Scary Stories

This is going to be a hard blog post to write, not because I don’t feel strongly about the subject matter or care about what I’m going to say, but because I don’t want to identify anyone as I go. Let me just state at the outset, then, that the observations I want to make here relate to a general impression I have received lately, and I don’t want (and don’t intend) to make reference to any one person or piece of writing in what follows. (Also, this post is possibly triggering for violence, domestic violence and violence against women, though I’ve tried not to be too graphic, of course).

Photo Credit: olemartin via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: olemartin via Compfight cc

So.

Over the last while, I’ve read several stories which take as their central focus the relationship between women and men. In general, they do not end well. The stories deal with rejection, and pain, and humiliation, and often they deal with death, sometimes self-inflicted. Some of them describe adult relationships, by which I simply mean ‘relationships between an adult woman and an adult man’; some of them describe relationships between teenage characters. In all cases, the stories were written by men.

I have read stories about young men being tormented by young women, made to feel ashamed and guilty for their romantic feelings, humiliated for expressing their softer emotions. I have read stories about college-age men being rejected by a woman in whom they were interested who then go on to take their own lives. I have read stories about men who feel used as playthings by unfeeling women who then take out their anger on one another.

And I have read a story about a man who murders a woman, simply because he can, and even as she lies dead on the floor he appraises the woman’s figure and attractiveness, and describes it for the reader.

I confess to feeling upset and slightly angered by these stories. Of course, I am the first to say that if writing something down makes a writer feel better, or if it expresses something deep within them, or if they feel they have something to say with the story they’re writing, then by all means they must write it. I don’t want to censor anyone’s creativity and I feel writing is a vital part of expressing what makes us human.

But, nevertheless.

These stories worry me.

They worry me because I’m afraid that the men who write them are basing them on their own experiences, and that they feel there’s nowhere else to express how they feel. They worry me because they echo so much else about our culture that worries me: misogyny in music videos; violence against women in computer games; women being seen as objects in magazines and newspapers and everywhere else you care to look; the rise of things like the men’s rights movement, which has sprung – in my opinion – from a profound misunderstanding of what feminism is about. They worry me because men, even some of those whom I love and hold dear, sometimes express ways of thinking about women which seem to me to be dangerous, reductive and upsetting, and the ways in which men and women interact in our world seems to me to be deeply out of balance. They worry me because, as stories, they are not questioning or interrogating or investigating the gender balance; they are not saying anything by making use of tropes of violence or abuse. They are simply describing what it feels like to be hurt, to be humiliated, to feel powerless – and how it feels to express your rage, whether it’s by causing injury to yourself, or a ‘lesser’ man, or a woman. One story in particular seemed to luxuriate in the destruction caused to the person of a female character, and I freely admit it disturbed me.

And here’s the thing: I’m a person who has read (and loved) Bret Easton Ellis’s masterpiece American Psycho, among others. I am not a prude, or someone whose finer sensibilities are thrown out of whack by a little blood. I am a person who has read, and relished, stories about men, women and violence – if they are saying something, at least something more nuanced than ‘this is how it feels to beat someone to death.’ American Psycho is a detailed and brilliant deconstruction of Western consumer culture, and it is skilfully created to allow the reader to both be and despise the serial killer Patrick Bateman, while at the same time constantly questioning whether he is even a reliable narrator – are his murders actually happening, or is he merely fantasising about them? In my opinion, it’s a work of genius, and while I understand you can’t compare a short story to a full-length novel, it should still be possible to express deeper thinking in a short story. A story about a man murdering a woman (or, indeed, a person of any gender murdering another person of any gender) should be about something else as well as merely a murder: it should be an artistic statement, an allegory, an image, a means of satire, a vehicle for expressing a deeper truth about human nature and/or society, and this is no easy thing to do. It takes a writer of unusual skill to pull off something so sophisticated.

If a story is simply about a man killing a woman, luxuriating in the detail, then to me it’s frightening, and it lingers on the border of voyeurism. If (as I’ve also come across recently, far too often) a story is about a man to whom everything comes easy, and who can have any woman he wants at the snap of a finger, and in which women are seen as mere dolls who exist purely for the pleasure of the narrator, then I’m afraid they hold no interest for me. Unless the author is skilled enough to use these tropes to make a statement about something larger, then stories like this blur the line into pornography, and there’s enough of that in the world already.

Thoughts? Am I over-thinking? Am I – even without meaning to – imposing my own values upon others? Am I guilty of censorship? I’d love to know what you make of this.

 

 

11 thoughts on “Scary Stories

  1. Ryan

    Definitely over thinking. We are asking society to soften up instead of the weak to toughen up. That is wrong. Love is a human construct. The universe is cold and indifferent and pretty violent. Explosions, collisions, etc. All art needs to be produced. We just need to weed out what is good and not good as the aforementioned American Psycho.

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Okay. Thank you for your comment. I don’t agree, but I really appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. I don’t think there’s much difference in the questions I’m asking here and the weeding out of ‘good’ art and ‘bad’ art, as you put it, either; as I said, I have no problem with violent stories, so long as there’s meaning in them. If they’re stories about violence purely for the sake of the violence, I don’t believe they have merit.

      But that’s just my opinion. Thank you for sharing yours.

      Reply
      1. Ryan

        Different strokes for different folks. Just because something doesn´t tickle your fancy does not mean it is void of merit.

  2. Jan Hawke

    Having written a full-length novel on such varied gruesome topics as genocide, war rape and mutilation, female circumcision and butchering wildlife for trophies, ivory or bushmeat, I think writers in particular have an incumbent duty to deal with depraved or extreme violence, sexualised or not, in an ‘authentic’ manner (which may or may not be graphic/explicit in nature), in the interests of getting across the context and range or depth of such acts. To hint or hedge around them to my mind trivialises the subject matter and, like you say, can even glamourise or give such acts an air of mystique or allure that they do not merit.
    I’ve received positive reaction to my fictionalised expositions of those topics because I also portrayed the impact on the victims, perpetrators and witnesses in terms of how they rebuilt their lives, and survived such devastating repercussions as PTSD both physically and psychologically, taking in such factors as depression and survivor guilt as well the more obvious reactions.

    The world is a terrible place, but it’s also wonderful and so it comes down to how you balance the ugliness of human nature against the reality or truth about what happens and why. Sugar coating or ignoring deeply disturbing territory doesn’t help anyone understand how awful things happen, or give insights into how they might be learned from, or even stamped out. A ‘good’ writer should be able to tread the line between glorification and realistic immersion in the obscene so the reader gets an illuminating picture or experience and can form a believable reaction to extreme, even evil situations that most people will, please the gods, never go through themselves.

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Yes – exactly. I’m not about suppressing the dark and disturbing; I’m not about avoiding stories which are graphic and brutal and realistic, because I do believe they have value for exactly the reasons you’ve described, and if they’re handled skilfully they can also be monumental works of art. One of the more upsetting aspects of the stories I recently read was that two of them dealt with suicide, both utilising the same method, and neither story described the act as being painful or frightening. Neither story described the act as anything other than a massive relief, like taking a painkiller or sinking into a warm bath. I understand that to a person with suicidal ideation the thought of suicide may offer comfort and may seem ‘easy’, but the act (particularly in the method described) could not be easy, or painless, or straightforward. Essentially, the stories read like they were written for shock value by people who have never been in the trough of depression staring their own death in the face, and I felt they gave a disturbing view of the situation, and one which could be damaging to a reader.

      Maybe I’m being too ‘nanny state’ about all this, but I can’t help how I feel. Anyway, thank you for another excellent and thoughtful comment, Jan. I’m always glad to know your thoughts.

      Reply
      1. Jan Hawke

        I don’t think it’s a nanny state thing, Sinead – it’s more to do with a growing tolerance of the gratuitous? In western culture we’re saturated with exposure to violent imagery on a daily basis, just from reading or watching the news, but we’re not viscerally engaged with it at all in a hands on way most of the time?
        Even with suicide there’s a dangerous patina of ‘glamour’ that’s insidious in popular culture, particularly with young people that focuses on negative heroism or dwells unduly on the victim mentality and not on the actual ramifications of the outcome of taking your own life. As a chronic depressive who’s been suicidally ‘at risk’ at times, what actually stopped me acting out has not been my own nihilistic thoughts and overwhelming despair, but the knowledge (through working as a commissioner in a probate registry) of the terrible ripple effect of such an extreme action on relatives and close friends – pain comes in so many varieties and in some respects it’s the mental aspects that echo most down the generations, and why suicide is such a taboo in most cultures, even where religious belief isn’t a deterrent.
        From M*A*S*H to Pink Floyd, obliteration of whatever stripe becomes ‘painless’ or ‘comfortably numb’ for the unwary and vulnerable, and regrettably far too accessible, because it delves into popular perception. So, yes, I think it’s more than right for creatives to take great care in how they portray the darker sides of life.

  3. foydb

    I haven’t given much thought to this theme in writing but it definitely echoes my reasons for disliking “torture horror.” I don’t see the point of watching people be slowly mutilated for 2 hours, it’s hard to stomach. On the other hand, I enjoy a good war epic because the violence has significance.

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thank you – that’s exactly what I mean. If the violence in a story has a larger significance, I think it’s important to distinguish it from a story which features violence simply because it can. I, too, can’t stomach the ‘torture’ movies; I don’t see the point of them, and they make me wonder what sort of people enjoy watching them and enjoy making them. Thank you for your comment!

      Reply
  4. Claire Hennessy (@clairehennessy)

    I don’t think you’re overthinking it at all. Quite aside from the casual, thoughtless misogyny – art exists in relation to society, and when writing is just giving you ‘more of the same’, and not doing anything new or interesting with it, it’s not working as art.

    Reply

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