From one thing, know ten thousand things.
Growing up, two of my favorite martial arts were Kali and Muay Thai kickboxing. Both worked the fundamentals of angle, distance and velocity, but their philosophy of approach was fundamentally different.
The kalistas wove beautiful rhythms with their strikes, throwing 8-, 10- and 16-shot combinations that were horribly difficult to defend against. Individual strikes are not all that powerful, but there are A LOT of them, and they fly thick and fast and from unpredictable angles.
The Thai fighters threw bombs, virtually every punch a heavy knockout blow. It was a style about as graceful as a claw hammer and every bit as devastating.
This week I came across 'Araby' by James Joyce and started Duma Key, Stephen King's newest. A little lightbulb went on over my head.
A few short sentences from Araby's third paragraph:
When the short days of winter came, dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinner. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of the sky above us was the color of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played til our bodies glowed.
Winter. Dusk. Fell. Sombre. Space. Color. Violet. Lamps-Lifted-Lanterns. Cold. Stung. Played. Glowed.
Power words, one after the other: BAM, BAM, BAM. BAM. And of course, there's that triple-tap combo of alliteration: Lamps-Lifted-Lanterns.
I had always heard of Joyce as one given to dizzying raptures of language. What I see here is a clever fighter, filing every open space with a powerful shot. Small wonder I found myself sucked in and woozy, and put the story down with a sense of wonder.
Stephen King writes with the Kali approach. Where Joyce smashes a channel through to the unconscious with power words, King works the rhythm.
I find myself sucked into his work just as surely, but in a more subtle way: The narrative voice establishes a clean, easy rhythm. Language is used to capture the feel of informal spoken word, usually that of a common, relatable, likeable protagonist. Ten pages into Duma Key, I noticed I'd been pulled into this guy's Midwestern normalcy. It's a subtle, subtle trick, involving the clever use of fragments, prepostional phrases and hanging prepositions. No one word is too vivid. This isn't the time.
Of course, this trick is one of the great keys to horror. To scare the reader later, you MUST lull them now. Create an air of normalcy. Horror authors know this, but few use the rhythms of language to such great affect.
Oddly, one of the best writers I've found at creating horror is one of the least appreciated for this. She uses deceptively mild language moderated through the rhythm and cadence of sentence structure to create an atmosphere of real dread. I say oddly, because Lauren Graham/Joyce Carol Oates isn't even considered a horror writer.
To be sure, there are infinite ways of blending those blinding rhythms and power shots on the page. James Lee Burke loves his power shots, especially toward the end of a chapter, but he's mightily adept at letting the rhythm of the language take over too. Especially in those passages that bring us closest to Dave or Billybob.
Another of my favorites, John D MacDonald, is heavier to the rhythm end of the spectrum. For the most part he prefers a cascade of 'lightweight words', but when he does go for the power shot, it's a doozy. The image of that poor girl lashed to a tree trunk, the baling wire cutting into her throat, her features frozen in a long lavender look, over twenty years after I first read it, that image still haunts me.
When do you favor your tools, and why?