“Don’t go there. Don’t go there . . .” That’s what a friend of mine told me she found herself saying while reading several of the stories in my new collection, Back Roads & Frontal Lobes. And then she told me that she knew I would, anyhow.
Of course I would. Some people want you to. To go there, that is. More than will admit it.
There’s an argument that Stephen King makes in an essay that appeared first in Playboy thirty years ago. He works from the question of why it is that we love horror movies. His answer, in part, is this: “I think that we’re all mentally ill.” And he adds that we’ve got to “. . . keep the gators fed.” It’s a crude but very logical and nuanced argument that goes well beyond these statements, but that’s the heart of it. Part of our nature leans toward being uncivilized.
There are things about being human that most people don’t like to talk about. We have to be civilized, right? We have laws and all that. And judgmental people. And laws and judging can seriously fuck with our lives. Civility makes society work better.
(But it doesn’t stop us from being human, or human animals.)
If fiction is supposed to be honest (lies that reveal the truth about humanity is what we’ll call fiction in creative writing classes) then, honestly, what does being civilized have to do with it, sometimes? Being civilized is our attempt to cover up the sordid honesty that might fill our streets with blood and our bedrooms with orgies—or the other way around.
Fiction has to say, essentially . . . sometimes . . . to hell with being civilized. That’s, well, honest.
As human beings, most of us, if not all, have uncivilized thoughts. I mean, it feels good to think about punching that asshole right in the center of his asshole face, right? Or it feels good to think about getting naked with that one person—you know the one—who seems to be speaking to you with their body in a language that is both incomprehensible and erotic, at once, right?
And sometimes, folks with vivid imaginations think beyond that centuries-old, punch-to-the-face move or the relative normalcy of being naked together and doing the Interpretive Dance of Genitalia. Some of them, of us, maybe, act on these feelings, too. These are the characters I often like to write about.
I’m not saying that we need to rise up and let anarchy lead to bloody orgies in our streets and bedrooms. Not in real life. But I’m saying that there’s nothing wrong with fiction exploring this part of humanity; there’s no rule that says fiction has to be tame, or civilized, or politically correct, even. It needs to be honest. And the dark and the ugly and the subversive and surreal and the grotesque and the profane and the horrific and the inappropriate are sometimes honest. Often, I’d say.
There is being shocking for the sake of being shocking; I’m not interested in that. But there is being honest, with shock being a result . . . and I make no apologies for that.
Nor should any other writer.
People who are judgmental in real life are pain-in-the-ass enough; people who judge the content of fiction, well, get a real life. An honest one.