Friday, March 4, 2011

The House of Stairs. Could I Write Like That?

The psychological suspense thrillers of Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine are an inspiration to all of us. If only I could write like that, I say to myself, closing the book (The House of Stairs) with a shiver of satisfaction. If only. A friend lent me this book, telling me it was good, and by George she was right; it got me through four plane rides on a trip to Florida and back.

Now to study it. How does she do that? First of all, and the thing that would be the hardest for me, she never cracks a single joke. No jokes. Jokes take the pressure off gut-wrenching suspense, so probably I can't write suspense novels, compulsive joker that I am. Still, I want to try it. So leave out the jokes. Then what?

She layers the book in flashbacks intercut with present-tense narrative, telling us just enough. We must find out what happened next, even as she drops hints that it wasn't anything good, that in fact horrible things took place. This technique is not for amateurs. In Ruth Rendell's hands it is effective foreshadowing. In the hands of one less skilled, it becomes the dreaded "had-I-but-known." Do I dare to try it?

The object of the narrator's fascination is described as a stunning beauty, for which the narrator admires and loves her, even as we see for ourselves that this woman's behavior and utterances are vulgar and repellent. Do we believe our eyes about this woman, or do we believe the narrator? The contrast sets up an interesting tension. All of the characters are very clearly drawn, And many have this same ambiguity. The narrator feels one way about them, but we might feel another way. Tension.

Then there's her description of the setting, the House of Stairs itself. A place of hippie orgies, a place of dread. Every time she mentions the top floor window--which she describes in loving detail, the way it opens near the floor, a four-foot opening, how they neglect to put bars on it even though everyone says it's dangerous, the forty-foot drop to the flagstone terrace below--we know someone is going to go out of it before the end of the book. Eventually the mere passing mention of the window causes shudders.

So that's how it's done. Anyway that's part of how it's done. I will meditate on this and see if I want to take a stab at it.

--Kate Gallison


  1. Kate, I know I could not do it; I can't even try. I have read Ruth Rendell and greatly admire her skills. But I just cannot bear that level of creepy. I don't like creepy movies or books. Writing with that level of intensity would have to mean experiencing the chill. I would never be able to bear it. As a fan, I VERY much prefer your wit. If you must try, go ahead. But if you asked me to choose between Kate Gallison and Ruth Redell, I'd pick you every time. Have fun or get the creeps? No contest for this reader.

  2. Your attempting to write "creepy" is like me trying to write noir. I can't do it. I blame it on my happy childhood. But, like Pat, I would hate to read anything by you that leaves out your wit. Please don't. I hate books without humor. They are like eggs without salt, etc. P.D. James has practically no humor and I consider that a flaw. My favorite mystery writers all have humor--Sayers, Chandler, Allingham. Christie. Humor is an essential part of life, so why not include it in fiction, which mirrors life. I think the contrast between humor and creepy makes the creepy even creepier.
    --Robin Hathaway

  3. You folks are probably right. I can't go for long without cracking a joke anyhow. What I want to do this time around, though, is scare the pants off people. Boo! Bwahahaha!