I purchased the Pan’s Labyrinth DVD last week, and after watching it with a good friend (and being gratified to find that she too thought it was amazing), settled down to watch the extras. Of which there were many, almost all of which were fascinating. Guillermo del Toro is brilliant, and listening to him talk about mystery, fairy tales, horror and suspense was like being instructed by a master.
One point which he made has stuck with me, resonating strongly with a problem I’ve been working on in Crude Sunlight: he said that in old fairy tales, nobody bothered with explaining the ‘why’ of things. He gave an example of a story in which it was asserted that if you managed to pluck a hair from the devil while he slept, he would have to tell you three truths. Why? There was no explanation why the devil was compelled to do so; he simply was. And, on a deep and fundamental level, we accept this as true.
In writing Crude Sunlight, I came up with my own supernatural antagonists. A friend of mine after reading the novel began to ask about the rules that govern their behavior. Can they all do these things? Why can they manifest this ability? Why did this one do that, and that one do this?
On some level I accept that my creations need to operate in an understandable way. To achieve the suspension of disbelief, you need to have some form of internal consistency. But how much explaining do I need to do? If, for example, one of my antagonists appears in a cloud of smoke and the sounding of screams, do I need to explain why? Who is screaming? Where the screamers are located? Or can I simply have the effect because it is scary and that is the way it works?
In the end, I chose to not explain the how’s and why’s of their actions and abilities. They are simply able to do what they do, and there is no ‘reason’ to it. They are not governed by science; their abilities and natures are not meant to be ultimately understandable. After all, as Lovecraft said, mankind’s greatest fear is the fear of the unknown, and hopefully, by not spelling out the rules, I’ll be able to ramp up my reader’s fears.