If I hate a book, it’s usually for pretty straightforward reasons. A book in all truth, has to be very, very bad to warrant writing a review warning others not to bother. Almost catastrophically bad. The characters have to be loathsome, the story and prose banal and worst of all, cherry-topped with the dead, rotting horse of cliche. It’s not hard to spot these books with a skim-through, so I just steer clear of them. I much prefer to review ones I like, or almost like. The same goes for films, though I don’t review those usually.
These are a few specific themes, sets of tropes or basic plot ideas I particularly favour, for both sane and obscure reasons. They can seep into any genre and are what I look for most often, and I also use them as bases for my own work. Strange grounds, some of them, but in my opinion yield a harvest of some of the most unique stories if you can find them. Feel free to comment on your favourites as well! I’ll continue these into one or two other posts.
“Cobwebs on a guilded court”
The ingredients for a truly twisted tale of this sort are a wealthy, secretly disturbed family living in an enormous house. Usually the house is in some degree of ruin, and the family’s lost their fortune if ever they had one. These don’t always have to be true, but the family always has to be twisted and have some nasty secrets. Always.
“Shops without shoppers”
Set in an empty mall, at night after closing – something strange occurs that no one sees when the crowd is there. Malls are inherently very creepy places to me, even more so now that malls are at a decline and (in the US at least) many now sit abandoned, the decay adding to the feeling. Malls are two sorts of loneliness compiled – the bland lack of human emotion from consumerism and literal isolation. Even if the mall’s full of people it’s very easy to ignore that they’re there, isn’t it?
This is a surprisingly rare theme in books, even though it shows up fairly often in movies and other mediums.
“The lotus is the reality but the reality is fake”
Everything seems fine until one thing doesn’t. Everything is real until some small, innocuous, impossible event reveals that it isn’t. It’s not a dream, but it’s not happening in the same place life is. Reality and delusion blurring, or merging, is one of my all-time favourite plot devices. In my view it’s most effective if it messes with the audience more than it does the characters. I think that most books (and films) that come to mind when I think of ones I couldn’t be without include some form of this, whether subtle or full-blown madness.
“The view from the sky is the same as the view from the gutter.”
Different variations on the relationship between the most and least, the best and the worst, the prettiest and the ugliest. Both the tops and bottoms of society’s various ladders come with their own isolation that makes them exactly alike, but yet they will always be at odds. I find that this makes for some of the most heart-destroying novels and is definitely a volatile seed for a story – could grow into an obsessional horror or a romantic tragedy, or perhaps just another fairytale like Cinderella and her stepsisters.
-S.M., March 2018
[Illustration – “Vanitas – Still Life with Books, Manuscripts and a Skull” by Evert Collier]