Sunday, February 25, 2024

Three Types of Modern Prose and Their Readers.

In some ways, I owe a debt of gratitude to Roger Ebert for this one.  Even if what I'm about to write ends up on a different critical outlook from that of the beloved film critic for the Chicago Times, credit has to go where it's due.  It was Roger who got the gears in my mind turning.  This whole article is therefore best thought of as something like his accidental brainchild.  It also owes its existence to the work of one other famous artistic personality.  This would be the once noted Horror writer, Peter Straub.  In fact, it was an observation made by the critic about the author that got this whole thing started.  During the course of his review of a film adaptation of Straub's 1979 novel, Ghost Story, Ebert mentions how he once tried to get into the literary source material.  His own reaction to the book was that, in his words, "I plugged away at it for what must have been hundreds of pages before his unspeakable prose finally got to me. At least, he knows how to make a good story, if not how to tell it, and that is one way in which the book and the movie of “Ghost Story” differ (web)".  Ebert then goes on to qualify his judgment call in the following terms.

"The movie is told with style. It goes without saying that style is the most important single element in every ghost story, since without it even the most ominous events disintegrate into silliness. And “Ghost Story,” perhaps aware that if characters talk too much they disperse the tension, adopts a very economical story-telling approach. Dialogue comes in short, straightforward sentences.  Background is provided without being allowed to distract from the main event. The characters are established with quick, subtle strokes".  Then, he closes it all off with the simple judgment call of: "This is a good movie (ibid)".  Well, for what it's worth, I took his advice, or recommendation, and gave the film a watch.  Even after trying to keep as open a mind as possible, I'm afraid I'll still have to side with another critic, Bill Sheehan, who in his critical study, At the Foot of the Story Tree, described the movie version of Ghost Story, as "a marvel of missed opportunities (80)".  Nor does the divergence of critical opinion end there.  My own experience of reading the original novel was and remains a complete opposite.

I almost want to claim that Ebert and I must have been reading dissimilar novels by entirely different authors.  So here I was faced with a challenge.  How do I account for the differences of opinion between Sheehan and myself, versus those of one half of Siskel and Ebert?  
It was the kind of remark that didn't just get my attention, it sort of forced me to take what Ebert was saying with a certain degree of seriousness.  The trouble is that doing so kind of forced me to confront a series of interrelated question.  For instance, what counts as "good prose"?  How does this maxim translate into "good writing"?  In other words, what kind of prose makes for a "good story"?  More to the point, can there ever be anything such as a perfect, indelible, and unassailable prose style when it comes to judging the quality of any given artistic work, whether a movie, or a book?  I'm sure many of you reading this have already arrived at what seems to be the obvious conclusion.  If you are one of these readers, then you can go ahead and skip all of what I'm about to say next.  This article is not directed at any of you.

Instead, I think this is a topic that needs to be addressed to the novices in the audience.  I think it's worth devoting some time and space here to an examination of the different types of writing styles to be found in works of prose fiction.  I think it's worth making such an effort in an attempt to meet the kind of challenge that Ebert's words set before any attentive student of literature (which is what I at least hope I am).  It's also a subject worth trying to tackle because of the light it might be able to help us shine on the different ways there are of reading as well as the art and craft of writing.  In essence, what you've got here is the kind of work that appeals most to a former high school going on college level English Major.  The sort of work that "Book People" will get excited about, in other words.  Articles like this always tend to run the risk of vanishing into the hazy mists of academic thought, and leaving the casual reader lost in the forest, unable to tell the different between the woods and the trees.

My promise (or at the very least, my hope?) is to avoid making this a boring slog by avoiding both too much technical detail, and (again, trying, anyway) to provide what I regard as various snippets and examples of what I consider to be Good Prose in the most genuine sense of the term.  That being passages of narrative action and description that not only demonstrate what good writing is like, but also does something else.  I tend to think the ultimate value of any good work of fiction lies in its ability to entertain its audience.  This is the ultimate goal to aim for, before any other.  Even if you're someone like Jon Swift or Mark Twain, and you want to bear your heart and soul in an effort to awaken your readers to the danger of racial injustice, all the good intentions in the world will turn to dust in an arena like this if you can't make a compelling narrative that grabs your audience by the throat and won't let go until the last line has been written and read.  It is the story, and its ability to entertain, which is the deciding factor here.  Applying it to an article like this means I'm going to have to make sure each passage from a book I might choose for demonstration is good enough to help keep the reader engaged.

It also means above all that I shouldn't get lost in the woods, and that I make sure the same applies to anyone kind enough to give me their valuable time of day.  The good news here is that we don't have far to go.  A careful look around at the contemporary writing scene has let me know that there are just a handful of choices left open to any would-be word-slinger.  All current ink-stained wretches have the limited options of just three styles of prose manners or voices to choose from.  Each of them are easy to distinguish and arrange into their respective categories, and there are enough good representatives of the "best and brightest" of each class of style to make this an interesting enough romp for those who either care about this sort of thing, or else are just hanging around looking for useful recommendation of any book out there whose contents at least sounds good enough to see if cracking their spines open is worth the effort.  So, with that in mind, let's take a look at what we mean by the term: Good Prose.

The Spartan Style.

As I've said above, all modern writing can be divided into three types of prose.  Since I don't think I've ever heard anyone give these styles anything like a definitive terminology, I'm sort of thrown back on having to come up with my own labels for them.  As a result, my personal classification of the three levels of prose all correspond to the three classes of writers I've run across in my history as a reader.  They are: the Spartans, the Middle Grounders, and the Lyricists.  These to my knowledge, are the three ways in which modern prose composition takes place.  For the moment, I'm going to hold off on the question of which style is the strongest or best.  Right now, it'll be enough just to give the audience a general idea or basic definition of each specific style, as well as a good example or two of what they're like in operation.  I'm going to have to walk the reader through each type one at a time here.  The reason for that is because letting each writing method have its own space is necessary if you want to get a better grasp of how they differ from one another.  So we'll go with the spare style, as a good start.

The Spartans are perhaps best described as any of those writers who belong to that particular category of composition where the prose runs to the spare and minimum of detail and expression.  The best examples of this method of writing can found in those authors whose prose always tends to come out with a quick, crisp, and clear, no nonsense clarity.  Another good way to describe the Spartan prose is that it's what might be termed a constant exercise in literary economy, or the preservation of detail.  This style prefers the plain, straightforward statement of imaginary facts.  "This is what happened", no more or less.  Any good writer worth the title knows that in order to succeed as a novelist, sooner or later you've always got to go out on a limb and give the reader all the juicy details necessary for them to sink their teeth into, and make the story worth reading.  The best writers in this category will deliver the goods, it's just that they are always going to do this in such a way as to conserve and compress the necessary narrative effect well within the space of just a few lines of prose.  The Spartan style is the kind that tends to shun ornamentation.  A good sample of what this style looks like can go as follows:

"It all began the day the world exploded.  Gerald was somewhere else at the time.  He wasn't anywhere near the eruption when it happened.  He just had the luck to get a good front-row seat.  Gerald didn't know why the world had to explode like that.  He kind of liked the great big place, on the whole.  It wasn't as if he asked to be where he was now, with a good view of creation being torn asunder.  With the echo of the explosion ringing in his ears.  He just knew that something like fate, chance, or ill will had placed him where he was now".

This segment of prose is one you won't find in any published text.  It's just a line of description that I've been carrying around nowhere else except within the confines of my own head for some time now.  This is sort of the first chance I've ever had to put it to something like good use.  It's about the best place to begin a discussion of the Spartan prose.  It fulfills all the criteria listed above.  Every sentence in the paragraph is brief and to the point.  The style winds up catered to deliver each narrative detail like a quick, glancing blow of information.  Each unit is sparing, while also containing just enough detail to leave the reader wanting to know more of what's going on, and even how this all happened.  The information in the paragraph is doled out one sentence at a time.  Each dollop of narrative detail is also structured for a desired maximum effect.  This should result in a reaction of stunned disbelief in what the audience is reading, coupled with the necessary desire to want to know more of what's going on.  The fact that each bit of the narrative is contained within just the sparest bit of sentence means the opening has a sharp sense of forward moment.  The Spartan style is being used here to move the narrative along at what is hopefully a fairly brisk pace.  There's the general sense of things happening fast in real time, and that momentum should be able to grab the reader, and pull them along with ease.

With any luck, that can serve as a good opening example of what the Spartan style of writing can be like.  It's time now, I think, to see how actual writers use this technique in their work.  Let's start out with another opening paragraph.  This time, it'll come from the pages of a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver, titled, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?  It's from a short piece called "Neighbors", and it's opening paragraph goes something like this.  "Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple.  But now and then they felt they alone among their circle had been passed by somehow, leaving Bill to attend to his bookkeeping duties and Arlene occupied with secretarial chores.  They talked about it sometimes, mostly in comparison with the lives of their neighbors, Harriet and Jim Stone.  It seemed to the Millers that the Stones lived a fuller and brighter life.  The Stones were always going out for dinner, or entertaining at home, or traveling about the country somewhere in connection with Jim's work (7)'.

Right away, you can tell that we're already a step or two up in terms of quality.  Whereas the first sample provided in this section is serviceable as an introduction of sorts, it's also runs the risk of being too terse for its own good.  There's the sense that the writing is either going to have to expand the canvas of its narrative, or else run the risk of playing meager stylistic games.  Carver, in contrast, is able to take the literary minimalist approach and turn it to his own advantage.  Once more the sentences are all crisp and concise, with the style always keeping a clear eye on the economy of expression.  What sets Carver's own efforts way above mine is not just that he's a natural pro at his job.  He goes further by finding all the right ways to pack in as much expressive detail within the confines of the minimalist idiom.  It allows Carver to locate and net all the words he needs to draw the reader into the predicament of his story, and more important the lives of his characters.  Carver's greatest skill set rested in his ability as a chronicler of the drama to be found and mined in the ordinary days of working and middle class Americans.  His narratives remained life-size and predominantly focused on the here and now.  This meant all of his skills would have to rest on his ability to make his characters at least seem real.

The way Carver demonstrated the scope of his talent and achievements in this field of literature was by learning the right balance between conservation of detail, and the inherent need of any story to tell as much of what happened as possible.  The fact that he was always able to breath the semblance of life into his imaginary stage performers as they all went through the motions of everyday travails, while adhering to the strictures of the Spartan prose, says a great deal about his skills and abilities as a writer.  Before moving on, we have just one other sample to look through, and here is perhaps where a bit of a pleasant surprise comes in.  Rather than spoil things upfront, I'll just let the words of author David Morrell speak for themselves.

"His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky.  He had a long heavy beard, and his hair was hanging down over his ears and neck, and he had his hand out trying to thumb a ride from a car that was stopped at the pump.  To see him there, leaning on one hip, a Coke bottle in his hand and a rolled-up sleeping bag near his boots on the tar pavement, you could never have guessed that on Tuesday, a day later, most of the police in Basalt County would be hunting him down.  Certainly you could not have guessed that by Thursday he would be running from the Kentucky National Guard and the police of six counties and a good many private citizens who liked to shoot.  But then from just seeing him there ragged and dusty by the pump of the gas station, you could never have figured the kind of kid Rambo was, or what was about to make it all begin.  Rambo knew there was going to be trouble, though. (1)".

Let's get the obvious questions that everyone is asking themselves out of the way, first.  No, you're not seeing things.  Yes, the name everyone and their grandparent is familiar with by now really is there.  Yes, it's even the real deal.  And yes, for the record, Sylvester Stallone's career revival movie First Blood is, in fact, based on a book.  Suffice to say, that's a discussion for another time.  Our focus remains on the author's skill as a minimalist.  In terms of mastery of style, it can be argued that Morrell takes a step or two further into the technical heights of the Spartan approach to literary composition.  The chief way he does this is by doing little else besides trying to push against the boundaries of the form, in an effort to see how far he can stretch the format without ever breaking free of it altogether.  What this means in terms of actual practice is that there's a fair bit of trickery in play with how Morrell structures his sentences.  He manages to pull off what in retrospect is the textual equivalent of an optical illusion.  His narrative description always manages to stay within the boundaries of the Spartan approach.  However, the writer also finds ways of dragging out the length of his sentences.

The way Morrell does this is by letting the sentence run on for just as long as he needs it in order to pack in as much of a load of narrative detail as he thinks the Spartan form can hold.  This results in narrative details like the following.  "From eight to five he organized his force, interviewing the men already on the job, firing those who did not want to go nights to the shooting range or the state police night school, hiring men who did not mind extra duty, throwing out obsolete equipment and buying new, streamlining the cluttered operation that his predecessor had left when he died on the front steps of a heart attack (93)".  All of that is nothing less than a single sentence.  The sleight of hand trick comes from Morrell finding out how to make a single line of description do the work the work of six.  Whereas most writers would take several sentences to tell all about how one of the book's two main leads organizes his day job, Morrell decides to take the risk of packing all of that info into just one, drawn out declarative statement.  It's an interesting stylistic risk the author has taken here.  

It's a credit to Morrell's skill that he appears able to have gotten away with it more or less scott-free.  I can see writing instructor's like the immortal Will Strunk giving him a warning glare for it.  However, I'm afraid I'll have to hand Morrell the laurels for artistic inventiveness in seeing how far he can take the format.  It's his valiant little experimental excursions throughout the course of First Blood which helps to give the novice reader a sense of the Spartan style of prose writing.  It is, of course, the perfect irony that the best way of demonstrating the contours of this method is to constantly try bouncing what are at least the intimations of a more expansive manner of expression against the walls of the Spartan barracks, and seeing how much stress it can take.  Turns out Morrell seems to have discovered that it can bear a surprising amount of weight without breaking.  I think we might have gotten as close as we can now to an understanding of the spare, classical minimalism approach to storytelling.  From now on, we'll have to expand both the vocabulary and the frame in order to know the two remaining types.

The Middle Grounders.

I suppose the best way to describe the middle of the road type of author is that theirs is the style most modern-day readers are familiar with.  In other words, theirs might just have the best claim to being the defining prose of both 20th and 21st century letters in the English-speaking world.  This is the shelf space on which you can find most of the famous literary names of our era, as well as a lot of those of the immediate past.  As a result, it is also just possible to claim that it is this Middle Ground style of prose that the vast majority of readers are familiar with.  Considering how few have ever devoted their time and efforts to an enthusiastic engagement with literature, this type of writing may also have to stand as close to being the only manner of composition that all readers are familiar with.  It's the kind of situation that can become a handicap if not ameliorated by a good expanding of the literary horizons.  The good news on this score is that while anything like serious reading has always been (and seems destined to remain) a minority interest, it can at least be said that this is a minority with a great deal of continuing influence on the social landscape of pop-culture.  If not everyone can bother to be well read, then it is reassuring to learn that good literature can filter its ways into the collective consciousness.

The two best writers to exemplify the Middle Ground approach to prose composition also have a legitimate claim to being the two most famous and loved authors of both the 20th and current century.  I don't think we've reached the point where either Neil Gaiman or Stephen King need much of an introduction.  At least their reputations haven't slipped down into those levels of public obscurity where a reorientation of who they are and what they've written seems all that necessary just yet.  Though I do worry if people are even aware anymore that a story like The Shining started out as an actual book, before it ever became a movie.  Whatever the case is there, the fact that both Gaiman and King are the two most notable wordsmiths of their era makes them prime candidates for a quick study of the Middle method of writing that each of them have made famous.  Here I think it'll be enough to settle on just one sample from King's work, another from Gaiman, in order to see how both writers have helped to establish what now has to be considered the de facto version of the good prose in the modern era.

We'll start off with a sample from one of King's most recent works, as I think it's overall quality marks it out as a good enough place to start.  Here's how he begins the opening chapter of Fairy Tale.  "I'm sure I can tell this story.  I'm also sure no one will believe it.  That's fine with me.  Telling it will be enough.  My problem - and I'm sure many writers have it, not just newbies like me - is deciding where to start.  My first thought was with the shed, because that's where my adventures really began, but then I realized I would have to tell about Mr. Bowditch first, and how we became close.  Only that never would have happened except for the miracle that happened to my father.  A very ordinary miracle you could say, one that's happened to many thousands of men and women since 1935, but it seemed like a miracle to a kid.  Only that isn't the right place, either, because I don't think my father would have needed a miracle if hadn't been for that goddamned bridge.  So that's where I need to start, with the goddamned Sycamore Street bridge.  And now, thinking of those things, I see a clear thread leading up through the years to Mr. Bowditch and the padlocked shed behind his ramshackle old Victorian.  But a thread is easy to break. So not a thread but a chain. A strong one. And I was the kid with the shackle clamped around his wrist (1)".  Here's a list of things that are going on with that opening paragraph.

To start with, King seems to be one of the few authors with an almost innate ability to make his characters
sound like real people.  Even when it comes time for the guy in the rubber monster suit with plastic claws to come shambling on-stage, a lot of what makes it all work is the author's skill at getting you to care about what happens to the story's main characters.  It is just possible that his story wouldn't be as power without this ability.  The best explanation I've got for why that should be is perhaps because King has just always had this unnoticed skill at characterization that just doesn't get noticed enough as much as it should.  A more obvious reason might stem from his way with words.  King's approach to vocabulary is best described by the intermingled terms of colloquial, conversational, and folk pastoral.  Which is to say that his use of the English language owes much to the New England Gothic tradition.  His prose is, in short, Romantic at its core.  This might help explain the writer's gifts for characterization, and the immediate, sometimes even visceral reactions his words are able to have on us.  When you put both of these aspects together, you have the makings of a writing style that can often pull you in so that it all seems effortless, yet that often takes a great deal of trial and error to work.

In terms of the mere compositional nature of his narrative description, it's clear that King has led us into an entirely different category from the first one.  We're no longer in the land of the Spartans.  We've moved on to a more expansive verbal climate, one that allows the author room to stretch their legs a bit more than was possible in the previous segment.  This is not to say that King is unfamiliar with narrative minimalism.  Even some of the sentences in his opening paragraph above are capable of achieving a great deal of power within a limited scope.  The key fact, however, is that this is not the general direction that his powers of description trend toward, or even cater to.  Nor does there seem to be anything like a natural desire on the writer's part to meet such preferred requirements.  King's own style is the type that always seems ready to take an almost Romantic-Utilitarian approach to its subject matter.  There's a sense that the prose is willing to go however far as necessary in order to reach whatever artistic effect and/or goal that the story itself wants to achieve.  In practice, this results in a style that is naturally open-ended and willing enough to accommodate the reader.  This can be responsible for the often leisurely flow of most of King's novels, he's always trying to engage us.

He wants the audience to follow him along, and so his own prose has developed into the kind of style best suited for the purpose of first netting the reader, then drawing them in.  King himself has a few interesting thoughts about his own techniques as a writer, and they might be worth going into later on, when it comes time to sum up the findings of this overview.  For now, let's turn our attention to the prose of the creator of The Sandman.  I've gone with one of the books, as opposed to any of the graphic novels, because that is the best format that will give us the best textual snapshot of Gaiman's skills in composition.  I've decided on a passage from Neverwhere as it's the closest I can find to a representative text of Gaiman's skills as a novelist.  The passage goes as follows.  

"It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of
hundreds of districts with strange names - Crouch End, Chalk Farm, Earl's Court, Marble Arch - and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them as it despised them, in which the average speed of transportation through the city hadn't increased in three hundred years, following five hundred years of fitful road-widening and unskillful compromises between the needs of traffic, whether horse-drawn or, more recently, motorized, and the needs of pedestrians; a city inhabited by and teeming with people of every colour and manner and kind (9-10)".  Gaiman's description here is able to achieve an similar effect to that of Morrell's opening in First Blood.  Like the Rambo passage, Gaiman's paragraph is in fact one big, run-on sentence.  Gaiman's own writing advice is interesting in this context.  He described his own method or writing as, "Put one word after another.  Find the right word, put it down (web)".  In practice, this seems to mean using as many or as few words as necessary.

Gaiman's the kind of author who won't skimp on the details if that's what it takes to help the narrative move along and keep the reader engaged.  At the same time, there are moments when it's clear he knows when to scale it back, and let a bare bones description of the narrative events do the talking.  A good example of this can be found later on in another passage from Neverwhere.  It happens at a moment when the protagonist is busy making his way across a placed called Night's Bridge.  "Darkness is happening,' said the leather woman, very quietly.  'Night is happening.  All the nightmares that have come out when the sun goes down, since the cave times, when we huddled together in fear for safety and for warmth, are happening.  Now,' she told them, 'now is the time to be afraid of the dark.'  Richard knew that something was about to creep over his face.  He closed his eyes: it made no difference what he saw or felt.  The night was complete.  It was then that the hallucinations started...He saw a figure falling towards him through the night, burning, its wings and hair on fire (110-11)". 

That whole paragraph is an example of two styles of writing successfully melded into a singular whole.  It starts out with a Spartan sentence, focusing in on just a few terse statements delivered by one of the book's characters.  The diction of the novel in this moment is modified to fit her voice, flat, terse, matter of fact,
declarative.  Then the speaker switches her words in mid-sentence.  Her vocabulary begins to expand, becomes more expressive, verging somewhere close to the poetic.  The interesting part about this switch-over is that it allows Gaiman to once more attempt the same trick as Morrell's.  To try and let what should be several lines of dialogue do the work of just one sentence.  Once more, like Morrell, Gaiman is able to get away with it, due to a mixture of composition skills combined with the inherent fantastical drama of the situation being described on the page.  We're entering a realm where nightmares come to life.  As such, the book is constructing its sentences to best fit the situation.  Hence the heady mixture of poetic terseness.  The combination of these two forms of diction go well together to help create the proper atmosphere of dread as the book's cast moves forward into a realm of darkness.

Taken on its own, it's something a minor stylistic tour-de-force that deftly shows off Gaiman's skill as a literary composer.  The subtle shifts in tone and expression from Spartan to poetic, then back to quick, sudden jabs of shock as the horrors of the scene begin to assert themselves display all the talent of a highwire act being executed to a level of objective artistic success.  Gaiman knows he doesn't have to elaborate when the actual Fantasy elements of his novel begin to assert themselves.  All he needs to do is describe one or two details, and then let our fears as his readers do the rest of the heavy lifting.  The descriptions used for both the crawling and falling things, for instance, are told in brief flashes of
description, and no more, because that's all that's needed.  Our Imaginations (if we're able to tap into it, at any rate) are able to fill in the blanks.  For instance, there's probably no definitive way to tell, but that image of the falling creature plummeting away into the darkness on fire puts me in mind of the work of John Milton.  The best part is I can't say whether Gaiman meant that as a brief bit of allusion to Paradise Lost or not.  I'm not even sure Gaiman himself knows where the image comes from.  It's just a happy case of artist and Imagination in complete, cooperative, inspired partnership with one another.

It's the kind of moment that can only happen whenever the writer manages to make his way into whatever artistic "Zone" is necessary for the creation of good fiction.  It's the most ideal place for any author to be, and nine times out of ten, it's where the best books and films tend to come from.  For a devoted biblio and cinephile like myself, these are the moments I most often look forward to.  I think we've begun to get at least some working knowledge of the Middle Ground style.  It's the type of mode of expression that approaches the closest to the kind of everyday normal kinds of expression that contemporary human beings tend to use.  Hence the reason why so many writers are spoken of as having an "easy, conversational" style.  That's because its just the specific manner of diction that they are using to tell their stories.  All that guys like or Gaiman are doing is using our typical, everyday colloquial speech, and then allowing it to take on the natural "heightened", dramatic quality which seems to be both regular and necessary for the de facto modes of literary-artistic expression.

In essence, the basic job of the Middle Ground style is to take real speech, and then give it an unreal twist.  It's the kind of narrative strategy which is the perfect fit for the contemporary expression of the modern Fantastic genres, where the typical setup is to start the action off in the world of the everyday, before plunging the characters into situations that are, by nature, extraordinary.  It is the main shared setup that unites the work of King and Gaiman.  You can also find this same style being used by the vast majority of the other major to mid-list names of authors out there, as well.  The folks who are able to make a sometimes more than profitable use of this Middle Ground vernacular include John Crowley, Robert Bloch, Neil Simon, Saul Bellow, Ann River Siddons, Dean Koontz, John Connelly, Joe Hill, Laurie R. King, and even Peter Straub.  This constant use of a single, unified, and shared method of literary composition marks the Middle Ground out as the major writing style of the current moment.  There may come a time when tastes and hence expression will cause this
contemporary shared "voice" to undergo a transfiguration into another manner, yet that day seems far away as of this writing.

The Lyricists.

There are a number of things I have to avoid when discussing this final group of writers.  On the one hand, it doesn't seem quite correct to claim I'm doing anything here like saving the best for last.  At the same time, it's even greater mistake to claim that we're about scrape the bottom of the barrel.  Don't worry, we're not.  My plan throughout this whole thing has been to try and stick with the top quality examples during the course of this article.  I just felt like I had to make sure that I'm stuck to the rules of fair play here with the reader.  When I talk of this final segment of prose writing, I had to make sure to avoid any show of preference.  This is not the spot to talk about which style of writing is the best.  There will be plenty to discuss that in the wrap-up segment of this article.  However, it's important to note that my judgement call on this wasn't designed to be obvious based on the way I structured the discussion of these three styles.  It isn't meant to be read as an ascending order from lowest to highest, or vice versa.  If I wanted to do that with this list all I had to do was tell you up front.  That's not how I set these categories up, however.  I'm just trying to be thorough as best I know how with this list.

The final item on it, then, concerns the type of writers who, for lack of a better description, don't mind a bit of ornamentation to their prose.  Perhaps now I'll have to pause for the sake of clearing another misunderstanding out of the way.  When I use that word ornamentation, I'm not implying that we've entered the realm of style over substance.  If that were the case, then I wouldn't even bother including this final segment as a legitimate form of storytelling.  In fact, there's a sense in which it's a mistake to even describe this third prose as any kind of ornament.  The writers who best exemplify the Lyrical turns of phrase are not interested in turning their books into an ongoing series of department store displays.  In fact, a lot of the authors you're about to meet would be pretty darn happy to take a blowtorch to that kind of thing.  It seems like we need a better word to describe the kind of Lyric prose this third category of writers specializes in.  The good news is the best possible phrase seems close enough at hand.  The type of authors I'm thinking of now have a knack for mixing prose with poetry.

Perhaps that's the best way to describe any ink-stained-wretch who fits into this category.  They show a keen awareness of what might be termed the poetic quality of words.  They're also the kind of writers who know their way around the uses of literary metaphors, and often find the means of using them in their narratives so that they don't get in the way of the story.  Instead, all their technique ever seems to do is to just enhance it in a way that makes for a richer reading experience.  Which I suppose is a way of saying that these types of writers tend to be a very well read bunch, on the whole.  The good news there is that the best of them always tend to wear their literacy so that it doesn't weigh things down.  Instead, they know better than to let erudition get in the way of narrative.  If they're smart, they realize all they have to do is to just stand back and let the Imagination do its own crazy yet inspired thing.  There are a handful of names that could best exemplify this Lyrical style of prose writings in this field.

At the very top of this particular heap are folks like Edmund Spenser, however something tells me it's a hell of a mistake to try and awaken a sense of prosody in the reader which has been out of use since the 1860s.  Instead, we'll start out small, on more familiar terrain.  J.R.R. Tolkien still doesn't need much in the way of introduction these days.  We all know him, and what he's done.  More to the point, we still have something like a working grasp of his power with languages.  Which kind of makes it no surprise that he's the first immediate go-to candidate for a good example of Lyrical writing.  The real challenge with someone like him is knowing where to start.  Tolkien's writing is best described as a gift that keeps on giving.  His words offer so many rich veins of ore to tap into that the limitless choices often becomes overwhelming.  We're going to look at two sample of prose from the realm of Middle Earth.  The reason for that is to help give a sense of the two types of Lyricism that Tolkien uses in his novel.  The first one that you are about to hear might be considered an example of the Lyric voice in its normal mode.

"Dusk deepened.  Mist lay behind them under the trees below, and brooded on the pale margins of the Anduin, but the sky was clear.  Stars came out.  The waxing moon was riding in the West, and the shadows of the rocks were black.  They had come to the feet of stony hills, and their pace was slower, for the trail was no longer easy to follow.  Here the highlands of the Emyn Muil ran from North to South in two long tumbled ridges.  The western side of each ridge was steep and difficult, but the eastward slopes were gentler, furrowed with many gullies and narrow ravines.  All night the three companions scrambled in this bony land, climbing to the crest of the first and tallest ridge, and down again into the darkness of a deep winding valley on the other side (Two Towers, Ch. 2, 210)".

Let's take a moment to notice what Tolkien has done here.  For while the passage is a good example of the Lyric style, I'm not sure most people have notice the linguistic trick the author seems to have played here, one that seems to have gone over the heads of his most skilled, academic fans.  The most obvious aspect of Tolkien's style is that he has somehow managed to recapture and successfully dramatize the classic, Epic voice, or mode of storytelling.  All of it seems to stem from the writer's studies in ancient Classical, Latin, Northern and Anglo-Saxon literatures and mythologies.  The artist has done nothing else, in the strictest sense, other than to take not just the contents, but also the original, authentic literary voices of these myths, and found a way of giving them what has sort of wound up as their prototypical modern expression.  In doing so, Tolkien seems to be a living illustration of a maxim handed down by Stephen King.  In his non-fiction study On Writing, King states that one of the first rules for succeeding at the word-slinging trade is: "Read a lot, and write a lot (145)".  In other words, the inescapable requirement for being a good author to not just to read, but also learn how to take as many good lessons for the crafting of sentences into usable events and characters.  It's the only way stories work.
Well in Tolkien's case, he didn't just fulfill that maxim, it's almost like he made himself the accidental poster boy for it.  All his life, Tolkien comes off as the kind of guy who doesn't just "like to read, every now and then".  It seems more like he was born with this natural sort of knack for inhabiting the books he read and liked.  In other words, he was one of life's natural bookworms.  Yet he was so damn good at it that he was able to take all that book learning and turn himself not just into a successful author, but also a tenured academic professor of English Literature at Oxford University.  The same place where Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland just a few years before he was born.  In other words, Tolkien's life kind of acts as an appended clause to King's maxim.  "If you read a lot and write a lot, sometimes books can transform you if you're not careful.  Sometimes, if you're lucky, you can do the same for your readers one day, as well".  In Tolkien's case, this part of his success wound up in finding a way for the tone and "vocal performance" of ancient Epic to find its own, contemporary voice in the modern age.
Recall what I said about his stylistic achievement, however.  That in finding a usable voice for the Epic, he also seems to have put this discovery to not just good, but also slightly mischievous use.  In other words, there is the sense, in the passage just quoted from that Tolkien might have been using the Classical Epic style to play around with his reader's expectation of what was considered the "proper mode of literary expression".  Notice the way the paragraph starts, for instance.  The first and third sentences are no more than two and three words long, respectively.  In these moments, Tolkien seems to have taken the Spartan approach and turned it not so much on its head as inside out, like a sock made of words which he then uses to first unravel and then stitch together into something new, fresh, and vibrant.  At the same time, there's no denying that the author's voice in that passage always has one of its feet planted in the older, bardic modes of speech, while the other belongs to the modern novel.  It is therefore a perfect example of an old style made new again in a way that resonates with modern readers.  It's one of the great tour-de-forces of literature, and while guys like King, Gaiman, or Richard Adams are sometimes able to approach this level of writing, no one will truly achieve it ever again.

Before we move on to the next voice in the gallery, we'll take just one more example from the
Lord of the Rings, as it will help us to gain a greater understanding of the third mode of literary expression.  The first sample was a demonstration of the Lyric voice going at what might be descried as a normal pace.  This next paragraph, however, is a display of what prose sounds like when it begins to enter the reaches of poetry.  Suddenly...the king..sprang away.  Behind him his banner blew in the wind, the horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it...Theoden could not be overtaken.  Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne a god of old...when the world was young.  His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it sone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed.  For morning came...and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them.  And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City (838)".

Are you starting to get a better sense of what I mean when I speak of the modern Lyric mode?  It's not just that books and tales told in this voice are expansive in their description and vocabulary.  There's also often a heft or atmosphere to all such texts that makes them pretty easy to pick out.  It's also not just because they're the loud ones in the room, either.  Perhaps a better way to phrase it is to say the Lyric method of modern writing is Romantic at its core.  It's, in essence, a throwback to an earlier narrative voice, one which has nonetheless managed to hold on and not just survive, but somehow to thrive in a modern digital age space.  It's what happens when generations of writers are able to find out how to transfigure poetry into prose.  This may even help explain why a lot of good Lyric prose keeps cropping up everywhere, while the actual art of poetic verse, meanwhile, seems to be in kind of a rut.  The reason for this is easy to explain once you realize that all the best poetry is now often found within the confines of the prose novel.  Another writer who exemplifies this is a man named Ray Bradbury.

There are two samples from one of the Midwestern fantasist's books that I think do the best at showing readers of how this particular writer fits into the Lyrical camp.  Each comes from his 1972 children's novel, The Halloween Tree.  Here's how the first part reads.  "It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state.  There wasn't so much wilderness around you couldn't see the town.  But on the other hand there wasn't so much town you couldn't see and feel and touch the wilderness.  The town was full of trees.  And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here.  And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across (1)".  Those are the exact opening lines to the book.  And right from the start, we've been introduced into a different kind of secondary world.  Bradbury lets us know how different the life within his pages is compared to ours by the way he structures it with his sentences.  Just like Tolkien, he finds ways of taking the Spartan approach and transfiguring it into something with a Lyrical quality.

This is an aspect of Ray's work that hasn't gone unnoticed by others.  I think Stephen King comes fairly close to describing the nature of Bradbury's prose, and the way it is intimately related to, and hence is able to shape the presentation of the story's contents.  King was talking about another of Bradbury's works when he wrote the following in Danse Macabre, way back in 1979.  However, the Waukegan fantasist's style is of such a unified whole that it pervades every single published work he ever wrote.  Therefore, it is not out of bounds to describe the prose of The Halloween Tree as "darkly poetic...set in the half-real, half-mythical...a shadowy descendent from that tradition that has brought us stories about Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, Pecos Bill, and Davy Crockett (344)".  King has a very specific description of Bradbury's prose, and the literary tradition this places him into, that I find fascinating.

He calls Bradbury an American Naturalist "of a dark persuasion".  Ray writes of "American people living in the heartland,...of innocence coming heartbreakingly to experience", and that the author of The Halloween Tree speak in a voice which is "uniquely, even startlingly American".  Ray narrates "in a clear English which remains informal while mostly eschewing idiom - when Bradbury lapses occasionally into slang it startles us so much that he seems almost vulgar".  King concludes by saying that the author is an "unmistakably American" voice (345)".  I find it interesting that it's the Naturalist tradition in American letters that King is most reminded of when trying to discuss Bradbury's narrative voice.  It's one of those curious judgment calls where it seems as like a truth has been spoken, yet it's never the whole picture.  In fact, for me, rather than there being anything inherently natural about the prose of a book like Halloween Tree, it's pretty darn apparent to me that the best words to describe Bradbury's style is that he is little more than the most well known American Pastoralist.  King compares Ray's words with authors like Theodore Dreiser, yet it's clear to me that his closest literary analogues are more along the lines of Henry Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe, Joel Chandler Harris, and Mark Twain.

Each of these writers is able to stake a legitimate claim to not only writing in, but also more or less helping to create the modern Pastoral voice in U.S. fiction.  All of them found ways of translating the bucolic enchantment that poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth ascribed to the English Countryside, and translated it all into an idiom suitable for the American Heartland.  Their collective success in this venture meant they were able to transform the landscape of places like Walden Pond, the Great North Woods of New England, or even the Mississippi River into the kind of enchanted landscapes worthy of the best old world fairy tales.  They turned America into the kind of place where even dragons and nature spirits of various stripes could find a home.  They were helped in large measure by paying attention to the folklore that was already there waiting to be told.  As a result, the Fantasy of the New World was allowed to have its own, distinct American voice, manners, and settings, while also carrying over themes and ideas from that of Romanticism.  In fact, King's own acknowledgement of the one of Bradbury's concepts as the clash of Innocence and Experience puts him in debt to the poetry of Blake.

As such, the voice of a story like The Halloween Tree has little choice except to come off in the form of a style best described as American Romantic Pastoral.  Bradbury doesn't set out to "describe" his secondary worlds.  Often the finished product displays the kind of talent that wants to compose his text the way a musician would a symphony, or an Elizabethan poet would a sonnet couplet.  This at least seems to be Ray's normal method of working.  It's not quite the same as saying he ever did manage to achieve a prose line on the level of Hamlet's soliloquy. Yet he remains one of the greatest examples of taking modern day prose, and fusing it with a poetry of the old world, Romantic sensibility such as is found in passages describing a metaphor for the construction of the Cathedral Notre Dame of Paris.

"The unemployed of all midnight Europe shivered in their stone sleep and came awake.  Which is to say that all the old beasts, all the old tales, all the old nightmares, all the old unused demons-put-by, and witches left in the lurch, quaked at the call, reared at the whistle, trembled at the summons, and in dust devils of propulsion skimmed down the roads, flitted skies, buckshot through shaken tree, forded streams, swam rivers, pierced clouds, and arrived, arrived.  Which is still to say that all the dead statues and idols and semigods and demigods of Europe lying like a dreadful snow all about, abandoned, in ruins, gave a blink and start and came as salamanders on the road, or bats in skies or dingoes in the brush.  They flew, they galloped, they skittered....For now that Notre Dame was infested with various beasts and spidering leers and gloms and masks, why here came dragons chasing children...and chariots full of skulls-and-bones.  Acrobats and tumblers, yanked out of shape by demidemons, limped and fell in strange postures to freeze on the roof (97, 98)".  Now that is one hell of a way to build a Cathedral.

Conclusion: In Defense of Peter Straub's Writing Style.

So far, this whole entire article has been no more than a catalogue of the limited options people have to work with if they want to write for a living.  For those who beg the question of what's the point of all this, then now seems like a good time to get back to the issue at the heart of this essay.  The problem that got it all started, in other words.  I said that it was all because of something Roger Ebert once said long ago about the writing style of one Peter Straub.  Part of the reason for assembling the catalogue of writing styles up above was to present an overall picture of the limitations that Straub, and every other ink-stained-wretch (whether great or mediocre) has to operate under.  The goal was to try and give a sense of perspective on the lay of the stylistic land, and to suggest an idea.  That there are only so many places Straub, or any writer for that matter, could go in terms of telling a good story.  From what I can tell, it's always been like that, even at the height of glorified ages like the Renaissance.  Back then, even if you were Shakespeare, the inescapable rule of thumb was that if you weren't composing stories in blank verse, you weren't taken seriously as a writer.  No one would have cared how good the Bard's skills of description, dialogue, and characterization would have been if it were all in straight prose.  His efforts would have been dismissed as nothing but the waste of a tasteless hack fit for the gutter.

See the point is that every age is a victim of what is considered "The Proper Taste".  The worst part is it's not anything like a fixed point that stays still so that people can tell what the standard of "Good Prose" might be.  Instead, it's always more like this arbitrary fashion of the moment that some determining party decides to settle on for the sake of convenience, and above all, exclusion.  Let's just say the more I study the history of literary taste, the more obvious it becomes to me that questions of genuine artistic merit have less to do with anything, so much as the age old matter of who is "In" and who is "Out" of favor.  The problem with such elitism is that if it were always followed to the letter, then I'm not real sure how it doesn't manage to erase the vast majority of all the most entertaining books and films that we've enjoyed through the years.  Now to his credit, this is a trap that I think critics like Ebert were able to avoid, for the most part.  I'm also willing to go out on a limb and say even he might have had some aesthetic blind spots, even if he is one of the best film reviewers of all time.

If Ebert ever had anything like a major blind spot, then it often seems to have come in the way he regarded the Horror genre in general, or certain types of Fantasy stories in particular.  For instance, out of all the films directed by John Carpenter that he saw, Ebert only gave one them an unqualified four stars, and that was the original Halloween, from way back in 1978.  Granted, I'm willing to look at that movie as the director's best work.  However, even I can't help but have a higher opinion of films like In the Mouth of Madness.  Even Christine, a film Carpenter claims he did just for the paycheck, is something that gets an easy enough recommendation from me.  Ebert, however, never gave either movie a higher rating than two stars.  Meanwhile, the rest of the audience has gone on to view films like Madness as something close to Carpenter's last Great Film.  I'll have to be honest, I'm afraid I just have to side with the fans on this one.  Say sorry, Roger, but that film is all kinds of plain fun.  In fact, it sort of occurs to me to wonder if Ebert never considered if that entire film might have been meant as one, big, well constructed and executed joke?  That's something I hope to explain some other time.

Right now, my point is that it can be possible to point to the low ratings Ebert gave to films like Prince of Darkness as an example of where his otherwise impressive artistic sympathies began to falter.  It's even possible to show how this applies to other films beyond the Horror genre.  Let's take the work of Jim Henson, for instance.  There's no secret he's one of the perennial storytellers of our collective childhood.  He wound up making his biggest impact among 80s kids, yet it's a testament to his skills as a genuine artist that he's always managed to be there for generations of children that have come after.  Sometimes, he's even been there when help was needed most.  I think that has to be counted as a defining benchmark of a truly great talent.  It's just something he was always that good at, and there's more than enough good reason why his artistic efforts have generated legions of fans throughout the ages.  Roger, meanwhile, managed to catch just three of Uncle Jim's films during his career.  He gave three an a half stars to just one of them, and that was the first Muppet Movie.  Meanwhile, he was unable to see anything of value in movies like Labyrinth or The Witches.  Both of which are classic.

Are you beginning to see what I mean by Ebert's occasional blind spots?  He's got a great deal of critical acumen, and when he's hitting his stride, it allowed him to offer up some of the best insights about the world, history, and art of cinema that anyone will ever make.  He kept this up at a steady pace, all except for all those other moments when his powers of insight failed him.  Perhaps that's just the way it goes for everyone of us, sooner, or later.  Even if this is the case, however, the fact remains that it tells less about the artwork under discussion than it does about where the aesthetic limitations of each given critic lies.  Nowhere is this more obvious than when Ebert tries to tackle the work of Peter Straub.  Nor is this all that surprising.  If you read through Ebert's work long enough, then you begin to see that he's just not, and probably never was going to be the number one fan of Horror fiction.

The main complaint he keeps bringing up about the modern American Horror film is that it has devolved into what he describes as a "Geek Show".  It's his term for what happens whenever a film in the Gothic genre devolves into a pure blood and guts fest, without much else in the way of actual story to either sustain, or justify all the special effects.  I think the best place Roger displayed this sentiment was during a passage of his review of Shaun of the Dead.  It's a film he either liked or was able to tolerate well enough.  Still, the biggest praise he can spare for it is that the film's pleasures are real, their also just too "mild" for his interests (web).  Meanwhile, the rest of the audience (present writer included) regard the flick as a genuine classic of modern day comedy.  The way Ebert justifies his verdict is by claiming that it's a good thing "the movie is about more than zombies. I am by now more or less exhausted by the cinematic possibilities of killing them. I've seen thousands of zombies die, and they're awfully easy to kill, unless you get a critical mass that piles on all at once. George Romeo, who invented the modern genre with "The Night of the Living Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead," (1979) was essentially devising video game targets before there were video games: They pop up, one after another, and you shoot them, or bang them on the head with a cricket bat. It's more fun sitting in the dark eating peanuts (ibid)".  With all due respect, I don't see how you can describe Dawn as just a video game.

I tend to see that film more as form of clever Gothic satire; a jab at the way people go about desensitizing, demoralizing (deadening, if you will) one another in pursuit of pointless and empty goals.  And it is precisely that point, I would argue, which is the true engine running Romero's films, and not just the zombies.  If that were the case.  If all George ever offered his audiences was just gallons of fake blook poured on the screen, I doubt it would be as fondly remembered, or have as much of an enduring shelf life as it still does today.  The key thing to note, however, is less the reputation of films like Dawn or Shaun of the Dead, and much more Ebert's response to all of this.  Rather, it's perhaps more appropriate to note his almost constant lack of response to the cultural impact of films such as these.  If Horror films like this go on to be embraced as touchstones by mainstream audiences, then the critic's relative lack of interest in such a phenomenon has to tell its own story in response.  

For me, it paints this picture of Ebert as someone who was perhaps never all that much interested in the Gothic genre of American fiction to begin with.  He might have liked a handful of morsels from this baroque sample plate.  However, it never seems to have translated into anything like a full enthusiasm for the genre as a whole.  The frustrating part about it for me, as a fan, is that he seems to make a categorical error when passing judgement on this type of fiction.  The almost perfect irony about his mistake is that even here, it is possible to acknowledge he might have had at least the beginnings of a valid point.  Whenever Ebert equated modern Horror films with Geek Shows, he, like everyone else, tended to point to the usual list of suspects.  These would include names like Freddy, Jason, and their myriad legions of copycats, and cut-and-paste jobs.  Here's the point where things get interesting (for me, at least).  As long as the criticism is limited to just this particular
type of film within the genre, then Ebert's judgment can be considered valid.  In that sense, he's not the only one with cause to decry what might termed the cheap coarsening of a legitimate mode of dramatic Gothic expression.  A lot of the reason for my liking the Horror genre is because of the heights of sophistication it can reach.

I've no idea how much of an oxymoron that must sound, yet I'll swear to the truth of that statement.  Whenever it's at it's best.  When the narrative description, action, dialogue or scenarios are starting to fire on all
cylinders.  No matter if the production value is prestige or schlock, if the writing is of any valid, good quality, then its like finding a diamond in the rough.  Such finds are to treasured as gems, in my opinion, because in a genre that is so vulnerable to bastardization as Horror, every story of real value winds up needing someone to champion it every now and then.  This is a general rule of thumb that I'm proud to see is becoming a regular acknowledgement among other fans of this type of writing.  
It goes double for certifiable masterpieces of the form such as Straub's Ghost Story.  What I wonder about, however, is this.  If Ebert's dislike of the contemporary Horror story caused him to overlook the values of films like Dawn of the Dead, or They Live, then could the same prejudice extend to the prose of Horror fiction?  Could his perception of Horror as bad stories extend to a verdict of bad writing?   It's with this in mind that I'm ready to present a final examination of literary style.  We'll close off this study on the elements of style by looking into the sentences of Peter Straub's Horror novel.

The plan here is to quote from what I hope are the most representative examples that typify the stylistic nature of the book, with the aim of proving its literary worth.  In order to do that, we'll need a basis for comparison, however.  So that means it helps if we can use Roger Ebert's own opinions on what the nature of Horror fiction is, or should be.  That way we have a benchmark to work with or against as the case may be.  The good news is the great film critic has left with just perhaps the barest sliver criteria that allows us to gain a sense of his idea of what the Gothic should be.  In the same review of the movie adaptation of Straub's novel (the one that got this whole thing started, in other words) Ebert outlines his definition of "Good Horror" as follows:  

"Ghost stories should always begin as this one does, in shadows so deep that the flickering light of the dying fire barely illuminates the apprehensive faces of the listeners. They should be told in an old man's voice, dry as dust. They should be listened to by other men who are so old and so rich that we can only guess at the horrors they have seen. And, of course, ghost stories should be about things that happened long ago to young, passionate lovers who committed unspeakable crimes and have had to live forever after with the knowledge of them. If at all possible, some of the characters should be living in this life, filled with guilt, while others should be living the half-lives of the Undead, filled with hatred and revenge".

Now, for comparison, let's take a look at how Straub himself views, or defines, the modern Gothic genre.  The following are the author's own words, as recorded down in the pages of Danse Macabre:  "[Ghost Story] started as a result of my having just read all the American supernatural fiction I could find," Straub says.  "I reread Hawthorne and James, and went out and got all of the Lovecraft and a lot of book by his 'set' - this was because I wanted to find out what my tradition was, since I was by then pretty firmly in the field - I also read Bierce, Edith Wharton's ghost stories, and a lot of Europeans (268)".  "I really wanted to expand things much more than I ever had before," Straub says.  "I wanted to work on a large canvas.  Salem's Lot showed me how to do this without getting lost among a lot of minor characters.  Besides the large canvas, I also wanted a certain largeness of effect....I had been imbued with the notion that horror stories are best when they are ambiguous and low key and restrained.  Reading [Salem's Lot], I realized that idea was self-defeating.  Horror stories were best when they were big and gaudy, when the natural operative quality in them was let loose.  

"So part of the 'expansion was an expansion of effect - I wanted to work up to big climaxes, create more tension than I ever had, build in big scares.  What all this means is that my ambition was geared up very high.  Very much on my mind was the idea of doing something which would be
very literary, and at the same time take on every kind of ghost situation I could think of.  Also I wanted to play around with reality, to make the characters confused about what was actually real.  So: I built in situations in which they feel they are 1.) acting out roles in a book; 2.) watching a film; 3.) hallucinating; 4.) dreaming; 5.) transported into a private fantasy.  This kind of thing, I think, is what our kind of book can do very well, what it is naturally suited to do.  The material is sort of naturally absurd and unbelievable, and therefore suits a narrative in which the characters are bounced around a whole set of situations, some of which they know rationally to be false.  And it seemed fitting to me that this kind of plot would emerge from a group of men telling stories - it was self-referring, which always pleases me deeply in novels.  If the structure had a relationship to the events, the book has more resonance (276-277)".

If you put Ebert's and Straub's statements together, then what you get is something I'm sure even the master of the  "Thumbs Up - Thumbs Down" rating might appreciate.  It amounts to nothin less than the kind of back and forth critical banter that Roger enjoyed with Gene Siskel during the glory years of At the Movies.  This time, Straub is the one who seems to have over Siskel's role, and the contrast between each speaker's notion of what makes for good Horror couldn't be more glaring.  Ebert's viewpoint is very much as Straub described it; "imbued with the notion that horror stories are best when they are ambiguous and low key and restrained".  Now, to be fair, this does count as at least one legitimate method of storytelling for the Horror genre to operate in.  The equal, yet obvious fact that still seems to need pointing out here, not just to Ebert but for anyone who is willing to sell the genre short, is that of course its an inevitability that the overall content of Horror, and the prose style in which it is written are bound to develop and expand the generic horizons as both time and talent evolves with the ages.

That is one of the most fundamental truisms of life that I'm kind of surprised that someone like Ebert would need to be reminded of, if I'm being honest.  Of course the Horror genre and its mode of expression was going to grow and elaborate as writers, filmmakers, and artists found new ways and methods of telling stories set in this ever transforming mold.  It's part of the basic nature of all art in general.  It's also now an open question of how much Ebert himself was either aware of, or on-board with the inevitability of such shifts in artistic technique.  If I had to take a guess, then my own thinking is that while he might have been willing to show good faith here and there, at the end of the day, the modern Horror genre wound up developing in directions that he just no longer recognized, or could get into.  I think that novel's like Ghost Story are part and parcel of that process of being left behind.  Something tells me this is as close as we'll ever get to understanding Ebert's relations with the Gothic.

That just leaves us with the question of Straub's style as a Horror writer.  How well does his prose read, anyway?  The samples I aim to look at now come from the beginning and middle of the novel.  Once again, each sample is chosen for the quality of the words, and how the author uses them to the best possible effect.  We begin at the most logical place to start, by examining the opening lines of the book.

"Because he thought that would have problem taking the child over the border into Canada, he drove south, skirting the cities whenever they came and taking the anonymous freeways which were like a separate country, as travel was itself like a separate country.  The sameness both comforted and stimulated him, so that on the first day he was able to drive for twenty hours straight through.  They ate at McDonald's and at root-beer stands: when he was hungry, he left the freeway and took a state highway parallel to it, knowing that a drive-in was never more than ten or twenty miles away.  Then he woke up the child and they both gnawed at their hamburgers or chili dogs, the child never speaking more than to tell him what she wanted.  Most of the time she slept.  That first night the man remembered the light bulbs illuminating his license plates, and though this would later prove to be unnecessary swung off the freeway onto a dark country road long enough to unscrew the lightbulbs and toss them into a field.  Then he took handfuls of mud from beside the road and smeared them over the plates.  Wiping his hands on his trousers, he went back around to the driver's side and opened the door.  The child was sleeping with her back straight against the seat, her mouth closed.  She appeared perfectly composed.  He still didn't know what he was going to have to do to her (3)".

There are two way to look at this passage.  The first concerns matters of style, the second substance, or content.  Ghost Story is the kind of book that deserves its own article, however, since we're here to address Ebert's criticisms of prose writing, it'll have to wait another day.  For now, we'll have to settle for talking about how the opening action is written.  In terms of style, my immediate reaction to Straub's prose line, then and now, is that there's nothing all that remarkable about it.  His prose is spare, sparse, and generally saves whatever small flourishes the writer might have in his repertoire for those brief moments whenever he thinks it's either allowable, or that he can get away with it.  A good example of what I mean of this instance comes a few pages later, when the narration takes us once more inside the headspace of the same, nervous, maybe even dangerous driver (a child-napper?).  He's on the road again after what he assumes was a close call with the authorities, and the description reads like this:

"So for hours they drove south through the songs and rhythms of country music, the stations weakening and changing, the disk jockeys swapping names and accents, the sponsors succeeding each other in a revolving list of insurance companies, toothpaste, soap, Dr. Pepper and Pepsi-Cola, acne preparations...petroleum jelly, bargain wristwatches, aluminum siding, dandruff shampoos: but the music remained the same, a vast and self-conscious story, a sort of seamless repetitious epic in which women married truckers and no-good gamblers but stood by them until they got a divorce and the men sat in bars plotting seductions and how to get back home, and they came together hot as two-dollar pistols and parted in disgust and worried about the babies.  Sometimes the car wouldn't start, sometimes the TV was busted; sometimes the bars closed down and threw you out on the street, your pockets turned inside out.  There was nothing that was not banal, there was no phrase that wasn't a cliche, but the child sat there satisfied and passive, dozing off to Willie Nelson and waking up to Loretta Lynn, and the man just drove, distracted by this endless soap opera of America's bottom dogs (7)".

Here we begin to get a sense of the writer's way with words, his ability for turning a poetic phrase.  The opening paragraph may have shown flashes of this talent here and there, yet they remained unobtrusive.  One gets the sense that the writer was concerned first with laying out the opening scene in the starkest of terms.  Any concerns about the language's color palette were of secondary importance, if it was even there at all.  The second example, however, begins to display Straub's ability as a prose stylist slowly beginning to make itself known.  It's nothing major, we're not dealing with the growl of a literary Harley Davison, or Nascar engine revving up and getting ready to rock and roll.  If you want that kind of opening, I suggest you go read a short story like Throttle, by Stephen King and Joe Hill.  Instead, Straub's sense of prosaic expansion puts one more in mind of a jazz combo starting to tune up.  The poetic diction, and hence the felt atmosphere of his words is more classical rather than straightforward pulp.  The necessary sense of nervous energy and dread endemic to the Gothic genre is all present and accounted for.  However, Straub doesn't just throw his readers into a bloodbath and call it a day.  His own approach to the genre is much too controlled and sure-handed for such tactics.

Instead, this is the kind of story where the prose opens on that all-important note of dread, and then continues to make its slow, careful, and deliberate way toward the true Horror generating the story's ever present sense of nervous tension.  In this way, Straub fashions his prose with all the careful clarity of an onion being peeled back in the hands of a master chef.  He doesn't shout as much in this book because he knows he doesn't have to.  The nature of the Horror at the center of his narrative is of such a quality that all he has to do is stand back, and let it generate its own, classic aura of Gothic fear.  

This leaves the content of his story intact, while allowing the prose to do however much it needs to deliver the proper swipes at the gut or jugular whenever its time for them to make their appearance on-stage.  The result of this approach marks out Straub's style as a hybrid case.  His basic technique seems to be a combination of the common American Middle Ground, with a constant touch of the Spartan approach.  
He's ways more expressive than either Raymond Carver or Cormac McCarthy.  At the same time, his desire to get out of the story's way can make his prose seem more restrained than it really is.

In fact, it is possible for Straub to modify the tone of his writing based on the situation he finds himself confronted with.  Let's take a good example of this from the book's second opening, in it's Part Two segment.  After spending the entirety of the opening in a state of slow, yet steady building tension, confined for the most part to the inside of that car with the runaway driver and the girl he seems to have kidnapped, everything build to a crescendo I will not spoil here.  After that, the prose reads as follows:

"One day in early October Frederick Hawthorne, a seventy year old lawyer who had lost very little to the years, left his house on Melrose Avenue in Milburn, New York, to walk across town to his offices on Wheat row just beside the square.  The temperature was a little colder than Milburn expected so early in its autumn, but Ricky wore his winter uniform of tweed topcoat, cashmere muffler, and gray, no-nonsense hat.  He walked a little briskly down Melrose Avenue to warm up his blood, moving beneath huge oaks and smaller maples already colored heart-wrenching shades of orange and red - another seasonal touch.  He was susceptible to colds, and if the temperature dropped another five degrees, he'd have to drive...What he walked chiefly to observe was Milburn itself - Milburn, the town in which all of his life except for his time in university, law school and the army had been spent.  He had never wanted to live anywhere else, though in the early days of his marriage, his lovely and restless wife had often claimed the town was boring.  Stella had wanted New York - had wanted it resolutely.  

"That had been one of the battles he had won.  It was incomprehensible to Ricky that anyone could find Milburn boring: if you watched it closely for seventy years, you saw the century at work...The original frame houses had endured, even if nearly all of them were now office buildings: even the trees were younger than the buildings.  He walked, his polished black shoes kicking through crisp leaves, past buildings much like those on Wheat Row and accompanied memories of his boyhood self down these same streets (27-29)".  Here the what you could call the poetry of the novel's diction has shifted over from the initial tone of mounting tension and fear.  The basic surrounding atmosphere that the words of this first section of the book's main action is best described by its sub-chapter heading: "Milburn Observed Through Nostalgia".  In these early moments, Straub does a good job of taking the feel of a Norman Rockwell painting, or a monologue by Garrison Keillor, and finding the right words to transcribe it both into the setting of his own work, as well as that of the specific genre they are meant to convey.  He's also good at switching back to the original note of unease with well-timed grace.  This moment happens not too far on, when one of the other main cast is home from jogging in the woods.

"When the sensation first hit him, he ignored it, vowing not to allow himself to be whammied any more than he was already.  What had come into his mind was that someone was standing back at the beginning of the return path, just where the first trees stood.  He knew that no one could be there: it was impossible that anyone had walked across the field without his noticing.  but the sensation persisted; it would not be argued away.  His watcher's eyes seemed to follow him, going deeper into the crowded trees.  His watcher's eyes seemed to follow him, going deeper into the crowded trees.  A squadron of crows left the branches of an oak just ahead of him.  Normally this would have delighted Lewis, but this time he jumped at their racket and almost fell.  Then the sensation shifted and became more intense.  The person back there was coming after him, staring at him with huge eyes.  Frantic, despising himself, Lewis pelted for home without daring to look back.  He could feel eyes watching him until he reached the walkway leading across his back garden from the edge of the woods to his kitchen door (88)".

In the space between these two scenes, Straub has managed to shift the tone from that of American Bucolic back to the realm of the kind of haunted woods that lie in wait for unwary travelers in a dark fairy tale.  This is an initial impression that gets driven home over the course of the novel to Lewis Benedict, the unlucky jogger from the passage above.  Later on, nearing the end of the story's middle, he is once more visited by the impression that the otherwise ordinary forest pathway up to his own front door has changed, and that he has somehow wandered into the pages of a text, instead of real life.  "And now, walking over new snow toward his woods, Lewis had a fresh perception.  It may have come because he was seeing the woods from an unfamiliar angle, going at them backward, and it may have been because he was just walking through them for the first time in weeks, not jogging.  Whatever the reason, the woods looked like an illustration in a book - not like a real woods, but a drawing on a page.  It was a fairytale woods, looking too perfect, too composed - drawn in black ink - to be real.  Even the path, winding off in a pretty indirection, was a fairytale path (160)".

Now these passages within Straub's novel fascinate me for a number of interconnected reasons, and the best way to start the explanation of this goes as follows.  As a scholar, J.R.R. Tolkien lived by an idea or rule that might sound either preposterous, or interesting: all language has a history.  A correlative of this notion is that sometimes, if you study the use of language in a culture's history, then sometimes you might get lucky enough to spot what might be termed moments of linguistic transition in action.  Those periods where it becomes easy to tell that the common artistic terms and expressions of a culture's vocabulary and vernacular are undergoing a shift from one voice to that of another.  Call it an overlooked facet of human evolution, one so natural that most of us can't even pick up on when it happens, or has occurred, even the recent past.  The switchover from the language of an analog state of living to the digitally infused manners of speech in our own era is the best current example of this evolution.  When I read Ghost Story now, I think I begin to see signs of another shift taking place, right within the very pages of the book itself.  Straub's novel is a product not just of that earlier analog terminology, it also seems to have become a kind of accidental, linguistic artifact.  The snapshot of a moment of transition from one form of artistic expression into another preserved forever in the pages.

Here's what I mean by all this.  When I read through the language of Straub's novel today, I begin to see that the author has wound up writing his story in a hybrid style.  This might give some readers the sense that the whole story is possessed of this odd, schizoid quality, almost like you're reading two books in one.  It took me a while to find out why that should be, and then it hit me.  The reason for Straub's style of writing within the novel is because his prose is always in the process of changing from one form of expression to another.  The finished product sort of has no choice except to preserve a record of that transformation in the stark blacks and whites of ink on paper.  Though if Straub's style records a sea change from one mode of poetic diction to another, what is it moving from and toward?  The best answer I've got is that he's managed to capture a snapshot of a genre in transition.  Before the advent of Stephen King, and novels like Salem's Lot, the highest expression that the Gothic genre had ever achieved in terms of style was captured in the prose of Bradbury, Flannery O'Connor, and Shirley Jackson.  While Bradbury's Lyricism has proved the more durable style, able to survive up to now, O'Connor and Jackson stand as the prime examples of the classic modern American Gothic prose.

Go back and read short stories like "A Good Man is Hard to Find", or The Haunting of Hill House, sometime.  If you do, you're bound to be shocked by the strange familiarity hanging over the proceedings.  That's because what the reader is witnessing as they pour over the words is nothing less than a slow series of building blocks that have wound up leading now inexorably to the modern Middle Ground idiom employed by the likes of Straub, King, and Gaiman in their own experiments with the Fantastic genres.  The writing of O'Connor and Jackson form inescapable stepping stones to novels like Salem's Lot or Ghost Story.  The key thing to note, however, is the way that earlier writers like Jackson used the vocabulary of the mid-20th century Gothic to construct her haunted secondary worlds.  A setting like Hill House is made up of words that are clean, crisp, and clear.  Jackson then takes that clarity of style, and twists it until we are firmly in the land of unreliable narration.  She does this by giving the vast majority of the novel over to a main character who may be haunted by spirits, or else just going insane, with the most likely answer being a little of both columns.  It's one of the great tour de forces not just of Horror fiction, but of Western literature in general.  It's the genre at a high peak.

Jackson has grasped at the mid-century prose of Gothicism, and taken it as far as it could ever go.  With The Haunting she seems to have wound up putting the final stamp on the overall nature of stories and novels composed in the classic October mode.  It's a feat similar to the way Francis Coppola was able to elevate the techniques of Golden Age Hollywood cinematography to its best possible pinnacle with The Godfather.  Neither effort breaks so much as it completes its mold.  Each is an exercise in putting the finishing touches on a good style.  The trouble with seeing a prose style to as close to perfection as possible is that it means this particular form of expression might no longer have anywhere else to go.  It's when this happens that a kind mental tectonic shift begins to occur.  There's a sense of restlessness in the diction of artists who start to come after.  An almost blind, groping search begins for the new way of saying things, the hoped for discovery of just the right kind of expression that will help future artists move forward in their creativity.  As things worked it, it was Steve King who became the pathfinder.

His own style of writing seems to have been pretty much set by the time Carrie was published way back in 1974.  Even if this was the case, what has to be kept in mind is that his own vernacular was just the start of the new Middle Ground while everyone else was still caught up in that moment of transition.  Guys like Peter Straub, meanwhile, where still busy trying to write their way out of the old method of telling stories, and into the new field being plowed by the likes of King.  That makes the words and language of a novel like Ghost Story the perfect snapshot of both an author and a genre in a moment of transition.  We see Straub both aware of, and even paying a bit of tribute to the style of the giants on whose shoulders his story stands.  We also get the sense that his own words are bidding a kind of fond farewell to the old, even as it forges ahead into the new.  The result is a book with two types of storytelling in one.  I'm starting to wonder if it might have been this sense of double-jointed stylistics that threw Ebert off the first time he tried to make his way through the text.  He wasn't just confronted with the kind of book he could never enter, he also couldn't grasp the change in writing methods.

If this is the case, if there's any probability to the kind of surmise laid out here.  Then all we're left with is a sense of irony.  We've got a writer with a great deal of talent and stylistic ingenuity confronted by a critic who seems more or less locked into his tastes, which are set in stone.  You begin to get the sense that Horror fiction, for Roger Ebert, was always going to be limited to the more classical approaches of writers like Shirley Jackson and Henry James.  In other words, the genre moved on, and Straub was one one of the artists who helped usher it into our modern terminology, leaving the tastes of guys like Ebert behind.  If that's true, then the upshot is that Ebert didn't seem to mind being left behind.  He was pretty much okay with being regarded as something of an old fossil even while he was still coming into his own.  The final tally, then, is that while Ebert may have a lot to say about the efforts of other artists.  In the end, he just doesn't seem to have been the best possible reader of a novel like Ghost Story.  

The more objective call on the book in terms of its technical composition is that it's impossible to claim that there is anything inherently wrong with it.  The worst you can say is that Straub is at pains not to get in the way of his story or its characters.  The whole thing tends to come off as more painstaking, and deliberate rather than anything else.  The trouble is it's difficult to figure out just what on Earth the problem is supposed to be with such an approach.  The most damning label I can give to it would have to be polished.  Straub wants to make sure his story operates as much like a well-oiled machine as possible.  This causes him to adopt what I would term a quasi-Spartan approach, and there's a reason for calling it that.  This leads into the other facet of the book's style, one I've mentioned above already.  Its a combo of the earlier, Jacksonian Gothic voice (for lack of a better phrase) mixed in with the then burgeoning Middle Ground vernacular that King was helping to pioneer.  Straub's place in all this, as I've said, was transitional.  What a close read of the stylistic composition of his novel reveals is just how aware the author was about this switch-over, and how this carried over into the finished product.

Like other writers of the time, Straub could see the changes coming, and was more than ready to embrace it.  At the same time, it seems as if he was taken with the idea of recognizing the value of the older classical form of Gothic storytelling, and knew that while it may never truly go away, it would no longer be the dominant format in which Horror stories would be told or written.  He was more than ready to jump on that bandwagon, and expand the expressive possibilities of the genre as far as it could go.  However, he was also a fan of the classic style ghost story, and would remain a fan of it for the rest of his life.  This seems to have put the author in a very nostalgic frame of mind, which seems to have carried over into the finished product.  There's a genuine visceral quality to Ghost Story that was and remains well in line with the then new voice being developed by the likes of King and Gaiman.  At the same time, there's this peculiar, yet somehow endearing sense of affection running through the story for most of its runtime, in particular for the group of old men who form the story's main characters.  

A lot of the reason for this affection seems to stem from the author's awareness that he has stumbled upon the perfect set of literary archetypes that more or less represent that older, classic style of ghost story teller.  The Chowder Society, in other words, are the perfect homage to writers like Henry James, Nathanial Hawthorne, M.R. James, and Shirley Jackson.  They seem to epitomize for Straub all the glory of the older Horror stories, and he can't disguise his genuine fan's enthusiasm for what they represent.  Hence the strange note of respect that always hangs over most of their scenes.  Even when things are dour and threatening, you can tell the writer's heart goes out to these characters.  The biggest way he demonstrates this affection is by giving them a story that functions essentially as a passing of the torch.  The Chowder Society more or less wind up bequeathing their legacy to another character, a young man who is representative of the newer breed of Horror authors that both Straub and King belong to and wound up as.  In that sense, the whole story is meant as a narrative of transition.

So, to repeat, it's this awareness of torch passing, or carrying on the fire that allows Straub to reach back into the older style of Gothic composition, and try to blend it with the newer trends of stylistic writing of which he would go on to be a shaping influence.  In point of fact, after this novel, Straub would indeed prove himself a part of the next generation of New Wave Fabulists by adopting not just one, but a deliberate variety of styles that was more suited to the then developing voice of the still contemporary Horror genre.  As Straub explained in an interview with the online journal Electric Lit, he was always looking for ways of keeping the genre alive and fresh.  A lot of it came from experimentation with new styles of storytelling.  In that sense, Ghost Story can more or less be seen as the start of this process, and part of what makes it so engrossing is the acknowledgement by a then young and up and coming talent of the giants on whose shoulders he always stood on.  Taken on all these terms, the final product winds up as a text worth singing praise about.  The book fits well with Stephen King's description of it in Danse Macabre.  "The writing itself is beautifully tuned and balanced (274)".

The whole point of this essay was two-fold.  I wanted to tackle the words of a former critic, in order to see if they were sustainable, or not.  While I haven't lost any respect for the talent of a reviewer like Roger Ebert, I have come away with a better sense of his overall aesthetic values, and hence, how this outlook determines his many strengths, as well as his potential weaknesses.  Some types of narrative were just forever out of his sympathy and Ghost Story turned out to be one of them.  Still, it is merely a sketching in of the limits of the critic, and not of the literary skills of the novel proper.  This in turn led me to the other point of this article.  It was necessary to give as good an overview as possible of the types of modern prose that exemplify the modern idiom of artistic expression.  I think I've done a good beginner's job of that, if nothing else.  It is possible to prove that Straub's own narrative voice is well in keeping with the best types of writing available today.  The only ambivalent question remains Ebert's own tastes with regard to what has to be termed the typical modern style of telling stories.  The final thing to be determined is which of all the writing styles I have listed deserves to be first among others?

The answer to that question is easy?  There is no proper way for one style of writing to be better than another.  To try and claim otherwise is little else but an act of hubris bordering on egotism.  If literature is ever to do its job in a proper fashion, then all the possible styles of telling a story must be considered as all on the table, and up for grabs.  Otherwise, the proper Art of writing a good work of fiction will stagnate.  This is something I for one don't feel like allowing.  Everybody's got to find and have their own voice, and that means both the allowance for mistakes, as well as the ability to learn from the possibilities of new developments in literary style.  It's a lesson I think Ebert was well aware of, and yet he'd just reached a point where it was no longer possible to teach an old dog new tricks.  My only hope in all this is that it doesn't become an inevitability with everyone sooner or later.  The realm of Creative Writing is one of the places where I find myself the most at home, for some reason.  Nor am I the only one.  I think it's our job as literary enthusiasts to do the best we can to make others feel welcome.

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