Sunday, May 27, 2012

Storytelling Engines: The Witching Hour

(or "You're Too Big For This One-Page Town, Baby!")

Every time I do one of these anthology series as an entry in the Storytelling Engines series, I feel a tiny tinge of guilt somewhere deep down in my gut. After all, the whole point of a storytelling engine is to put into place stable and predictable story elements that in and of themselves help to generate ideas for future stories ("Clark Kent's a maybe he's doing a story and..." "Mary Jane's always hanging out with party maybe she goes to a dance club and..." "The X-Men are always searching for new mutants to maybe Cerebro finds a new mutant and...")

But there's not really much like that in an anthology series. Once you've settled on the basic tone (sci-fi, Western, horror, romance), you're really kind of on your own. A framing sequence is handy, especially one with an interesting "host", because it helps to ground the tone a bit better (you can ask yourself, "What kinds of stories does Cain seem to enjoy telling the most?") and because it helps to ground the reader into an internally consistent world...instead of spending an issue with three random strangers, you have a friend introducing you to them. But I always wonder how much of a storytelling engine there really is to an anthology series.

Then I read 'The Witching Hour', and found out that the answer can sometimes be, "Too much."

The stories that get told within the series itself are pretty standard horror stuff: Cursed objects, tales of the psychic and paranormal, and ghosts make their almost-formulaic appearances with each issue. But there's also a story told in every framing sequence, as witches Mildred and Mordred (representing, respectively, the Mother and Crone of classical mythology) have to deal with their thoroughly modern stepsister Cynthia (who represents the Maiden, although her behavior in the series suggests that as far as she's concerned, that just means "young".) Cynthia's a witch just like the others, but she's no traditionalist; she whips up her spells on top of an electric oven instead of a boiling cauldron, and she's psychoanalyzing the thing that lives in the swamp to figure out what makes it tick. (Or possibly burble.)

In short, she's the perfect catalyst for an excellent black comedy. All too often, you find yourself skimming through the actual stories to get to the next part of the framing sequence, which is not exactly what you want in your horror anthology. The hosts shouldn't be non-existent (or actively detracting from the atmosphere), but at the same time, hosts whose stories are so interesting that you pay more attention to them than to whatever it is they're introducing are hosts that are probably wasted on a horror anthology. Mildred, Mordred and Cynthia would make great protagonists for their own series; their setup suggests countless tales about the youngest of the witches perpetually trying to modernize her older sisters, only to find that their attempts to fit in (or their stubborn resistance to same) cause mayhem and magic wherever they go. Once you've got an idea like that, why do you need to break it up every couple of pages to tell another ghost story?


Anonymous said...

I'm not familiar with the series, but it definitely sounds like a powerful storytelling engine wasted in an anthology series. Can you think of any other such examples of high-performance engines mounted to such weak vehicles? Were they ever salvaged or did they just languish until they were forgotten?

Fred W. Hill said...

Neil Gaiman put them to good use as occasional guests in the Sandman and the main antagonists in the story in which Morpheus kicked the bucket. I'm not aware of anyone putting them in their own series as the main characters rather than story hosts.