Over at Electric Lit, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats has an interview about his second novel, Universal Harvester, and his reliance on beta readers to provide “gentle reminders that I have to close loops” in his fiction:
There’s a scene where they’re editing video tapes, and originally there were cryptic labels on these canning jars that suggested something besides jam would be going into them — who knows what. Blood, or plasma, or whatever, right? It was creepy as hell, but you can’t plant that seed and never say anything about it again. You can’t. If I introduce something to the scene, I have to — at the very least — acknowledge that something has been left unknown there. I can’t just say something and never refer to it again … but the appeal of that is very strong and hard to resist.
I have to wonder if Darnielle is a Robert Aickman fan. Aickman wrote what he called “strange stories,” stories that aren’t horror and don’t always involve the supernatural but were intended to leave the reader unsettled, often via a lack of explanation or full context. This has given Aickman a reputation for being baffling, though this is an exaggeration; more accurately, the vitreousness of his work spans the gamut from dirty windshield to outright opacity.
Take, for example, his best known story (and for good reason), “Ringing the Changes.” It involves a pair of newlyweds — Gerald being much older than his attractive wife Phrynne — arriving in the small seaside town of Holihaven for their honeymoon. They arrive in late afternoon only to learn there is one night during the year when tourists most certainly should not visit Holihaven. By the story’s end it’s fairly clear what has transpired — there’s little confusion — though the motivations of some of the characters are oblique. Over and over, the townspeople chastise the owner of the hotel, Mrs. Pascoe, for accepting the couple’s reservation on that most notorious of nights. Why did she endanger her two guests? But they, and we, never hear a clear response.
It was so dark where Mrs Pascoe was working that her labours could have been achieving little; but she said nothing to her visitors, nor they to her. At the door Phrynne unexpectedly stripped off the overcoat and threw it on a chair. Her nightdress was so torn that she stood almost naked. Dark though it was, Gerald saw Mrs Pascoe regarding Phrynne’s pretty body with a stare of animosity.
A favorite visual artist of mine is Shag, aka Josh Agle. He’s well-known in tiki and mid-century modern circles; his paintings are populated by lithe women and dapper men drinking cocktails while spy jazz presumably plays softly in the background. But often his canvases also feature other, more inexplicable details, like anthropomorphic animals or sinister characters and scenarios. In an interview (which I can’t find now), Shag stated he likes creating ambiguous scenes in which full context is unknowable, thereby forcing the viewer to create her own unique narrative of what’s taking place inside the frame.
“Office Politics,” shown above, is a perfect example. The woman in the foreground carries a broken bottle, presumably to use as a weapon. But on whom — the man? The woman? Both? Meanwhile the other woman entertains the man with a puppet. But wait — the puppet is a pink elephant, a common symbol for drunken delirium (and a recurring motif in some of Shag’s paintings, most notably
“Pink Elephants,” “Seek Help,” which he said was about him quitting alcohol). So does the puppeteer represent alcoholism and the broken-bottle woman sobriety, each vying for the man’s soul? There’s no wrong answer, and that’s the beauty of Shag’s work — he engages the viewer into a subjective experience. Two people can see the same painting and walk away with very different stories about it.
In college I took a drawing class in which I became fascinated with the concept of pareidolia — the phenomenon of the brain forming faces or other recognizable shapes and patterns out of random meaninglessness, like clouds. My final project consisted of a long scroll of paper on which I had quickly jotted hundreds of squiggly lines. Once the scroll was hung on the classroom wall, yes, I could see a few faces within the lines — though whether anyone else could, I don’t know.
When I discovered Aickman a few years ago, he helped ease my anxiety over open loops in my fiction, of tying every string’s end into an explicit, visible knot. It was OK, said Aickman, to leave things unexplained and let the reader connect the dots, even if the shapes created by those dots weren’t the ones I had intended. That designed pareidolia is something I have since resuscitated in my fiction: let the reader have his own interpretation. Maybe Aickman could work the same medicine on Darnielle for book number three.