I am not a voracious reader. My wife on the other hand, she can read a four-hundred page novel in a few hours, retain it, and have extensive discussions about what the whole damn thing meant.
So, I know what voracious looks like, and I’m not that.
I tend to read at a conversational pace. In other words, I move through the narrative and dialogue of a book at about the same pace I would if I were reading it out loud.
Sadly, and I’m loath to admit this, I don’t get to read for pleasure much these days.
Evidently, once you start writing books, you rarely have time to read them. This is a bitter, bitter irony.
But, back in the day I was a rather extensive reader. My love of the written word started early, and was cultivated by my mum.
She kept a tidy house, but it was not unusual to see paperback books (remember those?) strewn across the coffee table or on her nightstand.
So, when I began to read I read what was around the house. Now, before I get into what exactly that was, I want to be clear, my mum and I both readily admit that perhaps the subject matter that was appropriate for a forty-something wasn’t so good for a teenager.
But none of that much matters now as the books were read, and – for the most part – I’m a fairly productive and contributing member of society. Just ask me… I’ll tell you.
Anyway, my mum read a lot of Stephen King (you must have suspected that was where I was going), Dean Koontz, V.C. Andrews, and the like.
As a result of my mum’s predilections toward debauchery (only in what she read), the first book I ever read in its entirety was Stephen King’s The Shining – followed by Dean Koontz’s Midnight, and so on and so forth down a twisted path paved with novels of the macabre.
Of course, in typical teenage angst ridden fashion, I went in search of something darker and by default – at least to a fifteen-year-old’s way of thinking – something deeper and more meaningful (I wasn’t emo, but I was certainly pale and tragic).
Enter Mr. Clive Barker.
Specifically, Mr. Barker’s Books of Blood series, and The Hellbound Heart. That last one is what the Hellraiser movies are based on… think Pinhead.
Then I dated a boy who was totally into H.P. Lovecraft… think Stephen King on a bender with less than two shits to give and a hatchet.
As the years passed, though, and new experiences presented themselves, it was only natural that my reading interests broadened.
But something that always stuck with me was the prevalence of epigraphs in the horror genre. Just for context, that’s a quote an author puts at the very beginning of their books (it can also be on a gravestone, but that’s another story).
It’s someone else’s words/ideas, but it’s intended to convey the tone for the book to come.
I was curious if the consistent use of epigraphs in the horror genre did in fact foreshadow the story to come. I went back and had a gander at the books of my youth.
Needless to say, my Amazon search history is now a little dark, as are the associated recommendations Amazon’s algorithm is sending my way. But I digress…
The Shining (Stephen King)
King was feeling generous, and threw three epigraphs out there to open his quintessential work. First, is a passage from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. It’s lengthy, and I wasn’t going to reprint it here. Rather I was going to direct you to look at it via Amazon’s “look inside” function. I was even going to make joke about enjoying Amazon’s upcoming recommendations for you, but the passage so completely nails the mood and pacing of King’s claustrophobic and dark tale, that I let the joke go. And, for folks that know me, that ain’t no small thing.
“It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,) there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before. But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel.” - Edgar Allan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death
Then King decided to go the short and sweet route with the next two quotes:
“The sleep of reason breeds monsters.” – Goya
“It’ll shine when it shines.” – Folk saying
The third quote is a bit lazy in its obviousness, but the three epigraphs together… nailed it!
Stephen King is remarkably good at how he parcels out the epigraphs. It doesn’t even matter if the quote’s original context is completely unrelated to King’s work.
To make my point, I need you to stop for a second, and think about King’s book Firestarter. Maybe you haven’t read it, but are familiar with the 1984 film by the same name, staring Drew Barrymore. The Cliffs Notes of the Cliffs Notes is a young girl can start fires with her mind. Wait for it…
“It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Boom… the Bradbury quote is completely irrelevant to the plot and point of Firestarter, but with just a vague idea of what King’s book is about, the line takes on a whole new meaning. Clever.
Then there are the epigraphs that when you peel away the layers of each one reveals the quote’s increased relevance to the book it precedes.
This is the case with Margaret Atwood’s epigraph at the start of The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s award winning novel is set in a near-future dystopia in which fundamentalist Christians have overthrown the United States government. They form a new country in which – among other things – women’s rights are nonexistent. A woman is meant to be “useful” to the whole by sacrificing themselves for the sake of breeding.
With that in mind, Atwood sets the tone with a quote from Jonathan Swifts satirical essay A Modest Proposal. In the essay, Swift argues the poor children of 1729 Ireland needn’t be useless during a great famine. Rather, for the sake of the whole, the children should happily give themselves over for eating.
Atwood uses the quote from Swift’s essay not because of the relevance of the quote itself – it’s fairly innocuous – but because of the alignment of Atwood’s theme with Swift’s.
“But as to myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal...” - Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal
I could truly just keep going on this topic.
Not only am I a fan of epigraphs, and their ability to put me in the right headspace to start a new novel, but I am a fan of the quote itself. Its succinctness while still conveying nuance, emotion, and provoking thoughts appeals to me. I imagine this is because I tend to be long winded… There, I said it.
Regardless of my own tendencies, I too utilize the epigraph in my books and short stories.
For those of you who have read my books (thank you), I wonder if you think the quotes at the beginning of my books do indeed provide a bit of insight into the novel?
For those of you who haven’t read my books (for shame), I wonder if the epigraphs might entice you to?
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” - Gospel of Thomas
I am presently working on my next novel, Forgotten Elements.
It’s book three in the Elements series, and due out in September of this year. An interesting note, before I start outlining a book I have a general sense of its tone and plot.
With that in mind, and before I type a single word, I choose the book’s epigraph.
The same way a quote at the beginning of a book can put you in the right headspace for a good read, it can set me up to write the book. I looked at three quotes when considering which one best set the mood of Forgotten.
“Last time I saw you we had just split in two. You were looking at me. I was looking at you. You had a way so familiar, but I could not recognize, cause you had blood on your face; I had blood in my eyes.” - John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
“Give me your sins.” - Jesus of Nazareth
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands
- E. E. Cummings, somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
We’ll find out in September which one I chose. Cheers!