Research Notes · 11/01/2013

This Darksome Burn

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Nick Ripatrazone writes about his novella This Darksome Burn from firthForth Books.

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1.

Hallways and bedrooms. The Shining, The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Black Christmas, and The House of the Devil: all build fear in places of comfort. Some homes are permanent, others are temporary, but each home becomes claustrophobic. Fear bounds off wallpapered walls, settles onto beds, soaks into carpets.

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2.

My new novella, This Darksome Burn, has existed in several different forms: one-act play, novel manuscript, longer novel manuscript, screenplay, novella. Form does not control function in fiction, but form suggests function and coaxes certain focus. The story needed to be massaged, chopped, flipped, and rung dry before it found its final and true manner of delivery. Film helped me there.

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3.

There’s a strong resemblance between the screenplay (twenty odd thousand words) and the novella, both operating within the same useful constraints of economy — space for a subplot (two at a stretch), characters to be established with quick strokes but allowed enough room to live and breathe, and the central idea, even if it is just below the horizon, always exerting its gravitational pull. The analogy with film or theatre is a reminder that there is an element of performance in the novella. We are more strongly aware of the curtain and the stage, of the author as illusionist. The smoke and mirrors, rabbits and hats are more self-consciously applied than in the full-length novel. The novella is the modern and post-modern form par excellence. Conrad’s famous contribution to the tradition is typical. It begins with exquisite artifice, in “luminous space” — Marlowe gearing himself up to tell his story while he and his friends sit in a yacht at anchor in the Thames estuary at dusk. As the light drops, the notion of darkness is set before us, and will be relentlessly pursued through a hundred pages or so.

From “Some Notes on the Novella” by Ian McEwan

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4.

Ryan Murphy, the creator of American Horror Story, calls first-season character Marcy “the worst realtor in the world.” The single-named listing agent for 939 Berro Drive in Los Angeles, Marcy withholds the murderous home’s history, concluding with its most recent residents. Other than brief forays into flashback and selected city shots, the entire first season of the show occurs in this expansive Victorian. Before their deaths, Ben and Vivian Harmon lament their inability to sell the home in the current market; the show’s real location, the Alfred F. Rosenheim mansion, is on the city historical register. At over 14,000 square feet, the home was listed for $17,000,000. While Marcy does her best to hide the home’s history in the show, real listing agent Joe Babajian leads his blurb with the home’s television appearance.

Babajian’s clientele includes Jeff Goldblum, Sharon Stone, Janet Jackson, and Harrison Ford, not to mention horror film mainstays Jack Nicholson and Brian de Palma. If home is where the heart is, the heart is not far from horror in American cinema. One distinctive and essential trope in the tradition of American horror films is the representation of homes as damned spaces. These spaces are intruded open and recalibrated as zones of conflict and terror. From suburban homes to rural farmhouses to urban apartments, the American home reveals the importance of setting in the construction of horror, and allows filmmakers to brand settings based on the personalities and aesthetics of the homeowners. In a country where homeownership has been seen as a mark of success and assimilation, as well as a stable identity within a community, recent years have resulted in an increase in foreclosed homes and displaced owners, so that the home has become an economic and personal battleground. Homes remain unoccupied, their insides empty and abandoned while their outsides continue to grow. Storm-split tree limbs and swelling brush lean into these homes; new strangers breaking inside.

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5.

When my writing or thought feels flat, I switch forms and genres. I’ve bounced between prose poems, lineated poems, literary criticism, short fiction, and creative non-fiction. A way to literary crosstrain. Words need to be arranged, and stories need to be told: that’s all.

Kind readers enjoyed the novel manuscript of This Darksome Burn, but I wasn’t satisfied, so I thought of those horror films I loved. How they could cause fear on a tenth viewing. I realized that fear, for me, came from place, from atmosphere. The bedroom in The Exorcist. Father Karras’s cassock swifts in that devil-wind while he stares at the ghost of his dead mother. Jack Torrance limps down the hallway in The Shining. Horror was knowing and still fearing. It made sense why Kubrick takes us on a tour of the Overlook Hotel during Jack’s interview: the film’s later terror pulses when we recognize the place.

But I also looked beyond horror. The structure of Taxi Driver and Chinatown. The barfight scene in The Ninth Configuration. Pacing mattered as much as place. It was more than simply representing a setting, whether mimetic or metafictive. It was about representing that place with an awareness of time. Film has the expectation of conclusion. We know the runtime before we begin.

I condensed the novel manuscript into a treatment, and used the Ackerman Scenogram. The story sifted into three acts, and recognized the needs of readers for amplitude. Go from bad to worse. There has to be trouble. I pared away thoughts and turned long descriptions into direct actions. Dialogue had to punch and prod. Writing a script version of this story was the best thing I could have ever done. Between graduate degrees at Rutgers-Newark, I took a screenwriting course taught by Lex Williford at the University of Texas, El Paso. The distance, the silence of an electronic classroom, the lack of faces and workshop desks, it all focused us on our scripts. It took a succession of PDFs littered with comments to turn the script from a story that was copy-and-pasted into a work that applied the storytelling strengths of film. And learning from home made me think about fiction that lived in that place. I needed to be reminded of the subtle gestures experienced during hallway walks and the power of closed bedroom doors.

The story remained silent as a script. I needed that time to realize that the script was a transition, not the end. It was the final formal evolution of the work. I re-read books that felt cinematic, but were fully fiction: Big Machine by Victor LaValle, Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen, and “The Pedersen Kid” by William Gass. Short chapters help fiction to lean forward, so I turned script scenes into sections. I realized that the white space of a script helps actors breathe. White space on the fictional page allows characters and readers to breathe. In that wedding of fiction and film, I found poetry again.

The novella form is especially prone to poetic gestures. There is a world beyond these medium-length books, but the novella makes suggestions toward those black spaces. In my book, the shadow of the Siskiyou Mountains both blackens and blanches. Yet hell happens in the home, where the McGovern family lived, loved, and now suffers.

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6.

Stories will find their true forms if they are given the chance to fail along the way. Film led me back to fiction. Film brought me home.

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Nick Ripatrazone is the author of a book of literary criticism, The Fine Delight: Postconciliar Catholic Literature (Cascade Books), two books of poetry, Oblations and This Is Not About Birds (Gold Wake Press), and a forthcoming novella, We Will Listen For You (Civil Coping Mechanisms). His writing has received honors from Esquire, The Kenyon Review, ESPN: The Magazine, and has been featured at Verse Daily. He teaches contemporary literature at Rutgers University, and lives with his wife and daughters in New Jersey.