This time last week,  I was all ready to do a business-as-usual post about writing, horror, and writing horror. Given how much horror we're all seeing just by turning on the news, though, I'm not in the mood to talk about Black Mirror and you probably aren't, either. I'm still talking stories, but I'm doing a bit of a gear shift this week.

Partly in recognition of Pope Francis declaring 2016 a Jubilee Year of Mercy, and partly just because they love a good themed film list, Arts & Faith and Image magazine have come up with a list of the Top 25 Films on Mercy. I haven't seen many of them--for every Spirited Away that I've seen and loved, there's an Elephant Man that I know I really should get  around to watching and a Hadewijch that I've never heard of. The list makes me want to hunt down these movies and watch them, though, because any list that features Joyeux Noel and The Island is A-OK in my book. (This particular The Island is a 2006 Russian flick, not the one with Ewan MacGregor and Scarlett Johansson having clone adventures.)

The list is heavy on realistic fiction, older movies, and foreign films, and my husband and I were trying to come up with recent and/or spec-fic fare that explored the theme of mercy as thoroughly as these movies do. As we did, two themes emerged. One was that, by and large, Japanese media seems much more interested in solving problems through mercy, empathy, and compassion than we do--there are two Miyazaki films on A&F's 25-movie list, and we were able to rattle off several anime series with climaxes that hinge on mercy before we could think of a single Western counterpart (Trigun, the series ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Madoka Magica, and my all-time favorite anime Revolutionary Girl Utena, to name a  few). I don't know whether this says something damning about the lack of forgiveness in American culture compared to other countries or simply about the differences between what various cultures will and won't accept as a satisfying climax, but it's interesting.

As we finally stumbled on more recent Western examples, though, we noticed something else: nearly all of the shows and movies whose climaxes hinged on mercy were originally intended for children. Whether they were cartoons with large adult audiences (both Last Airbender series, Batman: The Animated Series), family sci-fi adventures  (Return of the Jedi), or shows that were originally intended for children but deliberately broadened their audiences to include adults (Doctor Who), none of them were exclusively adult stories.

On one level,  that's great news--we want our children to learn mercy, and what better way than watching an avatar who learns that she can't punch her way out of every problem, or a Jedi who wins by throwing away his lightsaber and embracing love and forgiveness even against the advice of his masters? It's terrific that there are high-quality sources of children's entertainment that embrace mercy and compassion. But the trouble is when mercy is seen solely as a province of children's entertainment.  I can think of a handful of mainstream movies for teens and adults that embrace mercy over violence--Spider-Man 3 had its issues, but spitting in the face of forgiveness wasn't one of them--but in general, Hollywood loves its cathartic, climactic violence where our plucky heroes kill, maim, or humiliate "them." Mercy is kids' stuff. Adults know that sometimes we have to make the hard choices. And those hard choices always seem to involve getting a blank check to attack whoever is in the outgroup.

Of course, we generally don't want our heroes to be cold-blooded killers (although the  revenge movie, in which the villains are so loathsome that it's totally OK for the hero to kill them and for us to cheer as he does, is an ugly exception; this sort of movie invites us to view everyone who's wronged us with as much mercy and forgiveness as Django or Bryan Mills, which is to say none at all). Hollywood likes to get around this by having the hero refuse to kill or torture his opponent, only to have the opponent die bloodily from the hero's inaction shortly afterward  (see The Revenant, X2, and Batman Begins). This kind of treatment isn't just a cheat that lets us get our titillation from the villain's comeuppance while keeping the hero's hands clean; it actually changes forgiveness into another weapon. The act of sparing the villain's life is rarely motivated by the hero seeing the villain as a human being like himself. Instead, it's an exercise of power and pride, as the hero makes it clear that he could kill the villain any time he wants but is choosing not to. (Compare any given "No! I'm not like you!" scene with Luke's loving refusal to kill his father, or Batman: the Animated Series' vision of a Caped Crusader who genuinely cares about the welfare of his tragically broken rogues' gallery, to see the difference between genuine mercy and this kind of "I'll  spare you and the horse you came in on" attitude.) This may teach us to avoid actively seeking revenge, but it doesn't teach us much in the way of forgiveness or empathy.

Why? Why do we think that our stories should outgrow mercy? It can't be because you can't tell a good story that will appeal to adults that doesn't end with a death-fest; Return of the Jedi is generally regarded as the weakest of the original trilogy (my total disagreement with this is a whole other post), but not because it doesn't end with Luke striking Vader down with all his hate. Plenty of adults watched Avatar and The Legend of Korra and would have been totally satisfied with them if energy-bending had been introduced before the final episode, and for anyone who was a kid in the early '90s, the definitive incarnation of Batman is one who was empathetic and merciful while still kicking villain butt. 

One contributor is that it's hard to pull off a merciful ending that feels earned--but how much of that is a chicken-and-egg problem? As Steven Greydanus points out in his column on the 25 Films on Mercy list, we're living in a particularly ugly and merciless age. We can't even empathize with and forgive someone who votes differently than we do, never mind a criminal mastermind who's trying to destroy the city. As we harden ourselves to the outgroup in our personal lives, it becomes more difficult to believe that our heroes will do any differently. This causes us to take in stories that are sorely lacking in mercy, which subtly directs our thinking away from mercy, which makes merciful stories even harder for us to accept  as believable . . . and so on, and so on. What's more, it conditions audiences to expect violent endings to their entertainment, and conditions writers to assume that this is the way stories are supposed to end. I'm as guilty of this as anyone--the beautiful, merciful finale of Revolutionary Girl Utena may have felt contrived to me if it had happened in a Western series because I expect different endings from my American shows than from my anime.

Another, deeper issue is the very fact that we associate happy endings, including redemptive ones, with childhood. As we grow older, we realize that not all problems can be solved through communication, empathy, and forgiveness--a theme that's entirely true, and worth exploring in fiction. The trouble is when we convince ourselves that the only kind of mature story is one that ends without any form of reconciliation. Find a movie that resolves peacefully even though death and violence are a possibility, and you'll find a hundred people scoffing at how maudlin and Pollyanna-ish the ending is. Like a guy who reads Watchmen and decides that stories without rape, murder, and nihilism are immature,  we may well have taken away the wrong lessons about what constitutes mature storytelling.

And that matters. Stories teach us how to think--we all have some group or another that we believe is underrepresented or unfairly stereotyped in fiction, and we all know that's damaging because it teaches people not to think well of that group. How damaging is it to have stories that show we can't be reconciled with an outgroup at all--planting the idea, subconsciously, that the people who believe the unfairly stereotyped group is the GLBT community and the people who believe the unfairly stereotyped group is fundamentalist Christians are never going to come to any sort of empathetic accord? If our stories teach us that a Batman for kids can put a hand on sobbing villain to comfort her but a Batman for adults brands bad guys with a mark that'll get them killed in prison because some people aren't worth saving, or that Korra can learn how to solve her problems without violence but the Avengers are just going to keep on punching because, dammit, you just can't reason with some people . . . it's not hard to see how that's going to make our national problem with communicating with those who disagree with us even worse.

So let's take a few hours in one of the most horrible, merciless weeks of a horrible, merciless election season to enjoy some merciful stories, whether it's something from the A&F list or the last season of Avatar. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be Kevin Conroy's Batman than Ben Affleck's any day of the week.
 
 
You know what's really annoying  in spec fic stories? That protagonist who just refuses to see that something supernatural is going on. We're 120 pages into the novel, and everyone except the main character knows why people are showing symptoms of anemia with unusual injuries on their necks or that maybe there was something to Grandpa's crazy stories about fairies after all. A really skilled writer can turn this into horrifying dramatic irony as we sit at the edge of our seats, wondering if the protagonist is going to  figure out what's going on before it's too late. More often than not, though, we end up just wanting to reach through the book, smack the protagonist upside the head, and scream, "GET ON WITH IT!"

At the same time, though, it's understandable that the protagonist of a spec fic story doesn't know that he or she is the protagonist of a spec fic story. In real life, most of us would giggle nervously and make a few jokes if there were an outbreak of Neck-Rupture Anemia in the neighborhood, but we probably wouldn't put up the crosses  and garlic, and we certainly wouldn't go out hunting with stakes and mallets. How can we set up a mystery like this for our protagonist--"is it really a vampire, or am I crazy?"--that  doesn't make the reader irritably point to the word "horror" on the back cover?

When you set up a problem like this, you're putting your character at a narrative fork in the road. The trouble is that in mediocre stories, one of the paths leads to  an interesting, twisty ramble through an exotic forest and the other leads to a dead end. There needs to be a compelling alternative for what'll happen if Neck-Rupture Anemia really is just a disease or if Grandpa's fairy tales really were just an old man spinning yarns; that way, the  reader will see that both paths actually go somewhere. How to go about doing this?

The first time I  noticed a well-executed narrative fork in the road was the movie The History of Violence. (I haven't read the graphic novel, but I've heard that it's completely different.) If you haven't seen it, you should;  I  won't spoil it here beyond laying out the basic premise. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom  Stall, a restaurant owner and father of two in Indiana. When a pair of thugs try to rob his restaurant, most of the staff and customers freeze in terror, but Tom quickly kills them and is hailed as a local hero. It seems like a happy ending . . . until a mobster from Philadelphia rolls in, claiming that he saw Tom on  the news and recognized him as his old mob buddy Joey Cusack. Tom and his wife vehemently deny this, but the mobster  continues to stalk and threaten the Stall family, claiming he won't leave them alone until Tom (Joey?) returns to Philadelphia with him.

I spent the first half of this movie on the edge of my seat--because I had no idea what movie  I was watching. Was this the  story of a Joey Cusack, a repentant mobster who had escaped the criminal  world and tried to make a  new life, only to learn that violence and the past would always find him? Or was it the story of Tom Stall,  an innocent man mistaken for a murderer, who commits a single, justifiable violent act and finds that it will lead to more violence and bloodshed, possibly transforming him into the killer he coincidentally resembles?

I would watch the heck out of other of those movies.  Both are compelling stories--the fork in the road leads to two paths that each like a terrific hike, although  in different ways. What's more, both are consistent with the tone and theme of the movie so far,  which is clearly established as a dark film that studies both the allure and the destructive effects of violence. It isn't like we've  been walking along a dark and eerie trail, and our two choices are either a similarly spooky path or a delightful sunlit ramble. I want to give David Cronenberg and Josh Olson a standing ovation for this one.

The 2015 UK horror movie The Hallow has a similarly well-done narrative fork in the road. I won't spoil the ending, but I can't talk about it without getting into some third-act plot developments. It's on Netflix streaming and is quite decent; if you want to go in completely unspoiled, either  watch it and come back in two hours or skip to  the next paragraph.  A couple and their baby are being terrorized by old-school evil fairies, and like any self-respecting old-school evil fairies, they have a history of stealing children and replacing them with changelings. The husband, Adam, is convinced that they've stolen and replaced baby Finn, and we know they had the opportunity to do so . . . but Adam got hit by a glamour earlier in the movie. His wife is positive that the baby is their own and that Adam is being influenced by the glamour. Are the fairies  manipulating this poor sap into killing his real child, or into giving the real child to them in the mistaken belief that he's returning a changeling? Or is the glamour allowing him to see fae things for what they really are, turning him into a tragic Cassandra-like figure who can't make his wife see that she's clutching a viper to her bosom while abandoning their real child? Again, those are both spectacular stories, and they're both a solid tonal  and thematic match for what we've seen before.

Either of these movies could have been one of those eye-rolling affairs where everyone knows what's coming except the characters. If the Philadelphia mobster hadn't been a direct threat to Tom Stall's family who could have lured him into more  and more  acts of  justifiable violence, it would have been clear that Tom was Joey Cusack--otherwise, there's no story. If the mobster mistook him for something  innocuous,  like an honest citizen who'd seen his crimes and been placed in witness protection, it would have been clear that he was Tom Stall--there'd be no compelling reason for him not to come clean  to his family  about his identity, and again, no story. There are  a hundred ways The Hallow  could have been a snoozefest as well--I won't get into  details so we don't have another spoileriffic paragraph, but let's just say that it  would have been a disaster to have that same setup at the beginning of the movie instead of in act three. I can't see any way that they could have maintained the mystery that long., and eventually it would  have been clear which character was careening toward a dead end.

So if you have a situation where there may or may not be supernatural going on, or any other situation where the viewpoint character  may or may not be right about the story's basic  premise, it's critical to make sure  that the story would be compelling and thematically consistent no matter what. Neck-Rupture Anemia  that may be an illness or a vampire attack is boring; a series of deaths  that could be caused by a vampire or a serial killer is cliche, but at least dramatically interesting. Fairies that may be real or may be an old man's ramblings  are  boring; fairies who may be real or may be his delusional interpretation of a sinister, fully human conspiracy are more interesting. (You could also  get a really poignant story out of a  narrator who's young enough to believe in fairies, pulling your reader back and forth over whether this is going to be a "hooray, Grandpa's fairies are real" story or an "and this is how I learned there are no such things as fairies" story,  but this is where tone and theme are so important. A story like this is going to need a general tone of wistfulness and a hint of magic throughout, or it'll be clear that it either isn't going in the darker direction.)

Do you have any stories where you were at the edge  of your seat, not knowing what  story you were reading and watching? What about thoughts you've had for how to make these "it's obviously a vampire" stories  more compelling?
 
 
When I hear "epistolary," I think of college English lit classes. It's a dry, jargony term that we don't throw around much outside of that context, particularly since there aren't a whole lot of modern examples. The Screwtape Letters notwithstanding, the genre saw its heyday in the 18th century and has steadily been petering out since then. Gothic horror writers loved it, and any genre that counts Dracula as an exemplar is fine in my book, but really, you can only suspend so much disbelief at the idea of someone scribbling down intricate details with perfectly recaptured dialogue during tense moments. (I've heard that Henry Fielding's Shamela skewered the heck out of this all the way back in 1741.) 

We have a few modern epistolary novels, sure. Some handle the format adroitly (Max Brooks' World War Z is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius); some hit the same stumbling blocks that caused epistolaries to fall out of favor in the first place (John Marks' Fangland has an awful lot of emails giving excruciating details of events that the recipient saw firsthand, including a reporter giving us her own physical description in her notes); some are having so much fun reveling in their gimmickry that you really can't tell whether they handle the basics well or not (Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves is delightful, but "gimmickry" is an accurate description). I'd absolutely love to see more novels in this genre, particularly as we return to more text-based forms of communication--a well-executed novel made up of blog posts, emails, and text messages could be incredibly cool, although there are probably a thousand poorly-executed ones languishing in slush piles.

But we're actually embarking on a new golden age for the epistolary; it's just using a different medium and a rebranded name. It's found footage. Instead of stringing together imaginary letters, journals, newspaper clippings, and diary entries, film editors are stringing together imaginary camera footage. Instead of the breathless final journals of a man hunted by an implacable THING, we get the harrowing video clips of a man stalked by the Slender Man. 

It's not hard to see why found footage has exploded. It has all the advantages of the epistolary novel or short story--the extra layer of realism, the chance to play with a specific sense of rules and limitations--with few of the disadvantages. In an epistolary novel, part of you is rolling your eyes that Lucy Westenra pulled off this massive diary entry in the very moment that Dracula was coming for her for the last time, or that Dr. Frankenstein would quote lengthy conversations with the monster verbatim instead of saying "And then he asked me to make him a bride." With found footage, no one in the midst of the action is stopping to write it down or trying to remember details later; it all unfolds in real time in front of the camera. What's more, you generally know that the author of the letters and journals in an epistolary is going to survive--otherwise, who would write the journals? With found footage, you have no such assurances. The major limitation they share is the tendency toward "as you know, Bob" conversation, which is probably why the documentary format is so popular. No one cares if you exposit in a documentary

There are two things I'd like to see from both found footage and the handful of epistolary texts that are still kicking around. One, frankly, is quality. There's a lot of crappy found footage out there. There's also a lot of very good found footage out there. However, I don't think we've had a stone-cold classic film that does for found footage what Frankenstein and Dracula did for novels. I have no doubt that there's someone out there who can make an absolutely breathtaking found footage movie, but it hasn't happened yet. For contemporary epistolary novels, we do have one that I can think of--World War Z--but I'd love to see more. There's a lot of text floating around out there. There are stories unfolding every day in emails, in comboxes, in insane text message conversations. Let's play with them.

The other is more work that engages with technology. Documentaries are fun, but in an age of webcams we can do more interesting things. Unfriended was a spectacularly underrated movie; we can have an argument about whether the plot is just one more movie about a bunch of unpleasant teenagers getting killed in nasty ways, but the way it handled the Internet as Greek chorus was stellar. I've heard that The Lizzie Bennett Diaries does wonderful things with the idea of vlog epistolaries, but I'll admit I haven't seen it yet. The same goes for epistolary texts. There will always be journals, diaries, and mailed correspondence, and there have been some terrific contemporary works dealing with them, but I'd love to see more novels that specifically use the Internet. That's where text is happening nowadays.

Am I forgetting your favorite found footage movie or epistolary story? Is there something that you'd like to put forward as the found footage Dracula? Do you have burning thoughts about the  epistolary or found footage genre? Let's have a dorky English major discussion!