Sunday, April 20, 2008

Editing, Part Two

We've all had it, I'm sure: that feeling, when reading something, that we've read this before. Sometimes it's a case that the reader has re-discovered a work that he or she initially read many years earlier and had forgotten; sometimes it's an author taking a theme or plot or situation that another writer first thought of and turning it into something new. Authors occasionally do this with their own works: for example, Arthur Conan Doyle used the central plot device of 'The Red-Headed League' three times, in the initial story and later in 'The Stockbroker's Clerk' and 'The Three Garridebs'; M. R. James re-used the plot of 'The Mezzotint' in 'The Haunted Doll's-House'; and Agatha Christie utilised the same setting and basic characters in the novel Evil Under the Sun and the short story 'Triangle at Rhodes', albeit bringing each work to a very different conclusion.

The ghost story world is full of examples of authors who use the work of earlier writers to work their own variations on a theme. H. R. Wakefield's 'He Cometh and He Passeth By!' is an obvious nod to James's 'Casting the Runes'; Frank Belknap Long's 'Second Night Out' is Marion Crawford's 'The Upper Berth' all over again; L. T. C. Rolt admitted that his tale 'New Corner' was inspired by Wakefield's 'The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster'; Edmund Crispin's 'St. Bartholomew's Eve' is James's 'Count Magnus' in another guise (the story also inspired Wakefield's 'The Sepulchre of Jasper Saracen'); E. F. Benson's 'The Bus Conductor' is a spin on Rose Champion de Crespigny's 'The Shears of Atropos' (which itself is based on a well-known 'true' tale told by Lord Dufferin); while Benson (with 'The Step') and Ruskin Bond ('A Face in the Night') are clearly borrowing from Lafcadio Hearn's 'Mujina'.

This leads us to slightly murkier waters. While in all these cases the later writer is clearly riffing off an earlier tale, and making no apologies for it, each author has managed to take the original work and infuse it with something new, something which makes the new story at once a recognisable tribute to an earlier work but something which stands on its own as a fine tale, without ever tipping over into plagiarism. Less clear-cut is another adaptation of Hearn's 'Mujina', which I first encountered in a book aimed at younger readers by Bernhardt J. Hurwood. Chilling Ghost Stories (1973) was presented as a collection of new stories, but one of the tales, 'The Thing', is clearly an unacknowledged swipe of Hearn's tale. And imagine my surprise when I first read Arthur Gray's Tedious Brief Tales of Granta and Gramarye and realised that although I had never, to the best of my knowledge, read any of Gray's stories, three of them were familiar. A little thought and a brief hunt through the bookshelves supplied the answer. 50 Great Horror Stories, edited by John Canning, purports to be a collection of tales which, according to the introduction, 'have in common the fact that they are either true, have been recorded in contemporary documents as fact, or have become such a prevailing folk myth as to suggest some evidence of actual occurrence'. However, three of the stories—all as by J. Wentworth Day—are retellings of tales written by Gray for Tedious Brief Tales. 'Sung to His Death by Dead Men' is a retelling of Gray's 'The True History of Anthony Fryar'; 'The Dead Killed Him In His Own Grave' is based on 'Thankfull Thomas'; and 'The Man Who Turned Into a Cat' is 'The Necromancer'. In all three cases Day introduces the story in the context of the present day and then gives us Gray's original, more or less verbatim, with no acknowledgement anywhere in the book that he has done so. I've encountered this same situation three times in my reading of stories submitted to All Hallows: works which are not merely tributes, or homages, or nods towards the work of another, but which are plagiarism, pure and simple, in which the author has tried to pass off the work of another as his own.

The first such instance I recall was a tale concerning a man who has the ability, when walking through a cemetery, of looking at the tombstones and seeing written there, beside or beneath the pious sentiments and uplifting remarks concerning the deceased, comments which more accurately—if angrily—reflect the true nature of whoever is buried there. When the man comes to the tombstone marking the grave of his recently deceased love, he reads 'She was cuckolding her fiancĂ© and going to meet her lover when she caught a chill and died'. This is, of course, Guy de Maupassant's 'Was It a Dream?'; it had been rewritten in slightly more contemporary language, and re-set in America, but apart from that there were no changes to the original.

The second instance was a story concerning a man who goes to check over a holiday cottage he's thinking of renting, and encounters mysterious goings-on concerning a snowstorm, a surprise visitor, a car in the garage, a dead body, and a disappearing woman. I hadn't read very far before realising that it was A. J. Alan's 'My Adventure in Norfolk', again re-set in America and updated language-wise, but with none of the charm or humour of Alan's original. The third was a story concerning a man whose ancestral home is haunted by a weeping lady, who appears once a year and cannot be got rid of, until the homeowner hits on the plan of luring her outside into the freezing night, where she turns to ice, after which time she is stored in a refrigerated warehouse for all eternity. 'Ah,' you are all saying, 'it's John Kendrick Bangs's "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall" all over again.' Yes, indeed it is, but as with the Alan, without any of Bangs's humour; and once more, the story has been re-set in America. I sense a trend here.

In all three cases I wrote back to the author in question—none of whom were known to me—politely pointing out that the stories they had sent in were plagiarisms of quite famous stories. In no case did I receive a reply, which is hardly surprising: what on earth could the author say? But it would have been interesting to get a response, and find out why on earth someone would try something like this. It also makes me wonder if any of the authors tried submitting their stories to more general markets, where the editors were less likely to spot the similarities with the original works.

The bottom line is that there's a very fine divide between homage and plagiarism, and the wary editor has to be on guard. By all means, look to the work of past writers for ideas and inspiration; but when you sit down to write, it's probably best not to have the original work at your elbow as you type.


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This is a classic example of why it is vital to be well read in your field. Not only does it make you better in your job & a more interesting person to talk to, but it keeps you from looking like a fool when people try to con you. There are those who say that no-one has ever lost any money underestimating the taste of the public, but I don't entirely believe that. People do want fresh, well-written stories & not just the same stuff rehashed & watered down. I think that's one reason cable tv is successful in the US, despite the fact that is almost no longer distinct from "regular" tv in its use of commercials. Perhaps being in the pay of two masters (the public AND the advertisers) helps keep the quality a little higher than most of the dreck to be found on US tv.

Marvin said...

Just dropped by. I did a search on other blogs that liked the poetry of Thomas Hardy, and you were the only other one listed.

enjoyed reading your blog.

Barbara Roden said...

Thanks, Marvin! Haven't posted anything on Hardy's poetry (yet), but hope to do something about one of my favourites, 'The Convergence of the Twain', one of these days.