The best part of last week’s vacation to Beaver’s Bend State Park in Oklahoma was the reading. While my husband and 10 year old spent the blistering days trout fishing, my daughter, home briefly from college, and I hung out in our very well air-conditioned cabin and read. I finished my every-so-often reread of Shirley Jackson‘s Haunting of Hill House and read all of Eugene Woodbury’s Angels Falling Softly, published by Zarahemla Books. Admittedly, it was wholly unfair of me to preface reading Woodbury’s vampire tale with one of the best American horror novels in existence, but alas. That’s what I did. Today, I’ll share some thoughts on at least one reason why I felt the seond novel limped while the other soared. Mostly, I’ll be looking at Angels Falling Softly.
First, basic plot lines: In Haunting of Hill House, Jackson follows four characters through what I’ll call a scientific retreat to an architecturally perplexing house that the locals consider more evil than haunted. The story is primarily Eleanor’s, a spinsterish type of youngish woman, who escapes her mundane life only to find herself “chosen” by Hill House, her identity seemingly grafting into the structure’s own personna. Jackson’s stellar writing is guaranteed to keep the reader on edge. IMO, this book is how suspense should be done.
In Angel Falling Softly, Woodbury brings a vampiress in a business suit into the life of a classic Mormon family. The family is in crisis because the youngest daughter, a second grader, is comatose due to (if I understand correctly) an allergic reaction to a marrow transplant provided by the mother, Rachel. Once Rachel figures out that their newest family friend is a vampire with a venom sometimes capable of reversing allergic reactions, she grapples with the morality of asking her undead friend to help her daughter find a version of eternal life that differs from the one her bishop husband preaches from the pulpit. The writing is crisp and controlled, well-paced and fluid. The plotting is professional and quick. The characterization, basically believable. There are many great things in this novel, and yet, for me, it struggled. Or rather, I struggled with it.
Specifically, I didn’t feel invested enough in the main story problem. I was given no way to become emotionally invested in the dying child. Again, this is a Show v. Tell problem. During the first 50% of the novel (I read the Kindle version), Woodbury mentioned the hospitalized child a few times and spoke of the angst the mother felt, but I never really saw it. I was told about it. There were no flashback moments that showed me the mother and child interacting while the child was healthy, so the child was never truly alive as a character. There was nothing written about the moment the mother realized her marrow wouldn’t save her daughter, but might have harmed her. There were no moments of quiet reflection at the hospital bedside as the world spun beside her. In fact, I had the impression that the family rarely went to the hospital, even though, just before mid-way, I was told the mother went everyday. If that was true, I didn’t pick it up from the text. I didn’t feel Rachel, the mother and protagonist, was all that connected to her own child, in spite of being told to the contrary. If she is not cast as emotionally involved, then I as reader won’t be. It isn’t until I hit the 50% mark in the text that the mother is seen at the hospital, that a empathetic picture is painted of the child. That’s much too late. And even then, the child isn’t a real character, but a body in the bed. In fact, in the second half of the text, it is the vampire, Milada, who seems more emotionally connected to the child than the mother, simply by virtue of the fact that she leaves her busy life to sit bedside for hours, for days, something Rachel isn’t depicted doing.
Without an emotional connection between reader and story problem no novel can succeed, no matter how good the rest of the craft is. Still, I’m not comfortable saying this novel fails. I think for many readers it may work, but (if you’ll forgive me a sexist moment) I think its much less likely to succeed for women readers, who tend to relish the emotional aspect of a novel. Women who read a story about a mother, a dying child, and a difficult life-and-death decision will expect to feel moved to tears. I did find myself watering up at one point, but not because of what was on the page. Rather, it was because in real life I’ve witnessed moments when mothers face the mortality of their children. I brought that forward from my own life, rather than finding it in the text.
That observation may be key to deciphering what went wrong with Angel Falling Softly. The only emotion I felt was situational. Meaning, the situation in which a child may die is inherently emotional, regardless of who the child (or parent) is. In other words, the emotion I felt was sentimental. I realize that if you asked a dozen literary types to define sentimentality, you’d probably wind up with a dozen varied definitions. I, myself, might give a different explanation on a different day, but here I use the term “sentimental” in opposition to empathetical. I don’t care because of developed character and conflict, but simply because no child, dog, or wise old friend should ever die. Such sentimentality is not a foundation of sufficient strength to carry a novel, especially not one as ideologically complex as Angel Falling Softly strives to be. That said, I suppose it is possible for a reader to be strongly attached to the ideology considered in Angel Falling Softly, that s/he may be sufficiently engaged to call the novel a success. But I need the emotional context as well.
What perplexes me is why the writer didn’t think to write scenes that showed the emotional bond between the mother and ill child. Why did he think it sufficient to leave them out? Why did he wait to mid-point to even show us the child? I’m left wondering if gender is consideration. You tell me, you male writers, is it difficult for you to muster up enough estrogen to really embrace the intimate, emotional moments of life?
I wonder if writing emotional moments feels like sentimentality to many male writers. If so, I’d point those writers back to a book like Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House. Of course it doesn’t have the same dynamic–that of a child dying–as the novel’s catalystic idea, but the death of Eleanor’s mother does launch the protagonist toward Hill House. Eleanor’s relationship with her mother was not cast as idyllic, by any means, but that is precisely what makes me care about Eleanor. The vision I’m given of her–both in Show through present action and through woven backstory–is of a complex, unromanticized character. There’s no need to write about tears that were or were not shed and no need to over-dramatize the spinster’s loneliness in order to craft her as an emotionally interesting character.
The same would have been true in Angel Falling Softly. I didn’t need scenes detailing how many tears Rachel shed or how those tears plopped onto breakfast table in drops so big, they ran like rivers along the scratches. I didn’t need to read long passages about how Rachel felt her heart rip out when the doctor gave her the tramatic news that her beloved daughter would survive, but only in a coma, and only by the grace of God. That would probably be another kind of sentimentality. But I did need passages or scenes that made me understand, made me feel, the kind of emotional bond they had so that I could experience it, believe it, love them for it or in spite of it, and stand on it as a foundation for the rest of the plot. If Eleanor was not defined through her relationship with her mother, Haunting of Hill House wouldn’t have worked. Likewise, I don’t think Rachel’s characterization is supported (or defined) well enough without a ripened depiction of her relationship with her daughter. As is, the relationship stands on stereotype: Good Mormon moms–especially those with fertitlity problems–love their daughters. Unfortunately, emotional attachments that stand on stereotype cannot root deeply and will remain based on sentimentality.
If I were a star-giving person, I’d give Angel Falling Softly 3 stars, but I’m not a star-giving person. I bring it up, tongue-in-cheek of course, to emphasize that I think there is much that is good here in Woodbury’s work, even if there is also much for fellow writer’s to consider in terms of hit-and-miss crafting. The book has great structure, great bones so to speak, even if I think a thing or two is missing. The writing is strong and he handles vampirey R-rated situtions with tact and grace. His concept is, in my opinion, fantastic. I look forward to reading more from Eugene Woodbury.
And as for Shirley Jackson? There isn’t enough of her in the world. You should so go there.