A song of gore and slaughter

#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 small 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.

 

Comments

  1. deiseach says:

    Ah, sir, to speak in favour of the prigs (one of whom I am myself), I think the term “dark fantasy” did serve a useful purpose. When, as you say, horror was descending into the splatterpunk phase and a horror novel or film was going to be one about a serial killer (the more deranged, the better) involving torture and mutilation on a scale exceeding the worst fantasies of de Sade, then “dark fantasy” at least enabled those of us who wanted a traditional ghost story or at the least a tale of the supernatural and not the all-too-natural of insane humans doing inhuman deeds.

    I wouldn’t call the current crop of ‘realistic’ fantasy “dark fantasy”; I have no idea what to call it, except it doesn’t appeal to me. Grim’n’gritty is all very well in small doses, but when the entire world is made of mud, why should I or you or anyone slog through it? Mud we can get in plenty by watching the evening news.

  2. You know, whenever I pick a book up because it was a bestseller, and I ought to keep up with the field, the reading turns out badly.

  3. I thought I might write some erotic horror stories and publish them under another name. I have the occasional descent into imaginary mayhem and I thought I might as well exploit it.

    I wrote a short story and a novella, and I think they are of reasonable quality. But something interesting happened. I found that the more I did it, the less I wanted to do it. I have an idea for at least one more story which I think is rather clever, but I don’t know that I will ever write it. I may in fact have exorcised those demons by bringing them into the light and finding not that they were too frightening and must be repressed, but that they were sad and tawdry and even a good story about sad and tawdry things is a sad and tawdry story. I do not care for sad and tawdry stories. I won’t write them even in my “normal” genre which lends itself exquisitely well to sad and tawdry stories. I used to read them, and I have read some excellent ones, but now they just hold no interest for me.

    Yes, show conflict. Yes, deal firmly with the fact that the world is a fallen place and some days and even some centuries the bad guys come out on top. But don’t celebrate it.

    I object to celebrating it not because it encourages and glorifies, I hasten to add. I really don’t think that it does that or that it so influences readers except the occasional sad sack who would have found some other reason to eventually go berserk. The idea of “protecting” people from such ideas is fundamentally misguide. I object because it is boring. It is belittling. It’s lazy. As Ellison says, it’s what you do when you can’t think of anything else to do.

  4. A very good essay. It is refreshing to find talk about morals in an essay about art and writing. I’m fed up with the multitude of writers who only care about shocking the reader in order to be ‘original’ and ‘daring’ (by daring to do what every other writer is busily doing at the same time).

    An not only you talk about morals, but they are objective morals! If you keep going down that road you’ll end up a Catholic like John Wright. I must confess that, being a Catholic myself and also one of your grateful readers, I’d be delighted.

    • Thanks! As a matter of fact, I am a Catholic, though not a very diligent one; I was baptized at Easter of 2004. It was John Paul II’s Letter to Artists that prompted me to sign up for RCIA, after years of being convinced of the truth of Christianity but wondering (as a fantasy writer) if there was still any church that would have me.

      What you say about ‘original’ and ‘daring’ writers is sadly true. One of these days I may venture to make a quasi-political post, something I normally steer very far away from, and investigate the vexed question of why ‘progressive’ ideas have not progressed one iota since about 1910 — except in the continuous debasement of moral standards.

      • I’m glad to hear that! Many things in your essays do sound Catholic, but I thought it was just an uncommon degree of common-sense on your part.

        I’m a member of the editorial committee of an online Catholic journal in Spanish, called InfoCatolica (www.infocatolica.es). Maybe you could answer by e-mail a few questions as a Catholic fantasy writer. I would translate them into Spanish and we would publish the interview at InfoCatolica. After that, you could reuse the English text of the interview for your blog, if you want to. I realize Spain and Latin American countries are not one of your target markets, but I guess publicity is always good for a writer.

        I’ve interviewed many bishops, artists, theologians, writers, etc. I interviewed John Wright for InfoCatolica not long ago:

        http://infocatolica.com/?t=noticia&cod=12118

        (In English: http://www.scifiwright.com/2012/06/interview-with-infocatolica/)

        If you are interested, please send me an email.

        • I have sent an email, and hope it duly gets through; I am letting you know here in case it doesn’t, so that we may take other measures.

          I have, by the way, glanced at your Amazon page, and was relieved to find my Spanish equal to the task. (I speak Spanish very poorly, understand it moderately well, but it appears that I read it a little better than either.) You will, I hope, not mind if I remark that ‘la vergüenza de nuestra época’ is a perfect description of the subject-matter of the book to which you have attached that phrase as a subtitle.

  5. A side note to the main point, but: I personally like “speculative fiction” as an umbrella term to encompass science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horror, plus things that some people like to separate out from those, e.g. alternate histories and dystopias. But you’re right that it has a long history as being the snob’s way of talking about SF.

    Main point: I found myself pondering, some time ago, the role of bowdlerization and similar trends in creating, on down the line, the idea that “grittiness” = “realism.” If we scrub sex and violence out of the stories we give to children, on the principle that those things are bad for them, then we implicitly say that sex and violence are the province of adults. It isn’t a long step from that to say that stories without sex and violence are therefore childish: sanitized playgrounds that don’t reflect the real world. Ergo, if you want a claim to significance and realism, the more sex and violence, the better! And so, by degrees, we come around to the current attitude that a story in which people are not committing horrible acts upon one another is somehow fake and unworthy.

  6. Thank you. SO MUCH. For saying so many things.

  7. I’ve noticed the extent to which mystery and romance have been folded into sf, but I haven’t been tracking horror as closely.

  8. “Fantastic fiction” is what I tend to call the… scifi/fantasy spectrum. Largely because it avoids arguments about things like if setting matters more than form!

    The fantasy horror stuff, I tend to just call “gross”… at least, when I’m around young ears or typing for polite company.

  9. (nodding)

    The main reason I couldn’t finish Donaldson’s The Gap and I’ve stopped paying money to be beaten up by GRRM’s novels is that there’s no hope in them. I don’t mind gore, to be honest. It gets dull when there’s too much of it, but that applies to unicorns and fairy dust too.

    It’s the complete lack of heroes to stand up against it, as you pointed out w/r/t GRRM. Pre-9/11, I believed more easily in complete depravity; now, maybe because I’m older and seen more of what depravity does, maybe because of 9/11 and the War Without End we’ve gotten into — I’m far more aware that there are, in fact, heartbreakingly good and noble people in this world. Many of them in uniforms.

    Fantasizing about worlds without them… (shakes head, sadly.)

  10. wow did you just say that the catholic church was the upholder of decency during the war of the roses?

    the witch burning, woman/foreigners/peasant oppressing, bastion of child abuse and enabler of the feudal system, including slavery/serfdom

    • Well, at least he’s pissing off the right folks….

      Hint: try getting your history from something besides “Stuff Everyone Knows (that isn’t really so.)”

      That you include witchburning as a sin of the Church is especially, painfully wrong.

  11. also it depends whether you see fiction as escapism or a comment on reality

    google abu graihb photos and see what modern day soldiers and warfare is like

    • It’s helpful to have a firm grasp on reality before commenting on it. Ironic that you mention Abu Graihb– do you have any idea what was going on there before the war? With quite a different reaction by those in charge.

      You have also utterly failed to respond to any points that were made.

    • You do realize that some of the photographs presented as proof were in fact fakes stolen from another website?

  12. An interesting essay, but a couple of minor issues:

    “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.”

    Since you have not progressed past the third novel, you are presumably unaware of this, but a major storyline in the fourth volume does indeed see the rise of the septons and their religion against the butchery and slaughter that has been inflicted upon the people.

    “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.”

    This is erroneous on several counts. First of all, the Freys are ostracized from society for their actions. Even their supposed allies and new vassals condemn them for their actions and they find it impossible to make any deals or win the respect of any other noble family. It’s an ongoing subplot that the Freys are constantly criticised for the Red Wedding in the latter two novels for the exact reasons you raise, and the stupidity of making your family the most untrustworthy on the continent is indeed mentioned quite a lot. They escaped official censure because their betrayal helped the Lannisters and the king, but their reputation has effectively been destroyed.

    The historical comparison is also flawed, as the Red Wedding is based on a considerably more damaging event from real-life history. This was the Black Dinner, an infamous event in the history of Scotland (taking place in 1440) when King James II invited two of his rivals (one of them an 11-year-old child) to a forgive-and-forget dinner under a flag of truce. He then betrayed them by serving them a black boar’s head – the symbol of death – and executing them in the courtyard outside. This event was arguably even more unwise than the Red Wedding, as the King arranged it himself and it tarnished his reputation for the remainder of his reign (the Red Wedding, though orchestrated by Tywin Lannister acting for Joffrey, is publicised as being the work of the Freys, deflecting the blame for it on a much less powerful family).

  13. To kimbers:

    Do be careful about bashing people of faith, or their histories. Be they followers of Mohammed, Christ or Moses (or non-traditional believers in the vein of anything from atheism to Wiccan beliefs) – their belief system deserves respect

    As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, and I speak here as an evangelical Protestant, while they are far from perfect your characterizations are slanted and incomplete. I credit the institution with not only the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition and the evils of the Crusades, but also with building hospitals, schools, and orphanages. They kept the light of learning alive during Europe’s dark ages. In this day and age, Catholic Charities does marvelous works.

    They are far from perfect: Catholicism is a fallible institution run by fallible people. Personally, I believe that priests should be able to marry–which would solve a lot of the sex scandals leaking out of said church, thank you very much, but hey. I’m a Protestant and like the good book says, “A bishop should be the husband of one wife.” (1st Timothy3:2) I also say this as a child sex abuse survivor: despite a problem with covering cases of priest child sexual abuse that very much needs to be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law, the Catholic Church is not an evil institution, It contains humans who occasionally do evil. Beware of making sweeping statements. If you, personally, disagree with them you are free to do as you wish, elsewhere – perhaps in the political arena. Blanket character assassination of what many moderns consider the last group it is acceptable to be intolerant of make you look…intolerant.

    • As part of No Child Left Behind, they did research on sexual abuse in the public schools, and the author described the results as a child is a hundred times more likely to be molested by a school teacher than by a priest.

      Do you think this would be stopped if teachers were allowed to marry?

      • How many more children encounter how many more teachers in their lives than is the case with children and priests? Without those kinds of numbers to put the probability into perspective, the bare statistic doesn’t tell us very much.

        • Incorrect.

          It tells us that inability to marry doesn’t make a profession likely to molest children.

        • Of course, basic rationality would tell us that “molesting children” isn’t the same as “desire sex.”

          Men not being allowed to be married would result in more affairs with adult women, not in finding post-pubescent boys to groom as victims and bugger.

          • An institution that does not allow men to marry will tend to attract men who do not wish to marry. Homosexuality is highly correlated with ephebophilia as it is with “do not wish to marry”.

            • Homosexuality is highly correlated with ephebophilia as it is with “do not wish to marry”.

              How on earth would one establish that, or even support it?

  14. Jon Kanders says:

    Bran (the “four year old” tossed out the window early in Game of Thrones) was actually ten years old, if that matters to you, which it shouldn’t. But he survived and his crippling was instrumental to his character’s magical awakening. Oh, and the fruit of that incest happens to form the basis of the plot for nearly the ENTIRE SERIES. But no matter.

    • Using a brutal act as a linchpin for your plot doesn’t change the act itself one bit.

      • Using a brutal act which is then constantly re-examined and is definitely depicted as a brutal and callous act is not an invalid thing to do. The character who carried out the attack is shown to carry the guilt and burden of what he did and, combined with other elements, it eventually causes him to become a much better man. This is not to justify what he did – and indeed when last seen it appears that he is about to pay the price for his crime – but to show that the act was not simply a gratuitous or pointless plot point thrown in for the sake of it.

        A question to the original writer: are you familiar with Tolkien’s THE SILMARILLION? Whilst not as in-your-face as recent ‘grimdark’ works, it does have a depressing tone in which heroism comes to nothing (aside, arguably, from Tuor and maybe Earendil alone), major characters are slaughtered, often pointlessly, and the work ends in destruction and near-nihilism. There is also incest, if unwitting. I find judging Tolkien by LORD OF THE RINGS alone to be unwise, and his grimmer, earlier (though published later) book is as grim as anything from Martin, Abercrombie or Morgan (if not moreso; the death-toll the flooding of Beleriand and the sinking of Numenor is massively higher than in any of those more recent works so far).

        • Moot point. It was not, in fact, constantly re-examined. Before the series put me off with a book where no progress was made, the only point where it was even examined when the woman in question said that it was a bit of overkill, she could have frightened the child into silence.

          • I think this speaks to the dangers of making generalised statements about a series where you have not read every book. Saying, “I didn’t enjoy the first 3/4 books,” is fine, but making statements such as how things never happen when they do in the later volumes only defeats your point (and the OP’s).

          • Have you no shame? You describe something as “continually re-examined.” You now admit that you have to read every book to find it — which means it could not be continually re-examined. That which happens only once in a blue moon is not continual.

            And then you have to say it defeats my point?

            It defeats yours because it shows you up as a liar.

          • I apologise for using the term ‘constantly’, which was indeed erroneous. Jaime Lannister is only 1 of 20 or so recurring POV characters, and one who has comparatively few chapters (and several of which involve him struggling for his life, when reflecting calmly on previous events is clearly not going to be a priority), so clearly it is not going to come up that frequently. He does, however, note that if he had not done what he had, himself, Cersei and his three children would have been killed by Robert. This is indeed pathetic self-justifcation, but it also shows he had a reasoning for what he did, if deeply flawed by our standards. It wasn’t psychotic attempted murder for the sheer heck of it.

            As for the redemption angle, this is more clearly shown later on (though still in the third and fourth books). He jumps into a bear pit to save a comrade just after he’s been seriously maimed and will probably die in the process. He tries to redeem his order of knights after the dishonour they’ve been subjected to by Cersei and Joffrey. He goes to some trouble to end several smaller conflicts with no further loss of life instead of launching murderous attacks that would have involved further slaughter (avoiding the very issue you have taken the books to task over). The question of whether this justifies anything or indeed earns forgiveness or is simply too little too late is one worth exploring further, since it cuts to the heart of a key point of Christian belief (and I think was a deliberate one, as Martin was raised as a Catholic).

        • I find judging Tolkien by LORD OF THE RINGS alone to be unwise, and his grimmer, earlier (though published later) book is as grim as anything from Martin, Abercrombie or Morgan (if not moreso; the death-toll the flooding of Beleriand and the sinking of Numenor is massively higher than in any of those more recent works so far).

          … and both of those were done directly by the GOOD GUYS (the Valar and God respectively), though in both cases they were reacting directly against triumphant supernal evil (Morgoth’s and Sauron’s, respectively). I’ve always thought that this was an extension of Tolkien’s very personal awareness that war — even in a good cause — tends to destroy much of beauty and value in the world, most especially including human life. He experienced this himself in the Great War, after all.

        • RandyJJ says:

          “[The Silmarillion] does have a depressing tone in which heroism comes to nothing (aside, arguably, from Tuor and maybe Earendil alone), major characters are slaughtered, often pointlessly, and the work ends in destruction and near-nihilism.”
          Something you are not stating–which is very important to understanding the work–is that the main characters in The Silmarillion are fighting a war that was begun with an act of rebellion and murder, persisted in by pride. Of course the war goes badly and heroism largely comes to naught! Why should the Noldor be blessed with victory when they are guilty of unrepentant sin? (setting aside emotions, which don’t do anyone much good if not acted upon). It is an interesting situation, because every ‘hero’ among the Noldor has, practically by definition, already failed one huge moral test. The only ones who didn’t (such as Finarfin) exit the story in chapter 9.

          This is very different than having a grim and hopeless world that is grim and hopeless for no particular reason. Tolkien was, in some ways, writing a parallel of Christianity, where the fruits of sin are defeat, and the only path to victory is repentance. It is an imperfect parallel, full of holes, because Tolkien is only human and was not trying to write allegory in the first place. But it is nevertheless present, saving the book from an air of pointlessness.

          P.S. You are forgetting Beren in your list of heroes whose heroism did NOT come to nothing.

    • Elly Mae Clampett says:

      Well Tom, you screwed yourself. You made a factual error about the age of a small fictional child and therefore your entire, carefully thought out and detailed critique of a fiction genre is COMPLETELY WRONG AND USELESS and also you are probably a bad person and maybe even a REPUBLICAN and Jon doesn’t like you anymore and NEENER NEENER NEENER.

      And that’s just the way libtard math works. If a democrat or atheist made that error, it would be tossed off, but what you did is almost as bad as Marco Rubio’s Water-Bottle-Gate. Never mind we have tape of Obama (both of them), Pelosi, and Reid and thousands of others drinking from a bottle, the fact that a Republican did it is cause for snark and finger pointing and discussion about whether that finished his career or not and if he should commit suicide from the disgrace or simply sink into a mud puddle and turn into a frog.

      Joe, we see what you did there. Go jack off to the Daily Kos.

  15. Chris E. says:

    Well worth the read and I must agree that this “gritty” trend is extremely pervasive, probably to the point of excursiveness. I think there’s a role and a place for it, but it has become the norm and the standard.

    One point I must contend is the inspirational role of the War of the Roses for GRRM and the pursuit of realism. I think you conflate his source of inspiration for -plot and setting-, and inspiration for the -atmosphere-. The War of the Roses was certainly relatively tame as far as medieval conflicts went, but that does not mean that medieval life was not brutal. Once one’s scope is expanded beyond Western Medieval Europe (a relevant point, since a good chunk of the plot takes place in Eurasia-like Essos) one can come to understand that, in fact, GRRM’s brutality is quite light. If you go to Wikipedia and look at the worst wars and disasters by death toll, seven of the top ten occurred in Central Asia and East Asia. Five of those seven were roughly contemporary to the War of the Roses in the sense that they did not take place in what we might call “early modern” eras (i.e. 17th cen. and prior), and four of those five involved China. I cannot understate the brutality of the Mongol conquests alone. The Mongols (and remember, they influenced GRRM’s Dothraki) were unbelievably bloodthirsty soldiers who regularly butchered whole cities and made use of thousands of slaves as arrow-fodder. The sheer destruction and chaos that defined the fall of the Mongol Empire and the reestablishment of Chinese rule in China makes GRRM’s “brutality” pale in comparison. You can be sure that medievalesque life was terrible, horrible, and short.

    Sorry for the long paragraph. It’s just one minor quibble I have with an otherwise relevant article.

    • Chris E. says:

      Meant to say ‘overstate’ not ‘understate’. Bah!

    • It should also be noted that the second or third-bloodiest war in human history (depending on how you count the casualties of WWI) was the An Lushan Rebellion in China in 755-763, when as much as two-thirds of the population of the country was wiped out. That’s at least 20 million people, and some research suggests as much as 36 million. Whilst rare, casualties on a massive scale were possible long before the advent of mechanised warfare.

      • To deliberately seek out the bloodiest and most savage aspects of human history and use them as your model is exactly the problem.

        Especially when this tunnel vision is defended on the grounds of “realism” thereby relegating works that take a wider and so more balanced view as lacking realism. A curious charge to lay against works where the objection is that they take in more of reality.

        • Chris E. says:

          What we call “the bloodiest and most savage aspects of human history” were all too common in pre-modern times. You are right, of course, to point out that slaughter on this scale (30 million+) was not the norm. But what epic fantasy author writes about the norm? Fantasy epics invariably deal with the momentous and gigantic. It is difficult to do so without including war, and I personally believe that when one writes with a central focus on war, one should -not- romanticize it. One should depict it with at least a sprinkling of brutality and perhaps some horror so that we never forget the terrible and base nature of conflict.

          I most certainly agree that there is room for something else now, something different and not so incredibly bloody. “Grit” and “grimdark” are here to stay, but their time as the center of the fantasy genre will come to an end. We have reached the point where writers have gone far beyond the “un-romanticization” of war, so far that perhaps we now romanticize the brutality (if that makes any sense).

          • You can not defend what you admit is exaggeration on the grounds of realism, yet this is exactly the grounds on which they are defended and even praised.

            Even when it’s not defended on those grounds — writers who choose to exaggerate the blood and carnage, of all the things they could exaggerate, and readers who favor those above all other things to be exaggerated, are willfully choosing to wallow in the gore and slaughter.

          • I agree that there is a degree of wallowing in these things, particularly amongst certain authors (Terry Goodkind being the most immediately recognisable one, as in his work the blood and torture and gore serves no function other than being dramatic or cool, which is indeed reprehensible). The degree to which these things should be depicted is open to debate, and will vary from person to person. With Martin I think there was a reaction against things going the other way, where authors like David Eddings would happily have his heroes cutting down scores of bad guys but with no mention at all of it being difficult, or experiencing any kind of moral issues from it. On the contrary, Martin shows people suffering what we would classify as PTSD from the things they experience, which shows that the blood and slaughter and gore does have severe psychological consequences (and moral ones: several characters note that they consider themselves damned in the eyes of their gods for what they have done, and either seek redemption/forgiveness or simply give in to despair).

            The situation with Martin is complicated because the central theme of his series is power, what people are prepared to do to get it, what people do with when they have it, and how other people respond when they have it thrust upon them. The misuse of power, resulting in war with the attendant death toll and instability, is there as a deliberate commentary on the issue, applicable to the real world as well.

          • Chris E. says:

            I did not admit it was exaggeration, merely one end of the scale of that which we humans have shown we are capable of. Remember that these events happened more than once, more than a dozen times. As a historian I cannot abide by a romanticization of the past. We have already done it with World War II – hands down the cruelest chapter in human history – with TV series and video games. Especially where realism is concerned, I do not believe in pulling punches for the sake of pandering to an idealized picture of the pre-modern world. Writing fantasy without realism as a goal is absolutely fine! I’d like to see more of it. Like I said, I think grit dominates the genre to the genre’s detriment. But if we desire worldly realism, where else do we look but history?

            Adam, I think you hit the nail on the head. There is a real difference between authors who write violence and gore with a purpose (GRRM) and authors who write it “because it’s cool” (Goodkind). Abercrombie writes violence with a purpose in mind: to demonstrate what he perceives to be the baseness of mankind and reveal the hypothesis that man does not change. Bakker, on the other hand, writes brutality and death to the point of nihilism (which is a shame because he has an otherwise fantastically cerebral and thoughtful plot).

          • Deliberately selecting the extreme far end of human experience for your work is exaggerating. And romanticizing. You don’t get off a charge of romanticizing by making it all blood and grit instead of more pleasing matters.

      • The An Lushan rebellion hardly wiped out two-thirds of the population. The post-war tax census was decreased in magnitude by two-thirds compared to the pre-war tax census – but it’s hardly reasonable to say that all this must have been death. There are other reasons than death for a census to count fewer people after ten years of war. Such as people leaving, the destruction of records, a lack of censors, failure to enroll children born (or coming of age?) during the war, increased ease of tax evasion, changes in taxation law, and perhaps most importantly – territorial secession. The thirteen American colonies had over two million inhabitants when they broke away from Britain, but one wouldn’t count these as casualties of the American Revolution.

    • I’ve noticed that GRRM tends to be attacked from both the right and left for the violence in his ASoIaF series. Those on the right tend to assume that he’s amoral regarding this violence (which I don’t think that he is); those on the left are horrified that he depicts such events as rape, torture and casual murder at all, even in flashback or even BACKSTORY.

      My opinion is that he’s deliberately writing a corrective to the sanitized view of medieval life presented in much fantasy influenced by an (idealized) European Middle Ages. Medieval warfare really was terrible: it was patchy in its effects (seldom was a whole land depopulated, unless by a protracted war like the Hundred Years’ War) and it’s true that the War of the Roses wasn’t as bloody as the Westeros Civil War (plus, there were no aliens leading zombie hordes ready to attack the winners), but it could be very cruel to those actually caught in its path. And the cruelty was very much up-close and personal.

      • Tom in AZ says:

        Oh, yeah, medieval wars were terrible…just, not compared to any other wars engaged in by any other society in any other era, ever. The ONLY wars that are even conceivably LESS terrible than medieval ones were some of the 19th-century European ones conducted by “officers and gentlemen”. Every other war in every other era and society made a medieval war look like a quilting bee.

        I can actually give you a very specific comparison. The Hundred Years War was an invasion by an island country of the continental nation that gave it much of its culture, and was in pretty much no way justified, but rather was a naked land-grab with a paper-thin excuse. The same is true of Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s invasion of the Joseon Kingdom (modern Korea). Both wars made sporadic use of firearms (more cannons in the Hundred Years War, more muskets in Toyotomi’s invasion), but the main weapons were swords, spears, and arrows.

        And the Hundred Years War killed 3.3 million people in 116 years, while Toyotomi’s invasion killed 1.1 million in SIX. That means, in 19 times as long, the Europeans killed only three times as many—which means they killed at less than 1/6 the rate. And the Hundred Years War was medieval Europe’s Vietnam or World War I, the war that made the whole society question its values from the horrors it caused; Toyotomi’s invasion was par for the course in East Asia.

        In other words, Medieval Europeans at their very, very worst were less than 1/6 as bad as the East Asian norm. There is no rational reason to single their culture out as brutal, when every other culture on Earth and throughout history is at least as brutal, and generally far, far worse. There’s a word for when you condemn only one group or system when every other one is no better and generally much worse.

        Not coincidentally, Martin’s conception of a “medieval” war DOES resemble the Zulu Expansion, known in their language as the “Mfecane” or “crushing/scattering”. But only the version of it written by the Apartheid government.

  16. A general point about the series: For me, it’s not so much that there’s a big war, it’s the constant betrayals that people commit against those who are theoretically on their own side.

    I find it hard to believe that people like that can maintain a Renaissance level of complexity. It seems like hardly anyone is doing useful work which doesn’t get destroyed.

    To be fair, it seems to be a degenerate era– the novellas which were set earlier don’t show the same level of awfulness. (I’ve only read the first two, I think.)

    • I find it hard to believe that people like that can maintain a Renaissance level of complexity. It seems like hardly anyone is doing useful work which doesn’t get destroyed.

      They’re failing to maintain their previous level of complexity. And given the coming Winter and the imminent attack by the Others, I think humanity is in serious danger of being scoured right off that continent — maybe the whole planet. What do you think’s going to happen to most of the people in Westeros when the crops fail for years in succession and the granaries are empty because all the responsible authority figures were playing their Game of Thrones?

  17. 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.

    It’s a scene full of Fridge Horror, both in the movie and in Gandalf’s brief mention. Consider that (1) Sauron’s torturers are presumably very ruthless and skilled and (2) they are torturing a man who cannot easily die. And it’s also a Crowning Moment of Awesome, when one considers that — after that experience — Smeagol was still willing to go into Mordor to follow the Ring. Yes, he’s its slave, but a weaker Hobbit would never have been able to get up the courage to do half of what Smeagol does in the book. And I think this impression was perfectly inentional on Tolkien’s part: remember, one of the really deep tragedies in Smeagol’s life is that he was originally the sort of person who becomes the Plucky Hero. Gandalf considers him Not So Different from Bilbo and Frodo, and this is an even stronger comment when one realizes that Gandalf may well have known Smeagol before he became Gollum.

  18. princesselwen says:

    In fact, I think it can be creepier when the nastiest stuff is deliberately left off-page. This leads the reader’s imagination to fill in the details. This method was used to great effect in the Westmark Trilogy by Lloyd Alexander. SPOILER
    In the second book, The Kestrel, we know that an important secondary character, Justin, has been tortured. And in the third book, The Beggar Queen, the protagonist, Theo ends up tortured as well. But none of this is ever shown on page. All the readers know is that the formerly sane Justin is now crazy, and the formerly active Theo is now a moaning heap on the floor. Fortunately, Theo manages to escape. But it becomes even worse when the reader remembers that Theo’s companion, Zara, goaded the soldiers into killing her rather than letting herself be captured and face what he faced. Theo’s thoughts of how ‘I had to stand up to this. I have to buy my friends time to escape, because I’m not going to be able to hold on much longer,’ are far more effective then any description of blood and gore.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] to get in the way of my pontificating.  But  I think we can accept that some people think things have got too gritty.  Or maybe gritty in the wrong way.  Grimdark is a phrase I’m hearing quite a lot, which [...]

  2. [...] at Abercrombie’s post, it turns out not to be a preemptive strike at all but a response to this post by Tom Simon, who veers close to the territory of “writers of grimdark fantasy are immoral” (but [...]

  3. [...] you’re interested, you can sample the back-and-forth with an early salvo, then Joe Abercrombie’s defence of grit, then a mildly derailing discussion thread, then a [...]

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