#9 in a series, following ‘Sock Puppet, son of Sock Puppet’. An earlier version appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006.
Prigs, by and large, are euphemists. Although it was Heinlein who invented (or at least publicized) the term speculative fiction, it was the prigs of the field who fastened upon it as their preferred substitute for the indecently descriptive name science fiction. Thirty or forty years later, the prigs of another field, shrinking from the straightforwardness of the word horror, cast about for a suitably pretty substitute and came up with dark fantasy.
Millions of ordinary readers like stories about science, or stories about things that frighten them; they seek them out. To a prig, this will not do; and so he must demonstrate his superiority to the rabble (as Ted Nelson put it) by calling a spade a muscle-powered terrain disequilibration system. Both terms, thankfully, have gone rather out of fashion since their first vogue. ‘Speculative fiction’ was simply too ugly for anyone but a prig to use, and in any case it clashed violently with the older and more useful term ‘writing on speculation’, or ‘on spec’, meaning the nearly universal practice of writing a story before it is sold.
‘Dark fantasy’ was eclipsed for a less encouraging reason: the adjective no longer draws a distinction. ‘Darkness’ is now a quality that pervades the whole fantasy field, so that what used to be the exclusive business of horror writers is now expected of fantasy writers generally. The field has been overrun with detailed and loving description of grotesque acts of torture and villainy, of a kind that used to be found almost exclusively in ‘psychological’ horror, and in the kind of films that the British used to call ‘video nasties’. I have discussed David Eddings’ Grolims in this connection, but they are poor and feeble things of their kind, crippled in their villainy by the editorial standards of Del Rey under its founders.
Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey knew well that teenagers were their primary audience, and that enormous numbers of their books would be sold or given to pre-teen children. They also knew that the usual contingent of book-burning fanatics of both the Left and the Right were likely to form an angry mob if they caught the del Reys polluting the minds of those children with obscenities and horrors. Fantasy was just beginning to be accepted as part of the American literary landscape in the 1970s; when the del Reys replaced Lin Carter at Ballantine, the ink was scarcely dry on Le Guin’s essay, ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’ So they trod carefully; too carefully, some said. The late Jack Chalker used to regale audiences at cons with the story of how Judy-Lynn doggedly prevented him from using the word ‘hard-on’ in a Well World book, and how he eventually broke his option clause by writing a book so ineradicably pornographic that she had no choice but to reject it. At that house in 1982, Aztec human sacrifices were about as graphic as anyone was allowed to be.
Since then, the fantasy genre has shared in the general coarsening of manners and sensibilities; but as a general thing, it did not begin to plumb the depths of mindless gore until the near-total collapse of the horror market in the early 1990s. Since then, the tropes of horror have been tricked out in new clothes, and much that would once have been called ‘dark fantasy’ was rebranded to avoid the commercial stigma of a genre in eclipse. So we see the spread of horror stories set in Secondary Worlds — and, inevitably, their degraded coattail riders, ooga-booga splatter tales set in the dark underbelly of Fantasyland.
As with one of my previous complaints, the New Mexican school of Stephen R. Donaldson and George R. R. Martin have done much to blaze this infernal trail. Donaldson’s space opera, The Gap, contains some fine old Gothic gross-outs, many of which are justified by their effect in the plot; but in several places he crosses a line that I could wish he had avoided by a generous margin.
The first book of the series, The Real Story, is largely concerned with the serial rape, torture, and brainwashing of Morn Hyland, an interstellar police ensign, by Angus Thermopyle, a thoroughly disgusting small-time space pirate. Compared to some of Angus’s other crimes, his destruction of Ensign Hyland is almost a trivial excursion into kink; but the obsessive detail that Donaldson lavishes upon these degrading scenes is something disturbingly new to his oeuvre. Thomas Covenant committed rape, but he believed that he was dreaming at the time; a jury would probably find him not guilty by reason of insanity. And he spent the rest of the six-volume series striving extravagantly to expiate that crime in any way possible. Angus Thermopyle made rape an art form, and indeed was so repulsive in both appearance and behaviour that he would probably have died a virgin if he had waited for a partner’s consent. His sociopathic love affair with Morn begins with this:
She was still unconscious, perhaps because of his beating, perhaps because of the drugs the sickbay computer gave her. She had no idea what was happening as he undid her shipsuit and peeled it off her limbs.
He couldn’t stop trembling. After all, it was a good thing that he’d hit her. The darkness and swelling of her bruises made her bearable: if she’d remained perfect, he would have had no choice but to kill her. So he paid no attention to the firm lift of her breasts or the velvet curve of her hips. He concentrated exclusively on the livid hurt of her bruises as he climbed on top of her.
His orgasm was so intense that he thought for a moment he’d broken something.
He goes on breaking her for the next forty pages of a book that barely weighs in at two hundred all told.
Now, Donaldson specializes in drawing his heroes from the dregs of humanity, showing them at their worst, and then following their long, painful trajectory into moral awareness and redemption. The description of Angus’s crimes can be justified as necessary to establish the plot, though many readers have stopped cold at the first rape scene, and I myself find the detail painfully excessive. But Angus is not the only murderous misogynist in The Gap. Indeed, there is such a frequent strain of brutality towards women among Donaldson’s villains that a good Freudian critic could probably have the author himself up on charges.
He reaches nadir in the third volume, A Dark and Hungry God Arises, with one of the most disgusting scenes in recent literature. Various characters are conferring privately in a bar where a stripper is performing. She comes on stage already naked, and her act consists of cutting off her own breasts and then disembowelling herself — with a dull knife, to increase the pain. Electronic valves have been surgically implanted in her arteries to prevent her from bleeding to death, and as soon as her intestines hit the floor, she is rushed off for reassembly so that she can perform again when her wounds have healed.
But there is no necessity for any of this in the plot. We never see the woman again, and in fact the planetoid where she lives and suffers is blown to atoms at the end of that book. It is merely a bit of lurid background, intended to show what scum frequent the bar where Donaldson’s characters have chosen to meet. And Donaldson has already given us copious evidence of that. In short, the whole scene is dragged in by the heels for pornographic value, like the lovingly crafted splatter scenes in Z-grade horror movies, to see which members of the audience are jaded enough to find it titillating, and which are still sensitive enough to vomit. The title character of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho cuts off a woman’s breasts and eats them, and Hannibal Lecter captures Clarice Starling’s boss and feeds him bits of his own brain. In a perverse way, Donaldson is keeping distinguished company, but it is not a distinction worth coveting.
Those who perpetrate this kind of diseased splatterporn always make excuses for themselves, and it is generally the same excuse, for their apologias are even less original than their fiction. In 1990, when the horror genre was in the final throes of the same death by obscene hyperbole, Harlan Ellison answered this excuse with the derision it deserves:
When a literary form begins to run out of ideas, the last stop before the abyss is the escalation of the elements, the coarsening of the themes, the amateur’s belief that simply to shock is enough. And so, if we begin with the discreet shadowing of the scene as the vampire bends to the throat of his victim . . . and we move a little further into the light with each succeeding vampire story . . . then we come, at last, to the crude writing that describes in detail every spurt of blood, every diseased puncture hole, every last bit of minutiae of bodily functions, abhorrent perversion, disgusting child molestations, exploding heads, morsels for rodents, overstated and purple-prosed phobias. In short, the salting of the land.
And that is where the “horror” genre has come to a death rattle. I choose not to name the names, because some who perform in this manner are friends of mine; but you know who they are. They say they are only writing thus to “awaken” us, to “bring us in touch with our nerve -ends.” What a load of horseshit.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
They obfuscate with that sad, sorry song about how they need to shock us into awareness.
In medicine, they only use shock treatment when the patient is insane, cataleptic, or dead.
Just as the horror genre is dead. Or insane. Or cataleptic.
(Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan. 1991)
Donaldson posits that on a planetoid with a population of a few thousand (including transient ships’ crews), enough people would share this particular kink to make it a regular show-biz attraction. Among the billions of humans now living, I suppose, there must be a few twisted souls who have the peculiar combination of sadism and voyeurism required to get off on the sight of a woman doing such things to herself (as opposed to the woefully larger number who might be excited by seeing them done to her), but hardly enough to pay for her surgery after every show. Angus Thermopyle & Co. didn’t even pay a cover charge. This scene is objectively disgusting, in the etymological sense that it is carefully designed to make us lose our appetite if not our lunch. Of course, if something is disgusting enough, someone is bound to defend it as ‘realistic’, ‘gritty’, or ‘edgy’. But a more accurate description would be ‘revolting twaddle’.
About the time Donaldson introduced this ‘gritty, edgy realism’ into neo-pulp SF, Terry Goodkind was making the selfsame detribution to fantasy. (Detribution is a word I coined a while back to describe the act of contributing something of clearly negative value, like putting two bottles of lighter fluid on a charcoal barbecue, or pissing in a pot of soup. It is really depressing how often I find occasion to use it.) The torture scenes in Wizard’s First Rule occupy only a small percentage of the book, but it is such an enormous book that Richard Cypher ends up being sexually abused and traumatized for the length of a young novel. After the book appeared, a wag suggested that Goodkind should cut out all the padding in the sequel, and show his hero being tortured all the way through the book. The character of Princess Violet, the little girl who has been systematically trained to torture and execute her servants and playmates, is if anything even more disturbing. Goodkind’s prose is written on a level suitable for early adolescents, but if these scenes were committed to film, they would guarantee an NC-17 rating.
There is no need for this degree of loving and obsessive detail. Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings was of necessity, given the nature of his medium, more graphic than the books. But even he stopped far short of the grossness that Donaldson and Goodkind seem to take as a norm. There is only one scene in the films that is actually set in Barad-dûr. It is a brief flashback, in which Gollum is tortured into revealing the whereabouts of the One Ring, or as much as he knows about it. We never see the tortures themselves, only his hands writhing and clawing the air while he screams the fatal words: Baggins and Shire. And yet it is enough, and more than enough. I have never heard that any viewer found the scene less convincing because we were not shown the torturers’ apparatus at work.
But in print, where there are no ratings or censors to worry about, it seems that such restraint is passé. George R. R. Martin is a brilliant and accomplished writer, but A Song of Ice and Fire is largely a paean to just the kind of pornographic violence and untherapeutic shock treatment that Ellison so caustically derides. Almost at the beginning of A Game of Thrones, a brother and sister commit incest in full view of a four-year-old child, and when they discover that they have been observed, throw him out of the window of a tall tower to get rid of the witness. That book and its sequels do not abound in sex scenes, but when sexual acts are portrayed they are nearly always instances of one perversion or another. We see huge numbers of characters slaughtered, maimed, mutilated, lavishly tortured, assassinated, betrayed to their deaths by their closest allies — a regular litany of ‘realism’.
Martin’s plot is loosely based on the Wars of the Roses, but in some respects those wars were singularly genteel. Henry VI was carefully shuttled back and forth, a prisoner but alive and undamaged, from one side to another, for over a decade before the Yorkists felt secure enough in their hold on the throne to do away with him. The armed and titled hosts of the rival Plantagenets slaughtered one another with great gusto, but compared with the devastation of the Hundred Years’ War, the civil war in England sat lightly on the civil population, and the country in general was seldom despoiled and never lastingly impoverished. Scorched earth and Schrecklichkeit are not viable tactics for a combatant who intends to live off the taxes of the country he is trying to conquer. Winston Churchill has called the Wars of the Roses ‘a conflict in which personal hatreds reached their maximum, and from which mass effects were happily excluded.’ A fair verdict, but not in the least applicable to Martin’s circus of horrors. Not until the Second World War did it become routine practice in this world to wage a war with such bloody-minded malice. But a generation that has been taught to think of every war as another Vietnam can scarcely be expected to know that.
One signal difference between the historical wars and Martin’s fantasy version is the role of religion. The Catholic Church, and still more the mediaeval ethic of chivalry, steeped as it was in Christian sentiment, held an unquestioned supremacy in fifteenth-century England. Certain things were simply not done, and public revulsion and swift retribution followed the criminals who breached the code. It is far from certain that Richard III executed his young nephews in the Tower of London, but many Englishmen at the time believed it, and that belief helped to fuel the fresh round of rebellions by which the apparent victor was finally overthrown. Some of Henry Tudor’s partisans at Bosworth Field were motivated by political gain, but others by moral revulsion against a usurping and murderous King; and the ranker soldiers, who did not stand to gain by a change of sovereigns, must largely have had the latter motivation.
But in A Song of Ice and Fire, the rather colourless gods of Westeros and their priests, the ‘septons’, neither restrain the slaughter nor even cry out in vain against it. Stannis Baratheon, one of the innumerable pretenders to the throne, imports an outlandish cult of his own, and the more primitive paganism represented by the Targaryens is always on the verge of recrudescence. Religion is nothing more than the complaisant handmaid of politics, and politics is pursued only by the most brutal of means. There is no Parliament, no Kingmaker, no truce that the various sides will honour even for the blink of an eye; only ceaseless war and cynical betrayal.
Robb Stark, the most nearly heroic of the rival kings, is put to death with all his retainers at a wedding meant to secure a valuable alliance, and by the bride’s family — the supposed ally — at that. In feudal Europe, no sane nobleman would have violated the laws of hospitality and marital contract so grossly and glibly. Not only was it among the worst of sins to murder guests under one’s own roof, it was colossally imprudent as well. When diplomacy was conducted largely by marital alliances, to commit a massacre at a wedding was an excellent way to ensure that no one would ever ally themselves with your family again. But Martin’s murderers and betrayers seem to escape retribution and even censure. Nobody appears to expect them to behave any better than they do.
I started reading Martin’s series because it had been lavishly praised and had sold enormously well, and I wanted to keep myself posted on what the best of my prospective competition was up to. I followed the story through three fat volumes, at which point nearly every character who had ever been known to do a decent or unselfish deed had been brutally killed, and Westeros was in the hands of as pretty a collection of homicidal maniacs as one should ever find outside a maximum-security prison. By the time the fourth volume appeared after a long delay, I found that I just couldn’t care anymore. It was the salting of the land.
Harlan Ellison correctly predicted, in the essay quoted above, that the horror genre would implode and all but vanish within two years. My interest in Martin’s carnival of obscenities has already imploded and vanished. No doubt the public taste for this kind of monstrosity will last until the last book of his current series appears in paperback. But here, too, we see ever-increasing gore for ever-diminishing shock value, and the end is already in sight. Either the fantasy genre as a whole will turn away from this obsession with the minutiae of slaughter, or it will follow horror into virtual extinction as a viable commercial category. No trend lasts for ever; and those who bet that it will, and race far ahead of the bandwagon to stake out their places as future parade marshals, are sure to be disappointed when the parade never gets that far. As Harlan Ellison said of the hack writers who drowned horror in its own barrel of fake blood: ‘They won’t desert the ship . . . the ocean will dry up.’
When I wrote the above in 2006, I predicted that
two or three years from now, a 5,000-page novel featuring the danse macabre of an exaggerated mock-mediaeval war, a cast of thousands, a body count almost as high, and every detail of suffering and cruelty drawn out endlessly with loving and obsessive lubricity — such a book, before 2010, will be as hot a property as dot-com stocks were in 2001. Or ooga-booga horror novels in 1993.
I still believe I was right in the general tenor of my prediction, but I fear I was over-optimistic in the timing of it. The general taste for splatterporn among the public seems to have peaked several years ago: the Saw films, for example, faced steadily declining box-office receipts after Saw II, and in 2010 precisely, the producers ruefully acknowledged that their cash cow was dead. In fiction, there has been a large exodus in recent years from the blood-sodden fields of commercial epic fantasy to YA fantasy, which, for the moment at least, is a rather less gruesome and degraded subgenre. But splatterporn is still what publishers like to publish and reviewers like to praise, especially in the U.K.
As recently as November, 2012, Eric Brown was able to write in the Guardian in praise of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, saying that Abercrombie was
continuing his mission to drag fantasy, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century with his characteristic mix of gritty realism, complex characterisation, set-piece scenes of stomach-churning violence and villains who are as fully rounded as his flawed heroes.
Please note that this is intended as praise — unmitigated praise — even the bit about ‘stomach-churning violence’. Stomach-churning, it happens, is a good physiological description of what I referred to above as ‘objective disgust’. Being revolted until you puke, you see, is good for you now: it is something that you ought to want from a book, and if you don’t, you need to be ‘dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century’ yourself. The horrors of the 20th were not enough; Hiroshima and the Holocaust are, like, so five minutes ago. We shall outdo them all, and you shall like it. That is the gospel according to the up-to-date critic.
But perhaps, if we pause a little for reflection (a perilous habit for those who would be up to date, for fashion is a Red Queen’s race and you can never afford to stop running), we may find some value in an older and contrary school of thought. Long ago, the necrophilic works of the then young Salvador Dalí forced George Orwell to come to terms with the stark opposition between ‘progressive’ aesthetic sensibility and morals; and he decided, rightly as I believe, in favour of the latter. In ‘Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí’, Orwell wrote:
One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.
The touchstone of Elfland — the most characteristic characteristic of fantasy — is the eversion of symbolism. The One Ring is not merely a symbol of power; it is power. Excalibur is not merely a symbol of kingship; it confers kingship. In these terms, we can say that the recent novels of Martin and Abercrombie (among lamentably numerous others) not only symbolize but are the walls around a concentration camp in Faërie. This is the camp of ‘edginess’, where the gaolers are grimly determined that no memory of sun or moon, tree or flower, stone or sea, goodness, truth, or beauty, shall remain to the inmates, but only the unending, ever-increasing, bloodshot craving for the pleasures of torture and the pornography of pain, suitably euphemized as ‘moral ambiguity’.
For the really striking thing about splatter fantasy is not its dreary multiplication of pornographic violence, but its abject inability to describe much of anything else. Every reader of The Lord of the Rings remembers the scenery of the Shire and Lórien; Tolkien’s reputation as a writer, as I have said before, rests largely on his skill at describing nature. But there are no Shires or Lóriens, no ordinary life, and not much scenery of any kind, in Camp Edgy. Instead there is the dystopia of 1984, dressed up as utopia: a place where ‘a boot stamping on a human face for ever’ is a good thing — good to contemplate, and good for rousing wholesome entertainment; anybody who objects to it merely because it makes him vomit (let alone moral reasons: what on earth are those?) is damned as a philistine who has not yet discovered what century he is living in.
Orwell was fundamentally right about walls; and the walls of Camp Edgy, even if they are the best walls in the world, deserve to be pulled down. I will not go so far as to say that Martin’s and Abercrombie’s books should be burnt by the public hangman: that would give an unearned halo of martyrdom to the authors, and an unholy taste for publicity to the hangman. But we need to recognize that splatterporn is a beast that will devour our souls if we let it; and we need to stop feeding the beast, and instead feed our souls on something that will sustain them. We shall need such sustenance in an age where the obsessive description of acts of despicable evil is routinely mistaken for art.