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5.05.2008

Composition Theory -- Thematic Spurts

I've read a pair of remarkable collections this spring: Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things and Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts. They're both filled with stories that resonate with the reader long after he or she turns the final page. They both write literate, lyrical stories, eschewing what Monteleone has called the "steaming pile of organs" school of speculative storytelling for subtle chills. And their work has certainly impacted my output in the last few weeks.

I've been writing ghost stories.

Not in the traditional sense, but in the sense that many of my protagonists have internalized a haunting. Whether they're being chased by regret, or guilt, or a rogue voice calling from the margins of the psyche, my recent output (short fiction exclusively) has definitely trended toward the metaphysical.

We often take a ghost tour as a portion of one of the American Literature classes I teach. We study local oral folklore and urban legends, and then we strike out with a tour group to ooh and aah at the buildings that once bore witness to scenes of depravity and sorrow. It's an interesting class because, while the majority of my students don't believe in "ghosts," they almost all admit that places can carry the psychic residue of the things (good or bad) that took place there. It could be a house, or a section of woods or a span of beach. In that sense, they are admitting to a belief in, for lack of a better term, the supernatural.

I've never written serial killer stories. Never written about explicit violence or gone to the well of vampire stories. That's not to say that I won't, because I'm sure I will at some point. But it feels like we often go through spells of sustained thematic composition. You tend to harvest a certain patch of the garden until it feels complete, then you move on and let that land re-charge.

And as Stephen King says in On Writing, one must read a lot to write well. I think that's why the content tends to run in spurts--most often correlating pretty closely with what you're looking at.

My next project is based on a news story I read over the weekend about jumpers on Tampa's Sunshine Skyway. The state is pulling funding (budget crisis) for the 24-hour watches that have saved over 90 lives in the last couple of years. The article mentioned that people have linked the place, which is one of great beauty, with the act of suicide. What draws people to a particular place to take their lives? And if a place can carry the residue of all those lost, how much build-up must there be at the crest of that great bridge?

So what do you think? Do ghosts exist? Do places retain energy? Fire away...

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