Red cloaked figure walking along a stormy beach

Writers Who Haunt Their Readers

Christopher Fowler

The steps between thoughts must be cut shallow to travel.

Several years ago I ran a free writing course, some of it I posted here. Although I have taught before I have no formal qualifications to teach, so I should probably shut up. Still, I thought I might periodically add writing thoughts and notes on the blog for those who've developed an interest during the pandemic. Having done my fair share of casting, I know there are certain actors from whom you only get one performance. It's who they are inside and can't be kept down (Ray Winstone springs to mind). They may have wonderful careers just playing themselves and or have one brilliant hit. They also go at their own speed, so it will always take them half an hour to read a 23 page script. Just like actors, career writers can have multiple styles, but many don't; After the extraordinary 'A High Wind in Jamaica' Richard Hughes struggled to write anything different and it seems clear that Harper Lee wasn't interested in exploring the range of her writing. They go at their own speed, and keep the tics and quirks of their style intact. Stephen King has one highly relatable style that relies largely on plotting to carry the weight of difference, although I would say that 'The Shining' is the anomaly that offers a slightly more distant approach. Kate Atkinson's very British coldness, Elizabeth Jane Howard's forensic eye, PD James's understanding of human failings all mark out their works as clearly as if they had pressed an identifying seal upon each sentence. My curse (and pleasure) is to have the multiple styles of the jobbing writer, the easiest being this one for the blog, which is pretty much unrevised stream of consciousness and not remotely concerned with style. If I put it through an editorial process, as I would for in a piece in the Times or Guardian, I'd spend three times as long on it. Blogs are ephemeral and require a light touch. There's a risk of writing above your readership; too much complexity puts people off. The steps between thoughts must be cut shallow to travel. Obviously, you don't reveal intelligence simply by using long words. One of my favourite writers, Beryl Bainbridge, manages to convey enormous complexity in simple language that I imagine would be hard to translate. I've noticed that one of her few obvious tricks is to provide slivers of timeless relatable detail in her historical novels. My agent has long been nagging me to try writing a literary novel. Crime fiction works in the opposite direction to 'literature'. It provides closure, a returning sense of all being right with the world, or at least explicably wrong. Literature opens out rather than closing off, providing wider possibilities. It can do this because part of every literary novel is left unexposed. Secrets and motives can remain obscured, whereas the crime detective is all about uncovering roots and causes. What if the two are combined? I can think of a handful of books that do this, from 'Thérèse Raquin' to 'Snowdrops'. Most come from world or European literature. American novels seem to me to be more about precision, whereas European books have an obscuring fog about them that allows one to impose other meanings. Any list of authors whose stories have the haunting power to
stay in my memory would have to include Albert Camus, JG Ballard, Beryl Bainbridge, Éric Vuillard and Kate Atkinson, all whom understand the 'Jamie Bulger Hypothesis' - that part of everyone is unknowable. In Ballard's case there's often a level of atavism that's recognisable in all of us. The others use regret, blindness, unthinking cruelty and the need to become involved in their stories.
How you turn those mysterious, haunting ideas into a satisfying mystery is what fascinates me.      


Roger (not verified) Mon, 31/05/2021 - 14:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

" After the extraordinary 'A High Wind in Jamaica' Richard Hughes struggled to write anything different "
He only finished three more novels, and you could regard IN HAZARD as a development of A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA - a hurricane again, but with a very different set of characters and a contemporary setting - but THE FOX IN THE ATTIC and THE WOODEN SHEPHERDESS are both about the 1920s and 30s and look at the rise of Hitler among other things. He also wrote some fine short short stories for children and adults.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Mon, 31/05/2021 - 15:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I've no doubt if you set your hand to writing a piece of lit·er·a·ture (whatever that actually is...) as your agent suggests, it would be eminently readable. No question but that there is a certain 'schizophrenia' in being a writer of your stature: who you think you are and who your associated 'others' believe you to be or want you to be --- your agent, publisher, the critics and of course, your readers. All those voices -- often competing --- in one's head.

For this reader, apart from your facility and technical prowess, it is the joy in writing --- your delight in sharing --- that pulls me into your work now. There is an exuberance, whatever the storyline, that I too often find missing, even among those paragons of so-called 'literary' fiction. Oh, they read well enough because of a familiar formulaic, almost hypnotic, style. But the books too often comes across as, 'Writer at work. Do not disturb.'

I would much rather feel pleasure, than virtuousness on finishing a work of fiction. You mention atavism in others but you are, in fact, a wonderful exemplar of the too distant past --- the rare, true storyteller that informs and enthralls.

Christopher Fowler Mon, 31/05/2021 - 18:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'Exuberance' - this is pretty much what I look for now. I'm shocked at how many crime novels are a slow, grim plod from the finding of a body to the uncovering of depressing secrets. But then Jerry Springer always had an audience...

Brooke (not verified) Mon, 31/05/2021 - 22:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

No qualifications to teach...and in addition to being a practitioner, what quals does one need?
"American novels seem to me to be more about precision..." Faulkner? James? Pynchon? Certainly novels written by Others (not male, not white) aren't about precision--Wharton, O'Connor, Ellison, Morrison come to mind as most known.
Btw, rumour has it that H. Lee was ably assisted by Truman Capote, among others. So no need to explore...she didn't even bother to explore beyond her small home town.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Tue, 01/06/2021 - 01:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Brooke I think that rumour about Capote having anything to do with 'To Kill a Mockingbird' has pretty much been debunked; although the evidence is largely inferential. For example, apparently a year before TKAM was published, Capote wrote to an aunt saying he had read the novel but did not claim involvement with it. Also --- those who knew and studied Capote have repeatedly said that, considering his ego and appetite for self-promotion, there is little doubt he would have claimed at least some credit over the years, had he been involved even tangentially with a Pulitzer Prize-winning work.

But, as you probably know, Lee, on the other hand, played a key role in Capote's 'In Cold Blood' as a researcher and editor but to her chagrin, received no credit. And as for her not writing another novel, she explained: 'Two reasons: one, I wouldn't go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money.<br>Second, I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.'

Chris (not verified) Tue, 01/06/2021 - 10:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"What if the two are combined?". You forgot Dorothy L Sayers 'Gaudy Night', both a detective mystery, and for my money a novel. It's look at women's university life in the 1930's is probably accurate - the author was one of the first women to attend Oxford. On the one hand the staff and students are living in a grand building with servants, on the other they are second class citizens of the university.

I particularly love the afternoon on a hot and overcrowded river - probably not that much different today. Also the mystery is not the standard murder, but something more complicated.

And lurking in the background is the run up to the war - even in 1935 Sayers seems to have had a good idea what was likely

Brooke (not verified) Tue, 01/06/2021 - 11:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Stu: The evidence (debunking) is circumstantial indeed. TKAM is so bad no writer with a reputation would bother to claim it. When Harper's supposed draft of TKAM, Go Set a Watchman, was published, the kindest review described it as lumpy, messy, odd provenance, etc. As one reviewer said, calling attention to Harper's lack of skill with language, "GSAW makes you reconsider Mockingbird..."

Brooke (not verified) Tue, 01/06/2021 - 13:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

writers who haunt...would you consider Great Expectations a crime novel?

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Tue, 01/06/2021 - 13:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Brooke Clearly you are welcome to your own opinion of the merits of TKAM (with which I disagree), but according to several sources, Capote was 'desperate' to win a National Book Award and the Pulitzer. He won neither and again, a number of Capote and Lee experts find it very hard to believe he would not have touted his involvement with a book that did, given his ego. As I mentioned, They also point to unwillingness to give any credit whatsoever to Lee for her help with 'In Cold Blood' as further evidence of this self-conceit. Partially dedicating the book to her, of course, is not the same.

The idea that Capote, out of consideration for his childhood friend, would remain silent for close to 25 years also seems to strain the credulity of most experts. From a 'technical' standpoint, there is also the matter of 'voice:' nothing else Capote wrote had the same as TKAM. And, quite frankly, the plain-spoken Harper Lee would have, in my opinion, given Capote credit had it been due. 'Pride of authorship' did not appear to be all that important to her. She did not so much as write a book, as '...say something I wanted to say. and I will not say it again.'

Now, could there have been an unknown third party involved? I suppose that is conceivable but again, with the notoriety of Lee and TKAM and the amount of academic attention focused them over the past 60+ years, it's hard to believe that would not have been discovered by now, and especially with the publication of 'Go Set a Watchman' in 2015.

And about 'Watchman' --- it is now generally accepted as a 'first draft' of TKAM, with whole passages repeated word-for-word in TKAM. There is certainly no question but that Lee's editor at Lippincott had a key role in reshaping what eventually became TKAM, so perhaps she can be considered that 'unknown' third party but, of course, she was simply doing her job. So --- in my overly long, roundabout way --- what I'm saying is that TKAM --- like a number of other famous novels (and to CF's point about 'A High Wind in Jamaica') --- was a literary "one hit wonder."

Peter+Dixon (not verified) Tue, 01/06/2021 - 18:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Raymond Chandler always wanted to write an 'English Novel'. Despite the fact that he had been educated at Dulwich College, as had P.G. Wodehouse, he couldn't get close. His notes and unpublished attempts were horribly hackneyed - the exact opposite of his crime stories which still resonate (and are endlessly copied) today. He couldn't manage a multiple of styles if you withheld his bottle from him. He wanted to be Noel Coward and fill a story with tennis on the lawn and all of the turgid malarky that went with it. Happily he never succeeded.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Tue, 01/06/2021 - 20:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Prompted by the discussion of 'To Kill a Mockingbird," considered Harper Lee's only one true novel, I thought I would refresh my memory about other famous "one hit wonder" novels. The authors may have published other work, but only one novel. There are a couple of authors left off the list because a second novel was published after their deaths. Feel free to add to the list, if I've left any off. The list in no special order (or ranking by literary merit):

The Picture of Dorian Grey
Wuthering Heights
A Catcher in the Rye
The Bell Jar
Gone with the Wind
Black Beauty
Dr. Zhivago

Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 02/06/2021 - 05:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes, I think Great Expectations could be considered a crime novel. Gone With the Wind seems to be in the same group with TKAM since she said she had no reason to write another book, just as MS Lee did.
The single novel author is often saying something they feel a need to say and that need doesn't arise later.

Roger (not verified) Wed, 02/06/2021 - 10:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

All of Dickens's novels involve crimes at the centre of the plot, Brooke.

THE UNBEARABLE BASSINGTON is another one-hit wonder and Philip Larkin could only write two novels.

Brooke (not verified) Wed, 02/06/2021 - 10:17

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"...crimes at the centre of the plot... I was thinking of crimes against the spirit/heart. Now that you mention it, OT might qualify although I'm not haunted by it.

Jan (not verified) Wed, 02/06/2021 - 11:33

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Here I daresay a lot of of the finer points of the above have flown right over my head. I struggled for a good while trying to work out what you meant - what you were getting at - when you wrote about Stephen King having this "one highly relatable style that relies largely on plotting to carry the weight of difference" I'm still not totally convinced I have gotten the point. I'm thinking on it.

Mind you I am pretty sure (and not just because of all this Stephen King stylistic pondering you are putting me through) that your point about the risks of writing above your readership were valid - especially when the bars is set as low as it is in this neck of the woods

I have wondered before about the idea you've mentioned about producing a serious literary work.

Maybe in particular creating the one perfect possibly "literary" novel the one perfect thing (which will likely have It's critics life being not being a big perfect thing with agreement reached by all for sure) is that better do you reckon than producing a whole body of work likely to contain a few stinkers? It's your job this after all isn't it? Not your hobby job like it was when you were in the films advertising this is how you obtain a living.

How would a Mr. F literary novel a serious novel BE that different? I don't if I'm honest think I have read that many serious literary works since C.S.E. + "A" level reading lists I generally avoid the serious stuff. Likely don't recognise it. Probably picked the odd one up in error and when nowt much has actually occurred by say page 90 took it back to the library . I have read some big popular( a bit serious ) books I suppose but don't make a habit of it. More complex writing less happening or tons of plot deceptively simple prose what would your literary work be exactly?

Hope all well

Jan (not verified) Wed, 02/06/2021 - 12:28

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Think I was being pretentious in the above comment it would never be page 90 more likely be kicked into touch by about page 28!

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Wed, 02/06/2021 - 14:08

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@Roger 'The Unbearable Bassington' --- Saki's (H.H. Munro) first novel is a delight, no question. But he did write another novel, the 1913 'When William Came: A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns,' which looks at life in London after an imagined German invasion and occupation. It was essentially a lengthy argument for compulsory military service, which was a contentious issue at the time. So, unfortunately, I'll have to strike 'Bassington' off the one-hit wonder list.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 02/06/2021 - 18:46

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Not only military service but physical improvement so as to be fit for military service. The Germans were definitely working hard at it and the Scandinavians introduced an exercise program into schools to make up for the fact that their boys spent so much time in school instead of out in the forests hunting, climbing and so on. The program was introduced in Canada in 1911 and Lord Strathcona (Donald Smith) the railway magnate gave money for prizes and ... Sorry, I could really go on for a long time on this one.