Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Madmen, Myths, and Monsters

I’ve long had a fascination with the contradictory nature of humanity. The apparently irreconcilable people interest me the most. Egil Skallagrimsson, for example, and Vlad Tepesh each have two very different, and apparently contradictory reputations.

Egil was an Icelander, subject of his own saga. He killed his first man at the age of eight, lived a full life farming punctuated with large amounts of killing, raiding, and poetry. His poems are considered some of the finest in Icelandic literature. Is it possible to separate the murderer from the poet?

Vlad Tepes has become known in America, thanks to the efforts of Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally, as the basis for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Vlad was a murderous ruler, who killed a large number of own countrymen, and yet he is regarded as one of Wallachia’s great national heroes. He was unspeakably cruel, if even some of the stories are to be believed–and it’s fairly clear that a lot of foreign propaganda working in some of the tales, and yet, if you managed to steer clear of his displeasure, he was considered a strong and just ruler. He valued honesty, but if anyone was caught being dishonest, or unchaste, or disrespectful, it was slow, painful death on the stake. And yet, there is a fondness for him in Wallachia–after all, he was a brilliant tactician who fought, and lost, to the much-larger army of Sultan Mehmed II. He was born into a brutal and unpleasant time, and he survived (for a time) by being as cruel and heartless as possible.

Neither one, I think, is someone I would want to associate with. They’re interesting from a distance, but there’s an element of danger to being close to them that I just don’t think I would enjoy.

Two days ago, I watched The Last King of Scotland, and Idi Amin Dada was brought back to life by a stunning, Oscar-award-winning performance by Forrest Whitaker. It’s a powerful film, although, historically, a mixed bag. The main character, a Scottish doctor, is completely fictional, although the backdrop cleaves fairly close to actual events of Amin’s bloody-handed rule. However, one of its most powerful images comes from something that is almost certainly legend rather than fact.

The actions of Amin and his murderous government are fact, even if specific numbers are disputed. It is difficult to tell exactly how many people Amin actually killed–likely somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000. Something of a piker compared to the Big Dogs of the 20th century; Pol Pot, Leopold, Hilter, Uncle Joe, and Chairman Mao, yet clearly Amin was of the same mold. Being a paranoid mass-murderer is one of those things that tends to overshadow any other part of someone’s personality. I hear “Hitler” and I immediately think ‘extermination camps’, not someone who may have had a great singing voice, or was generous to his girlfriend.

And yet, the compelling aspect of The Last King of Scotland is its humanization of Idi Amin Dada. This is partially accomplished by showing him primarily in his private life, the film generally avoids addressing the bloody massacre that was happening in the countryside. After all, Amin was simply ordering others to do the killing, rather than participating in it himself. In person, apparently, he was a charismatic and could be quite funny. He once wrote to Queen Elizabeth II, offering to be her lover. Incredibly, the DVD has a series of interviews with people who knew or had met the real Amin, and some spoke of him in friendly terms.

How do we reconcile these two people? There is a modern tendency to view people as one-dimensional, as having one stand-out trait that overshadows all the rest. Bring up the topic of Robert Heinlein with a science fiction fan if you don't believe me. Idi Amin Dada was more than just a madman who had so many bodies dumped into the Nile that the downstream Aswan hydroelectric dam once shut down because it was choked with corpses. He was a personable when he wasn’t paranoid, a champion boxer, a generous giver of gifts in a similar way to Elvis. The intellectual whiplash from trying to meld these two persons into one character is part of what makes The Last King of Scotland so compelling. The psychotic, paranoid face of Idi Amin Dada is slowly revealed through the course of the film, only after we have developed some sympathy for him. The audience is then left unable to look at Idi Amin Dada as a one-dimensional madman. It's an uncomfortable feeling.

How do we look at people, and how do we create impressions of them in our minds? Can I create a character as rich and contradictory, fascinating and yet frightening as Idi Amin Dada, Vlad III, or Egil Skallagrimsson? After all, their actions made sense to them at the time, even if their hands were forced by circumstances. Certainly Vlad and Amin were subject to tremendous political forces against which they struggled mightily against. And yet, all three were certainly the heroes as they understood the stories of their own lives.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

My Own Honest-to-God Nick Mamatas Personal Rejection Letter!

Hey, my very first personal rejection letter, this one from Nick Mamatas at Clarkesworld Magazine. He rejected “God of Chickens” a story I wrote specifically to submit to Clarkesworld, and specifically to follow his guidelines. With his permission, I am reproducing his rejection letter here:


Thanks for the story, but it's not for me. I enjoyed the ending and some of the more visceral imagery, but the "kids/teens finding something horrific" aspect drags the piece down. We get a lot of stories that hang on such a structure, and generally the problem is that whatever they find is so much more interesting than the process of finding it, and given more importance in the narrative than character development, that it ends up feeling like most of the story is there just to get us to the monster. As monsters go, the God of Chickens has a lot of potential, but this story would be much more interesting if it began a little bit before where it currently ends. We've all read the one about the little bastards who get their comeuppance before too; the bloody rampage of a God of Chickens and the way he might change the world is fresher and more exciting.

Hm. I find this encouraging (after several days of not finding it so). He does express interest in the story, although he did reject it. It’s funny, though, I nearly changed the ending because the submission guidelines say that “stories where the climax is dependent on the spilling of intestines” are a hard sell.

Hmmm. The guidelines also state that “stories about young kids playing in some field and discovering ANYTHING. (a body, an alien craft, Excalibur, ANYTHING)” is a hard sell, and this is where he categorizes “God of Chickens.” Hm. I have come to be aware that I like stories, horror or not, in which I can connect emotionally with the protagonist. I think Elizabeth Massie’s “Fence Line” was one of the best stories in Lords of the Razor because she treats the character so intimately. Drawn in by the character, I relate to the story much more intensely. However, “Fence Line” is a much longer short story than “God of Chickens”, and just can't afford to spend as much time on developing character—at 4,000 words, I have to get right into the story.

That said, looking at the story, Nick is right–the story is a one-idea story (ie an episode of Seinfeld, rather than The Simpsons), and the first third of the story is getting to the idea. The God of Chickens is interesting, (thank you Nick), but I need to do something further with it. A thousand words of lead-in and character development could be done in fewer words. I tend to lead in with a lot of character development, and I think it would be better if I focused more on establishing the characters in broad strokes early on, and then develop them as the action happens.

The little bastards getting their comeuppance–there’s a complex little question. I don’t see it as getting a comeuppance–there are two characters in the story, and I wanted to have one of them witness what was happening. I prefer that to the narrator telling the reader what’s going on–it allows me to put emotion into the description without feeling like I’m telling the reader how to feel. And I’d rather work through the more sympathetic character, and of course I want to bastard to get it. And again Nick is right–I have to ignore that urge–the morality tale has been done to death since Aesop, and if the audience knows who’s going to get it, there’s no sense of anticipation (unless you really set it up that the audience is just drooling in anticipation of the bastard getting it, something I’m doing with another piece). Since there are only two characters in the story, this leaves me with a conundrum, and my conclusion, once again, that the problem is more with the structure of the story than who actually gets it in the end. Because even if I flip a coin as to who gets glorked and it comes up ‘the bad boy’, it still feels like a comeuppance. If that’s not the end of the story, however, then it won’t have that morality-tale feel to it.

In a few sentences, Nick has provided me with enough though-provoking material that I’ve come up with a rewrite that does begin about where the current story ends and goes on from there. I won’t be able to send it back to him, unfortunately. Clarkesworld doesn’t take re-submissions.

So, a week after the fact, thank you very much for the for the personal rejection, Nick.