Monday, 9 July 2012

When Torture Goes Too Far

All crime fiction fans like myself have read at least one or two torture scenes in the last few years. But where does torture stop being an entertaining plot device and where does it descend into brutal gratuitous savagery?

As an author I am curious about how far is too far and where to draw the line. Admittedly as a reader I am quite inured to violence and torture scenes have to be really graphic to shock me although I do understand that there are many other readers with much more delicate sensibilities.

In the last year’s reading I can recall such horrors as a soldering iron inserted into a urethra, countless waterboarding incidents and rats being forced to escape fire by eating their way through someone’s stomach. However the scene which I will always remember as the one which was hardest to read was in a book I read many years ago by Wilbur Smith. It was Eagle in the Sky which was basically a love story and yet when the hero crashed his plane and was on fire the account given by Smith was so graphic and detailed it made me flinch anew with every passing word. I couldn’t stop reading though such was the power of the scene.

The aforementioned soldering iron was only mentioned as if an afterthought whereas the flesh eating rats were described in great detail as they burrowed their way to safety though the victim. Which way is right and which is wrong? Both made me flinch and left enough of an impression for me to recall them with ease.

I have used torture scenes in my own writing (including one scene involving pepper and sellotape) although I shied away from being too graphic with the detail. Another story I have written features a piece of torture which is mainly psychological although there is a physical element to it.

As an author I have always felt that torture cannot be too graphic unless there is a need to shock and revile the reader. Violence can be a bloodthirsty as you like because it tends to be spur of the moment whereas torture is generally premeditated. The fact that someone has planned to torture the hero / heroine / victim #whatever and has brought along their instruments of pain always seems more evil to me and is behind my reasoning to go with the less is more theory when describing torture scenes.

What do you do? And what are your tastes as a reader? Feel free to comment below.

Monday, 2 July 2012

PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES: A Richard Godwin Exclusive

For July's guest post I hunted down Richard Godwin and and got him to discuss boundaries. Sit back, relax and prepare to be educated and entertained.
A boundary is, according to the OED:   
"That which serves to indicate the bounds or limits of anything whether material or immaterial: also the limit itself."
A boundary defines. Yet literature explores things that are often beyond definition, it thrives on ambiguity.
Transgression defines the limit.
William Blake said of Milton that:
"The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it."
What he meant is that Milton was rebelling against the strictures that define.
The a priori is that boundaries are necessary. The a posteriori is that they limit Art.
To consider the proposition I would like to consider the concept.
Fences contain our English gardens. Englishmen like to be King of the castle. They need to own a slice of land and that is a particularly English malaise. It sets people at odds with one another. Fences cause arguments. Neighbours form disagreements based on the spatial configuration of their identities. The bit they never found.
Yet the illness spreads wider, it extends to the ownership of things that breathe. The need to set limits is not exclusive to England. It is a means of making profit for those arbiters of taste who control the industry surrounding literature.
FR Leavis was a tired and stale Oxford don who wrote a study of literature that attempted to pigeon hole writers who would have eaten him for breakfast if they could have got past his bones. He set a standard.

Setting the standard, a formula.
Publishers enjoy the sport of genre and pigeon holing.
And while there is pure Noir and pure horror there is also a wide range of novels that straddle the boundaries.
Look at Dostoyevksy. Look at Dickens. They both contain Noir, horror, the grotesque, bizarro, the surreal, and satire.
So what I believe is let’s call it fiction. Let’s call it literature.
There are certain themes I would not touch. It all depends how it is represented.
I have been accused of pushing the boundaries.
I am not conscious of doing so.
Were Samuel Beckett, Antonin Artaud, Jean Genet, Oscar Wilde, Gunter Grass, Ben Jonson,
trying to challenge definitions?
The latter may stand accused of amorality, because he does not offer tidy solutions to crimes.
There is no such thing as a moral story, as Wilde said.
Nietzsche wrote in Also Sprach Zarathustra:
“Of all that is written, I love only what a person hath written with his blood. Write with blood, and thou wilt find that blood is spirit.”
Literature should be boundless.
It should explode myths.
The first cited reference to the word boundary in English is found in Bacon:
"Corruption is a Reciprocall to Generation: And they Two, are as Natures Two Termes or Bundaries" Sylvia (sic)
328, 1626.
The critics may have penned themselves in. I hope writers do not do so.

Richard Godwin is the author of crime novels Mr.Glamour and Apostle Rising and is a widely published crime and horror writer. Mr. Glamour is his second novel and was published in paperback in April 2012. It is availableonline at Amazon and at all good retailers. Mr.Glamour is Hannibal Lecter in Gucci. The novel is about a glamorous world obsessed with designer labels with a predator in its midst and has received great reviews. Apostle Rising, in which a serial killer crucifies politicians, is available here You can find out more about him

Check out my review of the excellent Mr Glamour at