By G. ROBERT FRAZIER
One of the panels at the 2016 Imaginarium Convention in Louisville, Ky., earlier this month featured a fascinating discussion on the use of gore in fiction. Given all the attention the season seven premiere of The Walking Dead has received, and the fact that it is Halloween, I thought I’d share some highlights from the panelists.
ASHER ELLIS (moderator): Stephen King wrote, “I recognize terror as the finest emotion … and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” How do we all feel about the use of gore in fiction?
Andrew Cooper: I think some may resort to gore for a lack of direction in the story, but it can be a useful tool. I don’t think a story can rely solely on gore.
Elizabeth Donaldson: There are two different styles of horror. For some people it’s all about the gross-out. If you’ve ever read anything by Bryan Smith, then you know that gulping eyeballs is something he tends to do a lot. … There are people who absolutely can’t stand gore and there are people who absolutely love it, and it scares them. I think it’s a matter of taste for the reader as well as the writer.
Jimmy Gillente: It also depends on what type of book it is, what style the writer has, what market he’s tryng to go for. Bryan Smith, his fans love the really dark gory stuff, so that’s what he writes. It’s just another tool. I do feel it can be misused and overdone.
Andrew: Writing primarily for gore is an art. People have been doing it for hundreds of years, since way before film existed. As an art it’s one I appreciate. It’s one that a lot of people have no interest in whatsoever, but it’s also an art that requires thought, practice and talent, like every other art. … Chances are it’s going to be pretty crappy until said person studies it and gets better at it, because that’s what most art requires.
Asher: In “Splat Goes the Hero,” an essay by Jack Ketchum in On Writing Horror, he says his secrete is you shouldn’t shy away from writing gore, but if you’re going to have it, you’ve got to get to your character and what this actually means for them. It is a tool and it can be used pretty well or pretty poorly, but how do we know the difference?
Jimmy: For me, one of the guys who really uses gore effectively is Clive Barker. Sometimes he gets very dark and very visceral and very violent in his books, but he writes it so well. His book, Cabal, it actually gets very downright disgusting, but I still love the story.
Tommy B. Smith: Clive can write about ugliness in a very beautiful way.
Elizabeth: Off Season by Jack Ketchum uses gore, but he exercises compassion. If your gore is based solely on what’s the most disgusting thing we can do to this random human being we don’t care about, that’s what I would consider Stephen King’s gross-out level. If you, however, are caring a great deal about this person, being able to make this person someone for whom you can have compassion, then the gore is going to be that much heightened and your horror level will be much higher.
Tim Waggoner: Barker invites us to find his beautiful. Ketchum invites us to see the honesty of what brutality and violence does to humanity.
Elizabeth: (Imaginarium Guest of Honor) Brian Keene’s book Ghoul is not an easy read for anyone with a light stomach, but it is brilliant work.
Asher: Bryan Smith has a solid fan base who would be disappointed if he didn’t give them the Smith style of gore. Do you guys consider your audience when you get to that sort of stuff or is it more off the cuff, whatever happens happens?
Elizabeth: That’s marketing. When I write, I do what’s interesting me right now, then I think about who the hell am I going to sell this to, starting with whichever publisher first and how are we going to market this. They look at me funny and we try to come up with a plan.
Tommy: I appreciate having the freedom to explore whatever concepts interest me at the time.
Asher: As novelists, we have that freedom you’re talking about. If you look at other mediums of writing, screenwriting or TV or movies, they have a rating system. If I’m going to write something for ABC, it’s not going to be something I write for HBO. Even if you’re a musical artist, we slap parental advisory labels on CDs. If there was a rating system for novels, would that suck?
Tim: It could be good thing for readers, but on the other hand it would be difficult because novels are so much more complex. There’s so much else in there.
Andrew: Amazon does put age recommendations on its products. A lot of my books have 18+ recommendations. (Holds up his book, Peritoneum) If you’re offended by this cover, if this grosses you out, you don’t want to read this because it gets worse. I would not put my stuff in the hands of a 10-year-old. I have told people not to buy my book before.
Elizabeth: One of the most violent books I wrote was given a YA cover with young cartoony characters heading off into a haunted swamp where one of them is going to be eaten by one of the undead cannibal elves. You don’t want to ever have to say to someone, no don’t buy my book. If you ask, is your book appropriate for my 15-year-old, I would ask, well, how stable is your 15-year-old? You know your kid better than I do. Let me tell you what’s in it, then you decide.
Jimmy: I feel it should be up to the parent and the reader. It all depends on the individual.
Tim: Part of it is just practical. I think as (mid-list and indie) writers, we just don’t draw as
much attention. If every parent found one of our books in their hands, there might be an outcry for a rating system.
Elizabeth: I know there’s a push for trigger warnings in some books, where you just put a line on the inside front cover that says, “Warning, this book contains scenes of graphic sexual violence.” That’s a warning to somebody that might be really uncomfortable reading it so they know in advance, is this something that’s going to be too difficult for me to read? That leaves the decision in the hand of the reader as opposed to some sort of censorship device, which we certainly don’t want.
Tim: We can try to help, but I don’t think we can really avoid the things that could trigger an event, because you don’t know what might be a triggering event.
Andrew: Sometimes I am writing to overwhelm. I write extreme horror. If the cover of this book isn’t a trigger warning, I don’t know what is. I don’t expect this book to be mainstream, but I think that some art is meant to cross lines.
Asher: Gerald’s Game by Stephen King is a great example of that. It’s very cerebral. The story takes place in main character’s head, but at the end there is one of the most visceral scenes, that great moment when you have to throw a book down and actually shudder, when the character to escape her bonds must deglove herself. She slices her hand and pulls her skin off. It is so unlike everything else you’ve read before that of just psychological battles with his character, then, all of a sudden, boom, you are degloving a human hand.
Jimmy: That’s a good example of a scene used to convey shock, and it’s a good plot device. She had to do it to get away.
Tim: It’s good symbolism, too, because she’s bound and caught up in this stuff that’s going on, and it shows her removing her outer layer. Nobody is going to think about that when they read it, but on a subconscious level I think it does all those things really well. That’s when gore is a masterful technique, when it hits all those notes.
Elizabeth: I don’t think a good editor would say, “No you’ve crossed a line here.” A good editor would hopefully say, “this feels out of place…like you’ve thrown this in here just because it’s been X amount of pages since our last horribly gory death. We need to find a better way to make this integral to the story.”
Andrew: There is a moral dimension of not cutting away. For example, the old westerns used to be bloodless until Sam Peckinpah came along and had “squibs” (of blood) exploding. This was happening at same time as the Vietnam War, because the media started to show violence instead of cutting away. Bringing people into confrontation with gore isn’t necessarily the immoral choice. Sometimes it’s the right thing to do.
Tim: You could consider it irresponsible or immoral if you don’t show the reality of it.
Asher: We live in a culture now where it’s not even shocking.
Tim: The Universal Monsters movies always struck me as odd in that these monsters are really supposed to be doing these horrible things to people, but there’s no blood. In that sense, there is a certain level of dishonesty in that, especially if we teach a kid that violence is clean, it’s easy to do and there are no horrible consequences. It’s like cartoon violence. You’re just rubber; you can walk off screen and come back and you’re fine.
ABOUT THE PANELISTS
Asher Ellis is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Southern Maine, he has written award winning short stories, plays, and films. He teaches creative writing and English professor at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H.
Tommy B. Smith is a writer of dark fiction and the author of Poisonous and Pieces of Chaos. His work has appeared in numerous publications over the years, including Every Day Fiction, Night to Dawn, Blood Moon Rising, and a variety of other magazines and anthologies. He has previously worked with Morpheus Tales as editor of the magazine’s Dark Sorcery and Urban Horror special issues. His presence infests Fort Smith, Ark., where he resides with his wife and cats. www.tommybsmith.com
L. Andrew Cooper scribbles horror: novels Burning the Middle Ground and Descending Lines as well as anthologies of experimental shorts Leaping at Thorns (2014 /2016) and Peritoneum (2016). He also co-edited the anthology Imagination Reimagined (2014). His book Dario Argento (2012) examines the maestro’s movies from the ‘70s to the present. Cooper’s other works on horror include his non-fiction study Gothic Realities (2010), a co-edited textbook, Monsters (2012), and recent essays that discuss 2012’s Cabin in the Woods (2014) and 2010’s A Serbian Film (2015). His B.A. is from Harvard, Ph.D. from Princeton. landrewcooper.com
Tim Waggoner’s first novel came out in 2001, and he’s published over thirty novels and three collections of short stories since. He writes original fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins. His novels include Like Death, considered a modern classic in the genre, and the popular Nekropolis series of urban fantasy novels. He’s written tie-in fiction for Supernatural, Grimm, the X-Files, Doctor Who, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Transformers, among others. His articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Journal, and Writer’s Workshop of Horror. He’s been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award, and his fiction has received numerous Honorable Mentions in volumes of Best Horror of the Year. In addition to being an adjunct faculty member in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program, he’s a full-time tenured professor teaching creative writing and composition at Sinclair College.
Jimmy Gillentine grew up with a fondness for horror, science fiction and fantasy flavored with the southern tang of his native Memphis. His debut novella, “Of Blood and the Moon,” was first published in 2009 and was the first runner-up for the Darrell Award. Other publications include the short “Fifteen-Minute Break” in the annual anthology Cover of Darkness and the novella “A Night at Death’s Door.” His novel The Beast Within begins the bittersweet story of Andrew and Angela, which continues in Crossroads, published by Inkstained Succubus Press. Look for its conclusion in Blood of the Father, to be released in 2016. Currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English literature and creative writing at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Jimmy is a member of the Literary Underworld, Imagicopter and the Eville Writers, and is married to author Elizabeth Donald.
Elizabeth Donald is a writer fond of things that go chomp in the night. She is a three-time winner of the Darrell Award for speculative fiction and author of the Nocturnal Urges vampire mystery series and Blackfire zombie series, as well as other novels and short stories in the horror, science fiction and fantasy genres. She is the founder of the Literary Underworld author cooperative; an award-winning newspaper reporter and lecturer on journalism ethics; a nature and art photographer; freelance editor and writing coach. elizabethdonald.com