Robert B. Parker, The Cabin in the Woods, and the Nature of Storytelling

I’ve been thinking about voice and storytelling for a little while but it was all ramped up when I went to see The Cabin in the Woods this weekend.

Two things that conspired to get me on this train of thought were my renewed subscription to satellite radio and the impending release of the new Spenser novel by Ace Atkins. I love satellite radio, especially for the country stations which are much more fun and less sappy and poppy than the regular radio but there’s been two songs from The Band Perry in strong rotation that I enjoy. The songs are simple in construction and nothing spectacular in terms of musicality but they have some neat turns of phrase that I love. I am a junky for good turns of phrase in lyrics and in prose and I mostly prefer style over substance.

Because of this, I’m always thinking about style and how to tweak it and fool with it and manipulate it in new ways. Even the most casual readers of this blog will note my obsession with meta fiction and writers as characters for this reason. This brings us to the new Spenser novel. I love the Spenser novels, even the crappy ones, and I have a special place for them in my heart because they were the first books I really connected with on a character and a storytelling level. I’ve tried to write several PI novels in the past and failed miserably with them all. So with the new Spenser book on the horizon, I sent this email to a friend of mine:

I’m terrified that Ace Atkins’ Lullaby is going to be as good as I think it will be because then I’m going to want to write another PI novel and that is a sure path to my eventual suicide from insanity. I’ve finally managed to make good progress on Murder Boy with it’s lack of a mystery plot and I’ve managed to purge almost all PI fiction from my life so as not to tempt myself. Oddly enough the next book I’ll start when I’m through with MB is the cozy, but somehow the traditional plotting aspects of that don’t bother me. I think what it is with PI fiction is the battle between wanting to be a light writer ala Parker with feeling I need to be dark and serious like Lehane or any of the other numerous serious PI writers. I think I could do a nice work in the vein of Brad Parks (who doesn’t seem to let traditional plotting getting in his way) or Lisa Lutz. But every time I try I get washed over by my entire history of PI reading and my early desires to be the Next Great PI Writer and it paralyzes me because I’m not a big serious writer. I think I can tackle serious themes through a satiricle eye, but I’m not a big bombastic social novelist and I’m not sure I have the skill yet to manage the type of PI novel I want to write with the weight of my own expectations of the type of PI novel I should write. Is that weird

Expectations are a huge part of writing genre fiction. I think there are four ways that talented storytellers deal with expectations. First you have the technically sound storyteller who loves a particular genre or sub-genre and want to make their own contribution to the canon. These don’t usually deviate from the well-worn cliches and tropes, but they are handles in such a way as to be viewed as an homage or tribute.

Then you have the storytellers who want to use all of the traditional tropes and set pieces, but they want to infuse them with the storytellers own experiences and interests and experiences to help move the genre or sub-genre forward. This is where I feel Parker lies on the spectrum. His first few books were of the tribute variety, but as he let more of his own experiences color the narrative we got the Spenser we all know and love.

A variant of this is the storyteller who mixes not only their own experiences into the stew, but other genres or mediums or any number of personal aspects to create something new and exciting. This is where you get the Quentin Tarantinos of the world or, in novel terms, the Michael Chabons, Jonathan Lethems, Stephen Kings, and any number of modern pulp writers. These stories live and die by the storyteller’s style and for every great one you get numerous subpar failures.

Finally you have the geniuses. The storytellers who can nail the tropes and expectations of the genre to create a great, traditional piece of storytelling, but who can also mix multiple genres, life experience, personal beliefs, and opinions into a new genre, while AT THE SAME TIME, doing something larger to comment on not just story telling as an art, but commenting on the world in which the storyteller dwells. This is what The Cabin in the Woods does. On the most basic level it is a neat slasher flick with fun characters, inventive death scenes, and nice pacing. It also would work as a great episode of Sports Night or The West Wing as well. But it goes a step up to do something most genre work never does, not only does it give you the tropes, it gives you a reason for why the tropes are there.

I think I still have another blog post to do just on Cabin, but for right now the issue is how this applies to me as a story teller. What type of genre story teller am I and what kind do I want to be?  With PI fiction my best efforts so far barely reach the level of competent story teller. If I could ever get my expectations in check I think I could ultimately be in the second mode where I mix in my own experiences to give my own interpretation of the PI novel. I don’t see this happening any time soon though. For right now, what seems to be working for me is the third model in which I build a pulp spine and slap on the meat and flesh of numerous other styles and genres that amuse me to create something I hope is unique and entertaining.

Maybe one day I can hit it on all cylinders and make something like The Cabin in the Woods.

On a side note, can anyone think of a novel that cracks open the tropes and expectations of genre work like Cabin does? Or are films just more suited to that exploration?