The Mirror’s Gaze

© Thomas Harris

“Here is a list of terrible things,
The jaws of sharks, a vultures wings,
The rabid bite of the dogs of war,
The voice of one who went before,
But most of all the mirror’s gaze,
Which counts us out our numbered days.”
― Clive Barker, Days of Magic, Nights of War

I did promise a while back that I’d return to the theme of horror fiction, undoubtedly my favourite genre. As a result, this somewhat horror-related post will be lacking the lighthearted humour of my usual fare, so please skip this if you’re not in the mood for heavy and ponderous (you can’t even imagine how much I wanted to add a “LOL” at the end of that sentence).

It’s going to be frankly impossible for me to write this post effectively or accurately unless I come clean about certain autobiographical facts, or full disclosures, or whatever journalistic convention dictates they’re referred to as. For anyone who has read my book, this won’t exactly come as a shock. For, existing somewhere in the mostly buried and certainly haphazard detritus of my personal history is a barely legible doctor’s note (aren’t they all?), diagnosing me as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and clinical depression. Now, here and elsewhere, it’s been endlessly discussed and largely established that creativity tends to be accompanied by emotional and mental turmoil, so I’m not going to recross that familiar ground this time around, fascinating though it is.

No, I want to address something else. I belong to numerous online writer’s groups, from Facebook to LinkedIn, and I am noticing a recurring question that frequently gets asked by novice writers, but perhaps surprisingly, not solely by novice writers. Usually presented in a tentative manner, it basically asks whether certain painful topics are off limits, whether writers ought to refrain—through simple good taste, perhaps, or more worryingly, as a duty toward readers’ sensibilities?—from discussing certain painful aspects of the human condition, or even whether writers should avoid certain words (to me, the latter is akin to asking a painter to ignore specific colours). Now, I generally avoid these conversations as I literally don’t have the time to indulge in the lengthy handwringing that almost inevitably follows. And, quite honestly, I am not partial to being misjudged, as so often occurs on all sides when this topic is raised. So, in place of my usual silence in those conversations, here’s a placeholder for my views on this, henceforth to be considered my definitive position. After which, you have my permission to go do something a lot more fun than reading my tortured and over-earnest opinionating.

So, what of those opinions? In one sense, they’re simple: censorship, even self-censorship, is anathema to a writer. Anxiety and second-guesswork over the reception of anything you create will only shackle and smother you. Write the book you want to read—even if zombie gnomes, electric can openers, and baby nuns feature heavily—and damn the torpedoes. Now, obviously, I’m not talking about children’s books, here; fluffy bunnies drenched in gore and cursing like inebriated sailors is never a good look. Well, hmmm… at least in that context it isn’t. But let’s assume we’re talking about adults writing for adults. In which case, I don’t think anything should be off the table. And I mean anything. Some of the best and sharpest writing I’ve read has refused to pull its punches in this regard, from Clive Barker’s Books of Blood to Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones to Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. These books deal with cannibalism, cruelty, murder/rape, madness, child abuse and serial murder. Not exactly pleasant stuff. They are definitely upsetting. But are they well written? Do they stand comparison with other good or even great literature? Would I recommend them? Absolutely, yes to all of the above. The thing is (and not that this should matter, either): all evidence points to the fact that these authors are well-adjusted, generous, and compassionate people. Stephen King himself, who once wrote about a man who literally ate himself, is a wonderful human being, by all accounts. Conflating their subject matter with their personalities is as wrong-headed as inferring Shakespeare was a sadist (or a racist!) for describing Iago’s treatment of Othello. Or for assuming that Marshall Mather’s worldview is identical to that of Slim Shady (remember, people did this. Quaint, huh? Probably not, if you were Mr. Mathers). Such readings are depressingly shallow. It ought to go without saying that a writer can explore scenes of unmitigated horror without endorsing their real life equivalents. And in most cases, the writer’s outraged humanity is the fuel behind such explorations in the first place. If I hadn’t been hurt in certain ways, my own scrutiny of our tenuous connections and adult sorrows alongside their roots in childhood trauma would probably ring hollow or skewed or inauthentic. Perhaps they do anyway. But, as Stephen King so succinctly said once, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

Yes, there is exploitation. Yes, there is insensitivity. Stupidity, even. Those are matters for the writer and his or her conscience. And for readers to embrace or shun as they see fit. But freedom of speech is essential to a democracy, and especially to our current very flawed versions. Without even that, freedom itself would only further adopt the worryingly illusory mantle it’s already begun to.

Again, so I am not misunderstood: I’m not telling you what to do. As a writer, you might have your own (personal, religious, ethical) limits with regard to what topics you allow yourself to explore. That’s fine. Some writers aim only to entertain, and I mean it, there’s nothing wrong with that. I may disagree with what I see as misguided morality but I respect your right to it. But those of us who dig around in the entrails sometimes need to feel our discussion of the world’s sharper edges or bleaker corners will not be interpreted as endorsement or approval of such horrors. I have always believed that art mirrors life and not the other way around. Those of us damaged by events in our personal lives (I’m hazarding a guess that’s most of us) need this blighted avenue in which to explore our various wounds. Who knows, without that opportunity, and without the misplaced judgement of the misinformed and the judgmental, maybe more of us would end up being the Hannibal Lecters of the world instead of the Thomas Harris’s.

Look, it’s a lonely enough profession. I sometimes think I write to combat the loneliness more than for any other reason. It’s an attempt to self heal. Okay, I just ran out of steam, so I’ll end on another fairly pertinent quote by our old friend Mr. King:

“Alone. Yes, that’s the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn’t hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym.”

Author: David Antrobus

Born in Manchester, England, author David Antrobus currently lives in British Columbia. David also edits and writes in many styles and genres, from nonfiction to dark fantasy. He worked for twenty years with abused teens. You can also find David at his blog and at his Amazon author page.

40 thoughts on “The Mirror’s Gaze”

  1. Well, David, you know about Legend of Kawilara and what’s in it…medieval torture, violence, pirates…I must agree with you here. It is really important for all writers from all walks of life to be able to explore dark sides as well as light, I do both, but exploring the dark side of my life helped purge my childhood and all the awful things that happened in it. Well written, my friend. 🙂

    1. I always think without the dark we’d appreciate the light less vividly, so yes. Thanks for the comment, Lavinia!

      1. It is true. So, so, so true. If there weren’t bad times we wouldn’t even recognize what good times feel like. I wish bad times didn’t have to get as dark as they sometimes get, but it comes with life. They make you stronger and able to cherish good times when they’re there. 🙂

    1. Exactly! The important part is not to get stuck. Writing is an adventure, and I don’t think there’s ever been an adventure story in which the protagonist has avoided the dangerous, the scary, the gross or the distressing. Thanks, Laurie.

  2. A great big ‘Yes!’ to all those thoughts David. As both a reader and a writer I believe that hiding from what has been makes it impossible to discover what might be.

    Well said!

    1. Aw, everyone’s agreeing with me, no fun. Just kidding. And very well put, indeed, acflory.

  3. Readers, publishers, and booksellers may protest certain topics, but I wouldn’t presume to tell a writer what or what not to write about. I’ve read some books that handled “distasteful” topics magnificently. What if someone told Joyce Carol Oates that you can’t write a novel from the POV of a serial killer? Or Stephen King that you must never kill a child in your work? Or said that the shower scene in Carrie was “too gross” to write about?

    1. And what fascinates me is when even those writers think they’ve gone too far. I think King wanted to literally trash Pet Sematary, but his agent convinced him to publish. And yes, it was horrible. Perhaps flawed, even. But it was certainly an incredibly emotional meditation on attitudes toward death in our culture, among many other things. And the thing is, with that novel and Cujo and others, King writes about children dying not because he gets some sick, perverse pleasure out of it, but (and here I will pretend to yell for emphasis) BECAUSE THE DEATH OF A CHILD IS ONE OF THE WORST @#$%ING THINGS HE CAN CONCEIVE OF! It’s a howl against the vagaries and cruelties of either a random, godless universe or, worse, a universe with a deity that actually allows such things to happen. Uh, lol. Just got all caught up there for a second or two. But yeah.

    1. Thank you, Brooklyn. Now, can someone at least pretend to disagree so we can have a discussion, lol! I kid. It’s actually good to know I’m not alone out there in the darkness with my tiny, guttering flame.

  4. It may be a bad habit, but one thing I always do, in my mind, when I read a statement of an absolute is to play devil’s advocate. In this case the absolute is for freedom to write whatever we want. my first instinct is to agree. All aspects of humanity are fair game, with all their warts. My book had a gang rape, graphic not in the physical description but very much so at the emotional level of the victim. I also describe the abuse of the main character that shaped him. So I agree as far as that goes.

    But I do draw a line the writing becomes a tool for supporting and promoting hate, abuse, abasement or oppression. When writing is used for these purposes it crosses a line that I cannot accept.advocates these, as a positive value, as a means to use others.

    1. Yes, this is where it gets complicated, Yvonne, and is where I also struggle. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I have to say, almost reluctantly, that I’d still support the right of the person to express their hatred and bigotry, no matter how repellent. I’m not generally an absolutist, either, but when it comes to free speech, I end up as close as it gets. But even then… before the Rwandan genocide in ’94, the Hutu powers were radio broadcasting to the entire country a whole lot of hateful bigotry toward the Tutsi minority, calling them “cockroaches”, etc. Free speech, right? Yet it was one (major? minor?) element that led to one of the most shameful horrors of the late 20th Century. So, what are the limits? Is it possible to write a book of fiction that could precipitate this kind of atrocity? I don’t honestly know.

  5. Hate literature aside, I think the only limits for a creative writer are the limits he/she feels are appropriate for their writing voice. There are some scenarios that I couldn’t bring truth to (can’t figure out how to write that sentence without ending with preposition, sorry). So, I just wouldn’t write them.

    As always, an excellent post, Mr. Antrobus…and two more things: ‘haphazard detritus’? **sigh** I want to use phrases like that; ‘Slim Shady’? So impressed with myself that I knew it was Eminem!

  6. I agree that a writer shouldn’t be limited in what he writes. Creativity needs freedom to flourish. I do defend a bookseller or publisher’s right to buy or promote that writing. For instance, we recently received an anthology submission that supported pedophilia thinly disguised as a “robot story.” The review team unanimously decided we would not publish the thing. Had it been written in a way to send an anti-pedophile message we might have accepted it. So, it’s not only the subject matter but how the subject is treated that I think must be judged, but again it was our choice to reject the story, as it was the writer’s choice to write it.

    1. Yeah, a submission like that certainly tests your own limits. I wonder if we overuse the word “censorship”, make it do too much. Sometimes, we just exercise our right not to read/write/watch something ethically repellant to us as individuals. The other side of that coin is to let someone demonstrate their true colours by not hiding it. Not sure on this. Another grey area, for sure.

  7. It’s all been said, there isn’t really anything to add, David, but I’ll try. If it can be imagined, then it can be written; there should be no restrictions on that, ever! We are of course talking adult literature here. No one ever holds a gun to anyone’s head and says, ‘Read it!’ If it offends you then don’t read it. There are certainly books I don’t read and movies I don’t watch because I find them offensive, but I would never have the audacity to suggest they were not allowed to be written or made.

    There was a hit song a long time ago here in Australia, by a band called Skyhooks, called ‘Horror Movie’, with the main chorus line, ‘Watch a horror movie right there on the TV!’ and through the song there are various descriptions of what you might find in a horror movie, and it finishes with, ‘Horror movie, it’s the six thirty new!’ My point being, and again I’m only adding to ideas that have already been expressed here, you can’t edit real life; writing about something that can be imagined is way better than doing it. And the same can be said about reading it. I honestly don’t know, and I would doubt that anyone does, if one contributes in any way to the other, but there are places in the world where the freedom to write what you want does not exist; do you really think the occurrence of atrocities are less there? I don’t think so!

    Yeah, so basically, like everyone else here, I’m with you, David.

    1. That’s exactly it, yes. Your point about nobody being forced to watch or read anything they don’t want to. Well okay, other than Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange… but that’s fiction. 😉

      Another point you made me think of: some horror stories, especially the real life ones, <i<need to be told.

      Thanks for your comments, T.D.

  8. What about authors who self-censor in order to not upset loved ones? Is that in itself wrong? Should we hold back in order to avoid a mother or cousin or childhood friend from becoming sad about something an author wants… even *needs* to write about? Should a writer hold back on their own healing journey or self-exploration to spare the feelings of someone who might be hurt by what they have to say?

    Personally, I think not. I agree with you, Mr. Antrobus, that writers should write whatever they want and need to. I pose these questions to you not for answers, but perhaps for anyone who might need to see these questions and ask themselves the very same things.

    1. Ah, you found my Achilles Heel. Nonfiction is perhaps a little different. I find it a lot easier to tell my small-t “truths” via fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I believe even the wildest of imaginative fiction is still based largely on an author’s real life experience (it’s all about relationship, whether surrounded by giant sandworms on a desert world or sitting in a quiet living room drinking tea), but at least with fiction you can disguise that person, conflate two or more characters into a hybrid, play tricks with time, etc. With nonfiction, that is less easy, although not impossible. And I do get your very well made point.

      1. The distinction between fiction and nonfiction would be very important to this aspect indeed. Thanks. You gave me something to think about.

  9. Well said, David. I think sometimes that I’m just not that dark of a dude. A downer, definitely. A glass half empty jaded cynic. A tired disgusting creature with vile habits and foul language. But not really dark or scary. Perhaps I’m just not cut out for fiction. That being said, non-fiction can take you to some dark places. More and more, I find non-fiction darker and more frightening than any horror novel ever written. But then that is probably just my glass running on empty view of the world.

    1. You certainly don’t come across as cynical, Ed! It’s actually quite funny. Reading your comment, I realised that although I do tend to play in the darker margins of the world, I am actually quite an optimistic person at heart, and genuinely try to avoid cynicism. Perhaps there’s truly something in the catharsis argument!

      SPOILER ALERT

      On nonfiction being scarier, I think I would sort of agree, up to a point: given a real life story of a woman who manipulates neighbourhood teens into raping and murdering one of their peers and reading Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, I’d probably choose the latter (a fictionalized account of that very story). But here’s my caveat: in the hands of a very good writer (like Ketchum), the fictional version may yet be more harrowing than a pedestrian “true crime” version.

  10. That’s only because a pedestrian, true crime version, by its very nature, is limited to the observable facts, David, and not what’s going on inside the heads of the people involved. Unless of course, with poetic licence, the writer dramatises for effect; or, as in a memoir say, the writer of course knows what went on in his or her head (or at least their retrievable memory of it) and, by the emotional content of the memories, can make fairly accurately assumptions, based on the first hand, observable results of the other people involved. In which case the non-fiction can be every bit as gripping, exciting and horrific or funny as the fiction; in fact because of the ‘true aspect’, I’d argue, more so!

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