BOOK REVIEW: Conflict & Suspense by James Scott Bell

Conflict and Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing_Conflict and Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing_ by James Scott Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a book about the stuff that keeps readers reading. Without conflict there is no hindrance to a character achieving his or her goal, and thus no story. Suspense is a lack of clarity about what comes next that spurs the reader to keep exploring. Bell defines conflict and suspense, and then explores the various means by which these crucial features are conveyed in stories. I say in stories, but Bell is predominantly speaking to novelists with this book.

The book is divided into two unequal parts. The first, and larger, consists of fourteen chapters about conflict. The first few chapters describe conflict and how it is set up. Then Bell examines how the many dimensions of writing can be manipulated to fire up the tension, including: point of view, openings, subplots and flashbacks, dialogue, theme, style, and even editing. Chapter 14 suggests some tools that writers may employ to help them ratchet up the conflict.

The second, and shorter, part (8 chapters) delves into the topic of suspense. The organization follows a similar progression. First, Bell describes suspense through many potent examples. Second, he moves onto examine the various means by which suspense can be created. With respect to the latter, Bell suggests ways in which dialogue, setting, and style can be presented in order to create cliff-hangers. The last chapter pulls everything together to advise writers on the how to create stories that maximize conflict and suspense. This is in part a summary of the book, but it looks at the process more and the dimensions of writing less, and therefore offers something new as well.

Readers of Bell’s other guides may be familiar with the LOCK formulation that he uses in his “Plot & Structure” book. LOCK is an acronym for Lead (an intriguing opening), Objective (a goal of dire consequence), Confrontation (the battle for the objective), and Knock-out Ending (a conclusion that satisfies.) I mention this because one may find synergy in reading other books in the series. LOCK is not as central a concept here as in the “Plot & Structure” book, but it’s nice to have a common mechanism by which ideas are conveyed.

There’s not much by way of ancillary material. There are a few simple black and white graphics / diagrams. However, there is one nice feature in the form of an Appendix that analyzes conflict for two novels: “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Silence of the Lambs.” These were good choices both because they represent literary as well as commercial fiction, and because they both have popular movie adaptations. The latter comment might seem like sacrilege to the “the book always beats the movie” crowd. However, using movies as examples—as Bell does here and there—offers the advantage that the average reader will have seen a higher percentage of good movies than they’ve read good books. This is even true for most us who read a ton because relatively few (if any) great movies come out each year and the history of cinema is much shorter.

I both enjoyed and learned from this book. Bell uses many excellent examples to support the ideas that he’s presenting, and this makes the book readable and easily digestible. I’d recommend it for writers of fiction who seek to put more zip into their creations.

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BOOK REVIEW: 999 ed. by Al Sarrantonio

999: Twenty-nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense999: Twenty-nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense by Al Sarrantonio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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999 is a collection of 28 short stories and one novella that are all in the genre of horror and dark suspense. The collection includes some superstar authors such as Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, and David Morrell, but all of the authors are established writers and most will be familiar to readers in this genre.

I won’t go into each story in-depth, but will list and briefly describe each. A few of the stories stuck with me, while others were quite forgettable—so I’ll point out which were which. Your results may vary.

1.) “Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue” by Kim Newman: This is a Cold War Zombie story. It was intriguing.
2.) “The Ruins of Contracoeur” by Joyce Carol Oates: The family of a disgraced Judge move to a remote area to stay out of the limelight, and faceless monster sightings ensue. How bad could a Joyce Carol Oates’ story be? It’s solid and well-written. It wasn’t among my favorites.
3.) “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Thomas M. Disch: An “inanimate” stuffed owl and plush-toy cat converse about their wicked, spouse-abusing owner. Creepy, but not one of the strongest entries. The stories in this collection range from realism to far-fetched speculative fiction. This work is toward the latter end of the spectrum.
4.) “The Road Virus Heads North” by Stephen King: A mutating “killer” picture is obtained at a yard sale. This is among the stronger stories.
5.) “Keepsakes and Treasures: A Love Story” by Neil Gaiman: About a collector of the “exotic.” While Gaiman is my favorite author of this bunch, I can’t say this is story was among my favorites of the collection. I will say that it has some of the cleverest wording of any of the stories (as one would expect of Gaiman), but maybe that humor works at right-angles to the story. You decide.
6.) “Growing Things” by T.E.D. Klein: About a husband / Mr. Fixit and his following of advice columns on a growth. This is a short piece, but not among the more memorable stories. It’s innovative, but not the least bit intense.
7.) “Good Friday” by F. Paul Wilson: A vampire story set in a convent. A good story, but obviously not particularly innovative. However, if you like the idea of nuns battling vampires, here’s your story.
8.) “Excerpts from the Records of the New Zodiac and the Diaries of Henry Watson Fairfax” by Chet Williamson: A swanky dinner club that rotates hosts and each host tries to outdo the last in the presentation of “exotic delicacies.”
9.) “An Exaltation of Termagants” by Eric Van Lustbader: I’ll have to be honest; this was the least memorable of these stories. When I flipped back through to write this review, I found that I’d completely forgotten the piece. I think its lack of memorableness speaks for itself. It’s about an unappealing man and his sucky life that’s tied to his poor relationships with women. I think the problem is two-fold. First, it’s one of the longer stories in the collection. Second, unlike Joe R. Lansdale’s “Mad Dog Summer,” it’s a long short story without memorable characters or a taut story arc. In short, if you’re going to go long, you’ve got to give us characters we can either love or despise, and you’ve got to give us a pace that keeps us intrigued. This story does neither. I know it’s all subjective, but I think this collection without this story would be improved.
10.) “Itinerary” by Tim Powers: A mysterious caller asks the protagonist to tell an unknown woman caller that said caller “just left” in response to her inquiry. From there the story meanders into personal tragedy before bringing it all back together in the end. It was so-so. I liked the premise, but it didn’t have that x-factor in execution.
11.) “Catfish Gal Blues” by Nancy A. Collins: A river catfish mermaid story. This was a weird but highly memorable story.
12.) “The Entertainment” by Ramsey Campbell: Man thinks he’s checked into a hotel, but it’s really some sort of asylum. Not the most memorable, but not the least either.
13.) “ICU” by Edward Lee: Man awakes in an ICU, and is informed that he’s a gangster involved in pedophilia and other hardcore taboo pornography. Vivid and well-crafted.
14.) “The Grave” by P.D. Cacek: A young woman with a horrible mother discovers a grave in the woods that she’s never seen before. This one is eery and visceral.
15.) “The Shadow, The Darkness” by Thomas Ligotti: About a tour group promised “the ultimate physical-metaphysical excursion.” This paranormal story is just OK.
16.) “Knocking” by Rick Hautala: Remember Y2K? It was the idea that the entirety of the world of computing would come to a screeching halt because their little (inadequately programmed) computer minds would be blown by a date starting in “20?” This story is based on that notion.
17.) “Rio Grande Gothic” by David Morrell: A cop keeps finding shoes left in the same section of road, and eventually begins to wonder if someone isn’t trying to tell him something. This story does a good job of capturing one’s curiosity and keeping one’s attention.
18.) “Des Saucisses, Sans Doute” by Peter Schneider: This is one of the shorter stories in the book, and it’s also an almost absurdist dark piece. You may laugh or you may vomit, either way the writer had an effect.
19.) “Angie” by Ed Gorman: This story is white-trash gothic. It’s about a couple that are “stuck” with this kid, and are concerned that the child has learned their dirty, little secret and will turn them in. It was one of the stories that stuck with me most intensely. The unlikable character development is exceptional.
20.) “The Ropy Thing” by Al Sarrantonio: A couple of kids in a neighborhood assaulted by a thing that is… well, ropy (rope-like.) Not one of the better pieces, but it has the virtue of being short.
21.) “The Tree is My Hat” by Gene Wolfe: A man befriends an outcast on island in the South Pacific. It’s a solid piece.
22.) “Styx and Bones” by Edward Bryant: A cheating man comes down with a mysterious ailment. This is a well-executed story.
23.) “Hemophage” by Steven Spruill: Another vampire story, this one set inside a detective story.
24.) “The Book of Irrational Numbers” by Michael Marshall Smith: It’s about a guy from Roanoke, Virginia who is obsessed with numbers. As there aren’t many math short stories, if you are a big fan of math fiction you may find this interesting. The writing style is fun. If you aren’t a math fan, you may lose the story.
25.) “Mad Dog Summer” by Joe R. Lansdale: A man recounts a story of murder from his youth living in a rural community. This is one of the strongest stories in the collection. It’s also one of the longest, but the author does an outstanding job of keeping one’s attention throughout.
26.) “The Theatre” by Bentley Little: A clerk at a bookstore ventures into a forbidden floor above the store to find a creepy theater that will change his life. It’s a good, creepy story.
27.) “Rehersals” by Thomas F. Monteleone: I don’t know that I would have put this in the same genre as the other stories, but it’s an excellent story—and so I can see why the editor was eager to include it. It is speculative fiction, as opposed to being realist, but I wouldn’t count it as either horror or suspense. It’s about a man handling props in a community theater who is given glimpses into what his life could have been like if he’d stood up to his abusive father. It’s one of the best stories in the collection.
28.) “Darkness” by Dennis L. McKiernan: A man moves into a beautiful house willed to him by an eccentric uncle. The problem is that the lights in the house are so bright as to be an assault on the eyes—leaving not a shadow or dark space in the house. The lights are wired to be either all on or all off. It doesn’t occur to the nephew that the lights might be that way for a reason.
29.) “Elsewhere” by William Peter Blatty: This is the longest piece–a novella / very short novel and not a short story. It’s about a realtor who’s trying to sell a house that’s haunted. She brings together a writer and a couple “experts on the paranormal” to debunk the haunting so that the house will become salable. But everything is not as it appears.

This is a good collection of stories. Some are better than others, but the best are extraordinary. I’d highly recommend it for anyone who likes horror, dark suspense, or the macabre. Within that genre, it’s an eclectic mix of stories in form, substance, and style.

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