by Brady Allen
I can’t plot out my short stories ahead of time; I like to discover them as I write. Just start with an image and see where it goes. That, for me, is what makes writing wondrous.
Wonder is generally seen as a good thing, of course, though some of it is threatening and dark, and I reckon there are only some of us who can’t help but search for it, darkness, and wonder at it.
I see darkness in a look one student gives another in class when I’m teaching; in the grocery store when some gal tries to get a green avocado near the bottom and sends the whole pile tumbling to the floor; in the shoes tossed over the phone lines and the birds that sit next to them; in the man selling flowers on the street corner on Sweetest Day; in an apparently empty rowboat, or high school band concert, or a can of Silly String, or even a family having a picnic to celebrate the Goodness of the Good in the Good, Good World. Even in a sweet comment my four-year-old daughter makes, and in a bumper sticker that says, “My daughter the honors student can kick your football player’s ass” (okay, I’ve never seen this one, but I’ve always wanted it).
I’m far from a worrywart about myself or things related to me. In fact, I’m probably just a bit too irreverent and unconcerned. But I worry about those closest to me, like my aging parents, and, of course, first and foremost, my two daughters. So, the answer here about how wonder, and more importantly darkness, are part of my creative process, well. . . .
This is far from being my original thought, and Ray Bradbury probably put it better many times, but, consider this: wonder comes with remembering what it was like to be a kid. Kids have a childhood full of “whys” and “hows”: Why does the moon change shapes? Why do we have eyebrows? Why does pencil lead stick to paper? (The last being a question from my teenage daughter when she was in pre-school—she was the master of the Stump-Daddy Question.)
As we get older, we have to keep the why/how part of us but also let it blossom into the “what if” stage. This is where invention comes in, how we progress and adapt and evolve. It’s also how we start to worry, and how we cause ourselves to have to face the darkness, the Unknown, if you will. What if ________, whom I love dearly, gets sick, gets hurt, disappears, or, God forbid, dies?
For fiction writers, especially speculative fiction writers, our job is in the equally maligned and loved What-if Business. Those folks who don’t write, or at least read, fiction may not understand. Those of us who like to write and/or read dark fantasy fiction, or horror fiction as we should call it unless we’re afraid of the stigma, well, our what-ifs tend to be the kind that make some folks shy away, I reckon. You see, I believe that what-ifs are further probes toward honesty. If hows and whys lead to “facts,” what-ifs lead toward deeper exploration, something beyond facts: truths.
If facts deal with science and logic, truths deal with what it’s like to be complex, sometimes disturbed, confused organisms called humans. So truths deal with humanity beyond a biological level. These truths are in the darkness, they are the Unknown, and that’s what we’re striving for.
Fiction is all a big humpin’ WHAT IF.
What if one of my students has noticed a tiny, hairy, naked woman climbing behind another student’s ear while carrying a spear? What if the gal who dumped the avocados all over the floor leaves them there, and then me and the other shoppers find her in another aisle later and she is trapped, her face in a silent scream just beneath the surface of a newly sprouted but already dead-looking avocado tree in the cereal aisle? What if the birds are the ones that steal shoes and string them over power lines? What if the Sweetest Day flower salesman has a thorny rose where his penis should be? What if worms fill the bottom of the rowboat, and they have teeth and someone desperately needs to get off the shore? What if a fire alarm sounds during the school band concert, the auditorium is evacuated, and the firefighters and rescue squad go on an ax-murdering rampage?
The wonder is in the form of imagination for the writer. And imagination can only come from memory. We draw upon things in our mind already and put them together in new ways. No one could have written about a flying ship . . . if a ship and knowledge of flying were not already there in the ol’ brain, in other words. And dark fiction likes to work in fantastic imagery, which often serves intentionally or unintentionally as metaphor.
The tiny, hairy, spear-carrying woman might stand for jealousy. The face in the avocado tree might represent selfishness. The shoe-stealing birds might stand for mankind’s inadequacies. And the flower peddler’s anatomy might represent greed or secret lust.
Wonder for me—dark wonder, so often in my work—is in saying, in wondering, “What’s the story behind that?” Going from the concrete, which is the literal imagery in the story, to the abstract, which is, really, theme.
It’s in seeing and showing the world in vivid detail and in discovering what humanity’s place is in it by witnessing human struggle. And in knowing that if you see Silly String scattered and sprayed all around the end of someone’s driveway and mailbox, it surely has to do with a mail carrier who is struggling desperately in his relationship with a rodeo clown who is haunted by dreams of a psychic bull that can predict the immediate future.
About the Guest Author
Brady Allen is the author of Back Roads and Frontal Lobes, a collection of 23 tales in the genres of horror, crime, the road story, soft sci-fi, dark fantasy, surrealism, existentialism, the weird tale, and even some plain ol’ realism. He has published numerous short stories in magazines, journals, and anthologies in the U.S, England, and Ireland and has received honorable mentions for a couple of them in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror volumes from St. Martin’s Press, as well as an Individual Artist Fellowship in fiction from the Ohio Arts Council for three others. He loves Reds baseball on a transistor radio, and the sound of a train in the still of the night calls to him. Allen teaches writing at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and lives in Dayton with his two daughters.