Baby Shoes, Never Sold

The other day I decided very quickly that I did not like short short stories. It was while holding a book claiming to contain the most beautiful and shortest short stories in the English language (most under 150 words), and while flipping through the thing, my mouth started turning down at the edges and I’m almost certain I developed a snarl… Yes, I did not like it. Then I needed to know why.

Were they pithy? Well, yes, I suppose, but that’s more the format than anything. And it wasn’t the concise language that bothered me. I tend to get a little agro anytime I feel a sentence has moved beyond the fewest necessary words to convey its meaning. Which is not to say I only accept small sentences. A lengthy sentence has its place. But, sentences containing filler words that do nothing more than take up room on the page make my stomach turn. Anyway, I did not dislike them for being pithy.

Then I started to wonder if it was just the length of the thing… there was something bothering me about how it were possible to arrive at one of these miniscule stories by shear chance. Statistically those 100 hypothetical monkeys typing away to arrive at the complete works of Shakespeare had a lot better chance churning out one of these babies. It’s worrisome for a writer to wonder if her short shorts are being produced verbatim by some other woman at the very same time, simply because of the limited possible combinations of words to convey the existential grief of a babysitter in Kentucky in a short short format.

I don’t know why I chose the topic of babysitters, but you get my meaning. If you do not get my meaning, I apologize for going off the deep end of theoretical story writing with the use of 100 monkeys.

Nevertheless, I was not bothered by the statistics. After grumbling at it and letting the book leave my sight, I decided that the reason I did not like the short stories was that they left far too much to the interpretation of the reader, and I felt like that just wasn’t fair on the part of the writer. It’s our job to put as clear a picture in the reader’s head as possible, so that they may live out our thoughts with their own brains. Right? Hm, no, that sounds wrong now that I’ve written it. There is, however, a relationship between reader’s interpretation and the writer’s direction, and that is where a story lives. So, by relying too much (by limiting ones words to under 150) on the reader’s mind, it feels like a violation of this contract.

Then again, I also hate lateral thinking puzzles. No insights, no further explanation there. I just really hate lateral thinking puzzles.

Vampires: Bureaucracy and Fun

Or, Why on earth do I love Vampirella?

I’ve had vampires on the brain since I had a story selected for Evil Girlfriend Media’s Stamps, Vamps, and Tramps. I’ve always had a soft spot for the vile undead, but my repertoire of vampire stories is rather limited. Often I find the majority of vampire stories just don’t sing to me, and because I think too much, I decided to try and pinpoint just why I like vampires so much, and perhaps extend that to musings on their popularity at large.

Vampires as we know them were really cemented by Bram Stoker. He sort of stole a few of his vampire rules from the story Carmilla, published twenty years prior to Dracula, but it’s Dracula everyone remembers. I read it a year ago when I found a great pink and black cover that wouldn’t be horrendously embarrassing to hold in front of my face. (I work in bookstore- I can be picky.) I had more fun reading Dracula than I did reading Sensational She-Hulk. And She-Hulk broke the scale. But the monster himself was a little hum-drum compared to bombastic personalities like Abraham Von Helsing and Quincy Morris. Morris, by the way, made me proud of my country, despite the fact that his home state of Texas was still smarting over being a part of the union in 1898. In fact, the joys gained from the book could have well done without Dracula as a character. He was a marvelous catalyst for the actions of the ensemble, but when seen in person he never held up to the horror a modern reader demands from blood guzzling nightmares. I mention him in this rumination because it was Dracula that set the rules in stone for our ideas of the Vampire; it was Stoker who gave us a fighting chance.

I love the idea of bureaucracy. It attempts to write in no uncertain terms the rules of being a proper human, which of course is an ill-fated goal and only creates a fabric in which degenerates may hunt for holes. Vampires are bureaucratic monsters: held to arbitrary rules of conduct, and even given business hours! When we invite them in, we’re basically filling out our death certificates. Rules are my favorite part of fiction, too. Well, sort of. I like the play between what is expected, and the surprises that still exist within the walls. I was reading some lectures on fiction a while back (I think they were from E. M. Forester, but I’ve been reading a lot in that subject, so I’m not certain) and it outlined that there is no way to fully escape the expected in fiction. Sentences will eventually end, verbs must describe the actions of nouns… I’m straying far from vampires. Anyway, in fiction, we have rules that are set in stone, and with the vampire story especially, there are constraints to the monster. We know the signs, because the vampire has to follow the rules, even if it’s just down to Endless Thirst (which was accomplished well in Vampires in the Lemon Grove), and we have an idea where the story must go. I remember once reading or hearing that the perfect ending must be as inescapable as it is surprising. The tighter the constraints on the story, the more enjoyable this Houdini trick at the end.

It’s why I loved Eli of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In. Eli, as a vampire, followed all the rules of Dracula, and Lindqvist used a few rules of humanity to make her even better. There was a brilliant bit of reasoning in which another woman is inflicted with vampirism and kills herself to escape the curse, yet Eli’s been living with it for two hundred years. It is not that Eli is a sociopath, she was turned as a twelve year old, and a kid is just hardwired to keep living regardless of the damage her life might do to anyone else. We were given the rule midway through the novel that Eli will go on living. And she plays mumblety-peg pretty fast and loose when she befriends the neighbor kid, but the excitement of the novel is not from the possible death of the vampire; it is from the impossible life of an overweight twelve year old who get’s beat up at school.

I’ve taken a turn in this. I realize now it’s not just my love of bureaucracy that navigates me toward those creatures of the night. Nor is it my love of bats (because seriously those little guys are the cutest). I love a vampire story that lets daily life continue around the monster. My favorite issues of Justice Society are the ones when they all go get pancakes or have a birthday party for Stargirl. Despite the multitudes of strange occurrences we may be subjected to, people will continue to be people.

So why on earth, with my obsession over rules, do I love the sun-loving, bikini-wearing Vampirella? My husband and I had a professor who let anyone pass a test with full marks if all the questions were answered incorrectly. The only stipulation was that the wrong answers had to be hilarious. I fully endorse this policy (though I never chanced my grades on my professor’s sense of humor), and Vampirella does it admirably. The whole comic (by which I mean the 1969-1985 Warren Magazine run) is such a madcap monster hunting funhouse that I am willing to believe whole heartedly that Vampirella is a blood-substitute drinking alien vampire woman from the planet Drakulon. Why the hell not? They acknowledged the rules (Vampi’s reoccurring foe is Dracula, who has all the restrictions he met with in Bram Stoker’s book, as well as the inability to walk during the day- originally it was just his ability to shift forms that was restricted in the sunlight) and said “To hell with them! She’s an alien, now enjoy your Vampi vs. the Voodoo Master of the Bayou! story.” And I did. I did enjoy that story. And all the others. Jose Gonzales, the lead artist for the majority of the Warren comics has such a mastery of black and white that when I found some colored re-prints from the 90’s, I felt a little cheated out of his cross-hatching.

I think the Vampirella comics, with their only rule being “FUN!” go right back to Dracula. Much of Stoker’s book read like a man writing as fast as he could, and adding in whatever fun fact he read on the internet that afternoon. The purpose? Entertainment! And while I think Dracula’s fun was perhaps more universally felt than the fun I had with Vampirella, they are kin.

Dracula didn’t really have the rules. He wrote them. And it was such a hit that it formed our idea of the rules for vampires. What am I getting at here? Follow the rules, they are your best friend for a good story. Readers love to know where things are going just as much as they love to be surprised. And if you don’t want to follow the rules? Make it FUN.