Monday, May 28, 2012

Torture Porn

About time too. I've finally had a one star review on Amazon for Natural Causes. It's short, and to the point, so I'll copy it here:
Couldn't get past the violent rape at the beginning
The book begins with a violent gang rape. Nothing entertaining here. Deleted from Kindle. Is there less than one star?
It's a bit annoying - the reviewer is admitting to only having read the first scene, so how can they say there's nothing entertaining in the whole book? But I'm actually pleased with this. Quite apart from the fact that endless five star reviews all saying basically the same thing starts to look like an organised marketing ploy. (It isn't - I'm never that organised.) I did ask a few friends if they would review the book when it first came out. Four made the effort. Three gave me five stars, one gave me four (thanks, Keir). Until last night, all seventeen others on amazon.co.uk, and the four on amazon.com (not counting the duplicate review by Tegid - aka The Horse Doctor) were five stars. All from complete strangers. My ego was beginning to swell so much I was going to need a bigger hat.


And then S.Croft comes along and puts me in my place. I've no idea who he or she is, but the point raised is a valid one. The opening scene of Natural Causes is one of rape and murder, written from the point of view of the victim. It's short - 529 words to be precise - and brutal. It isn't entertaining, unless you count being appalled as entertainment, and the book would probably work just as well without it.


So why did I put it in?


Well, there's no denying that it's a powerful hook. There's also something of a tradition in crime writing that you start with a murder. Fans of the Glasgow-based detective Taggart will be all too familiar with the heavily-accented 'there's been a murder' that appears early on in almost every episode,* and I pay homage to it in the book. When I wrote Natural Causes I was very new to the genre and extremely ill-read in it. A few Ian Rankin novels my father had finished with, some Agatha Christie when I was younger, and both (or possibly all three, I forget how the timing works) of Stuart MacBride's Logan McRae books that had been written by then. 


And, of course, Taggart. Anyone who has watched early episodes - those still featuring the eponymous detective before his alter ego Mark McManus sadly died - will recall that grizzly murders graphically depicted were the order of the day. I recall someone being fed into a woodchipper, and a man cut into pieces and put in a suitcase. This was long before Bones came along (let alone jumped the shark) and dazzled us with its forensic special effects yuck factor. And unlike Bones, the grue in Taggart was often genuinely shocking. It stayed with you.


This then is what I had in mind when I sat down to write Natural Causes. I had to come up with the most shocking thing I could think of, and describe it in the most effective manner. A horrific, ritual gang-rape and murder of a young woman, seen from her point of view, seemed to fit the bill. If you've not read the book - why not? But you can have a peek at the opening scene here.


The original draft was longer, but in a long IM session with Stuart, I whittled it down to what has caused S.Croft so much offence. It was probably the bit of writing that got me short-listed for the 2007 Debut Dagger. I should be proud of it, but I'm not.


I'm not a fan of horror - books or films. I abhor slasher movies - really can't see the entertainment value in watching people being ripped apart by crazed maniacs or weird monsters. So using a horrific scene to kick off my own novel is perhaps a little two-faced. And thus, belatedly, to the point of this post. When is a gruesome scene justified and when is it just titillation - torture porn to grab people's attention?


I think you could probably read Natural Causes without the first scene and not lose anything. You certainly wouldn't be left confused by the aspect of the plot that it represents. The crime happens, and later on the scene is discovered. At this later point we can speculate as to what has happened to the poor young woman; we can see the damage done to her body and the evidence left behind that points to a ritual killing. So why do we need to witness the actual deed?


On the other hand, if everything is second-hand, a gunshot off-stage, the hero's best friend hamming it up to the audience: 'There's been a dreadful accident!' then it becomes that much more difficult to engage with the story. So a fictitious character died a long time ago in a nasty way. So what? But put the reader behind the victim's eyes, walk them through her last agonising minutes of life, and then you've got something much stronger going on. You're connected to the story from the very beginning. I hate the word, but you're invested in it. You need to see it through to the end.


Unless, of course, like S.Croft, you can't get past that initial, horrifying scene. I guess some people will give up after the first page, assume that the next four hundred are just one long unhappy bloodfest with no entertainment value beyond the voyeuristic enjoyment of carnage. A shame, really, because the rest of the book is not like that at all. Well, most of it.


So I guess my point, in a rambling kind of way, is that you can justify the nastiness as long as there's a reason for it beyond showcasing just how twisted you can be. I've toed that line pretty close with the opening scene of Natural Causes, but I don't think I've crossed it.


------


Postscript: Because it seemed like a good idea at the time, I included the first chapter of the second book, The Book of Souls, as a teaser at the end of Natural Causes. This too opens with a shocking scene, although somewhat less horrific. Idiot that I am, however, I took the chapter from the wrong draft, forgetting that I'd decided to do away with that bit as it was too similar an opening to the first one. The book starts now in what I hope is a memorable way, but not one that will put people off their tea.


*There's a generation of STV watchers out there who probably have no idea why the show's called Taggart. 

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2 Comments:

Blogger Don Clark said...

That review is what made me download the book. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and being free didn't hurt the cause. Gruesome? Yes. Disturbing? Undoubtedly. But I'm glad I made the purchase and now I'm hooked. Can't wait for the next story. I've been searching for a replacement to my Ed Bain addiction, and I think you've given me what I need.

May 30, 2012 11:44 pm  
Blogger Stephine Yoshikawa said...

I just downloaded the book, having enjoyed the first installment of The Ballad of Sir Benfro, and intrigued by this post.
Maybe it's a cultural thing, maybe it's exposure, but I can't say that those 529 words are the most shocking I've ever read. While of course S. Croft is entitled to their own opinion, I can't say I agree with them. And, it's not as if the synopsis doesn't prepare one for the possibility of gruesome material.
As for it being a plot device, it's effective. Carry on Mr. Oswald.

June 15, 2012 1:58 am  

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