Sunday, February 20, 2011

Chewing over realism in fantasy: A few morsels more

Fantasy literature is rife with pour souls being fed to hungry beasts. A hungry crowd watches as weaponless prisoners are forced into the Arena of Tokalet where the monstrous, half-intelligent ape Nji awaits (L. Sprague de Camp’s The Tritonian Ring). In George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords the unarmored female warrior Brienne is thrown into a bear pit for the sport of onlookers. The tentacled demon-god Thog devours drugged, defenseless denizens of an ancient city in Robert E. Howard’s “Xuthal of the Dusk.”

It’s all pretty awful (albeit suspenseful, and gruesomely entertaining) stuff, but the way in which one author handles this familiar scenario vs. another I think sheds a little more light on my discussions of realism in fantasy literature.

Here’s how J.R.R. Tolkien handles anthropomorphs as monster food in The Two Towers (Chapter 7: “Shelob’s Lair”):

And sometimes as a man may cast a dainty to his cat (his cat he calls her, but she owns him not) Sauron would send her prisoners that he had no better uses for: he would have them driven to her hole, and report brought back to him of the play she made.

That to me is a great piece of writing. It tells you plenty about the cruelty and maliciousness of Sauron and his relationship with the giant she-spider (which he half-hates and half-fears, but tolerates as a valuable guardian into Mordor).

As for the gory details, it allows my mind to fill in the rest. Tolkien goes on to explain that Shelob cares not for wealth or power, but spends all her time brooding on her next feast. "For all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness," he writes. That's about as nasty and explicit as Tolkien gets.

Now compare that passage with this preview of Richard Morgan’s forthcoming novel The Cold Commands:

In the wild, a Hanliagh black octopus would have wrapped tentacles around surface prey this large and dragged it deep, where it could be drowned and dealt with at leisure. Defeated by the bobbing wood and the manacles, the creatures settled for swarming the boards, tearing at the chained bodies with frenzied, suckered force, biting awkwardly with their beaks. So skin came off wholesale, gobbets and chunks of flesh came with it, finally down to the bone. Blood vessels tore – in the case of a lucky few, fatally. And occasionally, a victim might smother to death with tentacles or body mass across the face. But for most, it was a long, slow death by haphazard flaying and flensing – none of the creatures was bigger than a court-bred hound, they could not otherwise have squeezed in through the chamber’s vents, and even their combined efforts were rarely enough to make a merciful end of things.

Jhiral was watching her.

She forced herself not to look away – the spray of blood, the up-and-down flail of tentacles like thick black whips, the soft, mobbing purple-black shapes hanging off the wood and flesh, crawling across it. Her gaze snagged on a wild, wide-open human eye and a screaming mouth, briefly blocked by a thick crawling tentacle, then uncovered again to shriek to shriek, to shriek……

As for that passage, man, it’s brutal. It’s effective, and horrifying, and well-done. But it’s not why I read fantasy. It jerked me back into reality with its clinical descriptions of flensing and tearing blood vessels. Perhaps Morgan intended this scene as a condemnation of torture. It vaguely reminded me of the real-life practice of waterboarding, albeit turned up to 11. I don’t know. I read it and it just felt — too much.

Perhaps what I object to in some modern fantasy literature is the degree to which it emphasizes violence—graphic carnage is shown in vivid, sometimes nauseating color, vs. implied in the older forms. Because in the end, being the plaything of a monstrous, reeking, millennia old spider, paralyzed with poison, and eaten alive, isn’t any more comforting than being consumed piece by piece by a swarm of ravenous octopi. But I know which one I’d rather read. And it does not involve cephalopods.

I’ve said my piece on this a few times and have little else to add; I happened to see that Morgan posted that excerpt at his website and thought it provided a timely example of what I was trying to convey in my couple of previous posts on the subject.

Just more food for thought (no pun intended) and a rather lighthearted example in the ongoing realism debate.


Lagomorph Rex said...

you make a very good point here.. my imagination is not perhaps.. very deep when it comes to horrors and traumas such as Morgan has written about there.. Mine tends towards the old slash them and they fall down.. or shoot them and they fall down of the 50's and 60's cinema..

Though I understand its inclusion in the likes of the Omaha Beach landing scenes of Saving Private Ryan.. and can respect it.. It's after all trying to show what really happened.. But a scene like that in a book and I'd just skip over it. Or in Morgan's case I just wouldn't even read his book to begin with.. I don't need any gaping sphincters in my life beyond the ones I work for..

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure whether I agree or disagree with this, because while I agree with and appreciate the "less is more" idea, I also think that weak writers avoid describing difficult scenes, and balancing judicious use of not-describing with "can't be bothered" is hard. Tolkien, for example, has some great writing, but he is also quite famous for spending way too much time on irrelevancies, and then having crucial moments of the actual plot fly by in a moment. I could have swapped about 50 pages of the shire for another couple of paragraphs of shelob, thank you very much.

That passage by Morgan on the other hand... is like fantasy meets slasher movie. Maybe the problem here is not so much the graphic nature of the piece, as the inclusion of modern biological and scientific language? In fantasy we don't talk about "blood vessels" and "body mass." That's sci-fi talk.

I see a lot of this in modern fantasy (not just this "realist" stuff). It's like a generation of writers haven't learnt how to write without using technical language.

Barad the Gnome said...

As you mention slasher movies, it is like comparing Alfred Hitchcock's style to modern show it all gruesome horror flicks.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Yes, following up with what Barad said - I read a piece once (maybe by Stephen King?) about how it is always a RELIEF when they show the monster in a horror movie. In other words, the genius of, say, JAWS is that we don't really see the shark until the very end, and it is much much scarier that way. The relief comes from the fact that our imaginations are much better at scaring us than any prose or photography. "Oh, thank goodness, the monster is only 10 feet high, not 20!" Shelob was scary in the LOTR films, but not as scary as in my (no doubt disturbed) imagination.

Dave Cesarano said...

I can watch plenty of slasher movies, but the relatively bloodless 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre is so disturbing, I cannot watch it front-to-back. It's far more effective than anything with buckets o' blood. Yep, less is more.

@Lagomorph Rex: When you invoke scenes that graphically depict realism in war, there is still the question of taste, and purpose. Saving Private Ryan is a toughie to invoke, but ask a veteran and he'll say that the reality of Bloody Omaha was worse than the film! Was it over-the-top? Well, you gotta ask why they included it?

I think because the overly-sanitized depictions of World War II were somewhat insulting to the men who actually fought in that war, and the film wasn't trying to shock us like a Rob Zombie flick, but rather present us with the reality that our grandparents and great-grandparents went through. I always felt that it was more of a reflective experience. It should shock and horrify, but only because war is horrific, and it should enhance our appreciation for generations that came before us.

I get no such impression from the violence and gore of some of these books. I'll point at Robert E. Howard as an example of how to do it. He's got panache. He's got a style that makes it enjoyable to read. A lot of modern writers can't do what he did, it seems. Well, that's a shame because we lose out.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Dave, you hit the nail on the head. (Not the head with a nail)

Anonymous said...

Brian, I saw the same excerpt from Morgan and thought, now there is a prime example of crappy writing. His scenes of violence are just Letters to Penthouse bad.

Cormac McCarthy, James Carlos Blake, Tim Willocks — there's people out there who can be extremely graphic and pull it off because they are GOOD WRITERS.

You are too kind in saying that the passage is effective and well done. Horrifying, yes. Horrifyingly bad.

Morgan is a hack and a punk.

His writing is not "realism" it's just BAD WRITING masquerading as something edgy. Deuce struck to the mark when he said he grew up on a farm — where there's plenty of blood and shit to be had — and never felt his lifestyle was "edgy."

Less is more is axiomatic for a reason. Unless it's done really well, more is BORING. Morgan's sin isn't being too "real" or too edgy ugly or too hip. It's that he is boring. The unforgivable sin.

Jim Cornelius

Andy said...

The Morgan passage reads to me like something from a late 80s splatterpunk novel. It's...well, it's certainly something or other.

Anonymous said...

"Nobody writes realistic realism, and if they did, no one would read it. The writers that think they write it just give their own ideas about things they think they see. The sort of man who could write realism is the fellow who never reads or writes anything."
— Robert E. Howard

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for all the comments, everyone.

Faustusnotes: That could be. Morgan does the same thing with his battles--someone gets a sword-slash, and they're always "looking down at the gray sausage of their intestines looping around their feet" (not an exact quote, but you get the idea). Great for instilling disgust in the reader, not so much for creating enjoyable fantasy that I want to re-read.

Barad: Good comparison. The shower scene is the obvious example. At some point, when does graphic writing cease to shock, and instead deaden the senses? Morgan I think does stray well over the line into splatterpunk, to his detriment.

Dave: I agree about Saving Private Ryan. While I still have a hard time watching the Omaha Beach scene, it has a very explicit purpose, which is to show how terrible that landing really was. It dispels the myths of the old WWII movies and show the viewer (as close as a film can) what really happens during war.

I don't know if anyone else has read The Steel Remains, but I honestly think one of Morgan's objectives was to "dispel the myths" of fantasy as he sees them--i.e., that battles are bloodless, good always prevails, and so on. Except that the example he famously used in his Suduvu interview--The Lord of the Rings--does not perpetuate those myths. Those are the lessons that The Scouring of the Shire teach us, and the passing of an age of magic into a world of men, and Frodo's scars and damaged psyche, and so on.

Great REH quote at the end, there. I wish I had used that in some of my previous posts on the subject. It raises interesting metaphysical questions: Is there an objective "reality," or is it always filtered through each individual's sensory organs? And of course art like writing or painting will always involve another degree of abstraction.

Richard Morgan said...

Hey Brian,

Wordpress link pingback is a wonder - and here I am, to thank you for the substantial and even handed coverage you've given The Steel Remains this month. It seems the book managed to get under your skin, regardless of the equivocal nature of your feelings about it, and that's very pleasing to know.

I would love to tangle up in a long bull session here, but my editor will garotte me if he sees me doing it, and would be fully justified in doing so - my deadline is crushing, and I can't in all honesty justify more than a short time doing anything other than finishing The Cold Commands at the moment. So I'll be as brief as I can, and then I'll disappear.

Here's a quote from a Vietnam vet, writer and all round nice guy I met in San Diego a few years ago called Terry Hertzler. In a poem drawn from his war-time experiences, he describes a GI stalking like an angry giant through a village of terrified Vietnamese peasants and using his M-16 on them. The poem ends like this:

And afterwards, even years afterwards/What forced him to the top of skyscrapers/Poised for flight, or left him curled/In dark, wet corners/Was not the horror/But memory of the fierce, hot joy

Terry is, of course, far from the only veteran and/or writer to cover this ground, but I've rarely seen it so tightly and urgently well expressed. Humans, especially male humans, like violence, which is why there is so much of it in this world. If I write about violence, in any context, and don't try to honour that truth, if I evade that dualism of horror and fierce, hot joy in favour of cheap and comforting stereotypical mythologising, then I am a coward and a liar. I don't want to be a coward and a liar. The violence in my work is intended to thrill and sicken at one and the same time - in my view trying to have the one without the other is dishonest. I make a lot less money this way, of course, my books sell way less than they would if I could only get with the comfy evasion programme - but I can at least live with myself.

Bottom line - I don't write to sell maximal product (happily, I don't have to), I write for myself, to tell stories I can enjoy without telling myself cheap lies about what it is I'm enjoying. I write to interrogate myself and the universe I live in, I write to confront, not escape, I write to be awake, not to put myself to sleep. And I'm lucky enough that this seems to resonate with a modest critical mass of readers who come along with me for the ride. I am, it seems, communicating with these people, and that feels good.

Further to which - the octopi; if you aren't sickened by this scene, then I haven't done my job. I wrote it to sicken myself, after all. But if you don't also feel the awful, perverse fascination I give to Archeth in this scene - and please be honest with yourself about this - then I have also, to some extent failed.

As to the comparison with Tolkien's Shelob paragraph, well, that's really comparing apples and oranges. Tolkien's and my intentions are radically different, never mind our respective styles! There's a certain olde worlde elegance to Tolkien's prose, and a nice implication of horror, but what do we learn about Sauron and Shelob from the text? That she is an evil giant spider out of myth, and he is a sadistic evil dark lord with pretty near ultimate power over his domain (though not necessarily the aforementioned giant spider). Most of which we've already had explained to us fairly thoroughly elsewhere.

What you learn in the Chamber of Confidences in the scene you quote from TCC - about Jhiral, about Archeth, about their relationship, about the regime - is infinitely more humanly complicated and open to interpretation. The octopi and their - guilty or not?- victims really are the least of it.

Thanks again for the exposure.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Richard, thanks so much for dropping by. I’m honored!

That excerpt from The Cold Commands certainly got under my skin, as did The Steel Remains, so in that sense they’re very much a success. And while I had some problems with The Steel Remains overall I do recommend it.

This essay (and a few others I’ve written recently) is an attempt to analyze what I perceive as a new trend in fantasy toward realism, as exemplified by yourself, and George RR Martin, and Joe Abercrombie. It also stemmed from a comment that really gets under my skin (and not in a good way) that you made about J.R.R. Tolkien being for children. I don’t hide the fact that it irked me quite a bit.

I don’t have a strong objection to this new trend—in fact, at times I find it a welcome change of pace—but the point that I’ve tried to make is that fantasy that employs hard-bitten realism isn’t any more adult than stuff like The Lord of the Rings, or The Once and Future King, or the Earthsea Trilogy. The violence is stylized or even handled off-screen, but the issues they deal with appeal to adult sensibilities.

I can handle graphic violence and I think it can enhance a work. I also have the same atavistic thrill as you when it comes to combat (your anecdote about the Vietnam veteran is a great, and telling story, by the way). I freely admit to feeling the thrill before the clash of armies, and the shock of impact of charging men and horses, and rout and victory, on the printed page (and in film, and elsewhere). I wouldn’t be reading this stuff if I didn’t. Hell, I made a list of my top 10 fantasy fiction battles in which I celebrate combat. I completely understand your perspective and respect your desire to remain genuine.

But I don’t think there’s anything inherently more adult about portraying combat with arterial blood sprays and crushed skulls and the like. Fantasy can provide a welcome break from events like Vietnam, or the genocide in Bosnia, or other such events. Too much violence and misery does not allow me to think of how the world can be different, or how such problems could be solved. Rather, they serve as a reminder of how awful real life can be. Which is an admirable function of literature, but not its only purpose.

Anyways, keep up the good work, and I appreciate you taking some time out of your busy schedule to comment.

Anonymous said...

The intent is to thrill and sicken? Well, that excerpt didn't thrill me, and (despite the fact that I am not a human male who apparently all love violence, but a mere human female) it didn't particularly sicken me either.

Decades of genre reading and watching in horror, fantasy and SF have hardened my responses in this field. The original "Haunting of Hill House" I still find absolutely terrifying; the "Nightmare on Elm Streets" films, by contrast, especially as they concentrated more on the gore did no more than cause me to curl a disdainful lip.

So, by his own intent, he has failed in that excerpt. The octopi don't matter, that's the problem. They could be replaced by piranha or giant leeches or starved wolves or the infamous bronze bull or the good old Perils of Pauline buzzing woodsaw; their only purpose is to show how "Ooh, the mean, cruel, evil lord is mean, cruel and evil!" - the same reproach Mr. Morgan levels against Tolkien.

I don't get the sense (again, this may be that it's only a small excerpt and not the full account that's to blame) that Archeth (that's the "she" in the above, I assume?) is horrified but perversely fascinated, nor any sense of the relationship between her and Jhiral. Obviously, the intent is to get the reader to ask "Who are these people? Why is he watching her? Why is she making herself look at this?" and the fate of the unfortunate prisoners is, in the end, irrelevant.

In other words, there's no point in describing in detail their horrific sufferings and deaths, since the real point of them is what's going on between Jhiral and Archeth. You could lose all the spraying blood and screaming and still achieve the same objective.

Whereas Shelob is not some wild octopus, but a creature of equal mythic status and power as Sauron. He claims ultimate authority over all that lives in Middle-earth, yet he has only a notional authority (tolerated for her own purposes but not acknowledged in reality by Shelob) over her. It also brings to mind the relationship between his master, Morgoth, and her progenitor, Ungoliant, and how Morgoth tried to use Ungoliant yet was forced to buy her off at the last with all the looted treasure of Valinor because she was too strong for him.

Shelob also could have been too strong for Sauron, yet she perished at the hands of, or at least was sorely wounded by, a mere Hobbit, and not a great hero of the squire families but one of the ordinary, common folk of the Shire at that, Sam Gamgee.

I think Tolkien is still the victor in writing meaningful encounters with horrors here. Were I reading Mr. Morgan's book, I'd skip over the skin and hair flying until I came to the important stuff (the follow-up conversation or meeting between Jhiral and Archeth). Tolkien, in one sentence (Shelob as Sauron's cat), portrays their whole relationship and manages to work in a joke (cat-owners know it's really that their cats own them, not the other way round).

Anonymous said...


Game, set, match.

Jim Cornelius

Michal said...

Come on Richard Morgan, where are you? Deiseach's post DEMANDS your response!

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Richard for the link to this site. Interesting comments, but I'm on the side of those who feel it's okay to describe blood and gore in fantasy. Overall, some of you seem to be judging the entire book by this one passage (Lagmarth Rex, for example, says he won't even read it at all). Too bad he won't give it a try, Richard is such a good, complex writer. I could take a really really dull, boring paragraph of description from LOTR and draw the conclusion the whole book must be a dull, boring description of some woods or something, which would totally be the wrong conclusion.