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What Is a Novel-In-Stories?

February 9, 2017

As some of you may remember, we had James Dorr join us for a Meet the Author interview a few weeks ago. He is back with a deep guest post for us today! Take it away, James!



It had been a time when the world needed legends, those years so long past now.

 Because there was something else legends could offer, or so the Poet believed. He didn't know quite what--ghouls were not skilled at imagination. Their world was a concrete one, one of stone and flesh. Struggle and survival. Survival predicated on others' deaths. Far in the future, when our sun grows ever larger, scorching the earth. When seas become poisonous and men are needed to guard the crypts from the scavengers of the dead. A ghoul-poet will share stories of love and loss, death and resurrection. Tombs is a beautifully written examination of the human condition of life, love, and death, through the prism of a dystopian apocalypse.

By James Dorr


This is the publisher’s blurb for Tombs: A Chronicle of Latter-Day Times of Earth, condensed perhaps but fair enough (and positively flattering in that last sentence!). It has been described as being based, at least in part, on Edgar Allan Poe’s concept in “The Philosophy of Composition” that “The death. … of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” But there’s something to be said about structure too, and in this Poe may have a comment as well.


In his essay “The Poetic Principle,” Poe states that “a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul.” Hence a true poem must necessarily have a certain brevity. “That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags--fails--a revulsion ensues--and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.” While there are such things as epics, of course, to Poe, despite the need for unity for a work as a whole, such a work in practice becomes a series of shorter poems, though perhaps not so much through the fault of the poet as that of the reader.


I think I agree with what Poe is getting at--that at best the “good bits” will be interspersed with duller parts in a reader’s perception, and judging from Poe’s own works of fiction, I think he means for this to apply to prose as well. So as to my own work, at least as a writer I prefer short stories to novels. I see much of my work as a study of character under unnatural stress, especially in horror and other dark forms, and while I love diversions and atmosphere and descriptions and explanations to help as intellectual support, I think there is an emotional center which only can be sustained for so long. 


In view of this, I chose to write Tombs as a novel-in-stories, or what’s sometimes called a “mosaic novel,” one not so much presented as a continuous narrative, from start to finish, but rather assembled from independent chapter stories, some in fact already published before (two even appear in my 2013 collection, The Tears of Isis, while a third story there, while not in Tombs, is set in the same universe). The idea is there’s a larger story, in this case that of the world itself. But the approach to it is oblique, as if through, say, a series of snapshots in a photo album from which the reader might assemble a more complete picture in his or her own head.  


One example is a book written more than sixty years ago--and one of my favorite novels of all time--Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, in this case assembling a “history” of the colonization of Mars through a series of stories, strung together with shorter vignettes. There are other examples in non-science fiction/dark fiction/fantasy contexts such as Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club or John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy. But the thing is, this is one way around Poe’s dictum, above, of being able to sustain a core idea--intellectual, aesthetic, emotional--only for so long. Yet, even given that constraint, to compose what may still be a story of epic concept. 





James Dorr is an Indiana based short story writer and poet. Learn more about his writing on his website: JamesDorrWriter

You can pre-order a copy of Tombs in paperback from Amazon for only $14.99. Get your copy here today!



Until next time, 


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