03 August 2007

Toss in a rabid dog, see what happens

Let's talk about rabies.

Actually, let's not. I don't really mean to discuss the disease rabies—anyone with even slight knowledge of this brain-swelling illness knows it isn't a pleasant topic. However, rabies has caused me to think about a writing/reading theory I've developed over the years, which I call "The Invasion of the Other." It doesn't originate with me, of course, but even as a young reader and movie-watcher I had already noticed a particular kind of story device that I liked and which I enjoyed using in the short stories I scribbled down for elementary school class assignments. "The Invasion of the Other" could be defined briefly as the instrusion into an established drama of a new, bizarre element not based on precedent. Imagine an established story: setting, characters, drama are all ogranic and self-contained. A story that already works, with detailed character arcs and tension. Now, bring "The Other." The random weirdness, the injection of the odd, the arrival of the strange, the appearance of the unexpected. Some event, person, or thing that seems unconnected to the characters and their already in-progress drama. Now watch the story go completely nuts; watch how fun it can get.

I love stories that follow this idea, and I love hatching novels that use the same premise of the utter surprise that turns an already dramatic tale completely on its head. My first novel, Z-Dancer, makes use of this. In fact, the "Invasion" part is quite literal: Kristel Holly's story rockets along as she tries desperately to adapt to life in a 21st-century high school…and then…the aliens attack! As if life wasn't confusing enough already.

So why bring up rabies?

Because two of my favorite examples of "the Invasion of the Other" occur in books featuring a rabid dog as The Other. You will probably immediately think of two books with rabid dogs, Old Yeller (1956) by Fred Gipson and Cujo (1981) by Stephen King. And you would be right. (If you also thought of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, good for you! But that's not one of the books I meant.) Both books were also adapted into popular movies.

Since it is a disease, rabies makes for a perfect "Other." Natural, unfeeling, uncontrollable, it rolls into both stories and causes a horrific transformation that changes everything, calling for a solution in blood.

If you're my age, you probably encountered the movie version of Old Yeller on TV at some point, most likely on one of the Sunday night Disney anthology programs. And it probably scarred you for life—and right after you recovered from watching Bambi's mother get slaughtered. Old Walt certainly knew how disturb the young'uns, didn't he? I wouldn't inflict this "children's movie" on anyone younger than ten. The shooting down of Yeller in the throes of rabies (accompanied with realistically gruesome sound effects) by the boy who loves him is one of the most disturbing "rites of passage" ever put on screen, and the supposedly happy ending glued on before the credits can't erase this terror from my mind. It actually makes it worse than the book to see it play out on screen, but this is an ingenious—albeit non-family-friendly—example of the "Invasion of the Other" at work. Old Yeller already has a solid dramatic structure, along the pattern of a John Ford Western, when a rabies epidemic enters the story and then infects the heroic dog of the title.

As for Cujo, imagine Old Yeller if somebody forgot to tie Old Yeller up after the wolf bit him, and then the rabid dog went and slaughtered half the Coates family and trapped Arliss and Travis in a tractor for a prolonged siege. Okay, the novel has more complexity than that, but it sure is fun imaging how Old Yeller might have gone if King had a crack at adapting the novel into a screenplay. (I seem to remember once reading a magazine article that King wrote where he mentioned his dislike of the movie Old Yeller; I wish I knew where it was, I'd like to read it again.)

Although I cannot count myself as a Stephen King fan, perhaps beause the horror genre hasn't as much importance to me as science fiction and fantasy, I do admire his writing style. He has a tremendous knack for writing about everyday working-class people in a way that many bestselling authors never seem to approach. I also love his nonfiction writing: his expertise on the history of horror has steered me to more than one great book (I have to thank him for recommending Ghost Story by Peter Straub and The House Next Door by Anne River Siddons) and his highly personal account of his life as a writer I've found useful in my own work.

Cujo is one of my favorite King novesl because of the way he inserts the "monster," a two hundred-pound St. Bernard, into a dysfunctional family drama. And it's an excellent dysfunctional family drama, one that could easily sustain a mainstream literary novel (a term I can't stand, but unfortunately one ingrained in the publishing world). Infidelity, child abuse, loneliness, jobs on the rocks, alcholism…it's all there. Then along comes the rabid St. Bernard, and the previously boiling story blows the lid off of the stew pot. It's perfectly executed, and "The Other" changes into a symbol for the darkness that secretly coils inside a domestic squabble. The transformation of a symbol of comfort amidst the familial tension, the big old friendly family dog, into a throat-ripping snarling demon, makes for one of King's most unsettling scenarios.

Thinking over both these stories, especially Cujo, reminds me that even when heavily structuring a story, sometimes your best tool is the completely surprising and (seemingly) unrelated event. Toss in a rabid dog, see what happens.

Thankfully, I've never run across an actual rabid dog, or rabid anything—that I'm aware of. I have seen raccoons once or twice in my neighborhood, and they are prominent carriers. I have no plans to go near them, however.