Over the last two weeks my usual commute has been interrupted. Not as you might expect by TFL, although they’ve been as brilliantly useless as ever, but by a pod cast. Usually my standard two hours a day spent underground is matched with a book and it’s one of the reasons I can read so much. Then a couple of friends started talking about Night Vale. For those of you who haven’t listened to it it’s a twice monthly show that takes the form of a small town public news show. The thing is, Night Vale is not a regular town. An old woman lives with Angels, Clocks aren’t real, hooded figures stalk the dog park where no-ones allowed to go and the head of the school board is an all-powerful glow cloud that demands obedience from all. This is mixed in with stories of bake sales and national poetry week. The show is strange and obscure and I absolutely love it. Due to this my books have gone unread as I’ve been catching up on the 90 or so episodes available. It got me thinking though, why do we love strange fiction and is there a point when it goes too far?
As Children we are raised on stories where strange and bizarre things happen. One only needs to look at Pinocchio being turned into a donkey or Humpty Dumpty in general to see our introduction to the strange. Seriously, he’s an egg wearing clothes. As Children we accept these occurrences as the norm because our imaginations are still forming. We haven’t learned the rules yet and so things like this don’t faze us. However, if we were to come across a talking egg that wears clothes in an adult book, I think it would be a step too far into the world of weird and break our now more educated acceptance.
What makes Night Vale and stories like it so brilliant is the way that the strangeness infiltrates our normal life. Writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have mastered the way to bring in just the right amount of oddity to a story to make us thrilled by the changes to our daily lives. By making the weird just believable enough, they recapture that sense of childhood fun and excitement we remember so fondly.
The problem comes when an idea is introduced that seems so alien to us that we can’t quite fathom it. It’s OK to push the rules of our imaginations but try and break them all together and the average reader will lose focus with the story to try and wrap their head around the quandary they are faced with. This is the line that stories can’t cross without running the risk of alienating their audience.
Some prime examples of this can be found in science fiction. Occasionally there will come a book where the author will have created an idea so unique and outside the regular parameters of the genre that people cannot grasp it. One of these that made it onto my reading list recently was Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. The concept is that a computer can download it’s consciousness into multiple bodies at once giving it multiple views of a situation. When you have one narrator talking about 10 separate viewpoints it is incredibly difficult to follow what’s going on. Our imaginations can only take so much at times and it is difficult in instances like this to be fully accepting of an idea.
I’d be interested to hear any thoughts on this. Are you a magical realist who favours extremes and therefore totally disagrees with me? Would you be OK with a talking egg wearing clothes appearing out of nowhere in a novel? Is this blog actually being written by a monkey possessed by David Cameron? Keep checking in to find out. Good night dear reader, Good night.