From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Guest Column: How To Kill Off A Sense Of Wonder

What gets me seriously annoyed with books these days — especially the modern trend of urban paranormal — is the way they (they being so many other authors, perfectly good authors who can write) handle the fantastic element.

What I mean is, they dump in that perfectly wonderful magical creature, being, or phenomenon smack in the middle of downtown Manhattan or midtown USA, but instead of making it a truly life-shaking event as it ought to be, instead of showing the wonder to the reader, instead of making us relish the amazing mind-boggling notion of the fabulous magical thing being somehow real, they make it about as exciting as a stalled delivery truck.

Here’s a simple example. I started reading a popular urban paranormal that shall go unnamed (and that I’d been looking forward to reading for some time) and on the very first page — second or third paragraph — we immediately see a small fairy annoying our heroine, who takes the interruption much in stride. And, the fairy is introduced in that bored matter-of-fact default tone that is considered slick or hip and smartass, and pretty much necessary in any such story. Such a high level of hardboiled is injected into the fairy’s opening line of dialogue that it could as easily be Aunt Mabel in an old bathrobe shrunken down to two inches, hands on hips and hair in curlers, reeking of spring-fresh deodorant and urban mundania.

As immediately as this overwhelming mundane perception kicks in, already I am disappointed by the read. No, the author is fine, their style and command of storytelling is in fact better than the average of its kind. But I have seen this same damn thing so damn many times, that I am tired before we have even properly embarked past page one. Even the smart-alecky thing is old and unoriginal. And I’ve had such high hopes!

You see, I expect my paranormal elements to be real wowsers — to either creep upon me gradually like delicate lurking shadows and overwhelm me with the inevitability of their existence, or to come like blasts of blue-white lightning out of the ebony sky. I mean, even bird poop hitting my sleeve would be better — it’s far more exciting and unexpected than these fangy vamps in sleek leather showing up on page three and doing their brooding sexy thing to entrap the heart of the heroine. I want those hunky super-para-were-whatevers to instead make my mind reel by the magnitude of what they say and do, by the heroism, originality, gustiness, brazen balls, humanity, vulnerability, loyalty, kindness, cruelty, whatever — not simply be told by the narrator how the heroine dreams about them and their muscular tight ass or even wants to kill them and simultaneously jump their bones. Here’s your perfect opportunity, fellow author, to show not tell, and to make me want to jump his bones because that is how inevitable this para-mega-ultra- guy is. Attraction is a reaction, please remember that, and no one can tell you or me how to react to anyone or anything! That’s the key! Elicit it in me, please! Because attraction itself is a kind of wonder!

And even the humor — the humor that evokes a sense of wonder I expect to be so droll, so bizarre, so strikingly original that I am disgusted when I see the same semi-amusing cheeky crapola that goes for a fun read these days. Matter of fact and deadpan is but one of many sorts of humor, people. Please! Try something new for a change! How about more quirky? How about a comedic “straight-man” forced to be in a horrible set of circumstances that make this perfectly ordinary unfunny person hilarious? Anyone can be hilarious if bizarre shit happens to them — even you and I. So let’s have the bizarre shit already, well done, not just slapped together.

In short — I want to be genuinely moved by the magical elements, not TOLD they are supposedly moving. I want to be troubled, creeped out, amazed, disturbed, actually stunned, not just see characters from the corner deli wearing a thinly disguised fantasy veneer — as flimsy as a Halloween costume that fools no one — and mouthing off. Yeah, I want to laugh when appropriate, and to be absolutely gleeful with the joy of moment-to-moment revelations — whether amusing, or suspenseful, or emotionally tense.

Instead, what I get served most often is a kind of weak general tone of self-conscious amusement that serves as the basis of a spunky style (and thinks itself quite enough to serve its purpose when in fact it is but an affectation), and no sense of wonder whatsoever.

Yeah, I know it’s usually the tone that all these books have. And it’s a popular gimmick to put the reader smack into the story and make the POV character completely jaded by magic. But you know what? Doing this makes us, the readers, damn jaded too. And I bet the author is jaded to hell as they are writing that same old semi-cute and semi-amusing scene and trying to stick in smartass remarks into their characters’ mouths via inorganic means that are really just forcing the story as opposed to being forced by the inevitability of the events unfolding around them. And if they (the authors) are actually giggling along to it… well, I guess whatever I say will not be of any use.

So yeah, I want my sense of wonder, dammit! Enough of the matter-of-factness already!

Really, what it seems we’re getting here is a whole lot of “literalism” and “fundamentalism” in our magical offerings. Boring ordinary things found in our concrete physical reality are given attributes of the metaphysical and the numinous, and then made to pass for such, kind of like Renaissance cherubs being portrayed as just fat babies with attached wings. Or white horses with plastic horns tied on, being dubbed unicorns.

Sure, it’s nice to read a funny or silly romp, and those plastic faux unicorn horns can be amusing props for certain plot highlights. But even a funny silly romp with wild comic implications of “faerie clashes with New York” can still be done in a way that the moment of clash or coming together of the fantastic and the mundane is a memorable and hence truly pleasurable experience. In other words, enough with the bull; give me the real thing! Not a hollow façade but the real angel, the real alien, the real demigod or object of wonder. . . . Make me feel it, reel with it, make me drown in a crisp blast of wind suddenly engulfing me. Now that’s pleasure!

The pleasure is from the NEWNESS of the re-configuration of the FAMILIAR. It comes as a result of meshing well-known and expected elements that are all falling together as dominoes inevitably in a whole new pattern of circumstances. The dominoes are all the same but how they fall is different, see? How they fall must not be forced or predictable, but kind of stunning. And elegant. And just oh-so-right.

And no, it doesn’t have to be fireworks. What it has to be is the progression of verisimilitude — proper emotional reactions on the part of all the characters. The details they notice (and make me, the reader notice alongside with them). The way they react to the wonderful thing they are faced with. The way they do NOT take it in stride. I mean, would you? Really? Even if you lived in a world where magic was a way of life and everyone knew about it, wouldn’t you be stunned to see a fairy sitting on your face? I would be stunned by an ordinary cat sitting on my face!

So, why not still make the descriptions of it wonderful for us readers who do not know this world and its mores?

I repeat: I want to be moved by wonder. So, move me in any way you can — in any sneaky, deceptive wonderful, unexpected, or emotionally striking way, dear fellow author. Wonder and humor are not mutually exclusive. Wonder and smartass attitude are not mutually exclusive either. In fact, nothing is mutually exclusive with wonder except lack of true enthusiasm for it.

And if necessary, I as a reader, give you, the author, permission to step back even further and make the familiar unfamiliar. Alienate me from the ordinary, if that is what it takes! Make me feel a sense of wonder from staring at a crack on the wall.

And that means you might have to simply slow down. Because what I said a bit earlier about mutual exclusivity — I lied. There is one thing that can adversely affect a development of a sense of wonder, and that is fast pacing. Simply said, when you drive too fast, you miss out on all the neat scenery.

So don’t just give me another fat leprechaun or horned blue demon with a Brooklyn accent swearing like a mafia hitman. Once or twice is funny. All the time is a soul-dampening bad read.

I want to be stirred by the shadow of a shadow, the murmur of a ghostly breath of the Seelie Court that goes unnamed, and the hair to stand up on my skin and my hands go clammy with their impossibility…

Please give me what I’m truly yearning and reading for. After all, it’s why I bought your book.

Vera Nazarian is a writer, artist, and musician, the publisher of Norilana Books, and a one of this year’s Nebula nominees. This commentary was originally posted on her LiveJournal.

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