How Far Is Too Far?

Psst-Masked-GirlI keep most of my New Pulp writing in the PG-13 range but I’ve been known to cross “the line” on occasion… some of you may remember when Sun Koh mutilated a rapist in an old Peregrine story, for instance. And my novel Rabbit Heart is basically a study in excess! Whenever I thought that I might be pushing the envelope too far in that book, I went ahead and tore it open.

But when is it *really* too far?

I’ve kept hardcore sex and violence out of Lazarus Gray, for instance, but there’s an element of subjectivity there, as with all artistic endeavors. When I wrote The Damned Thing, there was a scene early on that involved oral sex. To be honest, I’d forgotten about it by the time it saw print — it was just a brief character moment and believe it or not, not every scene sticks in the mind of the person who wrote it (I write a lot of scenes…). So when it came out, I had a reader who went on and on about that scene and how much it disturbed them. I didn’t even remember what they were talking about! See, for them, that was shocking and extremely memorable. For me, it was no big deal. So you never know how folks will respond.

But there are times when even I know that I might be going into territory that would be best left undisturbed. I’ve mentioned before that I started writing a sequel to Rabbit Heart — it was going to be titled Starstruck. In fact, I wrote about 12,000 words on it, meaning it’s about 20% complete. But even as I was writing the opening scenes of Starstruck, I knew that this probably couldn’t see print. Despite how far I’d gone with Rabbit Heart, I went a lot further into the disturbing territory with just the first 12,000 words on Starstruck. There is at least one scene in there that I think would be hard for people to get out of their heads when they thought of me… and I’m not quite sure I want to go there.

Nobody’s read Starstruck – not even people who’ve really begged & pleaded! I’ve thought about finishing it but it’s so dark and if I didn’t publish it, what would be the point? I’ve considered completing it and then sticking it in a box with a note to say that it could be published after I was dead & gone but then I’d miss the perverse pleasure of seeing people freak out!

On the other hand, I don’t want to tone the story down, either. If I’m going to write disgusting smut then by God, I’m going to write disgusting smut!

Anyway, I think that I’ll continue staying on the PG-13 path for most of my New Pulp work – I often try to craft stories that will appeal to adolescent boys the way that classic pulp did me when I was that age. A little titillation is fine but I try not to veer too far into adult territory. Of course, sometimes the characters demand their course of action (like Sun Koh did in that Peregrine story) and often what I consider PG-13 isn’t what someone else would. In fact, I had one lady tell me she’d never let her 15 year old son read my books because they contained too many “demonic” elements.

In the end, the work puts whatever restrictions on itself that feel appropriate. When I’m writing The Peregrine, there’s a certain feeling to the world that lets me know the basic parameters, even if I sometimes bump against the guard rails.

One comment

  1. Well, having read „Rabbit Heart” several Times I have to admit, that I was kinda disturbed by it several times, and had to make breaks when reading, instead devouring it on one sitting, as I usually do, despite the fact that it is really well-written.

    I mean, I am a big fan of classic gory slasher movies, and even ultra-brutal Asian gore movies like “RoboGeisha”, “Tokyo Gore Police” or legendary “Riki-Oh – The Story of Ricky”, but even I was a bit squicked by graphic scenes of rape, torture etc. that appear in the book.

    But really, when I think about it now, it added to the book, building it’s dark, gritty atmosphere, instead of diminishing it in any way.

    I think, that all of “Rabbit Heart” readers hated the villains, who committed such heinous crimes, and finally seeing them on the receiving end of our heroine’s trusty machete was really satisfying for them. It sure was for me…

    Same thing with Sun-Koh example above.

    Despite being a villain, and a Nazi to boot, Sun has his code of honor, and watching him taking apart slimeball who raped hopeless young girl just because he tough he could, was not only satisfying to see, but also helped to show many facets of our Aryan “Man of Destiny”.

    So, in my humble opinion there is no such thing as “going too far” IF the author can write such things well, and somehow justify them, make the reader emphasize with protagonists and so on.

    Why, many of the greatest novels of all time were considered “too brutal”, “too obscene” or “too controversial” during their initial release.

    Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” is counted among the greatest classic novels, and one of the prime achievements of XX century’s literature, but it is also a book with a sympathetic protagonist, who is a pedophile, and has a sexual relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter.

    William’s Golding’s “Lord of The Flies” is also a classic, yet it has reader observe a group of schoolboys descent into savagery, brutality and committing murder just for their own amusement. It was also chosen as one of 100 most important English-language novels of all time.

    Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is not as shocking now, as it had been during it’s initial release, but it still has descriptions of orgies, recreational drug use, widespread pornography, casual sex also involving minors etc. It is also one of best dystopian novels ever written, and one of the most important novels of XX century.

    And what about something more mainstream, and recent? Well, here we go:

    Jeff Lindsey’s “Dexter” series was hugely successful, got a long-running TV adaptation, even though it’s protagonist is a brutal serial killer and sociopath, who’s only redeeming quality is the fact that he only targets criminals like himself. And maybe the fact, that his warped view of the reality is darkly humorous.

    While I am not a fan of “The Broken Empire” series by Mark Lawrence, I have to admit, that it has a rather nice world-building, and an interesting hero. Who is a callous murderer, and rapist, who would stop at nothing to get power and revenge he yearned for, since his childhood, which gives us graphic descriptions of rape, torture, and violence.

    Or, going for a lesser known example, in Poland there is a popular fantasy series called “Inquisitor Series” taking place in the alternate reality, where instead of dying on a cross for humanity’s sins, Jesus Christ had decided to punish the wicked. Then he “stepped down from The Cross with fire and steel in his hands” and led the Apostles to “drown the streets of Rome in blood”, and “beheaded the last emperor, Neron with his divine hand”.

    Since my country is about 90% Catholic, it’s release had caused a huge scandal, religious zealots had petitioned for a ban of the whole series and so on. Since then the author had written four main books of the series, two spin-off series, and is in process of writing another novel, while being one of the most popular fantasy writers in Poland.

    So, in a nutshell, I think that no author should auto-censor himself, if he is sure that some elements of his story, even those controversial ones, are needed.

    Of course I am just a schmuck from Eastern Europe, who never written anything else than a few reviews, so I may be wrong 🙂

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