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H. Russell Wakefield's "Look Up There!"
A Short Analysis
Sandy Petersen, the creator of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, is recommending a spooky short story every day this October. Today’s entry was called “Look Up There!” and I found it striking enough that I took a lot of notes on it.
As long as I have these notes, I may as well share them.
Please read the story before proceeding. It can be found here.
Note: these comments are from the point of view of a writer who is studying somebody else’s work.
Are you studying writing? This is from a series of posts studying short stories in order to learn what makes a great one tick. If you don’t want to miss updates in this series, feel free to subscribe below!
Mr Packard had ideas, usually very judicious and admirable ideas, and he also had to carry them out, which meant work — eventually overwork, a threatened nervous breakdown, peremptory advice from a specialist, and three months’ leave.
Discussion: I can empathize with this. He is an ordinary person, yet has drives and ambitions that he pursues to the point of exhaustion, presumably with imperfect success. This has convinced me that he is a realistic, likeable, and flawed man - the killer combination of traits that makes for a compelling made-up person.
...he almost entertained the possibility that this upward-peering absurdity was a figment of his disordered imagination — a very unlovely thought — but he had dismissed it with a very comforting reassurance when he saw that others among the sparse company then visiting Brioni were also puzzled by this singular prepossession of the hen-eyed fellow.
Discussion: Lines like these are great because they assist tremendously with the reader’s suspension of disbelief. The way this works is thus: something unusual is happening, and the characters in the story find this to be strange, and they struggle to accept it. Simple, right?
A lot of classical horror fiction focuses heavily on this technique, but it is completely skipped in a lot of modern horror. I think this is because contemporary horror audiences need less help ‘accepting’ bizarre situations in their stories than audiences in the past did… additionally, all writers struggle to put as much of ‘the good stuff’ into their stories as they can, yet are almost always constrained by word counts or running-time restrictions. Having yet another character struggle to accept what is going on can feel like filler compared to the “meat” of the story.
The thing is, I suspect that most people are underestimating how important it is to assist the reader with this suspension of disbelief. Simply put: if you get it wrong, it can sink your entire story.
All the same, he was charged with a tantalising and hard-to-exorcise curiosity about this couple, their circumstances, the connection between them — all this — but, above all, why the devil the tiny one stared up. Knowing such wonderings could only delay the healing of the lesion in his nervous system, he made quite elaborate plans for avoiding the pair. He changed the times of his meals, and if he saw them in a room he went to another, and if he observed them coming towards him he turned on his heel. By these means he freed his mind of them to some extent, but a sneaking, insidious inquisitiveness endured.
Discussion: This entire paragraph, only quoted in part above, is extremely effective in making me invested in the mystery that the protagonist is so caught up in. I very much wish I knew why it worked so well. Please comment if you have thoughts on this!
My theory is that this is due, in part, to the protagonist’s earnest attempts to NOT be curious about the situation.
…clapped her hands on her knees and declared she simply adored ghosts — didn’t believe in them a bit, would have a house-party for the occasion, and wish a very Happy New Year to whoever or whatever came.
Discussion: This is amazing characterization. I immediately felt like I knew and liked this person - they were so spirited and opinionated, even rational! Note again that their skepticism is assisting with the suspension of disbelief of the reader.
"(…) the yokel (…)"
A certain character is regularly referred to as “the yokel.”
Giving people nicknames is great, and I use the technique a lot sometimes. It allows the narrator to colour their world a little bit for the reader, stylishly showing the way that other people appear to those characters. Eg, like ‘The Maniac’ in my mermaid/shipwreck story that none of you have had a chance to read yet…
…because it is pending a decision by an editor for inclusion into an anthology - my first ever submission of this sort!
Other Thoughts - Ones That Don’t Revolve Around Quotes
The storm represents compelling, familiar, primal danger and menace, and is used as a metaphor for what the little man saw. This is both simple, and elegant.
It is for the best that the author left the horror unseen. The mystery of “what is going on” is the whole concept behind the story (I suspect). A man wonders why another man is acting strangely; that other man is acting strangely because he learned about yet another group of people who were acting strangely, and he simply had to investigate it - and he got his opportunity, in part, because of one last person’s playful curiosity about why he cared. Finally, you, the reader, are reading out of your own curiosity. It plays out over multiple, nested levels. Very cool!
The writing style is a bit confusing with its wording in a few places… but it's essential to the piece that it be so heavily stylized, and the reduction in clarity, in this case, is unimportant compared to how much personality this adds to the piece overall. The writing style is really great. I love it!
Petersen has shown some great taste thus far. I’m looking forward to the rest.
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Curious about rhythm in writing? There is a series of posts about the topic, starting with this one: