Saturday, November 18, 2006

Living With Cancer

About a month ago I pulled my story “Living With Cancer” from an anthology because I wasn’t happy with how it was turning out (the book and my story). I’m rewriting the last quarter of the piece to give more validity to the final actions of Ethan, my protagonist. This story was the first I’d written that (I feel) had a chance at publication and it provided an outlet for feelings I’d had since my mother passed away due to small cell lung cancer.

William Jones reeducated me on the art of writing and I tried to implement his sage advice in my tale in the form of an overarching theme and words specifically chosen to be conducive to that theme. Unlike most of my fiction, this story is very subdued and entirely character driven. There is mention of a monster, but it never rears its head, nor is it even aware of the protagonists. Here the first few paragraphs to give you an idea of what I'm babbling about:

“I love you Ethan.”

“I love you too, Beth.” Ethan murmured as he rolled over in bed and gazed upon his wife’s tormented face. Morning light filtered through the curtains; there, in that wan glow, Ethan could see all the suffering in the world. “Are you ready to get cleaned up?”

“Yes please.” Beth urged. A couple of months back her gaunt face had contracted into a sneer on one side that slurred her speech as the cancer assaulted her with stroke-like symptoms.

With a grunt, Ethan swung his legs over the side of their bed, stood and stretched. The popcorn popping of his joints felt oddly pleasant after a rough sleep. Most days he awoke feeling as if a great weight were grinding upon his shoulders, today especially. Opening the curtains a little to let in some more light, he and Beth went through their morning ritual.

Ethan half filled a bowl with warm, soapy water from the bathroom and put a sponge in it to soak. Laying the bowl down on the dresser, he gently unbuttoned Beth’s pajamas and carefully proceeded to sponge bathe her. Dead skin flakes on her neck and chest sloughed away, leaving angry red flesh behind – symptoms of the radiation therapy.

“How does the water feel Beth, is it too hot?”

“No,” Beth whispered blissfully. “It feels nice.”

Beth had to be bathed every day because a miasma of sulfur permeated her clothing, bed linen, and lingered upon her skin if she wasn’t. The stench of medical science’s often futile war with disease turned Ethan’s stomach; it reminded him of brimstone and the Pit. If asked, Ethan would have readily assented that only in Hell could such a cruel infliction been thrown. After he had washed the irradiated areas clean, Ethan applied a prescribed salve to keep the burns moist and promote healing.


Stewart Sternberg said...

In recent dialogues on horror writer I have stood strong that horror writing is only as strong as the development of the character. It is, usually, how the character responds to the adversity (whether it is cancer, or a monster) that produces the horror, the comedy, or the pathos.

I am looking forward to reading the renewed version of this tale. One thing I've learned in the last couple years is to not give up on a story. Rewrite...rewrite..rewrite. Sometimes you need to let the damn thing sit though before you do that. Or to quote my Aunt Ethel: "Quit picking at the damn thing, let it sit for a while so a scab can grow over and it can heal"

The cancer story must have been like that. It needed a chance to heal. Now it can be rewritten.

Chuck Zaglanis said...

I agree completly. It's funny how you can see where all the passion dropped out of the piece and I ran with what I thought was a good idea at the time.

As always, I want to thank you, Rick, and William for your incisive commentary. It may not be to everyone's tastes, but I for one appreciate it.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Stewart sure hit the nail on the head--never give up on a short story. Also, if your story doesn't feel right or you're not happy with the journal/anthology that's going to publish it, you should pull the plug. From my own personal experience: The only thing worse than a bad story is a bad story getting published. I've had a few of those and sometimes I wish I had the opportunity to unpublish them.

Vwriter said...

You have some really intelligent comments appended to this posting, so I'll try not to screw this one up.

Having read the story in one of its earlier iterations, I'm curious whether in any of the later revisions you have concered making the cancer the "monster." I don't mean this in a strictly metaphorical sense. I mean it literally.

Cancer is a monster. Disease is a monster, but the only time I see it portrayed remotely in that manner is in bad science fiction where a superbug is threatening to wipe out civilization.

Name me if you can one monster that evokes the horror of cancer afflicting a loved one.

Does a monster have to have tentacles? Does it have to have a "gaping maw" or have scaly skin or have come back from eldritch years and hideous pagan rites and blah, blah, blah?

Anyway, you and I both stood next to loved ones afflicted with disease and we know how horrifying and debilitating it can be. High time one of us looked at crafting a monster that not only exists, but is the emodiment of sheer horror.

Christina Rundle said...

I like the tone of your story. I read it once to myself and again to my husband so he could hear your style. Very well done. There is such a beauty in the characters, starting out with them in bed. It is very relaxing, though very sad.

Chuck Zaglanis said...

Thank you very much Christina, I'm very glad you liked it. Originally it was little more than a rant, one scene of emotional torture after another, but during rewrites I realized that the reader would just get numb. Instead of going into the fight windmilling my arms, I chose a more conservative series of punches.

Chuck Zaglanis said...

Hi Rick,

I think in this story the cancer is the monster in a very literal sense. It may not talk or attack wayward teens like in Clive Barker's "Son of Celluloid" but it does destroy the lives of innocent people in the most horrific means possible-by first striping them of their very humanity.

I think the worst aspect of it is that it's not a hand-wringing, moustache-twirling villan, it doesn't even know we exist.

I originally intended this to be a very Cthulhu Mythos heavy piece (the crutch of the first time writer), but it has left those trappings behind and kept the Lovecraftian feelings of despair and horror I think.

When I do the rewrite, I think you'll like what you see.