So, The Shelter. It’s generally got very positive reviews, but recently a couple of stinkers have trickled in. Which is just one of those things, obviously – don’t worry, this isn't going to be one of those posts where a minor author no one's ever heard of has a massive sweary breakdown just because they got a one-star review. But I do read all the reviews I get and I did think there was a certain common factor that both these two were complaining about:
“It didn't say much about [the] being in the shelter. I didn't think it was a horror story more a book about things playing with a boys mind.”
“You never find out what's down there or even get a description. !!”
I think these reviewers were expecting a more traditional horror story, with an ending where Alan Dean confronts the thingymabob in the shelter, finds out what it is, and defeats it, somehow.
Well, The Shelter was never going to be that kind of story - as you’ll know if you've read the afterword, I conceived of it over fifteen years ago and whilst much has changed between then and the final draft, the ending has always been the same. So I'm relatively relaxed about those reviews as they relate to the story itself (although arguably my blurb needs to make it clearer what kind of book this actually is).
What it seems these reviewers are both complaining about, when you get down to it, is ambiguity. I've spoke a lot about ambiguity in the Strange Stories feature on this blog and generally praised it as something that distinguishes a good weird fiction story from an average one. I've mentioned different kinds of ambiguity, from not fully revealing the ‘monster’ (“You never find out what's down there!”) to ambiguity of perception (“more a book about things playing with a boys mind” – I love that angle on the The Shelter, actually).
But it’s an unfortunate fact that, whilst I believe such ambiguity is crucial to a certain type of horror fiction, it isn't very commercial. At all. From a commercial fiction point of view, the story of The Shelter might appear to be literally unfinished – what happens when Alan goes back? Does he find out what is down there? Does he defeat it? You're not telling me the whole story, godamnit! There’s nothing wrong with stories with that type of traditional structure, and I enjoy reading them if they’re well written, but as a writer my main interests are elsewhere. (This perceived need for narrative closure in commercial fiction probably goes a long way to explaining the commercial superiority of the novel over the short story and novella, but that’s another post.)
But, crucially, ambiguity doesn't mean arbitrary. I didn't stop the story of The Shelter at a random point just to be annoying or because my writer's cramp was flaring up. It stopped at the point where there was nothing more to say about Alan Dean’s flight from his past. He has finally decided to go back. I'm sure we've all been in situations where we've agonised over an important decision and then, once we've made it immediately felt better just because the decision has been made. The result of that decision almost doesn't matter that much. One way or another the die is cast, and we feel better for it.
That was the kind of closure I was going for with the story of Alan Dean. From that perspective, the ending isn't ambiguous at all. It ends at exactly that point where the central character's mental dilemma is resolved. In fact I'd go one further: continuing the story would have introduced more ambiguity, because whatever happened would have inevitably cast doubt on the rightness or otherwise of Alan's decision...
Maybe there are no truly unambiguous endings. Maybe, like life, all the author can do is trade off one set of ambiguities against another.