Why disproportionate screaming arguments with your loved ones make for good narrative substance.
“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls.”
– Carl Jung
Can we make the conjecture that horror, dealing with the dark and unpleasant aspects of life and humanity, reflects some aspect of an author’s personal pain? If this is true, then we can propose that while an author is addressing that pain the writing will read with a sense of authenticity. It then follows that avoiding that pain creates comparably worse writing. There are an innumerable number of quotations from writers across the years supporting this idea, with Ernest Hemmingway perhaps providing perhaps the best known. For other examples, go look at some idiot’s Instagram, twitter, facebook, blog, whatever, whenever they want to delude themselves or even others, into believing that they’re a profound or insightful cog in the meatgrinder. Writers melodramatising about the simple process of fingering a keyboard until they like the words they produce aren’t exactly the best basis for a gradation of literary quality, but for the sake of argument I’m going to drag this hypothesis along the road and see what it looks like at the end.
This would seem to imply a simple solution: write your pain and win. However, we know that people will go to great lengths to avoid their own pain. A ravening desire to ravage one of more of your parents is, thankfully, unnecessary to abstract a utilitarian conceptual framework for the ego. Your self-created narrative creates your self-concept. Lizard brain is your meth-head bodyguard. Lizard brain thinks it should be dead before 20. Give it some extra time and experience, and force feed it the modern world, it becomes preoccupied with computing the concept of ball points at 0.005 kb/s to effectively protect you from anything.
Pull a James Sunderland, take a look at your reflection in a dirty mirror. Hate what you see. Lizard brain is the CCP of the ego – it will not tolerate a disruption of the narrative. It will attempt to keep you within the strict boundaries of what you think of as ‘you’ – for better or worse. Of course, we know that to make progress we must utilise creative destruction, undermining the self-proclaimed authority of the self-concept. To avoid all of this, we hide from ourselves, from painful events, from confrontations with the self. Undermining our own self-concepts brings us pain, which we habitually flee, but should endure because through pain we can become better.
I don’t want to sit here bitching like a monotonous organ grinder, the point isn’t to write a multi-part rant. I’ll air drop you a memo on the skin of a komodo dragon when I’m perfect. I didn’t like Crooked God Machine, but it did raise questions and there was something to learn from it. The reason I’ve spent several thousand words babbling about a book I don’t particularly like, was the impression that there was a narrative there that was worth pursuing, but, crucially, on a significantly smaller scale. The last question is… why doesn’t the book take place on a smaller scale?
The rule of cool
The most straightforward answer, and with no information to the contrary, not necessarily the wrong one, is simply to invoke the rule of cool. The rule of cool is the simple principle that the pushing of the boundaries of willing suspension of disbelief is reliant on the coolness of the thing doing the pushing. You can write a scene where your Amazon delivery man backflips off the Eiffel Tower while juggling hippos and fist fighting mutant Hitler, and as awesome as that is, the audience looking for a stylish aesthetic is not going to accept it. That is because the scene, though cool to come extent, has crossed over from stylish to absurd. It might work for the kind of person looking for comedy action, context is significant here, but in that case the rest of story needs to match the absurdity of the scene, unless you’re going for something very deliberate. If you are going for a very specific effect then you can throw conflicting aesthetics together to deliberately create dissonant tones, but you’re going to need to be pretty good to execute that without simply breaking people’s suspension of disbelief.
Bigger is better
There’s a myth in the human brain that suggests to us that if something is bigger than another thing, then it is better than the other thing. Somewhere in the primeval world, ancient caveman, squatting over a small fire, considered the following: Bigger fire would allow cooking of more food. Cooking more food equals more fed people, more fed people equals less death, less death equals longer lives, therefore a bigger fire and more food equals better. And then, possibly: more food equals less starvation, ergo bigger spear equals easier hunting equals more food . As anybody who has ever had sex with a horse has come to realise, this is not a universal constant. But we still find it pervading in the modern world. It certainly makes marketers lives easier and stands testament to the idea that we’re still dumb apes convinced that an increase in the scale of a thing corresponds to an increase in quality. It’s quite pitiful.
If we don’t question this idea that scaling everything up is automatically the answer, then where literature is concerned, we end up with stories that include a multitude of ideas that could be interesting but lack the discipline to do much more than draw the reader’s attention to them before moving on. A points of interest pebbledash approach to narrative. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it’s worth considering whether a deeper dive into a smaller selection of ideas would give you something more concentrated.
So why not focus on the house? Because a rundown house full of familial drama, even considering a demonic tv set, the father, and other dysfunctional family relationships, is still too drab and too small. The conflict between the sister and her brother, her taking on the role of simultaneously the mother and the carer for her mother and resenting her brother’s absence from this responsibility, then his taking her place to look after these new muttering zombie talker pieces, doesn’t have the glamour and scale of blood raining from the sky. It’s the kind of argument you may have had with a member of your own family. Until you realise that at some point blood raining from the sky stops having an impact.
Spectacle is present in the rest of the story. You don’t have to think too hard about it and nobody is going to complain about monsters, plague ships, weekend apocalypses and the exhibition of a society destroying itself. Sit back, grab a drink, the show is about to start.
Does the writer go where they want to go?
It takes a deal of hard work to think through these knotted familial relationships; to unpack them, examine them, and draw out an argument about their relations to the media-economic-political landscape they’re tied to. This is particularly the case if unpicking all of these threads scrapes at the raw nerves in the writer.
According to the wikipaedia page, Autumn Christian wrote Crooked God Machine between the ages of 19 and 21. I think this is crucial to understand, because my experience with this book mirrors much of the trend with attempting to tackle complex and heavier material and ideas at this age – my own clumsy scrawling included. Reading this with more experience behind me, it would be unfair to judge it as if it was written with more perspective, experience, and maturity. I say all of this because a lot of Crooked God Machine feels impersonal. It’s got a Lidl-does-value-pack-trauma vibe to it, a retail therapy approach to horror. But external consumer-oriented horror is always Jason Vorhees, never Patrick Batemen. Except for in one instance: The family.
The narrator’s relationship with the father is what kicks the story off and the deterioration of the family is central to the narrative. And it shows. The parts discussing the relationship with the father, the depiction of the mother and the sister attempting to cope and failing, and the narrator’s subsequent handling of them stands out starkly amidst everything else. You’d think the mundanity of familial battling would be the worst part of a dystopian sci-fi horror, but it’s the main attraction. The TV and the Spiders are the only supernatural elements that truly stand out and feel rooted and that’s because they’re linked to the family.
Let’s return to my hypothesis: a writer writes best when they are undergoing an honest evaluation of what is hurting them at any particular moment. Let’s go full armchair psychologist for a minute. Let’s say that this house is some representation of Autumn Christian’s pain. I don’t know anything about her, but for the sake of argument let’s say that some part of her life is reflected in the family. It doesn’t have to be a 1:1 transplant, but whatever inspired the best writing in the book was where the wounds were.
I used to see this a lot in university. People writing about one thing while being hurt by something else – they’d displace their pain, even in their writing. Everybody does it. You, me, your lover, your parents. Supposing my hypothesis were right, I would reason that her age at time of writing is important when I’m using this book as a vector for a broader critique: you can’t expect a 19-year-old to seriously want to dig their fingers into their own guts. You can’t expect them to make any kind of sense of what they find there even if they do. You can’t expect it from anyone of any age, to be honest, we’re not naturally wired for it. Regardless, if the family was where the pain was, then the family is where she didn’t want to go, and yet felt compelled to, nonetheless. That would be why so much of the book outside of those bits feels like displacement. A whole world collapsing on itself, plague and fire and blood and holy death machines, but it’s all about the pain that the family represents. The rest is just the author distracting herself.
Inverted narrative value: Why are you laughing?
Consider Welcome to Nightvale. Perhaps a strange comparison at first, but it is effectively doing what Crooked God Machine is doing. The difference is that it is self-aware, the execution is deliberate. Most conceivable tropes in the horror-dystopia sphere exist in Nightvale: the setting is all paranoid cosmicist dystopia land, but it uses all the horror as the butt of a joke, rather than the drive of character development. Because it knows that any one of those elements is a big story hook, so it hangs a big lampshade on them by simultaneously acknowledging their normality destroying existence and then relegating that to the sidelines or just bold-faced creating comedy out of it.
THE BROWN STONE SPIRE HAS A SLOGAN.
IT CANNOT BE PRONOUNCED.
On the other hand, what it does with its drama is just something every day. In the midst of constant references to government coverups and terror and supernatural horror from beyond time and space, the real hooks they put in the story lines don’t come from those big things – they’re just from some idiot trying to get over a personal hangup, and it works better than you’d expect.
The reason it works is that it shifts the dramatic tension. In the midst of a hellish setting, the audience expects the nightmares to be the threat. Usually they are, representing or paralleling some darker aspect of human nature or social fracture. Instead, because Nightvale’s writers know that they’ve got so many world-ending monstrosities and civilisation-annihilating conspiracies, any one of which is enough to drive a focused plot, when put together they have to share the same collective weight and the first response by the audience then is: why isn’t the world in complete ruin? What are all of these eldritch horrors and shady government agencies doing, baking cookies? Nightvales answers: “Well, yes.” It completely undermines their acknowledged presence by playing the narrative implications of them off against the absurdity of their open existence.
In contrast the everyday concerns of the repeating characters in the narrative become more serious by proxy. Almost as an absurd counterbalance to the setting, the scale of dramatic importance places Eater-of-Worlds at the bottom and Cecil’s passive-aggressive beef with Steve Carlsberg at the top. That absurdity works to the benefit of the story by recontextualising the personal nature of the character conflicts as being the important thing, even in context of the wider setting. The reason this works for the audience is because this is the day-to-day experience of your average person – the world is a disaster pit of incomprehensible idiocy driven by the selfish interests of conceited rich people playing a Dadaist game of risk. All they can do is adapt and survive, which in turn prioritises their own interpersonal relationships, interactions, and small goals.
This is why there is such a back and forth with Crooked God Machine – because the family is that small goal. A guy in a crapsack world attempting to keep to vegetables-come-propaganda-zombies relatively healthy. The problem is that more time seemed to be devoted to the world falling apart than the family. There is a slice-of-life sort of feeling to the interactions with the friends and the love interest at some points, but that becomes bogged down in the edginess and instead of accentuating it only serves to undermine it. The unnecessary melodrama forced into many of these moments detracts from them further and they blur into the forced melodrama of the world around them. If everything is always apocalyptic then nothing is. Instead, to make these character interactions work better it might have been a more effective choice to lean into their mundanity and play them straight faced, highlighting a contrast between the setting and the drabness of these more recognisable elements. Like anything effective, it’s not sexy, but it works.
Why is this important?
It’s important to know what’s connecting you to a story. Usually what’s connecting you to a story is what’s bothering you and because stories are such awkward and time-consuming labours to work on, you’re going to end up with a lot of uncomfortable stuff on a lot of uncomfortable pages. Worse: most of that uncomfortable stuff, when you step back, is pretty small. So you come away wondering what the hell makes you think you should write an entire novel about your petty mundane insecurities.
This is where the desire to sex everything up comes from. If nobody wants to hear you babble about your crap homelife, perhaps they’ll listen if you throw in zombie-marketing-parasites and a priest that summons the dead on a bi-weekly basis. Awkward truth: yes, your petty mundane insecurities are petty and mundane. Your jealousy that the local coffee shop server has a significant other and your hook up app game sucks like a Dyson attached to a fusion reactor, is inconsequential in comparison to the horrors of Unit 731 or Nazinsky. But while the world would benefit from an exodus from the contemporary zeitgeist of enforced relatability, its’ worth considering that more people want to shag the person making your coffee, dislike intrusive advertising, and look after invalid relatives, than have been used as wartime human experimentation subjects or have found blood pouring out of their taps.