One of the things I’ve noticed in reading a lot of contemporary dark fiction is something that my wife and I have termed “the Bagoo problem.” This is the problem where an author decides to use an esoteric demon/ghost/monster/Bagoo as his or her Big Bad, and then introduces said creature via clumsy exposition.
Is that not clear enough? Well, at the risk of over describing, read on, MacDuff . . .
The term “Bagoo Problem” is our colloquialism derived from the Red Letter Media review of the movie “Sinister.” Mike and Jay discuss one of the many shortcomings of the film and identify the point where the character Ethan Hawke (played mediocrely by actor Ethan Hawke) asks a local professor (via Skype) of symbology what kind of evil he (Ethan Hawke the character) might be facing. And despite being besieged by Baghul, a pre-Pagan deity enamored with child-icide and possessed of the power to exist/emerge through any visual representation of itself — a monster that has hidden in the shadows for thousands of years — the symbolist immediately says “Oh, yeah. What you got here is a Bagoo problem.”
First, that’s literally fucking phoning in the story-telling.
Second, it makes no sense. Why would a professor of symbology know what the Baghul is? Why would THIS one? Well, there are reasons that he could know, but they would involve a kind of explantation or logical basis or character development that isn’t present here. Nope, instead, some professor at University of Phoenix Online (go Icons!) happens to know that there is some pagan deity that thrives on kiddie murder and is so thoroughly connected to and able to emerge from visual representations of it that he can not only identify said Baghul, but also provide PDF copies of the only 3 images left since the dawn of woodcutting from which ol’ Baggy does not arise.
Instead, the symbologist says something along the lines of “What you have here is a Bagoo problem.” And then everybody accepts it and moves on.
This is a real problem in contemporary horror fiction. Not the Bagoo, per se. But rather the presence of arcane and eldritch baddies that are beyond the ken of any man, except for the guy on Skype who can point you right to the Wikipedia entry.
I’ve already said that I don’t like to slag anybody off, so I won’t refer you to an author who I consider the worst offender, but instead I’ll try to give you examples of what I think is awful and how (maybe) it could be better.
The Monsters of Wikipedia
Sometimes when I’m bored or need inspiration, I go trolling through wikipedia. I look up “Jack the Ripper” or “demonology” or “Ophiocordyceps unilateralis” and check out the links and sift around and wait for something horrible to stir my imagination.
The problem, however, is that when you or I find something that spawns the idea for a story, we stop there and try to shoehorn it in. The result is a very detailed and elemental baddie, BUT . . . it’s also usually attended by some figure more than willing to barf some exposition all over you.
I REALLY wanted to give some specific examples of authors that I think do this too often, but I’ve said before, my goal isn’t to slag anyone off. (You might be able to email me for one, though . . . )
So here’s a hypothetical.
Looking through wikipedia i find that there’s something called a “Neck” . Part of that entry tells me about a related demon:
It was often described as a majestic white horse that would appear near rivers, particularly during foggy weather. Anyone who climbed onto its back would not be able to get off again. The horse would then jump into the river, drowning the rider. The brook horse could also be harnessed and made to plough, either because it was trying to trick a person or because the person had tricked the horse into it.
OH MAN! That sounds great!
So now I’ll write a story about the “bækhesten” (which I can’t pronounce). My main character is Mario Tuzziaro, a guy in a pizza place who sees the pony ride down on the greenway at 56th and the West Side Highway. While he’s deciding whether to ride or not, however, a savvy homeless guy comes up to him and says “Hey pall, haven’t you heard of the ‘bækhesten’????” If not, let me tell you about the mythology for the next 25 lines.
Now you have a Bagoo problem.
Why would a homeless guy know about this very specific type of water-daemon? Well, because the author read about it online. So someone needs to know how smart he or she is.
Again, I don’t want to slag anyone off but I read a recent story where Ol’ Grampa Coalmine of England not only identified a “jinn” on sight, but knew that it was a fire elemental and that the way to combat it was with ice. Oh, and he told his grandson. Because that’s what you do when you have information that you wouldn’t normally have as a character . . . you EXPOSIT it.
As you can imagine, even good writing can’t save those stories.
There’s a Larger World. . .
None of that is to say that water beast or jinns can’t make good stories. In fact, they could probably make great stories!
There’s a reason that mythology made it through the years, and that’s because it often strikes a primal chord.
For example, what is it about the “Neck” that lets it endure across generations and cultures? Something about the seduction of control? The fear of giving oneself over and then being destroyed? Does that tie in with the sexy nymph aspect as well as the riding horse aspect of the demon’s appearance?
Okay, so why not a story where hapless Johnny O’Toole tries to take his girlfriend on a hansom cab ride down by the river? But she hates it, even though he’s enamored? Maybe there’s a fetching woman cabby. Maybe they’re flirting. Maybe she drives them off the pier and into the sea. And while he’s sinking down into the shipping channel, his girlfriend (Hannah Goldsmith) floats off the seat while Johnny (poor old Scottish Johnny O’Toole) is stuck fast to the seat and disappears into the muck?
That’s ticking off all those same monster boxes. It even has the a hint of the ethnic overtone. BUT, and this is big, nobody is saying “Hey! Watch out for those kelpies!” Poor Johnny might be getting Bagoo’led, but nobody is saying “Hey, what you got here is a Bagoo problem.”
Ok, fair enough. But what if it’s important that somebody recognizes that this is, oh let’s say, an ifrit that’s causing trouble?
Well, first of all, it’s probably not. Your audience will either: A) be savvy enough to distinguish an ifrit from a naiad without your help, or B) not give a shit, they’re just here for a story.
Assume that it is, however, assume that it is important that you name it. That for some reason, the name is far more important than the primal and basal trappings of the particulars of your chosen Baghul. If it is truly, truly necessary that the character (and your reader) identify it as the Bagoo, ask yourself: How do I introduce it?
UGH, WHY DID YOU NAME IT?
Grampa North-England: “I recognized it was a jinn.”
Reader (me): “Are you kidding? Why would he even THINK that it was a jinn? Where did he learn about Middle Eastern mythology? Was there any fire? WHY DID HE THINK THAT?!”
And just like that, any good writing in the story is blaaaaarrrrggh.
First of all, as I intimated above, I don’t think you need to name the horror. By all means give it the aspects of some mythological beast (or invent your own); make it detailed and disgusting and horrible and modern and amazing. But maybe let it’s true name be fan-service or something hidden for the close observers. Ride the subconscious wave, but don’t over-describe it via naming and exposition-vomitting.
BUT, if you are going to name it, for the love of Bagoo, try to make it organic.
If I’m going to put a Jinn in New York, who is going to identify it?
Will it be Johnny O’Toole?
No. Although his grandfather down at “Druids” on 10th and 50th might give him a clue as to the kelpie.
Will it be Michael Ramirez, the door man?
No. He has no established frame of reference for a jinn.
Will it be Yahia Masal, the Persian cabby?
Maybe. Now we’re getting close. He might be an old man, who fled from Iraq during the invasion. Maybe his grandfather was actually born in the 1800s. Maybe he preached a fiery mix of the Quran and folk tales. Maybe he knows what a Jinn is. Or, better yet, maybe he’s seen one. Maybe he thinks he has and he wants someone to do something about it, hidden as it is in the form of a kindly old woman. The neighborhood is at risk, don’t you understand?!
If Johnny O’Toole tells you about the Persian demon, you’ve got a Bagoo problem.
If Uncle Masal down at the cab stand where Johnny’s grandpa works changing the tires tells young Johnny? Or if Johnny grew up on 1001 Arabian Nights and Disney movies, perpetually obsessed with the idea that he’s the hero of a story that’s just about to begin?
Well, that sounds like a story.