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.
[break inserted by author]
[break inserted by author]
[break inserted by author]
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.
* * *
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 watched some procedurals, although the child victims always tend to be offed early on and without much development. 99% of the time, I'd say, if they spend time developing the kid beyond possibly an initial scene, the kid's probably gonna make it and be rescued in time.
Also, very few of mine actually were specialized in children. Don't think any were, to be honest. Most of them would just not discriminate against kids. They were equal opportunity killers. :P
Vachs? Can't say I've heard of him. Will look him up. Still, I'm curious to see books where the kids actually get to be developed and it's not just the detective trying to avenge their offscreen murders. (Not that I am craving some gruesome gorefest either. But it just seems like the only kids who get whacked in crime fiction are more plot devices than actual characters.) I've done my share of quick kills of non-developed characters, but I've also sent some main characters of all ages to their doom and I worked hard to develop them. I wanted their deaths to mean something. Yet I feel almost alone in doing this sometimes. Almost makes me feel like a creep for doing it. I know there probably ARE others and I am just not finding them. Still, it'd be nice to see somebody truly comparable in the market so I know that my fiction is not as off the walls nuts and sadistic as I sometimes tell myself it is.
:) Just don't kill any cats. Maybe the horror is even greater when you kill kittens. I don't know about that. Actually, what's operative here is the relationship between the victim and someone in your book. In other words, it's not the kid you feel sorry for but the mother or father. Same with cats. Grown cats are more significant victims.
Don't worry, I'm not a cat person so they don't end up in my books much. :P
I think you feel sorry for the kid too, to a point. Else it'd be okay to kill an orphan and I don't think killing an orphan would really go over too much better. But yes, it's more dramatic to have survivors to mourn the victims. No fun if everyone's dead.
Well, there was one Elizabeth George novel---I forget which one---I will look it up--in which a little girl is kidnapped, and eventually murdered. But before she is killed, George does let the reader in on the little girl's POV, so by the time the kidnapper kills her, you "know" her enough to be even more horrified at the death. I seem to recall the kidnapping/murder was revenge. I can't think of any others, but there's a lot I haven't read.
The discussion always comes to the point of whether or not the killings in a work of fiction serve a real purpose, or whether ot not they become gratuitous. Real life serial killers do commit multiple murders, but with a pattern. I always find it strains credulity to have too many bodies---killers who are not, in fact, serial killers, don't usually keep murdering people just to shut them up. :) The man who murders his wife won't murder his neighbor or his wife's best friend because he thinks they might "know" something---he's too busy defending his alibi for the one murder he really wanted to commit.
Of course there are the killers who go ballistic and kill their entire families---either in a rage, or to make it look like a robbery gone wrong. But that's not the same thing.
Too many killings can detract from the suspense of a story. For me, the suspense is generated by the pursuit of the killer, the way the detective's mind is working to piece together the clues. High body counts tend to be a feature of "cozy school" mysteries--- a classic example would be Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians." But most cozy school writers like to off at least a few of their characters. :) Just for fun.
Well, some of my books do have quite a high body count. (The non-crime ones are a bit easier on that, usually.) And I see what you're saying about too many bodies losing credibility. At the same time, a lot of my plots called for a lot of deaths. Was EVERY one ABSOLUTELY necessary? Eh, probably not. I am sure I COULD have done without every one. Yet, at the same time, each one seemed to fit pretty well within the plot I established. (One of which called for a few hundred victims. lol) My one serial killer definitely killed often within a pattern, yet I actually had him make a point to break it at one point to kind of show that he's not some computer program either. I liked him as a sadistic villain and so did a few of my readers. The rest of the killers in my crime series were not typical serial killers, I'd say. (ie not the guy who snaps and kills his wife.) So I think their body counts are pretty justified.
I think stakes make suspense good for me. I do a little of piecing together the clues cause it's a necessity. But I never really found that part too suspenseful because it's essentially a given that they will figure it out. The confrontations always seemed the most exciting to me. I get to see the killer and the protagonist(s) actually play off of each other. Also, since my characters are never really safe, you never know who's gonna make it out. (Especially with the "guest" main characters of each novel.) I think it's pretty suspenseful. Of course, to me, I think the crimes are always almost secondary (even if they receive the most attention) to the character dynamics going on behind the scenes. I think I'd probably have less body counts if the crimes were paramount and it was "just another case." Probably just my own twisted takes though. lol
I'll have to check out Elizabeth George. See if she's comparable.
The George novel in question is "In the Presence of the Enemy." The kidnapped girl is ten years old.
I think I remember looking that one up. I'll keep it in mind. Still not sure if I want my style to be similar to the industry or not. Either way, I suppose I just want my stories to find an appreciative audience.
And that what most writers and artists want---an appreciative audience. :) Some are satisfied with a small appreciative audience, one that cares about quality work....others want more.....
Anyway, you are starting early---so you have plenty of time to explore your options. :)
Well, I'm giving it my best go anyway. And I am not sure my current audience can get much smaller. lol
At the outset, all you really need is an audience of one--as long as it's the right one. :)
Well, hopefully I can add a literary agent and publishing house to that audience soon. lol