What makes a story an enduring classic? Schweitzer approaches this from the other direction by looking at one that is not: a forgotten pulp story from the 1920s called ‘The Gray God’ by J. Allan Dunn. In it, an American adventurer finds a distressed damsel whose father disappeared when searching for the island of Motutabu, possibly a victim of pirates. They set sail, they are harried by the pirates along the way, and finally reach the island where the enormous face of the Gray God is carved into the cliffs.
Up until this point ‘The Gray God’ is a superior example of pulp adventure fiction, with a keen eye for detail, and a considerably less racist tone than many of its contemporaries. But the conclusion is ultimately unsatisfying. There is a gun-battle with the pirates, the father is released, and the adventurer gets the damsel. The typical adventure tropes of the time and nothing more.
Now, consider ‘King Kong’. It has many structural similarities with ‘The Gray God,’ even having the vast carven image dominating the island. But instead of a typical battle with human villains, it offers a huge ape. The action climax isn’t on the island, it takes place in civilisation. It is this escalation that makes ‘King Kong’ a more enduring story. Hence the title of this article.
This is the idea Schweitzer has been building up to, and he illustrates it with several more examples. It’s a healthy reminder that, “all fiction is formula fiction. There is a hook. The story starts on some point of interest, conflict, or tension. But somewhere, usually near the end, if the story is to be memorable, it must stop being formula fiction and become unique. If the author has any compelling, personal vision, this is the place for it.”
What This Story Needs is a Giant Gorilla: Thoughts on the Pleasures of Formula Fiction by Darrell Schweitzer
Availability: print only
Word count: 1,500
First published: The New York Review of Science Fiction #211, March 2006
Where to find it: The Fantastic Horizon, collection, 2009, Wildside Press