As a fairly literate flat, myself and my girlfriend have accumulated a small library of books akin to an accusing parlour in an episode of Poirot. From festivals, second hand bookstalls, the thrusting hands of writers and a lot of charity shops we’ve amassed an odd collection of tattered old copies of Martin Amis novels, to non-fiction books about the inventor of Cornflakes.
So inevitably there comes a time that some of these books should be delved into and essentially torn apart for the sake of…well…learning something about writing and how it works.
Our choice for the first installment: UNHALLOWED GROUND BY HEATHER GRAHAM.
The book was given to us at the book launch for Mrs Graham’s (much much worse) fairy-tale graphic novel, during which she dressed in wild west attire and performed an excruciatingly bad set of music in the middle of a bar on Brighton Pier (without learning any lyrics of the songs she was singing, and resorting to reading them off the back of an amp.) Unhallowed Ground was left on the table we were sat at, and seizing the opportunity, we grabbed it. Once we started reading, we discovered that this book is truly a holy treasure of bad writing, resulting in one of the most beautifully unintentional comedies I’ve read in a long time.
This is Heather Graham’s thirty-somethingth novel and on Amazon it gives you a list of Mills and Boon forums as related topics. Lovely.
The tale concerns Sarah McKinley, a woman rennovating a house when she discovers some corpses in the walls. So who would show up but CALEB ANDERSON, private investigator and all around hunk. How do we know this? Well, Graham writes with such poise and beauty that even the subtlest movement of his upper hair gives your imagination a little orgasm. Take this typical paragraph from the opening of chapter eight.
“Frankly he was just gorgeous, the kind of man any woman would want to have sex with….”
And yes, the four ellipses are the authors own. Presumably they show the lead female drifting into lustful adolescent fantasies. After all, not more than a few lines further down the page,
“Then again, why would any man – especially an exceptionally handsome and charasmastic one – want to spend any more time with a woman who had not only been convinced that he dressed up in a costume to play a practical joke on her, but had also come crashing into his room at the crack of dawn to accuse him?”
Of course, the man “any woman would want to have sex with,” is the kind of mysterious Angel-lite private dick/hero figure who’d slot perfectly into Dan Brown’s universe. The opening of the book finds him on the trail of a missing girl, who possibly went missing over the side of a boat. Tough mission by a long way. But Caleb Anderson has his thinking cap on,
“Unless, of course, she’d been kidnapped by a boater and dumped somewhere beyond the bay and out in the Atlantic. If that was the case, their chances of finding her were almost nonexistent. The ocean was huge.”
The ocean was huge. It’s a tough theory to disprove, and that’s the main problem with the writing in this book. It’s so full of non-statements that the book itself becomes a giant kind of non-statement of a mystery story. In fact, each chapter is an endless sequence of nothing happening, followed by a trite cliffhanger as a last sentence,
“She had not come to make a sacrifice. She had come to be the sacrifice.”
“But she didn’t believe in ghosts. Did she?”
“Caleb walked down to the water. And found the corpse.”
“My husband’s death was no accident, he was murdered.”
I guess some people must like that style of writing, this odd little universe that exists somewhere between Mills and Boon, Dan Brown and Eastenders. A kind of American soap that would be watched by characters in Twin Peaks if it weren’t so completely dull. And certainly, Heather Graham, not this one, has made money from this (remember, this is book thirty-something), but what scares me is that people actually want this from books. An absent minded professor is actually described as being like an absent minded professor. And the entire book ends with three pages of explaination as to what was going on, (apologies for spoilers),
“As they put the pieces together, Caroline’s MO began to emerge,”
To me, this all screams bad writing, violating most (if not all) of my ten rules for writing, and worst of all – it violates that worst of all writing traits. Bad sex. This book has one of the greatest bad sex scenes I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It genuinely begins with the two characters watching ‘From Here to Eternity’ and continues thusly.
“A sound escaped his lips, a groan, and he plucked the beer bottle out of her hand, set it on the side table alongside his own and pulled her into his arms.”
And my current favourite use of alliteration outside of Dr Seuss,
“The stroke of her fingers against his flesh felt like flickers of fire.”
It continues, with sentences like:
“At last he kissed her and found her lips everything he’d imagined they’d be.”
“The naked flesh of her breasts, firm against his chest, sent an infusion of fire streaking through him like lightning, straight to his loins.”
“She pulled him down to he, and then they were kissing in a frenzy, hot kisses, liquid and steaming and damp, and erotic beyond measure,”
Graham has a style more akin to telling, not showing. It’s the stereotypical writing style for a plot heavy mystery story, but the fact is, this story doesn’t even have that going for it. The mystery doesn’t really go anywhere, but rather gets boiled down to exposition in the last couple of pages, literally everything is explained in a “whilst you were looking away just then, here’s what they all discovered about the killer,” kind of a way.
I don’t want this to read like I despise the book, I think these books are needed. They’re a necessary evil for me because as much as I don’t think they’re any good – they can teach us a lot about writing. Take a look at some of those sentences and don’t pretend you’ve never written anything as bad as some of them. So we learn, we look at what doesn’t work and we decide why it doesn’t work.
In the end, Unhallowed Ground goes back in the bookshelf for the moment, and I’m sure we’ll pick a new one out in a few days (Postmodernism for Beginners definitely looks like a good title)…