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.
I've never really felt that crime fiction is really aiming to instill comfort in people.
Actually, it does, in a curious way. It creates unease and suspense, which the reader experiences vicariously, but it also (or at least in most cases) provides justice. The killer is caught, which doesn't always happen in real life. Crime fiction allows people to believe that good can prevail. I'd say that's something of a comfort. :) But the best crime fiction now also reminds us that life can be unfair, that "evil" exists, and that comfort is not a reality for many, and may be an illusion for others.
And that it's worth trying to make a difference, no matter how thankless a job. I'm thinking of police procedurals, but it would fit most crime novel scenarios.
Yes, it's always worth trying to make a difference. And that is the philosophy of almost every fictional detective. You have to try.
That's a fair point. Still, I suppose that's ultimately at the end, after all the uncomfortable stuff hits the fan. I think an ultimate theme might be one of hope and the idea that "good can prevail." But I think there's still plenty of room for tragedy. :)
plenty of room for tragedy
The "classical" definition of tragedy (in theatre) is disaster that is brought about by human weakness (usually the particular flaw of a protagonist---the jealousy of an Othello, the indecisiveness of a Hamlet), disaster that might have been avoided. But it also provides a catharsis for the audience/reader. So in crime fiction, the catharsis is the outcome of the struggle to bring justice in the wake of tragedy. The suspense, the excitement, is what is generated on the way to the catharsis---the relief, or feeling of satisfaction. When catharsis is not experienced, the reader may feel disappointed. Though I suppose cartharsis can be achieved in more than one way....:)
Well, I almost always try to deliver that feeling to my audience by the end. Doesn't mean there isn't gonna be a high body count from all agegroups by the time that happens. Yes, I'm mean to my characters sometimes.
I'm mean to my characters sometimes.
Well, :), they are YOUR characters, and no real people get hurt....
Shakespeare himself didn't flinch at high body counts. There were quite a few by the end of "Hamlet!"
Them being MY characters just makes me feel crueler. lol
But hey, there's nothing wrong with flinching at high body counts in my stories, IMO. I want the reader to flinch too and if I can't flinch at it, I can't very well expect them to. It just feels cruel to off kids in fiction, to the character and to the reader. But sometimes the story just writes itself and you can either fight it or just go with it. I suppose that's my ultimate point about the topic. Kids or not, if the story calls for a death, sometimes you just gotta listen, even if it hurts.
Yes, but that's considered one of Shakespeare's weaknesses.
Side note: I looked up this plastic soldiers story and found it in the previews on Amazon. (I believe it's the whole thing? Can't see anything more coming after it.) It's pretty well-written. I appreciate how it's subtle yet still kind of in-your-face. Definitely a good lesson in being graphic without being graphic, you know? It's given me a few things to think about in regards to future stories. While I can't say it was as leveling to me as it was to the OP and reviewers on Amazon (which I guess attests to my earlier point about how desensitized we all are), it was effective and quite powerful. It was pretty fast paced too, which I suppose is for the best because I don't see that subtlety lasting for a much longer piece. But it definitely carried one heck of an impact. Sets the bar high, I suppose.
Without sounding too grim, I am curious if anybody knows any modern crime authors who have killed of child characters who were at least somewhat major players in the story. (And not just another victim, or part of a backstory) I am just curious for the sake of personal comparison to see how other's have done it and I have yet to really find any that truly fit the bill of what I've done in a few of my books.
Some of the police procedurals deal with child murder by pedophiles. And occasionally, they also have teen girls that get killed by prostitution rings. In police procedurals you tend to get a reflection of real life cases.
There's nothing to keep a serial killer thriller from focusing on a killer who specializes in children. I haven't read Vachs, but doesn't he pursue child killers?