Thursday, February 29, 2024

On the Dark Side (Yeah, Yeah) On the Dark Side...

For this week's roundtable, we're all going to take a walk on the dark side. (It's okay if you sang the Eddie and the Cruisers song just then.) 

Do you have limits to how dark you will allow your fiction to become? How do you determine those limits?

Sara Freites Scott: Yes I do have limits. I go by how it makes me feel when writing. I push it a little but if I start to feel too uncomfortable reading it back or even writing it I’ll scrap it.

John L. Taylor: Since my writing is mostly of a darker tone, I'll answer here. As to how dark I let it get, two things determine my limits:

1. The community standards of the publisher/platform, and 

2. the needs of the narrative and characters. 

Sometimes going needlessly dark works against you, but as a rule the less likable or "good" my protagonist is, the darker the antagonists need to be by contrast to still accept the point of view of the main characters. Stories like Blood Meridian and The Hellbound Heart wouldn't work with lighter treatments. But darkness isn't always just horrible deeds being done to someone for shock value. It's as much the way they process their experiences, beliefs, and traumas that's dark. There I wish community standards on platforms like YouTube were more context-flexible. I have a half-complete yet unpublished novel. The protagonist is someone who engages in self-harm behaviors and a big part of the plot is her overcoming her trauma and evolving beyond it. In no way does the work glorify this behavior or encourage it. Indeed, it takes a stand against self-harm. Still, any such descriptions are against Facebook and Amazon's standards, so the project remains unfinished because content platforms deem any depictions of such behaviors unacceptable without regard to context. That said, I do have hard limits on some content as both my wife and mother are survivors of abuse situations which I refuse to portray in a positive light or for rote shock value. Simply put, I'll write like Clive Barker or Dean Koontz, not Bentley Little or Aaron Beauregard. 

Lucy Blue: I write in two very clearly defined, very much opposite modes--light stuff like the Stella Hart books (which are downright frothy) and dark like The Devil Makes Three, which is very dark indeed. But yeah, there are limits. I'm good with disturbing or frightening my readers--I love it. I even enjoy the idea that my story might haunt them later. But I don't want to make them vomit. As a reader, I'm a total wuss, but as a writer, I blow right past my reader limits like I don't even know they're there. 

Ef Deal: There is a bottomless well of rage inside me. I have been to so many dark places myself that I have no choice but to go there when the story requires it, but I hate it, and I feel filthy with it afterward. 

Jason Bullock: I haven't tried to push my writing into darker elements in my writing anymore. As a storyteller doing tabletop RPGs for 20 years, I explored really dark themes often visceral in nature. Beyond what I would call sinister in my stories was what I now avoid. Imperfect man can perpetrate enough "evil" on his own not to involve external individuals or forces of a negative supernatural nature. There is a line I will not cross anymore. I had several personal encounters which shaded my own family life. I don't want to go down that terrifying part of my past again. So I take great effort to avoid it. Man and Science have enough order and chaos for me to write about.

Scott McCullar: I have an upcoming storyline in a future THRILL SEEKER COMICS story featuring Yellow Jacket: Man of Mystery as he attempts to retire by putting his guns in the ground so that he can finally find peace that gets REALLY dark. It was so dark for me to write and draw, I couldn’t even believe I was doing it… but the story demanded for me to do it and I could never escape not doing it. I finally completed it and I feel it is one of the strongest and most emotional stories that I’ve written and drawn. It’ll be in the next issue.

As for determining limits? I pushed beyond even what I was comfortable with but what was needed for the story to be effectual.

Bobby Nash: There are certain darker themes that I simply haven’t been interested in exploring. Never say never though. You never know when a great story will hit you that focuses on darker elements.

Danielle Procter Piper: Apparently not. I go deep, like Marianas Trench deep, into places most writers wouldn't venture into. I am all about disturbing people if it can make them think and/or at least entertain them in some way. 

John Hartness: Not until I start writing. Then I know how dark it needs to go.

Sean Harby: I write as dark as a story requires. As to how I decide that, I just kinda feel my way.

Susan H. Roddey: Oh, I can get pretty dark. The limit to how dark varies from book to book because different characters, just like us real breathers, have their own limits. There are a few hard stops for me personally - I don't like body horror, can't do terrible things to kids, and refuse to glorify assault - but beyond those, quite a few things can be considered fair game.

Jessica Nettles: I don’t have the limits written in stone and am willing to push when needed in a story. My stories and characters tend to let me know how far into the darkness to walk.

Raymond Christopher Qualls: The darkest story I wrote is "Manipulations." The daughter of a billionaire who needs multiple organ transplants, and he convinces members of a religious cult to kill a child so she can have pristine organs in his daughter's age range. It's in my Cosmic Egg for Breakfast and Six More Short Stories collection.

John French: There are some things I will not write about or do to my main characters. But when it comes to dark fiction, I recently found that just when I thought I'd reached my limit, I went further into the blackness.

If you are using the term “darkness” to refer to certain acts of violence, then I tend to avoid things like violence for the sake of violence or splatterpunk elements or slasher-style writing in my horror stories. It’s not my style.

Darin Kennedy: My stuff that is horror-adjacent typically is a lot darker. A little darkness, however, always makes the light stand out.

Sean Taylor: Not really. I like to go where the story needs me to go. If that means dark places, then I'll just light up a torch and make like Peter Cushing during the Hammer glory days. That's a kind of flippant answer, but it's true. Stories will let you know where they need to go to convey what they want to and need to say. 

TammyJo Eckhart: Most of my stories tackle something "dark" usually so that we can see success against it. The characters and the purpose of the story dictate how "dark" it should be.

Robert Bear: I'm in a sort of grim phase right now, and because it is specifically grimdark, I get it to where I start to feel uncomfortable with it, and then go a little darker. I think in my grim work, I'm exploring my own darker side... seeing just what I am prepared to experience (through storytelling)... because if you can't visualize, smell, or taste it... how can you write it? So, I have to research a lot of these things in order to get it right. So, 'how dark of a material can I stand to research' is what becomes the question.

Robin Burks: I like to push myself to go as dark as I can -- at least when I'm writing adult fiction (not YA, obviously). I love horror and the more uncomfortable it makes me, the better I think the scene is. However, there are some lines I won't cross, like rape, sexual situations with children, etc.

Dale Kesterson: I've noticed a lot of my short stories are considerably darker than my mystery novels, but I try very hard not to think about why. 

Jordan Leigh Sickrey: I feel like for me, I don’t like darkness for the sake of darkness. My main character in my fantasy novel was primarily built on the fact that female leads end up hardening themselves due to the “harsh realities” or they start off hard and maybe only dull their edges over time, and I wanted a female lead who could retain that softness and optimism. Yes, dark things happen. My prologue alone requires quite a few content warnings when I share it. But darkness isn’t the total story. It’s about finding the light in the dark and shining anyway.

Robert Lee: I once wrote a story, where the main character was a hitman and the very idea and notion of the story was everybody was a shade of gray and a level of hypocrisy for each person's position. The main character, The Hitman, tortured a gentleman by using a sharpened orange peeler, or maybe a lemon peeler. Yeah, I have no problems going in like that because it shows you the reflection of humanity's inhumanity toward others. I also abide by the concept that crime fiction at its darkest reflects society and humanity at its worst, but it also can show moments at its best but those moments are few and far between.

Teel James Glenn: I don't really write dark--for its sake. If I go dark it is to give my protagonists in the light balance and a challenge. Not a fan of nihilism.

Do you find writing darkness in your stories liberating? In what way? Or why not?

Lucy Blue: The silly thing is, I just write the story; I don't stop and think about how dark it might be. It's only later when my editor says, "geez, Lucy!" that I realize it might be darker than I thought. 😉 And that is liberating; that makes me feel like the story has taken on a life of its own that isn't limited by my own fears. 

Danielle Procter Piper: Is writing darkness liberating? I've never considered that...but it's as close to the rawness of my dreams as I can get, and I love dreaming. Many of my stories, screenplays, and pieces of art are dream-inspired. I suppose I'm hinting that the darkness in my stories is often a psychological mind-f*ck. Manipulating my readers' emotions is the highest pleasure I achieve with my work. 

Sara Freites Scott: Sometimes yes I do find it liberating! I’ll either find myself feeling thankful that I haven’t had such darkness in my own life OR share a dark moment in my writing from my past or someone else’s past that I know as part of the character's story that helps me to feel not so alone about it.

John Hartness: I haven’t thought about it in that way, so not currently.

Susan H. Roddey: I wouldn't necessarily call it "liberating," but there's definitely catharsis there. Going full dark is good for purging demons. It's how I work through things.

Dale Kesterson: Possibly cathartic? I do know I love 'killing people on paper' in the mysteries (third one came out very recently). I don't think I'll go overboard with it though.

Sean Taylor: It can be. But it can also be scary, not because of the content but because of the lack of outside edges to box me in. If I'm really free to go anywhere in a story, then I have to maintain a tighter grip on the reins of the storytelling itself. It can be too easy to go a step too far or let all that freedom go to your head and suddenly you're writing yourself out of a genre's or a publisher's and a target audience's good graces. When that happens, you have to make a choice. Keep the story going in a direction that might not be as marketable, or whip out that editing eraser. 

Ef Deal: It's not cathartic in the least; in fact, it feels more like wallowing, like picking at a scab until the blood flows anew: The wound never heals that way; it just gets worse. And no, I have no limits to the darkness I put on the page, although my publisher does, and she reins me back in.

Sean Harby: I do find it a little liberating. I had a Rockwellian youth, so darkness appeals to me.

John L. Taylor: Most dark stories emerged to sort out their emotions in bad situations. The very first recorded story, Gilgamesh, is really about the grief of losing your best friend. Yes, I do find writing darker material to be cathartic. Dark materials can both be a way to work through trauma and depression and to hold up a grim mirror to negative aspects of society. Some of my darkest work was either socially satirical or based on deep-seated anxieties. I've always had the philosophy that people flourish when they admit the darkness in their own subconscious and vent it. Take, for example, two very different works the hymn "It is Well with My Soul," and James O'Barr's The Crow. Both were written by men processing the senseless loss of their significant other. O'Barr's work took a much more visceral path to it than the hymn did, but both are lamentations of the human condition and attempt to reconcile a loving God with an indifferent universe. Each succeeds in its own way. I believe it is vital to the human condition that fiction be able to tackle difficult and disturbing subjects in an expressive fashion. 

Jessica Nettles: I mean, all good stories have elements of darkness, don’t they? I have never seen this as a factor for me.

Bobby Nash: I find something liberating about every story I write. Writing can be part therapy, part exploration of thoughts and feelings that are outside the norm for me, even a way to study and understand behaviors not my own.

Scott McCullar: I never thought about the word “liberating”. I think “cathartic” and “revealing” are more appropriate descriptions of what I have experienced.

Jason Bullock: Writing dark themes, I mean really dark themes, costs. The current chaos in our world tears enough at the individual but I don't feel liberated by diving into the truly abyss-level miasma. For me , crime, murder, and other such activities are about as far as criminal activity I would explore in my writing... well at this time in my life.

Are there advantages to writing darker stories that you don't have when writing lighter fare?

Sara Freites Scott: I think there are advantages! It can help connect a reader to a writer/character if there is some darkness because the world we live in is rather dark and we all have that darkness in us to some degree.

Sean Harby: Dark always seems more real to me.

Susan H. Roddey: I don't know that I can call it an advantage really, but I believe that darker stories are often more relatable. We've spent the last several years living in an actual dystopian horror show come to life, so we can relate to that kind of scenario. We all know what that despair feels like. So channeling that darkness into a situation where the good guy can win? Yeah, that's definitely going to draw people in and give them a sense of satisfaction at the end. Then there are some of us who sometimes just want to see the bad guy win.

Bobby Nash: There are certainly stories that benefit from darker themes or scenes. Evil Ways, my first novel, has some far darker stuff than I generally write today. It all depends on the story I’m telling and the audience I’m telling it to. Being able to delve into darker aspects when the story requires it is an advantage. Also, knowing when not to put the darkness on the page is an advantage.

Danielle Procter Piper: The only advantage to writing darker stories is the fun of taking the filters off, but it's also a dangerous thing to do because you may find your audience shrinking. Then again, writers always find their audience one way or another. Stephen King has gone to some pretty dark, weird places and still reigns in the world of horror. I'd like to write stuff that makes him squirm, that too far? Maybe that's perfect.

Lucy Blue: I like knowing I can "go there" if the story demands it.

Jessica Nettles: Both can explore themes and characters in similar fashions. I see comedy and horror as different sides of the same coin, which is why they can work well together. The advantage could be in the audience you are trying to reach and what you want to say to that audience. For me, I don’t find an advantage in either. What I do find is a joy that I can write both and get a response from my audience that is positive.

Yes, I’m in it for the applause, folks. I ain’t gonna lie.

Scott McCullar: I like to balance both the light-hearted, fun, and loving as well as the darker opposites. There are advantages and disadvantages to both that I find. I have personally experienced death, despair, fear, darkness, and more in my own life and I think storytelling allows for those demons to be revealed just as much as the angels that need to show us the light (for example, in my MS. TITTENHURST Dame Detective stories… she is a guardian angel and not a femme fatale… which I wasn’t originally setting out to do when I began telling her stories in the THRILL SEEKER COMICS universe.)

John Hartness: I have to come up with fewer dick jokes on the darker works. Usually.

John L. Taylor: Piggybacking off of the last entry, darker subject matter leaves more room for whimsy than some lighter, but more serious fare. I'll hold up the works of H.R. Giger and ZdzisƂaw BeksiƄski in this respect. Their works, despite being visual, were genre-defining works of darkness not matched since Bosch or Goya, yet there is an overriding sense of whimsy and a shadowy allure to their images. Authors like Clive Barker, E.L. James, and Brian Lumley accomplish the same effect in words. That alone makes darker tones worth writing to me. The room for innovation in processing pain and reckoning with our mortality can create some such beautiful art if you have the tenebrous vision to appreciate it

Jason Bullock: Many people make excuses in those instances as there can not be moments of lighter fare if they are not contrasted by darker fields around them. I find that they are indeed diametrically positioned elements of everything and or everyone now in man's existence at this point in history. Writing is no different. When writing about negative elements, I try to end with presenting a positive outcome. In that way, my catharsis is less myopic and rather panoptic in its results.

Sean Taylor: I think a lot of folks, both writer and readers, confuse "dark" with either "gross" or "horrifying details." That's sad, because true darkness in a story is more of a context than content. It's more the overarching something that makes a story feel uncomfortable, even without a healthy (or unhealthy) slathering of body parts or icky descriptions. It's more akin to the difference between an atmosphere of dread and a laundry list of creepy images or plot points. A dark story needs light moments to let a reader breathe, even if just for a moment. So, for me, it's hard to write lighter fair because if I have a motif to all my work thus far, it's this: Humanity doesn't learn anything from the fluffy, happy moments, because it takes tragedy or near-tragedy to make us stop and listen in order to learn anything. 

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