Darkness: Where Do You Draw the Line?

O-1-cap ne of the panels I attended at Bouchercon was called Dark Books for Dark Times. Personally, I am not of the opinion that we are living in particularly dark times, as the title suggests, but I attended the panel because the topic of darkness itself is intriguing. 

It turned out to be one of the best panels I attended.

The central question of the panel, for crime fiction readers and writers alike, was "What draws you to darkness?" I'm not sure I can answer that for myself. When I was younger I shied away from dark or scary fiction because I was afraid of nightmares. In my twenties, I had to be very careful because I lived alone and the suggestion of violence, crime, and murder could result in a sleepless night. I didn't come to crime fiction until my thirties, when I suppose I felt safe to explore the dark side of fiction because my own life was secure.

My reading preference now is the darker, the better.

The most interesting question of the panel, however, was (paraphrased) "As an author, is there any topic or theme that you won't write about? Is anything out of bounds?"

The first author to answer the question was Duane Swierczynski, who said he was reluctant to write about violence to children, especially since becoming a parent. The other authors pretty much agreed that nothing was out of bounds if it was part of the story (I think at some point, Duane was kiddingly referred to as a "wuss").

Of course I had to ask myself the same question. What is out of bounds for me? Not even a month ago, I probably would have said that writing about violence to animals, specifically, dogs, was something I didn't want to explore. I couldn't finish American Psycho after the passage where he tortures a puppy. In general I find this topic so disturbing it distracts me from the story. Recently, however, I decided that I'm doing myself and my readers a disservice if I go into any story with pre-set limitations in my mind–not that I intend on killing any dogs or children in my fiction any time soon, but if the story requires it, so it shall be.

After the panel, I started thinking about experiences I could draw on to bring forth the darkness in my writing. Frankly, I've led a life pretty much filled with light. However, I thought about how I felt when we put our dog Kramer down in December, the moment of utter despair I felt when the vet took his pulse and said "He's passed." Whew. I can feel it again now. That scene is so dark for me I can't stare at it full-on in my mind, I have to glimpse it as through a keyhole and close the door on it quickly.

Another experience I recalled was when a boyfriend who was much bigger than me was tickling me and no matter how hard I shrieked for him to stop, he wouldn't. I felt helpless. Tickling had turned into a power play and I realized that I had no control over the situation. If he became violent, there was nothing I could not have stopped it. Obviously, this example is not so dramatic as the first one, but it did give me some idea of what it might feel like to be physically assaulted.

Why, you might ask, would I want to write anything that would cause my readers, or myself, for that matter, anywhere near that kind of experience? Um, I don't really know. I only know I am drawn to darkness and I need to explore it, both in my writing and my reading. I know I am not alone in this–crime fiction has millions of fans all over the world.

What about you? Is there anything off limits in your writing? What about your reading?

The lovely "O" at the top of this post is courtesy of Daily Drop Cap.

Holly West

2 Comments

  1. I, like you, but for me, still, can’t read or write about purposeful harm to dogs or animals. It just activates something inside me that is too uncomfortable to purposely call forward.
    However, I think, as you wrote, that whatever the story calls for, if integral to the exposition, should be included.
    Darkness-wise, What I like are stories that touch upon the triumph of the human spirit; dark and hopeful stories — a combo of both. Bringing light to whatever brand of darkness involved can make for a powerful, cathartic storyline.
    I think, if you’re going to bring readers into dark places, you also owe it to them to lead them out into the light, eventually.
    *Great* post. And, thanks for sharing about the panel. Sounds like it was awesome!

  2. Thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog, Emily. It reminds me I should have also touched on the writer’s responsibility (if indeed they have one) to lead the reader out of the darkness, at least partially. Some writers claim that readers crave a happy ending. This I disagree with, but some sort of resolution is necessary, even if it is not altogether “happy.”

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