankly I’d rather start from scratch myself. Or at the very least I’d expect a share of the profits the writer made from the story. They’re expecting me to collaborate with them on it after all.

If you went to a concert and the composer handed you the baton three quarters of the way through the performance and told you to finish the symphony yourself, you’d feel as put out as if you’d visited an art gallery and the artist handed you a brush and told you to finish their mural for them. This is not behaviour we’d tolerate in any other field, so why do we think it so admirable when a writer, especially a writer of horror fiction, does it?

I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids and your pesky explanation

Ramsey CampbellAt this point in the column, I have to step down from my soapbox and sheepishly admit that some of my favourite horror writers, Robert Aiken, Ramsey Campbell and Gene Wolfe among them, write stories that demand the reader do some of the work for them. I’d also like to answer the tirade of rhetorical questions I launched above, by suggesting a few instances when it is a good idea to get the reader to do some of the work.

The first instance is when the story works most effectively if you make the reader put everything together once they’ve finished reading it. So that the story is most scary when everything slowly coalesces in your mind maybe minutes, maybe months later. And when it does, the shock and the horror you feel is so much greater because it’s had so much longer to creep up on you and sink its teeth into your soul.

Another instance is when it’s just plain scarier not to know quite what’s going on. When the irrational breaks through into the every day world in ways that are simply inexplicable. In a rational world where every phenomena has a pat explanation, events and experiences that subvert and challenge our rational paradigms can be truly unsettling. Suddenly we’ve strayed into an incomprehensible new reality and are at the mercy of a metaphysical dream logic that threatens to destroy all our old perceptions of the world. To tie all this up with a neat ending that contrives to rationalise the whole experience, can be as unsatisfying as seeing the rubber mask torn off the face of the disguised diamond smuggler in Scooby Doo.

In these instances it’s a great idea for the writer to let the reader do some of the work, because sharing the work enhances the story and the reader’s experience. It empowers the reader and provokes their imagination. It can even get them to view the world around them in new and alarming ways and there’s nothing more you can ask of a horror story.

Here comes the but…

This is not always the case however. All too often I think ‘letting the reader do some of the work’ is a cop out on the writer’s part. A way to avoid properly finishing their work and to express their ambivalence for the reader.

Yellow HeatEndings are often the most important part of a story. They’re also the hardest thing to come up with, especially in horror comics where it’s customary to try and wrong foot the reader with an O Henry style surprise ending (for the best example of this check out Yellow Heat). Sometimes as a writer, you can come up with a great opening for a story or a great premise and then have no idea how to develop it. The deadline looms and we’re still no closer to working out how the whole thing ties up.

In these instances it is very tempting to fall back on the old ‘let the reader do some of the work’ trick. Build up to what appears to be a real climax then at the last minute throw in some grammatically implausible sentences with an utterly incomprehensible incident and leave the reader hanging. Maybe we try and shock the reader by introducing a character at the last minute that we’ve never referred to before, who speaks some lines of seemingly profound gibberish before our protagonist seems to die (or does he?) or even have one of the lead characters act so mysteriously out of character that the reader is too confused to notice that the story has ended and no-one is sure quite what transpired or why.

If anyone challenges us on this, we simply tell them we’re pushing at the boundaries of what’s possible in short horror fiction and challenging the reader’s notion of consensus reality. The answers are all there, the reader just has to look a little harder. ‘What do you mean you didn’t get it? Oh dear I am disappointed in you.’ I’ve had conversations with editors of anthologies about stories that confused me and on many occasions the editor has admitted that they haven’t got a clue what was going on either. They didn’t say anything because the author was very highly regarded and the editor didn’t want to admit they didn’t understand their work.

At other times I think we as writers are occasionally ambivalent or resentful about our reader’s expectations. This is common in all the creative professions. The single best frontman I’ve seen is a self destructive, unknown smack addict who’s currently serving a three-year sentence in Belmarsh prison. When I saw him begin his set, I and every other member of the audience was in awe of him. You seriously couldn’t believe an obvious rock god of this magnitude was performing in a pub in South East London. Why wasn’t he world famous?

Then as the gig drew on he would begin to get irritated and resentful of the audience’s reaction. So he would start to push them, spit at them and slowly ruin his performance until most of the audience walked out shaking their heads in bewilderment. It seemed impossible to understand how someone with such obvious talent could crash and burn with such regularity, but unfortunately his own inner demons and his insecurity meant that he just couldn’t accept the audience’s love for what he did and he had to sabotage himself time and again in order to reinforce his own twisted self-image.

This self-defeating behaviour is common is also to anyone who writes. We’re just as prey to self-sabotage and sometimes we do mess up. The incomprehensible ending is one of the ways we do this. ‘You wanted a great ending did you? Well f*** you! I’m not here to pander to your pathetic and limited ideas of narrative fiction, suck my fat one mother f***er!’ There are times when I reach the end of a story that supposedly wants me to ‘do some of the work’ and I feel like the writer has just spat in my face and flipped me off. Sometimes I think subconsciously that’s just what they were doing.

A modest suggestion

So I guess what I’m trying to do with this column is politely suggest to writers, who have just written a story with an incomprehensible ending, to ask themselves if this really is the best way to conclude your story? Are all the pieces really in place for the reader to make out what is going on? Is it really scary to confuse your reader or are you perhaps being a tad lazy or pretentious? We all do it, I am often very guilty myself, but on reflection I regret this and you may too.

If you’re an editor who’s just received a story that ends in a way you find inexplicable, ask yourself if this really is scary or just a bit irritating? If you don’t understand it neither will your reader and maybe you ought to point this out to the person who submitted the story. Even if the writer is someone of great renown they might have been wondering how come they’ve gotten away with it all these years. Your challenge might just be the spur they need to try that tiny bit harder and become the writer they always should have been.

And finally…

The more observant among you might have noticed I haven’t mentioned comics very much this month, even though this is supposedly a column all about horror comics. There is an obvious connection to horror comics running right throughout this column, honest there is. All the clues are there, you just have to put them together yourself. It’s just that sometimes I like the reader to do a bit of the work themselves…

JASPER BARK

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