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How to write like… Neil Gaiman

03 May

Riding Hood After
7 Fairy Tale Pastiches – part 4

Fourth in a series of 7 Pastiches of Little Red Riding Hood in the style of my favourite authors. Now I bring you a further retelling of the Red Riding Hood story, drawn from the original text LITTLE RED CAP by the Brothers Grimm and in the style of the Dream King, Neil Gaiman. Afterwards I shall give you the matching commentary as to how it was done, and so on for all 7 stories. I hope you enjoy it, but be warned this one is a dark horror story modelled around the Victorian Jack the Ripper or Dr Jekyll tales. Those below the age of consent or of a sensitive disposition should look away now. That said, come with me into the London fog with…

4. A Wolf in the Stomach (after Neil Gaiman)

How she was found and the butcher shop display he’d made of her, so violent, so destructive… the doctor, a man not given to emotional outbursts, had to steady himself on the dresser as he breathed deeply and spoke as how he’d never seen the like. He was an animal, this killer, this wolf in the coat of a man. Posing the body like that, they muttered darkly in the corners of the candle lit room, is either the work of an evil man, or as one wag quipped, an ordinary demon.

Grandmother, an honorary title at best, also slain with a single, terrible knife swipe to the throat after hearing the screams of her ward and arriving at the bedroom door, lay in the hallway, her boots peeking around the wainscoting at its foot. It was she who had sent the red haired girl to the shop for wine and cake, to be shared between her and the other girls who worked at Grandmothers house down here at Three Oaks in the East End of London.

The girl, Miss Hood, had begun her journey back to the house of medium repute from the local shop in Wood Lane, it seems. Detective Inspector Lumberjacke sat in the corner, a procession of vague figures came and went, some to scrape and clean, some to catalogue and box. He considered her earlier journey as he watched her take her last, seeing it in his minds eye like a magic lantern show, slide after yellowing slide painted in gay colours, stained with cigar smoke and dust.

Lumberjacke, eyes closed, could see Miss Hood skipping to the shop along the cobbles by gaslight, choosing the cake and wine, and bidding the shopkeep good day intending to return… But the dark figure in the doorway blocked her path. The shopkeep said only that the man was tall, and all that could be seen of him in light from the gaslight under the shadow of his broad brimmed hat was his whiskers and his large, stained and long teeth as he smiled. The shopkeep, Mr Redcap, said he didn’t hear all of what was said to the girl by this imposing gentleman, but he described the tone of voice as a sort of low rasping whisper. The snippet he heard was something about not liking cake so much as apple dumplin’s, and all looking at her bosom. The voice sounded like the throat of the speaker was full of earth, he had said quietly, and adding with a visible shudder that it was not a voice he would forget in a month of Sundays.

The shopkeep viewed her listening to the man’s proposal, nodding and smiling sweetly, and waving a slightly distracted farewell to Mr Redcap, she had accompanied this wolf back to Grandmother’s house. Any other man making so untimely a proposal would have a sharp reply; “that’s my eye, Betty Martin” or “shut yer bone box” she normally would have shot back. But this proposal, these silken, gritted syllables were delivered in such a tone you would not refuse, or so it seemed.

Of the journey back nothing was known, but upon being observed arriving back at Grandmother’s house, the girl gave the basket of goods to one of her “sisters” Elizabeth Bones, and said to go with the other girls and eat, she wouldn’t be long. Miss Hood turned and ushered the man into the downstairs front bedroom.

Miss Bones stated when questioned that the man was tall, as tall a man as she had ever seen, a giant likely, and she momentarily feared for the safety of Miss Hood, for she might be crushed beneath his enormous frame. But she had brushed this thought aside, she added tearfully, with thoughts of cake… Doubtless she could have done nothing against this monster even if she had come to Miss Hood’s aid, Lumberjacke mused.

What then? Miss Bones had turned, thoughts of cake in her mind, but as the man entered the room she caught a fleeting glimpse under the shadow of that great hat of one huge eye and one enormous ear. She recalled ruefully thinking they would be all the better to see and hear with, but chided herself for such frivolous thoughts. That cold eye would give her nightmares, she said after a long pause.

Miss Hood shortly called for drink, and after a gravelled reproving voice in the background repeated verbatim, “…and the gentlemen says not one of them short bawdy house bottles, a proper size.” The ale was brought, and the door was closed into its hole.

Then the crime. Within minutes of the door touching it’s frame, the first screams, then the last cut horribly short.

Lumberjacke rubbed his beard and asked one of the passing constables to give him a cigarette. The young man obliged, first rubbing a bloodied hand on his rough dark trouser, and carefully teasing the smoke from its box without hardly touching it.

Although he very much needed to know what had happened here in order to assemble clues and form some idea of who had done this horrifying thing, the crime itself was unobserved by any living soul. The ferocity of the blows and the cuts bespoke a large and strong man, and the intricacy and precision of the posing spoke of a derangement far beyond Lumberjacke’s experience. And the girl, Miss Hood, so pretty in the single vignetted photograph by the bed, now slick with dark fresh blood. How had she come to this end? What crime had she ever committed which fit such brutal punishment?

He exhaled and rocked back in the chair as the work continued, letting the men complete their work while he tried to marshall his thoughts and regain his composure.

It was there, he could feel it. Try as he might, the scene was so, disarrayed. So seemingly random. What was the motive?

Then he felt it. It was not a pleasant feeling, but it welled up like a sudden fear of heights or a noise in the night when you are sleeping. The thought, like a tiny apologetic sliver of doom, beckoned to him, just outside of his notice, a small thought which asked politely to be heard. He dismissed it angrily three times before he relaxed and squinted cutty-eyed out of the corner of his mind, reluctantly and helplessly, and let it in.

Was the man real? Was he a demon? A wolf demon come to Earth to slay the weak and the beautiful for his own psychotic pleasure? That was nonsense, he protested weakly, base hysterical tosh! But was it? Was the unknown a lie simply because it was as yet unknowable? The thought tried again. It craved his attention more strongly and he listened grimly to it’s message.

Do the fallen gods crave to mutilate and destroy the bodies of men and women for their own edification? In the absence of our praise and worship do the fallen reach out and take the red water of our life and meat of our bones? In these cobbled streets of night do they take their red and pink worship in the form of our blood and flesh?

With the still, cold ripple of realisation in the pit of his stomach, like the flickering knife which had just stolen worship from the flesh and blood of poor Mary Hood, he knew in his heart it was true.

THE END

You can tell the amount of relish I poured into this story. It’s a dark tale, and befitting my feeble attempt at emulating the Dream King comes from an angle that you might not expect. I don’t know about you but I love Ripper stories, and I’ve always wanted to do one. But Red Riding Hood as a Ripper story, have no clue where that came from and it didn’t occur to me until I sat down to write. It was a flicker of an idea from my subconscious and I went with it.

I found out after about 2 nanoseconds research that Neil Gaiman has already done his own version of Red Riding Hood, of course he has. As by this point he’s written so many stories covering every conceivable mashup and reworking of popular myths and odd slants on fairy tales, I’d be more surprised if he hadn’t. But I went with it anyway because a) I REALLY wanted to write the story once I’d thought of it, and b) ploughing ahead and making it work even if you think it’s impossible is something I encourage my students to do, even if it “fails”. It’s up to you to decide if I was successful.

The thing is Neil’s style is quite hard to categorise, but you know it when you see it. There is a magic realism edge to almost everything he does, wether fantasy of science fiction, and mythical beasts lurk in the shadows of all his tales. You don’t so much write like Neil as a attempt to psychically channel him.

I couldn’t find any commentaries about his work so a quick trawl of the internet came up with the following:

He starts with the whole story, then tells why
He writes outside the box, full of magical realism
He crafts a thorough setting, vivid places

Okay, I don’t really know if any of that’s true, but it sounded right. So you start out telling the whole story and then backtrack and explain how it happened. That way of you foretell something horrible is about to happen you get a fair amount of suspense. You write outside the box, coming at the reader from odd angles they don’t expect and introducing elements which don’t necessarily belong in the story but make them work and creatively sew them into the fabric of what you’re doing. And finally make sure that the overall flavour of the environment you are telling the story in is alive with gorgeous telling details.

To get a feel for the era, I read a wonderful book, The “1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” which is available many places online. It contains many slang phrases which are long out of use but provide a tangy flavour of the times, phrases like “cutty eyed” or “my eye Betty Martin” or “Shut your bone box” and the concept of “bawdy house bottles” being short measures. In fact the title “a wolf in the stomach” is slang for being hungry. The original title was “an ordinary demon” and you can argue which was better yourself.

So I laid out the direction of the story pretty fast in the opening paragraph. It’s totally clear where we are and what we’re talking about. If this story was part of an anthology you would assume we were talking about Jack the Ripper, but of course you get clues, Grandma, Grandma’s House, Miss Hood, the Wolf and pretty soon you are getting the idea. Then we explain how we got here.

The out of the box element is the detective’s speculations about the gods, and how fallen gods might seek their worship in other ways. I have to say I really liked that little twist. It could have just been an ordinary murderer or maybe a werewolf, but that was for want of a real word, not really “Gaimany” enough for me. If you want to write like Neil then you have to go the extra mile, you have to not just put a twist on your stories but twist them around a few more turns. Then you stand back whistling and act like nothing is wrong, even point somewhere else in the room and say “what’s that over there”, and let the audience find the extra twists, and smile when they do.

Neil Gaiman is by this point not so much a writer as he is a magician and showman with words. What he’s saying is not very complex and if you look under the hood (if you’ll pardon the pun) what he’s actually doing is (like the secrets behind all baffling illusions) almost mundane. But the massive degree of showmanship, misdirection and distraction of the settings and overall mood lull you into a sense of security, wandering along looking at the scenery. Then BAM you wake up and you are off the beaten track and you wonder how he persuaded you to go so far away from home.

He is the Derren Brown of magical realism.

oOo

All  themes discussed in this blog are expanded in my course, WRITING FIT: Creativity Coaching for Writers which is out now. Of course I would be overjoyed if you would also subscribe to my free monthly newsletter. It’s an especially good time to do so at the moment as I am part way through a free 6 part mini course based on CGP. Don’t worry if you missed the first part, I will be putting links to all parts in each subsequent parts. Hope you enjoy it.

Many thanks, be well and if you have any questions about this blog or the course please don’t hesitate to contact me, I’ll be very happy to help.

Phil

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Posted by on May 3, 2012 in Creative Genius

 

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