Suffer The Children?

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

In the last 12 months, I have been at two different panels, at two different Cons, where a member of the audience asked the same question.  The question was, “Is there anything you feel you can’t write about?”

The first panel was the one on British horror at FantasyCon in Brighton last year. The panel was peopled entirely by men (unrepresentative, I thought, as there are plenty of British women horror writers, but I digress). The second panel was at the Harrogate crime conference last weekend and dealt with the issue of whether women write more violent crime than men. This panel was almost entirely women – the sole man there writes under a female pseudonym, and he was there to give a slightly different slant to the discussion.

All members of both panels unanimously gave the answer that they shied away from writing about terrible things happening to children.

In my writing career thus far, I’ve had terrible things happen to many children in my stories. Indeed, the plot of the first novel, SUFFER THE CHILDREN, revolves around a supernatural creature who survives by sucking the life essence out of children. My urban fantasy project – though currently shelved – features a supernatural private eye who works as a ‘ghost whisperer’, and in an early scene she has to deal with the ghost of a child horribly disfigured in the accident that killed her.

Admittedly I come from the perspective of someone who not only doesn’t have children, but who clearly wasn’t in the queue when maternal instinct was handed out. Most of the writers on the aforementioned panels were parents. But let’s look at this a bit closer. My writing idol, Stephen King, has many terrible things happen to children in his stories.  In CARRIE a gymnasium full of teenagers at their high school prom burn to death. The plot of IT kicks off with the young brother of one of the main characters being pulled into the sewer and killed by the Big Bad, in the guise of an evil clown. And then there’s PET SEMETARY, that features a toddler mown down by a truck, who consequently comes back from the dead and goes on a murderous rampage.

People with children are uncomfortable with the idea of terrible things happening to children because it cuts too close to their own fears for their children. But as horror and crime writers, our job is to scare people. You can write about nothing more convincing than the things that scare you. I think that’s what Stephen King was doing with PET SEMETARY. After all, he is himself a father. Surely nothing scares a parent more than the thought of one of their children dying. And the father in PET SEMETARY, having to face this tragedy, knows that there’s a mysterious graveyard over the hill that seems to possess the abililty to bring things that are buried there back from the dead – even if they don’t come back quite the same as they were before. Faced with that knowledge, what should he do? What would any grieving parent do?

In order to grow as writers, I think we need to be able to write about anything – especially the things that we are most afraid of. Ultimately that’s why I decided I need to tackle that rape scene in the current WIP. I knew I was shying away from it because I was uncomfortable with the subject matter. And hence, I needed to face it.

There should be nothing that a writer should be afraid to write about, especially if you like to write stories that scare people. The things that scare you the most are likely to scare your reader as well.

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2 comments so far

  1. NT on

    Actually, I find that supernatural things happening to children doesn’t seem to be as off limits (becasue it can’t happen in reality) whereas actual things are a lot more uncomfortable to write about. While I have no idea if others think that way, that’s how I look at it. Gary Braunbeck’s novel, Mr. Hands, featured a lot of horrible things happening to children, which is where the creature, Mr. Hands, came into the picture (and things go horribly wrong – I encourage you to check it out, good stuff).

    I do agree though, that as writers, tackling difficult subjects is just a part of what we do and we shouldn’t be afraid to face them.

  2. wonderactivist on

    I think that as a writer I want to be able to write about anything–especially the things that bother me. I can process them, conquer them on paper if not in real life. I don’t write horror, but I do write suspense and I think that fear is one powerful tool of human heart-stoppery.

    On the other hand, I’m a parent. And I don’t like reading unexpected gruesome violence against children in a book. Let’s put an emphasis on unexpected. If it’s on the cover, somehow, or in the book blurb–if anything at all has warned me, I can take a little bit of it. I just don’t like getting blind-sighted. Those images give me nightmares about my kids.

    So yes, we have to explore every feeling and go deep into what it might mean, but yes, we also have to respect a reader’s right to choose. I’m a huge fan of Stephen King but choose not to read some of his works because they bother me, Doesn’t mean he shouldn’t write them.

    I want y’all to explore every cruel dark-alley of a soul that raises a finger against a child. Lots of people will read that. And some of us will choose to appreciate it, from a distance.


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