I’ve been thinking about comfort stories. They’re like comfort food, warm and familiar with no surprises, just more of what we already know we like. As a writer, I’m not interested in writing the same story again (I have a very short attention span), but as a reader, I devour Dick Francis and Rex Stout and Georgette Heyer, and my repeat watchings of Leverage and Person of Interest have no end. I’ve watched Big Trouble in Little China so many times, I can recite the dialogue ahead of time. And yet, I go back again and again.
I started thinking about comfort stories this weekend after I watched The Hitman’s Bodyguard, a movie with Samuel Jackson and Ryan Reynolds playing Samuel Jackson and Ryan Reynolds. That is, it was about Jackson and Reynolds being cool and snarky and violent and shooting guns; and the bad-but-really-good guys won over the bad-no-really-bad guy who was played by Gary Oldman playing the Gary Oldman Bad Guy. There wasn’t a surprise in it anywhere since these three guys can do this beautifully in their sleep now, but it was still fun to watch (fave moment: Reynolds bitching that Jackson had ruined the word “motherfucker,” “which isn’t easy to do.”). Wait, I lied about the surprise: Salma Hayek spitting scenery was always a wake-up moment. Reynold’s love interest was the cookie-cutter beautiful-instantly-forgettable-hot-former-girlfriend-who-still-cares, a trope I am becoming more and more annoyed with. (I’m still bitter that Darcy didn’t get Thor in the first Thor movie. Now THAT would have been a romance.) Mostly it was Jackson and Reynolds flirting with guns and each other (of course it’s a bromance, and for once I didn’t wish they’d just go for it because Hayek was so perfect for Jackson), and for one night that was plenty. It was a comfort story.
I get the same feeling from the billionaire books on BookBub. I had a thought at one point that I should buy half a dozen of them, read them and take notes (once an academic, always an academic) and then do a snarky billionaire book. Maybe SHE can be the billionaire. No, that makes him a fortune hunter. Maybe he isn’t a billionaire. No, that cuts the juice out of the trope. Maybe he’s not that good-looking and is kind of bumbling, but then you find out why he’s a billionaire . . . no, Heyer did that in
Sprig Muslin. NO, NO, IN COTILLION. Maybe she’s a . . .
Can’t do it. If you strip the comfort out of a comfort story, it’s just another story..
Maybe that’s why the Marriage of Convenience story has survived in the twenty-first century , a time pretty much made for walking away from people you don’t want to be with.. That they’re-trapped-with-each-other-until-they-fall-in-love story has morphed into a dozen variations on the theme–they’re snowed in, they’re trapped in an elevator, he’s hired to protect her and can’t leave her side (I’d really like a she’s-hired-to-protect-him, but hey), they’re pretending to be married to solve a crime (any trope that’s good enough for X-Files, Person of Interest, and Leverage is good enough for me no matter how many times it’s been used)–and I still greet them with delight. Come on, who didn’t squeal when Reese and Zoe went undercover with Bear in suburbia? The MOC is the uber-comfort story. It’s the non-sociopathic version of the rape romance: I didn’t want to but I had no choice (because I had to solve the crime, save the ranch, defeat the forces of evil). And then once I got to know him . . . . (I’ve decided all rape romances, regardless of historical significance, should die in a fire, but that’s just me. And a hundred million American women who have had it up to here with men who don’t understand that you are not allowed to touch unless invited. Specifically invited. Preferably in writing since so many men are so damn bad at reading body language. And undestanding the word “No.”.)
Of course there are comfort stories that are stand-alone and wonderful. We just did Hogfather,, and there’s Thief of Time and Going Postal and Good Omens. Pratchett is a comfort read because he repeats the same world and characters, but he makes a new and different story each time. I think that’s voice and world view even more than character and place. I go back to Pratchett because I want to spend time with Susan, but even more because I want to spend time with Practchett.
And of course the other reason I’m thinking about comfort stories is that I’m hauling out my Christmas trees and plugging in lights and wrapping packages and doing all the other things that tell my Christmas story. I even have a creche that I Iove; it’s a Mexican clay set with cactuses with chickens on top of them. I’m not a practicing Christian beyond “Try to be a good person,” but I love that manger scene. Because of the chickens. And I love my Christmas trees which stay decorated so that all I have to do is plug them in every year. They’re my comfort story for December.
All of which has convinced me that comfort stories are necessary to mental health. We can’t always be challenged, surprised, thrilled, and terrified. For Americans, that’s our everyday reality now, (Go, Kristin Gillibrand!) so fantasy has to step in to save us. As 2017 finally comes to a close (please let 2018 be better, please, please, please), I am now here to praise comfort stories.
Also, if you live in Alabama, go vote against that lying child molester. I need some surprising but good news tonight as I watch Brokenwood again.
THANK YOU, ALABAMA!