I’m a big fan of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Although sometimes a little overshadowed by his Batman trilogy, it’s smart, exciting and combines great visuals with an excellent soundtrack and across-the-board good performances. Fun fact – it’s the first Leonardo DiCaprio film I’ve ever watched where I didn’t spend the whole movie aware of a vague urge to hit him on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. If you haven’t seen it already, I strongly recommend it.
For those of you who have seen it, you’ll recall that the ending was rather ambiguous. The spinning top keeps going, the screen fades to black, you hear the sound of the spinning top…doing what? Preparing to tumble, proving that this is indeed reality and Cobb has been reunited with his children? Or continuing ad infinitum, showing that this is just another layer of the dream and that Cobb is trapped forever in the depths of his own psyche? Christopher Nolan himself said that the point of the end is not whether this is or isn’t real – it’s that Cobb no longer cares. He wants to be with his children, and whether that is in the real world or in a dream so vivid that he doesn’t even know he’s dreaming, it doesn’t matter. Nolan also said that, as a father himself, he chose to believe that this was real, because he wanted Cobb to be with his kids.
Why do I bring all this up? Because Nolan didn’t know if it was real.
As a writer, it’s generally assumed that you know everything there is to know about your characters, and that is largely true. It’s not enough to portray them in the story – you need to know their past, their motivations, their secret thoughts. But what about the plot? It’s one thing to let the reader decide, but as a writer, do you need to know the truth? Sometimes, the very point of the story is the mystery. In The Music of Erich Zann, H.P. Lovecraft writes the story from the perspective of the bystander to weird, otherworldly events – the reader never quite knows what has truly gone on because the protagonist doesn’t know. Did Lovecraft? Does it matter?
Which brings me, via a long and circuitous (but hopefully not tortured) route, to Another. Like Putting The Cat Out, this story emerged from my burst of productivity between 1998 and 2001. You can read it here on the website, but I never submitted it for publication anywhere else, although I thought about it.
Part of the reason for holding off on submitting it was the fact that I couldn’t answer two fairly basic questions about it.
The first is the most obvious one, and the one where the reader can make the decision for themselves. Is Martin Brook being haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, anchored to this reality by her skull (kept on his mantelpiece), or is he the victim of self-created delusions and psychotic impulses which he attempts to rationalise through her spectral presence? Is it all just the voices in his head?
I don’t know. Crucially, for the reader the end result is the same. Regardless of his motives, Brook’s actions don’t change. The reader gets to make that decision, which hopefully involves them a little more, maybe makes them think. That alone is worth striving for as an author. A fan of ghost stories can enjoy it as one, while a fan of serial killer stories can chose that reading. With luck, you can capture two separate audience bases there, so commercially it could be a smart move. Fifteen years on, I can’t remember if I truly meant it one way or the other. I guess, if I had a preference, I’d go for the ghost story angle. Which leads me neatly to the second question I can’t answer…
…is it a comedy, albeit a black one?
I mean, the central premise is a little silly, isn’t it? Man keeps dead wife’s skull, it talks to him, he commits murders. With Putting The Cat Out, the reader was explicitly in on the joke. With Another, the writer doesn’t even know if there is a joke to be in on, let alone the reader! Of course, any story that features a brutal murder and a hint that it is the latest of many hopefully won’t be too amusing, but still…
Maybe, after fifteen years, I’m overthinking this. Perhaps after all this time, I’ve forgotten that it was just a short, fun-to-write ghost story and tried to add complexity that isn’t there. Besides, it doesn’t matter for the reader – the point is that Brook thinks it’s real.
But that damned spinning top still hasn’t made its mind up…
One final point, for my Everquest Next fans. Ruthless, driven egomaniac hears voices in his head urging him to commit ever greater acts of horror, while his “good” side tries to rein him, ultimately failing. Is Martin Brook the proto-Coralen Larkos? And could Coralen Larkos have avoided his fate in Fall of Bastion if he’d chosen a career in travel writing instead?