Let’s spend this week and at least a couple more on the “novelette” “White Man’s Madness” by Lenore E. Chaney as part of my ongoing series of posts looking back at a ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales, which is available for all of us to read online.
First of all, you might be asking: “What the heck is a ‘novelette’?” A fair questions since that’s a term I haven’t seen much of in the past… I don’t know… lots of years. There is still a Nebula Award given to Best Novelette every year. The Nebulas/SFWA define a novelette as “at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words.” Shorter than that and it’s a short story, a bit longer and it’s a novella. After the 40,000 word mark it’s a novel. My rough estimate of “White Man’s Madness” is 11,870 words, so comfortably in that range. I guess some things never (or at least rarely or slowly) change.
And while we’re “researching” let’s Google Lenore E. Chaney, an author who is not familiar to me.
Turns out she has her own page at the blog Teller of Weird Tales, but even then author Terence E. Haney had to resort to census and other public records for any information on the woman behind the story. There seems to be only two stories comprising her extant body of work. Born in December of 1881, Ms. Chaney would have been forty-three years old when “White Man’s Madness” was published in January of 1925. She seems to have led quite an interesting frontier life, surviving into her nineties.
It’s interesting to me how many authors dipped into life as a writer of pulp fiction, publishing maybe just a handful of stories—even just one—then moving on to other things. We’ll only have to guess as to whether she stopped writing, or stopped being published. But in any case, even a single issue of a single pulp magazine shows authors who went on to considerable literary recognition—we’ll get to a story by H.P. Lovecraft later in this issue—and authors who appeared and disappeared in a flash.
With that, onward into “White Man’s Madness” by Lenore E. Chaney…
Though I may have poked a little fun at the first sentence of this story, tagging it as maybe a bit too cheerful for Weird Tales in particular and the pulps in general, the first paragraph does go on to hint at conflict. This is a good example of how a short story will tend to live or die by the first sentence, but a novel can get away with an attention-grabbing first paragraph. To my mind, though, a “novelette” is more a short story than a novel, so I’d still have rather seen a bit more of a “bang” in that first sentence.
Paragraph two and we get the dreaded “weather report,” something you’ll want to avoid like the plague—unless you do what Ms. Chaney has done here and give it a personal connection to the POV character. The “little wind” helps illustrate that Martin has been drinking. Now there’s some story going on, not just “atmosphere.”
The fact that the story is set (at least on page one) in the Peruvian Andes, reminds me of this bit from Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot in which he expands on his advice to start a story in “a different locale:”
A different locale? Easy. Selecting one that fits in with the murder method and the treasure—the thing that villain wants—makes it simpler, and it’s also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you’ve lived or worked. So many pulpateers don’t. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him.
Here’s a nifty tool much used in faking local color: For a story laid in Egypt, say, author finds a book titled Conversational Egyptian Easily Learned, or something like that. He wants a character to ask in Egyptian, “What’s the matter?” He looks in the book and finds, “El khabar, eyh?” To keep the reader from getting dizzy, it’s perhaps wise to make it clear in some fashion, just what that means. Occasionally the text will tell this, or someone can repeat it in English. But it’s a doubtful move to stop and tell the reader in so many words the English translation. The writer learns they have palm trees in Egypt. He looks in the book, finds the Egyptian word for palm trees, and uses that. This kids editors and readers into thinking he knows something about Egypt.
Do we need to wonder if Lenore E. Chaney had ever visited the Peruvian Andes? I bet she didn’t, but at least according to Lester Dent, she didn’t need to. Let’s keep that in mind as the story progresses. Is her “different locale” well realized—or at least sufficiently faked?
I love that we start with a problem caused by the POV character himself. Let’s assume for now that John Martin is our hero. Here, our hero has become separated from his mule (with his keg of chicha) and his travelling companion due to his own drunkenness. This is a pretty straightforward, simple example of a protagonist with some kind of flaw. John Martin, as we see him pretty much right away, is an imperfect person—and that makes him feel like an actual human. I like it!
Now let’s pause at this paragraph and talk about show vs. tell:
He walked faster and faster, breaking now and then into little runs until his laboring heart and gasping breath slackened his pace, for the little fear, that had been only a trifling uncertainty at first, was growing by leaps and bounds within him, clutching with horrible fingers at his quivering brain. His head ached and his bloodshot eyes burned like flames.
Time and again I caution authors to show the experience of emotions—what is that emotion doing to the POV character’s mind and body?—rather than tell us that the POV character is scared. Is it as easy as leaving in Lenore Chaney’s description of the effects of rising fear on John Martin but deleting the specific call out?
He walked faster and faster, breaking now and then into little runs until his laboring heart and gasping breath slackened his pace. His head ached and his bloodshot eyes burned like flames.
That, in the context of the rest of the story before and after, I think, is enough. But at the same time I’m reluctant to cut some interesting language like “clutching with horrible fingers.” This is where it gets hard. Yes, definitely trust your readers to pick up on the cues you provided to share John Martin’s emotional state, but that doesn’t mean blindly deleting words like “fear.” In my Advanced Horror course I provide a list of “banned words” that includes “fear,” but those exercises aren’t meant to impose a strict rule on all of the rest of your writing forever and ever, just to get authors thinking of ways around simply falling back on the easy thing: She was angry. He was scared.
In this case, for instance, maybe letting us know that he’s running around and has a headache because he’s scared is necessary. Maybe he has a headache and is scrambling around because he’s drunk. I could see how that distinction might have been exactly what Lenore Chaney was making right there.
Reading on, it isn’t until the second column of the second page that we learn why Martin and Jackson are leading their pack mule through the Peruvian Andes. They’re in search of what I guess we can assume is shown in the illustration that starts the story! Ah, spoiler? No, not really. I get that this wasn’t just going to be a whole novelette of a drunk guy lost in the Andes. But still, this is Lenore Chaney starting her story with action—at least a drunk staggering around and getting separated from his companion—and not with the logistics of planning the trip and where they’re going and why. We’re dropped into the story in media res—in the middle of things—at least, in the middle of the Peruvian Andes.
I’ve said before that the only story structure you really need to know is that the villain starts the story and hero ends it. In some cases, though the villain still does something to get things moving, it’s a mistake on the part of the hero that really starts things moving, or at least results in the villain and the hero getting together in the first place. By the end of page fifty Martin has cast the unnamed “Indian” in the role of villain, but it’s clear that he and Jackson were dumb enough to follow him in the first place:
What fools they had been in the first place to set out with that Indian! Martin remembered now how the fellow’s eyes had gleamed as he urged the undertaking upon him. Why, he had practically talked them into the whole thing, hinting at treasure and leading them off the main trail on to this obscure one, on which they had met not a single traveler during the whole of their journey.
That Indian had been a traitor!
I love that this is all happening in Martin’s head. We have no objective sense of the Indian’s motives. Maybe he’s completely on the level, but Martin was dumb enough to get drunk and wander off ahead. We don’t know because Martin doesn’t know. We’re in his POV, we know only what he knows, and are limited in our own understanding of the situation by his personal grasp of the “facts” as he’s experienced and interpreted them. This is what we (editors!) mean by “one scene, one POV” and it’s relation to “show, don’t tell.”
And on the subject of show, don’t tell, there’s something amazingly charming about the single sentence paragraph:
He was lost!
You can try to get away with that in a novel aimed at an adult audience in 2018, but… good luck. Still, it just made me smile, and in the end that’s more important than any rules or trends, isn’t it?
That aside, I do like Ms. Chaney’s description of just how screwed our man Martin is right now. And going back to Dent’s advice about establishing “a different locale,” she brings some real menace to the Peruvian Andes and conjures that atmosphere, as I’ve advised myself, by appealing to as many of the five senses as she can:
As he thought of these things he was conscious for the first time of the awful silence that reigned about him. Not a whisper, not a sound anywhere, except the sound of his own labored breathing, which sounded harshly in his ears. Involuntarily he tried to muffle that panting breath. The effort made his ears ring and he staggered slightly, as a sudden nausea came over him.
This is hearing giving way to or causing feeling. It’s not just about what the place looks like, but what it sounds like and feels like to be there, filtered through the direct experience of one POV character.
Lenore E. Chaney had some skills!
And so then how is that single POV character doing?
He must not think of his own pitiful insignificance in the face of these awful solitudes; he must not think of the thousand and one dangers that lay about him. He raised his chin and tried to square back his drooping shoulders to make a pretense of the courage that he did not feel.
He’s freaking out but, admirably, is trying to get hold of himself. Here’s a real man, not a cardboard hero who’s always ready for anything, but a guy who’s way, way over his head and he knows it but is still “hero” enough to at least try to get it together. This is good stuff.
Just to remind us, though, that it is 1925 and this a pulp magazine, hyperbole drops in for a quick visit:
Fire—what a wonderful thing it was: the gift of the gods to men!
It’s… great stuff.
I’m going to have to leave off at the end of Chapter 1 for this week, a chapter that ends with a suitable cliffhanger—actually a literal fall off a cliff then a period of unconsciousness then Martin being lifted onto a litter by some unknown someones before he falls unconscious again—until Chapter 2…