How one book has influenced my thoughts on writing
When I was nine, I stole my older sister’s copy of Salem’s Lot and that was it. I was hooked on horror. Ask me who my favorite author is, and I’ll say Stephen King with no hesitation. But my favorite book was written by King’s coauthor for The Talisman, Peter Straub.
Books are like music in some sense. When people say, “I love that song,” they not only love the song the first time they hear it, but for many, many times after. Whether it’s a killer beat or a mesmerizing tale, anticipation becomes a major part of the enjoyment.
I wanted a gruesome, squirm-inducing ride.
Reading Straub’s Shadowland is like that for me.
I know many of its passages like the lyrics of a favorite song. Yet as a teenager, I bought this book for the same reason people hop on roller coasters – I wanted a gruesome, squirm-inducing ride. Take the description of hero Tom Flanagan’s crucifixion—how the stake driven into his hand holds a bone just a bit too far from where it wants to go—ewww!
After those cheap thrills, later readings of Shadowland brought forth an awareness of magic phrases. In the beginning, Tom’s Latin teacher screams at the timid freshman class: “This is not an easy school. Not!” I can’t tell you how many times this scene and those words came to mind as I struggled through graduate school.
His nickname fits his sallow, cadaverous body
As with so many stories involving schools, this one has a bully. Straub makes upperclassman Skeleton Ridpath completely detestable in appearance, deed, and thought. His nickname fits his sallow, cadaverous body, he lashes another student’s back with a whip, and his choice of room décor—pictures of speared babies—documents his downward spiral into madness. Skeleton is fearsome, but he’s only a puppet for the real villain: the uncle of Tom’s new best friend, Del.
Del, an aspiring magician, quickly ropes Tom into his hobby.
The boys plan a magic show to amaze their classmates. Instead, their freshman year ends in tragedy when a fire breaks out during the show, killing a student. Shaken, they travel from Arizona to Vermont to spend the summer at Shadowland, home of Del’s uncle: world-renowned magician and current alcoholic, Coleman Collins.
Collins poses as the boys’ mentor into the upper realms of magic, but in truth, he wants to destroy them out of jealousy. This master magician has many tools at his disposal, including the manipulation of time and space. He makes hours vanish in a second and transports Tom back months to revisit scenes from his disastrous school year.
even a simple flashback needs to be executed with care
Straub himself is a magician with time. As a writer, I find even a simple flashback needs to be executed with care. How Straub plays with time across an entire novel is stunning. He weaves together the retelling of iconic fairy tales, flashbacks of Collins’s stint as a WWII medic, and scenes from the future. Somehow it all works. It’s brilliant.
Then again, this is from the perspective of a writer who’s read the book many times. As mentioned earlier, anticipation is nine-tenths the enjoyment. These days, I can savor each section to its fullest, knowing how each piece fits into the novel. The first time through, I was probably scratching my head.
Birds haunt this book
Another aspect of Straub’s writing that kills me is the imagery. Birds haunt this book—owls, sparrows, and vultures to name a few. Even the motto of the boy’s school is Alis volat propriis: He flies by his own wings. I love how the birds become symbolic of the characters and tie into the storyline.
Consider the sparrow: a small, cheerful and helpful bird.
In one of Collin’s fairy tales, a flock of sparrows makes a bad bargain with a wizard: they lose their wings to save a kingdom. In the final showdown, Collins transforms Del into a sparrow, and then hides himself in a sea of impostors Tom, the new king of magicians, must find the real Collins. To save Tom, Del flies by his own wings and lands on the real Collins. As a consequence, Del is frozen into a glass bird. He loses his wings.
How the fairy tale foreshadows the ending is sublime—what symmetry! I wonder what came first for Straub: the fairy tale or the ending? I’d love to pull off something similar in my novel.
Writing has changed the way I read.
In my youth, gory scenes, serial killers, monsters, and madness were enough to keep me flipping pages. But these days, it takes more. All of the writer’s tricks and manipulations must work together to create an emotional experience. For Shadowland, it’s an experience of terror mixed with awe.
When Tom is ‘welcomed’ into the world of magic, he has the following interview with a master magician:
“Have you worlds within you?”
“I have worlds within me.”
“Do you want dominion?”
“I want dominion.”
And I did, you see — I wanted to tap that strength within me and to make the duller world know it.
Tammy Narayan has selflessly volunteered to serve as a contest judge for this site. She’s a gifted writer and relentless editor. In between life and family, Tammy is working on final revisions for her second novel.
This passage captures my feelings about writing. How about you? Do you want dominion? What worlds are within you?