A few days ago I asked John F.D. Taff if he would write a guest post illustrating his thoughts and ideas about the novella form in horror fiction. I am a big fan of novellas and a big fan of Taff. The two combined are custom made for horror. I’d like to thank John for agreeing, even on such short notice, to pay the blog a visit and–quite eloquently–share his insights about the form with us.
It’s Not the Size that Counts by John F.D. Taff
So Shane asked me to write something to support his wonderful new blog, and I was only too happy to help. Shane, I want to point out, has been very supportive of my writing endeavors, and I have always valued his support. I hope you’ll follow my fine Irish friend, because he’s a keen reader of horror and genre fiction, and his views are spot on.
Shane thought that I might like to write a little on the curious little fiction format known as the novella that seems to be getting a lot of attention lately. All the more so since I seem to have had success with this strange and atypical beast.
Before I get into the novella, let’s immediately digress and speak of my true love, the short story. Lots of stuff has been written about this format, lots of stuff in its praise. And yet, as any publisher of fiction will tell you, these days short stories don’t sell. They just don’t. And it’s as bad in horror as it is in any other genre.
Oh, sure, you can regale me of your love for short stories, how you read Edgar Allen Poe. How King’s Night Shift blew you away. How Barker’s short stories or Richard Matheson’s stories or Ramsey Campbell’s stories struck a nerve with you. How horror anthologies are one of your very favorite ways to read horror.
You are deluded, lying or share these opinions with exactly no one else.
OK, those are admittedly pretty strong. But what else can an author like me—an author who loves to dabble in the writing of short stories—what else can I think? Publishers are constantly bemoaning the sales of anthologies. Want to get a horror publisher to roll his eyes back in his head like cartoon window shades? Mention the fact that you’ve got an anthology idea you’d like to shop around…or worse, that you want to put together a collection of your own short stories.
Why this reaction? Because, for the most part, they ain’t selling. Oh, to be sure, someone like a Stephen King or a Jonathan Maberry or a Jack Ketchum might still be able to pull this off, but even they will admit that their collections—or anthologies they have stories in—don’t sell as well as the novel.
This reaction, at least on the surface, makes no sense. Indeed, it runs counter to the trend of short attention spans shortening and people wanting everything—food, entertainment, communication—in their shortest, briefest, most diminutive forms. None of this is new, people have been lamenting the demise of the short story for years. And yet, the format limps on.
And limps on for good reason. Because short stories are the gems of fiction, focused and concentrated by the pressures and constraints of their making into tiny, fiery little cabochons of words. I believe, as do many other writers, that a good short story is harder to create than a great novel. Novels are sprawling works, which allow much leeway in the skill of their production. Short stories are like a magician’s card work or slight of hand; there is little there to cover mistakes in either technique or ability.
Perhaps it is this very thing that makes the public’s perceived coolness to short stories these days. Perhaps, inundated with fast music and fast food, with fast-cut movies and soundbite news, with 140-character communication and emojis, people, when they read (and this is even possibly on the decline) they want something they can be immersed in, something that doesn’t pass by in 5,000 words or less.
Enter the novella. This bastard son of the short story and the novel really has more akin to its shorter parent than the longer, but still seems to be managing to capture people’s attentions. And this is partially because the definition of “novella” is still a little nebulous. Some say novellas start at 10,000 words. Some say at least 15,000. Some say 20,000. And novellas can stretch out all the way to, say, 40,000 words or so. That gives us a range of between a long short story and a short novel.
Now, there are some who like to split this into other curious beasts, like the novelette. But let’s forget that nonsense and stick with our three formats—the short story, the novella and the novel.
For me, I have to say that several of my favorite pieces by my favorite horror authors are novellas. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is my hands-down favorite Poe piece, and its brother from another mother At the Mountains of Madness is my favorite Lovecraft piece. King, too, has produced novellas that are sublime. Is it any wonder that arguably two of the best movies made from his work, The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me, were taken from two of his novellas (and both from the same collection, Different Seasons), “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body.”
Novellas seem to be catching on with readers these days because they offer a more immersive experience, like their novel parent, but in a slightly briefer form, like their short story parent. And writers—and here I’ll just use me because it’s 11 at night the evening before Shane wanted this and, no, I haven’t had the time to canvass any other writers—enjoy the format because it offers the elbow room to really get in there and explore a theme or an idea, without the intricacies and inherent difficulties of the novel and without the strictures of a short story.
I believe the novella format is almost custom made for horror. If it hadn’t been invented before, we’d have to invent it for horror. And that’s because, again this is me, I think horror works best in the shorter form. It’s easier to maintain that delicious sense of grue in a shorter work; much harder when the works sprawls into the 90,000-word range.
But, again, give the horror short another 10,000 words, and the author can really pull out all the stops and give the story some depth and resonance that’s a little harder to achieve (not impossible, mind you. I’m not saying that) within the tight confines of the short story. As an author, I find it amazing what an additional 5,000 or 10,000 words can do to flesh out a story a little more.
Don’t get me wrong. In my mind, a novella isn’t an excuse to be self-indulgent. I’ve said this before; I don’t dictate the length of my stories. They tell me. I can get a sense, very early on, of just about exactly how long a story is going to be just by…well…listening to the story in my head. And I do listen. Not listening results in strangely truncated or weirdly padded stories, neither of which anyone wants to write, much less read.
So, yes, I have dabbled in the novella form. I like it…a lot. And it seems to come easy to me. I’ve had success with the seemingly disparate yet weirdly linked novellas that form my Stoker-Nominated The End in All Beginnings. And three of the works I have upcoming are novellas. There’s one for Farolight Publishing called “The Desolated Orchard, another titled “Cards for His Spokes, Coins for His Fare” for an anthology called Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, and yet another, “I Can Taste the Blood,” for a shared author collection of novellas of the same name, to come from Grey Matter sometime next year. And I’m beginning work on a follow-up to The End in All Beginnings, a collection of novellas I’m calling The Things We Leave Behind.
So, yeah, I like the novella format and hope to produce more than a few more in the future. Thanks to Shane for providing me this space to babble on. If you want to follow me at my blog, go to johnfdtaff.com or follow me on Twitter @johnfdtaff. And check my blog in about a week for a guest post on something or another from Shane. Now, go read a good novella…preferably one of mine.
Check out John’s Amazon author page for more information and to purchase his books.