By Craig Clevenger
“You’re a smart kid. Figure it out.” — The Hitcher, 1986
Every ghost story is, at its core, about the struggle to be recognized; about the dead—invisible and immaterial—and their efforts to be received by the living, who in turn must do likewise among those not being haunted. Witness the typical second-act protest in a typical horror film: “I’m not crazy. I know what I saw. I was there.” For the living, to be similarly disregarded—to be treated like a ghost—can be worse than meeting one. I don’t write ghost stories, but I do write about characters who are both figuratively haunted and who have in some fashion themselves been rendered ghosts. People call my stories dark.
Whenever I press for clarity on what someone means by dark, I come up empty. Just what is considered dark? I can first rule out sex, which is hardly a dark topic in and of itself. The double-standard taboo Americans have on sex is a topic all its own and has been essayed by plenty before me. Regardless of where on the taboo spectrum my particular depictions may lie, the total on-page sex in all of my works combined would scarcely fill three pages. Drugs, then? However accurate or dramatized, most public schools and Very Special Episodes will address the subject of drugs far more readily and candidly than sex. No, the discourse around drugs is too commonplace to consider the subject matter truly deviant, truly dark. I’m left with the inverse of the American taboo regarding sex: our preoccupation with violence.
If we consider the routine mayhem and killing in prime time entertainment and popular fiction, we see the darkest acts of which humanity is capable reduced to plot devices. I could hammer out a list of such acts present in books, movies and television shows off the top of my head, but without context it would read as gratuitous and stomach-churning. Still, none of these citations would point to titles considered fringe, controversial, or even dark, but would read like the average person’s Netflix queue or a who’s-who of summer beach-read thrillers.
I don’t mean to malign these writers—I read and enjoy plenty of them—but to point to the manner and degree of violence in popular media that serves largely as genre distinction: action, mystery, thriller, horror, and so on. Yes, some of my characters live amidst the abstraction of violence, with the presumed possibility of it, and others may have had a close but still second-hand encounter rather than any direct experience. But what direct violence my characters do confront takes place outside the present narrative; they live in its aftermath, have had their lives shaped by it, and make decisions in anticipation of it. Still, while my work is virtually devoid of violence explicit on the page, it’s nonetheless tagged with the vague and barely defensible label of dark. So then, if we disregard those portrayals of behavior that could land someone in prison, or at very least in court, what’s left? And what of the remaining is considered dark and why?
My third novel is what I generously call my first happy story, if for no other reason than my main character gains more than he loses by the final page. There are certainly some highs and lows, some downturns of plot here and there; it’s a novel, after all. But I recently spent some time with a friend who was kind enough to offer notes on a later draft of the manuscript and once again, the word dark came up. And once again, I pressed for specifics.
“Your main character is completely on his own,” he said, after a moment. “With one small exception, every other character is either an antagonist or, in the case of his loved ones, a source of stress and anxiety.”
He was right. One of the minor characters offers some calming perspective every now and again, but the rest contribute to the story’s bumpy ride. In addition to his adversaries, the main character feels completely out of his depth when trying to live up to his familial responsibilities; the story itself is of the protagonist coming to grips with all of these things. Someone had at last elucidated what they meant by dark, and the reasoning flew right past my counterarguments regarding violence, sex and drugs, and their commercial acceptability in literature.
In my first two novels, the secondary characters are distantly so, and none of them are outright allies. Both stories kick off with the narrator locked in a bare room across the table from some godlike authority (a psychiatrist and a cop, respectively). My short fiction usually presents a narrator facing a dilemma without support from a close comrade, and sometimes without any comrade at all: a divorced father trying desperately—but failing—to connect with his estranged, adolescent son; an old desert hermit coming to grips with a profound loss as his memory slips away; a family black sheep in a solitary, life-or-death struggle with his own sexuality. Viewing my work through this new lens, I can finally answer the question, “What do you write about?”
I write about people who are fundamentally alone.
In Wild Palms, William Faulkner wrote, “Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.” Much of film and literature would concur that when it comes to being afraid, nothing always trumps pain. Pain is the devil you know, and its depictions are typically as the after-effects of some cause; the toughest cause to accept is none at all (or, the devil you don’t). Without an identifiable precursor to a given dark act, then that act is borne out of the darkness itself. So we absolutely must hang a face on villainy, even if that face is just a hockey mask. Absent a tidy DSM-V backstory for our monster, we can always blame some otherworldly convenience, say an ancient curse. Or the Devil. But between a monster hiding in the dark versus the vast and empty darkness itself, we’ll take our chances with the monster, every time.
It’s virtually impossible to catalogue every possible trauma we might experience, the potential damage to those who encounter real-life monsters: the death of a loved one; assault/battery; sexual battery; spousal abuse; child abuse; street harassment; workplace harassment; combat PTSD; chronic physical or mental illness; discrimination; addiction; stalking… the accounts could fill volumes. But what we say to those who’ve experienced such is a far smaller list, a tape loop of platitudes served up by friends, loved ones and strangers alike:
That was a long time ago. Get over it. Snap out of it. Just quit. Have some willpower. Cheer up. It’s all in your head. It’s God’s will. Was it really that bad? Are you sure that’s what happened? Are you sure you’re not just imagining all that? Why don’t you just leave, get away? They gave birth to you, they raised you. They did the best they can; there’s no book on how to be a good parent. What were you wearing? Were you drinking? How do you know it was based on your race? Ignore them; they’re just words. They’re just compliments. I’d love to be “harassed.” If you don’t want cops to——, then don’t break the law. Maybe you should stay away from there/avoid him. Boys will be boys.
The actual event of trauma is transitory; platitudes aimed to dismiss the experience and silence the suffering make their pain all the worse because they’re left alone with it. And being alone, not in freely chosen solitude but truly lonely, is when the abyss stares back but you have to smile because you’re at work. Because now is not a good time to bring that up. Because you really need to move on. Because you don’t want to make things awkward during the holidays. Because there’s really nothing anybody can do. Because talking about it all the time doesn’t help. Because it was such a long time ago. Because it’s not appropriate conversation for everyone.
It’s no wonder ghosts scream and wail and shatter dishes. And when whole populations are segregated, ignored, and denied by the authorities and media the agency with which to change their circumstances, it’s no wonder they set cities on fire. And it’s no wonder we write so many memoirs, and no wonder we read so many. It’s no wonder recovery programs are rooted in groups and their shared experience. We don’t heal in a vacuum. We don’t truly heal until we stop being alone, until we hear:
You’re not alone. You don’t have to go through this alone. Go ahead, I’m listening. I know how you feel. I’ve been there, yeah, I know. We’re in this together. Go on. I’m listening. We’re listening.
I write dark stories about people haunted by figurative ghosts, people struggling to not become ghosts themselves. I write about people who are alone. I don’t write about the instance of trauma, nor does any traumatic act itself take center stage in my work. I don’t write about violence but about the isolation, invisibility and loneliness that comes after surviving trauma. Or sometimes just comes out of nowhere.
Fiction and storytelling foster empathy, humanity. But the experience of trauma is all but impossible to connect with, absent the experience (which no survivor would ever wish). There’s neither a hockey mask nor a face to hang it on.
Fundamentals of the craft aside, the most powerful tool at hand for a writer is empathy, and empathy is among the greatest gifts that literature brings to readers. But empathy in a writer or a reader—in anyone—needs to be fostered. Without it, we’re at our worst, the very sociopath monsters we fear. At very least, when when can’t empathize with someone else, when we can’t see the world through the eyes of another or empathize with their experience, then we trivialize or dismiss as imaginary that which we haven’t personally felt. That’s the opposite of empathy; it’s the worst manifestation of one’s ego.
The most telling moment in one of my favorite films, the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, comes toward the end when the titular and myopic scribe at last sits face to face with the story’s monster and asks, “Why me?” In response, Karl “Madman” Mundt, who has previously visited untold misery upon so many others before taking their lives, levels the most damning accusation of all: “Because you don’t listen.”
I write to listen; I write so that maybe some reader knows he or she is being listened to, being heard. And I’ll always press for clarity from those who recoil from what they vaguely label as dark at the same time they tolerate ever more creative depictions of bloodshed. I’ll press for clarity, and I’ll be listening.
Craig Clevenger is the author of two novels, The Contortionist’s Handbook and Dermaphoria. His short fiction has appeared in the Booked.Podcast Anthology, the Rumpus, San Francisco Noir 2: The Classics, Barrelhouse and Black Clock. His website is craigclevenger.com.