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A Head Full of Ghosts: A Review

51RuP7pBWFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The most terrifying movie I’ve ever seen is the Exorcist. I saw it from the backseat of my parents’ car at a Drive-In theater when I was eight years old. For months I imagined Regan MacNeil popping up at the foot of my bed with her disfigured face, eyes rolling back in her head, and her horrendous growling, croaking voice pounding my eardrums. I fell asleep on many nights with my head buried in my pillow and the covers tightly drawn over my head.

I’ve read some scary books too. I was a big Poe fan in high school, and read some Lovecraft too.  I also read William Blatty’s The Exorcist, which allowed me to revisit some of my childhood fears. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and The Shining.  These were disturbing and creepy, especially when I read them alone at night.

The most terrifying book I’ve ever read, though, is Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts (William Morrow, 2015).  Well, I should say, “read and listened to.” I experienced parts of Tremblay’s book also as an audiobook. On several occasions I listened to it while falling asleep and had horrible nightmares. On one occasion I listened to it while having a root canal. I can’t be sure how much of the fear came from Tremblay’s book and how much came from the dentist’s drill.  Nonetheless, the audio experience was just as disturbing as reading the book itself.

Stephen King said of Tremblay’s book, “it scared the hell out of me.” Yeah. Me too.  A Head Full of Ghosts is a riveting psychological thriller and masterpiece of literary horror. It transforms the possession motif, and it does so with literary grace and philosophical sophistication. You get it. I loved the book.

The Story: A Synopsis Without (Major) Spoilers

A Head Full of Ghosts tells the story of the Barrett family, a family in contemporary rural Massachusetts whose fourteen-year-old daughter Marjorie Barrett begins to exhibit increasingly aberrant and disturbing behavior. She has unpredictable mood swings, night terrors, and violent outbursts. She speaks in different voices, engages in self-mutilation and animalistic behavior (e.g. makes animalistic sounds, urinates and defecates in the hallway of the family home).  She plays creepy and threatening pranks on her younger sister Merry (short for Meredith), and tells her sister eerie stories in which their dad murders their family and buries their bodies in the basement.  And of course, there are those voices she hears in her head, the ghosts in her head.

Marjorie’s dad John Barrett, a devoutly religious man, is sure his daughter is possessed. The mother, Sarah Barrett, believes Marjorie is just very sick and needs psychiatric treatment.  Mr. Barrett enlists the assistance of a priest (Father Wanderly) to perform an exorcism on his daughter. Unlike traditional possession narratives, though, Mr. Barrett brings in a TV crew to document the possession phenomena and exorcism. The production airs as a six-episode reality TV show called The Possession. The Possession series ends with considerable ambiguity as to whether Marjorie was really demonically possessed. This ambiguity permeates the events that the TV show documents. The controversial climax of the final episode, which appears to show Marjorie levitating at the staircase in the Barrett home, underscores this ambiguity.

The climax of A Head Full of Ghosts, though, is neither the exorcism nor Marjorie’s apparent levitation. The true climax of the Barrett story actually occurs weeks after the TV show has ended, when a horrific tragedy hits the Barrett family. The tragedy is a powerful twist in the story and forces a re-evaluation of the events surrounding Marjorie’s alleged possession.

A Head Full of Ghosts unfolds from the point of view of Merry Barrett, now an adult, recounting the incidents that took place in her family fifteen years earlier, when she was eight-years-old. The retrospective occurs in series of conversations between Merry and best-selling author Rachel Neville. Neville interviews Merry as part of her research for a book she wishes to write about the Barrett family.  On three occasions, two of which serve as transitions to a new section of the book, the novel breaks away from the sequence of Rachel-Merry interviews. The breakaways focus on Karen Brissette’s recent analysis of The Possession in her blog The Last Final Girl. The blog provides an ostensible outsider’s point of view and critical evaluation of the Barrett story and The Possession reality TV show.

Tremblay has written a quite remarkable novel. It consciously assimilates the possession genre with a unique combination of seriousness, wit, and philosophical clarity. But it does more. It also enlarges the possession genre by telling a possession story that will profoundly disturb and terrify many readers even if they don’t subscribe to a supernatural interpretation of the events. In fact, arguably one of the story’s most important strengths and contributions to the genre is how it enlists ambiguity as a literary device. It thereby dials in a form of terror that doesn’t depend on belief in the existence of God or the devil.

Ambiguity and the Space of Possibilities

As a philosopher, I appreciate how the story articulates and deploys uncertainty and ambiguity about the actual cause(s) of Marjorie’s alterations in personality and behavior. The facts simply underdetermine the nature of her condition.

Is Marjorie really demon possessed? Is she suffering from an early manifestation of schizophrenia (or some other mental disorder)? Is she perhaps perpetuating a fraud? Or is she in some way a victim of a malevolent force purely human in origin? The novel creates enough space for the reader to remain open to each of these possibilities as the characters and situations invoke or suggest them in the course of the story. Never quite knowing the truth amidst the space of possibilities keeps the reader off balance. And fear, of course, feeds on the unknown.

As do other works in the possession genre, the novel contrasts supernatural and natural explanations. The latter, of course, are explanations of observational data that invoke no supernatural entities. Fatherly Wanderly attempts to marshal evidence of demonic possession as the events are unfolding. We get the impression that, like many religious people, he’s looking for evidence to lend support to his antecedent convictions. What’s that point philosopher William James makes? In matters such as these, passion leads and intellect follows.  Karen Brissette retrospectively deconstructs the alleged evidence in her blog. And Merry’s recollection of events provides equally good grounds for skepticism.

But the novel also plays different natural explanations against each other.  For example, take Brissette’s blog analysis.  While skeptical of the demonic possession hypothesis, she’s equally critical of less than impressive skeptical attempts to explain away the evidence suggestive of possession.  Brissette ultimately points us to an important feature of our psychology—the needs and interests that influence our perception of the world. We believe there’s something supernatural happening because we want to believe this. Why? Perhaps because the alternative is more horrifying.  Brissette’s comments about the  The Possession’s controversial “levitation” scene underscore this. She says, “You believe because it’s easier than dealing with the idea that you just willingly watched a sick, troubled teenage girl purposefully choose to jump from a ledge” (p. 253).

Is Marjorie suffering from a mental illness?  The novel explicitly identifies schizophrenia as the suspect, though some of Marjorie’s symptoms suggest the presence of a personality disorder, perhaps even dissociative pathology (specifically, dissociative identity disorder). But mental disorders, whether one or many, don’t exhaust the natural explanations. Marjorie tells Merry on multiple occasions that she’s faking the whole possession. Why? To redeem their family from the financial hardship that’s been eating away at their family. The TV show makes her “possession” lucrative.  Merry is initially skeptical of this explanation, but later begins to believe it. By story’s end Marjorie still maintains that she faked her possession, but she provides a different reason for doing so. She succeeds in manipulating her younger sister into believing the revised explanation. This becomes the catalyst for the final twist and disturbing ending of the novel.

Although one gets the impression that a supernatural explanation is unlikely, Tremblay nicely piles on evidence that moves in different directions. We never really know what the hell (no pun intended) is happening. Below I’ll return to the “horror of ambiguity” as an effective and important literary device.

A Head Full of Ghosts vs. The Exorcist

Knowing that there would be obvious similarities between his novel and the Exorcist, Tremblay meets this unavoidable feature of updating older literary themes head-on. Tremblay intentionally deploys the similarities, and the story itself acknowledges them.  Consequently, the novel has considerable self-consciousness. Karen Brissette’s The Last Final Girl blog demonstrates this with comparisons and contrasts between The Possession and other horror films and novels, including The Exorcist.

But if we step outside The Possession and the Barrett family as components of the narrative, Tremblay’s novel is very different from William Blatty’s Exorcist. Take the points above about opening up the space of possibilities, keeping the reader off balance by way of ambiguity, and raising the specter of uncertainty and doubt. Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts stands is sharp contrast to Blatty’s Exorcist. And the point is worth emphasizing.

Blatty designed his narrative to support faith in God. As Friedkin never tires of telling audiences, The Exorcist is about “the mystery of faith.” Although Friedkin is not a Catholic, Blatty is.  So the devil is a real supernatural agent, and Blatty’s objective is to prove this. Consequently, it’s essential that Blatty rule out natural explanations of Regan MacNeil’s symptoms within the narrative. And so Regan’s symptoms increasingly stupefy members of the medical community. Having had their brains (and balls) twisted, they quickly run out of explanatory road. Stress, drug abuse, lesion in the temporal lobe . . . these idiots are clueless. They have no answers because they’re approaching Regan’s condition from outside the perspective of faith. By contrast, Father Merrin has the answer.  

Blatty’s narrative tolerates uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt about as much as it tolerates the devil. These are real, but they must be overcome. As Blatty himself has said, the Exorcist is really about Father Karras’s crisis of faith. Regan’s possession provides the framework for addressing the young priest’s entanglement in skepticism and clinical psychiatry.  Don’t these go hand in hand? Uncertainty and doubt are precisely the problem. They must be overcome. And it’s the message of the narrative that they are overcome. If the devil is real, then angels are real, and if angels are real, then God must exist—something like that. The Exorcist was an exercise in Catholic theology and apologetics, pure and simple. Luckily for Blatty, the story was compelling, even if his logic was not.

Tremblay has no interest in sending a religious message or reinforcing religious dogmas. Father Wanderly and John Barrett are religiously committed, but there’s no attempt to force the reader to be. It’s not necessary for the reader to believe that Marjorie is demonically possessed. There’s evidence suggestive of possession, but there’s evidence that at least equally suggests a different explanation. Again, it’s about finding one’s fears in the possibilities that define the wide boundaries of our ignorance.

On that note, it’s worth adding that Tremblay’s deployment of uncertainty is not confined to the evaluation of Marjorie’s condition. It extends more broadly to the reliability of Merry’s memory as she retells story. She’s unsure of many things, vacillates on others, and acknowledges that she might be misremembering certain events.  Well, she was only eight at that time.  Nonetheless, she says she’s completely sure of a few things. Her sister was very sick, and possibly her dad too. She’s also sure about her own role in the final tragedy of her family.  Rachel Neville is another voice of uncertainty.  She confesses at the end of the story that she’s not sure what really happened fifteen years earlier.

Can we even be sure about Merry herself? Is she (intentionally or unintentionally) spinning the Barrett story? Might she be mentally ill?  Remember, schizophrenia has a strong genetic component.  But Tremblay has written the story in such a way that I have deep empathy for Merry (and Marjorie). Yet, if Merry’s in bed next to me, I’m sleeping with one eye open three nights a week.  It takes a brilliant piece of writing to have the reader naturally, even enthusiastically, embrace a character, and yet feel that it’s not entirely safe to do so.

Dialing in a Natural Fear

Since Tremblay’s novel has no religious agenda, the story easily accommodates more than one viewpoint, religious and non-religious.  It can deploy ambiguity to help the reader experience the fear that lurks in the open space of possibilities. It freely deploy the limits of perspective in the service of dialing in our more primitive fears.

This is worth exploring further.

Throughout the novel, Merry Barrett experiences the increasingly strange, creepy, and even threatening behavior of her older sister.  In all other respects, though, Merry and Marjorie have a deep connection and familial affection for each other. What’s interesting is how many, if not most, of the more frightening scenes are illustrations of the abnormal, not the supernatural.

1) Early in the novel, Marjorie—who enjoys telling Merry scary stories—tells Merry a scary story about unstoppable “growing things” that consume a town. In the story there are two girls (named Marjorie and Merry) who live in a house that resembles the large cardboard playhouse in the actual Merry’s bedroom. In Marjorie’s story, the father poisons the mother and buries her in the basement. The father then begins to poison Marjorie. She begins to exhibit symptoms of sickness, which not coincidently resemble the actual Marjorie’s sickness. While Merry is in the basement, her mother’s corpse rises impaled on the branches of the growing things as they burst through the basement floor of the house. Merry realizes that Marjorie is correct. Their dad is a monster, and Merry’s his next victim.

This is the story the actual Marjorie tells her younger sister. It terrifies Merry, but Marjorie returns to this story throughout the novel as the gap between fiction and fact closes.

2) Marjorie suggests a looming tragedy in a family dinner scene when Merry asks Marjorie if she can borrow her sister’s hat. Marjorie replies—in a low and growly altered voice— “You can’t wear my hat because you’re going to die someday . . . no one here can wear it because you’re all going to die” (p. 79). Shortly afterwards, Marjorie slithers under the kitchen table.  She then scurries off on all fours into the darkness of an adjacent room, while speaking in different voices.

3) In another scene, Merry wakes up to find that someone has drawn vines and leaves all over her large cardboard playhouse. That’s right. These would be the “growing things” of Marjorie’s horrific family murder story.  Merry finds a note that says, “There’s nothing wrong with me, Merry. Only my bones want to grow through my skin like the growing things and piece the world” (p. 54). Merry then notices a “green leaf with a curlicue stem had been carefully etched” on the back of her hand.

4)  Early in the novel Merry says she once woke up and found a note in green crayon left on her chest. It was from Marjorie.

I sneak into your room when you are asleep, Merry-monkey. I’ve been doing it for weeks now, since the end of summer. You’re so pretty when you’re asleep. Last night, I pinched your nose shut until you opened your little mouth and gasped. (p. 30)

5) In one of the more confrontational scenes, Marjorie is angry that Merry has tattled on her, so she threatens to “rip” her sister’s “fucking tongue out.” She provides a detailed description of how she will do this. She then adds:

I’ll keep your tongue and put it on a string, wear it like a necklace, keep it close against my chest, let it taste my skin until it turns black and shrivels up like all dead things do. What an amazing fucking thought that is: your never-ending tongue shrunken and finally stilled. (p. 66)

Marjorie tries to alleviate the fear of her sister by saying she was just kidding.

6) Some other creepy descriptive moments stand out.

I saw Marjorie clinging to the wall like a spider . . . Her arms and legs were spread-eagled, with her hands, wrists, and feet, and ankles sunk into the wall as though it were slowly absorbing her. (p. 52)

She [Marjorie] stopped twisting her spaghetti around her fingers. She opened her mouth, and vomit slowly oozed out onto her spaghetti plate. (p. 78)

Mom wasn’t in the room. Marjorie was. She sat propped up against the headboard with pillows folded and stuffed behind her back. Her breathing was shallow, but rapid, and she grunted, snarled, sighed; a sputtering engine, the dying fan in our bathroom. Her head was thrown back, chin pointed at the ceiling, as sharp as the tip of an umbrella, eyes closed so tight, like she was hiding them deep inside her head. She had on a too-small black T-shirt, tight enough to outline her rib cage. No pants, no underwear. Her hands were between her long, skinny, pale legs. Both hands, and they gyrated up and down, making wet sounds. I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there and watched. (p. 85)

Her [Marjorie’s] eyes opened and then rolled into the back of her head, showing off those horrible bright whites with their convoluted red maps . . . Her body shook, and she urinated and defecated right there in the hallway. (p. 86)

Now this shit (no pun intended) is freaky and terrifying just as it stands. But notice that there’s nothing obviously supernatural in anything above. Marjorie clinging to the wall like a spider? Nope. As her mom explains, Marjorie punched holes in the cheap drywall with her fists. So there’s nothing supernatural there. And yet, for many of us, these scenes are no less disturbing and scary.

There’s something unsettling and sometimes downright terrifying about family or friends beginning to act unlike themselves.  We naturally tolerate some degree of this. Even the most stable persons have moments in which they act out of character. But there’s a threshold beyond which the shift in behavior and personality becomes unsettling.  Think of how you feel in the presence of people having an emotional breakdown, who are strongly influenced by drugs or alcohol, or borderline personality types. And beyond unsettling behavioral shifts, there are the more disturbing if not frightening forms of psychological disorder, for example, schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder.  I think Tremblay dials in this very natural fear.

Stephen King has often said that his greatest fear is of losing his mind. Madness is really the unconstrained universe of all possibilities, and the inability to say which is yours. Much like Marjorie’s behavior, this is terrifying just as it stands. It needs no devils or demons to make it scary. Indeed, devils and demons potentially alleviate fear.  The devil functions much like God—to make the alien familiar, the irrational sensible, and so on. But the gain here is also a loss. We lose the fear that thrives on the unresolved, all those what-ifs, and the menacing realization of just how little we know. To the extent that we lose that fear, we’re not conscious of the human condition or ourselves.  Fear is an essential part of the human story, and good horror let’s us know it.

Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts is a first-rate contribution to literary horror and the psychological thriller genre. I think we should say of it what Merry Barrett says of her sister’s stories: “It was terrible and would give me nightmares, and yet there was something wonderful in its terribleness.”

Michael Sudduth

Stephen King and the Path of Fiction

I’ve spent most of the past twenty years playing conceptual chess and solving logical puzzles, an essential part of my work as a professional philosopher.  Like finding your way out of a labyrinth, that can be fun, especially if you don’t take it too seriously.  But other modes of discourse, exploration, and expression have also played a prominent role in my life, mainly music, poetry, and story telling.  And in my most challenging hours, I’ve always turned to music and creative writing, not analysis and logic chopping.

During the past decade I have on different occasions happily digressed from scholarly projects to explore fiction writing, something I first broached with the writing of zombie stories in my teenage years. And in the past three years, I’ve regularly supplemented my scholarly writing with contemplative writing and poetry, some of which I’ve published in my blog. In the past eleven months, though, I’ve returned to fiction writing. It’s been a very sustained and concentrated effort, inspired largely by Stephen King. Here I offer some reflections on my movement into fiction, King’s role in it, and what I’ve found beneficial about this new direction in my writing.

My Return to Fiction Writing

Some very unusual experiences while living in an 1817 home in Windsor, Connecticut inspired my first attempt at writing a novel. That was back in 2008. The storyline of the novel emerged from two situations that kept popping up in my head. The first was a very ordinary one: what if a young widow bought an old house and started restoring it, as a way of working through grief after the death of her husband. The second situation was a paranormal one: what if place can absorb and retain the memories and emotions of people who reside there? These two situations gave birth to an interesting story that linked a young woman’s pursuit of psychological healing, a retired philosophy professor’s newfound life as gardener, and the Connecticut witch trials.

I never finished the novel, but the hundred pages I wrote represented my first serious exploration of fiction writing since my teenage years. Back then I wrote zombie stories. That was a great way of throwing some water on the flames of teenage angst. It was also a nice way to exact a little poetic justice on the asshole jocks in junior high and the stuck-up cheerleaders who didn’t give me the time of day.  My friends and I had a good laugh, and—perhaps most importantly—no one got hurt.  

My early exploration of fiction writing was also something of a tribute to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.  I must have watched that film with friends over hundred times by the time I graduated from high school. We had the entire script memorized. That movie was simply the shit.

In high school my creative expressions shifted to music.  After starting a heavy metal band in the 1980s, the writing of zombie stories gave way to lyric writing. The zombies were still alive, but they walked in a larger supernatural field with vampires, ghosts, and demons.

In the past year, I’ve returned to fiction writing. I have two novels and a novella underway.  Each story explores dissociative psychology. One is a straight psychological thriller; two involve ostensible paranormal phenomena and explore the ambiguity between such phenomena and abnormal psychology.  I’ve nearly completed one of them—Shadow at the Door. I’ll have more to say about this in a future blog once the novel is complete.

Inspiration from Stephen King

Why have I returned to fiction writing?

Late last year I happened upon Stephen King’s On Writing (2000) while perusing books at a Barnes and Noble bookstore, appropriately the same venue where eight months later I’d participate in a Q&A with King himself. A protracted moment of lucid disgust with academic philosophy led me to wander aimlessly through the store.  I eventually wandered into the fiction section, and there I saw Stephen King’s On Writing. “Oh yeah, King,” I thought. A series of images lit up my mind—Jack Nicholson slashing through a bathroom door with an ax (Here’s Johnny!), Kathy Bates hobbling James Caan’s cockadoodie legs, and Sissy Spacek using psychokinetic powers to seriously fuck up her cruel high school peers.

I picked up the book and began reading it. Within minutes it melted away my disgust with academic philosophy. In fact, it melted away academic philosophy altogether. What a rush!

It only took five pages to persuade me to buy the book, which was so enthralling that I completed reading it in two sittings. On Writing is a brilliant and inspirational memoir-style exploration of fiction writing, though I think there’s something in it for any writer.  And from On Writing I went on to read King stories for the first time—Salem’s Lot, the Shining, Misery, Bag of Bones, A Good Marriage, and a dozen King short stories.

One of the strengths of King’s writing is his ability to reveal that ordinary life is thin and fragile, like the sheet of ice that covers a lake in thawing season. It doesn’t take much for the ice to break and for us to fall through. The abyss is not far away, and our deeper fears are actually very close to the surface of ordinary life. King’s stories allow us to confront these fears but also to develop a certain liberating relationship with them. I think there’s a certain playfulness there that helps us feel more confortable in our skin, darkness and all.

A precondition of this playfulness is an unobstructed transparency about the human condition, and this is a signature of King’s writings.  He holds back nothing, and he represses nothing. This allows light and darkness to each break out. And there’s no apology for letting the dark express itself, even if the darker side of human nature wins on occasion.  “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too,” King has said. “They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”

One must already be okay with the darker side to be fully transparent about it. We hide what we cannot tolerate about ourselves, and that tends to be what we condemn in others.  Shame and guilt are the gatekeepers of unsettling truths. Those gatekeepers are rather stingy when it comes to divulging our deeper secrets, even to our selves.

But therein is the magic of King. He busts it all open. He drops you into the abyss, but there’s something redemptive about it. King once said, “Good writing—good stories—are the imagination’s firing pin, and the purpose of the imagination, I believe, is to offer us solace and shelter from situations and life-passages which would otherwise prove unendurable” (Nightmares and Dreamscapes, 6).

The point can be expressed in more positive terms. We might say, with a dash or two of metaphor, that writing opens space large enough to allow our laughter and our tears to be and to dance together. In that dance we don’t merely disclose life’s larger movement.  We actually unite with it.  That’s redemptive, but it’s not an escape from the dark.  It’s a reconciliation to it.  It’s Zen on a magic carpet ride.

I’ve always found the dark fascinating and liberating.  So it’s no surprise that I should connect with Stephen King stories.  This also explains my teenage attraction to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and the lyrics of heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath. Of course, it also helps to grow up in the dark—Vietnam, Watergate, the proliferation of serial killers, the rise of horror films, and the threat of nuclear holocaust, if the “big one” didn’t shake, rattle, and roll California into the ocean first. And religion comes in here too. To some extent, I found Christianity appealing in my later teens and early twenties because it acknowledged the more potent devils of our nature.

So King ignites something fairly deep in me. And as a catalyst in my movement towards fiction, he’s really guided a return to something that was very alive for me years ago. Things that were once very alive for us sometimes come back, sometimes many times. They’re not done with us yet. They have something more to say, something more to do, and there’s some new transformation or development awaiting us.

Three Benefits of Fiction Writing

Fiction writing can facilitate personal development and transformation in different ways.  Here I’ll just mention three that are particularly significant to me, especially since they stand in sharp contrast to philosophical writing, at least of the sort I’ve practiced for twenty years.

First, fiction writing, like all expressions of creativity, helps loosen the grip of the ego. Fiction invites us to write as unconsciously as possible, just like music invites us to play an instrument or sing as unconsciously as possible. To some degree the process releases the chokehold of the ego, that is, our attachment to a distinct set of interests, expectations, and beliefs—you know, all that thinking that mediates the toxicity of our lives.

By contrast, scholarship and argumentation are very much about a consciously adopted point of view. There I try to make a point, or many if my reader is very unlucky. Even when I’m doing analysis, I’m keeping track of the number and color of the cows behind the fence, how many times they’ve taken a dump, and where the piles of shit are located.  The less conscious I am here about what I’m doing, the worse off I am. No scholar likes to step into a pile of shit after all. 

Fiction writing moves in the other direction. Throwing oneself far enough into any creative process is similar to the Buddhist experience of “no self.” You can’t be too conscious of what you’re doing while you’re doing it or you’re not going to find any deep satisfaction in it, and you’re also unlikely to do it well.  I still remember the three months I worked as an apprentice for a house painting company. Every time I flubbed something on the job, my boss would say to me, “you’re thinking about it too much!” He was right.  At any rate, I was too much in thought.

When I’ve been most effective in playing guitar or sports, I wasn’t thinking about what the hell I was doing. And whatever thinking might have been going on, was little more than a ballboy on the sidelines. I wasn’t in it.  You have to move from the center, recede into the background so to speak; maybe disappear altogether. That’s the nature of art, whether it’s painting, music, or writing.

The selflessness of the artistic process takes a variety of concrete forms in writing. For example, I have to trust my characters more than myself. I wait for them to say and do things. It’s intuitive writing.  In a certain sense, I’m just watching things play out in my mind and writing down what I see happening. The characters, not my conscious intentions, play the deeper role in shaping the development of the story. And it takes a certain amount of cultivated patience to just go with the flow when the characters have something to say or be at rest (take your fingers off the keyboard) when they’ve fallen silent.

When I tell people I’m writing a novel, they want to know what the plot is. I tell them, I don’t have one. That’s truthful, and of course it’s also a good way to get out of talking about your story. Some fiction writers do plot. I’ve done some of this myself, years ago. It’s just not how I do things now. The writing is now more situation-driven, as King often describes it. And the dynamic is entirely different.

Of course, I understand that some people need a meticulous outline of the details of their story worked out in advance, just like some people need to paint by numbers. What’s your plot? Have you identified the antagonist(s) and protagonist(s)?  Have you planned the story arc in the right way? Have you avoided head-hopping? All those nagging questions, which, for me, just sound like a good way to distract from story writing. I personally prefer just to write the story, let that flow, get in that zone.  There’s plenty of time to address technical questions later and do the needed clean up.

And here’s one of those many points where Stephen King’s observations resonate with me:

I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe that plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible . . . I want you to understand that my basic belief about making stories is that they pretty much make themselves. (On Writing, 163)

In the writing of my current novel I’ve seen how a story can make itself or be the direct product of what the characters are doing in a very spontaneous manner, without much or any foresight on my part.   Over and over, I’ve found myself writing scenes or dialogue that I had no idea I’d be writing until the sentences were being typed. And even where I have some bare bones idea of where things may be going, when the characters clothe it with flesh and blood, there’s still considerable surprise.  Nor is the result chaotic or incoherent. What’s amazing is the level of inner coherence that emerges when there’s been no conscious intention to create it. I personally find this more enjoyable than merely filling in the details of an outline.

What is important is that I feel the movement of the story, and that means listening to my characters tell the story. And it’s important not to “push the river.” To the extent that I’m trying to achieve something with the story, I’m not listening to my characters tell the story. And to that extent, I can’t even hear the voice of my characters, much less see them evolve with the story, and that’s all essential to a good a story I think.

Second, there’s a sense in which fiction writing possesses the power to disclose aspects of our inner life, not immediately transparent to us. Someone once asked Albert Camus whether he appears in his own novels as some particular character. He said, no; he’s actually all of them.  Arguably, every character is some part of the author (maybe some are a bigger part of us than others), but the salient point is that those parts come into clarity in the process of writing, even if it’s only at the completion of a work or in subsequent reflection on it. And that means there’s quite a bit of self-knowledge delivered in the writing of a story.

Stephen King has often said that while he was writing the Shining, he wasn’t aware that, in writing about Jack Torrance, he was in fact writing about himself. King was the alcoholic struggling for redemption but slowly losing his mind. That hit him later, no doubt in part because the novel became a mirror that enabled him to see his own face more clearly. Hence, King says, “I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you” (On Writing, 191).

This is not to say that our characters bear no resemblance to persons outside us, but if we look close enough at our most meaningful relationships (the one’s most apt to inspire the creation of our fictional characters), they bear a striking resemblance to aspects of ourselves. The woman you fell in love with it, or the asshole boss you want to punch in the face at least once a week. When you fashion characters after these persons, you’re really writing about yourself.

There’s more to what you call you than what you take yourself to be. The writing process is an activity of this wider field of subjectivity.  As such, it’s largely an incursion from the unconscious, not something conscious at all. Fiction opens that door, for writer and reader alike. Whether by sudden fall (through a trap door) or gradual descent (down the basement staircase), fiction takes us to the underworld of our inner life. And a certain change takes place in that journey, for example, the enriching of our perspective and degrees of emotional regulation.  In a sense, fiction writing can be a form of therapy, very effective therapy. And perhaps that’s why so many people read fiction.

Third, fiction thrives on ambiguity and open-endedness, and that’s not something characteristic of scholarly writing, the process of argumentation, and criticism. Of course, there’s a place for precision and rigorous reasoning in life, and—contrary to what some of my former Zen teachers have said—criticism too. It’s by no means a bad or counterproductive thing to believe something, to critique, or to reason. Try living without these. That’s just a complete denial of life and the human experience.  We can’t escape beliefs, reasoning, and critique, but one can do it with less attachment. And I think that’s what fiction helps cultivate—non-attachment. Perhaps because it sensitizes perspective to its own limitations and thereby opens up further possibilities. And isn’t this true to life?  Don’t we live life in the wider space of unknowing, of mystery? We can contently accept our ignorance and learn to play with it, or we can neurotically reject it and live with it dogging us and spinning us out.

This is particularly significant for me since the topics that loom large in my fiction writing are often the same ones I’ve conceptually explored in my philosophical writing. Take the topic of survival of death. I’ve written at length on whether certain paranormal phenomena are evidence for life after death. But if that’s the question I’m asking, I’m working within narrow parameters the question dictates. I’m looking at criteria for evidence, how we assess explanations, and all that. Here I care, for example, whether survival better explains the facts than some rival hypothesis. Was it an actual discarnate spirit or just some psychic imprint left on the environment from some formerly living person? The virtue of an argument might be that it shows one of these explanations is superior, or it might show why it’s difficult to say which, if either, is a better explanation. But this is all about taking up a position of some sort. And it requires being hard nosed and rigorous in reasoning.

By contrast, if I’m writing fiction, I want to leave things as open as possible.  I’m dialing-in that aspect of experience.  The only positions that matter are those the characters authentically own. And hopefully they don’t agree with each other too often.

Imagine a story in which one character believes a girl is demonically possessed, and another character believes she’s suffering from schizophrenia. As the author, I don’t care which character is correct (hell, maybe they’re both incorrect). I could write that way, but I’m not particularly interested in doing so. I don’t care whether the girl’s really demon possessed, a schizophrenic, or under the influence of pissed off extra-terrestrials. I care about what’s true about the characters, what they believe, and their being true to their own beliefs and acting from their beliefs and intentions.

True, the story might present the skeptic as more reasonable/virtuous than the gullible priest who thinks the girl is possessed. The story might also portray the priest as more reasonable/virtuous than the skeptic. But is that it? I mean, is that the point? Isn’t it rather that the characters are true to themselves? That’s the fertile soil of conflict, and often the path out of it—vital elements of story. And it’s what helps us care about the characters and what happens to them in the story. And maybe, just maybe, this leads the reader into some form of self-realization.  After all, the characters of a story are not just a mirror by which the author may see her face more clearly, but it’s also one in which readers may come to see their own face more clearly.

Dreaming with Eyes Wide Open

King has said, “fiction is the truth inside the lie.”  Fiction has truth to reveal, but ultimately it’s the truth about the author and reader. And it’s the individual author and individual reader who are the only ones who can know what that truth is. Likewise, the consolation, healing, enjoyment, or satisfaction that a work of fiction brings to life is one the author and reader is uniquely situated to determine for herself. Otherwise put, stories are really, or at least fundamentally, about persons. The persons appear in the pages of the book, and they appear as the eyes behind the book.

As I said at the outset, I’ve spent most of the past twenty years playing conceptual chess and solving logical puzzles. And I’ll probably always do that sort of thing.  But I’ve learned that it’s also important to spend a significant amount of time dreaming with my eyes wide open.  That’s how King describes the path of fiction, and that seems exactly right. 

Michael Sudduth

REVISED 11/29/16