Last week I blogged about fantasy noir, mainly in the context of it epitomising the 21st century love of the mashup. Noir brings in themes and tropes from other genres, particularly crime and thrillers, so it’s inevitable there should be a thick strand of violence in the mix. Worryingly though, at least for me, is the preponderance of torture in many of these books.
Firstly, let me say that I understand that fiction cannot shy away from the ugliness of life altogether, otherwise it would be bland, undemanding fluff, suitable only for very young children and those of a nervous disposition. And in far too many human cultures, torture and cruelty are, and have been, rife. Note also that I’m not saying such material shouldn’t be published. Each to his own, and all that. What does bother me as a reader is when writers take evident and frankly unhealthy relish in that ugliness. So, if we cannot avoid the topic altogether, what is the role of torture in a supposedly escapist genre like fantasy?
For my examples I shall (coincidentally, perhaps) take the two books I mentioned last week: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, and The Sword of Albion by Mark Chadbourn. Note that there will be minor spoilers in the following discussion!
The former book contains (IMHO) a brief example of what is often known as “torture porn”. The hero, Locke Lamora, is visiting the headquarters of the big crime boss of the city, and to show us how utterly despicable the fellow is, Lynch proceeds to describe the torture and death of a minor criminal. The process involves a bag of ground glass being placed over the man’s head and its contents rubbed into his flesh, and is dwelt on in such vivid, excruciating detail that I literally had nightmares after reading it. It’s the only really gruesome scene in the book, and is there purely to raise the stakes by making us fear that something similar might happen to Locke. I suppose it served its purpose, but frankly I would have enjoyed the book more if the details of the torture had been left to the reader’s imagination. I think what really irks me, though, is the extreme change of tone in a book I was previously enjoying. The blurb and opening chapters promised Oliver Twist meets Ocean’s Eleven, and suddenly I get sadistic horror instead.
Contrast this approach with that of Chadbourn, in his book set in Elizabethan London. His hero Will Swyfte attends the torture on the rack of an enemy and is shown as complicit in the man’s torment, even though he is not personally responsible for it. Swyfte himself is later tortured by the fae, using a form of waterboarding (who knew the Unseelie Court were so forward-looking?). The former event shows us the moral depths to which Swyfte has sunk in his fanatical pursuit of those who stole his beloved Jenny, and the latter puts his devotion to his cause to the test – but in neither case is the torture described in such gruesome detail as to be distressing to the reader.
Apart from this one difference, the two books are not that dissimilar in tone. Both are pitched as ripping yarns, a series of high adventures by less-than-perfect heroes in a flawed society. In other words, pure entertainment. And torture porn is not entertainment, at least not to this reader. It makes it difficult for me to recommend Lynch, particularly to female friends (many of whom are a great deal more squeamish than I am), and reluctant to buy any more of his books. By contrast, Chadbourn maintains the delicate balance between historical reality, noir grittiness and tasteful writing; the result is a much more enjoyable read, and I look forward to the publication of the sequel.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve taken Chadbourn’s lead in my own novel. I needed my hero to be interrogated by the bad guys, and I had already hinted that their methods were brutal. So, I had to come up with a way to cause great pain to the hero whilst making readers (and myself) wince in sympathy rather than turning stomachs. As for how I did it – you’ll just have to wait until the book comes out!
In conclusion, I think torture (like rape) is a sensitive subject that, treated well, adds depth to a realistically gritty novel. But it needs to match the tone of the rest of the book, otherwise it comes across as gratuitous and self-indulgent, and can lose you readers.