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March 2019

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Dark and Loving It – Crime Writing Part 4

By | Crime Fiction, News

The Comfort of Horror Fiction

Crime Writing with Megan Buxton

I find horror very comforting. I can just see the raised eyebrows as I write that. The modern world is terrifying enough – war and terrorism, senseless crimes on a daily basis. Why subject yourself to more?

Stephen King, probably the most recognisable name in horror fiction, says that reading horror is ‘… rehearsal for death. It’s a way of getting ready.’ Fear of death, and curiosity about what might come after it, is almost universal. Horror lets us explore our curiosity about death and its aftermath in a fictional – safe – environment.

HP Lovecraft, the founding father of American horror, said ‘… the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.’ Horror examines both how little we really know and understand and our need to confront the unknown.

Finally; the thrills and chills of horror make us feel alive. Logic might tell us that there are no such things as ghosts and ghouls but our lizard brain doesn’t give a damn about logic- and it loves the adrenaline rush of a good scare.

I prefer my horror as fiction rather than movies, my imagination rather than the director’s interpretation. And you can’t close your eyes or look away when reading a book.

When people think of horror writers it is often male names that come to mind: Lovecraft and King and names such as Peter Straub, James Herbert, Dean Koontz and Clive Barker. But, as with crime fiction, there are outstanding women horror writers.

Women writing horror is not a modern phenomenon. Think of Mary Shelley; she is best known for Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (1818) but also wrote short horror stories such as Transformation (1831) and The Mortal Immortal (1833)

Shirley Jackson will also be a familiar name. Her novel, The Haunting of Hill House has been adapted for Netflix though We Have Always Lived in the Castle is, for me, a far more disturbing read. Her short stories The Lottery and The Summer People are wonderfully creepy.

Of more contemporary women horror writers Susan Hill is worthy of mention; she writes both crime (a series featuring the detective Ian Serailler) and horror, which explains why she is a favourite of mine. The Woman in Black, a ghost story written in the Gothic style, is a brilliant literary horror story. There’s no gore in this story just carefully controlled and spine-chilling atmosphere. More recently I have read Broken Monsters by Lauren Beuker, a genre blend of horror and thriller with multiple storylines and complex, fascinating characters, The Grip of It by Jac Jemc, an unsettling take on the traditional haunted house story and The Hunger, in which Alma Katsu takes the true story of the Donner Party (https://www.legendsofamerica.com/ca-donnerparty) and imbues it with supernatural elements.

All of these stories admirably fulfil the definition of horror: A genre of speculative fiction intended to, or has capacity to, frighten, scare, disgust or startle readers or viewers by inducing feelings of horror or terror.

Megan Buxton is a writer, retired English teacher and an avid reader of crime fiction. She is also the president of HWC board and hosts a creative writing gathering once a month at Maitland.

Do you have a topic you would like to blog about? Write to us at info@hunterwriterscentre.org (this paid writing opportunity is open to HWC members only)

Megan Buxton, President, HWC
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Dark and Loving It – Crime Writing Part 3

By | Crime Fiction, News

Home Sweet Home . . . or is it?

Crime Writing with Megan Buxton

 

Carly scrambled from bed, stumbling and snatching at the darkness, caught between fight and flight.

Where? Where was he?

Listening, straining for sounds, she heard the thump of her heart, the dry gasp of her breath. No taps, no knocks, no bumps.

That didn’t mean a fucking thing.

Her mobile was in her hand. She didn’t remember picking it up. It took three tries to dial the numbers. She wanted to shout, managed to pull it down to a hiss. ‘There’s someone in my apartment.

So begins Darkest Place, Jaye Ford’s chilling novel of suspense. Week after week, in the dead of night, Carly wakes to find a man standing by her bed, silently watching her. And no-one believes her.

It is concepts like these that make domestic noir so very scary. When I read detective stories I enjoy them in the knowledge that I’m safe in my own home. Domestic noir rips that comfort away – in this offshoot of crime fiction the home is no longer the safest place to be. The troubles with which the female protagonists – and they most often are females – find themselves afflicted, take place primarily in the home or the workplace. Those familiar places become, for the protagonists, dark and alien. Marriages and families become untrustworthy; relationships are corrupted by lies, lives ruined. The normality of the settings – suburban homes, offices, schools – heightens the tension.

And, unlike murder mysteries, the victim of the horrors taking place is alive though her life is very much under threat. Readers get very close to the protagonist. We are allowed under her skin as she battles to untangle the lies and deceits around her and we are made to realise the fundamental unknowability of the others in our lives. These stories, often told in first person by an unreliable narrator even make us question how well we know ourselves and what we might do when pushed to the limit.

Just about everybody has heard of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel, Gone Girl even if they haven’t read it or seen the movie. While it was the novel that began the explosion of domestic noir it wasn’t the first – beginning in the 1940’s writers like Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson and Mary Higgins-Clark wrote stories of the dark underside of the domestic scene.

It’s no surprise that the majority of authors of this genre are women – or that the few men who do write use their initials ( S.J Watson, Before I Go to Sleep) or a female pen-name ( J.P Delaney,  The Girl Before, is really Tony Strong.)

It seems to me that the rise of domestic noir coincides with the rise of such movements as #Metoo, that their popularity (Paula Hawkins’ Girl on a Train sold over 11 million copies and made the author $10 million in the first eighteen months) is because they so often deal with the issues that women discuss in real life; exploitation, abuse, both physical and psychological, lies, secrets, cover-ups. The prevalence of unreliable narrators, often with amnesia (S.J Watson, Before I Go to Sleep,) or a head wound that affects their ability to recall (Ruth Ware’s  In a Dark  Dark Wood) or even a narrator in a coma (Alice Feeney’s  Sometimes I Lie) echo the real- life frustrations of women who are told that their accounts of their own experiences are unreliable.

Crime fiction, in all its manifestations, is deliciously dark and I love reading it. But I also love the darkness of the horror genre – the subject of my last entry.

Megan Buxton is a writer, retired English teacher and an avid reader of crime fiction. She is also the president of HWC board and hosts a creative writing gathering once a month at Maitland.

Do you have a topic you would like to blog about? Write to us at info@hunterwriterscentre.org (this paid writing opportunity is open to HWC members only)

Megan Buxton, President, HWC
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Dark and Loving It – Crime Writing Part 2

By | Crime Fiction, News

Women and Crime

Crime Writing with Megan Buxton

Crime, mystery and thriller are the most popular genres in Australia – a large percentage of book sales come from this category and I’ve made a substantial contribution to that statistic. There’s an ever-increasing TBR pile on my bedside table and I have to confess that most of it is crime fiction of one sort or another. For a tragic like me there is almost too much choice in bookshops and libraries but I’ve found, over the course of many years of reading crime fiction, that many of my favourite authors of this genre are Australian.

Australian men are well-represented on my pile. Barry Maitland has long been one of my favourite authors; in particular, his latest series, The Belltree Trilogy, much of it set locally, is a riveting read. Garry Disher, Adrian McKinty, Robert Gott, and Peter Temple are all Australian writers who are masters at keeping the reader on the edge of the seat.

Lately, however, I’ve found that the stories I’ve loved reading have been by women. I’m not alone there – Sophie Gilbert, writing in The Atlantic in 2017 says that 80% of a new female author’s readership is likely to be female. Why are women writers so appealing to me? What makes them such outstanding writers of crime fiction?

It could be that women understand the concept of fear in our very cores – we grow up with the threat of being a victim ever-present in our lives.  And, it has been suggested, women are more attuned to thinking about people’s motivations, that they have greater insight. I’m not sure I agree with that – the male authors I read show just as much understanding of human nature and the things that motivate someone to take a life.

Whatever the reason, there can be no denying that women have always been in the forefront of crime writing – think of Agatha Christie, P.D James, Ruth Rendell and Elizabeth George. There isn’t space here to list them all.

In my case, not only have the authors I’ve loved been women – many of them have been Australian. Australian women have long excelled at exploring the dark side of society.

The very first mystery novel in Australia was Force and Fraud: A Tale of the Bush written by Ellen Davitt in 1865 (Australia’s crime writing award for women, the Davitt Award is named in her honour). Mary Fortune followed with her series The Detectives Album (1868-1909). It was an Australian woman, Charlotte Jay, Beat Not the Bones, who won the very first Edgar award in 1954.

It was Marele Day’s 1988 novel The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender that gave me my first taste of how well Australian women do crime. Since then I have enjoyed the historical crime fiction of Kerry Green wood’s Phryne Fisher series and Sulari Gentil’s suave Rowland Sinclair. Pam Newton (Beams Falling, The Old School) Yvette Erskine and Karen Davis’s police procedurals have kept me enthralled as well.

Holly Throsby (Goodwood,  Cedar Valley), Sarah Bailey (The Dark Lake, Into the Night) and Jane Harper(The Dry and Force of Nature) , Emily Maguire( An Isolated incident) and Candice Fox (Eden, Hades, Crimson Lake) are dark mysteries that grip the reader from the opening page – from opening lines, like these.

Caleb was still holding him when the paramedics arrived. Stupid to have called an ambulance – Gary was dead. Couldn’t breathe with his throat slit open like that. (Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay.)

Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things. One: No-one saw the bushland swallow up Alice Russell. And two: Alice had a mean streak so sharp it could cut you. (Jane Harper, Force of Nature.)

As soon as the stranger set the bundle on the floor, Hades could tell it was the body of a child. It was curled on its side and wrapped in a worn blue sheet secured with duct tape around the neck, waist and knees. One tiny, pearl-coloured foot poked out from the hem, limp on his sticky linoleum. (Candice Fox, Hades.)

I feel as though I should apologise to all the wonderful crime writers, Australian and others, whose names I haven’t mentioned. They are all worth reading. If you haven’t read crime fiction you should Be Warned: it is addictive – especially the recent trend in novels of domestic mayhem which I’ll discuss next time.

Megan Buxton is a writer, retired English teacher and an avid reader of crime fiction. She is also the president of HWC board and hosts a creative writing gathering once a month at Maitland.

Do you have a topic you would like to blog about? Write to us at info@hunterwriterscentre.org (this paid writing opportunity is open to HWC members only)

Megan Buxton, President, HWC
hand against a window - crime fiction image

Dark and Loving It – Crime Writing Part 1

By | Crime Fiction, News

Dark and Loving it

Crime Writing with Megan Buxton

 

hand against a window - crime fiction image

I love a good murder.

Don’t be alarmed. I’ve never actually killed anyone; nor am I likely to (though my partner might debate that). I am also, I hope, unlikely to be the victim of a violent crime. But, according to the experts, one of the reasons I (and millions of others) read crime fiction is that it allows us the experience of this darker side of life from the comfort and safety of our armchairs. We can have the adrenaline rush, the edge-of-the-seat tension and suspense, the race to beat the ticking clock – and then put the book down and go on with our comfortable lives.

While I might never be a victim there is always that possibility. As I read there’s a small voice, way down deep, that says, ‘This could be you’. I know, when I’m reading fantasy or speculative fiction, that I will never encounter a goblin or pass through a portal to another world, but I could, on some dark, unfortunate night, encounter someone who means me harm. Perhaps reading crime fiction allows me to compare myself to the victim; I can tell myself that they are very different to me, that I wouldn’t ever do what they have done or go where they went, and reassure myself that it wouldn’t happen to me.

Or, perhaps I want to know what it’s like to be a killer – what it’s like to live with the darkness.

Tana French, one of my favourite crime writers, said, I write about murder because it’s one of the great mysteries of the human heart. How can one human being deliberately take away another’s life?

Perhaps, when we read crime fiction, we’re searching for an answer to that same question. It’s often been said that crime fiction provides us with a sense that order and justice are attainable when, so often in real life, the opposite seems true.

Lee Child says, It gratifies (the) desire for safety, security and the rule of law.

One of the joys of reading crime fiction comes from the interactive nature of the genre. Every crime fiction story is a puzzle and, like most readers of crime fiction I love the challenge of putting the pieces together, trying to interpret the ‘clues’, to work out what is misdirection or ‘red herring’ and unearth the perpetrator. I may not get it right – in fact it’s better if I don’t, if I have the rug pulled out from under me by a surprising but perfectly logical twist – but there is a satisfying intellectual element to reading a good crime fiction novel.

Critics of crime fiction (usually those who haven’t read any) claim that it is shallow, that it doesn’t offer the reader the depth of literary fiction. I’ll leave it to Michael Robotham (another of my very favourite writers) to refute that claim: A great literary novel can change your life and resonate through the ages. A great crime novel can shine a light upon the best and worst of human nature and into the darkest corners of society.

And, finally, good crime fiction (and, yes, there is a lot of bad crime fiction out there) is a great ‘read. It’s fast- paced, full of tension and suspense and peopled by characters who won’t let me put the book down till I find out their fate.

So crime fiction has, I think, a lot to offer me as a reader. I have a long list of ‘favourite’ authors and, increasingly, I’m finding that many of them are women – and Australians – and that is the subject of my next entry.

Megan Buxton is a writer, retired English teacher and an avid reader of crime fiction. She is also the president of HWC board and hosts a creative writing gathering once a month at Maitland.

Do you have a topic you would like to blog about? Write to us at info@hunterwriterscentre.org (this paid writing opportunity is open to HWC members only)

Megan Buxton, President, HWC