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Halloween Fiction Contests November 1, 2018

Last Saturday our local newspaper, the Bend Bulletin, published the winners of its second annual Halloween Fiction Contest. My submission, "The Haunted Library," took second place!

Scan of The Haunted Library, published October 27, 2018

The journalist misunderstood a few things I said on the phone and wrote, "Tamara Marnell accomplished two firsts with 'The Haunted Library' – it's the first time she has published a short story, and the first time she has written horror."

Neither of those statements are true. I won a newspaper's Halloween fiction contest once before...in 1997, with the story "The Haunted Path." My mother dug up the clipping and sent me a scan.

Scan of The Haunted Path, published October 28, 1997

I personally like "The Haunted Path" more than "The Haunted Library." That story won first place in the Ages 8-10 category, compared to the second place I got this year, so clearly it is superior. At least my skill in writing titles hasn't deteriorated.

The Haunted Library (2018)

I like the quiet.

I like the calm of the university library on a chilly autumn evening, the sounds of muffled whispers and fingertips on keyboards. I like to sit in my favorite armchair on the second floor and watch the sun set over the campus quad, turning the golden trees black against the fiery sky.

Mary doesn't get it. This afternoon she made a dramatic entrance in a sexy wedding dress splattered with blood, holding a bouquet of black lilies and a hatchet.

"Why aren't you dressed up?" Mary asked.

"I am," I said. "I'm dressed as a college student."

Mary rolled her eyes. "You're gonna go to the library again, aren't you? Come on, it's Halloween! The one day a year we get to go wild and wreak havoc!"

But I'm not the wild type. I don't enjoy going out to hunt for guys. I don't like guys. Not since... Anyway, I prefer to spend the evening with a good book.

The sky is dark now, and the library is empty. The intercom crackles. "May I have your attention, please. The library will close in five minutes."

I ignore the announcement. The staff never see me here. I zip up my hoodie and burrow into my armchair.

A nasal voice startles me. "Hey, pretty girl. What're you doing here all by yourself?"

A man leans on the back of my chair. There's something creepy about him. Maybe it's the tangled, greasy hair. Or the cheesy getup. He looks like he stole a costume from the set of Titanic and ripped it up with dull scissors.

He says, "It's dangerous to be here on Halloween. Haven't you heard of the Killer Poet?"

I don’t like the way he grins at me. I hug my book close.

"Back in the nineties, the Poet murdered three girls here. He cut their throats with an aluminum bookmark."

"As if," I scoff.

The man leans close. His breath stinks of alcohol and rot. "The Poet still haunts this place. Every Halloween, he trolls the library for new victims. Girls who are pretty, and weak, and all alone...just like you."

I look down to avoid the man's leering eyes, and I see the tattered book of poetry in his hand. A bookmark gleams between the pages. Metallic. Sharp. Bloodstained.

Over the intercom, a calm voice says, "May I have your attention, please. The library is now closed. Thank you!"

The man grabs me with icy, gnarled hands.

I scream, but no one can hear me. No one will walk by. No one will see me.

The man pushes me down. He covers my mouth and unzips my hoodie.

Then he yelps and lets go.

Ah, he saw it. The gash across my throat, where the Poet slit it twenty years ago.

The man stumbles back. He falls to the floor, dropping his silly props. What an amateur costume. The real Poet wasn’t greasy. He was charming and kind. So kind...until he killed me.

I reach out to steal the man's life, like the Poet stole mine.

The man clutches at his neck, but there's no point. He can't breathe. He can't scream. He's trapped, and weak, and all alone.

The intercom fizzles. "May I have your attention, please. You will die now. Thank you!"

The man struggles to get away from me. He claws at the carpet desperately. His grimy nails bend and break.

His fingers close around his bookmark. He throws it at me. Distracted, I release my hold on him. He gasps for air and runs down the stairs. He sprints for the doors, out into the dark quad.

That was foolish of him. Mary haunts the quad on Halloween. She does so love to wreak havoc.

The man's blood-curdling screams fill the air. The hatchet thuds once, twice...ten times. Then all is quiet.

I like the quiet.

The Haunted Path (1997)

One day I was walking home from school. For Show and Tell that day, I had brought an old antique doll that my mother had given me. I came to an old path that had a sign that read, "No trespassing."

I peered around the sign. Suddenly, someone came up behind me. I spun around, letting go of the doll. It went flying down the path and out of sight. It was only my little brother. I caught a glimpse of him as he ran around the corner, giggling.

Now what was I going to do? If I didn't bring the doll home, my mom would be boiling mad. If I walked onto the path and someone saw me, I would probably have to pay some major bucks. I decided to get the doll. I looked around me to see if anyone was watching, took a deep breath, and stepped onto the path.

It was getting late, and it was creepy with all of the twists and turns in the road and sometimes the bushes and tree branches brushed against me. I heard eerie sounds coming from a house that loomed ahead in the darkness. Was that the antique doll just ahead? Yes it was. I started toward it.

A viscious (sic) creature leaped out at me. I couldn't tell what it was, but it had sharp teeth, horrifying claws and was about 4 feet long. It lunged for me. I ducked. I grabbed the doll and ran. The creature followed. My friend knew a lot about monsters. What was it that she had said? I couldn't remember.

I ran faster and faster. Aha! Now I remember! Most monsters are afraid of light. There was a lighted street lamp just ahead, where the sign was. I ran hard. My lungs were burning. I was almost there when the creature hurled itself at me, claws out, teeth bared. Then it stopped. I was at the street lamp. It ran away, howling with terror.

I was safe now. I walked toward my house. When I came in, my mother said, "My goodness. It's almost supper time. What kept you?"

"It's a long story," I said. I put my backpack down and walked out of the kitchen.

Long Overdue Life Update August 26, 2018

I knew I hadn't posted on this blog in a while, but I didn't know it had been seven months. Egads. Where did the time go?

I know the answer to that, and I'll tell you.

1. I became a homeowner.

Watercolor of my house
A watercolor of what my house will look like after we get around to painting the exterior.

In April, Sweetie and I bought a house. The process was long and stressful, especially since we tackled some hefty renovations right off the bat: installing bamboo floors, replacing a bathtub and surround, repainting the interior, and tearing up two decks and a concrete patio in the backyard.

We thought things would settle down once the renovations were out of the way and we moved in. Nope. Now that we're living here, the projects never end. There are still eight windows without curtains, three rooms with white walls, and one door lying in the middle of the living room...not to mention the many basic maintenance tasks required to prevent the house from flooding, burning, or exploding.

Don't get me wrong—I love my house more than I've ever loved a 1700 square-foot inanimate object before. It just takes a lot of work. Constantly.

Until now I felt like an "adult imposter," a woman who has been legally of age for more than a decade but was secretly an adolescent inside. But now that I'm more likely to spend a Saturday afternoon at Home Depot or Lowe's than at Macy's or Kohl's, I feel I can call myself an adult proper.

2. I joined Wattpad.

With all of the stress of buying the house, I put the visual novel on hold. When you're staying up until 2 a.m. smearing mortar over cement board, there's not nearly enough time or energy left over for developing a video game.

Instead, in the free hours remaining after caulking joints and sewing curtains, I've been working on a fun story and posting it on Wattpad. Despite its sadly justified reputation for rampant poorly spelled self-insert One Direction fan fiction, Wattpad also has many talented writers who are serious about creating and sharing quality stories. You just have to dig through a lot of erotica about 20-year-old billionaire CEOs to find them.

Last May I wrote a couple of posts referring to a modernization of Pride and Prejudice that I disliked because it destroyed the story structure of the original and was insufferably preachy. The weekend after reading that book, I wrote an outline for a modernization of P&P that did preserve the story, while also giving Elizabeth Bennet the agency she lacked in 1813.

I knew the novel wouldn't be viable commercially because retellings of Jane Austen novels are so overdone, and there's nothing "sexy" about my version like...

  • "It takes place at an elite private school. Elizabeth Bennet is a poor scholarship student and Darcy is her prom date!" (See: Prom and Prejudice)
  • "It's a gender-swapped Christmas-themed romp. Elizabeth is a glamorous Manhattanite and Darcy is a Midwestern carpenter who distrusts city girls!" (See: Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe)
  • "It's literally the copy/pasted original, only with added scenes in which Elizabeth and Darcy are zombie hunters!" (See: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)

No, my version is simply a low-key somewhat-faithful retelling with no glitz, no holiday cheer, and no supernatural horrors. No agent or editor would ever go for it. And so I filed away the outline as a mere exercise.

But the story continued to run through my head while driving to and from work each day, doing chores, and other moments of mental idleness. I decided to write and post it for free on the Internet, with no expectation of making money from it. And thus, Lizzie Bennet's Diary was born.

Lizzie Bennet's Diary
The "cover art" for Lizzie Bennet's Diary, using a photo by Rosie Ann

The other day I read in this NY Times article that seeking payment for activities decreases both motivation and creativity. When children are paid for drawing, they draw less than children who aren't paid. When adults are rewarded for solving a complex problem, their solutions are less innovative than those of adults who don't expect rewards.

Anecdotally, I noticed that when I was trying to get published, my intrinsic enjoyment of writing was smothered by the stress of trying to make money from it, and I discarded fun story ideas that excited me in favor of risk-averse "sellable" ones. No more! I'd rather have a day job that pays the bills for the rest of my life than become a Real Author who churns out marketing-department-approved paperbacks.

Unlike those days when I dreaded writing because I feared it was all a waste of time, now I happily write one chapter a week and post on Wattpad on Sundays. I have a handful of regular readers, and I stick to the schedule not just for them, but because the "deadlines" prevent me from becoming too obsessively perfectionist about my work. The project is supposed to be fun, not Nobel Prize worthy.

3. I have too many hobbies.

Writing is the hobby I prioritize first, but I have other casual ones too.

I design and sew clothes.

Pokemon Dress - Front   Pokemon Dress - Back   Pokemon Dress with Cat
A dress made out of an XL boys t-shirt from Goodwill. It still had the tag from the department store on it!

I bake breads and cakes.

Chiffon Cake   Chiffon Strawberry Shortcake
Chiffon cake served with strawberries and whipped topping

I play piano.

I wish I had infinite copies of myself so I could dedicate more time to all of these hobbies. Unfortunately I don't, so I dabble a little in each one every week.

And so time flies by, and I don't necessarily get around to documenting it all. I don't know how the Intagram generation does it. Taking a single photo of myself is a big to-do, and publishing a single blog post like this requires several hours of effort spread over many days. Updating the library's social media accounts at work is torturous enough. Every time I have to log in to Twitter and Facebook to post something informative yet humorous, I think, "Who would do this willingly?!"

Where Are All the Complex Female Characters? January 13, 2018

Last night Sweetie and I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I felt nervous while handing over my hard-earned $20 for tickets, because Sweetie told me the reviews are highly polarized. Critics call The Last Jedi the best movie in the Star Wars franchise. On the other hand, half of the audience members on Rotten Tomatoes say it's a slap in the face to Star Wars fans.

So I went into the theater bracing myself for a three-hour-long advertisement for porg toys, filled with gratuitous explosions and bad jokes.

Porg toy

To my great surprise, I landed on the side of the critics. While there were many gratuitous explosions, and the porg gags were tiresome, my dominant feeling when the credits rolled was, "Unbelievable, a new Star Wars movie actually made my heart hurt."

That hasn't happened to me since The Empire Strikes Back. After those three cheesy prequels, the transparently fanbase-pandering Force Awakens, and the edgy-for-the-sake-of-edginess Rogue One, I'd thought it would never happen again.

(Avast, there be spoilers ahead!)

The character arcs of Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker were affecting enough to make me overlook the porg commercials, the unfunny wisecracks, and the poor storytelling choices (i.e., let's not talk about that admiral who withheld vital information from her crew for no rational reason other than to give Poe his dramatic moments). The twisted soulmate relationship between the confused heroine and the conflicted villain was brilliant. Luke Skywalker was never a perfect hero, and I was delighted that he didn't simply become the ever-wise Obi-Wan who dashes in with a lightsaber and saves the day.

I have only two primary criticisms. The first is expressed well by the author of this article: "The Last Jedi came thrillingly close to upending Star Wars–but lost its nerve." The movie flirts with showing the moral ambiguity of rebellion and the tragic consequences of using violence in the name of good, but in the end it chickens out and delivers the safe, comforting Aesop that "light is good, dark is bad."

Though the story is inherently tragic, the creators buried as much of the heartbreak as they could to preserve the "fun" tone of the movie. Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker are the only characters whose personalities and actions are affected by guilt and grief. Everyone else shrugs off the deaths of their friends and skips away to their fighter pods armed with predictable quips.

My other criticism is not shared by the author of that article. The heroine, Rey, is a boring and passive character.

Despite the best efforts of the actress to give her depth, Rey is ultimately a Mary Sue wearing the costume of a Strong Female Character. Her motivations are nonexistent and her inner conflicts, if you can call them "conflicts," are banal. When you compare her as a protagonist to Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy, the difference is striking.

What was Luke's motivation for finding Yoda? He wanted to live up to the heroic legend of his father and take down the empire that brutally murdered his family.

What is Rey's motivation for finding Luke? The rebels told her to. And, uh...some sort of power inside her is "awake" and she's scared.

What does Luke see when he confronts the dark side of the Force on Dagobah? A vision of himself as the embodiment of evil.

What does Rey see when the darkness under the island sucks her in? A vision of herself snapping her fingers a couple of times, because it's a cool visual effect.

How does Luke become a master Jedi? Through gruelling training and self-sacrifice born of a desperation to save the people he loves.

How does Rey become the Last Jedi? She picks up a lightsaber and instantly turns into a goddess who can handily defeat the next Sith Lord and telepathically lift whole rockslides.

Rey was a tragic waste of potential. Her backstory set her up to be truly interesting. As a young girl, she was sold into slavery, and she lived a lonely and miserable life. Yet, somehow, she grows up to be a nice and helpful hero. Where is her rage at the world? Where's her hidden anger against herself for being too weak and cowardly to escape? Where's her resentment against the imperial rulers who allow their supposed citizens to live under systematic cruelty?

Instead of being drawn to the dark side because it "calls to her," Rey could have been lured by the promise of a power she could use for good. She could have been tempted to harness the dark side to stop the endless fighting, and to shape a new utopian galaxy where no children like her will endure exploitation and abuse. Instead of seeing Kylo Ren's outstretched hand and Byronic pleading eyes and deciding, "Oh, no, darkness is bad," she could have struggled to make her decision. She could have been an actual person instead of a perfect heroine.

Rey is only one example of a broader problem with the characterization of women in works of fiction. Every book and movie made today features a "strong" female heroine, but it's still rare to find a complex one.

Imperfect heroines are unlikeable.

While anyone can rattle off dozens of examples of imperfect male heroes and antiheroes, it's a tough task to come up with the names of famous heroines who are less than perfect. They're all smart, resourceful, pretty, and righteous; they capture the hearts of every handsome man and always do the right thing.

"Nu-uh," people say, "There's Katniss in The Hunger Games, and Tris in Divergent, and Katsa in Graceling, and tons of other ones." And what supposedly makes these heroines complex? They have chips on their shoulders. That's it.

Do they struggle with depression and cling too tightly to childhood fantasies, like Quentin Coldwater in The Magicians? Are they addicted to opioids and feel compelled to alienate the people around them, like Gregory House in House?

Of course not, because having a flaw any bigger than a cool sassy attitude, and/or an inability to decide which handsome man they want to marry, would make a heroine unlikeable.

Female characters typically fall into three categories: perfect heroine, reviled villain, and blameless misunderstood victim. When a female character who is supposed to be a heroine strays too far from perfection, the audience instantly despises her. If a heroine makes bad decisions, like Rebecca Bloomwood in Confessions of a Shopaholic, reviewers rant that she's sooo stupid and they can't stand her. If the character has violent or manipulative tendencies, like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, journalists rage at the author for spreading "misogynist fantasies about how women act."

Every heroine represents every woman.

I've never seen a journalist complain that Patrick Bateman in American Psycho spreads "misandrist fantasies about how men act." I've never heard a peep about self-destructive playboy Tony Stark's many bad decisions in the Iron Man movies. Everyone loves insufferable jerks like Gregory House.

Why do people enjoy screwed-up male characters, but they react so negatively when the character is a woman instead? Because Patrick Bateman, Tony Stark, and Gregory House are all seen as individuals. Everyone knows that's not what all men are like.

Female characters, on the other hand, supposedly represent the author's attitude about all women everywhere.

This tacit belief might stem from our long history of under-representation of women in fiction. Until very recently, it was common for Hollywood movies to star only one token female in a sea of men.

Movie posters showing many male actors and only one female actor

In a September 2017 interview for Glamour magazine, Reese Witherspoon recounted...

"I remember, 15 years ago, being a young actress and starting to audition for movies in L.A. There were always a lot of young women waiting in the green room for their shot at the one part there was for a girl in any given movie. Because that's all there was—one part. As I got some of those parts, I would arrive on set to realize I was the only girl with a speaking part."

That one girl with a speaking part represented the entire female audience. She was always smart, spunky, attractive, kind, and supportive, because that is how all women are supposed to be.

Because this is what we're used to, when we see a female on the screen or in a book, we instinctively think of her as the girl who represents everything the writer believes about women. If she's an irresponsible shopaholic, we rail, "That's an outdated stereotype!" If she's a manipulative psycho, we scream, "That's not what we're like at all!"

I hope we can soon move past this knee-jerk reaction and recognize that deeply flawed female characters are characters, not universal representations of womanhood. By insisting that all female characters must be strong and smart and perfect, and that anything else is offensive, audiences persuade creators to stick to Mary Sues like Rey, instead of developing memorable heroines like the one Rey could have been.