Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Review: Susan Hill, The Various Haunts of Men: Pulling Punches and Killing the Spare.

It's very rare for a book to make me cry. It's very rare for something even to come close.

Same goes for films, television, whatever. There are a few things, there are moments when I get mawkish and sentimental,1 there are the few guaranteed tearjerkers in the world, but when my contemporaries were sobbing buckets over poor old Cedric Diggory, the best I could manage was a shrug. “Kill the spare”, splat – well, quite. If you insist.

In fact, I've always had a bit of beef with J.K about that whole business. Sure, she killed Sirius Black, and she killed him totally unfairly2, but in the last book she promised us a Weasley. Go on, then, I thought – she's not going to do for Ron, but Ginny maybe? Or Arthur. Definitely Arthur.

Fred? You what?

Okay. Better Fred than George3. You whack the Weasley who's got a double? What a bloody cop out.

Now, this, I'll admit, makes it sound as though I've a vendetta against everyone's favourite red-headed clan, but I've not. I like the Weasleys. Sod it, I like Fred. I'm talking about storytelling. From book four onwards, Harry Potter is filled with a cast of likeable, entertaining supporting characters who are murdered in the gradually escalating bloodbath that culminates in the battle for Hogwarts. Not Harry though. Not Ron, or Hermione or Hagrid. Not even Ginny, or Neville or Dean. No, it's Cedric, Sirius, Dumbledore, Dobby, Tonks, Lupin, Fred - everyone outside our enchanted little circle of main characters and their immediate friends. Flat-pack tragedy. Kill the spare.

If you had asked me who my favourite, favourite writer was when I was twelve years old, my response would have been without hesitation. Robin Jarvis. No, he's not as good a writer as Garner, nor as clever as Pullman, but he taught me one very valuable thing about storytelling.

Don't kill the spare.

No, wait, scrap that. Don't just kill the spare.

For those of you who aren't acquainted with Jarvis' work and doubt the veracity of this statement, Jarvis' best known series can be summarised thus: a faintly mythic bloodbath inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.

You got a favourite character? It's dead4. A favourite place? Razed. A favourite people? Massacred. There was a kind of glee in it, murder, murder, murder, mayhem, black magic and death. No, Jarvis wasn't killing his darlings, dear, he was killing yours. Of course, it wouldn't have worked if it had just been unremitting blackness5 - he played the heartstrings, but not too much. He pulled no punches.

Sometimes, though, he pulled something else, though: a fast one.

Which brings me onto our next point. Fast ones are great. I love fast ones. The end of The Whitby Series is one hell of a fast one. In fact, it's a whole sequence of fast ones. The Alchemist's Cat is still, to my mind, one of the best fast ones ever pulled. And sometimes the fast one is the way out – don't just kill the spare, kill the darling. Then bring them back.
They're great, fast ones. Every now and then they do stop something turning into an outright rout. They bring a little bit of lightness, of joy back to your reader's world. They promise to drive the nail in, to make the incision, only to pull back at the last minute. It's okay, chaps. Everything will be just peachy.

Which is all well and good, but they undermine what I see to be the first rule of storytelling. Don't try to please your reader. You are not a little child, trying to persuade a strict caregiver to provide sweets. You do not need to pander to their little whims. You are a writer, FFS. Within the little confines of your book, your world, your script, your whatever, you are GOD, and you do not need to be a nice one. When you pull a fast one, your readers should feel nothing other than sheer, bleeding relief. “Thank fuck,” should be what they are whispering to themselves. “I care. I care. I care.” And to get that reaction, you cannot pull them all the time6.

That's the thing about fast ones. They are throwing your reader the sponge, giving them the sticking plaster. They are kissing them, making it all better. If you always do it, bring your character to the edge of jeopardy, and pull them back at the last minute, your readers won't believe harm can really come to them. Your readers will slip inside a cosy little fantasy where everything will be okay. You stop being a cruel and implacable God and become a parent – scooping your reader up before they get to where the real darkness lives.

Don't do this. Do not get sentimental, do not make the red jerseys. Simply kill! Kill! KILL!



Which brings me to Susan Hill. She knows what its like, the punches are the things that she does not pull. I was never expecting any tenderness. About five chapters into The Various Haunts of Men I said to myself, “If she does not kill Character X, I am going to be so disappointed.” Character X was charming, lovable, even. Character X was engaging, sympathetic, central. Character X was not the spare.

By the end of the novel, I was begging for her to pull a fast one. Let X off, I prayed, just this once.

But she did not.

And I nearly cried.

Now that, my fine friends, is excellent storytelling.
1Branagh's Love's Labours Lost being a case in point.
2Not so much that she killed him, more that she couldn't think of anything else to do with him first.
3 Would anyone even have noticed had it been George?
4Except in the rare instance where it is the traitor who causes everyone else's death. But there you go.
5Although I'm not saying he wasn't prepared to give that a try.
6I'm looking at you, Steven Moffat.

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