Which Dr Who?

Aside

Last night I was one of the millions who turned on for the fiftieth anniversary episode of Dr Who, and tuned out the world.  For seventy-five minutes I was lost in story.  Yes, I’m a fan, have been as long as I can remember.

From, 'The Guardian' 18/11/2013

From, ‘The Guardian’ 18/11/2013

What’s not to love about the idea of time travel, in a box that is bigger on the inside than the outside can contain?  Even without a quirky character in control it’s the stuff of dreams.  Throw in a main character who shape shifts, just after we’ve settled into the idea that this is how he is, and I’m hooked.

I do miss the old Doctors, all of them, and most of their companions too.  I like to think they had more adventures than we saw on the tv, or heard on the radio, but I’m glad that there’s a turn-over in personalities.  This seems like a variation on the oral tradition of story, where tellers remould their material to suit each audience, reflecting the concerns and circumstances of the day in their approach and content.  In this way, stories stayed fresh.

Cinderella, for instance has been losing and finding her shoe for more than two thousand years.  Versions of her story have been found across the globe in some of the earliest writings of various civilizations.  But here’s the rub: for most of us, despite the various writers who’ve reworked the story during the past hundred and fifty years or so, Cinderella remains held in the 1697 limbo that Charles Perrault created when he set her inside the pages of his Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals.

Cendrillon, by Gustave Dore, 1862

Cendrillon, by Gustave Dore, 1862

In 1893, Marian Raolfe Cox proposed that there were three hundred and forty-five variants on the Cinderella story.  That’s a lot of Cinders, and she hasn’t always gone by the same name, of course.  But she’s still the pretty, put-upon step-daughter and sister who wins a handsome husband when her missing footwear turns up.

Just as The Doctor is sometimes a joker, sometimes an action-man, sometimes grumpy, according to incarnations, and yet remains always The Doctor.  Some purists are bemoaning the more recent ‘up-grades’ of his personality.  They liked the old aloof doctor, who rarely even held hands with anyone, much less kissed or was kissed by a companion.   I’m glad he’s moved on.

And that goes for the side-kicks too.  I can watch the old episodes, with dippy, even silly, screeching companions prone to fainting or cowering in a corner, because they belong to their age.  That’s not us today, I tell myself.

Of course, in reality, if I was faced with weeping angels, cyber-men or any other more feasible invasion situation, I probably would scream then go hide in a cupboard and wait to be saved.  But this is fiction.  I want main characters who are active, who face up to the action and react positively, even if they are not the title protagonist.  I want them to get out there and work things out, together.

Are you thinking of writing something for Halloween?

Aside

Detail from 'The pit and The pendulum', by Arthur Rackham

Detail from ‘The pit and The pendulum’, by Arthur Rackham

In my early teens I went through a craze for reading ghost stories by torch light under the bed covers, long after the rest of the family had fallen asleep.  I don’t remember much about those short stories now, what I remember is the effect of them, and how when I was alone in the house, or baby-sitting on dark nights, the atmosphere of them would creep up on me until I had to rush for light switches.  Then, even after I had closed the curtains and checked the locks, how I would be straining not to hear the noises you only notice when you are alone.

The stories that I have not forgotten are two of the older ones,The Monkey’s Paw, by W. W. Jacobs and The Amorous Ghost, by Enid Bagnold.  What’s interesting about them, from the writing point of view, is how little ‘ghosting’ they actually contain.

Take, The Monkey’s Paw.  Strictly speaking, this is as much horror as ghost, but it’s often anthologised in ghost collections, so who am I to be picky?  What I’m interested in is why this 1902 story has endured.  Rereading it I’m always surprised by the events described.  It turns out to be, largely, a domestic story.

Detail from triptych of the Temptation, by Bosch

Detail from triptych of the Temptation, by Bosch

There are few graphic descriptions of the supernatural to make our flesh creep.  Here, instead, is a character study.  The horror evolves naturally when the dynamics of a close family are tested.

Jacobs opens with the classic, ‘dark and stormy night’.  That’s a tricky one to carry off successfully, but he does it economically, neatly demonstrating what is meant by show don’t tell.

After that, tension is raised gradually.  We are not left room to disbelieve, but the characters are:

“Morris said the things happened so naturally,” said his father, “that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence.”

There are no coincidences in this story.  Every event builds on from the previous one, apparently naturally.  From the moment the three wishes are mentioned, our sense of the inevitability of their journey towards darkness is established.  One wish leads to another, despite the warnings about interfering with fate, and despite the examples of what happened to the previous owners who ignored them.

This is good story telling.  Dialogue and description, action and report are interwoven so neatly that the story races along.  My mind shouts no, don’t, but they do, and I turn the page, and then another.  And the real horror?  It’s not in the writing at all, its in my mind.

The ending is the final touch of genius with this story.  I dare you to read it and not be affected.

On the other hand (no pun intended), once you begin to look at how the structure works, doesn’t it make you feel that it might be fun to try and write one for Halloween?  There should just be time to come up with something suitable for a candle-lit reading.