Carmilla: A Good Old-Fashioned Monster

downloadI just finished my next audiobook adventure: Carmilla, the classic by Joseph Le Fanu, about a mysterious female vampire who preys on the young daughter of an Austrian nobleman. Given that this follows on the heels on Frankenstein, I’m thinking you can probably sense a theme here: monsters of yore. I am a fan of the Gothic horror genre. Forget the blood, gore and guts of modern horror tales, I’ll take an intelligent tale of things that go bump in the night, moral heroes and most importantly, monstrous monsters.

Yes, I said monstrous monsters. As of lately, monsters have gotten … conflicted. They have ‘reasons’ for doing what they do. They justify their actions. They lack the original mystery that made us scared of them. We’ve become so familiar with these monsters that we’ve had to add blood and gore to their stories to find any kind of fright in them. And in that familiarity, we’ve humanized them.

What do I mean? Dracula, in Dracula Untold, was forced to become a monster by an enemy who was more monstrous than him (again, using Ms. Shelley’s argument that man is the real monster). Damien, in the short-lived series reboot of the original story of the anti-Christ’s early years, was described as a millennial in therapy, conflicted about whether he should take over the world or not. The vampires in Stephanie Meyer’s books sparkle and marry and have children – a inside joke that made it into Hotel Transylvania, which went further to humanize and endear the monsters more than any other film I can think of (I actually liked the series).

I think this is what irked me most this time. I did what I usually do when I complete a book I know has a film adaptation and I googled Carmilla. I found sequels and reimaginings that focused on the lesbian love part (if only to titillate their audience, no different than Mr. Le Fanu), but dismissed the part where she was undead and preying on young women. And I know that authors and writers can create their own worlds and visions for stories, but there are some rules that don’t really change. Undead is undead. No matter how ‘romantic’ the notion, vampires can’t have kids, they can’t feel emotions, and no, they don’t sparkle in the sunlight – they burn. Plus, drinking blood is gross and unhygienic, not sexy.

And while we’re on it, silver kills werewolves, not vampires.

So yeah, I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to this. Give me a good old-fashioned monster any day. Their backstories might be tragic, and their tales meant to shed light on the unexplained, but in the end, they are evil and worthy only of vanquishing. When lines like that are drawn, life goes back to being simple. Black is black and white is white; and we find our purpose in the evil we battle.

Frankenstein: My Observations

Image result for frankensteinI recently discovered the joy of audio books. While they are convenient and perfect for my daily three-hour commute, they are also a great way to get through books that I started, but didn’t finish, but wanted to finish (yeah, I’m one of those people).

I am currently working my way through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s been years since I started reading it (okay, more like decades, but who’s counting?) and I’ve noticed some things since I last picked up the book:

First of all, Mary Shelley is VERY wordy. Oh my goodness. The woman had an amazing command of the English language and took great measures to make sure you understood what she was talking about, down to the minutest detail. I had to look up some of the words she used, as I was unfamiliar with them. Which wasn’t a bad thing as it has expanded my vocabulary. Sometimes less is better though.

Secondly, she tended to go off on rabbit trails, talking about places and people (again, in great detail) that had no bearing on the story. When the monster told his story to his creator, Victor Frankenstein, he went into a lengthy, LENGTHY discourse about the backgrounds of the family that he was staying near. At one point, he said, ‘this will prove that what I’m saying is true.’ It really didn’t, but I went with it. And so he continued his story, or rather their stories, for the rest of the day (and he got started early). I’m sure Victor was thinking, ‘OMG, just get to the point.’ I know I was.

Some of Ms. Shelley’s tale required you to suspend your belief. Especially with the monster, who sprang into being and then within two years, had an expansive understanding of the language (written and spoken), philosophy, government, religion and people. The last one is not too hard (they were the true monsters, after all); still, within the span of his education, he was reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Sorrows of Werter, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I still haven’t read those books.

All that aside, the most challenging thing about reading Frankenstein this time around is seeing an eighteenth century experiment through twenty-first century eyes. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t detract from the story, because I started questioning it. If it took months for Victor to create the monster and its mate, how did the parts not rot? Wasn’t the lightning which brought the monster to life (alluded to, though not specifically mentioned as the tool of reanimation) just a crude defibrillator? Would not a being created from human body parts be human? Was it truly another race, which it was constantly called? Would it require re-introduction and re-education if it had the a human brain to start with? Or would death have wiped away all of that?

Those questions may be valid, but they are also moot, because Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein was never about the monster. It was about the ethics of Frankenstein’s experiment and his responsibility to the being he created. It was about the beauty of life and the need for companionship and love. And lastly, it was about innocence lost and made bloodthirsty in the mistreatment at the hands of our fellow man.

I’ve been told I ask too many questions sometimes; that I delve too much into a story, instead of enjoying it. And truth be told, if I wasn’t enjoying Frankenstein, I wouldn’t be reading it again. I love the genre, I love the story. It’s just interesting to me how age and time have changed my perception and understanding of it. Maybe that’s what Ms. Shelley truly had in mind when she wrote the book — to get her audience thinking. Shouldn’t that be the goal of any good author?

Happily Ever After?

I am a sucker for romances, especially if they end with, “…and they lived happily ever after…” However, I do think that there is a fine line between romantic and ridiculous. Where the ending comes wrapped up in a big, red bow tie and everyone lives … well, happily ever after. And you might say, you can’t have it both ways – you can’t not be ridiculous if you want everyone to live happy. But I disagree.

I’m currently reading a romance/erotica novel (don’t judge me) about a white supremacist gang-enforcer/gun-runner who is stunned by his attraction to a young, black woman who is enslaved to a cholo cartel leader wanna-be, and literally purchases her off the man (hang with me – it gets better). What follows is a six months of give and take as the two learn to unlearn bad things (like black and white don’t mix), trust and love one another. Love conquers all, including their pasts, and everyone gets the happily ever after they deserve.

Then, the author slaps a big, ole red bowtie on the story and ends it with an epilogue that includes both of them going on to be reality television stars and life is perfect. Now I do understand it’s someone else’s vision and words I’m reading, but I feel it cheapens the story. It takes a beautiful story and makes it something else all in the name of happy endings. Of course this is just my opinion, but I’m not alone – many of the reviews I read came to the same conclusion.

So, as the author, do I write what people will respond positively to, or how I see the story progress? That’s a tricky question. I mean you want to be true to you, but you also want people to read your stories.

Maybe this is why the fairy tales of old end with “…and everyone lived happily ever after…” – the bards and recorders of stories couldn’t come up with an ending that would appeal to the masses and so left it to the imagination of the audience to define what “Happily Ever After” is. Is it a declaration of love that is requited? Or a nice house in the suburbs courtesy of Hollywood?

Everything is relative, and in the end, I decide if I find the ending romantic and worthy of “Happily Ever After,” even when the author writes otherwise. Does that mean the book is bad? I don’t think so – just that we have different opinions and different methods of storytelling. And it’s that kind of diversity that fleshes out stories like these that warm the heart. I won’t lie: I’ll probably read the book again and give it a decent review – I’ll just skip the last chapter and make my own ending.

Being Mean to Characters

The world is a cruel place, so it should figure that, as authors, the worlds we create in our books should be just as cruel, right? After all, how often do we get to play God, right? How often do we get to exact some well-deserved retribution we can’t get in real-life, right? Or maneuver the chess pieces until we’ve cornered the queen and declared ‘checkmate’!

Or maybe we want to create the opposite, a utopia where no issues or conflicts exist. No one is mean to each other, not especially the author and the character, and everyone lives happily ever after…

I ponder all this as 13171349-_uy200_I finish reading The Hitman Diaries by Danny King; and while I enjoyed the book, there was a point where I considered putting it down – the main character, Ian Bridges, a hitman, was teetering on the edge of ‘too dark’ for me, a monster who kills without remorse and doesn’t fully accept what he actually is.

But as I read on, I discovered more than anything else he was also a geek.

screenshot_2016_09_09t14_55_13-0401

It’s bad enough Ian was good at something that automatically separated/alienated him from the remainder of humanity – but to also be bad in social situations and with women especially was just Mr. King being mean to his character.

Of course if you continue reading to the end (which I highly recommend you do), there was purpose in the cruelty of his actions (the author’s, not the hitman), for Ian’s issues with the world being mean to him were at the very core of his development.

This is the reason we choose to be mean – and have to suffer meanness – to create conflict. It’s a necessary evil that shapes and molds characters and builds the story. In the same way that conflict shapes and molds us in ‘real life’, building the story that is our lives. Our character is created/developed and how we respond to the world around us is contingent upon what we learn or don’t learn during those moments of cruelty.

Otherwise, our stories – in literature and reality – tend to go the way of the preschooler who just has to tell you something important. It starts off innocently enough – they have to tell you about their day, how they played, and ate, and talked to so-and-so, who had so-and-so and said so-and-so. And then they ate again, and they played again and talked and right about the five minute mark, it dawns on you that you have a front-row seat to The Never-Ending Story, Part II. There is no point being made, no conflict to resolve; just events, strung together with commas and semi-colons.

Now I’m not saying there is some cosmic notion in play that necessitates evil so that we will act right or learn a valuable lesson. The ancient Greek and Roman might argue, given their track record with their gods, but all-in-all, I think it’s something we have to deal with. Conflict exists, cause and effect, and we have to deal with the consequences of actions committed before and after us so we can live our lives.

Which leads us then to authors creating actions (being mean) to create conflict (character) and resolution (storytelling; or life, if you will). And it’s not an easy thing playing God …er, creating conflict, let me tell you:

In my serial story The Pledge, Tamar is humiliated, raped and beaten through two marriages before she’s had enough and decides to take control of her life by dealing with the man she views as the ultimate source of her pain.

In my book Speak Tenderly To Her, I had to be mean to Isobel, who traded a good man for one with a heavy hand and a warped sense of love. Even knowing the ending, it was difficult writing the parts in between, told from her perspective – that she’s messed up her life beyond reconciliation and might never get back the man who truly loves her.

I think the hardest one for me to be mean to was Zoe, the main character’s daughter in Stepmothers Anonymous: Abbey and her family are getting ready to celebrate Zoe’s birthday, when an unexpected visitor not only ruins the day, but also brings a wedge between the family forcing them to choose sides in the ultimate battle between good and evil. Being mean to Zoe and having to write her tears was a minor plot point, but it was the hardest thing I’ve written thus far.

In the end though, just like life, it all works together for the greater good, or a greater story. And if we have the power to be mean, we also have the ability to soothe the wounds and write a happy ending, if one is warranted. I personally like happy endings – I am able to  justify and feel better about all the hell I put my characters through.

What’s Ruth Reading: The Hitman Diaries

I just finished reading Danny King’s The Hitman Diaries. Like three hours ago. So, since this is still fresh in my mind, this is what we’re writing about. Then tomorrow we’re going to discuss why we (as authors) are mean to our characters.

Ready?

13171349-_uy200_Ian Bridges is looking for Miss Right. Never mind that he’s a hitman, who is very good at his job because he feels no remorse. If he can just find the right woman who will be grateful for all the love he has to offer, then his life will be complete. Of course, life is never that easy. Never.

I picked up this book after reading Danny King’s “The Henchmen’s Book Club” – I loved that book and was certain I’d love this one. Well….. I started the book and didn’t know quite what to think when the body count started adding up in the first chapter alone. I wasn’t sure if I liked the main character or not and was ready at one point to stop reading, but found I couldn’t, because I had to know what happened next. Then about midway through, I found myself caring for Ian and his quest for love, so that by the time I finished the book, I was heartbroken to have to leave Ian’s world so soon. That’s an amazing gift for any author – though I’m not sure what that says about you when you start rooting for the “bad guy”.

All-in-all, the characters were well-developed as was the world they live in. There were descriptions of killing and death, though nothing too graphic. Thoroughly enjoyable. My only complaint was that it ended.

Well-done, Mr. King.

 

What’s Ruth Reading

I am a reader as much as I am a writer; and I like to always be reading something. Whether it’s romance, history or fantasy, I enjoy learning new things and exploring new worlds. Cliche, I know. Still, I believe it’s true and more than that, it helps you hone your skills when words are your choice of career.

So with that, I present what I hope is the first of many posts, sharing with you what I am reading and what I think of the book. A review. Ready?

George Washington’s Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

Chronicling the history of the first American spy ring, I started reading this book for one reason only: one of the six spies was a woman. Considering the time frame (late 1700’s), the fact that her involvement was recorded was amazing. But when you start reading the book, you discover the whole history to be amazing.

Following the loss of New York in the early part of the war, George Washington realized it wasn’t by might that he was going to win – he’d have to outwit the British and the only way he as going to do that was through information. His initial attempts at infiltrating the enemy ended with the death of his spy. But as the situation grew grave, Washington changed tactics, set up a spy master and let him grow the ring. What followed were processes and methods that are still employed today in the spy game. 

Sadly, the identity of the woman was never discovered, but it was because of her willingness and patriotism, as well as the other men involved, that we are the home of the free and the brave. 

Mr. Kilmeade and Yaeger did a good job mapping out the story and making it easy to follow along. The language was simple, and supported by years of research. Whether you’re a history buff or not, the book is a great addition to your library and a great read. 

What I am reading next: Let Me In by John Ajvide Lindqvist