Turning into Mary Whitehouse over gore and evil (longer post)

I had a horrific middle-aged experience a little earlier. I was reading a novel about a serial killer (not my usual fare) and as there was another description of a horrible murder that he was going to get away with, I caught myself thinking “Why do people enjoy this? And that last X-men movie would have been an 18 when I was at school, not a 12. We’re going to hell!”

AaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh! Next I’ll be conviced horror writers should be locked up in asylums!

When someone asks me how or why I enjoy the occasional horror movie or story, my standard comeback is “Did you enjoy watching Schindler’s list?” or somesuch. Appreciating fiction does not imply that you approve of everything that happens in it any more than reading Oliver Twist implies that you like exploiting children. It’s there to create drama.

An immoral main character can be more troubling, especially if they’re charismatic. Sometimes you just love to hate them. If done right, you can empathise with them a bit at the same time, like a well-done Macbeth. But some of my friends like gangster films, and often I sigh inwardly and think to myself “I couldn’t give a pair of foetid dingo’s kidneys about any of these characters, in fact they should all just die right now and the world would be better off.”

People who like being a bit scared aren’t so much a cause for concern; who doesn’t enjoy a good shiver? When it comes to blood, guts, and torture though… hmmm…

I usually prefer my horror to be supernatural or scfi. A bullying scene in a contemporary school hits me worse than anything the Evil Dead have ever done (PS avoid the remake). If you’re to worry about anyone, it should be the crime and the gangster fans, where it’s more believable. Or maybe the people who like history programmes, because those things really happened.

No; the people we should be most scared about were the ones who liked Tom and Jerry/Road Runner. Given the casual sadism taught by so many childrens’ cartoons, I’m surprised my generation didn’t do even worse. Then again, seeing how even Rolf Harris has just been convicted of child abuse, maybe the problem was the people making the cartoons…

Then we have “dark” fiction where there are no good guys, terrible things happen, sometimes the world doesn’t get saved, and so forth. But it has to fit a story and be plausible. It turns out that villains always winning can get just as bad as heroes always making miraculous rescues, and that being dark just for the sake of it is just as tiresome as perpetual sunny optimism Even when they avoid that, it can be like trying to appreciate a painting portraying the inside of a coal cellar on a moonless night; there’s no contrast. And if I liked stories with no good guys and things going wrong, I’d probably be reading the papers instead.

Of course, if you genuinely are disturbed by something, you rationalise it. You convince yourself that there was a plot hole, a character violation, that you disliked it because it’s boring, not because you can’t take the harshness. Maybe that’s what has happened to me with some of the “dark” stories I was thinking of.

And of course, when that happens to critics, they put it in their reviews. Peeping Tom and Night of the Hunter were utterly panned by critics at the time, but are now acknowledged masterpieces.

Isn’t all of this exposing my inner philistine though? Why should art have to be morally instructional? I for one would not want to live in a world where some literary Hayes code legislated “every villain must be clearly defined and never gets away with it.” But there are lines. Birth of a Nation may be a great and seminal film, but I’d never watch it because it endorses the Ku Klux Klan. Likewise, Roman Polanski may be a good director, but I’m never watching another one of his films since I found out about the child-rape charge.

Those lines people draw, though… they’re all in different places, and often not even going in the same direction! Irreversible, one of the most harrowing and harsh films I have ever seen, was endorsed as an intensely moral film by one critic (it forces one to consider the act of revenge in isolation, then adds shocking plot twists). But according to some people, the very presence of graphic and sexual violence would mean the director was sick.

All of this is rather rich coming from someone who likes Game of Thrones… but that wouldn’t be the only thing I like to have been condemned by some. And I’m not a fan of the added Gratuitous Titillation in the TV version.

Of course, there are the nasty copycat murders when someone acts out something they have read or seen. Stanley Kubrick pulled “Clockwork Orange” when that happened (Anthony Burgess always stood up publicly to defend his book, which had a different ending to the film). One horror writer (Stephen King?) responded to a copycat crime by saying that without him, they would have comitted murder in a less imaginative way. Another writer likened it to accusing a potter because one of their vases was used to hit someone over the head.

You never know whether someone was bad because they liked horror, or if they liked horror because they were bad. Not everyone who likes horror is evil, not everyone who is evil likes horror. Keep up at the back!

In all my New Scientist reading, only one media factor has ever been shown to influence whether someone commits a violent crime or not: and that is exposure to REAL LIFE violence. If we want peace, we should spend more effort looking after the children and less worrying about fiction.

I am working on the final edit of Pendragon’s Shadow, a novel I think is harsh in many places but without anything that would itself make it unsuitable for younger people. I asked a friend for recent fantasy novels I might compare it to in a pitch letter, and good grief, isn’t the first one bloody! Must I add lashings of red stuff and entrails to my book to be taken seriously? Should the protagonists turn amoral? But the point of the book is that they’re well-intentioned and it all goes horribly wrong!

I’ll need some distance on that one. Like swearing, sometimes less is more.


About jamestucker1972

Aspiring writer!
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