Shriek: An Afterword–Genesis

UPDATE: A thorough interview about Shriek posted on Clarkesworld, conducted by Neddal Ayad.

Shriek: An Afterword first came to me while working on the first chapbook edition of The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris. The chapbook included a note from Janice Shriek before what would eventually become the glossary in City of Saints & Madmen), explaining that this was just a fragment of a much longer work, to which she would be attempting an afterword. The glossary already held a secret: which was, if you read it carefully and followed the cross-references you would find that Duncan Shriek and Lacond were the same person, and that Duncan was hopelessly in love or lust with a woman named Mary Sabon.

Shortly after finishing the Hoegbotton Guide, I was in correspondence with Thomas Ligotti–at the time a somewhat terrifying experience, for a young author, and also because HE TYPED HIS ANSWERS ALL IN CAPS. Ligotti was generally supportive, but pointed out that Pale Fire had an emotional resonance that The Early History lacked. This point, I think, mistook The Early History for something else, but it got me thinking about Duncan and Janice and Mary Sabon, and how there was an emotionally resonant story hidden within The Early History.

I wasn’t quite sure what form the story would take, so I decided to do a draft as another Hoegbotton pamphlet–exactly as if Janice were writing a short afterword to The Early History.

At the time I had a manual typewriter I liked to use because of the pressure and sound of the keys. The first page was just a Hoegbotton Statement of Purpose with some later notes written on it.

The first actual page has a note you can’t see in this photo that reads “expand,” which is pretty funny considering this original draft is less than a dozen pages long. At the time I didn’t know if it was going to be a short story, a novella, or a novel.

By page two we’re already more than forty pages into the finished novel, and it’s all in summary.

On page three, I have a note that reads “his fear of death because of his father,” on a section about The Refraction of Light in a Prison, and I think this is when the story came alive for me, because I suddenly saw Duncan’s father running across the lawn…and not making it to the other side.

On the back of page three I was already experimenting with possible approaches to dealing with the passage of time. In several places in the novel, I have to leap across years. In other places, I leap across years only to backtrack into earlier scenes, the intent being to mimic the way memory rambles and makes strange associations irregardless of chronology.

On page four, you can see this detail where I was transforming Ligotti’s name into L. Gaudy, the F&L publisher who puts the fear of God into Duncan, much as Ligotti had kind of put the fear of God into me. This is also where the draft opened up and I had a full-on scene of Duncan visiting Janice after a sojourn underground. The text now seemed divided and I knew the opening would have to be reworked because this was now not a real afterword but something else pretending to be an afterword.

On the back of page four is a note that became a major symbol of Duncan’s breakdown in trying to describe what cannot be described.

Much of this page remained unchanged except for copy edits in the final draft.

A photocopied page from a writing book comes next in the draft, with a note about the book that drove Duncan somewhat mad. He’s in the middle of it when it suddenly doesn’t make sense. He tries to backtrack and find out what went wrong, where the fault line began to occur, and eventually he unravels the whole book and is left with only one word he hasn’t edited out. And as he says, one word is not a book. This was based on the advice in this writing book about how to untangle a sentence. Except, some sentences can’t be untangled.

Now the pace of the draft has slowed, so that we’re not that much further into the novel as it manifested in the final draft.

Once again the pace quickens and my notes on the side are mostly about using this page as an outline for a much longer stretch of the novel. His relationship with Mary Sabon is just kind of glossed over in this section, as I hadn’t yet determined the dynamic there–or Janice’s attitude toward her. She’s more or less as much a part of the backdrop here as his books. You’ll note “Dunny” is used as a nickname for Duncan. That definitely didn’t survive past this draft.

This bit, the final page of the draft, corresponds roughly to a period after the war, after , conveniently skipping the muddle of life in the middle. I think it’s funny that when I stopped here I have three elements I think are important: The Silence, Duncan’s disappearance, and of all things “Vagaries of the Index.” You’ll also notice that Duncan does not appear as a parenthetical narrator in this draft. I had admired Nabokov and also Richard Grant for attempting dueling, interconnected narrators, but had not found a use for the technique. But this page is where I got the idea, from the bit about “One hates to think of Duncan struggling to express himself as both F&L and Sabon struggle to block him out, with himself no recourse to explain the situation except through letters to the editors of local newspapers.” That made me wish Duncan could express himself, and the parenthetical that followed, although not meant to be from Duncan was suddenly transformed when re-reading the draft into something Duncan had inserted. Immediately I asked myself, “How did Duncan comment on Janice’s text?” and this was the element that opened up the rest of the novel to me.

I am not sure this will be of any interest to anyone, but it seems the fitting conclusion to this series of blog posts, and a good way to close this chapter of my creative life as I move on to Finch and other books. Writing Shriek was a very personal experience over many years and many notebooks after this initial draft. It was sometimes aggravating, as I worked on bits and pieces of it between editing project management documents on the road in parts of rural Florida, shuttling between county health departments, to think of it having started so short and so simple and to have risen up and become the dominant creative thread in my life for so many years.

Sharing things like this doesn’t feel invasive to me. This is all the dead tissue I had to work through on my way to animating something and making it breathe. It’s neither here nor there to me whether anyone sees it. My main reason for not talking about any of this during the publication of the novel is that many people, seeing the process or the genesis or things in draft make assumptions about the final work that are often wrong. It also makes the writer seem less than perfect, in all the fits and starts and hiccups. But: here it is.


  1. Allen says

    As far as I am concerned I thought, before the book came out, that this was the one that was going to make or break your fame. It made it. You’re going to be in the books centuries from now!

  2. says

    Jeff, it’s a pleasure to read these posts. Being able to see what goes on behind the scenes is enjoyable and interesting. It also seems appropriate, if that’s the right word, for a writer who works with meta-narrative, experiments, etc.

    I’m not sure whether the networked world has made association between writers better or worse. There’s something awesome about you corresponding with Thomas Ligotti, or David Foster Wallace corresponding with Thomas Pynchon, or Caitlin R. Kiernan sending her first novel to a batch of novelists to see if she could get an agent. These days I feel (more or less) free to comment on authors’ blogs, send e-mails if they have “contact” links on their websites, and all that, but it still doesn’t require that big first step. If an author’s got a significant web presence, it’s reasonable to assume they’ll respond to a polite inquiry, and more often than not that seems true.

    Do you ever still typewrite? I have occasionally, but just about my favorite little piece of software is a program called Sound Pilot that has a variety of typewriter sound schemes. Each time you type, you get the sound of a Smith-Corona, or Morse, or whatever. With the volume high enough, it actually makes my desk shake, and somehow that tactile element makes the experience different.

  3. says

    There seems to be somehow a huge sense of appropriateness to the way that the real life writing of the novel on a typewriter by you mirrors Duncan’s writing of his part of it in the backroom on his. Seems almost like “method writing” in one sense. I’ll have a look at this Sound Pilot thing, there’s something immesely satisfying about the clack of typewriter keys, similar to the way I miss older, clackier computer keyboards, and it somehow makes writing a more visceral experience.

    “I suddenly saw Duncan’s father running across the lawn…and not making it to the other side.” It was to be one of the most powerful images in the novel in my opinion.

    Re. “Dunny” indeed, it’s an Australian slang term for toilet! Although “Dunk” is what one does with biscuits in tea…

    The Ligotti all-caps thing certainly adds to his mystique in a way, and I never realised the Ligotti/L. Gaudy connection until now!

  4. says

    Yep. Never thought I’d call 38C/100F a cool change. It was 110F for three days straight.

    Brisbane doesn’t seem to be going to extremes, any more than it normally does.