Storyville: Writing About Taboo Subjects
WARNING: There may be triggers in here about violent and sexual acts.
Think about the stories and novels you write, or may want to write some day. What is the one thing you’d never write about? Okay, now write it. Terrifying, right? Today we’re going to talk about how to write taboo fiction, those aspects of our lives, our fantasies, our greatest fears, that are difficult to get down on the page. Done correctly, I think just about any taboo can be conquered.
So, there’s nothing wrong with masturbation, right? We all do it, supposedly. But the idea of putting this into your fiction, it’s tricky, right? It’s a very personal and revealing moment. Most people are just going to assume that anything sexual you put in there is what you really do anyway.
I was just going to say that I’ve never written about masturbation, but that wouldn’t be accurate. The more I think about it, the more I remember it in my fiction. There are some moments in my second novel, Disintegration, where women masturbate, but what really comes to mind is a scene in “Flowers for Jessica,” because I can vividly remember not wanting to write it.
To give you a little context, a man’s wife dies, and he slowly brings her back to life at the edge of a forest. At first it was his sweat, his tears that started it, followed by water. And then sunshine, and eventually as she started to take form, naked and writhing in the grass, he needed to complete the rebirth. But as much as he missed her, he was equally horrified at what he was doing. How could he get aroused in this situation, and complete such an act? In the end, it was love that caused him to do this, paired with a sick kind of lust, an aching need. But it was a scene that I really struggled with—did I really want to put this out into the world? Because of the situation, I think it worked, how it showed the progression he went through, the steps he completed to bring her back. It’s not really about the sex, but about how much he wants her to be there, to come back to life, even if he’s disgusted and scared.
I recently read Tampa by Alissa Nutting, and her protagonist must have masturbated a dozen times in the first twenty pages, so, that’s another example of how you can utilize this taboo subject—although Celeste is out of control, in so many ways, so it’s not a healthy example.
This is one thing I thought I’d never write about in my fiction, because I know how many women are raped, or put in difficult situations, and I didn’t want to alienate anybody, or trigger a negative reaction. In Disintegration, my unnamed protagonist sinks deeper and deeper into depression, committing one horrible act after another, killing people that need to be killed. At some point, he hits bottom, and it was in that moment where he needed to exact revenge on a woman that had tasered and robbed him. This was another moment where I knew I could lose my audience—how far was I willing to take it? I thought of scenes by Jack Ketchum in The Girl Next Door and Off Season, I thought of Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr. and wondered, if I put this rape scene in this book, will it be all that people talk about, will I alienate readers, will I lose fans, will it define this book?
I really struggled with it, and in the end, both my protagonist and I found our bottom, and dealt with it, and moved on. I won’t tell you what happened, you’ll have to read the book, but it was pretty intense. One way you can deal with rape is to show vengeance against the rapist, to balance the scales, and right the wrong. But make sure that whatever you put on the page, be careful about sensationalizing the act, making it titillating. I’d try to focus more on what it does to both characters, how it shapes them moving forward. It’s a tough subject, and I suppose for many of us, it may be best to just avoid it. It really has to play an important role in your story, so don’t take it lightly.
I know that many of us watch Game of Thrones, or have read the books, so it’s not surprising to see this taboo subject come up. I can definitely see how this could turn off an audience. I’ve never understood the appeal of a threesome with twins, because as exciting as the idea may be, there’s something about sisters having sex that is damaged and unappealing to me. I actually dated a girl a long time ago that had fantasies about her mother and father, her aunt, even her younger half-sisters. She had issues. On the outside, if you didn’t know the relationship, sure, you could look at her mother, the sisters, the aunt, and see the attraction, but once you add in the family element, it really turned my stomach. I will say that when I was very young I did have a little crush on my cousin, but I’m not sure if it was her being attractive, or me just coming of age, and just being full of hormones all the time. I don't think I’ve ever written about incest, but if you do write about it, be very careful how you depict those feelings. You can definitely lose your readers. I think about some scenes in The End of Alice by A.M. Homes and even the latest Stephen King, Mr. Mercedes, and there are some cringe-worthy moments in both.
I’m sure you’ve heard it said before that you should never kill animals in your fiction, not just dogs and cats, but especially kittens and puppies. If that’s how you are going to elicit sympathy for a victim, or to create hatred for a criminal, isn’t it terrible to prey on the weak like that? Yes, and no. Really, whoever you kill, it’s going to be horrible, so you have to be careful about how you do it. Don’t focus on it for too long, don’t make the reader suffer in that dark place for too much time. I think I’ve only ever killed a puppy once, and a cat once, and both were in my book Disintegration. I don’t want to spoil the book, but I think in both instances the situations worked. If you want to unhinge somebody, and turn them from innocent bystander into vigilante, making them watch a crime against somebody, or something, that is vulnerable and weak? That can work. Especially in crime and horror, you know if there is a pet in the book, that there is a chance that something bad is going to happen to it (Pet Sematary, anyone?). I mean, the entire book of Red by Jack Ketchum is centered around this idea.
What’s the first thing you think of when I say cannibalism in fiction? What book or scene do you think of right away? Is it Hannibal Lecter and Silence of the Lambs? I mean, how can you not conjure up that book-ending scene, the dining room table, having his friend “over for dinner?” And there’s the famous line about cannibalism, too: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” There are moments in Cormac McCarthy’s books, The Road as well as Blood Meridian and Outer Dark, famous scenes involving babies roasting on spits, and all kinds of horrible moments. The common thread here in all of these books is that the person committing these atrocities is generally seen as mentally unstable, often a serial killer, or violent person—deranged, and out of control. Even Lecter, who is brilliant, he’s a misanthrope filled with antisocial behavior, and there is a psychopathic edge to everything he does. Depending on how you utilize these moments, it can reveal the mental state of your character, or the desperation of the moment, or any number of dark desires and horrors.
This has probably got to be the most taboo subject in fiction. For me, it’s one of the most disturbing and upsetting things a writer can pen. I mentioned The End of Alice earlier, and while it is a brilliant book, it was probably one of the hardest books for me to read. I put it down several times. I also just read Tampa, and many here have also probably read Lolita. Anybody that preys on children, that’s tough—very hard to witness. I had to stop watching Law & Order: SVU, because it was so upsetting, after I had kids, because so many children were raped and murdered.
My initial advice would be to just avoid this subject and don’t write about it at all. I think the difference between The End of Alice and Tampa is that Homes was able to show you the mind, the emotions and desire of her protagonists, and how they recognized that they had a sickness, and there was some amount of justice inherent in the story. There is significant insight into these characters. You could even see how the children that were abused, how they were actually in control, at times. You see the sickness in the abusers, and how they became that way. With Tampa, the acts are sensationalized and there is very little punishment or remorse with Celeste. I’ve only written one story that involved this subject, and that was “Rudy Jenkins Buries His Fears.” It was a very hard story to write, and sell. It ultimately did get into a pretty cool anthology, Slices of Flesh, with Jack Ketchum and many other talented authors. The only way that I could deal with it was to have the darkness revealed at the very end, so that we (the audience) don’t have to wallow in that darkness, that sickness. And, Rudy also gets his revenge. I knew he had to stand up and defeat his boogeyman, but even so, it’s a difficult read at times, I’m sure.
There are many subjects that are considered taboo to one degree or another, above and beyond the ones I’ve mentioned here: patricide, necrophilia, suicide, intermarriage, bestiality, abortion, infanticide, etc. What was considered pornographic or illegal or immoral a hundred years ago may not be as shocking today. But most of the taboo items that I’ve mentioned are dark, depressing, and upsetting subjects that need to be handled with care. First, ask yourself if it’s crucial to your story, and then make sure that you handle the subject in a way that is not only true to your character, but ends in a satisfying and judicial manner. There must be justice, there must be a resolution to your conflict, and the journey can’t be wasted—insight, epiphany, change, or remorse—make sure you take responsibility for what you’ve written, and left your audience feeling vindicated.
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