Jeff VanderMeer Explains How to Write a Haunted Book
The author of “Annihilation” and “Wonderbook” on using strangeness to make stories resonate
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The following is adapted from a lecture given at Columbia University in April, 2018, and some of the images are reprinted from the author’s Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. A revised and expanded edition of Wonderbook was published this month. Additional content can be found at the Wonderbooknow website. (Artist Jeremy Zerfoss created all diagrams reproduced here, unless otherwise noted. Click images to expand.)
Hauntings, as I see them, are one way of destabilizing the text without breaking the fourth wall, and are meant to help create texture and richness that may or may not be consciously noticed by the reader. Nonetheless, because these effects are visible to the writer, they likely change the narrative experience for the reader. (If you destabilize the text by breaking the fourth wall, all other effects you are attempting are defined by that breakage. This is also a valid approach, but not one that appeals to me currently.)
The point, too, is that we can become too enamored of the smoothness or seamlessness of our scenes and mistake that for success rather than perhaps something too pat. We can believe we are adhering to a classical idea of unity of form, when in fact we are simply creating something that might have more life if it were in some sense rougher or messier.
“Disruption” as a term is currently revolving in a decaying orbit due to the tech industry and “contamination” a negative one due to ancient instincts and, necessarily, the CDC. But both terms are useful in the context of fiction.
“Disruption” is useful in terms of the idea of either having enough distance from your creation, or seeking it, to think of ways that this might organically push back against neatness or inertia in the narrative — and “contamination” because it suggests a transaction resulting in layered richness.
In a microbial sense, “contamination” is the condition of all living things — and occurs to all of us on an hourly basis, with invisible actions and reactions taking place that demonstrate there is less difference between outside and inside, between our bodies and the world the move through. That there is a hidden agency that is often connected to the human but is not the traditional idea of “agency” in a work of fiction.
Once you realized that just at face value “contamination” acknowledges a world that is much more invisibly volatile and teeming with life than most fiction is able to portray, it is only logical to move on to ways of removing the distance between “person” and “environment” and even narrowing the perhaps too-wide gap between “Nature” and “Culture.” As, especially, I try to write from nonhuman perspectives in ways that I hope are not overtly experimental, in ways that remove an emotional reaction…all of this thought feeds into that attempt, even though it could feed into more traditional ideas of fiction.
How do I then find and adapt the structures that will best support these approaches? Structures that will perform best under the stress of a foreign regard?
This is in the back of my mind as I think about how hauntings — disruptions and contamination of the text — will help. So is the question of how much of this is actual quantifiable effect of structure in the text and how much is the scaffolding my mind needs to attempt (what I hope are) invisible experiments. Radicalizations that still mimic the form, the structure, of something familiar to the reader.
Important to hauntings is something crudely articulated as “the rate of the strange to the familiar.” This is something I have to think about after I’ve finished a rough draft, given that very strange effects will seem normal to me as the writer that may not be normal to the reader.
Important to hauntings is something crudely articulated as “the rate of the strange to the familiar.”
The point is not to “commercialize” something personal by changing or deleting what is too strange. But the point is to think of how much space you’ve left for the reader’s imagination and what kind of space it is. Are you meaning to write a work in a particular instance that rewires the reader’s brain or one that allows the reader’s brain a gentler entry point? Sometimes the gentler entry point is actually better to achieve a stranger result.
In all ways and at all times, I guess what I’m searching for are the repurposed and new tools to build something that does not exist already or to create the right “renovations” in certain instances.
In this context, it’s useful to discuss two inspirations in particular, one internal and one external, that helped me to arrive at an interesting place regarding hauntings.
I first thought about transference of emotional resonance or other qualities in my early 20s, when I embarked on a series of formal experiments in my fiction. Since I was mostly working on interlocking stories set in an imaginary city, I figured that experimental texts could in fact shore up the reality of the city using the same techniques that in describing a real place would break the fourth wall. In short, that fantasy would normalize and make less experimental post-modern technique.
After a series of lesser experiments, I included a story in my mosaic novel or interlinked tales about the imaginary city that was all in code. A series of numbers, each set of which corresponded to the location of a word in a story elsewhere in the book. The reader had to decode the story using the rest of the collection.
The decoding in this case meant that reader was, to some extent, writing the story. And this process occurred on at least two levels.
The decoding in this case meant that reader was, to some extent, writing the story.
First, the unfurling of the plot of the story itself, word by word, and then the fact that I chose words from the rest of the book for their specific context and resonance. This was sometimes a neutral value and sometimes a very dramatic value, or a dramatic or quiet transference from the physical to the mental or vice versa. So, for example, taking the word “the” and other so-called invisible words from a scene in an unencrypted story featuring wide-spread destruction by fiery conflagration — and using these words in the encrypted story at a moment of great mental confusion and psychological drama.
The result is a story that unfolds in the reader’s mind in a way almost similar to some experiments with hypertext, but with the reader in a much more proactive imaginative position — and also adding a third mystery, which is, of course, why that particular story should be encrypted in the first place.
The audience for such a story is limited because it is a formal experiment, a kind of haunting of the text by itself that although transformative requires great patience and effort, and occurs at a slow pace. Over time, I’ve heard from about 150 readers who attempted the feat. There may be more, but I imagine not too many more. But it was a start. I began to think of how I could achieve similar effects in real time and without formal experimentation, and sometimes at a normalized tactical level.
One way this ties into my prior comments on the study of structure can be expressed in an interesting way by a scene from Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, first book of the Gormenghast trilogy, which contains one of the great action scenes of all time. Set in a huge castle-like ancestral home, these books follow the often bizarre lives of the inhabitants — including Flay, servant to the lord of Gormenghast, who comes into conflict with Swelter, the Cook. In the chapter “Blood at Midnight,” their long-simmering feud comes to a boil — as depicted here. The long scene contradicts most rules about conveying action by using ornate language and complex sentences. It shifts point of view between Flay and Cook, which also shouldn’t work in this context.
Other fascinating attributes of the scene would be a whole different lecture. But for purposes of this lecture, I became interested in how you might find the level at which action-reaction summarized might be translated into a totally different context — for example, a dinner party. This question came into focus when I mentioned the idea at a literary festival, and the writer Victor LaValle asked me “How, exactly?”
I began to think both specifically and generally about this — generally in the sense of can you extract the structure of a scene at a certain level of hierarchy such that you can transplant it into any other context?
Specifically in the sense of the nuts-and-bolts of “translating” this particular Gormenghast scene. Could you structure the scene exactly the same way but transfer the weight from action to words? What would that look like? Would the urgency of the action scene make tension more easily expressed at the dinner party because of the source? In other words, would the fact the scene had begun life in a totally different register an context mean that the emotional residue of the original context would transfer? (Adding another layer of depth to the scene.)
Could you structure the scene exactly the same way but transfer the weight from action to words? What would that look like?
I’m still exploring the answer — even the diagram included here is just a start. But the further experiment is for me to take a scene I’ve written and apply the same transference, from action to words or vice versa, or perhaps an even more complex translation — and to see how that would not just bring in some residue or ghost of the original, but also to see if whatever personal resonance I brought to the autobiographical origins of the original scene now, at a different distance, manifests in a context that has perhaps no relationship to the first-hand thing I experienced that sparked the original scene in the first place.
One obvious reason this could be an important experiment is that finding the right distance either from one’s own life or from some element in the text is perversely enough often how a writer manages to fictionalize something in a useful way. The idea that you could “launder” your autobiography through a double-filter to get somewhere useful is fascinating to me.
In addition to my encrypted story, I was also thinking about this image from The Shining quite a lot.
What’s wrong with this image? Well, try to put yourself in the position of a viewer from the 1970s or early 1980s.
The problem is that the TV has no cord. Now, today, a television can have no cord and still be playing, but not back then. So, the image is in fact uncanny. Being a fan of taking interesting film technique and translating it into technique for fiction, I thought what is the translation here?
In fiction, if you write a television that’s on and then say whatever the modern equivalent would be of “and it had no cord!”…that would be clumsy beyond belief. Kind of equivalent of reading that the “panther leapt like a big cat.”
I had thought about the encrypted story and that television with no cord for some time when I decided that the second Southern Reach novel required a contamination to reach the proper layering or depth.
Prior to this, I suppose the encrypted story had entered my process in at least one fairly crude way: if I felt a story was too smooth or I had somehow missed an opportunity, I would photocopy my handwritten pages and I would tear strips off of those pages, sometimes burn parts of them, and then, after a break of a month or so, I would go back to that now incomplete evidence and try to recreate the story. Usually this resulted in radical changes from the original.
If I felt a story was too smooth, I would photocopy my handwritten pages and tear strips off of those pages, and then, after a break of a month or so, I would go back to that now incomplete evidence and try to recreate the story.
But in thinking about the Area X novels, it came to me almost immediately that I could repurpose dialogue from Annihilation in Authority. Most of the incidental dialogue, then, that the main character in Authority hears while walking down corridors of the Southern Reach secret government agency is from Annihilation. In a context where the reader is already primed to uncover the next set of phrases that constitute hypnotic suggestion, as introduced in the first book.
The effect is meant to create a strong sense of directionless déjà vu in the reader. Conversely, this gave me the idea to retroactively contaminate Annihilation with Authority by using seemingly innocent phrases in Annihilation as hypnotic suggestions in Authority. An expedition back into Annihilation from Authority.
Ghosting dialogue may seem like a mere trick, but I think it is more than that. For one thing, for those readers who do notice “the trick,” source the dialogue back to Annihilation, each phrase brings with it the emotional resonance and context from that first book, until suddenly the corridors of the Southern Reach are not in fact inert, transitional environments, but ultra-alive places full of ghosts and full of words that have actual important subtext. It makes of incidental conversation something more central. It also conjures up for me, the writer, the idea of contamination and disruption in the sense of other forces at play in a very concrete way.
Performing this act in revision, a state in which I try to re-enter the fictive dream that is writing the rough draft as much as possible…this act made it easier to stick to the claustrophobic, paranoid style of Authority, a way of more or less by inhabiting the “character” of Area X as I wrote the novel, even as I also inhabited the actual main, human character.
Just as in Annihilation the physical environment impinges on and overwhelms the characters, then, via these devices that seem like a surface overlay but are in fact deep arteries embedded in the walls of the secret agency. In a sense, Authority also becomes a richer and more interesting ecosystem, even though embedded in the Brutalist settings of a secret agency building.
These then approach the density of the natural world in Annihilation, which itself used transformations that include the “trick” of blurring the difference between the animate and the inanimate — for example, a tunnel-tower that presents as stone but the biologist later realizes is a creature that is breathing. This idea too probably came from the cordless television — from my subconscious grappling with the translation.
In general, too, settings characters move through are more likely to change the narrative and even the plot if they are not thought of as inert backdrops but as opportunities for more useful complexity. This is also closer to the reality of the situation anyway. I like, for example, to know the total history of the settings of specific scenes, back as far as I can imagine it — back before conquest, and then back before human civilization, to prehistoric times.
Even in a brief spasm of the transformative in Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, in a sentence in which he bends time to go from fascist work camp to the Mesozoic and back to the present-day of the novel, we see the value of what you might call a geologic perspective in grounding the events in fiction.
I think you can tell, then, that although I used an uncanny technique in the service of reinforcing an uncanny thing in the text, you could use a similar mindset or perspective to destabilize and render more interesting any novel — especially if it seems something is lacking. Which may not be a character fault, but a failure to properly express environment through character point of view.
The idea of something that is both present and not-present has led naturally to other expressions of this idea. The one I would like to share comes from a novella I’m working on titled “Drone Love.” In the future of the novella, humans live on islands amid seas of garbage, stalked at times by made creatures meant to help stave off climate change that have taken on their own agency. In the air of these barren islands, molecules continually discharge bird song, although birds no longer exist — this false song the ghost of a new technology used to perpetuate propaganda by fossil fuel companies. In arid places, too, the molecules of the air convey the sound of falling rain. In all ways, the dead world coexists in this sense with the present-day of the novella. In an even more robust way, one of the biotech creatures is accompanied by the sound of a powerful aria, the molecules of the air identifying the creature by the music a composter created about it many years before.
Those on the island must now associate this beautiful music with a beast so powerful that even the presaged warning of music does not mean avoidance of death. Indeed, there is a transference, so that to the humans on the island the music is in fact a requiem, the music that will play at their funeral, so to speak. And, of course, it is, because in the future of the novella it is a kind of twilight for human beings in general.
We are now a long way from an encrypted story written in numbers and as far from a television with no cord. But I guess my point is that without these specific entry-points and the questions and narrative puzzles they formed, I would not have come to these other “tricks,” which then became central in some works because they blossomed in strange and unusual ways.
My way will not be your way because you are a different writer. But my point is that your subconscious wants to solve these puzzles as much as your conscious mind does, and you may be both invaded by an impulse and rewarded with a translating thought that is seamless and metaphorically pure. You may find the scaffolding necessary to explore something new.
Your subconscious wants to solve these puzzles as much as your conscious mind does, and you may be both invaded by an impulse and rewarded with a translating thought that is seamless and metaphorically pure.
Part and parcel of this process is a kind of trust. First of all in your imagination and secondly in a willingness to fall on your face. For every experiment that has worked, there are five that don’t, but you still learn something.
Moreover, internalizing what manifests at first as external feels akin to a haunting, because I am trying to find those mechanisms that will allow me to be adjacent to the things that fiction can never express, and find ways to express an approximation of them, at least. In the process, I become the one being haunted, and a haunting changes you at a fundamental level, changing the stories, too.
I am not at all the same writer as I was before these experiments. I know something about narrative afterwards that isn’t just a conscious knowledge but something more satisfyingly mysterious, exhilarating, and liberating.
About the Author
Jeff VanderMeer is the author of the bestselling, critically acclaimed Borne and the Southern Reach Trilogy. His work has won the Shirley Jackson Award and been translated into 35 languages. His nonfiction appears in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and on the Atlantic’s website.