Screenwriter John August has an interesting little post on cell phones in the movies.  It includes a great little montage of movie clips showing phones not working, getting smashed, etc.  Why on earth do I care?

Brian Keene has this very problem in Urban Gothic.  In an era where it seems everyone has a cell phone, how does a writer deal with it?

By my count, there are six teenagers in Keene’s book, each of whom has their own cell phone.  They get trapped in an abandoned (haunted?) house that’s in a bad neighborhood, but it’s a suburb of Camden, New Jersey.  Not exactly in the middle of nowhere.  It’s actually well covered by AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint.  Yes, I checked, but not as any sort of petty criticism of Keene.

I think he does a good job of dealing with this problem.  But first, I really want to understand why it’s a problem?

For a horror writer, the problem is one of salvation.  If you have a cell phone, then you’re never really cut off from the rest of the world.  The underlying assumption seems to be, that at any given moment, if things are too rough, the character in trouble can always just call for help.  Is the problem unique to cell phones?  I don’t think so.  To me, the problem is more fundamental, often summed up as ‘if you show a gun in act one, it better get used by act three’.  If you show a character using a cell phone early on, then when the shit hits the fan, they better pull that cell phone out again and start dialing.

Keene has this problem.  The story opens with his characters using their cell phones as teens today would (or close enough).  The reader knows these teens all have cell phones.  How does Keene deal with it?  He does a few things.  First, he makes the neighborhood they’re in so bad, that by the time these kids go to make their first call for help, we believe that even if they reach the police, they’re not likely to come.  Second, he uses the ‘no signal’ / ‘weak signal’ approach.  And even though, as I said earlier, these kids are in a suburb of Camden, NJ, they are trapped in this insanely old house in the middle of the projects.  It’s an overused tactic, but it does still work - at least I bought it.  The house is old enough.  The cannibal clan who lives there has taken the time to modify the house into a relatively complex labyrinth, complete with spiked pits and movable walls.  Maybe they did also insulate the walls or do something to jam cell phone signals.  Making or buying a cell phone jamming device is not beyond the capability of some of the cannibal characters.  Third, he treats some of the phones as secondary victims, often ‘dying’ with or before their owner.

So Keene uses multiple tactics to tackle the cell phone question, and I think that’s what makes it work for this book.  It’s not just ‘oh, btw - cell phones don’t work here’.   It’s that they don’t work, they’re fragile and get knocked off with their owners, and ‘oh, btw - even if they did work, you’re in the shittiest part of town, so bad that even the cops won’t go there after dark’.

But, is that the only solution?  Can this be treated like the ‘gun’ problem?  If the reader never sees the cell phone, does that remove the need to use it or address it?  In Keene’s book, it wouldn’t likely be enough.  I think anyone who’s not been living in a box the last ten years would expect that, in a group of 6 teenagers, at least one of them has a cell phone.  At least.

In his post, John August poses the solution of ‘Don’t write movies in which characters would call for help.’  That’s very difficult in the context of horror, because it almost always involves making at least one character helpless at some point (brash generalization, but bear with me).  But, would it also be possible to create a character who wouldn’t have a cell phone and have it be believable?  That, to me, would be an interesting challenge - to create a believable character who does not own or cannot access a cell phone.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hung up on cell phones or the ‘no signal’ thing.  The interest is more in terms of how much does a reader assume about our characters, and how much can we manipulate those assumptions.  If I have an old man as my main character, and never show him using a cell phone - when he’s in dire jeopardy and needs help, does the reader call foul if I don’t have him try a cell phone?  What about a backwoods survivalist?  A farmer?  A twenty-something who has spent the last 5 or so years travelling the world and working on a fishing boat?

Update: According to “Did You Know 4.0”, 93% of US adults have cell phones (see 2:35).  Makes it hard to develop a believable character who would not have a cell phone.

Another element Winter discusses in his analysis of King is the haunted house.  What strikes me as most interesting with this is that, while I think Winter does a good job of identifying the various ‘haunted houses’ in King’s works, he never seems to talk about what the idea of ‘setting as character’ directly.

For context, Winter identifies the following as noteworthy ‘haunted houses’:

  • The Martsen House in ‘Salem’s Lot
  • The Overlook Hotel in The Shining
  • The Agincourt Hotel in The Talisman
  • The Dark Tower in The Dark Tower series *

The last one is my own addition.  At the time of Winter’s writing, The Dark Tower was still in its infancy, with only the first book having been published.  And, as I look back over King’s works, there’s definitely other minor places (settings) that would also qualify as ‘haunted houses’, but these four represent to me the most important aspect.

Haunted Houses are a prime example of setting as character.  Each of these ‘houses’ plays an active part in their story to varying degrees.  The Martsen House is an active attractor for “Mr. Barlow”.  It is a shadow in the Ben Mears’ past and a shadow on the town in general.  It draws Mr. Barlow for no other reason than evil attracts evil.

The Overlook Hotel, likewise, is an active attractor.  It is the archetypal bad place, an accumulation of all the bad things that have happened in its history.  It is this bad history that connects it with Jack Torrence, who has his own bad history.  As with ‘Salem’s Lot, evil again attracts evil.  The two ‘characters’ actively feed off each other to escalate the story towards its conclusion.

The last two are different, in that I wouldn’t necessarily classify them as evil.  But they do represent haunted houses as characters in the sense that they are weak points where other worlds show through, and the nature of that weakness provides them active parts in their stories.  Both structures serve to demonstrate that there are multiple worlds, multiple universes, of which the current settings for each story are only a small part.  They demonstrate this for the reader, but they also seem to actively influence those worlds, as if containment or reflection of the ‘multiverse’ somehow has endowed them with ownership and life.

It’s only been a year or so since I’ve started to consider working with the idea of ‘setting as character’.  But it wasn’t until reading Winter’s book that I considered the specific setting of ‘haunted house’ as a character.  It’s a natural fit, I think, one I’m surprise I didn’t connect with before.

Brian Keene’s recently released Urban Gothic brought to mind the myth of the Minotaur. A group of teens are thrown into a labyrinthian house whose twists and turns extend far below the ground in a neglected neighborhood. Their first encounter is with a hulking, deformed creature whose strength seems insurmountable.

Keene tells this story from multiple points of view, and I think that worked really well for the fast-paced action. I noticed, too, that Keene give the reader an immediate indication of POV change by having the POV character identified, in most cases, in the first sentence of any section change. I noticed it because I was looking for it, but I don’t think it was in any way repetitive or distracting.

In many ways, this book felt like a typical teen-scream horror movie. Teenagers, lost, creepy house, cannibals running loose. Lots of blood, death, people making bad choices that lead to their death. But I don’t believe these elements are just by chance.

Teenagers are, by their very nature, in a transitory state - in the midst of a journey from childhood to adulthood. It’s important to me because it places the characters in a state where the reader expects them to make mistakes and learn lessons. The creepy house and the labyrinth that stretches out beneath it are also important, as it builds the confusion, gives a physical manifestation to what teenagers experience.

What really stood out most to me, however, is the constant reinforcement of the first two words of the novel: Shit Happens.

In Douglas Winter’s book, Stephen King: The Art of Darkness, Winter talks about King’s naturalistic approach to plot. I like how Keene puts it better - shit happens. Keene forsakes the idea of having to provide a logical explanation for the events in his novel. And really, what explanation does the reader need? It’s a standard “Cannibal Clan” trope, and it works just fine. Shit happens - these kids take a wrong turn, wind up in the wrong neighborhood, encounter the wrong people, and all but one wind up as dinner. As one character thinks to herself in the very beginning: Shit happens. And when it does, things get fucked up. This isn’t to say the story is without plot, but the plot revolves around action and escape, not the clan itself.

I mentioned earlier that the book made me think of the Minotaur. There were a lot of mythological symbols that I picked up on in just the first few pages. Whether or not it was intentional, I can’t say. But I think it draws the reader into a frame of mind that prepares them for the bizarre and brings the reader to accept that, in the end, there is no explanation. One of the elements I found - the teens get lost when the drive decides to leave Pennsylvania by crossing the river into Camden, NJ. The crossing of the river could be viewed as a crossing into the underworld. Keene goes on to describe hookers as living dead, there’s technological failure (car breaks down), and a general decay into chaos.

Another interesting parallel with the Minotaur story is how the final escape is made. Early in the story, one of the kids overhears two of the Cannibal’s talking (while butchering one of his friends - sweet). One comments to the other that he hopes they don’t make it to the basement and find the only way out. Well, that’s what draws the survivors to the basement, where they spend the large part of the book looking for a way out, and most getting killed in the process. But, just like the Minotaur story, the only way out seems to be back the way they came. I say ‘seems’ because, a minor character, I had half-expected one of the characters to tie a string. I think it worked as a plot device, a way to keep the characters moving, but I felt a little confused. There’s a minor character, who I’ll discuss in a later post, that does manage to find his way into this underground labyrinth from a ‘back door’ of sorts. But, this door it seems to be one way, only letting someone come in, not get out. And it’s right near the house. I was a little confused, not because the kids had to go back, but because I was never clear on whether or not the cannibals knew they were being overheard and intentionally lured the kids down, or if there really was a back door down there somewhere.

Whether or not Keene used the Minotuar myth as a framework for the story isn’t really something I’m trying to comment on. Rather, I think the Minotaur myth is reflected in a subset of our modern horror stories as the teenagers trapped in the scary [woods, cabin, hotel, house, etc], chased by the [axe murderer, cannibal, guy with one red shoe, etc].

What is the “night journey” in the context of Stephen King?

First, Winter shows how all of King’s works deal with some sort of journey. The idea of story as a journey is not new. Joseph Campbell is well known for his “Hero’s Journey”, and I’ve often encountered the aphorism that “the main character must change” (which is essentially an internal journey - A to B).

What I find most interesting is how Winter chooses to discuss the idea of journey in King’s works. It is described initially as a journey from “East to West”, and I covered this a little in my first post.

So what are some of the “night journeys” that Winter identifies?

In Carrie, it is the coming of age of a young woman, albeit a very special girl in peculiar circumstances. It the struggle of adolescence, which we find in many works of horror. But there’s more to it. Winter quotes King as saying, “We fall from womb to tomb, from one blackness and toward another, remembering little of the one and knowing nothing of the other … excep through faith.” So the journey in this story, while at the waystation of adolescence, is also meant to be representative of life itself. I guess that’s what Winter is getting at. Personally, I think that’s a broad interpretation of the story, and the quote given by King isn’t presented as a quote specifically about Carrie. While I agree with King’s quote, and appreciate it, I think it’s enough to say Carrie is about the journey through adolescence.

‘Salem’s Lot is more about not so focused on a journey, per se, but rather on Vampires and a Haunted House (great combination). But, there is a “night journey” in there according to Winter. Ben Mears, the main character, is already an adult, so his is a journey of shrinking away from experience and returning to innocence. The town he’s returned to was his home for a brief period in his childhood (connections with the haunted house), and it’s a sort of return to his past, a nostalgic yearning for the past.

There’s a similar journey in The Shining, per Winter. Jack Torrance is trying to escape his past, and is opposed to Ben Mears’ journey in that respect. But, Winter points out that both men suffer from the “modern American nightmare… grief and loss for the past, and terror of the future.” I have a deep appreciation for this concept. I’m not going to comment on whether or not these really are the “modern American nightmare”, but they are core human emotions. We grieve for the dead, not solely because they have died, but also in large because we will miss them. We rarely grieve for those we never knew.

At one point in his discussion of Firestarter, Winter makes the statement that the “…night journey need not represent more than literal adventure, and this is particularly true in horror fiction…”

To me, the journey is the change a character undergoes and must struggle through. The “night journey” is a subset of these changes, one that deals with fears. It could be physical, as in** Thinner. It could be mental, such as what happens to Jack Torrance in The Shining. It could even be a change external to the character, such as the apacolypse that occurs in The Stand. But, what these changes share is that they stem from our cultural fears. I think Winter nailed it when he said that the “modern American nightmare… grief and loss for the past, and terror of the future.” There are elements of King’s work that reflect more current issues, but this is what stuck with me.

I’m scrapping the chapter-by-chapter approach for my discussion on Douglas Winter’s book.

Instead, I’ve decided to do a series of posts, each of which discusses what I found to be the most critical and relevant elements in Winter’s analysis. Here’s a list of topics I expect to cover. I’ll be spending no more than 30 minutes on any given element to keep myself from rambling on.

  • The “Night Journey” (East to West)
  • The Haunted House
  • Character growth from innocence to experience (tied to the “Night Journey”)
  • The corruption of Fairy Tale
  • Vision and the writing process

That said, look for my first post in the next day or so. Technically, I’m on vacation, but isn’t vacation about doing the things you enjoy most?