Mark Terry

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What's Too Real?

July 16, 2009
Erica Orloff wrote today about mining your fears--or not--and this was a good case of our parallel lives and minds, so I decided to write it here today instead of on her blog.

Here's the thing. I write fairly intense thriller novels about terror attacks. They're violent. Very, in many cases. And yes, sometimes that bothers me. What are the limits? Because, in some ways, my novels are fantasies very much the way the Die Hard novels are fantasies. They're shoot-em-ups, and in some ways they're no more believable than a cozy mystery about a caterer solving crimes in her spare time.

My point?

Okay, specifically. A few years back Robert Crais wrote an astonishingly good, intense novel called "The Last Detective" in which the main character, Elvis Cole, is babysitting his girlfriend's son when the boy gets kidnapped. And the kidnappers put the kid in a plastic box and bury him.

I just finished reading a novel by Randy Wayne White called "Dead Silence" and a high school kid is accidentally kidnapped in lieu of a senator and the kidnappers stick him in a box and bury him in the ground. (Yes, I know. If you read enough mysteries and thrillers, you begin to wonder if they aren't all starting to eat each other. Hence, I'm reading more SF, fantasy and nonfiction).

Now, a month or so, a little girl in the Detroit area disappeared. Her name was Nevaeh, which is heaven spelled backwards. I kept hoping they'd find her alive, but had the sinking feeling after a day that they wouldn't. They didn't. They found her dead, buried in the ground beneath a layer of concrete. Now, just yesterday, I was at a store and there were copies of The Detroit Free Press and the headlines indicated that the autopsy results showed Nevaeh had dirt in her lungs, which means that she was buried alive.

So the question for me as a novelist and I think as a reader, has suddenly become, how could I possible write something like that for entertainment? How could I possibly even read something like that for entertainment?

My wife was giving me some good-natured grief about watching "Music and Lyrics," on cable recently, noting that as a guy I was rather odd for liking romantic comedies. I commented, as I have often, "Isn't it nice sometimes to watch a movie where nobody dies? Where nobody carries a gun? Nothing explodes?"

Don't get me wrong. I love shoot-em-ups, thrillers, adventure, suspense. Drama requires that your characters have obstacles, and those obstacles can certainly be physical peril and violence. Now, as a person, I like Joe Konrath. I liked his first couple books okay. Then I read "Rusty Nails" and there's a scene where we find that the serial killer has had, let's say, some really disgusting, horrifying body modifications/mutilations. Joe lost me as a reader then, frankly. I read "Dirty Martini" after that, then I gave up. In Erica's blog talk with Joe I mentioned that scene and he told me, in his own defense, apparently, that he based that on actual case history.

I didn't rebut the argument, but the same thing remains: those were images I hadn't had in my head before and don't want them there now. In some ways, it's like being mentally raped.

So the question remains largely unanswered. What's too real? What can you take from real life? What is fair game for entertainment and what isn't? And what do those choices say about you as a writer and as a reader?

But I know this. I will probably be haunted forever by the thought of a little girl suffocating to death underground.


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Mark:
You know, even the thriller I am toying with is "out there" (demons versus child-killers). I am with you. As an intellectual exercise, I understand the argument being made that "it happens in REAL life and what I am writing is 'just' fiction." But it's fiction intended to ENTERTAIN. Or scare. Joe makes the argument, "Why do you go on rollercoasters"--the "we all like a good scare." I don't know. It still falls to a morally gray area for me. Again, intellectually . . . I get it. As an ethical realist . . . I understand. As a human being . . . can't go there.


6:49 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I understand. I even understand Joe's argument and on some level agree with him. I remember Stephen King saying how much hate mail he got when the bad guy in "The Dead Zone" kicks a dog to death and he comments that, you know, the dog wasn't real, it's fiction.

And I understand that, too. And with the 2 books I mentioned (and it occurs to me that Robert Gregory Brown has a book with a child being buried as well), that maybe the reason we put up with it is the kids get rescued. We know that, in most cases, going into the book. Something horrible's going to happen, but it'll be okay in the end.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

I think there's something wrong with people who are entertained by realistic violence and with writers who feed those disturbed people. There's too much violence in the world.

Joe Konrath is right to equate that sort of book with a roller coaster. Of course it takes some engineering to get the coaster up an artificial hill and let it roll down -- inducing an automatic fear response. For a writer, eliciting the fear of physical violence is a cinch. Hell, just mention being buried alive and people cringe. No art necessary. No skill. Well, that's one good reason for writers to do it I guess.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I don't have that reaction at all. I think there are plenty of fates worse than death. There have been numerous cases where women were sexually tortured for example, and utlimately survived, and I can't imagine them having anything that passes as a normal life. Ever.

So live or die . . . doesn't change my opinion, really.


8:23 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

That's something of a P.S. to my post. So many of our mysteries and thrillers end with somebody being rescued, or somebody going through all these horrible experiences, and yet they somehow manage to function in follow-up books or we just never know. Writers are better about showing at least some of the impact of all this (some of them), but the more I pay attention to how people deal with crises large and small, the more unsatisfying some of those novels seems. People get MESSED UP by traumatic events.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

I had not gone too far into King's Pet Sematary when I began to thing about some of the things he might be going to show me that I didn't especially care to have in my head -- and realized that there were also sure to be things I was not anticipating that might be even worse. So I closed the book and did not read any further. Two decades or so later, I've never gone back to that book and I can't imagine ever wanting to. I have read some subsequent King books and enjoyed them, but also skipped some and stopped reading at least one -- the one with the UFO creatures in the Maine woods -- because it was getting just too distasteful for me.

8:29 AM  

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