“Dr. Frankenstein’s Secrets of Style”
by Norman Partridge
Okay. Since you’re a prospective horror writer, I’m sure you’re familiar with our old buddy Dr. Frankenstein. You’ve read Mary Shelley’s classic novel, maybe a few anthologies chock full of Frankensteinian stories, and you’ve seen those old movies, too.
There’s a scene in most of those movies. One that I love. Where the good doctor’s son, or grandson, or granddaughter, or (better yet) some conniving interloper invades the doc’s dusty old castle and finds a big thick book entitled Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s Secrets of Life and Death, which naturally spares the prospective mad scientist a whole bunch of hair-tearing, grief, and anguish when it comes to learning the fine art of monster-making.
When it comes to developing a writing style, I doubt that I can be as helpful as the good doc was with his dusty tome. But I’ll try.
First off, let’s make like Victor Frankenstein and conduct an experiment. Here’s what you do: get yourself down to the local book emporium. Ignore the cappuccino bar and the dessert counter and all those celebrity “autobiographies” penned by ghostwriters. What you’re looking for is the horror section. You’ve been there before, haven’t you? Sure… I’ll bet a big wad of green money that you have.
Okay. Mission accomplished. You’re standing in front of several rows of books with black spines dripping bloody red lettering. I know you’ve read many of these titles already, so here’s what I want you to do: select several you’ve missed, but make sure they’re written by authors you’ve read before. Some of those “big names” we’re all familiar with.
Buy those books. Take them home.
Lock the doors. Close the drapes. Just like Dr. Frankenstein getting down to the business of serious experimentation, you don’t want anyone to know what you’re about to do.
Place the books on a table in front of you. Now comes the hard part. But remember— you’re doing it the way Dr. Frankenstein did. In the name of science and knowledge. Remember, too, that if nothing else the good doctor was certainly adept at dissection.
One by one, snatch up those books. Rip off the covers.
Title pages too. Peel the spine. Then find a thick black felt-tip pen (I recommend Marks-A-Lot). Cross out any further mention of the author’s name—page headers, bio section, whatever.
Now… sit down and start reading. Maybe the first chapter of each book, maybe less. Again, I’ll pull out my wad of green money, and I’ll bet that you can tell the Stephen King books from those written by Dean R. Koontz just as easily as you can identify an Anne Rice or Peter Straub novel.
You want to know why?
King, Koontz, Rice, and Straub all have discernible styles, that’s why.
* * *
Of course, the aforementioned quartet of bestselling authors has been at this game a little longer than you have. They developed their respective styles through countless hours of hard work.
Work on short stories and novels, that is. Telling story after story, getting each one down on paper, typing “The End” time and time again. Learning what works and what doesn’t by trial and error. Even learning unconsciously. Because, let’s face it, no beginning writer sits down at the good ol’ word processor and says, “Forget all that story and plot junk… today I’m going to develop a style.”
Well, maybe someone has tried that. Actually, I wouldn’t doubt it. But I’m still holding that green money, and I’ll bet that any misguided boob who attempted such an endeavor failed miserably.
Because your writing style comes from within. In fact, you’ve probably already got it, or at least a good chunk of it. You just don’t know about it yet. But maybe I can help you find it… or at least show you where to look.
All you’ll need is a shovel and a stout heart.
Now, follow me to the cemetery….
* * *
Here we are. Cool fog raising gooseflesh on your arms. The full moon shining up above. Gnarled branches scratching the night sky. A forest of marble monuments and granite headstones looming before you.
You recognize the scene, don’t you? Sure you do. Any horror writer worth his salt recognizes Dr. Frankenstein’s favorite bone garden. Just as you remember why the good doctor invariably makes the cemetery his first stop.
It’s the mad scientist’s very first rule—if you’re gonna make a monster, you’re gonna need parts.
Creating a writing style isn’t much different. Just as the Frankenstein Monster is a crazy quilt of dear-departed humanity, your writing style is an amalgam of influences. Which is why you must read— and read widely— if you want to write.
Mad scientists open graves. Writers open books.
I knew this from the start, long before I ever became serious about publishing my fiction. I worked for several years in the local public library, during which time I read the very best the horror genre had to offer. From Poe to Bradbury, from Matheson to King and on through Lansdale and Schow, I absorbed the lessons of those who labored in Dr. Frankenstein’s cemetery long before I ever picked up my shovel.
But I also learned a great deal from writers in completely unrelated genres. For me, crime writers were a big influence in developing every element of my work. I learned a great deal about mood from writers who specialize in crime noir. And when it comes to pace and plot, I found my best teachers in writers such as Elmore Leonard, John D. MacDonald, and Dan J. Marlowe.
I didn’t confine my reading to novels, either. I found anthologies especially valuable. In the space of a single anthology, I’d invariably be exposed to as many styles as there were stories. Not all of them were successful or effective, of course. But sometimes it’s just as important to learn what doesn’t work as what does work… and why.
Now, please don’t get the impression that I’m telling you to imitate other writers, especially when it comes to style. I certainly wouldn’t advise you to do that.
But I’d be less than honest if I didn’t tell you that a certain amount of imitation is unavoidable. Especially for a writer who’s just starting out. H. P. Lovecraft’s early work strongly echoes Poe. Other Lovecraft stories strongly recall the tales of Lord Dunsany. Robert Bloch began his career as a student of H. P. Lovecraft, only to evolve into one of the finest psychological suspense writers of his generation. Ramsey Campbell also followed in Lovecraft’s footsteps, publishing Cthulhu mythos-inspired fiction as a teenager. But Campbell didn’t stop there. He continued to grow and evolve, and today he is one of the most original stylists in horror fiction. While Campbell is still more than capable of putting a twist on Lovecraftian themes, his style of writing is now thoroughly his own. In fact, these days more than a few young writers have begun their careers by imitating Ramsey Campbell.
So, consciously or unconsciously, every beginning writer imitates. Including me. Looking back, some of my early stories reflect stylistic influences that didn’t quite pan out. Like “Body Bags,” the Vietnam war horror story written as a first person account that dripped with passages of lush, Poe-like description which was completely inappropriate to the story’s timeframe. Or the overblown fantasy-epic fight scenes which read like something written by Robert E. Howard on steroids. Or the “surprise ending” stories which certainly didn’t make anyone forget the nasty punch-to-the-gut climaxes patented by Robert Bloch in his prime.
So I had my share of misfires, but the truth is that some of those imitative stories actually did work out. While compiling my short story collection, Bad Intentions, I was surprised to rediscover early tales written while I was obviously under the sway of writers as disparate as Dennis Etchison and Joe R. Lansdale. But reading those stories today is kind of like looking at a ten-year-old photograph of yourself. Sure, you recognize the guy in the picture, but the clothes you’re wearing may surprise you!
So while a certain amount of imitation is necessary, in the final analysis it’s just another way of developing your own creative filter, of learning what works and what doesn’t. But it’s certainly not the end of the process, and I’ll tell you why.
No matter how high you aim, no matter how talented or successful or popular the writer you choose to emulate, you’ll find that imitation is not only a dead end, it’s also a trap.
Let me give you an example. In the early eighties, the horror field was booming. Stephen King enjoyed a huge popularity. Naturally, many writers set out to be “the next Stephen King.” They wrote knockoffs of ’Salem’s Lot, replacing King’s vampires with zombies or werewolves. They wrote limpid apocalyptic “thrillers” which paled when compared to The Stand. Neighborhoods of haunted houses populated with Jack Torrance wannabe’s sprung up, and it seemed that every high school class (in fiction, anyway) contained at least one telekinetic teenager meant to rival Carrie White.
Publishers jumped on these books, each one eager to create “another Stephen King.” Because of this, some of the King clones had a pretty good run in the eighties, publishing one book after another while pulling down some pretty healthy paychecks.
Then the bottom fell out. The public caught on. “Why buy a King clone,” they asked, “when the real thing is still going strong?” The clones stopped selling. Publishers lost money.
Many houses stopped buying horror novels entirely or cut their horror lines dramatically. The King clones, some of whom had become accustomed to healthy advances, suddenly couldn’t sell their new novels. To this day, the horror novel market has not quite recovered from the glut of unoriginal fiction which appeared in the eighties.
* * *
Okay. You’ve been warned, and you’re still determined to make a go of this mad scientist business. You’re stitching your monster together, working every day.
You’re reading. You’re writing. You’re putting in the time.
But you don’t want to overdo it, especially when it comes to style. You’re walking a fine line. A dash too much mood, an extra dollop of flowery description, and your horror stories will read like parodies. They’ll invoke laughter rather than fright.
It’s the “hey, Ma, look at me write” syndrome, and it’s usually the result of over-polishing your prose.
One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is when to quit. Some beginners become so obsessed with making each story “perfect,” each line of prose “deathless,” that they sabotage their own fiction by revising it to death. And sabotage is not too strong a word. Because overblown description, multiple metaphors, and overused similes can wreak explosive destruction upon your tales of terror.
Too much of a good thing is indeed too much of a good thing. Remember that.
But also remember that even Dr. Frankenstein had his failures. That nasty bit of business with Igor and the abnormal brain, for example. But the good doc wasn’t a quitter. When things didn’t work out the way he’d planned, Victor Frankenstein always got out his shovel and headed back to the cemetery.
* * *
So don’t give up. Put in the time. Write those stories. Read those books. Stitch that monster together.
One day he’ll be stretched out on that slab before you, just like in the movies. You put him together—an experiment here, an influence there—but I think you’ll find that he doesn’t quite look like any of those things you made him from. He’s no sum total of his parts, this guy. He’s an original.
And just when you’re ready to throw the switch and juice him with electricity he’ll probably surprise you by sitting up and stalking off completely on his own. See, you’ve already done that—all the work you put in, that was the juice your monster needed. Your creative spark gave him life.
Just look at him.
You can even holler “It’s alive! It’s alive!” if you want to.
Because this monster’s lookin’ good, isn’t he?
That’s because he’s got style.
* * *
[This essay is excerpted from the Subterranean Press edition of Norman Partridge’s Stoker-winning collection, Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales, which features both early short stories and advice for writers looking to build careers in horror and suspense.]