Category Archives: The Story Behind The Story

The Story Behind The Story: Another

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?

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The Story Behind The Story: Putting The Cat Out

Jaws has got a lot to answer for…

 

There was a time in the seventies and eighties when it seemed all a writer had to do to get into print (or onto celluloid) was to take an animal (shark/alligator/piranha/dog), take a special event of some sort (chemical spill/genetic experimentation/rabies), add a dash of helpless victims, and voila!  You had a bestseller.  I’m not talking about the classics, like Jaws (one of my favourite films of all time, although at best an average book).  I’m not talking about the second stringers with their tongues planted firmly in cheek, like Alligator or Piranha.  I’m not even talking about Grizzly, which while loaded with killer animals and helpless victims, at least had the good grace to choose a dangerous animal to do its dirty work.  Nope, I’m talking about the works of people like the mighty Guy N. Smith, author of Night of the Crabs, Killer Crabs and the ultimate “does what it says on the tin” title, Crabs on the Rampage.   I’m talking about Cliff Twemlow’s The Pike, a novel so wonderfully horrendous that it deserves, and will get, its own blog post.  It’s impossible to hate The Pike.  You just have to sit back and admire its absurdity, while wondering what the fact that two attempts have been made to film it says about the human condition.

 

One thing all these books and movies have in common, though, is that the creature is actually dangerous.  Between them, they proved that with a bit of effort, a decent writer could make virtually any member of the animal kingdom sound like a lethal killing machine. 

 

Back in the late nineties I wasn’t at my most prolific.  Having written at every opportunity as a kid, I’d had a brief burst of productivity as a teen and pushed out a couple of short stories and a short novel at university.  But I was stuck in a rut.  There were so many other things I wanted to do with my time – mostly sports and beer, if we’re honest – and so many things I should be doing with my time – like finding a job – that I just wasn’t feeling it.  I lacked inspiration.  Until I re-read The Pike, chuckled to myself, and then found inspiration surging at me from the frigid grey waters of my lethargy like a 12-foot dreadful spindly killer fish from the depths of Lake Windermere.

 

What if you took a creature so patently unthreatening that you wanted to take it home and cuddle it, then gave it the mind of a stone-cold psycho?   Thus was born Putting the Cat Out.

 

In Guy N. Smith’s hands, the cat would have killed a lot of people, ripping out throats, eviscerating stomachs, spreading terror through small rural communities before meeting an ambiguous end that left the door to a sequel firmly ajar.  Guy, if you’re reading this, you should absolutely write that book.  The rights are all yours for just 10% of your peak fan base.  Here’s the problem, though.  Cats have tiny claws, and very small teeth.  They are completely and utterly useless when it comes to killing people.  The question is, do cats know that?  If a psychotic cat set out on a killing spree, what would be the result?  What would be going through its furry little mind?

 

Check out Putting the Cat Out in the SHORT STORIES section.  It’s over fifteen years old now, but it’s still one of my favourites.  Remember that long period of not writing much?  After finishing PTCO, I went on to write another dozen short stories and a full novel in two years, so let me leave you with two pieces of advice.  Always keep writing, even if it’s just some silly story about a killer cat, because you never know when you’re going to trigger a burst of creative enthusiasm.  And never, ever, go swimming in Lake Windermere.