It’s hard to sum up the achievements of someone like Robert Hood in a paragraph or two, Not only has he won, or been nominated for, every Aussie Award imaginable, he is also critically acclaimed on the international scene. He has edited successful anthologies, and continues to be one of our best short story writers. With credentials like that, it is no wonder he is sometimes called the “wicked godfather of Aussie Horror”. Plus, he knows more about superheroes, giant monsters and comics than just about anyone!
On top of that, Rob is one of the nicest guys on the scene, who goes out of his way to encourage other writers and to share his wealth of knowledge. I’ve had the pleasure of being on panels with him and I know how much I picked up from the experience, let alone the audience! So, I was very keen to see what he would write for Wednesday Writers and, as you will see, I wasn’t disappointed!
When is a Giant Monster Not a Giant Monster?
First, some contentious generalisations about famous works of fantastic fiction:
1. The original 1954 film “Gojira” [Godzilla, King of the Monsters] isn’t about a giant monster that trashes Tokyo.
2. William Blatty’s The Exorcist isn’t about the demonic possession of a teenage girl.
3. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings isn’t about elves, hobbits, and rings of power.
4. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and its sequels aren’t about zombies.
5. Superman comics aren’t about the ultimate alien superhero.
6. Mary Shelley’s famous novel Frankenstein isn’t about a man-made monster that runs amok.
What are these stories about then?
Often that’s hard to pin down to a few words. The fictional entities in the stories named above tend to carry a weight of meaning beyond their fictional existence, and that weight of meaning can be variable, subjective, indefinite, complex. I would argue that the complexity is their strength – but that’s a discussion for later.
Meanwhile, here are some contentious (and over-simplified) suggestions as to what the above works are about:
1. The monster Gojira is, as director Ishiro Honda himself said, “radiation” (in the wake of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagaski).
2. The Exorcist’s demon depicts the fear that parents’ feel as their children grow away from traditional values, becoming alien and incomprehensible in the process.
3. Tolkien’s elves, hobbits and orcs, and their struggle over the One Ring, depict various notions regarding fate, free-will and responsibility.
4. Romero’s zombies are the purveyors of ravenous social chaos, feeding off the vulnerabilities of humanity.
5. Superman is a manifestation of our somewhat conflicted abandonment of the idea that there exists an all-powerful deific “hero” working to save us from the bad guys.
6. Frankenstein’s creature represents humanity’s desire to attain ultimate power over its own destiny, and illustrates the flaws in human nature (and society) that make such an ambition problematic.
Okay, all these interpretations are open to debate and other meanings will inevitably be offered to “explain” the various works. Moreover, I’d argue that all of these explanations, while true on some level, are too limited to represent a “final” understanding of the various stories’ meanings. But my point is, all these stories can be seen, and are seen, as carrying meanings like these – and in part that representational depth is precisely why they have had ongoing cultural impact. It’s why they’ve proven so fascinating to generations of readers and viewers.
In writing-manual-speak, what they demonstrably have is a theme. A “theme” is what a story means, beyond its basic plot. It’s the lack of a theme that audiences are referring to when they say a book or film isn’t “about” anything. It feels empty, trite. There’s nothing going on below the surface. There’s nothing that gives the story relevance to them. We’re not talking about a “moral” here, but a connective idea.
Sure, but first and foremost shouldn’t a good story just be a good story?
Putting the rhetoric aside and contrary to my original statement, I’ll admit that all these stories are, and should be, in fact, about their central plot elements, be those elements giant monster, demon, hobbit, zombie, superhuman, or artificial creature. The stories work because their fantasy elements are treated as real within the context of the book/film/comic. They are not simply abstractions. They are not hollow vessels designed purely to carry philosophical viewpoints or moralistic homilies. Such creations are, in each of the instances mentioned above, well-conceptualized characters, existing as “realities” within effectively developed plots (though, of course, Superman isn’t a single work – but a gradually developed set of images and tropes that have an ongoing creative existence). I’m not denying the value of pure plot. All stories have a plot and that plot is important, for lots of reasons. These stories are entertaining because of their plots. The plots draw their audiences in and tie the narrative elements together. They carry their own meaning within an imaginative context and it is the plot, and the characters that drive it, that the reader/viewer engages with, at least on a surface level.
But that’s just paddling in the shallow end of the pool.
Generally, stories that are only about their surface plot elements are easily forgotten and fail to linger in our individual and cultural imaginations. They don’t have the sort of iconic impact that all the works mentioned above have had. They don’t resonate.
And without some sort of resonance a story doesn’t become what it needs to be: more than the sum of its parts.
Anyone who reads a lot of slush for an anthology or magazine will know what I’m talking about. Apart from the terminally bad, there is in any slush pile a middle ground of okay, fairly competent, decently written stories that just don’t offer any compelling reason for the editor or reader to consider them above other stories. They sometimes get over the line because of effective characterisation or an interesting central idea or something like that – but only when more memorable stories are lacking.
Indifference toward them usually comes about because they don’t have depth, a driving force. They don’t mean anything. They don’t have a developed theme.
For me, the meaning within a work of fiction is about the creation of metaphorical patterns. I may be writing a zombie story, but for it to rise above its competitors (given that it is well-structured, well-written, and has effective, emotionally engaging characters) it must have its own relationship to the real world outside the book. In stories of the fantastic, that relationship is probably going to be metaphorical.
Technically speaking, a metaphor is (according to the Oxford Dictionary) “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable”. More loosely a metaphor uses one thing to stand for or represent something else. The metaphorical qualities of fiction are about using the tropes and images available within the genre to open channels for its themes to engage with the audience.
Used in this sense, the connection between the two sides of the metaphorical binary system are likely be vague and multi-layered – but when created well will carry a truth that readers instinctively recognize, even if only on a sub-conscious level. For example, the nuclear monster Gojira/Godzilla as created by Honda in the 1954 film, allowed the director to touch on a subject that had been proscribed by the governing occupation forces. He visualized the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima on film for his audience – and questioned the socio-ethical issues of such power at some length – but in the context of a monster movie, thus getting away with it despite the fact that such “discussion” was forbidden.
What I’m talking about, however, is not about forging a tight comparison between the two extremes of the metaphor. To do that it is to write allegory, as in, for example, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, where everything in the story is given a concrete meaning in terms of the story’s fixed moral message. That’s all very well, but down that road lies propaganda. Some fantasy veers very close to this – or has in the past. The allegorical Christian components of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, for example, often cross the line, though are saved by the imaginative conviction that the author brings to his characters and the situations they find themselves in. He (mostly) manages to universalize the propaganda.
The sort of metaphorical correspondence I’m talking about necessarily casts a wide net. But it’s a net that is very porous in nature. In hindsight, I’d argue that my recently published novel, Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead, explores issues relating to the relationship between the objective world and our subjective interaction with it – and what that means in terms of what we do. I say, “in hindsight”, because I didn’t “map” out the correspondences as rationally as I did the novel’s plot or its background. It was there, though, tied into everything I wrote. The events of the novel, and the physical/metaphysical structures in which they take place, are intuitive in the way they convey this theme. It gives the novel its form – but loosely, ambiguously.
Much of it was inspired by the work I did for my postgraduate thesis on the writings of 18th Century British poet and artist William Blake. Blake’s artistic approach to reality, which was mystical in nature, very much underlies the philosophical and metaphorical elements of the novel. I don’t think these ideas dominate the novel. On a base level Fragments is a fantasy epic about a looming apocalypse, and that is what carries the reader along. However, I believe it is the underlying theme that helps give the novel its uniqueness and depth – and, I hope, will make it memorable beyond the reasonably generic nature of its basic plot elements.
What’s my point?
Just this: as you arm-wrestle with your characters to bring them alive and struggle with the squirming intricacies of your plot, as you beat your language into shape and work on the multitude of details that make the setting of your story compelling and believable, don’t neglect your theme. Trust me, it’s the really hard bit, finding the balance between telling and showing, and conveying the theme without ever talking about it too much. But it’s also the bit that comes straight from your gut as a writer. It’s the thing that really matters, the element what will make your story matter to readers.
In short, it’s what the story is all about.
ROBERT HOOD has had a long career in the fantasy/horror/SF/crime genres. With over 150 stories published, many re-printed in his three collections to date (most recently Creeping in Reptile Flesh), he has been called “Australia’s master of dark fantasy” as well as “Aussie horror’s wicked godfather”. His novels include Backstreets and the Shades series. A dark fantasy novel, Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead, has just been released from Wildside Press (US). He was also co-editor of the popular Daikaiju! Series of anthologies (Agog Press/Wildside Press). Hood’s website can be found at www.roberthood.net and www.roberthoodwriter.com. For more information on Fragments of a Broken Land, go to http://fragmentsnovel.undeadbackbrain.com/