A long time ago, I read some useful words of advice about hatching story ideas. It’s so long ago I can’t even remember who wrote the words. But the gist of the thought is this: often the best story ideas come from linking two unrelated ideas you have, ideas that came to you weeks, months, perhaps years apart. You make a connection between these two ideas (or three or four), and you may just have the germ for an intriguing tale.
My novella Jungle Horses developed this way. It began as a story about a horse race gambling addict in London. I knew how it would start and where it would go, up to a point. A married guy of older middle age, a weary man whose best friend is his wife’s lover, would see his life change because of his betting fortunes. But the change wouldn’t happen as he’d hoped or foreseen. Then what? Something clicked in my head and I thought of another story idea I had, one that had to do with a sinister island in the Caribbean. Certain odd phenomena were occurring on this island. Would it be possible to send my poor London guy to this island for the second part of my story? If so, what would prompt him to make this trip? I meditated on this for a while and then found an answer. Yes, a reason did exist to send him to the tropics, and the second part of my story could take place on this island, far from the guy’s familiar environs. He would have to deal with different horses there. They’d be a mysterious breed, not thoroughbred racehorses like the ones he knew, and would impact him in a huge way. But the London part of the tale was realistic, the island part, as conceived, fantastic. So…blend them. The fantastical would and could happen in the new environment, gradually transforming his character. A merging of genres if you will, noir and fantasy, with the shift in tone coming about as imperceptibly as possible. In fact, I thought, this genre fusion should be a lot of fun to do. In one section I’d try to create the dark mood you get from noir fiction, in the other the uncanny atmosphere you find in a certain type of fantastic fiction. These are two strands of fiction I love, and it just so happens that these two strands aren’t combined all that often.
The main character, Arthur, is a guy I had fun with because of how pathetic he is. He’s a World War II veteran and a former landowner in colonial Kenya, but he’s gone to seed since returning to England. Besides his gambling, he drinks too much. The challenge here is to make the reader care for him despite his sorry existence. I fudge on the time in Jungle Horses, but it’s suggested that the story is taking place during the 1960’s or 1970’s, and Arthur seems like a man from an earlier era, when Britain ruled the world. Unfortunately for him, that era has passed. There will be no returning to the luscious farm he owned in Kenya. He is, as Graham Greene might say, a burnt-out case.
If British tales of defeat and decline were an inspiration for the London part of the story, the Caribbean island section reflects other influences entirely. Call it a sub-sub genre: the tale that takes place on a weird island where an outsider comes and tries to understand what is going on around him. In a large scale way, Lost of course used this conceit until it ran off the rails. Over complication destroyed it. But the best of these stories keep things simple, with one fantastic premise as the underpinning. H.G Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau is a favorite of mine, and as I was writing Jungle Horses I also had mind two short novels by the great Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares – The Invention of Morel and A Plan for Escape. All three of these books are sterling examples of fantastic fiction. They are concise, fast moving, and suspenseful. Each develops its premise meticulously so that the reader believes what’s presented. In each, the island-bound protagonist is at first baffled by the phenomena he encounters, and he has to investigate and explore. Danger is involved, physical, emotional. There’s a kind of peeling of the onion effect in these narratives; more and more is revealed to the protagonist until he understands what is behind the island’s mystery. And if the fantastic is done well, the key to the enigma should have a kick that surprises the reader but comes across, in the context of the story, as plausible. In Jungle Horses, Arthur reaches this point of discovery, and by the time he does, he is far away, mentally as well as geographically, from his old noirish world in London.
The publishing history of Jungle Horses is a curious one. Several years back, I submitted a somewhat different version of the story to a small press and they accepted it for publication. An ISBN was assigned and the title appeared on Amazon, albeit without a cover illustration. I’d approved the completed artwork for the cover, but nothing went further than the artwork and the galleys because the publisher soon was arrested. Federal charges, mail fraud, the FBI involved. As the FBI agent in charge of the case told me after a raid on the publisher’s office, all rights to material acquired by the publisher would now revert to me. Good news, but for whatever reason, call it demoralization, I didn’t send Jungle Horses anywhere else. It sat in my computer in a Jungle Horses folder for years and years. Still, something about giving up on the story bugged me. From time to time, I’d open the folder, read the story and close the folder. Then one day I kept the folder open and found myself reworking the story, trying to improve it, polish it. I said what the hell and sent it out, and J. David Osborne at Broken River Books took it. What a tortuous road for a slim book. But it did end up in the right place: Broken River sure as hell isn’t averse to a little genre mixing. This time around the whole process has been a pleasure, though even the adventurous Mr. Osborne did express some surprise when I told him that the person I last signed a contract with for the book got 65 months in Federal prison.
“She has no rights to it now, though,” I said.
“You sure?” he asked me. “No issues with that?”
“Well, she can’t sue me from jail.”
I don’t know how many books have been launched with these particular words, but I have to say I liked them.
Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He is the author of the crime novel Spiders and Flies, and his short fiction has appeared in various places including Thuglit, All Due Respect, and Spinetingler Magazine. Each summer, he hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series in Manhattan. His novella Jungle Horses is out now from Broken River Books.