T. E. Hulme and the Heart of Mystery

T. E. Hulmd

A murder victim demands many things.

Their very presence requires answers to tough questions: Who did this? How? And above all, why?

Mystery stories promise a twisting and often treacherous search complicated with deceit and dark emotions. And that search offers rich opportunities to explore the boundaries of human rationality and depravity. The murderer, in taking a life, has struck a blow against normalcy itself, so solving the crime is not just for the immediate victim, but all of society.

Is the culprit a blatant sociopath, a serial killer who continually preys on others? Or – perhaps even more terrifying – is it a latent sociopath we thought was normal?

Mystery author Joanna Schaffhausen writes that we can recognize sociopaths by their “narcissism, lying (even when it was easier to tell the truth), indifference to societal rules, [and] lack of empathy or conscience.”

Mystery tales explore the dark tendencies unleashed by social disconnection. And this is where Imagist poet T. E. Hulme can step in to clarify things. In his essay Romanticism and Classicism, Hulme discusses the distinction between these two movements, and in doing so, lays out the difference between the world views of the protagonist and antagonist in a mystery story:

Here is the root of all romanticism: that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir of possibilities; and if you can so rearrange society by the destruction of oppressive order then these possibilities will have a chance and you will get Progress.

One can define the classical quite clearly as the exact opposite to this. Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him.

I suspect that those of us attracted to mystery stories want to enter a world where social norms are defended and restored. After all, the act of reading is itself an affirmation of man’s social nature. As Hulme states in the same essay, literature is a social endeavor:

The great aim is accurate, precise and definite description. The first thing is to recognise how extraordinarily difficult this is. It is no mere matter of carefulness; you have to use language, and language is by its very nature a communal thing.

Studies have shown that reading helps us better understand and connect with others. No wonder mystery stories hold such an attraction for us — they show us the problem and deliver the cure in one fascinating package.

The Underground Library society

Beowulf

English professor and writer Charles French founded The Underground Library Society, inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In Bradbury’s dystopian novel, books have been banned and the subject population submits to a crushing conformity. A handful of rebels “become” books by memorizing them in the hope that one day, books and free thought will again thrive.

Members of The Underground Library Society will have the opportunity to publish a guest post on French’s blog and reveal what book they’d “become” and why. In my post, I make a case for memorizing and preserving Beowulf. Why that particular work? Check it out!

Quote of the day

Stories

“Stories are among the most intimate and personal things we have. Stories touch the imagination and are deeply implanted in one’s psyche and consciousness. Without stories there can be no culture. Without stories there can be no imagination. Without an imagination there is no vitality to human existence. Without that vitality humans are mere robots to be programmed, pacified, and subjugated into parasitic consumers.”

Paul Krause

Breaking rules

Early in his acting career, Arnold Schwarzenegger established a reputation for being both ambitious and easy to get along with. But he once famously clashed with James Cameron on the set of The Terminator about what would become the most famous line in a groundbreaking movie.

Arnold suggested his killer android character would say “I will be back,” arguing that a machine would not use a contraction. Cameron, who was renowned for his meticulousness, held his ground, finally demanding that Arnold stick to the script. As Arnold recalled, Cameron told him, “I don’t correct your acting, so don’t correct my writing.” Arnold did as he was told, and in the above video, he confesses that Cameron made the right call.

Kudos to Arnold for admitting his mistake.

But the real point is how you can be technically right but artistically wrong. Submissions editors see manuscripts all the time that click on all the technical points, such as tension, characterization, and a good premise, but fail to engage the reader.

The showdown between Arnold and Cameron illustrates that sometimes the logical way isn’t always best. A story develops its own internal logic and dynamic, and it takes years of practice to recognize that fact. James Cameron knew what he was doing.

Another way to put it is that you have to master the rules before you’re good enough to break them. Then you can wield them flexibly and effectively.

Quote of the day

Photo source: Pip R. Lagenta from Creative Commons

“There is no nobler chore in the universe than holding up the mirror of reality and turning it slightly, so we have a new and different perception of the commonplace, the everyday, the ‘normal’, the obvious. People are reflected in the glass. The fantasy situation into which you thrust them is the mirror itself. And what we are shown should illuminate and alter our perception of the world around us.”

Harlan Ellison

Happy Birthday, Jack London

Jack London

Today is the 145th birthday of writer and adventurer Jack London. Like Robert E. Howard and Ray Bradbury, Jack London was largely self-taught, and his maverick, imaginative style continues to attract and captivate new generations of readers.

If you think London just wrote adventure tales for kids, well, you need to check out my post Jack London: Blood and Redemption at the DMR Books web site.

I’m honored that Deuce Richardson invited me to write this post to kick off the 2021 DMR Guest Bloggerama. And I hope my introduction to Jack London’s life and work will help more readers discover him.

Words – just words

Words just words

One of my coping mechanisms when stuck on a manuscript is to read outstanding posts on writing I’ve saved over the years. This morning, I revisited this advice from K.M. Weiland:

One of the best rules of thumb for showing instead of telling is to never name an emotion. Love, hate, happiness, sadness, frustration, grief—they all might be easily recognizable emotions. They might even all be emotions that will immediately get a point across to a reader. But by themselves the words lack the ability to make a reader feel what we are trying to convey.

This insight shook the mental cobwebs that had been holding me back. Weiland’s right — the most stirring and uplifting prose succeeds obliquely, rousing the reader to silent awe or trembling fear. A few examples:

“Some nights in the midst of this loneliness I swung among the scattered stars at the end of the thin thread of faith alone.”Wendell Berry

“The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.”Flannery O’Connor

“I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside in back of my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there.”Ernest Hemingway

Not only do these examples evoke intense reactions, they do so indirectly. As Weiland advises, the best writing shows rather than tells. Emily Dickinson was on the same track when she proposed that we tell the truth, but tell it slant.

I believe these passages soar for us because they appeal to more than just our logical selves. The neocortex, that is, the rational brain, processes language, but it connects to other parts of the brain as well. The limbic system interprets facts as emotions, and triggers the reptilian brain, which in turn shoots reactions to the body. So if you read Stephen King alone at midnight, you start peeking outside the window and maybe sweat a little. That’s the three parts working together. And we love it.

Good writing, then, achieves unity of mind and body, a sorely needed experience in an age that fractures and alienates.

Quote of the day

“Ideas come to you with tattered clothes and runny noses, but if you clean them up and present them to the right people, they’ll get adopted.”

Vernon Grant — Rock Hill, South Carolina artist who designed Snap! Crackle! and Pop! for Kellogg’s.

Just like story ideas … rough drafts need a lot of tough love before they can be published.

New reviews

Here’s a roundup of reviews of my latest works. First, here’s award-winning reviewer Kevin Tipple on the June, 2020 issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine:

The story that inspired the cover, “The Calculus of Karma” by M. C. Tuggle, leads off the Mystery Weekly Magazine: June 2020 issue. Deputy Marshal Malcom Lamb has to deal with a body in an alleyway of the asteroid’s main camp. The miner is dead because of the crack in his visor that allowed the vacuum of space to enter his helmet. Whether it was an accident or murder by way of another turf war between groups of miners is up to Deputy Lamb to figure out. He better do it fast as trying to keep the peace on the asteroid near Jupiter is not easy.

Next, S.D. McKinley, the author of How LJ and Rom Saved Heavy Metal, reviews my flash fiction story A Good Couple.

Author Sherrey Meyer posted a 5-star overview of Hexagon at Goodreads.

And author Didi Oviatt posted her reaction to the premiere issue of Hexagon Speculative Fiction Magazine on her author’s blog:

In this 1st edition there are five quick science fiction reads by authors Mike Tuggle, Evan Marcroft, John Grey, Michael M. Jones, and Nicholas C. Smith. I’ve read work by Mike Tuggle before and really enjoyed his style, so I knew going in that this edition had potential.

Many, many thanks for the kind thoughts and gracious reviews.

Adventures and mishaps in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery

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