Instead of reviewing a new book from a reader’s perspective, I’m going to review one from as aspiring writer’s perspective. Reading new material is problematic for aspiring writers. Why not just stick to the old classics? Well, I hear there have been a few good writers of the supernatural since the master of the English ghost story, M. R. James, died in 1936, and they must have some good ideas worth borrowing. Then, too, fashions and fears, beliefs and wishes change over time. If one wants to write stories that will resonate with today’s readers, finding out what contemporary successful writers publish is a good starting point. Reviewing a themed anthology is a particularly useful way to do this, since one can see how a variety of writers treat a subject area. At the same time, one doesn’t want to become too trendy or a slavish imitator, another reason to consider an anthology.
I was wandering around my favorite book store when I saw the cover for this book, Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane, edited by Jonathan Oliver (Oxford: Solaris, 2012). Considering what I write about, and with a cover like that, how could I pass it up? And while I recognized only one author’s name, that reflects more my ignorance of contemporary authors; the information on the contributors in the back tells me several of these writers have substantial publication credits (and any is more than I have, in fiction that is, so I shouldn’t get uppity). And just so you know, the publisher and editor are British, as are ten of the writers, while the rest include one Canadian, one South African, and four Americans (including a couple who co-wrote one story). Now that I’ve read it, let me tell you what lessons I learned from the fifteen stories of the supernatural in this collection.
First, don’t settle too comfortably into one place on the traditional – contemporary –futuristic spectrum. Pick your spot based on your story. Liz Williams’ “Cad Coddeu” requires a traditional (Celtic) fairy world, while Sophia McDougall’s “MailerDaemon” relies on what looks like standard magic running up against contemporary computer technology, and reminds me of a Star Trek: The Next Generation story that was less interesting than hers. You can borrow and use myths for a richness that can’t be developed otherwise in under a few hundred pages, but you can use the familiar to set off your magic as a wonder in an otherwise ordinary world.
Second, if you are good at story telling, even an old idea can be the basis of a good story. Sarah Lotz’s “If I Die, Kill My Cat” uses an idea so old that there are movie remakes of stories using it. Yet she frames it in a new setting and from a delightfully different perspective. Being set in South Africa is only a small part of it. And, as mentioned above, McDougall’s story improves upon an older idea by changing contexts and making it more personal.
Third, get personal. The most effective stories in this collection involve people having to come to grips with situations that require them to act in ways that are meaningful to them. Storm Constantine’s “Do as Thou Wilt” is almost entirely about personal relations; magic becomes only a representation of these, but a clarifying one. And Christopher Fowler’s horrific “The Baby” presents the protagonist with her own wishes in a truly unpleasant way.
Speaking of getting personal, consider using unsympathetic characters. We all like sympathetic characters, particularly in “good versus evil” conflicts. Unsympathetic characters are often less fun to write, hard to develop well, and rarely meaningful except as foils. So please do think of using them more often. They’re a useful challenge to stretching your writing. Steve Rasnic Tem’s and Melanie Tem’s “Domestic Magic” is all about unpleasant characters. But they aren’t unpleasant for the reasons one presumes upon opening the story, and that change is what caught this reader’s attention after initially reading with indifference. There’s a lot of other misbehavior in this collection, but this story stands out.
Fifth, you can create suspense by presenting the reader with a mystery. But you can also create suspense by letting the reader solve the mystery long before the protagonist does. If you’re really talented, you can do both. And that’s what happens in the aforementioned “If I Die, Kill My Cat.” If you don’t catch on, you get the surprise at the end. If you do, you worry about how long it will take the protagonist to figure it out and what will happen in the meantime. Will Hill’s “Shuffle” uses a nonlinear structure for similar reasons: either you’re trying to figure out the story, or you’re waiting to see the consequences. Both work.
Fifteen stories, five lessons for aspiring writers, including yours truly. I haven’t covered all the stories and authors, because I wanted to keep to a few major points. My apologies to those I didn’t mention.
You want to know what I think as a reader? I have to admit that trying to read these as a writer changed my perception of the stories. I’m not sure how, because I’ve not done this type of review before. I also worry that my two favorite stories are near the beginning; did I get bored by familiarity as I read? Still, I recommend “Domestic Magic” on the serious side, and “If I Die, Kill My Cat” as an amusing lighter story, though I would not call it comic as the editor did.