Spooky Books and Some Advice

I know Halloween is over (there’s a decaying pumpkin at my front door, and probably a squirrel eating it), though I have enough candy in my house to help my short-term gratification problem and threaten my health and happiness till December, at least. But maybe this can still qualify as Halloween week, and with it, recommendations for frightening books.

I say this a bit tongue in cheek. I don’t read full-on horror, because I read a Stephen King short story when I was fifteen and I’m still afraid of black coats, thirty years later. And M. R. James’ short story “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” has made me unable to stay alone in hotel rooms, which really is a shame. Read it now, it’s genius (and available for free on the internet). But you’ll never sleep peacefully in a hotel room. Trust me. You’ll always be looking across at the second bed.

The book I want to recommend for chills and literary genius is You Should Have Left by German writer Daniel Kehlmann. Do not watch the American film adaptation, which looks awful.

Kehlmann is one of my favourite writers. He is very terse, so much so that there’s a story of his being contacted by an editor after delivering a finished manuscript, because the editor assumed there must be a section missing. There wasn’t. He really did condense twenty years into six sentences. Measuring the World, his novel about scientific discovery and the limits of what we can know, is brilliant, hilarious, and has stayed with me ten years after I read it, both as a whole and as isolated images. I’ll just be going about my day and will suddenly remember a sentence, a paragraph. No matter how much you read, only a few books will stay with you like that, becoming part of you as if they were lodged in your body.

You Should Have Left is a novella, loosely inspired by The Shining, in which a screenwriter rents a remote house in order to finish his screenplay, a sequel to his first film, which appears to be a dumb buddy comedy that made a lot of money. The book is his diary, as he struggles to finish his work and connect with his wife and young daughter, who have reluctantly accompanied him. Then things get weird. How weird, we never quite know. He might be imagining it. I don’t want to spoil it, and anyway, I couldn’t if I tried: almost nothing happens. The book is like a nightmare in which something is terribly wrong, but you can’t define what. It’s almost a technical exercise in how much you can leave out. And the last line taught me that punctuation (or a lack of it) can be more frightening than gore. Also, as I said, it’s a novella. You can read it in an hour. Just not at night.

And now, a question:

For poetry, what do you do when you are all out of ideas when editing poetry?

Answer: You leave it alone. Don’t look at it. If possible, for a month (I’m a broken record about this). If you don’t have that month (who does), go for a walk and let it run through your head. If that doesn’t work, read. Not randomly, but something you admire, something that lives in the same world as what you’re trying to do. Not to copy, but to loosen yourself up, see if receptivity to someone else’s words will make a space for you to keep going. I find it usually does. And if nothing works, absolutely nothing, if no amount of walking or leaving it alone or reading other poets gets you unstuck and able to edit your own work, to nudge it in a meaningful direction, you might want to take it as a sign that this is not a poem to keep working on. Sad but true. Sometimes we have to let go.