Thursday, April 22, 2010

Writing is easy ... emotion's the killer

I hate hurting children.

Despise it.

Even in books.

I was attacked by a pair of knifemen when I was 11, and the terror of those several moments when they debated how to slit my throat and stuff me in the state campground's two-holer is as vivid today as it was back in 1967. So. I. Hate. Hurting. Children. Even. In. Books.

I do it anyway. Sometimes art is a Nazi, and I write crime fiction. Meaning, crimes, not daisies and puppies and sunshine. Realistic crimes. Brutal crimes. Crimes that make your soul take a long shower cause they're so greasy.

Occasionally, against kids.

Because that's real life.

So: The Hardest Scene I've Ever Had to Write (To Date) is in my current book, Cut to the Bone. The bad guy is Corey Trent, who's sitting on Illinois Death Row, waiting to be electrocuted tomorrow for a double homicide:

A pregnant mother and her unborn child.

Which I now gotta write.


To this point, the book is a maddening tease: Did Corey Trent commit the crime for which he is going to be electrocuted? Or is he an innocent victim of Death by Politician, my term for our current system of capital punishment. (Not that I've taken sides, mind you.) The secondary story I show throughout Cut to the Bone (in a series of flashbacks) is of an innocent man burned to death in the Illinois electric chair for a crime he did not commit. So, the reader naturally fears that Trent is being wrongly accused too.

Below is the scene, word for word, I wrote to show not only that he's guilty, but that he was happy to have done the inhuman crime and would do so again if given the chance. It's the first time the reader knows this for sure, so the scene had to be strong, nearly medieval, to depict the stunning depravity of Corey Lucas Trent. The images were so strong in my brain (Trent's act was based on a real murder that occurred in the Chicago area, not too far from my home) that the words poured out my fingers like a broken hydrant. One draft and done.

But that didn't make it easy. I cried throughout, heart pounding, jaw muscles pulsing like little hearts. Took me a day or two afterwards to want to get back to the story.

Art is a nail-studded bitch sometimes.

So, the scene. If you're squeamish about blood, don't worry: it's only a conversation. Two murderers on Death Row, talking. Repeat, it's only a conversation; no blood, no gore, no knives, no guns. Only words.

Only words ...

Which tells you that anyone who dismisses wounding criticisms as, "Hey, it's only words," ought to have his or her head examined ...

6:19 p.m.

"How's the tooth?" the grandma strangler said.

"Wiggles some," Corey Trent said. "Healing all right though."

"Cool. Be a shame to lose something that first-rate."

Trent nodded. He'd implanted a steel tooth in the smile-gap the cop had created by stomping his face into goo during the arrest. Looked cooler than hell, the tooth did, all shiny and stainless, and it burnished his rep as a genuine bad-ass. But the other day he'd taken a ferocious beat-down from some prison guards pissed about something or other. Feared he'd lost his sparkler, it wiggled so much. But it was turning out all right ...

"So what'd you want to talk about, man?" Trent said, stretching.

The grandma strangler pried apart the baked food loaf the prison claimed was a square meal. A couple of beet chunks, greenish and hard, flopped onto the grimy concrete floor. He picked them up, popped him into his mouth. Get sick they can't execute you, that was the law. The cons ate all kinds of shit hoping ...

"My brother got into town today," the strangler said, looking away in case Corey was uncomfortable talking about this topic. "Couple cousins too. Gonna witness my burn next Friday. So I was thinking I could ... well, you know."

"No, I don't know. What?"

"I could ask them to come by tomorrow."

"Come by for what?" Trent said, genuinely puzzled.

"For your burn, man. You said your family's not coming. You won't have no one when you die. That sucks." The words burbled freely now. "You can have my family if you want. They're good old boys. Won't mind seeing it twice."

Trent was touched by the offer. Couldn't say it, of course. But still.

"Naw," he said, punching the strangler's arm. "Be all right. Just cause my people's a bunch of pansies doesn't mean yours should do double-duty." He grinned. "Not like I'm gonna die anyway."

"Shee-it, boy, you gonna fry like hash browns," the strangler said, wincing as he bit on something hard. "Just like I'm gonna next Friday. So, since we're dead men talkin', I wanna know something. I want the no-shit truth, Corey."

Trent arched an eyebrow. The strangler's slightly crossed eyes gleamed, and he moved closer.

"Are you guilty?" he whispered. "Did you really cut that big ol' cow into McNuggets like they say?"

Trent snorted. "Hell, no, I didn't," he scoffed. "I've never killed anyone in my life."

"Me neither," the strangler said, spitting out the hard piece. It bounced into a urine puddle in the corner. He briefly considered retrieving and swallowing. Stayed where he was. Some things were more disgusting than death.

"If you're innocent, then why you on the Row?" Trent said.

"I was framed."

"Me, too," Trent said.

They stared at each other.

Burst out laughing.

"You sure you wanna know what happened?" Trent said.

"Yeah. I do."

"Aw right then," Trent said, settling back against the concrete wall. Its dungeon coolness radiated through his prison-issued denim. "Here goes ..."

Old lady wants a kid. Me too. I don't want her screwing up her figure, though--that ho is hot and I got her broke in just right. So I grab my keys and go shopping.

Few minutes later I'm at the preggo store. You know, toys and stuffed elephants and diapers and shit. A preggo's in the parking lot, waddling back to her car. Like a walrus, all stuck out. Looks beat as hell.

I roll down my window, ask directions to a church. Real polite, ma'am and miss and I pray your baby's blessed. She smiles, leans close, all trusting. I whack her in the head with my tire iron. Jump out and throw her in the trunk. Tie on the gag and take off.

Hour later I'm at the abandoned gas station where I take all my side ho's. Variety is the spice of life, right? Ha! Anyway, this place is out in the country. Nothing around but crickets. Boarded up tight. I know which nails are rusted away, of course.

Drag my preggo inside. Bout broke my damn back cause that balloon of hers ain't exactly helium. I rope her hands to a busted toilet, her feet to a pipe. Stretch her like a hammock and slap her awake. Big cow eyes flicker open.

I pull the knife from my pants. It's eight inches long and thick as a--no, man my knife. T'other's a yard long and a foot wide. At least. Ha.

Preggo whimpers into the gag. She already knows what's gonna happen to her. Since I know it too, I figure let's get it on. She follows the blade like one of those hypnotized snakes.

I cut away her clothes, then her panties. Take my time; she's good-looking for a preggo, why not enjoy it? I rub her down there to open things up, then put in the blade. She's screaming like Judgement Day into the gag. Guess it was, for her. I start sawing, adjusting my angle as the red squirts out. Gotta do this right, you know. Can't damage Junior or the ho will be pissed.

Meanwhile, I'm slurping them plump ol' titties. Man they tasty. All fat and goobly cause a bun's in the oven. Salty like pretzels, they are. Maybe peanut butter.

I cut straight up to her ribs, then across, then down. Her belly falls down. Kinda like the flap on long johns, right? Kid's right there, all webbed in like Spider Man. I yank him out. I know it's a boy cause of his Johnson, though it's shrimpy as a prison guard's. Ha! I smack his ass to make him breathe--saw that on TV once--and he starts yellin' like he's been shot.

I tuck Junior into my coat. Don't want him catching cold. Preggo's dead, bled out. I thought about fucking her, but t'weren't nothing left down there to fuck, right? Besides, it'd be kinda weird, her dead and all. So I walk away.

Three steps and something's tugging on me. I forgot to cut the cord! So I grab a handful and pop it off. Preggo bleats like a sheep. I hit my head jumping so high--it was fuckin' zombie time, man. I stab her in the neck till she's dead dead. Then tuck the cord under the kid, so it don't leak all over my leather seats. We leave.

I'm just about to my car when the kid starts bawling. Shut the hell up boy or I'll cut you like your mama, I say. He's not obeying, so I shake him. Gotta let 'em know who's boss or they walk all over you.

Next thing you know the little bastard's taking a dump on me. Damn, it stinks. Hey, quit laughing, it was damn awful smelling that shit. Anyway, the kid stunk like a hog farm, and now I do too. He's screaming harder. So I smack him till his eyes wobble, jam a hanky in his mouth. Now he's quiet.

That's when I hear crashing steps. I turn around. Two big bastards, rushing me like nose guards, something shiny in their hands. They hollering Police, freeze, don't move or we'll blast ya. Like Miami Vice except their clothes are shitty. Turns out they're on stakeout a couple miles away and stopped at the gas station to drain the lizard. Looked inside while shaking 'em off and saw the butchered preggo. Heard the kid howling, spotted me.

I take off. I know these woods like the back of my hand, so it'll easy to lose two big dopes who don't, right? I wish! They're gaining on me every step. So I wind up and bounce the kid off a tree stump. They're police so they have to stop to save him. This I know like the gospel of Jesus--they gotta stop to save a life.

Wrong again. Martin Benedetti, he's a sheriff's guy, he stops. Starts doing that CPR. But the other one keeps charging. Branch, his name is. Local cop. Got some goofy name like Caesar or Detroit ... Hercules. That's it, Hercules Branch.

Anyway, Branch is about caught up to me no matter how fast I run. So I fall to the ground, start hollering I give up, don't hurt me none man. But I'm hiding my knife under me. He lands on top, jangling handcuffs. I snake around and sling my blade. Catch him right across his ugly face. He springs a dozen leaks, eyeball to chin. Keeps fighting, but weaker now. I wiggle out of his grasp. Gonna stab him in the heart fore he gets to his gun and triggers a buncha bullets in my ass, then lose myself in the woods.

I hear a bellow. Like Godzilla or something. I look up. It's Benedetti, and man is he pissed.

I get up the knife but he don't care. Kicks my arm like a football. Knife spins into the trees, arm goes the other way. Benedetti rips out a chunk of my hair, then locks up my good arm. Snap, it's broke too. Hollers crazy stuff about my son, his son, dead sons, everyone's son. Knocks me down and starts stomping. Those boots hurt like crazy so I kick him in the nuts. It's like they're made of cement--he don't care. He's on fire. He kicks the snot out of me. Smashes my face on a tree root, knocks out my front tooth. I know I'm gonna die, right then and there.

Then he's off me. Branch is yelling at him, Can't do it, man, can't kill him, ain't got no weapon no more. Dumb-ass cops. I'm them, I kill me dead and stick the knife back in my hand. These knuckleheads, they're too "moral" for that. They got "rules." I don't. That's why I always win. Always, always, always.

Only thing I regret is not having my son no more. Woulda been fun having one of them. They play ball and shit, fetch beer when you say. Make you look good. Walk tall. But Benedetti screwed that up. Forced me to kill my own damn son. If he hadn't made me do that, who knows? Maybe Junior woulda come by Sundays to visit his old man. Maybe even show up tomorrow to watch the burn. Me and Junior, we were close, he woulda come ...

"Now that," the grandma strangler said, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, "is one bitchin' good story."

Trent punched the man's arm, happy to have the audience. Saying he was innocent all the time when he was actually proud of his work got pretty damn old.

"Stick around for tomorrow," he said happily. "The sequel's even better."

- - -

Like I said, the writing went fast--it poured out in one take. The most emotionally fraught scenes are the easiest for me to write, as my fingers feed off their raw energy.

But seeing the computer screen through my tears?

Now that's tough.

My only regret in writing this was choosing that particular scene to read to an audience. (Bill was there, he'll tell ya.) I thought it was profound, and it was. But I could see in their faces they didn't like it one little bit. I should have picked something more benign, left this strictly in the book, to be dug up like a slime worm in a graveyard. Live and learn.

As you probably figured out, I didn't get killed in 1967--the two attackers heard someone coming and broke it off, choosing instead to flee. (Hey, if they hadn't, some zombie-guy would be typing this instead of me. Ha!) But the memory lives forever, and in a funny way, helps make my writing better. Emotion is a great motivator.

And, I killed Corey Trent in the execution chamber.

Payback, in books as well as life, is sweet.


That essay was way too serious for Fridays with Shane, wasn't it? All right, here goes:
Archie Comics announced today that Riverdale High is getting its first gay character. In an issue out Sept. 1, the long-running comic will introduce its first "openly gay" character, Kevin Keller. The strapping blond hunkety-hunk will defeat Jughead in a burger eating contest, win the affection of Veronica and wrestle over how to gently rebuff her flirtations. Jon Goldwater, co-CEO of Archie Comics, says the introduction of Kevin is "about keeping the world of Archie Comics current and inclusive."

My comment: Cool beans, and about time--gays have been part of society since the first human crawled out of the primordal ooze and said, "Hey, do you work out?" But more important: Will Betty out herself in solidarity? Or finally get it over with and get laid with SOMEbody for God's sake ...

Shane Gericke is the author of Blown Away, Cut to the Bone, and starting July 6, 2010, Torn Apart, the third in his national bestselling crime series starring hard-charging police detectives Martin Benedetti and Emily Thompson. For excerpts from all three books, please click here to go to his website.


Terry Stonecrop said...

Oh man, that knife hurt going in. But I'm glad the cops got him and you killed him off. Nice day's work!

I'm also happy you got away in that attack. Phew! You must have had nightmares forever. It's true, emotions, especially the painful ones, strengthen your writing.

That last graf made me laugh. Good way to end a Friday post.

Bill Cameron said...

Whoa. Damn, man, you know how get a guy's attention.

Shane Gericke said...

Thanks, Bill. My scenes can be the equivalent of a guy in a raincoat sometimes :-)

Terry, thank you too. It was very satisfying to take my baddy to the cleaners. It was entirely by luck I got away in real life. If folks weren't coming up to relieve themselves, I suspect those two would have followed through. To this day I couldn't pick them out of a lineup, though. Interesting the things that memory will block. Tells me a lot about the worth of eyewitnesses in violent crimes, that's for sure.

Next year, they'll reveal that Archie was born in a galaxy far, far away ...

Gabi said...

I've never been able to go there. I salute your avenging this horror on the page.

I also had to reread the guy in a raincoat comment. I'm either particularly warped today or your scene brough all the boogie men out of the woods.

Shane Gericke said...

Probably me who's extra-warped today, Gabi. Bill said I know how to get a guy's attention, so the joke was about the guy in the raincoat who flashes people to get attention and ... ah, weak joke. No wonder you had to reread it :-)