Taboos in Horror: A Guest Post by Luke Walker

I am pleased to once again welcome horror author, Luke Walker, to my blog. This writer holds the honor of managing to completely terrify me with a short story I critiqued for him one time. In that story, as yet unpublished I believe, Luke managed to pinpoint one of my  deepest fears: something terrible happening to one of my children. I’m no slouch when it comes to horror or dark and challenging fiction in general. It’s rare that something can manage to discombobulate me as much as that story did and the horror of it has never completely faded away. Harm to children: is it one of the taboos of horror? Or just something that is so difficult to tackle that  most writers just don’t go there? Luke Walker goes there. Here’s his take on the topic.

* * * * * 

Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.” ~Robert Bloch.

Take a look at that quote again. While this is often attributed to Stephen King, it actually comes from Robert Bloch, the author probably most famous for the novel Psycho and also dozens of short stories, other novels and TV work. In any case, what’s your first reaction to that quote? A snigger at the dark comedy it contains? Or a slight sense of discomfort, a feeling that, while it’s obviously meant as a tongue in cheek joke, it’s getting into an area you’re not happy to explore? Are you thinking that while no reasonable person would actually believe Bloch’s comment, the suggestion he has the heart of a dead child on his desk is on the wrong side of taboo? If so, come closer. We have much to talk about.

Horror is a funny subject. I’ve often said that any medium the horror writer/film-maker uses doesn’t automatically have to throw in as much blood and pain as it can. These are tools, not prerequisites, and the talented writer (or film-maker) knows when to use them just as they know when to pull back, to show you the outline of the body at the side of the road rather than pulling the cover off it and shoving your face into the mess that body has now become. There are plenty of people who assume the opposite. Horror has no grace, no subtlety. It relies on being as unpleasant as possible. Right?

Wrong.

Horror is often at its most effective when our imaginations fill in the gaps for us, when we’re presented with a terrible event for a character we’re at least interested in but the writer doesn’t spell everything out for us. While we sometimes need to see the blood and the snot and the shit and hear the screams, don’t think we always do. Sometimes you’ll see the remains of a friend spread out on the kitchen floor after the zombies have finished eating them. Sometimes you’ll see a bloody footprint by the kitchen door and you’ll know what’s on the other side. But what if that friend is something else? Someone else?

A child?

Getting uncomfortable? Good. I want you to. I want you to think about the directions in which horror can go when it needs to, when it has a reason to get into those taboo subjects we don’t like to talk about. Because here’s the thing: I’m writing this on a Sunday afternoon; I have a good cup of coffee next to me, both my cats are asleep on the bed and while the weather is ropey, today is a good day. I’m writing, I’m planning a couple of short stories, I love my wife, she loves me and I’m talking about horror. All good stuff.

But.

It’s only a matter of days since dozens of people were killed in Syria. As the news keeps telling us, many of them were women and children. So let’s talk while I drink my coffee and my cats sleep. Let’s talk about those dead children.

They’re real. Until very recently, they loved their parents and they fought with their siblings. They liked their friends, their toys. Maybe they had a pet. I’d be willing to say they liked to play because they were kids. And now they’re dead. They’re all over the news and the politicians don’t like it. You watch the news and you say how terrible it is and you hope things get better. Then you pick up a book and the writer tells you about a raped and murdered child. You put the book down and you tell your friends you didn’t like it.

Horror doesn’t have to show us taboos any more than erotica has to go into the supposed taboos of watersports or bondage. It doesn’t have to, but it can and does partly because some people want to read it and partly because good fiction often holds a mirror up to the real world. If a writer is going to treat the real world and their readers with respect, then they need to tell their story honestly. Think about Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Spoiler alert – the lead character’s son is killed in a road accident. It’s horrendous. Then King ups it a notch. The father has a dream in which he manages to save his son. The boy grows up, becomes an Olympic swimmer, and while the father is watching his son on TV, he sees the water beads running down his son’s bathing cap. Except it’s not water. It’s blood.

His cap is full of his blood and brain.

That’s not so much showing you the taboo of a dead child as it is punching you in the face with it. And yet, it’s absolutely the right way for King to have done it. Children are killed all the time. The grief and pain their parents feel don’t end when you close the book. So while it’s a taboo, it’s also life.

If I, as a writer, want to bullshit you, I probably could. But I won’t. I respect you and hope you respect me for being truthful with my writing. So I’ll explore any taboos I come across and I’ll know when to open the kitchen door and show you the mess on the other side or maybe just let you stare at the bloody footprint.

* * * * *

Excerpt from They Always Get Inside In The Films by Luke Walker

Neil stares at the kitchen door. It’s half open and he wonders if he can be grateful the door isn’t open all the way.

Blood coats the kitchen floor in streaks. The streaks finish in front of the fridge. The white of the bottom half of the fridge is obscured by red and a faraway voice asks Neil if he’s surprised there is so much blood inside a two year old boy.

His head. Jesus. His little head. He managed to crawl. His head. His head.

You can read the rest of the story here.

* * * * *

What do you think of the issues Luke has raised? Do you have the stomach to read about children dying or do you see enough of it in the news? Do you think this type of horror fiction is exploitative or that it needs to be written? Please do share your thoughts.

Luke Walker has made several wonderful contributions to this blog. Here’s an interview with him. He wrote up a terrific list of his favorite zombie films here, and his post on great female characters in horror films is one of the top hits on this blog. You can follow the weird and wonderful Walker on his blog or treat yourself to his novel, The Red Girl, from Musa Publishing.

About Diane Dooley

Writer, Mother, Geek
This entry was posted in Guest Posts, Horror and Dark Fantasy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Taboos in Horror: A Guest Post by Luke Walker

  1. Luke Walker says:

    Thanks for having me, Diane. It was a pleasure to share my thoughts on this. And yes, the story you mentioned (Bear) is as yet unpublished. It’ll find a home one day.

  2. Dale Long says:

    Whoa! That was just plain scary. Zombie flicks scare the bejeezus out of me.

    I’m with you, Luke, horror can be subliminal. I use that technique myself. Sometimes, less is more. Blood and gore should be used the same as sex or spices in cooking, as a flavouring, not as the main course or gratuitous.

    Thanks Sandra!

  3. Came over from Luke’s blog. Great post! The one thing I can’t personally manage to do as a writer is kill fictional children (or real children, for that matter, but you knew that). I can read about it, I can watch the news, I can watch movies with that subject matter, but I can’t write it myself. I can, however, torture and murder adult characters in all manner of ways. And I can kill animals – which I think some would say is also a taboo?

    • Luke Walker says:

      Killing animals is definitely a taboo especially if it’s an animal we keep as a pet. That’s a way of really getting to the character. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve done that in my fiction simply because it hasn’t come up. I wouldn’t do it for the sake of it, though.

      Here, Fido…heh heh :)

    • Diane Dooley says:

      Some people are fine with killing fictional children, but not fictional animals. Always makes me scratch my head.

  4. Stay away from the dog, Luke! Pet Semetary was one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read. It raises the question of how far would you go tsave your child, and then what if you did and it went really, really bad.

    • Luke Walker says:

      Hahaha. Dogs are OK with me. Ditto cats.
      PS is still one of King’s most effective works. One of the issues that gets me with that book is the sense of inevitably. The characters are in front of something huge bearing down on them; they can’t stop it so all they can do is get out of the way or get knocked down. And we all know which way they go.

  5. Sealey says:

    I don’t think writing about harm to children is a taboo topic necessarily, but I *do* think that it’s a delicate subject. It has to be handled carefully in order to achieve that subtlety that will reach a vast audience, without totally turning them off. Even if you can get past the gruesome nature of it to write it, it’s probably a bigger challenge than most writers are willing to take on.

    People who have experienced real life violence toward a child, or who have lost a child, may not be the target audience for this kind of thing, obviously (PTSD). But for the rest of us…if the subject is written with *just* the right amount of subtlety, it reflects a universal fear that all humans have. And I think that’s what horror is supposed to do.

    Even if you’re not a parent, we’re all built with some sort of instinct to “protect children”. If we don’t, we’ll die out. And for parents, that fear is so much more complicated. Someone ( ;) ) has decided to entrust us with someone else’s life besides our own. *That* responsibility alone evokes tremendous fear, in my opinion. Plus, there are also the more subtle, ongoing doubts we have about not effing them up while raising them.

    Anyway, this is all to say, I *do* think it’s a topic that needs to be written about. Exploring the yucky topics (particularly in the safer world of fiction) is a great way for us to release anxiety about them. And personally, I have an easier time reading/watching something happen to a child in a fictional setting, than I do on the news. Probably because I know it’s fiction. The news is *too* real for me.

    • Luke Walker says:

      Thanks for the very interesting reply, Sealey. Universal fears are definitely a big part of horror. While deeply personal fears are often interesting to explore, the fears that unite us and make us human shouldn’t be overlooked.
      Thanks for reading :)

    • Diane Dooley says:

      I managed to kill a fictional child recently and it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. My husband, though, was like: “I can’t believe you killed a little baby!” He was very upset.

  6. Great post, Luke. I’d really enjoyed reading your other guest post, too.

    For me as a reader, nothing is really off limits. It all depends on how the subject matter is approached and treated. In the same way that I believe there is a difference when violence is realistically depicted in a film, and when it is glorified.

    As a writer of horror, no one in my stories is necessarily safe, regardless of what age they might be. Yes, that might be an immediate turnoff to some readers, but it all goes back to the reality that there is always going to be someone who doesn’t like your work for whatever reason. And that’s okay.

    • Luke Walker says:

      Thanks, gypsy. Nice of you to say so. It’s true that a writer will never please all their readers. I remember reading a piece by Stephen King in which he described some of the letters he got after the release of The Dead Zone (which features the bad guy killing a dog). Plenty of his readers reacted as if he himself had actually killed the dog. I have to wonder how many of those people were equally as upset by the evening news.

  7. DarkEva says:

    I don’t have a problem reading the stories of other authors in which children are killed, although it is increasingly disturbing to see it on the news, but I’ve never “gone there” so to speak in my own work not only because I don’t think I would want to, but also because I see magazine and anthology guidelines all the time that ask writers not to submit stories involving violence towards children, even though I’ve read plenty of works that do this. In any case, I found this piece to be thought-provoking and worth the read.

    • Luke Walker says:

      The guidelines issue is definitely true, Eva. I’ve seen that more than a few times and find it a bit odd. Obviously it’s a delicate issue. Violence for the sake of it is just pointless, but I don’t think it should be ruled out as a complete no-no.

    • Diane Dooley says:

      I’ve seen those guidelines. Doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve also seen guidelines that state no violence towards women. Despite the fact that news is stuffed with both.

  8. Sealey says:

    Oh–guidelines! Grrr. I see this often. Both for violence toward children and, as Diane mentions, toward women. And I have much frustration with it. Many of my stories have one or both of those “no-nos” in them (not very graphic, but part of the plot, yes). Which makes the market search REALLY difficult. However, I do wonder if the editors are simply trying to keep out (or reduce) the submissions that are truly in bad taste. In any genre, but especially(?) in horror, you can get some pretty over the top, for the sake of being over the top, stuff. Or even stuff you wonder if you should call someone about. ;) I know I’ve seen it, instances where it’s pretty clear that the person wasn’t writing a “story”, but had some venting to do. Those two topics seem pretty ripe for that to occur. *shrug* I don’t know. I try to play devil’s advocate, but it still frustrates me.

  9. sayssara says:

    The scariest horror deals with the subjects that scare the writer – Stephen King does this a lot and I think Pet Semetary is one of the best examples. As a father himself, the concept of his child being killed had to be one of his worst nightmares.

    Personally, i think if you write horror, you should be prepared to face your own fears. There should be nothing you’re too scared of to write about. In fact the things you’re most scared of you should be writing about. If it offends the reader, then fine – they can choose not to read it.

    • Luke Walker says:

      I often go into personally uncomfortable places when I write. I figure if I can do that, then hopefully the reader will see it and enjoy my stories more. It comes down to writing honestly as well treating the reader like an adult.

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