Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Unwritten Stories: Antiheroes in Hell


I don't contribute to many theme anthologies simply because it's rare that I can come up with an appropriate story idea on a schedule.  I like to tell editors that I've learned how to ride my imagination, but not how to tell it where to go.

But occasionally I get invited and, if it's an interesting theme, I always look inside myself to see if there's an appropriate idea simmering away.  So, long ago, when I was asked to contribute to the Heroes in Hell series, I gave it some thought.

There were a lot of top-notch writers playing in Janet Morris's sandbox in those days.  Robert Silverberg penned a H-in-H tale wherein  Robert E. Howard met Gilgamesh.  As a result, I'd read many maybe even most, of the stories.  And it seemed to me that a formula had spontaneously developed:  Two famous people meet in Hell.  They have a conversation.  Then they travel hundreds of miles, hiding whenever one of the Armies of Hell go by.  Then they have another conversation.  And so on.  The traveling-and-hiding parts were the least interesting ones.  Wouldn't it be better, I reasoned, if instead they sat in a room and, whenever the Armies of Hell marched by, hid behind the couch?

Of course it would.  So the next question was which two famous people to choose?

The obvious choice, given the mileu, was the author of "No Exit" -- Jean-Paul Sartre.  So I needed somebody -- an intellectual, of course -- who would drive him right up the wall and in return be driven mad by him.  Who?

Again, the question answered itself:  John W. Campbell.

I pictured the two men sitting in overstuffed chairs, sucking on their pipes.  Suddenly Campbell jabs the stem of his pipe at his opposite.  "Sartre!" he says.  "It seems to me that two smart cookies like us ought to be able to put our noggins together and come up with a way out of this Hell place.  I once put a problem very much like this to a couple of my writers and their protagonist managed to cobble together a glider and use the thermals from the infernal fires to fly out!  Now, I'm not saying that's the solution ... but its the kind of thinking we ought to do."

In response to which, Sartre mutters, "Merde alors!" and retires into a sullen funk.

And at this point I realized that I had both summarized and exhausted the fun to be had from this idea.  Yes, I could have written it, and Morris would probably have bought it.  Editors are better sports about writers subverting their instructions than you'd expect.  But the amount of research it would have taken to get both Campbell's voice and Sartre's pitch-perfect was far greater than I was up for.

So the story was never written.

I look back on that unwritten story with a touch of tristesse, sometimes.  But for every work of fiction that gets written, there are a dozen that don't.  There are a million stories in the naked city . . . but most of them never reach print.

And come back tomorrow . . .

I'll be announcing the winner of this year's Godless Atheist Christmas Card competition on Wednesday.  Be there or be square!  As the young people used to say.



Chad Hull said...

Apropos of nothing...

I read The Final Solution by Michael Chabon today and it totally reminded me of you. Do you ever read other people's work and imagine what you would've done with a similar idea? (Which is essentially what I did.)

It felt like a Swanwick story to me. Do you get offended when fans say things like this: comparisons? (I live in a remote and distant place--Atlanta, GA--and have never been to one of your signings to ask these questions in person.)

Are you familiar with Chabon and his writing? Thoughts? Something about that little boy and the bird made me say, "Surely this is Swanwick's story." I think the world of both of you.

Sorry; I'm done now.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

Chad - I don't get it with _The Final Solution_, but I think I can imagine _Gentlemen of the Road_ being written by a Michael Swanwick in an unusually benevolent mood.

Definitely two writers at the top of my reading lists.

Chad Hull said...

Haven't read Gentleman of the Road yet, but it's waiting in the queue. The Final Solution had that blend of the whimsical and the profound that I usually only associate with Swanwick. That and the parrot speaking German and possibly reciting naval war codes. I'm certain it's just me but that's where my mind went.

Michael Swanwick said...

Chad, I have had that thought on occasion. Sometimes somebody I consider a peer writes a "Black Air" or a "Swarm" and it's so brilliant that I have to come up with something equally original and very different so as not to feel left behind. But other times, somebody misses the potential in his own idea and I feel compelled to write the story he shoulda. "Radiant Doors" is my reaction to (the commonly very wonderful) Clifford Simak missing the implications of his own idea.

I like Chabon's work quite a bit. "The God of Dark Laughter" is simply the best Cthulhu Mythos story ever written by anybody but Lovecraft. I love that it was published by the New Yorker and I'll bet you anything they had no idea what they'd bought.

I don't get offended when a reader asks a question that indicates he or she takes my fiction seriously. Nor do most writers. In most ways, it's better than praise.

Chad Hull said...

Well, you just filled up my next free afternoon with unexpected reading. Thanks.