18 November 2011

Happy Endings

by Dixon Hill


It's been a long week.

My wife is actually much prettier than she appears in this photograph. However, she graciously consented to letting me post it, and we had a lot of fun taking it -- largely because she has a great sense of humor.

How she can manage to smile, though, I'm not quite sure.

What I do know is that she's not only pretty. She's also pretty tough--after all, this is a woman who drove a fuel truck at the front of the invasion body, during the first Gulf War, so that the tanks could catch up to her to refuel after fighting their way through the front lines.

A few weeks ago, my wife learned she had Basal Cell skin cancer on one side of her nose, up near the bridge. This week she went in and had it removed. The next day, she went back under the knife to have them take a skin graft from her eyelid, which they grafted to the area they'd removed from her nose.

When I brought her home, the old lady across the street gave me a look that said, "We'll get you one of these days, you wife beater!" I wasn't surprised. The same woman once knocked on my door -- magazine in hand -- to tell me: "I read your story in Ellery Queen." Then she gave me a look that clearly said, "And we're not about to tolerate any of your murderous shenanigans in this neighborhood--so mind your P's and Q's!" After which, she marched home, where I strongly suspect she added the magazine to an evidence file she's compiling about me.

Seeing my wife undergo such trauma ...
. . . actually has me thinking about happy endings.

And I don't mean, just the "Thank God he lived!" sort of happy ending. I'm talking about overall all-around happy endings -- the good guys not only win; they live happily ever after.

I once read an essay by the great Dean Koontz, in which he said he often got zinged by literary writers because his stories usually have happy endings. He went on to wonder why so many literary stories have unhappy conclusions.

For some reason, I tend to read quite a bit of what's termed "literary" writing myself, and I have to agree; happy endings seem to be pretty scarce in that crowd. I'm not exactly sure why.

What I do know is that happy endings -- of the believable sort -- seem very challenging to write. Koontz also mentioned this. And, judging from essays written by many contemporary literary writers, the idea of a happy ending not being believable may actually be at the root of their scarcity. There seems to be a belief that happy endings just aren't believable.

I think they're wrong.

I've read things with very believable happy endings. So, to my way of thinking: While believable happy endings are tough to pull off; they're not always impossible to accomplish. (Sometimes, however, I think the best bet is to aim for what I've come to think of as a Positive Ending. But, more on that some other time, perhaps.)

I tried to figure out a better way to illustrate what I'm talking about, but somehow keep coming back to the idea of comparing and contrasting my view of the difference between early Stephen King novels and a Dean Koontz novel.

I'm not trying to denigrate anyone, here. King is a great writer; there's no question about that. And, there's nothing wrong with what he writes. The reason I chose him is because: (a) he's a writer that is fairly well accepted by the 'literary' crowd and (b) both King and Koontz write scary stories, which makes it easier to highlight the differences I want to discuss.

To me, reading a King novel is like being led by a scary, freakazoid, guy down rickety cellar steps, into a pitch-black basement. The steps wobble and creak as you descend, while other things slither and bump down below. Cob webs stick your face, and unseen fingers seem to take glancing grasps at your clothing. You reach the bottom, and he leads you on, deeper into the darkness, something cold and wet wrapping itself around your ankle as you walk. And then, he leaves you there!

Again: I'm not saying there's anything wrong with King's writing. The guy knows what he's doing. It's really scary stuff, and he couches it in visceral terms that seem to reach out off the pages and tear at your soul. And, he uses a lot of literary mechanisms while he does it. In fact, he's so good at it, I sometimes find myself sucked down into a two-week depression after reading one of his novels. Whether you think that's good or bad, I don't think you can help but admit--that's damn good writing!

But . . .

. . . it's hardly a happy ending.

Now, contrast this to the way I perceive Koontz's writing. You start out being led down the same cellar steps by the same scary, freakazoid guy. The stairs still creak and groan, the icy fingers grasp at your clothes, and when you get to the bottom something cold wraps itself around your ankle. And still, the freakazoid leads you on, deeper into the darkness. But, when he reaches the point where the other guy abandoned you, this guy makes you keep walking.

One step in the darkness. Two steps in the darkness. WHAM! Storm cellar doors you didn't know were there suddenly burst open in front of you! A shaft of sunlight stabs your eyes. And, now, he leads you up the steps and out those storm doors into a beautiful garden--golden sunlight bathing the grass and leaves, butterflies darting among the bushes. And suddenly you realize: You know this garden. Because it's your backyard!

You've walked in your backyard a hundred times, but it's never looked like this before. The grass is greener, trees seem stronger; the soil seems to be bursting with fertility! You've never seen it like this before, because, you had to make that trip through the dark cellar first. Only after making that trek trough the terror, could you come upon your garden from the vantage point which would reveal its full beauty to you.

Presto!

It seems to me, the best Happy Endings aren't the ones where we just sigh and giggle because the two lovers have finally found each other, or the ones where we wipe a hand across our brow and say, "WHEW! He made it!" I think the best Happy Endings are when we can see that a character or characters have been changed in a positive way by their experiences in the storyline. (And that often means traumatizing them -- sometimes more than just a little.) And, that change in themselves is what now gives them the chance to live Happily Ever After. Or at least, more happily than they used to. And -- guess what? -- it can even be believable.

Which is why my wife's recent operations have me thinking of happy endings.

You see: Because of the trauma she's had to endure this week, she's now cancer-free. And, this means, She and I have the chance to continue our own little "Happily Ever After . . ." right along with our kids.

See you in two weeks!
--Dix

12 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Wow, Dixon. THAT's damn good writing in how many genres? Romance? Mystery? Terror? Education? Inspirational?

Your description of what I like and don't like about horror is right on the mark. After reading King's Thinner, I was put off for a long time.

As a kid, I read a number of horror classics, psychological rather than slasher, and those stick with you. I've long thought Fran Rizer's Emily's Ghost is a modern classic of that genre.

Bless your wife, she sounds wonderful! Got to love her!

Fran Rizer said...

Dixon,
First, please give your wife my best wishes! Glad the doctors were able to take care of it. Second, I agree with everything you wrote about writing today. This is miraculous because I hardly ever agree totally with anyone. Have a great weekend and take care of your wonderful lady!
fran

Velma said...

Let me get this straight: Your wife sat on oversized feul bombs while waiting for the tanks to catch up? Yeeesh!

No wonder she doesn't let a little thing like a malignant cell keep her down.

Neil Schofield said...

Dixon - wonderful piece. And bravo to your wife who seems to be rising magnificently above it. She was right -it's not pleasant but those little basal blighters are best got rid of.
Happy endings - I'm all for them, but I don't seem to have managed to come up with one yet. Maybe I'm more King than Koontz?
Keep up the good work.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Wonderful description of the, hmm, maybe call it spiritual dimension of the happy ending. Funny to think of the literati turning up their noses. Consider Jane Austen, who invented the novel with a happy ending: undeniably literary and still so popular the opening of Pride and Prejudice shows up on the "front page" of Kindle. And best wishes to your wife--what a brave lady, as much for the photo as for the fuel truck.

Dale Andrews said...

Dixon -- Nice piece! I think I will have a King article up on Tuesday -- I may just jump to it from your article.

All the best to your wife. -- Dale

Janice Law said...

Nice column and glad to hear that your wife's surgery was a success.

David Dean said...

As usual, Dix, I find I'm in total agreement with you. I loved the King/Koontz comparison too. I used to read horror quite a bit until I noticed that it was really depressing me, and for the exact reason you pointed out. I'm a bit of a boyscout and truly a believer in the happy ending; though I don't always write them.

I'm very glad all went well with your wife's surgery, and that she is cancer-free. That is, indeed, a happy ending to build upon.

Louis A. Willis said...

Dixon,
Admiration is what I have for your courageous wife, a Gulf War veteran who also beat cancer.

I like the idea of Positive Endings, so looking for to your article on it.

R.T. Lawton said...

Dix, my hat's off to your better half. As writers, we can do what we want on paper, but it's always nice to get happy endings in real life.
As time goes by, and it seems there's getting to be a lot of it, I find I like happy endings better than the other. And, I find that I try to leave my readers feeling good about the protagonist and the ending of his story. Must be a case of art reflecting the author's desires in life.
Great description in your writing.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

First, good luck and God Bless to your wife.

As I read along, I kept muttering "Exactly, that's exactly right."

I have often thought literary writers don't believe they've accomplished anything unless they have depressed the reader in some way and left the protag still floundering at the end.

I love your point that a happy ending is when the main character(s) have been changed in some positive way. If that happens, even as he walks to the gallows, the ending is a happy one.

Jeff Baker said...

I am no stranger to surgery myself, so I'm glad you both get the happy ending. (I'm no stranger to those either!) I think King does have happy (or optimistic)endings in more of his short stories than his novels. (Not in "The Boogeyman.")