The discussion this week on the site will surround Stephen Graham Jones and his most recently published novel, Demon Theory. There will be a roundtable discussion, an individual post or two, plus random posting by Stephen himself throughout the week. There should also be a full length interview with Stephen posted on Thursday, and a podcast interview of him on Friday. We hope you enjoy and become part of the conversation this week!
A few of the LBC members have been discussing Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones via email this past week or so. We'll be posting the conversation over the next day or two. Below is the first installment:
I picked up DEMON THEORY with a bit of trepidation. Ruined by an odd mix of horror and camp for the thriller movie genre at an early age, I’ve never been a huge fan – though will admit to being sucked in by the Scream trilogy. But Stephen Graham Jones pulled me into his story quickly. I’m not sure if it was the screenplay-like use of panning and fading and zooming, or the copious footnotes pulling my attention down to the bottom of the page where I was learning about the history of horror films, films in general, and too many other pop culture categories to list here without inclusion of footnotes of my own – but once I started reading DEMON THEORY, I rarely placed it anywhere out of my reach until I was done with it.
I had some trepidation too--and the “ironic” appearance of a pretty girl in a skimpy bra throughout didn’t help much. I know she’s a staple of horror fiction, but this book seemed to want it both ways. (I’m not a Scream person, I guess.) But, I, too, raced through it: fascinated and curious about the book and amazed by both the gore and the enthusiasm of the writing.
I also found it oddly engrossing. I stayed up all night (on a frigid, windy night, coincidentally appropriate) plowing through it. I think I literally read it one sitting. When my capacity for the horror aspect occasionally flagged, then the footnotes carried me through. When I bogged down with footnotes for footnotes for footnotes, I was intrigued by the camera angles and the way Jones wove in the screenplay conventions. It just seemed like there was always something to push me on…
I can count on one hand the number of horror films I’ve seen in my life. Never been a fan. So I guess you could say I was not exactly looking forward to reading this book. Had it not been a LBC nominee, I don’t think it would have dented the TBR pile. Oddly enough, though, once I started reading it, I found myself thoroughly engaged, at least at first. It wasn’t so much the plot or the writing, but I loved the history of the genre as told through the footnotes and how the story or stories seemed to come alive through the use of the footnotes. That said, I did find myself bogging down somewhere in the second part of the book. The read became more monotonous from there.
It took me a few chapters to get into it, I must admit. I’m not a horror film buff, but I have seen a lot of movies---I’ve been watching a lot of zombie movies recently. I don’t read horror either. The format took some getting used to, but got into it after a while.
Curious to hear how everybody else handled the footnotes – and they are piled on; footnotes to footnotes, in some cases seemingly going on for five or six segues and wanderings. Did you read them at the moment Jones pointed you to them? Or did you collect five or six from a page before you allowed your eyes to wander to the bottom and see what tidbits of film history (the most common usage of the footnotes) he was passing on to you?
This is the way, I did it. When the reference appeared, I jumped to the bottom of the page to read the footnotes. Only within the notes, when the footnotes got four and five layers deep did I just read down line, without jumping around.
When I was distressed by the violence or bored, I read the footnotes. When I was engaged in the plot, engrossed, amused, I held them back and then went back to them at a section break. Like Jones (in this one way, anyway), I teach college, and I felt like I was reading a syllabus or lecture notes a lot of the time. That amused and interested me: I felt like the footnotes gave me a picture of a really charismatic, fun teacher. I read sloppily--I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way--I just kind of guzzled the book. For me, though, more even than the footnotes, the afterword and acknowledgments were the most fun of the book.
I was just happy that they were footnotes and not endnotes, a lot less work on the tennis elbow. Still, I think one eventually reaches a limit in which they go from being useful to a point where I found them tedious. But it could have been less the footnotes and more the story itself. Like I said earlier, I don’t think I would have made it very far in the book without the footnotes—accurate or not. I liked seeing how the connections were made, how the genre itself expanded and contracted and cannibalized itself (pun intended).
I’m bad with footnotes. They distract the flow of reading for me and slow me down. Depending on how many footnotes, I’d wait until reaching the end of a page and then check out the footnotes.
Personally, I read them as the number popped up within the text, assuming at first that there was a reason Jones has wanted to drag my attention away from what I’ll call his main story. The more I did this, the more I believed my original assumption to only be partially true. By the end I was no longer sure that I should really consider the non-footnoted text to be the main story. I had come to look at the entire book, footnotes and all, as the main story; to see that Jones had come up with a more conversational means of telling his tale – one that dipped into tangents, and wandered away from the tale he originally set out to tell, but that those tangents and wanderings were truly part of the overall story – just as they become as such when you sit down with a group of friends and tell stories. You don’t just remember the story your friend tells you about the movie she just went to. You remember her entire telling – the dolt in line swearing up a storm, the ridiculous price she paid for snacks, the lady who sat right in front of her even though there was hardly another soul in the theatre, and, of course, the movie itself. To me, that’s exactly what Jones has put together here.
In my introductory post about why I selected DEMON THEORY, I gave a couple of reasons why I might somehow be predisposed to like this book. But your point about the digressions and the nature of storytelling makes me think there might be another predisposition for me, one that goes much further back in my life than my love of 80’s metal. Growing up with relatives from the Deep South, I remember sitting for hours listening to my family tell stories. My aunt and mother can both turn something as simple as a trip to the grocery store turns into an epic tale. “So I had to get a ham for the luncheon on Friday. I went to the Piggly Wiggly and saw John Downing there—oh, you know John, his mother taught you at Vacation Bible School. Did you know that she recently had a stroke?” And off the story went. Thirty minutes later, if I was lucky, they would bring the thread back to the original plot of going to get a ham at the store. Although no footnotes were abused during the telling of these tales, the digressions just seem natural to me. So it was easy for me to keep up with DEMON THEORY’s footnotes without feeling lost in the plot.
I like the way you’re talking about this more conversational way of telling a story, Dan, because, for me, the coolest thing about the book was the oft-repeated phrase “is the idea.” Jones uses it, after describing a shot or a tone of voice, to nail down what the allusion, the intended tone would be. I loved it even though I thought it was an uneven device. When it worked, I was really excited about it. When it didn’t, I feared that it was just a really easy shortcut to making an allusion, cutting out the thinking for all of us.
And Scott, you’re comment about nested stories really hits home. Such things are a real pleasure of talk, of listening, and of reading: I’m still laughing at your Piggly Wiggly example. And the nested footnotes do offer a version of that, with all their gestures to other movies, to ideas about movies, to other things outside the movies that they remind Jones of…
The book is a trilogy. I’d like to hear what others thought about how the three parts worked together, how the book works as a single book. For me, the first and third parts were miles ahead of the middle. The middle didn’t really work for me, but I can see its necessity as an anchor, as the difference that balances the parts that were for me the most interesting--the human story. And that’s what makes me like horror movies when I like them at all: the story of a restless ghost that really wrenches the heart.
Maybe I missed something, but I thought Demon Theory was written as if it were from a scholarly study of the films. And that’s where I think I began to have a problem with the novel. For a while, this worked, but I’m not convinced that Jones maintained this voice and it did tend to drift into a more conversational format, unlike, say, Mark Danielewski, who did something very similar in House of Leaves, a book I think this one tried very hard to be at times.
Anyway, like Scott, I’m from a family of digressive storytellers, so footnotes don’t easily distract.
<more to come>