THE REST OF WHITE MAN’S MADNESS: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 10

I don’t want Fantasy Author’s Handbook to become a blog only about what we might learn about the art and craft of genre fiction by reading one 1925 issue of Weird Tales, but let’s just finish up on the novelette we started on December 18

The story thus far: Martin has travelled to the Peruvian Andes in search of treasure and after being abandoned by his native guide and drunkenly wandering away from his travelling companion and their pack mule, he fell into a ravine and was rescued by indigenous people who have taken him in and cared for him, so he can lust after the gold and emeralds they’re wearing and plot some means to seduce the treasure away from the young woman who has been nursing him back to health. “White Man’s Madness,” indeed.

We left off at the end of Chapter 2, so boldly pressing on into the treasures hidden within Chapter 3 we find Martin’s thoughts filled with his own pain, his senses gradually coming back. Can we hope he’ll snap out of his Colonialist greed frenzy? He definitely seems to be “catching feelings,” as the youth of today might say, for the native girl, and based on…

Under his ardent glances, her eyes drooped and a dusky rose crept into her cheeks.

…the feeling is mutual.

This is good place to pause, already, to remember that even if a story isn’t, or isn’t meant to be, a romance, per se, that romantic elements aren’t just occasionally found in, but are almost always integral to stories in any other genre. Finding the line between a fantasy story and a fantasy-romance can be, frankly, impossible. Though, in retrospect, I gave the subject short shrift in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, I stand behind this, at least:

Both fantasy and science fiction require fully realized characters, and that usually includes some form of romance. People have done extraordinary things in the name of love [or lust], both positive and negative. When you’re developing your characters, it’s important to know whom they go home to every night—or whom they hope someday to go home to, or whom they used to go home to but can’t anymore.

And as I said, there’s more to it than that. And it isn’t all about “the male gaze,” nor is it some kind of all-or-nothing acceptance or rejection of explicit sexual content. People like, love, and lust after each other, and your characters will not be people unless and until they do that, too.

Things advance as Martin continues to recover, and only when he loudly professes his love for her do we learn the young woman’s name is Taia. That’s an oversight you’ll want to avoid. People tell each other their names. I’m notoriously bad at connecting names and faces, myself, sometimes embarrassingly so, but when you’ve been living with someone who’s been taking care of you for a long time… He knew her name before this, obviously, and since Martin is our POV character, we should have, too!

Let’s just sit back from a remove of ninety-four years and soak up the gender and race assumptions this scene of Martin and Taia proclaiming their love for each other brings up—on both sides.

But then there’s this reveal that there’s a greater layer to the whole thing than just that he’s a white man and she’s… not. Taia is the One Set Aside, which, by the way, is a title that I really like.

But can I just say, as both a reader and an editor, that any paragraph that begins:

“Listen,”  she continued, seeing his perplexity. “I will tell you how it is.”

…gives me pause. Or maybe more accurately: stress-related sweats? Petite mal seizures? If you’re still struggling with the distinction between show vs. tell, when a character actually says out loud “I will tell you how it is,” that’s telling.

Yes?

Okay, Taia, the One Set Aside, let’s hear it…

And so follows a little info dump that tells the sad history of Taia’s people, their own internal struggles, and their misuse at the hands of the white man—told, can I say, with some sensitivity. Here, in 1925, the myth of the heroic European explorer bringing the light of Christendom to the savage frontiers of the New World is getting at least this small voice in opposition. Maybe some real understanding of the history of the Americas isn’t such a new phenomenon as some of us would think—or most pulp cover art would have us believe. Well played, Ms. Chaney.

But then quickly back to traditional gender roles in which Taia sees no alternative but to give up her important role as the One Set Aside in order to be with Martin, those two things (like the careers of most women in the 1920s) being mutually exclusive, by unwritten caveat.

The lesson from all this, so I can stop harping on every example of how we’re all so much more enlightened here in the 21st century, is this:

Try as you might, you (and me, and all of us) will end up having written a story that, ninety-four years from now, will in some way or another come across as dated, quaint, even racist, sexist, or disturbingly retrograde. This story, and the rest of the stories we’re reading in this old issue of Weird Tales, aren’t ever going to be shining examples of how the art of fiction can or has been perfected. They are, like everything we’re going to write, ourselves, in 2019, a product of our time and culture—whatever that is. So though I’m sure I’ve come across as poking some fun at Lenore E. Chaney’s “quaint” assumptions regarding race, gender, language, and so on… don’t worry, I’ll get mine soon enough.

We all will.

Back to the story then, and a recurrence of Martin’s “White Man’s Madness” when Taia’s story “brought not a vision of a spiritual teacher, but dreams of the capitals of Europe, whose innermost portals would be opened wide for him if only he could lay hands upon this treasure.”

Oh, Martin, we wanted so much more from you.

Remember when we talked about theme? I think this is to be a story about greed, and how bad it is. I bet you’ve picked up on that, too.

In discussions and classes on the subject of worldbuilding, I’ve often said that your story will tell you what part of the world it’s necessary for you to build, citing the possible necessity for a funeral as one such occasion. Here, Lenore E. Chaney gives us her fictional tribe’s wedding ceremony:

Without another word the priest turned and left them, motioning them to await his return. Presently he came back again, followed by the two brothers of Taia and several of the Indians of the village. Joining the hands of the two, he went rapidly through a sort of ritual, of which Martin could understand only a word here and there. Then he took from around Taia’s slim throat a golden chain, from which hung the familiar golden disk, and this he hung around Martin’s own neck, and lifting Martin’s right hand he laid it upon the girl’s bowed head.

“You are now one,” he said. “Walk together in the law. Take heed lest sorrow come through fault of your own, since sorrow earned is sorrow doubled.”

Another example of what not to do, at least if you can at all help it: “he went rapidly through a sort of ritual.” This is telling again. We came to this story for the exotic and, literally, weird, didn’t we? Show us the exotic wedding ceremony! Now, that doesn’t mean it has to overwhelm the story with pages and pages of ritual minutiae, but even a few sentences describing what the priest was talking about? Show us his face and demeanor, not to mention Martin’s and Taia’s. There are a few details before and after, but this could have been brought to life more fully.

Chapter 3 ends on the dramatic moment at the end of the wedding where it’s clear that Taia is not as happy as one might hope a blushing bride would be immediately following her wedding. The transition immediately to: “The days that followed were the happiest days that Martin had ever known,” is a chapter transition counterpoint that, to my mind, really worked, even if the paragraph goes on to show that Taia has shed at least a good portion of her gloominess following the wedding.

Now Martin goes back to work on her—trying to discover the location of the hidden treasure—and the blush is off the rose in three weeks. Martin goes into full creepy manipulator mode, solidifying his role as the story’s villain, which is well conveyed by the things he does and says, even if Ms. Chaney lays some of Taia’s innocence on a bit thick. But then love is blind, even in the uncharted reaches of the Peruvian Andes.

What follows in this longer conversation is a bit condensed, from a storytelling point of view, but is interesting in that the method Martin thought to use to get closer to Taia is exactly what’s keeping him out of the temple. As soon as he married her, she became unable to fork over the treasure, even if she wanted to—and she clearly doesn’t want to. Keep this in mind as an example of how story often comes from a character screwing up, making a bad decision, failing at a goal, etc.—but then climbing back up on the horse and trying again from a different angle.

You can refer back to what I said about a character telling another character the whole story for the big part of Chapter 4 in which Taia unloads the rest of the story behind the hidden treasure. Seems strange to me, at this point, that Martin hadn’t already asked about this or Taia hadn’t thought to tell him all this. It isn’t just about avoiding info dumps, but being careful to give characters (and through them, your readers) information as it’s needed to push your story forward, but also when it’s logical that a character would ask, or seek out that information, or know better than to proceed without it, and so on. Suspense comes from an imbalance of information—you’ve let your readers in on some important bit of information the current POV character doesn’t know—but if there’s one character, like Taia, who’s been generally forthcoming, and another, like Martin, who’s extremely interested in any and every detail of a subject he knows she knows all about, and somehow months go by before anyone thinks to say, “Okay, here’s the reason for the thing…” Well, that just feels… forced? Illogical? Implausible? A storytelling device instead of a thing that a person might do?

All of the above.

Anyway, armed with this new information, Martin strikes out on his own to try to figure out the location of the hidden treasure temple—and this is good. Characters, including villains, should be actively working toward the furtherance of their goals!

This is interesting—fascinating, really: the way Lenore E. Chaney wrote her way around this act of child murder:

The boy quivered and shrank away from the menace in Martin’s voice, but he did not speak.

Then the long pent-up fury burst forth, for the man had gone mad through the passion of thwarted desire. For all the centuries of civilization have but served to lay a thin veneer over the cruelty of the savage, and, given sufficient prodding, the beast within breaks forth now and then, either in organized fiendishness, as in the public Inquisition, or in private deviltry that finds no historian ready to record it.

An hour later, spent and a little sick, Martin staggered down the trail alone, and he did not yet know the secret of the path. As he went along he thought of what Taia had said of the madness in the white man’s brain. It had seized upon him, Martin, even as it had seized upon Pizarro’s men, five hundred years before.

When you’re choosing your level of violence or gore, or the degree of explicit sex you include—or choose not to include—in your story, your comfort zone wins over any feeling you might have for what “they” expect, either way. And by “they” I mean whoever you might be tempted to turn creative control over your work to—before “they” have even read it: agents, editors, readers, critics… whoever. Describe this murder? Too much for Ms. Chaney. And that’s perfectly okay—and the fade out might just be more effective, more impactful than any blood and guts she might have cringed her way through.

Heck of a way to end Chapter 4.

Good to see Martin suffering through the guilt of his crime—the recognition of his obsession, now turned murderous. Is there a moment in your work-in-progress where the villain has this moment of doubt and pain? It’s not a requirement but it can be effective, as it is here. Even if he gets over it awful quick!

The scene in which Martin finally discovers the temple is wonderfully described, but can I sigh in disappointment at the ending, in which Martin’s greed is his final undoing? Because… is it? I guess so—if he hadn’t attempted to raid the temple in the first place he wouldn’t have fallen for what’s clearly a booby trap. And this seems to say that they—at least the priest—knew all along what Martin was up to, what he was working toward, and let him go ahead and hang himself… except that he murdered the boy in the meantime. That was quite a risk, leaving this foaming at the mouth victim of “White Man’s Madness” to roam freely amongst the tribe.

Anyway, justice was served, and we’ve all been warned: Stop raiding indigenous peoples of their resources!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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