You can identify good writing by how easy it is to take for granted. Tight, well-crafted, emotionally and intellectually engaging prose keeps the reader’s attention focused on the story. The words, sentences, and paragraphs flow so effortlessly from page to page there is no reason to consider that someone spent months, perhaps even years, slaving over them, or that each unit of speech was deliberately put on the page to elicit a certain response from the reader.
Bad writing, by contrast, draws attention to itself. A reader spends more time puzzling over poorly worded or clunky sentences, more time noticing grammatical errors and continuity problems, than following the story. Bad writing steals the spotlight and prevents readers from truly engaging the work.
If bad writing is an attention whore than Ronald Kelly is her pimp and Hell Hollow the brothel she calls home. When describing Hell Hollow to one of my writer friends I told her to recall every writing “don’t” she’d ever learned in class or workshop, mix them all together, and slap a cover on the mush. That is Hell Hollow in a nutshell.
This ho-hum horror novel follows four tween-age kids as they battle the evil Augustus Leech, a con-man, magician, and murderer who is basically the Freddy Krueger of Kentucky. I can’t tell you any more about the story than that because I spent all five hundred pages correcting grammatical errors, re-wording poorly written sentences, crossing out unnecessary text and dialogue, and wondering why Kelly’s editor didn’t fix all these problem before the book went to press.
The lack of craft here is mind-boggling. Hell Hollow is full of extraneous words and adverbs, unrealistic and unnecessary dialogue, and clunky sentences. Kelly has difficulty maintaining an age appropriate voice in his twelve year old protagonist, and the pop culture references his young characters throw around are twenty years out of date.
What bothered me the most was how Kelly tried to avoid using his characters’ names as a way of spicing up the narrative. For example, on page 170 Kelly writes, “The elderly farmer sat at the kitchen table and listened as the boy’s footsteps mounted the stairs,” when he could have written the shorter and more natural sounding, “Jasper sat at the kitchen table and listened as Keith’s footsteps mounted the stairs.”
I counted more than one hundred similar monikers throughout the book. Each primary character has at least six that Kelly uses liberally when attributing actions or dialogue. The villain alone has more than a dozen. Kelly refers to him as “the traveling medicine man,” “the sadistic traveling medicine man,” “the medicine show doctor,” “the man in the stovepipe hat,” “the lanky wanderer,” “the tall man, “the dark man,” and “the murderess showman” all long after he has introduced the character by name.
Not only is this one of the many ways amateur writers attempt to liven up dull prose, but it indicates Kelly views his characters as “types” rather than people. He repeatedly refers to his four protagonists as “the city boy,” “the farm boy,” “the handicapped boy,” and “the girl.” And that’s all they are. They aren’t given much personality beyond the stereotypical image each of those monikers calls to mind. If you read this blog with any regularity you know I can’t get into a book unless it contains at least one three dimensional character. I think complex characters can save otherwise unremarkable stories, and it’s too bad Kelly didn’t bother to write any into Hell Hollow because I found it impossible to care about a world populated by stereotypes.
Perhaps worst of all, Hell Hollow isn’t scary. Kelly fails to build any sort of tension, and seems to think describing something as “dark” and “gloomy” automatically makes it frightening. At no point did I feel like the main characters were in real peril, even as they were fighting for their lives.
Actually, Hell Hollow is scary, but not for the reasons Kelly intended. The sloppy writing and lack of craft made me scream more than once, and the corrections I continually scribbled in the margins left my hands trembling. If you’re one of those masochists who read Twilight just to see how awful it was, you might enjoy picking Hell Hollow apart. But, if you’re looking for a chilling, well written and thought out horror novel, you’d best look elsewhere.