After lengthy discussions on Facebook last week fueled by a dog death at the beginning of an e-book, the folks at Spinetingler Magazine got in touch with me. They suggested I consider W.D. County's story Plastic Soldiers in their anthology, Speedloader. Do the same "rules" about killing animals in fiction also apply to killing children?
1) I've never read anything so intense in my entire life. I may never again. This is a story that reaches into your guts, twists them and doesn't stop until it's absolutely positive you'll never forget the pain. And I won't.
2) I'm more confused about killing children in fiction than ever before. I thought this was a black-and-white thing. I was wrong.
For many, there are no gray areas on this issue. That's completely understandable. If that's how you feel, I don't recommend reading more. It's about to get bad. Really bad.
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Plastic Soldiers is about the abduction, rape, murder and cremation of boys. The protagonist keeps plastic Army men in his pocket. They "talk" him through his emotional and physical pain - even as he listens to other abductees being raped in the other room.
If you only judge the story off that short description, it'd be easy to write this story off as obscene. But if you keep an open mind about the craft of writing - and can judge a story on the capabilities of the author - then you may find some appreciation for this piece. You might agree with me that despite the astronomical brutality, this is a brilliant piece of fiction.
County's protagonist thinks like a child. It's uncanny. From the things the toy soldiers "say" to him to the words he uses to describe his situation (the "bad man," for example), this is incredible writing. Factor in how breathless the story leaves you by its end, and I got the sense this is almost a perfect piece of fiction.
I say "almost" because of the atrocities commited throughout it. I'm very open-minded, but even I can't say "perfect" in the same sentence as "child rape." But you know what? I don't see how this story could've been written any other way.
The knee-jerk reaction to that may be, "Why did it have to be kids? Couldn't it be told with adults instead?" Rape is horrible no matter the age. As a society, we place extra attention to children's well-being - and with good reason. But tell an adult survivor of rape that he or she "didn't have it that bad" and see what reaction you receive.
The story wouldn't work with adults anyway. The innocence of a boy keeping plastic soldiers in his pocket is the humanizing juxtaposition to the entire dehumanizing situation. The piece loses its power without these polarizing elements going to either extreme.
I can't recommend Plastic Soldiers to everyone. It's only for those looking for a story to challenge their sensibilities without losing sight of literary quality.
If you're one of those people, Speedloader is available on Amazon here for $0.99, as well as other fine e-book retailers.
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BSP: Looking to lighten things up a bit? Check out 4 Funny Detective Stories - Starring Maynard Soloman. No controvery here, just razor-sharp satire with a heaping side of fun.
Great post. The "gratuitous" word is the one to focus on for so many decisions of this type -- or for ways of separating the chaff from the grain.
Thank you, Ingrid. It's an interesting question/subject---and certainly one that contemporary crime writers (and readers) will probably confront, sooner or later.
I was also thinking of "Lord of the Flies," re: children killing children. Now, child killers....I mean, children who are killers....there are a few of those, too! Like "The Bad Seed." Little Rachel (I believe that was her name) killed her classmate, but didn't confine herself to kids her own age.The rather simplistic explanation there was that she inherited a "bad " gene from a psychopathic grandmother. I don't know if it works that way, but it made for a chilling story.
Karin Fossum did an excellent job of presenting and examining a child molestation and killing in "The Water's Edge." What made that novel special was her exquisitely sensitive exploration of the subject, her study of the social milieu in which the crime occurred, and the consequences, on both personal and social levels.
And you've also dealt with at least one child killing in your books, if I remember rightly---it was one of the first that I read--- and it was horrific, but not gratuitous.
Jeez, I forgot about that. The first Akitada novel with some very bad fake monks. Akitada was too late to prevent it. I like to give him stuff to feel guilty about. I have a theory that we gather guilt as we get older, whether we like it or not.
The first Akitada novel with some very bad fake monks.
That's the one!
I guess as you age you gather guilt----but maybe if you live long enough you also can come to shed some, too. Or atone.
Akitada is always seeking atonement, isn't he? He's suffered plenty. Alienated his wife, lost his son. But then he rescued the child of the murdered courtesan, at great risk to himself. Now he deserves redemption. I haven't read your latest novels, but maybe....:)
Well, trying to right a wrong is surely good for brownie points and that applies to all mysteries. But Akitada doesn't see it that way. That's the point. What he thinks of himself is not what others or the reader thinks.
(Yes, I see that this is a pretty old topic. lol) This is a topic that regularly comes up for me. Child death in fiction in general is an obvious taboo. It's handled a lot more discreetly (usually) when it is done, and often, it isn't done at all or it's done in a selective limit of "acceptable" kinds of deaths.
I regularly break these rules and just treat my child characters as characters. The fact that I don't feel child main characters equals a child's story likely gives me more opportunity than most, but I am writing stories about deranged killers and they are not going to exclude killing children just because it's upsetting. Heck, that's probably part of why they choose to do it.
I don't think it's fair to say that I as an author WANT them to die. If I did, I'd probably be best to not do it. I should become as invested in my story as my readers and I should (and often am) impacted by the deaths of my characters hopefully as much as I want my readers to be. My characters mean too much to me to hold back from being true to their story, which may (and often does) end in death. Sometimes it's just how it has to be. One thing holds constant: If I am going to kill characters, I gotta try and make it meaningful. Even if it's a nameless minor character, I want the death to serve SOME purpose, even if it's just to amp up the stakes of a horrific situation.
Remember, we shouldn't be accepting of murder and death just because the character is an adult. Why is it that we should play out the same situations with adult characters? Does a mother losing her child not hurt simply because the child was over 20? Yes, having horrific things happen to a child is especially upsetting for us, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But we should realize that we aren't meant to "enjoy" murders or rape scenes in a book. They SHOULD upset us. They should make us want to rescue the characters. If we're starting to think that "the author went too far. He could've done this same story with adult characters," then we've essentially just justified the author's decision. Murder of innocent people isn't suppose to be "acceptable" and if people are not at least a little unsettled by these crimes, maybe they've been too desensitized and need to have things amped up a little. Maybe we all need reminders of just what the stakes are in life and death. So if sending a child character to a horrific end in crime fiction upsets people, then I suppose that's a job well done.
Quite right. All deaths should be equally disturbing. But there is the fact that the reading audience shudders a bit more when a child dies. Children are relatively helpless, and that has powerful appeal because the adults feel they have failed in a very important fashion. Parents will be most affected, but the same is true for the investigating police and even strangers. As victims in a mystery plot children are far more dramatic than adult characters.
Yes, that is true. It's definitely more dramatic. It's not pleasant, and it is shakier ground for a writer to tread on. And I suppose it's not that all deaths should be equally disturbing as much as it is that a lot of people seem to have just shaken off death a lot of the time and the horror of it shouldn't be lost. If it is, then as a writer, I feel that my stories are kind of cheapened. If my characters are dying, I certainly don't want the audience to either brush it off or relish in the demise of characters I care about. Child deaths seem to be one area where murder is truly realized as the horrific thing that it is. As you said, the audience shudders a bit more. There's a distinct emotional effect. And as far as crime fiction and similar genres go, I think that effect is a good thing. It's important to not loose that effect, because murder's something that should make us shudder. Maybe that is why I feel that child characters shouldn't be in some safety tier. It's important to avoid doing it for the sake of doing it, but I think it has the potential to be a powerful and effective part of a story.
Of course, all of this could be just my own personal justification. I suppose I'll know one day if I have people telling me how horrible I am for being so mean to characters in my stories. Then again, if it doesn't have that powerful an effect on them, maybe I did something wrong.
:) I don't see any way of writing crime fiction without having a body or two. How horribly mean are you to your victims?
I am sure there is a way; it just wouldn't be too interesting. lol
How horribly mean am I? Eh, it's hard to say. I tend to exaggerate my cruelty when talking about it. If I honestly compared it to what authors in the genre do, I am probably not that much worse. My killers tend to range from extremely gruesome in their kills to simply efficient kills that kill the victims pretty quickly. Some are sexual predators and others are anything but. If anything, some of those I've let survive (and carry over to future books) have it the worst. The repeated losses and traumas come off, to me at least, as really mean. And sometimes I develop extras just so that it hurts more when they go down. I guess that's kinda mean. But as I said, I tend to see myself as meaner than I probably am. What I would think is line-crossing horrible is likely just another day at the computer to other crime writers. So I suppose it'd be best to let future readers judge how horribly mean I am.
In the Lawrence Sanders novels, detective Edward X. Delaney's moral stance is that all murder is wrong, no matter how despicable the victim might be. As indeed it is. And most people cherish their lives, want to live, and the taking of any life, the cutting short of it, is the most terrible thing another human being can do. So why do people get most upset about the murder of children, in fiction as well as in real life?
I think it might have something to do with guilt. Because children are "helpless," or at least that's how we see them---their size, lack of strength, naivete--- lack of judgment (going with a stranger), means that they need the protection of adults. So when a child is killed---and it may not just be murder, but a horrible accident, such as a drowning, for instance---it's not just the killer (or nature) who is to blame, but the person or persons who were responsible for that child's safety--a parent, a teacher, a camp counselor, a guardian, or even those in greater positions of authority. The death of a child triggers anger AND guilt. If you so much as turn your back for an instant---you may put your child in danger: leave him or her vulnerable to an accident, or a kidnapper, or a killer. It doesn't matter how small the "oversight" might have been---the guilt will still be huge. Because SOMEONE was supposed to be looking out for that child.
Yes, I definitely understand that. Perhaps that is exactly why child death shouldn't be off-limits in fiction. While I know the public tends to value mindless bloodshed with stories that don't provoke any sort of emotion other than "ohhhhh" and "ahhhhhhh," I don't feel writers should ever have to feel a prisoner of that. Characters should be treated as characters, and age shouldn't stop a character from being offed any more than race, age, or occupation. Whatever is best for the story should be done, which may or may not include making a child character a victim. It's not essential, but it should at least be something an author should be able to do. Yes, it's upsetting, and it should be. The fact that there is so much guilt involved gives fine conflict for other characters. Yes, it'll make people uncomfortable, but I've never really felt that crime fiction is really aiming to instill comfort in people.