In November, I tried to complete National Novel Writing Month. It didn't work out for me. I've tried a few times, and I haven't completed yet, but I'm sure that I will, eventually. I mean, almost anything can happen over the course of eternity, right?
I bring this up because the novel I was trying to write was way out of my comfort zone, and I've been thinking a lot about the prospect of revisiting it.
Sure, I've dabbled in sex and violence every now and then (I even experimented with some Sci-Fi in college), but one thing that I don't ever, ever, ever write is horror. Okay, last year I submitted a one paragraph story to a zine for their horror issue, but outside of that I have never really written anything to be considered horrifying. Still, when November rolled around I thought that for my third attempt at a novel I would perhaps dip my toes in something ghastly, and spooky. I love Halloween, and Dario Argento, and Stephen King, so why not emulate the things I love?
A few days later, I quit writing because the things I was getting my characters involved with was really creeping me out.
It felt icky, this level of disturbing storytelling, because not only did my characters have to go to some dark places, I had to lead them into that abyss. I, like many writers, care deeply for my characters, so I felt just awful about this – and embarrassed. What would people think of me when they read these disturbing things? Not only did I have to think these terrible thoughts, but I, like a madwoman, was committing them to paper for absolute strangers to read later (maybe, I mean, it's not like there are throngs of people dying to read every word I write).
This got me thinking, how do authors overcome this feeling should they have it. When I read gross sections of books, I never stop and think man, Murakami is a freaking weirdo for writing that bit about the guy getting skinned alive. I generally am amazed at how visceral the experience of reading it was, and then move along, because if it's gross/scary/disgusting and, like comedy, bends but doesn't break then it's a feat of talent.
In light of this, I thought I would share some of my encounters with disturbing moments in books and comics.
**Warning, I'm about to spoil the following things for you: Preacher, The God of Small Things, The Walking Dead, and American Psycho. Nothing on this list is newer than 6 years old. If you haven't read them yet, and you're bummed about this spoilage, oh well, you've had 6 years at least.**
Preacher, written by Garth Ennis and spectacularly drawn by Steve Dillon
If you haven't read this, then you're an idiot. I mean that sincerely. Maybe you just haven't heard of it, and if that's the case, then it's not your fault. If you have heard of it, and have passed it by in favor of something else then you're just being a jerk. Don't worry, I passed it up when I was younger. I took one look at it and was all Dude, this isn't for me, dude. But, like a lot of things with regards to my late teens/early twenties: I was wrong.
I don't want to tell you to read it and not prepare you, so I'll say this and then ruin one of the best parts for you: A LOT of raunchy, gross, terrible, awful things go down in this book, but the story is so amazing and well written, beautifully illustrated that it doesn't seem unnatural to find yourself swept up in the story of Cassidy, Arseface, or even Allfather D'Aronique.
Still, during one of the most upsetting splash pages ever, Mr. Quin-Cannon can be found fondling a woman made of meat:
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Unlike Preacher, which uses shocking incidents and strange characters to tell the story of a world that doesn't actually exist, Roy tells the story of twins (one boy, and one girl) who are swept up in, and trying so hard to make sense of a very real adult world that speeds along around and without them. In the novel, Esta (the boy) goes to the movies with his mother and sister to see The Sound of Music. When Esta leaves the movie briefly to visit the concession stand the Orange Drink Lemon Drink man molests him. Or, rather, makes Esta touch him. Roy's description of the incident is shocking and heartbreaking, and feels true. Was it damaging to Roy to have to experience that moment with Esta? I know it hurt to read.
The Walking Dead written by Robert Kirkman and drawn by Charlie Adlard
Look, I know that the show was picked up for a second season, and you're worried that this might ruin your enjoyment of the show. I understand your concerns, however given the response on the letter pages to the following things, I'm not convinced that they're going to even put this in the show. Having said that, if you're still concerned, then stop reading this.
The Walking Dead is by nature grisly. It's a comic about the post-zombalyptic world, and how awful people can be to one another in a survival situation. For most people, it's not a problem to read about zombies, because we know that they aren't real, and that what transpires in The Walking Dead is never going to happen in the real world. Still, there are some things that are so frighteningly taboo, that they create a bridge of fear that reaches from distant, fictional dimensions that leads PURE EVIL to your doorstep.
But seriously though, aren't kids creepy enough without turning them into zombies that their parents can't bring themselves to kill, and instead just stay chained up in the living room, unliving to feast on the remnants of murdered civilians?
Also, what about a kid killing another kid during the zombie apocalypse because the undead have confused him so much about what it means to actually be dead, so he assumes that once he maims his friend that he'll just get back up like the zombies? Brutal, Kirkman. Brutal.
Finally, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
From an author I had always considered to be a "light read" comes arguably the most disturbing and disgusting, detestable and abhorrent book written in recent years (eat your heart out Palahniuk). If you've made it through the movie, thenI applaud you. If you've made it through the book then you deserve something more glorious than the promise of everlasting life and glory in heaven. Honestly, I can't even bring myself to post on here the worst parts of that book. Half-way through the book it's like alright man, I get it, quit with the murder and sex. But then, at the end of the book when it's all "This is not an exit," then it's like no wait, NOW I get it. Cool. Very cool, bro.
Sort of. No matter how good the point is, it's still a little too intense for me.
I can only assume that Ellis did some research. He must have. Recently I was working on a prompt for writing group, when I found the need to research Jeffrey Dahmer. That lasted for about an hour and a half. The story was only about a page and a half. I can't imagine the kinds of things Ellis had to look up. Or, maybe in this case, I really hope he had to look some things up. I can't imagine coming up with much of what is in American Psycho without needing to really visit the edge. Once you know the limits of your thinking, can you ever return? I'm not talking about an Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test here or anything, but I do worry a little bit that writing things that are too terrible can create these false memories, or accidental psychic damage. I'm sure that's not true.
Just in case, here's a kitten to erase all of those awful things from your brain:
Courtney Algeo likes food, video games, and compulsively watching Grey's Anatomy. If you need a freelance writer summon her astral body.