That is, no matter how much we can identify our common humanity in an old text like “The Red King and the Witch” we tell stories differently now. Our expectations—and thus our satisfaction—from a modern story are, if not more sophisticated, then at least reliant on a more crafted experience. I’m interested in balancing this nearly clinical approach to craft with the wild myth-making of folk stories and the fantastic. And that was one impulse that went into writing “Millennial Gothic.”
If you read a lot of contemporary stories you can usually pick out a few endlessly repeated types. “Oh, a cancer story.” “Oh, an abortion story.” Etc. Obviously, many if not most people will have had some experience with, say, cancer or abortion at some point in their lives, but they seem to be forming their own genre, almost, like they are literally generic types of stories with which an apprentice can practice their forms. I can’t say when it came to me, but I had an image of a woman with her young sister playing in the park, and somehow I knew the young sister was pregnant. This situation immediately set up all kinds of interesting questions and conflicts, but my first thought was, “Oh, an abortion story.” I feel like every writer who studies writing reads “Hills Like White Elephants” and then goes out to write a tough oblique abortion story (or maybe its just men, the fuckers). And I wasn’t interested in that story.
When I am considering a story that I feel is generic, of a type, then my instinct is to try to make it unexpected, to surprise myself. If “an abortion story” is a genre, it adheres to the general strictures of the contemporary “literary fiction genre”: that is, quietly told, with a protagonist bravely suffering the absurdities of the world while keeping their emotions submerged, and the triggering action of the story, in this case an abortion, would be buried in allusion, maybe even metaphor, would probably not be expressly stated until the end of the story, and its revelation would be the story itself and would (try to) give the preceding action meaning in retrospect.
So, to subvert this genre, I would want to a tell the story “not quietly”—not necessarily loudly, but with momentum, and action, and as little staring out the window remembering things as possible. The protagonist can be brave but the emotions should be out in the open. The triggering action should actually trigger action and so its revelation should come on the first page and the ensuing action should develop something, not circle around the hidden factor driving the repressed emotions.
I wasn’t interested in writing a story about whether or not Ruthie would have an abortion. It’s just not in my artistic mission. My imagination is fired up by the demon child with shovels for hands in “The Red King and the Witch”: the fantastic which touches upon our fears, which taps into a kind of mono-myth, which unsettles us by reconfiguring the world back into its unknowable elements. And the key questions that arose for me around Ruthie’s pregnancy— the basic, elemental questions—revolved around betrayal and sacrifice; that is, if Ruthie is a victim, who is her abuser, and if she is a hero, what must she give up? Because its impossible to avoid in this situation and because the debate around abortion usually revolves around religious beliefs, it seemed a natural conflict to introduce between Sara and Ruthie: if Sara is convinced that Ruthie should get an abortion and Ruthie is adamant that she will keep the child, there must be a belief system they are each adhering to; if they are sisters, why don’t they have the same beliefs? And with Ruthie’s age the idea of a cult seemed a natural conclusion, with Sara having escaped and Ruthie having a less clear relationship to it.
I was also really into the idea of shape-shifting at the time I wrote this. I don’t know why, and can’t remember how it was introduced into the early idea of story. I just thought it would be kind of badass, and I think, as writers, its okay to leave it at that sometimes. I mean, a cult of shapeshifters who live in a mist village off the 1-5? C’mon. That’s dope.
The weakness of this story is that the mythology of the cult, the Sanctuary, is not fully developed. I feel like the end is like the end of the movie “Adaptation” when the brother takes over writing the movie and it becomes an action heavy thriller. It’s funny in the movie but I’m playing it straight here and I’m not sure if it fully works. At the same time, I don’t mind the mysteriousness of the cult, don’t mind that it is inexplicably magical, like the weighted action of “The Red King and the Witch.” But, as I’ve said, how do you pull that off in a modern story? I don’t know and I’m pretty sure I haven’t done so here.
Anyway, there’s some of the basic thinking that went into the story. There’s more. I mean, why does Sara fall for such emotional weirdos? And is L. Vincent Vincent a great artist or what? I can’t tell you, or I won’t. Of course, none of this was so consciously done or considered during the initial process. A lot of these ideas occurred during revision or are, literally, revisionist. But that’s how it works. More often than not, we ascribe meaning to our stories well after they are written, and it’s been about a year since I wrote the first draft of “Millennial Gothic.” I hope you enjoyed it and would love to hear your thoughts, questions, criticisms, and, as always, your wild, orgiastic praise.