Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Your Own Personal Censor

How far is too far in writing?

I've read some pretty disturbing books. Horror writers Ed Lee and Jack Ketchum are known for not pulling punches, and their prose is often gag-inducing.

Bret Easton Ellis gained notoriety for American Psycho, and for good reason--it was revolting. Samuel Delaney almost destroyed his award-winning sci-fi career writing about the reprehensible anti-hero Hogg.

Books about racism (The Turner Diaries), illegal information (Anarchist's Cookbook, How to be a Hitman), and sadism (Justine, still as disturbing as it was a hundred years ago) push and then step over the boundaries of what is considered acceptable.

Yet there is something attractive about being a literary bad boy. About being able to shock using words.

Have you ever gone too far in your own writing? Is there a such thing as too far? What are things that shouldn't ever be written about? Are there any?

I'm bringing it up because the new issue of the wonderful online magazine Hardluck Stories is now available. The editor of this issue approached me, asking for a horrific crime story.

How horrific? I asked.

As horrific as you can make it.

So I gave him one.

I'm not a fan of purple prose, especially when describing blood and guts. So I tried to write a disturbing story without any description at all.

THE CONFESSION has no exposition, no speaker attribution, no description. It's all dialog.

But don't let that fool you. This isn't for the faint of heart. You've been warned.

Check it out for free at www.hardluckstories.com.

And then ask yourself---how far would you take your own writing?

Added Disclaimer: I'm serious about the warning! This isn't like my other stuff. It's really ugly. If words have the power to offend you, don't read it!

77 comments:

Milady Insanity said...

I really liked The Confession.

Rex said...

Great story. It is disturbing without the actual details, it lets your mind create the images. The belt sander and blowtorch parts kept reminding me of the film "Thursday", great under-rated flick with the cool quote "They got the Wong house" (watch it and you'll get it).

Anonymous said...

This is just to say that after reading the first ten lines of the story, I promise not to read anything else you've ever written, including this blog. The opening of the piece was truly that offensive to me.

Jude Hardin said...

Some of the scenes in HANNIBAL, especially the one near the end where Dr. Lecter feeds Krendler some of Krendler's own sauteed brain, might be a little over the top.

Blood and guts and such don't really faze me, though. The scariest and most disturbing thing I ever saw was THE EXORCIST on the big screen back in the 70s. I still can't force myself to watch it again. The original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE comes in at a close second, not because of the graphic violence but because of the insanity, knowing that there are probably real people like that somewhere out there.

How far would I go? My first novel involves an obsessed man who feeds his victims into a giant meat grinder at an animal rendering plant. Most of the violence is implied, though, and I think that makes it scarier than actually showing everything in graphic detail.

Folklore Fanatic said...

I liked the piece, though I submit that the excessive use of swearing wasn't necessary, even for prostitutes and cops. I don't think you should censor yourself if that's what you hear them saying, though. :)

Kind of reminded me of Se7en.

JA Konrath said...

"This is just to say that after reading the first ten lines of the story, I promise not to read anything else you've ever written, including this blog. The opening of the piece was truly that offensive to me."

That sure provoked a reaction, didn't it?

Good thing you stopped there. The story got a lot worse.

Which is the point of this blog entry, and the point of that story.

Should writers be afraid of offending readers?

If you want to reach mainstream audiences, I think it's important to censor yourself. Scaring away potential fans isn't a wise career move.

In the case of THE CONFESSION, it's so much unlike my other work (it's experimental, there's no humor, it's painful to read) that I found it fascinating to write because I had no constraints, self-imposed or editorial.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Thursday -- great movie.

I liked The Confession as well, but understand why some could be a little put off by it.

But, hey, we were warned.

I admire your willingness to go way past the "boundries," Joe. Don't know if I could go that far, but I give you credit for putting yourself out there.

Jude Hardin said...

I just read The Confession.

My advice? Get your name off that piece of crap and delete this blog post as fast as you can.

SAND STORM said...

I write what I'm comfortable with so that even years later I can stand behind it with conviction.

jamie ford said...

I can appreciate the quality and the craft involved, and I applaud the effort--but it's not my kind of story.

Same with films. Natural Born Killers was a beautiful directorial effort, but it's not something I'd ever watch again.

Brett Battles said...

Whoa...that is out there, isn't it? Personally, I found it fanscinating, but I can definitely see how it would turn some people off.

Tough call on the how-far-to-go question. You do risk alienating a certain percentage of people. How many will find it and read it in the short run probably won't send much of a ripple in your fan base. Of course the story is now outer and over time, who knows...again maybe it doesn't matter.

Curious what your agent thinks? Did you run it by her?

JA Konrath said...

"Curious what your agent thinks? Did you run it by her?"

Agents don't really care about short stories, and mine hasn't seen any of the 30+ I've published.

I can't see mine liking this story. After all, it's pretty nasty.

Of course, it's not nearly as nasty as a lot of stuff that's out there. THE CONFESSION is, ultimately, a morality tale, where the bad guys get what they deserve, and the good guys get revenge.

When I sat down to write it, I tried to think about the most horrible things people can do to each other, and why they'd do those things.

I didn't like going there. But I went there, to see if I could pull it off.

Christa M. Miller said...

I love horror movies and Quentin Tarantino, so I'm pretty well desensitized. The Confession had a great twist, though it was a little hard to follow because it was all dialogue and no setting.

I self-censor in my fiction exactly because I want to reach a mainstream audience, but there were some details I left in. If people want "safe" murder mysteries, that's what cozies are for. I personally prefer to remember reality. I think it's because I grew up so sheltered that it's easy for me to get complacent. I'd also rather be laughed off as paranoid than pretend sick sh*t doesn't happen every day in "safe" communities like mine. You know?

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to keep pushing our own boundaries so we can keep growing as writers. Sometimes experiments fail. Sometimes they piss people off. But we've gotta keep trying. Good for you, Joe.

By the way, I think this particular experiment succeeded. You told a creepy story through dialogue alone, which is an interesting technique. All show, no tell.

Kelly Parra said...

Okay, words are powerful to me and I have a vivid imagination. I'm not going to read it--I'm a big whimp! ;)

But I do agree it's great to experiment.

Wesley Smith said...

I'm really surprised at the amount of reaction the story has gotten.

Joe, you may want to blog on the subject of writing to your audience. You were asked to write a horrific crimes story. How horrific? As horrific as you could make it. You stated, twice, that the subject matter was gruesome and not like the rest of your stuff. The editor of the e-zine asked you to write a specific kind of story for HIS audience, not necessarily yours. Those who found the story through your link (and after multiple warnings)and have decided to never read your blog again because of it obviously weren't the audience for the story.

But I just don't understand why someone would choose to never read your fiction--or, more importantly, your informative blog--over a short story that is so wildly outside of your usual style and genre.

Jeff Savage said...

I think it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. The horror genre has really gotten weird lately. It’s like a competition to see who can write the most disgusting thing. Probably goes back to movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “Wow, that movie did well because it was so gory. I can make something gorier than that.” At a certain point though, the shock value wears off and you have to actually be writing something of value.

And yet, the people who sell the most mainstream novels that fall—at least somewhat—into the horror genre are generally not that graphic at all. A typical Stephen King, Dean Koontz, or Peter Straub Novel is tame by comparison to the others Joe mentions. However the quality of their writing is much better, the story telling far more evolved. So is it the lack of gore that appeals to the mainstream or the story?

I’d propose that it’s some of each. As soon as you start to stretch the envelope, you decrease the size of your potential audience. This group is turned off by the blood and guts. This group is turned off by the language. This group is turned off because you spiked the cat to the wall with a meat fork. This group is turned off because your protagonist is a vampire slut. And so on.

This means that you are more appealing to a specific audience that likes vampire sluts who swear like sailors, behead their doormen with chainsaws, and torture their pets. But while you are more appealing to the target group, you risk alienating a majority of your potential readers. From everything I’ve read about your approach to marketing, Joe, I don’t think that’s where you want to go. In fact, I’d be pretty darn careful of how far across the line you go, or else use a pseudonym. You don’t want to end up turning off the customer base you’ve worked so hard to build.

Bestselling Author, Pontif. said...

I really enjoyed THE CONFESSION. Joe, I predict Konrath will soon be as household common as Koontz & King.

Reading that made me want to read more by you. Great stuff.

BTW, I do think pushing boundaries are more than worth it. We only have one life to live. Can't please all of the people all of the time.

JA Konrath said...

"But I just don't understand why someone would choose to never read your fiction--or, more importantly, your informative blog--over a short story that is so wildly outside of your usual style and genre."

I agree with those people. I'm never reading another one of my books again.

But seriously--they're just words, folks. And they aren't even gory or descriptive. It's simply two people having a conversation. And above all, it's fiction. This isn't real. It's fake. No one really go hurt.

But I suppose that you forget all of that if the writing is effective.

I read a lot, and a few books have really kicked me in the teeth.

If you have the guts, pick up The Ushers by Edward Lee, the most horrifying colleciton of short stories ever. His books GOON and THE BIGHEAD will blow your mind and put you off your food.

Jack Ketchum's THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and RIGHT TO LIFE are some of the starkest, most depraved things ever printed.

HOGG by Samuel R. Delaney is mind-blowing. I've heard it said that Delaney wrote it as an answer to the desensitization of modern society. He tried to shock. And boy did he succeed.

THE TURNER DIARIES by Andrew Macdonald is a below average adventure tale about racism, with the racists being the heroes. Scary stuff.

AMERICAN PSYCHO is as gross as they say. So is JUSTINE by the Marquis de Sade.

Chuck Palahniuk wrote several gross stories, including one called GUTS which will have you squirming.

Splatterpunk authors like Wrath James White, Charlee Jacobs, and Monica O'Roarke go way beyond good taste in order to provoke a response.

But when you come down to it, it's all just fiction. Don't let it get to you.

JA Konrath said...

"You don’t want to end up turning off the customer base you’ve worked so hard to build."

That is excellent advice.

For a niche online market like Hardluck Stories, I'm okay with having THE CONFESSION there.

But if I every put together a collection of JA Konrath shorts, THE CONFESSION would not be included.

Keziah Hill said...

Great story. As you say it all depends on the audience. If you tell people it's an in your face horror story and it's in an edition of on on line zine that's about horror, people should know what to expect.

Adam Hurtubise said...

I thought it was brilliant, Joe. The whole thing. An ugly, awful, horrifying story, and I mean all of those things in a good way.

Well done.

And also, controversial as hell, thereby drawing lots of readers to your blog.

If people who don't like to be offended ignored two warnings and plowed ahead, you can't say you didn't warn them.

Nice writing. I don't think my imagination could ever have taken me there, which makes the story even more impressive to me.

Adam

JLB said...

Well done Konrath. I think The Confession was well-written.

You pose an important point with your post. I often face the challenge of deciding just what I want to say, and whether or not I care to write something palatable for the mainstream.

I suppose what's often stumped me, or at least given me cause to think, is wondering "what if I write something, and then someone actually goes out and emulates something I've written?" Would that make me responsible for those actions?

A friend told me about a Japanese film she'd once watched (this is my second-hand-memory-version) about a police officer who loses his gun... a criminal finds it, and goes on a murder rampage, and the officer feels responsible because it was his gun.

Thanks for bringing up this topic, and for sharing your story.

Justin R. Buchbinder said...

WOW JA

LOVED it. The dialogue-only was very potent.

The story itself seemed like a The Revenge of JT Leroy chronicle.

"Beats sucking oxygen" - best line I've heard in response to smoking.

FINALLY. Maybe you should consider putting a Target="_blank" into your link HTML. That way you pop links in a separate window, making it easy to comment without having to deal with a back button.

Again - awesome stuff!

pam said...

Joe,

Thanks to your warning, I was expecting the worst...and actually ended up enjoying it. Well, not sure if enjoying is really the word, but maybe fascinating, and compelling in a very disturbing way? It was well done, with a good twist at the end. Oh, and it did have a bit of humor in it I thought. That's just part of your voice.

The most horrifying thing I have ever read is that short story GUTS that you mentioned. I think I actually threw up after reading it. Seriously, that is one truly sick story. And it's not like I wasn't warned then either...after GUTS, I have to say this was fairly tame.

:) Pam

JA Konrath said...

I met Chuck briefly, at some event. Nice guy.

Here's a link to the story of his I menetioned:

http://www.seizureandy.com/stuff/guts.html

I don't recommend anyone reading it.

Hardluck Writer said...

My 2 cents.

Both me and my guest editor, Harry Shannon, loved this story, and both had the same comments - Joe's a helluva writer and we want to publish this. A powerful piece of writing. Unsettling, disturbing, pscyhologically dark - with a nice twist and strong moral play on abuse and accompanying retribution. It fit perfectly for our theme for this issue - stories that straddle the thin line between horror and crime.

Is this story too graphic? Well, maybe for some people (as from some of the reaction here) but the reality is it's falls well below what you'd find in a number of Stephen King and Thomas Harris books. There's a lot sicker stuff out there than this - both crime and horror fiction and both on the web and in print - a lot of stuff I wouldn't consider publishing. This story I was quite happy to publish. Great writing is great writing, no matter how dark the theme. Ironically (from the reaction of several readers here), it's not even close to the most controversial story published in this issue. That award would go to Ed Gorman's brilliant "Beauty" (which has virtually no graphic description of the crime committed).

About Hardluck - we're a quarterly web-zine publishing the best in new hardboiled and noir fiction, with about 10,000 readers an issue.

Dave Zeltserman
Hardluck Stories Publisher

Martel said...

I sat on a plane bound for California in 1992 anxious to read Stephen King's latest release, Gerald's Game. I came to a scene in the book that disturbed me, causing me to put the book back in my carry-on bag. It took two years before I was able to pick the book up again and finish it.

Was I upset with Stephen King for writing it? No. Looking back on it, I think that is one novel that I actually felt like I got my money's worth from. I read dark fiction in order to be scared, to be pushed to a place in my imagination that I otherwise wouldn't go.

Sometimes, I wish I could turn off my own internal editor when writing because I find myself toning the story down, worrying about whether or not the material is too offensive. The next thing I know I've lost the passion to follow through on the original idea and wind up with another half-finished piece of crap.

I think it's important to push past your comfort zone. That's where growth comes from.

And Joe, I liked The Confession...nicely done, you sick *censored*

JA Konrath said...

I thought Gorman's BEAUTY was brilliant. The ending blew me away.

Ed's written a gazillion books, and a gazillion more short stories, and that he can still whip out a zinger like that is amazing.

JG said...

The question is not “how far is too far in your writing”. Your short story is going to be too far for someone. Your books are going to be too far for someone. Write a story where in someone takes a drink of alcohol is going to be too far for a Christian publisher. Too far is relative. The question is really “how far is too far for my fan base”. The further out it is the smaller the fan base and that goes in the other direction too, the tamer it is won’t appeal to a mainstream of audience.
I thought your story was great and very well written.

Michelle said...

I read about half of it and decided to stop. I think you succeeded in what you were trying to do, and I applaud you for that. Perhaps I shouldn't have been reading it while eating my lunch. ;-)

HawkOwl said...

I'm not gonna check out your story - it would probably displease me. "Offend" isn't really the word, but definitely "displease."

How far would I take my writing? Not very far by current standards. "Far" usually means "sex and violence," and I find sex and violence completely uninteresting to read or write about. However, I think some of my projects, if executed properly, have the potential to be quite "shocking" for other reasons.

But then again, done another way, they have the potential to be very "Oprah," which would be a better move financially.

I guess how "far" one will or should go depends on why one writes.

jason evans said...

I'm absolutely HORRIFIED--

by anyone who would fault you for that piece. Dark fiction and horror has its place. On my shelf, for one.

I thought you did a wonderful job, and I appreciate the twist.

Folks, please give a writer the freedom to experiment. Don't turn your back on a writer for probing boundaries. In any event, you WERE warned. Coming here to complain about the impact of the story only shows you can't read directions.

Barbara W. Klaser said...

First I don't understand that first anonymous post at all. You were amply warned. Good grief.

JA, thanks for the warning, and I chose not to read it because I'm particularly squeamish.

But I support any writer's right to write what they will. I think the only restraint should be the writer himself. In that I suppose the best thing to do is consider who you want to be your audience. That's true of any writing, from children's picture books to graphic sex or violence. It's important to know one's audience.

Susan said...

Very interesting topic, Joe! I have several thoughts.

First, thanks for your warning. I won't read "The Confession." Stories can be very disturbing to me, and I've learned that once you've read something profoundly disturbing it's not so easy to forget.

To be honest, I find the level of graphic violence in your Jack novels to be somewhat above my comfort level (not to the point that I won't read them), but I warn potential readers when I recommend your work (whick I do).

A couple years ago, Chuck Palahniuk got quite a bit of press when he was touring his novel Diary. He read the story "Guts" aloud at every tour stop. And at every reading he would have one or more attendees either faint or puke. I was there in SF. A girl right by me passed out.

Palahniuk warned people before he read. Said he'd never before realized the power of words. Truth that. So, you hear the warning, but you think to yourself, How bad could it be? Well, I'll tell you, I'd give anything to have never heard that story. I don't exactly blame Palahniuk, but I'm not sure I'll go hear him read again (although I can't imagine he'd do that twice) and I'm wary of what he writes now. I'll pay more attention to what the reviews say.

Another thought. Before the Palahniuk reading, if you had asked me what the most disturbing thing I'd ever read was, I'd have said it was a Stephen King short story called "Gray Matter." Read it when I was about 12 years old. So horrified me that I never forgot it. Wished I could. This past October I attended a local bookstore's annual Halloween Dawn to Dusk Horror Story Readings. A customer signed up to read that King story. I thought to myself, It's been 25 years. You're a grown woman now. How bad can it be?

I wish I'd left the store. It really is amazing the power these words have.

Now, I understand this sort of titillation has an audience, but it's a very small one at the extreme end of the spectrum. I don't think there's anything wrong with experimenting and stretching boundaries, Joe, but you might want to use a pseudonym. It really can be a turn off to your mainstream audience. And it's not what you want a reputation for, I don't think. You know, I haven't read Stephen King's short fiction for 25 years. Yes, I'm a little bit on the wimpy end of the spectrum, but there are WAY more people who share my sensibility than those who want to read truly disturbing fiction.

Very last thought, and sorry for rambling on... One of the most powerful, violent, and disturbing plays I've ever seen was a British drama called "Gangster No. 1." It, too, was all dialog with absolutely no violence shown on stage. Amazing drama. A brilliant play. DEEPLY unsettling. Look it up.

Susan

Michelle said...

Ooo, there's twist? Reading it I thought I might have guessed what it could be... but I'll have to finish reading it to make sure.... here it goes... I'm going....

DZ Allen said...

I read something once where this guy stuck fish hooks and razor blades into chocolates. Some guy ate one and it gave me the willies!

Totally creeped me out!

I forgot what book that was in…

;)

Anders said...

It took a huge amount of courage to write that, and even more to publish it online. I think it's important that writers not censor themselves to avoid offending people, because that just makes the writing less real.

Of course, there's a difference between being free in what you write and being needlessly vulgar, but THE CONFESSION didn't cross the line into unnecessary vulgarity at all.

Michelle said...

...okay I'm back. See? I didn't know it had a happy ending! That changes everything! ;-)

Jeff Savage said...

"I think it's important that writers not censor themselves to avoid offending people, because that just makes the writing less real."

Real is a great goal. But it's not necessarily compatable with sales. Almost every published writer has censored themself in one way or another to make sales. It's called editing. And what's real to one person is completely unbelieveable to another.

Mark Terry said...

I think there are issues here involving the market. I suspect Joe's books push the boundaries to some extent. They are gory and some of the things--semen in the knife wounds, for instance--are likely to unsettle most people. I gave my wife's aunt a copy of Bloody Mary and she was all apologetic because she quit after a couple chapters because of the gore. I shrugged. I understood, actually. Not all writers appeal to all readers.

And there may be situational issues, as well. For instance, I tried to read Jonathan Kellerman's "Devil's Waltz" which deals with Munchausen by Proxy, where the child is in the hospital, the subject of possible abuse, during the 10-day period in which my first son was in the hospital NICU shortly after he was born because of a beta-strep infection. I couldn't deal with that book at that time under those circumstances. Too close to home. I later read it and enjoyed it a lot.

I would argue that there are probably details or levels you can take a book in terms of sexuality or violence that a mainstream audience won't follow. It probably also has to do with how it's handled. John Sandford's Prey novels deal with some very difficult crimes, but the way he handles them to my mind, anyway, rarely grosses me out or freaks me out. It may be because we see these things through Davenport's mindset and pov, and despite being a tough cop, he's quite compassionate about what he's seeing, and we're catching his reaction, which is rarely to be grossed out, but to be angered and determined instead.

Hard call. And my next novel has two scenes of torture in it, and Joe can probably attest to whether they're too much or not. I've been told one of them is quite brutal, but effective. Depends on what you're trying to achieve.

Jude Hardin said...

In wasn't offended, or even disturbed, by the graphic nature of this story. The reason I say it's a piece of crap has nothing to do with any of that.

To me, it just wasn't much of a story.

It seems to be more of an exercise to see how many unusual methods of torture a character can come up with, hung on a paper thin morality "plot" and a contrived "twist."

It really isn't horror (no more than I consider low-budget slasher films to be horror) and it really isn't a story (most fourth graders could devise a better plot).

Joe hasn't lost me as a fan, but he probably will lose some people over this. And for what? It's certainly not his best writing, and I don't think he's going to GAIN any fans with it (Blue Collar Bob, maybe), so why bother?

It's a potential step backwards toward his goals he outlined in the previous post.

PJ Parrish said...

What I found most interesting about The Confession, Joe, was that it shows the dark streak that I've always sensed was there in your Jack novels.

Still would like to see what you could do if you ever chose to sustain that tone over a novel. This isn't a slap on the Jack books because I like them a lot, but it is always interesting when a writer colors outside his audience's -- and maybe his own -- lines.

Brett Battles said...

Hey Joe. I'm jumping back in a little late. My comment about your agent was more from a marketing prospective. Since this is you punishing the envelope, I thought you might have got her take on it in more of a career perspective.

In the end, though, it really is whatever you personally are comfortable with having out there under your name.

Again, I thought it was really good. Gave me a nice set of the chills for a moment.

jamie ford said...

If the gore advances the story (Hannibal), I like it. If the gore is the story (American Psycho) I have to put it down. Just not my bag.

I watched a pregnant woman wallow in her own filth on a sidewalk in NYC as pedestrians stepped over her. I don't think people need to be more desensitized than they already are.

Hardluck Writer said...

a couple of points - while Joe may not have felt he had a personal censor with this story, rest assured that Hardluck does not publish anything that I consider gratuitous, and I do have limits of the explicitness of the fiction I publish regardless of whether its gratuitous or not. I have had authors tone down works where the sex and violence was not gratuitous, but still exceeded my limit. I found nothing gratuitous about this story. While one reader may view it as nothing more than an exercise in torture, I viewed it as a challenging and well-crafted story dealing with a victim trying to deal with their overwhelming anger about the abuse done to them. On a personal note, I love dark psychological crime fiction - Jim Thompson's Hell of a Woman, Pop. 1280, Savage Night - fiction that opens a window to a broken mind.

About Joe's question about how much do you censor your own work - with me personally, I fight to keep anything gratuitous out of my own fiction. But while I try to keep my characters' behavior logically coherent, I do have a story where I did go too far. In one of my books (to be published later this year) I had a character act in the only way that would be natural for him, and made his sick twisted actions very vague. Deep down I knew I went too far, but I ignored it. An agent who liked my what eventually became my first book (Fast Lane) but thought it too dark for the marketplace, read this one and came back with a response "what the hell is wrong with you?". I quickly removed the vague but truly offensive acts - even though what I replaced it with would've been unnatural for the character - and I learned a valuable lesson - realism can only go so far if you're trying to write mainstream.

Mark Pettus said...

It's funny, most agents ask for the first __ pages, but one asked me to send a chapter that I thought displayed my writing at its best, and the chapter I sent was one where I pushed even my own boundaries. It was brutal, and it was honest, and I've watched it take a reader's breath away.

I thought The Confession was brave, but the odd punctuation and lack of attribution distracted me.

Julie Knudson said...

Excellent short story. All dialogue would be tough to pull off, and I think you did a superb job.

I read a lot of dark fiction, and I have yet to appreciate any amount of self-censoring. If your story goes somewhere dark, either follow it faithfully or stop writing it. Changing to accommodate a less squeamish audience will usually succeed in satisfying no one.

Jude Hardin said...

I've been trying to think of a context in which two feet of coat rack rammed up someone's ass would not, by nature, be gratuitous.

Can't think of a single one.

What's your editorial limit, Hardluck? Three feet? Four?

Depending on the girth of the coat rack's stem, the guy would probably have bled to death after two or three inches. Suspension of disbelief? Gimme a break. If you're going to write gore, at least do a little research on human anatomy. The Confession is, at best, a juvenile grossout effort. The whole thing is gratuitous.

I know Joe's a good writer. That's why I'm so disappointed that he would sign his name to such trash.

Milady Insanity said...

I think I'm going to give the "It's how it's done" reason again.

If it's gratuitous, it's annoys me. If it's about the feel of the story, then it doesn't.

I don't mean that the gore and the blood shouldn't pop off the page. But it should blend into the story as much as it propels the story along.

Within those parameters, I don't think there's such a thing as too far for me.

Jude Hardin said...

FYI

The situation in the story GUTS really does happen. If you own a pool or if you allow your children to swim in pools, make sure the drain is well-protected.

I'm an RN, and I've seen more blood and guts and death and insanity than most of you will ever dream of. If you're going to write about it, do your research. Those of us who know will always call you on it.

JA Konrath said...

"The situation in the story GUTS really does happen."

It's true. Every year, over 300 people in the US alone are forced to chew through their own intestines because they get caught in pool pumps.

And the Easter Bunny is real, too.

As for impaling--actually, I did research it, and it is possible to live with quite a bit of wood up your yahoo. You would bleed to death if the object was removed, but as long as it's in place, it restricts the bleeding.

Which is why, as an RN, I'm sure you know you to never remove the bullet/knife/object until you get into surgery, where they'll be able to control the bleeding.

One of the horrible aspects of impaling is that it doesn't kill you instantly. You can be alive for days. The wood goes in so gradually, it fits itself around vital parts.

As for being gratuitous--there's no description at all in the story, let alone unnecessary description.

Is impaling a child molester gratuitous? I don't think so.

Plus (here's the important part) IT'S FICTION!

BTW--if you wanted to 'call me' on something, it should be the belt sander or the blow torch. Humans can't survive with that much skin damaged.

As an RN, you should know about the Rule of Nines and Lund and Browder charts. :)

Christopher said...

Joe -

I've visited your blog often, and read all the Jack books, but I must say "Confession" disturbed me quite a bit. Not because of the subject, the denoument or the gross-out factor. I didn't like it because it's not my style.

Which, as (I believe) Susan pointed out earlier, is one of the caveats I give people when recommending you. I like your tone and your wit, but the violence in Jack's world is not very often my cup of tea - I'm more a cozy guy where murders happen offstage.

So why do I read you? Talent. I can see your world as I read. You turn a phrase or snap off a retort perfectly. I overlook the gore because of the talent that propels the story.

But something like "Confession" is too much. It isn't me, and I could never recommend it. But I don't fault you for trying it - you asked "how extreme?" and were given a blank check.

Just two cents from a newbie.

Jude Hardin said...

About GUTS: In the mid-nineties 20/20 or 60 Minutes, one of those shows, ran a story about childrens' intestines being sucked out of their bodies by swimming pool drains. Yes, it really does happen. I remember because my son was three or four at the time and we spent a lot of time at the pool. I wouldn't be surprisd if that TV show was the inspiration for Palahniuk's story. I didn't think GUTS was all that disturbing but, being an RN, I'm probably more desensitized than most readers.

About The Confession: Personally, I think people who abuse children are the lowest life forms on earth. Many of those who were abused (and some of us who weren't but can empathize) have probably fantasized about getting revenge on such pond scum. The thing is, when you take it to the extreme that is illustrated in The Confession, it makes the victim look as bad or worse than the abuser. There's no good guy in that story, no one to root for. All are evil, even the hooker in the end.

I know it's fiction, Joe, but you can only take exaggeration, um, so far. :)

To me, you exceeded the limits of credibility and took me out of the "fictional dream" that I expect with a good story. Just because all the description is safely framed within quotaion marks doesn't make it any less gratuitous.

Just my opinion. The story didn't work for me, but I seem to me in the minority so I'll shut up now.

Peace

Jude Hardin said...

I forgot to add one thing:

If you're going to shove a coat rack two feet up someone's ass, at least have a little compassion and use some KY. :)

Karen Syed said...

Joe, I think this is an excellent example of pushing the boundaries of one's talents. And no matter how much people love or hate the piece, it is a great exercise in developing your own skills. I found it very thought provoking and more than a little disturbing, but it's good writing...ugly or not. Rest assured, I will continue to read your stuff...creepy or not.

Anonymous said...

Hey Joe, I was wondering but why didn't you give more details regarding the main character's child molestation experience?

After I've finished reading the story, I realized that she pointed to that particular point of her life as the trigger for the whole terrible experience. So I'm rather surprised why she didn't go in depth when telling it. The way she mentioned it in the beginning made it sound like a footnote actually.


Cheers!
HAI!

JA Konrath said...

The main character was the guy, and the hooker was reading off a script of his life. The details all related to him.

Later, when we find out he hired her because he knew she was also abused, I saw no need to go into any more depth on the subject.

Anonymous said...

The main character is really a guy??? I assumed "he" was really a girl but got all messed up and ended up looking like a guy. hmmm.... rather odd to have the details of the "script" changed just to accomodate the hooker. I thought it would've been more shocking for her to realize that she's actually reading a real untinted confession.

Cheers!
HAI!

Steve Childress said...

I haven't read the story yet, but I'm going to after I write this. I've loved reading horror since I first learned to read. Some of the very earliest stories I can remember (which were way over my head at the age of seven) were "The Monkey's Paw", and "The Open Window". These stories and others like "On the Brighton Road" shaped my idea of the kind of horror that really touches me so deeply it's not even a feeling or thought that I can easily describe in words. I'm 46 now and I've read all of Edgar Allen Poe's work, Steven King's work, and thousands of other short stories and novels. But it's hard to find horror stories that find that certain place inside of me any more. Gross-out stories seem to have no substance--because they're too realistic? There's no magic?
Once I was talking with two guys at work, they were talking about "What's the grossest thing you've ever seen?" I don't remember what the first guy said after all these years, but the second guy said it was when three kittens were playing under a pickup truck and someone drove/backed over one of the kitten's on accident, and it was flopping around, and the other two kittens were playing with it--as if it were still alive...
Every time I think about that, I can also remember the look on that guy's face as he told us, and I get this feeling of total despair. It bothers me as much as some of things I saw in Iraq when I worked there in 2003.
I personally think it takes a million times more talent to write something that scares a reader to the core of their living soul, than to write something that is simply horrific.
See, we got that out here all ready.
I'm going to read your story now.

Jude Hardin said...

WARNING: IF YOU'RE SQUEAMISH, DON'T READ THIS COMMENT.

Here's the grossest thing I've ever seen:

An 84 year-old nursing home patient was admitted to my unit at the hospital with fevers from sepsis. He was awake and alert, but nonverbal except for grunts and moans.

He was receiving 40% oxygen through a tracheostomy collar, and every time he coughed he blew out wads of thick yellow goo, similar in consistency to tapioca pudding. His lungs sounded like static from an old radio.

He had a gastrostomy tube in his belly, where he received continuous nutrition that looks and smells like soy-based baby formula. His bowel sounds were normal and he was passing a good amount of gas.

Cloudy, blood-tinged urine drained from the catheter in his penis. His scrotum was swollen to the size of a grapefruit.

His lips were dry, cracked and peeling. One swipe with a washcloth and they started to bleed.

His fingernails and toenails were long and hazy-yellow and curling inward. His right pinky nail had broken off, exposing most of the cuticle.

He had gauze dressings on both feet. I unwrapped them to take a look. He had oozing wounds on both heels, stage 4 pressure ulcers with flesh that had rotted all the way to the bone. They smelled like raw hamburger that had been left in the sun for a few days. I cleaned them and applied fresh dressings. Several of his toes were black, necrotic from poor circulation.

With help from an aid, I turned him on his side. He moaned in pain. He had a dressing on his sacrum, just above the buttocks. The dressing was encrusted with dried fecal matter. I peeled it off and prepared to apply a fresh one. The wound was another stage 4, more rotten hamburger.

I sprayed on some wound cleanser, and noticed something moving inside the wound. I felt a little queasy from the stench, and at first I thought it was my imagination.

I shined a penlight on the wound and saw dozens of maggots squirming there, having their fill of bacteria that had invaded the man's flesh. Happy little worms, content in their warm, wet, purulent environment.

I cleaned the wound best I could, using 4x4 gauze pads to wipe away the fly larvae.

We gave him a bath, suctioned his trach, shot him up with Morphine for pain.

After phoning the doctor and getting a wound care consult, I went to the bathroom and puked.

Then I cried.

It could happen to any of us, you know?

JD Rhoades said...

Joe, I LOVED "The Confession". I dare you to turn it into a novel.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I...well Joe...uh, thanks for the warning!!Yikes...I only read about the first ten lines, that was enough! ~gulp~

I like your Jack books, and I love your attitude and blog, so I will continue to read you.

I write and read mostly Christian fiction, except for a few of my favorites, like you, so confession just isn't my cup of tea...even if you put honey and lemon in it!

You were brave to write that, but I don't know if I'd have put it in print...LOL...that's your choice!

To the guy who said you don't see alcohol in Christian fiction...that is not correct...you just don't see Christians drinking. If there is a non-Christian character and the action is part of the plot (like an alcoholic finding redemption) is is allowable to some degree.

And to Jude...I also have experienced those kind of patients when I was a nurse 25 years ago. So sad! Back then many of them died from septic shock.

Jude Hardin said...

It is sad, Bonnie.

As writers of fiction we use our life's experiences and our imaginations to cut through the horrors of this world and find the humanity and the hope that keeps us going day after day after day.

If you believe in a higher power, that helps keep you going too.

Even if you don't believe in a spiritual dimension, even if you think that this cold cruel world was designed by accident and we're all just molecules floating around aimlessly trying to feed our own flesh and destroy other flesh in order to survive for the longest period of time, Horror, without forgiveness and sacrifice and, dare I say it, a little "chemical reaction" called love, is gratuitous every time.

Mike H said...

Thanks a bunch, Joe!

I read your post and some of the comments but didn't want to waste valuable writing time reading a short story. Then I thought I'd just have a peek. Before I knew it, I was halfway through and couldn't stop.

Now I have 10 minutes left before I have to leave for work. Better write fast!

SAND STORM said...

A few years ago one of my old high school friends was about to be married when his Dad died of a heart attack just two days before the wedding. They postponed the wedding for nine months and because they lived together and in light of his Dad's death they took his Mom on the Honeymoon/vacation.
On the road there was an accident and my friend stopped behind a gas truck that had also stopped. Before he could react another semi plowed into him and he inturn hit the gas truck which ignited. The flames came back over his car and swept through his brides open window. He suffered severe burns trying to get his bride and his mom out. They both died. I visited him in the burn ward (it was terrible)I learned about the burns they suffered, how they died and what he saw. I saw his badly burned arms, hands and neck. It took months of surgeries and pain for him to gain the use of his mangled hands.
In my novel I use brief discriptions of burns to give the reader a general idea of the scale of a terroist attack. If I discribed what I saw and heard at that hospital or his account of the accident in any detail I think I would lose my readers very quickly. Just my two bits.

Steve Childress said...

Read the story, I thought it was good. Neat twists and turns.
Read "Guts" too, from your link. Corn and peanuts--only words on a page, unless they can get under your skin and into your heart. "Guts" didn't, not for me.

Ray said...

I'm interested to know how THE TURNER DIARIES pushed and then stepped over the boundaries of what is consider acceptable, other than being a racist polemic poorly written by a guy more famous for being a white supremacist than anything else. You're mixing up fiction with manifesto here, Joe. Besides which, it's a really dull book. Really, really dull.

Jude Hardin said...

Sandstorm,

It depends on how integral the reality of those burns are to moving your story forward.

Part of the attraction of fiction is being able to step into a world that we normally wouldn't have access to. Human beings are curious creatures, and I think modern readers expect to be shown the truth even if it's horrible sometimes.

Horror is also relative to point of view. You can show the burns from a medical professional's perspective using clinical language, or you can show them from a layperson's perspective or even the victim's. It depends on the emotional response you're going for (from your characters and your readers).

JA Konrath said...

"Besides which, it's a really dull book. Really, really dull."

I think the effectiveness of Turner Diaries isn't in the writing, but the telling. It's so laid back, so sly in its racism, that it's more dangerous than the frothing, rabid slurs that hate groups usually spout.

E. Ann Bardawill said...

I loved it.

Of course, I consider the SAW films light romantic comedies.

Martha O'Connor said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Martha O'Connor said...

messed up my post--

first, i did not finish the story, only because i am not feeling well. but another day, i will probably read it. gruesome doesn't bother me.

i've read a lot gorier stuff in nonfiction research reading on women in trauma.... i'm a fan of pushing the envelope, so i am glad you decided not to censor yourself! WARNING LANGUAGE AHEAD!!!









*STOP READING NOW IF YOU'RE SCARED!*






*I MEAN IT, I WARNED YOU!*




~~~~~~~~fuck censorship!

sorry no caps, i have tendonitis... fuck tendonitis, too!

Trace said...

I loved the story! And yes, I've pushed the envelope with my own stuff. The very first manuscript I ever wrote is loaded with over-the-top stuff which disturbes me to even look at now. In fact, I've toned it down a lot, but it still disturbs me.

JA Konrath said...

All of this support just reminds me of that Groucho Marx quote about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member.

You folks are warped. And I thank you for it.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Dear JA, I think I love you.

What a horrific, delightfully delicious little story. And I'd been thinking my stuff went too far.

Sweeeeeeet. Planning to write more like this?

-S

john said...

Hi, I enjoyed reading this story and found most of it humourous. “That’s gravity, cop. If he stayed perfectly still, he would have lived. Blame Isaac Newton.” This line made me laugh out loud.
If for some reason you want the hardest possible stuff out there then look up a guy called Peter Sotos. His history itself may put you off reading his novels or writings, but I can assure you, he is a brilliant writer if you persevere. Go to www.feastofhateandfear.com to see some of his earlier writings, but for a fuller picture buy "Proxy" published by Creation Books, which compiles many of his published novels.
Once again, loved the short story!