Cranky Thoughts about Language

Photo: Paul Zumel

Poger Rock: a “forgotten, moribund collection of buildings tucked into the base of wooded valley” in rural Washington State.

Next to a dumpster, a pair of mongrel dogs were locked in coitus, patiently facing opposite directions, Dr. Doolittle’s Pushmi-pullyu for the twenty-first century.

And about a paragraph later, the protagonist limps into a bar — excuse me, a tavern — where a stuffed black wolf “snarled atop a dias near the entrance.”

Hmmm, I think as I read this. The author is trying a bit too hard, isn’t he? Because this is a horror story, light reading. But I kept reading anyway, because certainly, I am often guilty of trying too hard, myself. I’ve learned the hard way that I have to throw away the first thing I write after having read Nabokov, because I fall so in love with his language — so beautiful, so luminous — that I try to emulate it. It doesn’t work, mostly because I’m not Nabokov, but also because, honestly, the subjects I tend to write about don’t lend themselves to his style. That’s how I felt about the use of language in this piece.

I read far enough to learn that the protagonist was fleeing from her abusive husband, to a remote hunting cabin where she was staying with her lover. I suffered through said lover discovering an old fur cloak in a hunting blind in the woods. Oh, and by the way, did you know the man who built this cabin was driven out of Scandinavia because of rumors that he was responsible for the gory unexplained murders in his village? And that Scandinavian legend says that to wear the skin of the beast is to become the beast? All this information was given to me in a fire hose of exposition, the kind that makes for awkward narrative and really clumsy dialog. I stopped reading and went to the next story.

Last, the bullet blooms agains steel. Still almost pristine until that moment, now its conical head flattens. Its copper jacket splinters into shrapnel needles, wire-fine, scattering. The core splashes, the force of impact so great that cold metal splatters like syrup, droplets blossoming in an elegant chrysanthemum. The butt of the casing flattens against the engine block for a split second before it peels away and falls.

But it’s already exited the girl, and the girl is falling.

That’s the opening of “The Romance”, by Elizabeth Bear. I had to read those lines a few times, because I was still in a bad mood from the last story, and my brain refused to work at parsing the “fancy language”. But in the end it was worth it. The narrative cuts back and forth between the slow-motion shooting above, and a middle-aged children’s librarian who is attending a fiftieth-birthday party that features a haunted carousel. Naturally, I was hyper-vigilant for clumsy exposition, but Ms. Bear managed to inform me of the carousel’s history, and the protagonist’s history, without irritating me. She even used the phrase “the ineffable,” and I didn’t hurl the book across the room. It’s all about having a light touch.

The next story: Sylvia Plath’s “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”, from a different collection. The narrator is an administrative assistant who types up records for the out-patient clinic of a large hospital psychiatric ward.

Maybe a mouse gets to thinking pretty early on how the whole world is run by these enormous feet. Well, from where I sit, I figure the world is run by one thing and this one thing only. Panic with a dog-face, devil-face, hag-face, whore-face, panic in capital letters with no face at all — it’s the same Johnny Panic, awake or asleep.


And finally, “The Refugee”, by Jane Rice, the best woman horror writer you’ve never heard of. She’s rather like Shirley Jackson, but somehow never earned the same recognition. There is a collection of her short stories called The Idol of the Flies and Other Stories, published in hardcover by Midnight Press in 2003. 500 copies. As far as I know, never reprinted. I snagged one last year from Borderlands Books for more money than I am willing to admit, and I wish she were more readily available because she’s wonderful.

In “The Refugee,” an American woman stranded in France in the middle of WWII finds a naked young man in her garden.

He was, Milli thought, rather like a young panther, or a half-awakened leopard. He was, Milli admitted, entranced, beautiful. Perfectly beautiful. As an animal is beautiful and, automatically, she raised her chin so that the almost unnoticeable pouch under it became one with the line of her throat.

“She could have written something worth our while and hers,” writes a snotty commenter on the Story of the Week website, after praising Ms. Rice’s “delicious, exact” language. I have to agree that “The Refugee” is not the best of werewolf stories, and not the best of Ms. Rice, either, but her description of Milli is so sharp, so sly that reading the story impelled me to go out and find more of her. Yes, Virginia, you can use “literary writing” in a genre story and get away with it. You just have to know what you’re doing.

2 thoughts on “Cranky Thoughts about Language

  1. Those two quotes from Bear and Plath – both gorgeous, even in their distinctness from one another.They have flow. Certainly both make me want to read on, rather than feel like it would be a chore, despite the complications of the first. I think it’s no just word choice but rhythm and unity that is often lacking in bad fiction.

    • The Bear piece was great. She managed two separate rhythms in the narrative, one for the shooting (slow-motion, descriptive, dramatic) and one for the birthday party (modern, brisker, lighter). I think the reason it took me a few readings of the opening to get into it was simply because I was irritated by what I had been reading before.

      And I loved the Plath. The line I quoted was probably my favorite in the story.

      Definitely, all three of them — Bear, Plath, Rice — have/had great ears for language. Bad fiction often seems like the plot came first, and the language was “tacked on” later, if at all.

      I’m guilty of “plot-first” writing, too, which I think is why I’ve retreated to blogging, for the moment. I suppose genre writing is often plot-first, but it’s such a pleasure and an education when you find genre writers like Bear, and Rice.

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