What a reader finds shocking, even objectionable, is going to vary, though unusual and excessive forms of sex and violence are the best ways of attracting attention to a book, especially for a debut author.
A writer can have fun with ignoring the rules of orderly writing, if it’s their characters who are using incorrect grammar, repetition, split infinitives, double negatives—which can be attributed to their poor education—not yours!
I’m in two minds about self-censoring dangerous information…after all, it’s no excuse to say that it’s available to anyone who searches the internet when you’re presenting it in an easily digestible form in your fictional story.
Not every creative artist agrees, as this interview with Quentin Tarantino demonstrates, when he tears into Krishnan Guru-Murthy, for daring to suggest that the violence depicted in his movies encourages copycat crimes.
Shocking novelists include Irvine Welsh, whose stories feature grotesque scenes full of foul language. Sometimes a novel can be deemed to be so obscene or controversial, that it gets banned, even provoking a criminal trial—as happened with D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
More recently, Toni Morrison’s novels have been banned for their ‘pornographic’ language and content.
Salman Rushdie pissed off Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini so much with his The Satanic Verses, which supposedly contained blasphemous references against the prophet Muhammed, that he pronounced a fatwa calling for his death…which theoretically is still in place. It’s estimated that it’s cost £1,000,000 a year to protect him.
In my Cornish Detective series, I’ve written about some shocking things, including murder, human trafficking, incest, prostitution, rape, drug addiction, kidnapping and detailed descriptions of autopsies. These elements are part and parcel of modern-day crime novels—readers expect them—what would have outraged the public fifty years ago is now commonplace entertainment. Some readers will still be shocked by the bare details, though I try to unsettle the others by describing the perpetrator’s attitude to their crime—which can be disturbing for their lack of empathy and any sense of guilt.
One thing that I like to do with my stories, is to wrong-foot the reader, by making them sympathise with a villain. A serial killer was an ex-sniper, used to spending days camouflaged in the landscape, waiting for his target to appear, and he’d developed a love of wildlife, especially birds. I also gave him some physical ailments, that readers could relate to.
Another serial killer, who’d taken a victim once a year for forty years, only eliminated hardened criminals, some of whom had escaped justice through legal technicalities. He slaughtered paedophiles, rapists, drug dealers and terrorists—did that make him evil or an unacknowledged superhero of justice?
The antagonist in my latest story is a cultured art gallery owner, who’s killed three people, including his brother, to protect his paintings. He interprets life through his art collection, shunning people socially and only interacting with wealthy collectors. He’s a misanthrope, more specifically a misogynist who detests women—always thinking the worst of them, and his thoughts are vile. They’re the opposite of my own attitude, as I was raised surrounded by warm and nurturing female relatives; I’m sure that some readers will interpret my story as meaning that I’m a male chauvinist hog, but such are the risks any writer runs.
I’ve not justified my villain’s prejudice against females, though I have gone some way towards explaining it. When he was 10 years old, his mother disappeared to New York with her lover, totally abandoning her family, never contacting them again. His father is a withdrawn concentration camp survivor, who works as a funeral director embalming corpses. He offers no emotional support. One time, as a teenager, my villain unexpectedly encounters a naked female corpse in the embalming room, before being ejected by his father—who punishes him by making him write a religious essay based on a painting called The Light Of The World, by William Holman Hunt. This pushes him away from any hope of religious redemption, and he turns to the dark side.
I based this scene on real-life crimes, where boys, who went on to become serial killers, spent too much unsupervised time with the bodies of close female relatives, laid out in the parlour of their homes—as was once common practice in the early 20th-century. They became acquainted with death in female form at an impressionable stage in their emotional and sexual development.
Anyhow, my baddy thinks things such as:
“The painter served her purpose and had been fairly paid for her daubs. With just enough skill to imitate an untrained artist from the 1920s, she’d become a liability. Her disappearance would be put down to a return to drug addiction. She had to go: she’d been trying to see through the shutters of the shop. The mop-headed boy she’d been dating asked around about her, but had taken up with an old flame…easy come, easy go. Temptation was everywhere, with so many alluring holidaymakers in town for a week or two of pleasure.
The killer had tupped a boatload of them, when young, dumb and full of cum, but that was a distraction he’d abandoned, now that he was an established member of the art colony. He still appreciated a good-looking woman, and he had admirers, but they were all gold-diggers, divorcees and widows mainly, on the hunt for someone to provide them with an easeful old age. Peddling pussies that were past their sell-by date, they’d spread for bread, offering gash for cash, with not a smidgin of sincerity in their soul or an ounce of love in their hearts.
The wind on his face was refreshing. He spent too much time indoors, which had given his skin a pallor but prevented the sunbaked wrinkles of sun-worshippers. How being the colour and texture of an ancient tan handbag could be considered healthy, was beyond his understanding.“
He’s a supposedly civilised man, who’s extremely uncouth; undoubtedly a sociopath.
Of course, the things that characters say can be shocking in a humorous way. Sitting in a pub one evening, minding my own business, I overheard a group of women in the next booth talking about their partners’ physical attributes. One called her husband “Tripod”, which made her friends giggle as they asked if he was that well-hung? “Not really,” the woman replied, “it’s just that the important third ‘leg’ keeps collapsing and letting me down!”
Part of the problem with modern stories is judging the balance between describing the reality of how people live and endeavouring to narrate a story that has literary aspirations. Critics like to shuffle realistic depictions of 21st-century urban living into the vague category of Working Class Fiction. Most people have ignoble thoughts, from time to time, imagining the worst and sometimes saying things that they regret, or pretend to regret, or won’t take back. Capturing such outrage in fiction is tricky.
Do you have any favourite famous novels that shocked you with what the author expressed from their own standpoint or through what their characters thought and said?
Have you written any characters who are absolutely vile?
Or, who say outrageous things in a funny ‘you can’t say that’ way?