by Chris F. Holm
Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure what's off-limits for me when it comes to writing fiction. Looking back over my bibliography, I've written tales that include violence by and toward children, animal deaths, sexual assault, torture, hate-crimes, cannibalism, and a host of other taboo topics.
Only here's the thing: I'm kind of a wimp when it comes to grisly fiction. Reading over that first paragraph makes my writing sound so nasty I wouldn't even read it, let alone write it. But the truth is, I can count all my uncomfortable writing moments on one hand, and I've never once received a lick of feedback (review, email, tweet, whatever) that complained I'd gone too far. (Which is more than I can say about my penchant for colorful language; that's gotten me a letter or two for sure. So for those playing along at home, violent crime is a-okay, but referring to the perpetrator of said violent crime as a shitweasel is a no-go. Who knew?)
I suspect the reason for that is that many of the taboo topics I write about, I handle obliquely, and usually off-screen. (One of my stories that features animal deaths, a burgeoning serial killer, and the kidnapping of a little girl was still somehow tame enough to appear in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, if that gives you any indication.) Which suggests to me that my own personal squick-barometer doesn't so much dictate what I should or shouldn't write as it does how I write what I write. (Man. Say that three times fast.)
But since we're on the topic of crossing lines, I'll tell you something I truly have no stomach for (besides war movies and true crime, which I know is my own weird hang-up; I have trouble enjoying anything if it centers around actual folks actually dying): the culture of transgressive one-upsmanship that's sprung up in much of the modern noir coming out these days. There are a lot of reasons to tell stories - to illuminate, to inspire, to educate - but in the end, as Reece said Monday, their primary focus is to entertain. Maybe a small subset of the population finds reading the bleakest, nastiest, most unrepentantly vile stories they can get their hands on entertaining, but I sure don't. And unless you're Cormac McCarthy, you're probably not illuminating much of anything by writing them, either.
Take it from a guy who's tackled some nasty subject matter: The real trick isn't horrifying your audience; that part's easy. The real trick is to horrify (or thrill, or frighten) your audience, and make them want to keep reading anyway.