2.16.2013

In Defense of Hopelessness in Fiction

In recent months, I've given away close to 10,000 ebooks on Amazon. Free promotions can do a lot to spread an author's net far and wide to catch new readers, and in most instances this has been a good thing. But distributing your books to a larger sample of the population has other benefits, like showing whether or not your marketing or Amazon's mysterious cataloging algorithms are putting your books before the wrong target audience.

Take, for instance, my short story The Good Girls. It is, without a doubt, one seriously grim and dark piece of fiction. It's never been any kind of secret. In fact, I thought I highlighted this pretty well in the stark cover design and product description:
For the last five years, Nina has been turning tricks at a mob-run brothel to pay off an enormous debt, but the Madam is willing to let her go free if she sees one last client, a mysterious recluse with a chilling reputation.
It was an offer she couldn't refuse. One more client, one more trick, and all her troubles would finally be over. Or would it be the beginning of a new unspeakable horror that could obliterate Nina's mind for good?
I thought it was catchy, but I thought maybe I needed to beef it up a little more, so I added the following disclaimer to the product description and will consider adding it to the front matter too for people doing a little browsing before they click Buy:
DISCLAIMER: This is a very grim, very dark horror story. If you're expecting hope and happy endings, if you're expecting a hero, The Good Girls may not be for you.
I also put author notes at the end of all my stories, explaining the choices I made or some of the inspiration behind the story. Here is the note currently at the end of The Good Girls:
All right, I can feel some of you glaring at me right now, so I might as well address something. This story is grim, damned grim, even for me. However, there was a method behind all this. There always is. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out the themes, but trust that I wasn’t writing this just to be all mean and sadistic to poor Nina, or to you.

I had a feeling this would be one of the darkest pieces I’d ever attempted, and I wanted to challenge myself with it. I always feel like I’m flinching or pulling my punches a little, and this time I knew that if I did that, the story would not work on any level.

That’s not to say I didn’t try to give this story an actual hero in Ramón. That was just the optimist in me begging for attention. I tried out about six different endings that ranged from him coming back to burn down the house and kill the freak inside, to him killing Nina out of mercy when he sees what happened to her. In another version, I considered letting Nina get away mostly intact only to be tracked down by Victor Cassini’s men in Mexico sometime later. None of those endings rang true, though. Out of all the wisdom I’ve gleaned about writing over the years, the one piece that has really stuck with me (from Stephen King’s On Writing, in particular) is the value and importance of telling the truth. It’s been difficult to fully grasp that concept, but I think I finally get it now. It isn’t just about being visceral when the moment calls for it. It’s about making the hard call to go where your characters are truly leading you, even if it is down a dark and hopeless hole to nowhere. I feel, for better or worse, this was the only truthful conclusion for this story, and I hope you agree.
I write those notes for a reason. Some would say I might be apologizing for my work by doing this, that I'm trying to get out ahead of the criticism, and maybe there is some truth to that. I like communication. It's how I roll. I also do it because I like reaching out to readers and letting them know that I'm a real person. That I'm "here." I like being accessible.

At any rate, The Good Girls seems to have recently fallen onto the Kindles of a lot of people who clearly do not read horror, or at least review it. All of the reviews by the people who have chastised me for writing this depressing sadistic filth seem to be concentrated in the romance genre (paranormal or otherwise). One of the most recent two-star reviews asked, "Where's the hope?"

Well I'll tell you where it isn't. It's not in The Good Girls, and it was never intended to be. You want hope? Stick to romance. Okay okay, sure, I like to put glimmers of hope and optimism in my work from time to time, but they're like gold shavings in a murky river bottom. You may see it, you may not.

Horror, to me anyway, is about the absence of hope. And although it takes a little bit of creative thinking to find the value in that, there is value. There is a reason people love the horror genre, and it isn't because they love watching people suffer. Okay, maybe some of them do, but I think overall it's all about adrenaline and perspective. It's about traveling through a dark and scary tunnel and emerging into the sunlight of our mundane lives and feeling perhaps a tad grateful it. And the darker the darkness, the brighter even a dim candlelight can seem.

And if you like romance novels and books with shirtless men on the cover, chances are you might not find The Good Girls to your liking. I hope you do. I welcome all readers. But if you're going to criticize me for doing what I intended to do, realize that you're really only helping me in the end.

At the very heart of horror lies optimism. It just isn't going to be spelled right out for you and handed to you on a silver platter. The optimism and hope in most of my work, and horror in general, is a BYO kind of thing.