The Good, The Bad and the Evil

Yesterday night I was talking to a friend about a book everyone and their parents has been recommending to him, and which he is now, finally, reading.  I asked how it was and he said “execution wise, it is quite good, and the reasons it was recommended are all true, but he feels like it’s a big, dark oil slick attaching to his mind, and he has to read it in small doses and shower afterwards.

Now, one of the things recommending this book is the story, and the outlook, as described, should mesh pretty well with my friend’s, so the only thing I can figure out is “something in the book.”

I’d think my friend had gone nuts, I would, except that I’ve experienced this myself.  It’s one of the reasons I don’t read horror: because you find the feeling more often there.  Though honestly I’ve found it in Urban Fantasy and even in straight Fantasy, too, and no, I’m not giving you any names.

The first time I encountered it incontrovertibly, and I mean at a point I couldn’t imagine it, is when a friend gave me two books by Robert Aickman.  Maybe it was because I read the books back to back.  Look, there is no particularly evil outlook about the books — they’re… books.  Yes, they’re horror, so there’s a dark twist in every story, but there is something more, something almost independent that seems to come off the books and attach to you.  The phrase “I want to scrub with steel wool” comes to mind.

Anne Rice didn’t have that effect on me till Queen of the Damned.  It was a comulative thing.  Maybe I was insulated from it because I was reading her to study description, my mind was on that and perhaps immune from the emotion.

And it’s the emotion that brings it in.  And I can’t describe how it gets in.

All I know is that years ago, when I was applying to the American consulate to establish pen pals, I got a sheet of recommendations and they said “Never write when you’re upset, even if you don’t think you’re showing it, it will communicate itself in your word choice.”

I later found out this was true, even if I wasn’t upset at my pen pal, and thought I’d said nothing that could give them a hint.  I’d get the “are you upset at me?”

Which brings us to messages in fiction.  (Fiction in messages is a completely different topic.)

I don’t look for messages, and I don’t look to put messages in my fiction. Usually, when asked what a book I’m writing is “saying” I say “I have no idea.”  Towards the end, I might have a pretty clear idea, but I’m always surprised when readers find things that while entirely consonant with my outlook, I didn’t put in consciously.

Are there messages there?  Yeah, pretty sure.  Are they consonant with how I see the world?  I’d hope so.  Otherwise someone else wrote the book.

Have I read books that pretty clearly  came from a completely different outlook?  Of course I have.  For most of my life, if I didn’t I wouldn’t read ANYTHING.  The gatekeepers had a different outlook from my own, and that came through in the books they chose.  A story can be good while I utterly reject the premises and outlook of the writer, in the same way I can be friends with someone who has completely different views from me, provided we connect on other things.  I love Pratchett’s “humanity” which comes through richly in his characters, even if we have/had some philosophical disagreements.

Do I stop reading because the outlook is different from mine?  I’ll be honest, a book has to be pretty bad to make me stop reading, and most of those are non-fiction books where I spot where the writer lost track, but he just goes on.  Fiction… I only put down if I get that “feeling” like I need to scrub with steel wool.  (And I often find myself in the shower midday when reading one of these books.)  I’ve thrown three fiction books away over that, I couldn’t see passing them on.

The thing I don’t do either in writing or reading is counting heads or coloring by the numbers.  I don’t go into writing a book with some sort of agenda and have to put in five marbles of each color or something.

You see, fiction isn’t “so many of these, so many of that, and message wrapped in a thin veil of story.”  Fiction are chunks of raw emotion, torn bleeding from the author’s mind, (or soul, if you believe in those) and flung onto the page still squirming, with everything that made it happen and come into being, some of that subconscious.  This is how it can come with a freight of “evil” or “depressed” or even “happy.”  (Look, a story in which several people get killed with a hat pin shouldn’t leave me feeling happy and bouncy, but it did.)

Because in the things not fully under our control, in every word choice, in every little thing we highlight or ignore, we’re conveying a bit of that which is the author.

This is both for good and ill, but it is what it is, and it is what makes books different from tv or movies.  Someone once said when you read a book, because of the breath necessary for speaking, you’re breathing the same way the author was when he/she wrote it.  I’m not sure that’s necessarily true, but it echoes of something.

Most of us go through life prisoners of the space behind our eyes.  It’s part of being human.  Reading is the closest you get to being in someone else’s head, because other stuff comes with it.

And that means writing isn’t done by “give me two brown ones, two purple ones, and a polkadot one.”  People who read (let alone write) like that are denying themselves one of the most glorious experiences of being human, and the closest we can come to telepathy in this life.

And btw, there’s people who do that on both sides of the political divide.  “I don’t read x because it has gay characters.” (Ask me where I heard that.  Or rather don’t, I’m not even getting into it.)

Unless you know the book has a never ending stretch of stuff that treats you like an idiot or exposes you to stuff you don’t want to see (gay characters in question never even kiss on stage) or unless it gives you that feeling of something black and oily crawling out of the book and all over you (and weirdly this is not as personal as you’d think.  I find the books that do this to me usually do it to a significant portion of the population.  Maybe to all of it and a large number like it) let it go and get in the story.  At the end you can say “oh, that premise was crazy cakes.”  BUT refusing to read a book at all, sight unseen because it has the wrong markers?  Not only could you be missing out on a great experience, but it is part of the great divide that seems to be cracking the country in two (or more) groups that can’t even talk to each other.

Like the Kaleidoscopes in Clifford D. Simak’s City, which change minds out of habits that otherwise can’t be broken, books, if written by someone who feels them (and is not painting by the numbers) and read for the story and the emotion can change minds that couldn’t be changed otherwise.  Because they let you experience being someone else a little while.  They can at least allow you to UNDERSTAND the other side.

Writing by the numbers and reading by counting heads?  Well, I suppose it’s a good exercise in letter recognition.

But in the end it diminishes your humanity.  And although those books don’t rise to the level of “evil miasma” they often DO put me to sleep.

And that’s even sadder than having to give up on a book because there isn’t enough steel wool and no one has invented a soul-scrubber.

382 responses to “The Good, The Bad and the Evil

  1. c4c

  2. I have read books that took and uncomfortable position, but to me it is a bump in the road. The important thing is the execution and the soundness of the plot. The author builds a world and you either accept his premise or underlying conditions or you don’t.

  3. I have the same problem (misasma of evil) with Clive Barker books. Paint by number books? I think you can tell what they are as soon you read the first chapter. I think some of the series romances can get that way as well.

    • I cannot read horror any more. I simply can’t. The last time I read one, it was either Clive Barker or Stephen King, I was pregnant with my now almost 31-year-old son.

      I had nightmares for months. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with pregnancy hormones and new mother hormones, but now, even as a grandmother, I cannot read horror.

      I think I fall too far into books, perhaps.

      • I read one Barker collection of short stories and they gave me nightmares. The one about body parts revolting against the body, specifically.

        King – and I’d read six or seven of those – ranged from “I want to shower” (the book about the walking competition) to simply boring. I ditched him after Wizard and Glass and the followup regarding Roland’s backstory.

        Koontz – I like. There’s hope in his works, and beauty. In “Watchers”, and the related moonlight bay (?) novels, for example, the tools are used for both good and evil…

        • Koontz– yes Watchers. And his Odd Thomas. Some of his others I have to be very careful about reading.

          • Watchers was the first Koontz I read. I was thrilled at finding a new author. I tried several others, and quickly found that only Watchers appealed of his writing.
            If Odd Thomas is in the same vein as Watchers, I’ll have to seek it out. I’d given up on Koontz by then. I’m not a horror fan, but a little is okay, sometimes.

            • I read Koontz back in the Seventies when he was still writing SF. I recall him as competent, involving but not spectacular. When he went full time horror I had no interest, but all I’ve heard about his Odd John books has inclined me to buy the first of them and I expect to eventually get around to reading it. A lot of other books are also piled in my WTBR stacks.

              One thing pre-Amazon I miss is the thrill of hunting down books of interest. [shifts to coot mode] Why, when i was your age if we wanted to read a particular book, especially one that was out of print, we had to beg libraries and haunt used-book stores, digging through piles of dog-eared dusty tomes with broken spines and abused covers. We had to go to cons and sort through displays, trade search lists with friends and beg strangers for news of sightings. Now you young kids today can get anything just going on line and typing in a few key words. You don’t appreciate how lucky you are, with your ebooks and near-mint editions available at the click of a button.

              Back then, when we finally found a book we had been searching for, you can bet we read it. None of this “put it in the Waiting To Be Read pile” for us, no sirree! We read those books and were thankful for having found them.

              • Don’t forget by law back then all used bookstores had to be up hill both going to it and coming home and be surrounded by a minimum of three feet of snow 🙂

                • Reality Observer

                  Nah. They have THE book on a day when it is 110 degrees, and their A/C is broken down…

                • And if you want it today it is in the bottom of the bottom box in the very back of the store. Would you please get it for yourself (at least you will repack the boxes even better than they came in) while I help these customers, please.

              • Yeah, see, as a little whipper-snapper, I made friends with the librarians. To the point that one library put books the librarians knew I would like on hold for me without my requesting them when they came in new.
                If you’re a cute little blond girl with a smile and a please you get pretty far. I used to get inter-library-loan books from Canada! So clearly, RES, your problem was you weren’t adorable enough to get the librarians to do your book-searching for you.
                And I still don’t have a TBR pile. I read too fast: I have multiple to be reread when I have nothing new to read bookcases.

                • So clearly, RES, your problem was you weren’t adorable enough to get the librarians to do your book-searching for you.

                  I have been accused of many, many character flaws in my day, but being excessively adorable has never been among those. But in my experience, routinely checking out (and returning a week later) a stack of books exceeding one’s one height tends to endear one to librarians. That doesn’t make them able to find an out of print book.

                  And I still don’t have a TBR pile. I read too fast: I have multiple to be reread when I have nothing new to read bookcases.

                  Sigh. In me yute, I too was a fast reader. So much so that after I had foolishly taken advantage of a speed-reading course available in 9th Grade I actually ran out of things to read. That event so traumatized me that I have actively worked to ensure it could never happen again, going so far as to solicit publisher catalogs in 11th and 12th grades and essentially mail-ordering all SF of any probable interest (ah, the glories of disposable income!)

                  Nowadays? A bout of untreated sleep apnea has reduced my brain’s processing power so that I can no longer read two books, watch a TV program and carry on a conversation simultaneously, and reduced my reading speed by at least a third. Add the vast amount of internet supplied reading and my book-reading has dropped to something on the order of 25 – 50 pages a day, typically while brushing my teeth (I “read” audiobooks while flossing, but an electric toothbrush makes that awkward while brushing) and before passing out for the night. Oh, sure, I also carry books with me and read while standing in lines at the grocery (although I more customarily now do an audiobook because that enables me to read while I am checking for dates on the milk or items on my list) and I read while walking through the parking lot or using the commode or waiting at the doctor’s …

                  Which reminds me – I must check for a suitable book for tomorrow afternoon’s blood donation, one I can comfortably read one-handed and offering little risk of running out before I’m out of blood. I’ve only seventy-five pages left in current novel and that probably won’t do … Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen arrived last week, I shall have to check its heft as these old fingers aren’t so nimble about turning pages as once was true … I think I’ve about worn away the fingerprints and now have trouble getting the traction I once enjoyed.

                  • But in my experience, routinely checking out (and returning a week later) a stack of books exceeding one’s one height tends to endear one to librarians. That doesn’t make them able to find an out of print book.

                    Bzzzt. Yes, the former is true. (I was never small or cute either, in fact I was a pretty horrible child)

                    But we’ve always been good at finding OP/OSI books. It’s called the magic of Inter-library loan.

                    It’s faster now, because Michael Gorman was right “There is no communication without automation, but it’s always been there.

              • I started writing because I was out of books to read. . . .

              • Odd Thomas (sorry, pedantic of me I know). I’ve read the first couple, and while I am in no way a horror fan (except for running Ravenloft campaigns) I did quite enjoy those.

                But as was said above, Koontz has hope and beauty in his novels. The good guys might endure tragedy and loss and sacrifice, but they usually do triumph in the end.

                • Oops – thanks for the correction. I’ve never even been a fan of Olaf Stapledon*; I don’t know how that error glitched.

                  *Don’t dislike him, just haven’t ever successfully engaged any of his works.

            • SheSellsSeashells

              I like Koontz, but he’s about as subtle as a jackhammer, for good and ill.

              The Odd Thomas books and “From the Corner of His Eye” are probably in tune with what you liked about “Watchers”. What he has that appeals to me could best be described as hope, I think; things *matter* in his books, and it’s okay to be idealistic. “Corner” is more of a thriller than anything else; the one horror-esque moment is about as offscreen as it’s possible to be, which I can’t explain without spoiling. 🙂

              • Hope is a good description, I think. Some of Stephen King’s books also do have that hope, the good guys win in the end and even if there is a hint that the horror may have survived in some form at least there is also some assurance that it can be defeated, if not permanently then at least for a generation or even few so that the people who did it this time maybe can have a good life afterwards (and that gets to what I hate about modern horror _movies_ – they hardly ever give that ending now. Especially if we have something which can – maybe – be turned into a series. Has become a damned cliche, that, the monster surviving so it can then either kill the protagonist/s in the last scene or the first one of the sequel to make room for new ones, or at the very least to attack the same ones in the next movie and then kill off a few more of them or their loved ones…). But he seems to have been drifting more towards the bad ending, not much if any hope given -stories during his career. So I have mostly stopped reading him.

                I like horror only if the stories do give a defeated monster, or at the very least that hope that it can be defeated, if not permanently then over and over again, and that the people who had to deal with it and survived can also have a good life afterwards instead of being cursed for life (and preferably are not the ones who need to defeat it again if it is the kind which can’t be gotten rid of permanently unless we are talking about some sort of monster hunters who have chosen that as a career).

                • [H]e seems to have been drifting more towards the bad ending, not much if any hope given -stories during his career.

                  Funny thing about Lephtists; they seem to sense their schemes of a new age will all end badly, and so they prepare us for that in their art.

        • Maybe I’ll try Koontz. I know I read some of his years ago, probably when I was traveling every week for work.

        • Lightning. That’s one of the best books by Dean Koontz. He’s the only horror writer I read. After my wife has read the book and handed it to me. And I don’t watch horror movies. At all.

        • “Clive Barker collection” – sounds like his “Books of Blood.” I bought and read that when I was a teenager myself – based on a recommendation from Fangoria magazine, IIRC, I was going through a horror phase at the time – and it freaked me out too. Like a psychic stain of evil or something.

          Then, some years later, I made the mistake of picking up and reading Barker’s “Coldheart Canyon.” You’d think I would have learned my lesson the first time around, but noooooo . . . . . . .

          And now I have the line “If this was what sex with the dead was like, the living had a lot to learn” stuck in my head. Gah. I didn’t throw the book into the trash, since it was a library book, but it was a near-run thing.

          I *did*, OTOH, throw John Ringo’s “Ghost” clear across the room in a fit of rage-quit – even though that was also a library book – when I got to the part with Mike and the teenage hooker. But even that series – and yes, I eventually finished “Ghost” and have read the sequels; like the guy who did the “OH JOHN RINGO NO” book review, I find the Paladin of Shadows series to be a gloriously awful and mostly hilarious trainwreck – never approached the sheer *ick* factor of Barker.

          John Ringo, after all, was exorcising some demons when he wrote Ghost and its sequels. Clive Barker, on the other hand, isn’t just indulging his personal demons in his writing; he’s hosting *orgies* for them. And don’t get me started on George Rape-Rape Martin . . .

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            A couple of thoughts about John Ringo’s Ghost (the character).

            In the last Ghost novel John wrote completely, Mike (Ghost) responds to a shocked comment from one of the other characters by saying “I keep telling people that I’m not a nice guy but they don’t believe me”.

            Second, in _Queen Of Wands_ there’s a throw-away comment about a demon-possessed SEAL in Georgia (the country) guarding something. It was obviously a comment about Ghost.

            It short, John Ringo doesn’t “like” Ghost (the character).

            • Obvious to you, to me, to anyone who’s read both series—but not to John himself. On Facebook a few months ago he commented that he had no such intention at all, IIRC hadn’t even realized it could be taken that way.

              One suspects his Muse was quite enjoying her little joke on him…

            • “Ghost” and sequels are among his books I haven’t been able to enjoy well enough to finish any of them so far even though I am usually quite receptive to stories of self-confessed bad guys who haven’t completely given in to their evil sides and try to do good.

              There is a certain fascination with the idea of having a genuine monster working on the good guy side, one fully capable of doing horrible things, maybe because in real life horrible things occasionally are, or would be, necessary in order to avoid something even worse. And if there was that bad guy there to do them then you wouldn’t have to consider the chance you might need to do them yourself. Or in stories having the good guy fictional hero or heroine do them. When somebody who is supposed to be a good guy does something bad it can complicate the story quite a lot. If it is somebody who very much already isn’t all that good, and just gives in to his real desires for a good cause, well, no need for the hand wringing and soul searching and trauma scenes afterwards (and they often aren’t that much fun to read, or see, scenes either). Can just stick to the action.

              Plus of course the fact that a monster, one who could scare others easily, would also be somebody who would presumably find keeping the generic bullies and small time annoyances in check easy… nice daydream, that, isn’t it?

              • There is a certain fascination with the idea of having a genuine monster working on the good guy side

                I don’t think it quite fair to call mike Harmon a genuine monster, if only because he knows his dark desires are dark desires. Call him a demimonster, as opposed to one who thinks it possible to justify and endorse such dark desires as healthy — think H. Lecter or Dresden’s vampires calling humans “does” and “bucks.”

                The function of one whose soul is already stained and thus is free to act horribly in defense of the good is acknowledgement that the good is worth protecting, of the bad that is out there, and that protecting against such darkness cannot be done without cost. Some would add to that the idea that redemption is possible.

                • True, but I guess I meant with “genuine” somebody who would be able to do those bad things so that the doing in itself would not _feel_ difficult to him, even if he would think them not desirable in the abstract.

                • And that’s a very common thing; both Honor Harrington and her father explicitly recognize their capacity for violence and channel it into paths that allow them to use it so others with less capacity don’t have to.

      • Me, I never could.

        Oddly enough, some first readers have complained that some of my stories are mislabeled fantasy when they should be horror. They tend to be the retold fairy tales.

      • For me, it was three urban fantasy novels in the late 80s/early 90s. Couldn’t sleep until I got those things out of the house, and it took far too long to scrub the stories out of my mind.

      • I can’t read horror, either. I ventured into a couple of horror books when I was a teenager, and was plagued by my imagination, calling up certain images for months afterwards.
        Never really took to King – I detest things leaping out at me, yelling boo! to get a reaction.

      • Horror is a genre for people who feel helpless, who don’t understand the world around them. Something inexplicable and horrible happens. You are helpless to correct it. The people you trust to help you are either impotent, compromised, or actively complicit in the inexplicable horror. You don’t know what the rules are in this world, and when you think you’ve figured them out the evil either arbitrarily changes them or simply ignores them.

        Is this not every Stephen King novel, every SAW flick, every zombie movie, every Resident Evil game ever sold? People who don’t understand what is going on destroyed by an incomprehensible and unconfrontable evil? Hell, isn’t that how most people see the “real” world of politics and economics and race and sex and culture. Doesn’t so much of what they see going on around them simply not make sense and often even actively threaten them?

        And horror exploits that sense of helplessness, reinforces it, and profits by it.

        Note that I draw a distinct line between what I consider “horror”, as defined above, and “monster” stories. To me, a “monster” story features people who at least try to comprehend, confront, and defy if not defeat the monster, in a narrative context that makes that at least possible. You can often have elements of both: “Cloverfield” was a horror movie to the clueless metrosexual protagonists only trying to flee, but a monster movie to characters trying to fight the entity.

        • So by your logic none of Paul Wilson’s Adversary books, considered classics of horror, are horror?

          • I treat those as “monster” books; there are rules, the Adversary is bound by them,

            • That’s why Repairman Jack was able to cross over into them. Compare that to, for example, Skipp and Spector’s eco-horror novel “The Bridge” where the eco-monsters overturn all the laws of nature and no every figures them out or is even given a chance to,

              • So then most of Lovecraft is monster as well as clearly even The Great Old Ones are bound by rules and it is via those rules that humanity, if the individual humans in the stories, survive.

              • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                That sounds to me like a “Bad Horror Story”.

                To me, a horror story is when the “monster” is completely outside of the world-view of the main characters.

                They have to fight to believe “this is actually happening” as well as fighting the “monster” itself.

                In a Good Horror Story, the main characters survive long enough to “figure out the rules” so that they can fight back.

                It’s a Bad Story (Horror or Otherwise) when the main characters don’t have a chance of fighting back or a chance of winning.

                • I’ve heard people say that horror is when the rules are suspended — it’s dark fantasy when you learn the rules are darker than you thought (but in operation).

                  • I thought that was the Trump/Hillary/Sanders/Rubio/bogey man of your choice campaign.

                    Or was that Game of Thrones?

                  • What is the point in reading a story where there is way to defeat the villain or there are no rules and it will kill you before you figure out what is going on? I guess if the people in the story are clones of people who harass in real life it might be fun.

            • Hm. By that definition what I like would be mostly just monster books and movies. But I have used horror stories partly as a way to vaccinate myself against my fear of dark and being alone etc. I used to be a really easily scared kid, one cursed with a very vivid imagination. But at some point I realized that repeatedly facing what scares you can lessen the fear. Worked pretty well for my fear of heights. Has worked very well for my fear of dark. And with the last, lots and lots of horror, or at least monster stories has helped, I think – I can still feel uneasy, like when I just last two months worked as a (temp) cleaner in two large sport centers and did it mostly during the night when there was nobody else there – but I can handle that feeling, and know I can (no idea what I’d do if I saw a ghost or something under those circumstances, but maybe confronting a bad human might actually be even bit of a relief, most normal humans can be fought and hurt and I can imagine much, much worse things than what your generic rapist or whatever is likely to do to you if you lose that fight…) (Okay, that was part joking. But part not. I don’t believe in something like Old Ones able to condemn your soul into whatever, but I’d really hate to find out I was wrong. 🙂 ).

        • I would actually say that large chunks of Steven King qualify as monster stories rather than horror stories, if we’re going by the definition. I refer particularly to The Stand and It.

          • Of course, roughly 95% of the characters in IT fall under that description. Bad stuff happens in Derry, and pretty much everyone in town just goes along with it. As the Nostalgia Critic put it, pretty much the only non-horrible people in the town are our 7 protagonists.

            On the other hand, IT does have those 7, most of whom are pretty cool. Any story with a character who agrees to fight an inter-dimensional C’thullu-like monster on the grounds that “It can’t be any worse than interviewing Ozzy Osborne” is okay in my book.

          • The Stand will always be his best book no matter how much he denies it.

        • Every HP Lovecraft book, for that matter.

        • SheSellsSeashells

          I have an overwhelming, instinctive revulsion toward the Saw movies, and it is oddly identical to a couple of novelists that I’ve poked through a few chapters of. But Stephen King by your standards falls more into “monster” than “horror”, and his “horror” books are the ones that I usually read and toss/delete. HOWEVER, King at his best can deliver a fist-pumping rah-rah moment with the best of them, and they’re not just hopeless doomed stands against the darkness. The climactic moment of “Needful Things” is one of my favorite fictional things ever.

          It’s an interesting distinction, and I thank you for defining it for me. 🙂 On the monster/horror axis, I’d classify “Needful Things”, most of the Dark Tower books, and “The Stand” as monster. “Under the Dome” and “Revival” are horror, and I disliked them deeply. Nihilism is not my thing, kthanks.

        • Horror is a genre for people who feel helpless, who don’t understand the world around them.

          Could it be for people who enjoy feeling helpless even if they don’t most of the time?

    • Catticus Finch

      I’m not such the fan of Barker’s horror books, but I loved The Thief of Always when I was a teenager. It’s been many years since I read it, so I might not like it so much at this stage in my life; I recall it being weird but not oil-slick-on-the-psyche weird.

  4. The interesting effect is trying to write a (legitimately) bitter character while feeling bitter yourself. . .

    Unpleasantly among its other issues.

  5. I’ve only ever outright thrown one book in the trash. I don’t even remember the title or author now. I’m pretty undemanding in my airport reading, but this one turned me off fast, in the initial setup (guy comes upon a newly crashed Piper Cub with dead bodies and a sack of money, and keeps the sack of money for himself before reporting the crash). I skipped ahead to the last few pages to see if there was any redemption. Nope. Guy and his friends and family come apart and he gets killed.

    I really didn’t want to see how we got from point A to point B. I threw the book in the trash and picked up something enjoyable instead.

    • Lawrence Block’s “Hit Man” stories are decently written, have their humorous moments, and are quite readable… but after a while they gave me the creeps. The phrase “banality of evil” comes to mind…

  6. Brothers by William Goldman, the sequel to Marathon Man, is the one book I actively wish I had never read.

  7. I don’t know as I’ve ever had that experience of a book, although it might have more to do with an advanced subconscious Early Warning System than an ability to overlook the grime. It may, may have been why I put down the second Gor book midway through and walked away without any urge to return — at an age when I never failed to read a book cover-to-cover.

    I suspect it may also be why certain authors, such as Arthur Clarke, I am completely incapable of reading. Might not be — but there is certainly some reason I pick up any novel of Clarke’s, read a few paragraphs and walk away. It cannot be because Clarke doesn’t write competently, but what I’ve learned of his personal life over the years suggests his is a mind that repels me.

    • Interesting on the Gor book as I consider the first two and a couple of the others the only ones worth reading (well, not sure the first one is…if I didn’t know when it was written I would have assumed someone typed in A Princess of Mars, did a mass search and replace on names, and tidied up the resulting rough spots).

      • I don’t have any idea what it was about Gor. I doubt it was the BDSM element, as I gather that didn’t become thematically dominant until later in the series. I had read all available Conan (even the Lin Carter pastiches) and Mundy’s Tros of Samothrace series (those I recall as a hard slog, although I wish I had retained them to revisit now that my tastes are more mature) and the first few Barsoom books — which I had been blasting through until after the fourth or fifth I just couldn’t bring myself to pick up the net one.)

        But Gor? I liked the first enough to pick up the other three then available, but somewhere in the middle of the second I just put it down, said I don’t care what happens and found something else to read. One of the very few books I ever did that with, which is why the memory remains almost fifty years later.

        No, I’ve no interest in picking the book up again to find out what put me off it.

        • The first three are passable Burroughs pastiche. One of the later one that in theory should be heavy on the S&M stuff based on the title (Slave Girl of Gor) actually comes across as a romance and is fairly toned down on the sex stuff. Beyond that I find them to be not so great bondage porn.

          That said, they have a yuuugge following so they strike a note with somebody.

          • Reality Observer

            I think it was the fourth one that began to go off the rails a bit, and then I borrowed the next one from a friend – never went back. (Whups, wait a minute, I think I did once – something like “Fighter of Gor,” or “Gladiator of Gor.” Most of that one was a guy being trained for arena fighting, and I was into that period of Rome at the time. Later realized it wasn’t all that well researched…)

            • In a very weird way the Gor books make me appreciate the Dresden novels even more. The Gor books combine two things, sword & planet fantasy and bdsm erotica, that I have some interest in but they satisfy neither itch well. In trying to be both they turn out to be neither really.

              Dresden, again, combines two things I really enjoy, hard boiled detective fiction and urban fantasy. They succeed at both. While Dresden is no Matt Scudder he’s better than most second tier detective. The urban fantasy is also above average.

              It is hard enough to write workman like genre fiction in one genre. Most genre mashups, IMHO, fail to reach that level. When someone comes along and does two and does both above average that is someone worth reading.

              • That was one of the charms of Harry Potter. A high fantasy story and a school story (not just a high fantasy that happened to have a school in it).

            • SheSellsSeashells

              I believe that at one point Mike Resnick was threatening to write “Buckets of Gor”.

              • Reality Observer

                It would take a highly skilled author to pen a send-up of that. IMHO, to be successful, it would have to enrage SJWs even more than the originals – NOT an easy task.

                I think that Mike and John would have to collaborate on it, actually…

                • SheSellsSeashells

                  Not that I would ever, ever admit to having read it, but somewhere on the internet there was once “Gay, Bejeweled Nazi Bikers of Gor” and it was a thing of beauty. 😀

                • Gor–the only place where Mike Harmon is viewed as a big softy.

              • You’ve not read “Houseplants of Gor?”

                It’s real, and it’s out there on the web…

        • SheSellsSeashells

          Possibly it’s just the fact that Normal repeats himself repetitively, belaboring the point in rivers and torrents and great gushing streams of redundancy as he carefully reiterates the point he made three paragraphs ago, possibly in a sentence that *lasts* three paragraphs.

          Too, there is his eccentric use of adverbs, and, lest we forget, or fail to be reminded, the multiplicity of commas in his every extended, overly lengthy, verbose clause.

          /flees

        • I have only tried one Gor book and I didn’t get past the first scene (one well into the series, I think, found in a used books store where I went to trade some of my old ones, there was not much to choose from at that time). The protagonist finds a slave girl chained on a yard, in bad weather, and the only shelter she has is being underneath a wagon or something. He has sex with her, and she is receptive enough, I think there was even a reason given, that it was her act of defiance against her owner or something like that.

          Then he just leaves her and walks inside the tavern or whatever it was.

          I think I would have been okay with that scene if the protagonist had, I don’t know, at least asked her if there was something he could do for her. If not cut her loose, buy her or get her a blanket, then maybe bring her some warm food and drink from the tavern later. But he did nothing, and he didn’t even have any thoughts about how unpleasant or wrong the whole situation was, he seemed to fully accept it. The way I remember the situation being described there was no way she would not have been having a thoroughly physically miserable time chained there, and him just using her for sex, even if it was with her consent, turned him into a thoroughly unlikable character for me, somebody I did not want to read about any more.

          • A chained slave girl under a wagon on Gor is an open invitation for her use but you’re supposed to leave a coin in payment for her services.

            • Okay. That’s worse. If treating the slave girls worse than most decent people would treat their beasts of burden – including chaining them outside in bad weather with no proper shelter, food and bedding – is customary and accepted also by the protagonists… ugh. Not a society I want to read about unless the point of the story is some sort of revolution.

      • The first 5 were — acceptable, as a John Carter / Conan knockoff. The 6th one gave me the same feeling as Game of Rape: that there were no heroes, and anyone with pretensions to being one would be broken as quickly as possible. The ninth one was the last one I picked up, and it actually had a heroic main character besides the POV character, but that was the last gasp.

    • On the off chance there are some fellow Gor readers (I also liked the first few books.) who missed this, here’s a link to Houseplants of Gor.

      Put down your drink, first, okay? Here: http://www.rdrop.com/~wyvern/data/houseplants.html

  8. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Slightly “off topic” from Sarah’s point (or at least my understanding of it) but there are books I almost literally can’t read because of the main character being bullied.

    For example, I attempted to read the first Harry Potter book at least twice but really couldn’t get into it because of how Harry was treated by his family.

    Of course, story wise it was stupid that the “Good” wizard allowed Harry to live with that family without keeping an eye on Harry’s treatment.

    Come on, the “Bad” wizard wants to oppress non-magicians and you allow the person prophesized to be the “One Who Will Defeat The Bad wizard” to be mistreated by non-magicians.

    If I was Harry and if I learned that I had magic and there was an “Evil Wizard” who wanted to oppress non-magicians, I’d wonder “where can I join up with this Evil Wizard”. 😈 😈 😈 😈

    • The plot holes in Harry Potter you could run a truck through.

      • Oh yes, our favorite around here: you can’t see this particular sort of creature (Thestral?) until you’ve seen someone die. So why, why, why, can’t Harry, who, after all, saw his parents die, see them from the moment he first encounters them, instead of not seeing them until after Cedric dies? Given the role his parents’, particularly his mother’s, deaths in his presence as an infant, play in the story, that’s a plot hole big enough for an entire convoy, not just a truck.

        • He didn’t see his parents die. He saw some bursts of green light.

          • Yes. Also, I believe, that James was not in the same room as Harry when he died, while Harry was blinded by the green light when his mother dies. Harry was in the same house he did not see his parents die.

            Hagrid had presupposed that Harry would see the Thestrals for the very reason that Harry had been in the same house as his parents when they died — and he was confused by Harry’s inability.

            • I also figured you had to know you were seeing someone die, and Harry was too young to understand that at the time.

      • The Other Sean

        But can you ride a broomstick through them? 🙂

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          Not a “broomstick”. Could ride a “boom stick” through them. [Wink]

        • An entire fleet of broomsticks, flying in formation.

          The great thumping one I noticed was that if either James or Lily had been the Secret Keeper — as Bill was for himself and Fleur, as Arthur was for the rest of the Weasleys — the whole thing would have collapsed.

          The really irony was that if she had had Bill and Arthur switch, she could have had a rule that you can’t be the Secret Keeper if you live at the residence in question.

          • That one drove me nuts. In addition to destroying the entire premise of the series (making it so James and Lily died because they were stupid rather than because they were betrayed), it also ruined what made the Fidelius Charm neat–the charm grants safety, but in order to get that safety, you have to grant absolute trust to another person.

            The way the Fidelius Charm ended up, it was surprising that everyone in the wizarding world didn’t use it just to keep door-to-door salesmen away.

            • And the chances for improving forensics are legion.

              and how in blue blazes did they know that Regulus Black betrayed Voldemort and died without knowing what he did, or even some of it?

          • A Quidditch tournament, with halftime show and cheerleaders.

    • And this is why I love Harry Potter fanfic. I’ve never actually read the books, but my favorite fanfic tropes are all about Harry (and others) going against canon.

      • Eh, if you don’t like a hole, you can write about it in your own original fiction.

        • Some of the funniest fanfic I’ve read were the Harry Potter/Miles Vorkosigan crossovers. Which I haven’t the faintest idea how to find again. I’d forgotten all about them.

          • Reality Observer

            Thank you for reminding me of my deficient imagination… That’s one combo I just can’t grok.

          • Dammit, and I was just about to ask you for a linky to those.

            I’ve read some Doctor Who/Vorkosigan crossovers that were solid gold–I’d love to see a good Harry Potter one!

            • Over dinner Beloved Spouse & I were speculating about a Discworld/Harry Potter mash-up. When Dumbledore has to temporarily vacate the Hogwarts headmastership Nanny Og is brought in as his replacement. Meanwhile, Granny Weatherwax informs “He Who Must Not Be Named” that not only will she call him Tommy, she isn’t about to die just because he flashes a green light at her.

              • oh my goodness, that would be so very much fun.

                And Voldemort would either be utterly cowed by Granny Weatherwax or attempt to kill her *again*…and be blasted into oblivion.

                I also imagine she would have some Choice Words for Dumbledore and his propensity for leaving children in abusive households…or knowingly allowing attempted-killers to run loose in a school…or…heh. Yeah. Choice. Words.

    • “If I was Harry and if I learned that I had magic and there was an “Evil Wizard” who wanted to oppress non-magicians, I’d wonder “where can I join up with this Evil Wizard”.”

      Yeah, part of the issue was that the idea that Voldemort was oppressing non-magicians didn’t really show up until Book 4. In the early books, it was clearly stated that Voldemort was evil, but exactly what his goals were beyond killing other wizards was never really explained. Thus, Harry wouldn’t even have been able to consider that until he’d already been nearly killed by this guy multiple times.

      The bit in Harry Potter that always bothered me was Dumbledore in Book 6 allowing a would-be murderer to run around the school attacking students. (Yeah, I know why he did it, but if I were Katie Bell’s parents, I’d be pretty angry that Dumbledore had arbitrarily decided that my daughter’s life was worth less than the life of the kid who put her in a coma).

  9. Someone once said when you read a book, because of the breath necessary for speaking, you’re breathing the same way the author was when he/she wrote it.

    This could only be true if authors write without editing as they go, without stopping to search for a word or phrase or simile, and read aloud as they wrote rather than muttering about how this will make [character] miserable.

    I’ve known too many writers and written too much myself to believe any of that.

    • Not to mention that none of the words from the original draft might make it in the final one. It’s only marginally less likely than that all of them do.

      • Reality Observer

        Well, I don’t do all that much editing through the first draft (unless the better way to say something hits me just as I’m putting the words down).

        What I do find myself doing is being a “reporter.” I do know (fairly well) the motivations and feelings of the characters – but I’m putting down who, what, where, etc. without much of that being picked up on. So… they’re like deflated balloons, that I go back later to put air into.

      • Haven’t read very much late Tom Clancy or Harry Turtledove, have you?

    • Well, if you are reading a book from the Greco-Roman ancient world, it was probably dictated, and it was meant to be read out loud. Breathing patterns really are part of that, albeit it’s no different than a song.

    • Also many authors are a bit subpar, aerobically. For some reason.

  10. > two (or more) groups that can’t even talk to each other

    The other side not only quit listening, they’re determined to put their own words in our mouths.

  11. Reminds me of my reaction to Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and its sequels: “A penis graffito drawn over a tapestry of Narnia; that it’s technically well-executed only makes it more disturbing.”

    • I, too, was very tempted to fling The Magicians across the room; I’m impressed you were able to be as generous as “disturbing”. To me it came off as something more infuriating, namely, it felt ungrateful — a serious example of biting the hand that fed it.

      Fantasy stories whose basic theme is the immaturity or irrelevance of fantasy (cf. also Philip Pullman or Anne Rice) make me angrier than just about anything short of actual anti-Catholic propaganda like The Da Vinci Code.

      • Not to mention it didn’t have a plot.

        • It had the same plot Heinlein’s “Friday” had.

          See character.
          See character run.
          Run, character, run.
          Run, run, run!

          • No, because they stopped running. After they graduated there was a period of dead time, pure and simple.

      • You know, I’ve been wondering whether I should try the SyFy channel show based on those books.

        I’m sensing that I just got two “No” votes here…

        • Feather Blade

          I’d third the “no” vote, but it’s possible that the TV writers can make the characters less off-putting than the book writer did.

          • It’s POSSIBLE certainly, but there are only so many entertainment hours available, and many things that could fill those hours. I think I need a better endorsement than, “It’s possible that it doesn’t suck as much as the books did.”

            • Feather Blade

              I wish I could give you one ^_^, but I despised the characters so much by the middle of the book that I gave up on it before they made it into the Narnia-expy.

          • Having seen the pilot – no.The characters and morality are all disturbing. The weird fetish with madness and insanity. The end of the first episode….

        • It’s probably worth trying at least a few episodes of the show. Sometimes the right actor, or the right chemistry between actors, can make up for a lot.

          • And sometimes a TV writer, director or actor says: “Aw geeze – the character’s got to have better grounding than that! Audiences are gonna switch channels so fast remotes will burn out if we don’t come up with some kind of motivation.”

        • Another “No” vote.

        • I gave the pilot try on the grounds that it was the SyFy channel. The books were terrible and they tend to ruin books they adapt so there was aneven chance they would have improved the story.

          Unfortunately Syfy was utterly faithful to the tiresome, incompetent brats. They’re all Eustace Clarence Scrub with no hope of undragoning. Eventually, even the ones you feel sorry for, you start to wish would all die in a fire.

          • That is an insult to Eustace and his red diaper baby parents.

            And what was the fetish with making all the kids such bitter test takers? Standardized tests are fun! Admittedly this is not every smart kid’s opinion, but none of the kids ever did anything fun.

            The closest exception was the bit where Levinson ripped off/criticized T.H. White with the bird shapeshifting. Unfortunately, critics who mentioned it as a good bit apparently had not read T.H. White.

        • Hmmm. I had the tv show on my ‘watch the pilot eventually’…but I know nothing about the book it’s based on. However, I respect most of opinions here, so I shall remove it from the list instead. 😀

  12. I think it can come from any Art, that evil. I’m not sure it’s something the creator intends. There’s music out there that has it, and guessing from the bargain with the devil stories, it’s a phenomenon that’s been around a while. (And I’m sure Kate never even thought about it, but her editors are demons and writers sold their souls sold their souls of the Con series rings ever so slightly truer to me because of those books.)

    I just had an experience with a book like this. A very good friend, who is an honorary auntie to the kids, bought books for Christmas, and as one does, I read them. One of them, I said “This is not a children’s book. This is not a YA. This is Adult, and this is horror, and my kids are not reading this.” And it has that creeping feel of evil to it–I read the first two chapters, the last two, and that was it.
    What bothers me more is not that this book is out there, pretending to be a children’s book, (it might be reasonable as a college class requirement, as a novelization of the Holocaust) but that it has the sort of laundry list of awards that lead librarians to recommend it to children. I need to return it to Amazon.

    • What book was it?

    • Free-range Oyster

      I’ve had that experience with music once or twice. I was asked to help a church congregation in Outer Boondocks, São Paulo once. They wanted to review the music to be played at an event to make sure it was appropriate. I knew some of the congregants, lived in Inner Boondocks, and spoke fluent English, so a friend volunteered me to help vet the American pop music on the program. No big deal. What caught me by surprise was the instrumental EDM one that was unanimously rejected. No bawdy lyrics, no ‘dying machinery’ industrial beats, no eerie or ominous melodic lines, nothing I could point to… but every person in that room got this oppressive feeling of unease, an intense and inexplicable wrongness about that song. There was something unhealthy there, some aspect of it that no single element could account for. When I read descriptions of horrifying music from cults worshiping eldritch forces, or the mad piping of Azathoth, that feeling comes to mind: there is something more there than the notes alone explain.
      Ugh, I’m going to go listen to some Sean Rowe and Nina Simone to rejuvenate my musical sensitivities.

  13. The book I remember having an emotional impact such that I could barely read it was Jeff Long’s The Descent. While it has strong horror elements that wasn’t what go to me (I enjoy reading some horror although it is not a constant staple).

    It is a book about the discover and exploration of a huge, worldwide network of connecting caverns inhabited by a branch of humanity that split off half a million years ago.

    What it presented in vivid detail was clasutriphobia. This was a very weird experience given my past occupation. I thought having worked in a metal cylinder under 100s of feet of water meant the idea of a cave system wouldn’t get to me in a book.

    Boy was I wrong. By the time the action shifts to an expedition under the floor of the Pacific on a connecting tunnel from North America to Asia I about lost it. The sense of oppression of the deepest parts of the ocean plus several hundred feet of rock being overhead with just one failed battery being all that stood between you and utter blackness (I suspect only submariners and cavers truly grok what utter darkness is like given we both experience it) had me down to reading 2-3 pages at a time and then only in daylight.

    As hard as it was I also consider it one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read. Still haven’t been able to bring myself to read the sequel, though.

    • I suspect only submariners and cavers truly grok what utter darkness is like given we both experience it.

      This is likely true. Full darkness requires an indoor setting os some sort – even on a cloudy, moonless night away from cities, there is some glow. And now almost every gadget has some light indicator, so indoors still requires actively “making darkness happen.” And then you adapt, or try to. I don’t know how close to full darkness I’ve gotten, but I have reached the point where I was watching my eyes/brain trying to get something and what I was seeing was… well, the best way to describe it would be amplifier or processing noise.

      • Reality Observer

        Even when there is essentially complete darkness, I think the place is what makes it different. I have on occasion had complete darkness out in the wild – but it was only damned inconvenient.

        In-city power failures, even when there is still the glow from other parts of the city – I can still feel like the house walls are closing in on me. I remember cave tours from back when we didn’t have all of the gadgets with indicator lights on them, and the guide would turn all of the lights off (do they still do that?). Shudder…

        • They do in Carlsbad Caverns.

          • Reality Observer

            Last time I was there was… 2000. On the way back from Kansas (family funeral), we stopped there for the kids.

            Don’t remember them doing it then – maybe because there were a lot of other kids too? Always wanted to get there sometime for the dusk (the bat exodus).

            BTW – apparently our sons missed each other over at Pendleton. Probably Tom wasn’t one of the instructors working with Fox Company. (Oh, I would be so tempted to razz him about being in “F Troop” – if it would get me anything more than a blank stare… Sucks to get old.)

        • The Other Sean

          I do a cave tour most years – either as part of a park visit or an along-the-way stop at a tourist cave – and yes they still do the total darkness thing at all of them I’ve been to. They also did so in both of the mine tours (coal in PA, silver in CO) I’ve taken. It is… different.

          • Now imagine a book impressing that sensation on you constantly as part of the background noise of the environment with the addition of putting the cave under the Pacific ocean.

            Brilliant stuff and I’m glad it’s daytime 🙂

        • I *hate* caves. There was a cave around here called Nutty Putty and a guy got stuck. They could not get him out so he died there, trapped. So horrible. Those caves were sealed up because of that incident.

        • I actually like the dark in caves sometimes.

          I have tinnitus (too many loud noises and bangs, ah youth…!). The little drip of water and the only sounds being breath and occasional movement noises and the creak of the world is calming. Almost every job I’ve ever had has been noisy. If it weren’t so cold, it would be good napping down there. *grin*

          I’m also not put off by horror, as long as it’s not banal or overdone. Horror as a part of a story, most any good story really, is just fine. Certain things are horrible. But, oh, I’m thinking of one I read on a bus once, where humanlike blobs were “eating” people and making almost-but-not-quite the same copies (yes, it’s a trope). It constantly went for the gross-out and the “lets make the reader uncomfortable” to no plot point at all.

      • The Minuteman missileers are underground, but not so far. There’s also a way out handy. Still, those who are claustrophobic are most likely not missileers.

    • The tin cans up top get utter dark, too, if the power fails and you’re inside a water tight room.

      I really can’t describe the way it feels when the lights go out, and then you realize that you can see the computer screen’s residual glow…and then it goes away.

      And the only thing you can hear is folks breathing, because the air is out, too.

      Happened several times on pier side when they were working on the engines and stuff, and in those cases the emergency lights didn’t come on, too.

      (for those wondering: on ships they have what look like ammo cases with two or so lights on them, which turn on something like 30 seconds after they lose power and will run for a couple of hours minimum)

    • I can handle complete darkness in a cave or mine okay if the space is big – and that is something you can hear. In fact I sometimes have found that even soothing, the quiet is indeed very nice deep in the caves, or mines at a time when it’s not being worked (I was studying in a geology department which is somewhat focused in producing mining geologists so I have visited several back in the day). But I do have problems being in small spaces even with light and a low roof is my personal nightmare. Anywhere where I can’t stand straight is bad enough, don’t even dream of getting me somewhere where I’d have to crawl for any distance.

      But the thought of being some place with a very long way to surface, even if the space itself is large and lighted, does give me the shivers. Maybe because I did study geology and know a bit too much about the fact that rocks aren’t static, there are constant stresses even in the surface ones, much less when you get deep underground. So cave ins are always a possibility. And being trapped, even in a large space… no thanks.

      I didn’t even try to read that Jeff Long book.

  14. As someone who has, at times, made the decision, “I’m not going to read X because it has gay characters,” I will present, not a defense, but an exegesis of the thought processes behind this choice, because the thing is, that sentence is never where it stops in practice. For me anyway.

    Simply having LGBT characters in a story is not itself a deal-breaker. (I have recently reread and immensely enjoyed Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, as evidence.) For me, the thing is that the presence of LGBT characters, especially protagonists, almost infallibly in my experience indicates one or two things which are dealbreakers:

    a) An explicitly critical position against the philosophy of traditional chastity and sexual mores and those who espouse them, usually by creating villains who are caricatures of those positions or sometimes by creating explicit author tracts against them; or
    b) Explicit erotica which is simply not my flavour of choice, which as we all know tends to be boring at best and offputting at worst.

    When either of these is coupled with a third element, namely, “It doesn’t sound from the description like the rest of the story is interesting enough to justify my putting up with the things I don’t like,” then one winds up with the deadly “I’m not going to read X because:”. I will freely admit that I have almost certainly missed out on some great stories as a result. But the stuff that I could read for pleasure and the time I actually have available to read for pleasure are so terribly mismatched these days that, like an overloaded editor wading through a 1,000-story slushpile, I will often take any excuse I can just to winnow my list down to a manageable size.

    • More power to you. An eight year old enjoying masochistic pleasure caused that book to get closed, then donated.
      Yes, but in this case given publisher and author (both for my book and another) neither of your objections SELF OBVIOUSLY apply. So…

      • Yeah, the reason I stopped at “offputting” was because I didn’t want to include, or appear to include by implication, the idea that my preferences in entertainment necessarily constituted binding moral obligations on everyone else. The example you found clearly goes outside that distinction of honour.

        “A Few Good Men” would not in itself hit my auto-reject reflex. The problem there is that I would simply prefer to read “Thieves” and “Revenge” first, and to buy them through official channels so you are properly compensated, and the time and money for that has been seriously lacking.

        • It isn’t the presence of “a few gay characters” that is the problem. It is the fact that those “gay” characters, like “Black” characters and “Woman” characters in some novels are not presented as any more realistic than the Aryan men in Spinrad’s Iron Dream.

          • Reality Observer

            I can deal with a book that has some caricature characters in it – because I have met such in real life. But it had better not be all of them, and not anyone gone into “in depth,” because that is not anywhere close to real life. (Yes, in depth doesn’t work for me – every time I have actually gotten to know a “caricature” they turn out to be not that, not completely.)

          • Of course, Iron Dream was meant to be satire. At least, I think it was. I loved the forward, about Adolf Hitler the pulp hack, but never got past the first fewer chapter of the book itself.

            • Same here. Spinrad had written coherent novels before, but The Iron Dream has New Wave stamped all over it. Bug Jack Barron suffered from Message, but it was a lot more readable. The Mind Game was pretty much mainstream fiction, and IMHO his best novel.

          • Ayup. When Mrs. Hoyt wrote that line I realized I had become that person. Note: operative word, become.

            Because now the existence of gay characters, or for that matter brown coloured characters and sometimes even, female characters when it is explicitly noted–?

            Means that I am going to get a cookie box instead of a human being and almost certainly a lecture. No thanks

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        There was one book that I closed, and didn’t donate it because I put it in the trash. :frown:

      • Good Lord. i’m the one who gave Sarah “Painted Devils” and “Cold Hand in Mine” by Robert Aickman. Subtle ghost stories, mostly. I still highly recommend them. He had two shots at collections being published by major US house, rather like Pentangle getting two albums released by Reprise. I’ve managed to find a couple more of his British collections, and one of his hard to find novels. I have no idea what in Aickman’s stories would cause that reaction. And in this context, of sick stuff involving children, I think people may get wholly the wrong idea about the man, he was a political conservative and anti-Communist, as you can see by his moving story “The Houses of the Russians.” Sorry to upset you, Sarah, but I had no idea Aickman would cause anyone to have that reaction, he’s one of my very favorite writers.

        • Hmm. Well, “The Swords” is sex-themed and creepy to the max, but nothing explicit, and not typical of his work. It was badly adapted for the TV show “The Hunger.”

          • He was a favorite writer and friend of conservative political theorist and horror writer Russell Kirk.

            • I’m grateful to Dan and Sarah for bringing me an Aickman they saw in a London airport paperback rack, he’s that popular in the UK.

            • If you admire Russell Kirk, please note that the two Aickman collections Sarah mentions have enthusiastic blurbs by Kirk. And “Lords of the Hollow Dark” by Kirk, one of the rarest novels I own, has a prominent blurb by Aickman.

        • An author does not have to be evil to be uncomfortably skilled at conveying an atmosphere of evil, or at portraying an evil person.

          Of course, sometimes the two go together; but cautionary tales and bare presentations of fact can be pretty hard to take. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by Shirer, for example. I am glad I read it, but it did not leave me feeling good, other than being glad we beat them.

          There’s also the creepy phenomenon of books which seem to provide an opening for spiritual warfare against one by demons (which thank goodness I have never experienced, and probably is more a spiritually vulnerable person than a book), or which demons get mad about (I never had so many inexplicable glitches as when I was doing a free audiobook of the Life of St. Anthony of Egypt. He had some funny things to say about demons – I guess they hate being compared to annoying flies whose buzzing you should just ignore). But I don’t think that is what Sarah is talking about.

    • a) An explicitly critical position against the philosophy of traditional chastity and sexual mores and those who espouse them, usually by creating villains who are caricatures of those positions or sometimes by creating explicit author tracts against them;

      Although in many respects I very much like the writing of Lois McMaster Bujold, she does this to the technology for the Uterine Replicator in her Vorkosiverse. That tends to endear her to feminists who are horribly squicked out by the very concept of natural childbirth and fondly imagine that men can and should take over the job.

      • The Other Sean

        While there’s not nearly as much focus on the social aspects of it, Weber’s Honor Harrington universe has similar technology. ISTR it is especially common for females in naval service to go that route.

        • I rather think Huxley had a clearer idea of the some of the social effects, and Cherryh’s pychtechs are far too competent at raising azi.

        • Naval or any other sort of space service; apparently space is still considered a higher hazard environment (which it would be). And apparently they have given some thought to the legal aspects (and not from the “let’s put all the responsibilities on the guy” perspective).

      • Nah. She gives us the Uterine Replicator for the same reason she gave us the 26 hour day (on Barrayar), stun guns, and micro-gravity hand tractors. Total female wish fulfilment. Western science really is a woman’s best friend.

        And frankly unless you’ve been in the position of going through emergency surgery to save the child in the womb? Knowing that your baby’s odds are poor? The idea that a technological marvel can take the risk out of pregnancy and guarantee a live healthy sound baby, but golly, some feminists might like it, so we can’t have that–!

        Not to mention it’s the ultimate answer to would-be abortionists.

        How clueless do you have to be?

        • Given the natural tendencies of people to greed, selfishness, and laziness, I see a lot of potential for dehumanizing abuse and neglect and I’m not nearly so rosy about the positive social prospects of the UR as she is. Total female wish fulfillment indeed. If women don’t want the trouble and expense of raising a child after going through a natural body birth, what is it about the UR that is going to make soupy diapers and colic fun?

          • Yeah, I noticed that too. As if raising children were a cakewalk next to pregnancy.

            Also notice that Beta Colony has rigorous population controls, and consists of exactly the sort of Western European cultures that aren’t reproduce above replacement even without such controls. It would be in population implosion. You would need a population positively obsessed with children to pull that off — the sort in which either Cordelia would feel freakish for her lack of desire, or she would insist on having more children after Miles’s birth despite the risk to him. (Obsessions are irrational.)

          • One interesting question is the lack of the hormonal changes women go through during pregnancy, childbirth and lactating. How much would that affect things? Lots of women are perhaps quite capable of becoming deeply attached even to babies – and older children – who are not their own, and they haven’t given birth to, but then some can’t seem to be able to care much for even ones they did carry, so having a society where most women didn’t might show some differences. Unless expectant mothers were customarily given hormones in order to simulate the pregnancy etc effects.

            • There’s also questions about what happens to the baby…. Weber actually addressed that with Honor, where they made sure to have recordings of the mother’s heartbeat and breathing, and the voices of mother, father, grandparents, etc. available, because they found that mental development was impaired if the UR didn’t have that.

              • Bujold seems to be addressing the prenatal experience of the UR inhabitants with Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, in a scene describing a tour of a replication center. The maternal experience is (in the first part of the book, which is as far as I’ve reached) left unaddressed (which is to say: parental devotion is assumed..)

                We might be able to project the effect of the absence of maternal incubation by looking at how the offspring of surrogate mothers and fathers are received. Given reported demands for “selective reduction” in several instances …

                Of course, if the recipients of those “wanted” children evidence any of a large number of parental sins (e.g., abuse, indifferent bonding, treating the child as a trophy) it is not highly likely that the MSM will pay much notice.

                • Don’t overestimate the powers of hormones. Most “selective reductions” are at the demand of the pregnant woman.

                  One also notes that abused children are more likely to be wanted and planned than a control group. Because, after all, the child is wanted and planned to fulfill an adult’s needs.

                  • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                    the child is wanted and planned to fulfill an adult’s needs

                    Often emotional abuse in those cases.

                    While a fictional treatment, in the latest Eve Dallas novel, Eve meets with the adult children of the murdered man (he may have just been missing when she talked with them).

                    It’s obvious that they had never felt loved by their parents because they knew that they existed just to “fill a role” expected by their high-status parents.

                    Note, they had turned out ok because they had been loved by the cousin (& his wife) of their father.

                    Oh, the cousin & his wife are regulars in the Eve Dallas series which is why Eve got involved even before it was known to be a murder.

          • Meh. The same human flaws have made overuse of antibiotics come to create super-bacteria. Which is an awful thing to be sure.

            But the antibiotics are still a technological blessing.

        • It’s the ultimate answer to would-be abortionists who actually believe it’s about a woman’s control of her body. I once witnessed a long thread in which a woman maintained that since her body was involved she had a right to demand they kill the baby, and another one trying to reason that if the operation were no more intrusive than an abortion, no she wouldn’t, but of course, not getting through because the first one actually wanted a right to a dead baby.

          • I would point out, in reference to would-be abortionists, that NARAL is condemning the Dorritos Superbowl ad for “humanizing fetuses”.

          • Oh yes. There are plenty of people who are pro-abortion (as opposed to pro-abortion rights) who absolutely want the dead baby more than they want a body free from having to bear a pregnancy to term in order to keep another H. sap. sap. alive.

            Which is another beauty of the uterine replicator technology in that it would expose those people like nothing else has.

        • There was still a risk even if there hadn’t been that revolution…. There’s always a risk, at the beginning (sectioning the baby and placenta out of mom) and during (tech can fail, too, not just biological systems). And then there’s interference. But my biggest concerns would be more on a personal level. Just thinking about how much prenatal awareness babies have — much more than was thought before — I found it hard to believe that it would have no effect on the baby as claimed in the book.

          • You’re probably right. The unintended consequences of technological change often bite us in the but.

            Nonetheless, the option, especially after your first miscarriage, would be a godsend.

        • Actually, she wrote that she intro’ed the UR as a one-shot for that scene in Shards of Honor where Aral Vorkosigan, the soul of Barrayaran honor, is confronted with a platoon of UR’s carrying all the Escobar invasion’s war-bastards. Just for the look on his face and the way he faced it after the initial shock.

          Then, once it was there, she had to extrapolate–including one of her tropes that isn’t a feminist’s dream: the extent to which feminism is “merely” an outgrowth of enabling technology.

          As for stunners, she slapped that one down in the same book.

          (“quote” purely from memory…)

          “I don’t like stunners. People don’t respect them. I knew a man who depended on one, and it got him killed…”

          “How did he get killed with a stunner?”

          “He didn’t. A gang attacked him. He stunned two. After the rest took his toy away, they kicked him to death…”

          • Oh… Ms. Bujold is a great one for “I had a better idea.” And then running with it (usually really well)

            I apologise for writing as if she sat down and said: How can I make a technological female utopia? rather than having ideas that she ended up keeping / following up on because, frankly, who wouldn’t want ammenerol (her little blue tabs) or extra hours in the day, or grav lifts, or…

            And no, that was Barrayarans who didn’t like stunners. Because that’s just how the average Barrayaran fighting man would react.

      • SheSellsSeashells

        This…is not how (or why!) I read Bujold. I was delighted with the uterine replicator as a science-fiction innovation/MacGuffin because it was COOL to see a world-altering technology be something that catered to feminine concerns. Much feminist stuff that I read is along the lines of “there is/should be no difference whatsoever between male and female” or “there is a difference and us wimmenz are better!” Refreshing to see something that doesn’t automatically denigrate childbirth/rearing because it’s icky girl stuff.

        Tangentially, I just read Alma Boykin’s “Feeling Needled” with a gigantic grin on my face for much the same reasons. Magic through textile arts with nary a particle of condescension in sight made me feel much more “empowered” than all the feminist fantasy which insists on telling me how bad I have it.

        • There are quite a few of her fans who think “COOL”, and don’t think about the possibly nasty social side effects. Not that I hold her responsible for the fan who told me both “There is important difference between males and females” and “You have no right to an opinion on the subject because you don’t have a uterus”, but she has attracted such types.

        • There’s nothing intrinsically feminine about the concerns addressed by the uterine replicator. She even has a world in which it is used to maintain an entirely male culture.

          • Yes, she does, and the problems with that culture are legion. Starting with the conflict between the supposed benevolence of its theology and its serious misogyny, continuing with the problems that frequently arise in all-male populations, and finishing with the ruthless social control that I suppose would be needed to maintain such a biologically unnatural order, my suspension of disbelief falls flat.

          • SheSellsSeashells

            I seem to have misspoken, sorry. One of the many things I like about Bujold is that her worldbuilding says “things that matter largely to women MATTER just as much as do things that matter largely to men” (massively simplified: uterine replicators can shake the world just as much as gravity lances). When you read a constant drumbeat of “ew, icky girl stuff” from plucky heroines who would DIE rather than pick up a needle or stay up all night with an ailing anybody, it’s refreshing. Is why I loved Fawn from the Lakewalker books so much.

            Some of the many OTHER things I like about Bujold are the humor, the characterization, the plotting, the humor…

    • Ironically, for all of its gestures towards sexual experimentation the Kushiel trilogies ends on such a traditionalist note: all of the principal characters end up in loving, committed relationships and either adopting or having children. It’s almost like Carey couldn’t help but affirming the goodness of traditional family life, committment and monogamy even while paying her coin to the Cerebus of the sexual revolution. Like Kylo Ren she feels herself drawn to the light. Maybe the Kushiel books are kind of a counterexample to the books described in the OP. They’re better than they intend to be.

  15. Is everyone like me where I have book(s) I love so I have hardback, paper (to loan) and now e-book copies. Because heaven forbid that I not have one of them to re-read when needed. (Despite weeding out periodically, too many bookshelves so spouse gives daily thanks for e-books.)

    • You forgot Audible, in case you get the urge for a particular favorite, but are in a position where you have to do a LOT of driving. 🙂

      • You don’t have to drive. I can listen to Audible while mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, shoveling snow, sweeping floors, painting walls, refinishing furniture, putting up magazines/books, washing dishes or while chopping vegetables in order to put up several batches of my favorite creole sauce.

        It is not recommended accompaniment to leaf blowing, running a vacuum cleaner, feeding branches into a chipper/shredder, or while using a power sander.

    • Reality Observer

      Well, I’m not everyone – but I do make two…

  16. The only book I’ve treated to the garbage was written by a fellow named George, with the middle initials Rape Rape, and boy was he in favor of it. Admittedly I stay away from stuff I know is like that. Fool me once…

    • Try the opening chapter of Wizards First Rule.

      Blech…..

      • SheSellsSeashells

        For “should be flung with great force”, I’m a fan of “The Fifth Sorceress” myself. Reveals its idiocy very early on, and only gets worse from there…

        • I can’t say I flung The Fifth Sorceress against the wall, but I do remember putting it down with a grimace using only two fingers. Just not very well-written, even if the reversal of the usual trope of Men-Bad-Women-Good was superficially interesting.

  17. sanfordbegley

    I’m not sure I agree with you. If I open a book and the first chapter has heroic female, asshole patriarch, She must save him and the worthless clod who stole her inheritance because patriarchy. It doesn’t matter how well written and how many conservative lions swear it is a great book I won’t continue, it already feels oily, or something. I know at this point that there will be a nice man of other than white extraction who misses being gay by marrying the heroine. There will be evil white men. No evil women unless they embody the patriarchy. And Social justice wii triumph. Of course no one will get hurt except those evil white men. I’ve seen that repeated so often in so many genres that I can’t stand it any more

    • The Other Sean

      That gives me some interesting idea for trope subversions: “evil patriarch” turns out to have been tool of the evil villainess, straight male saves her at last minute and they fall in love, long-lost half-brother turns out to have better claim and wins the day, or we come to the end and find out the “heroine” is actually delusional once the stored is seen from another viewpoint.

      • Actually ran into that.
        It was a mystery called Romeo’s Rules–new author, new series, not a romance novel–which starts off with what looks like your bog-standard Lifetime movie from the view point of the male helper–anguished artsy woman, evil corporate shark husband, kids in danger–and then we find out, along with the protagonist, that everything he was told is a lie.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        There was a humorous (in retrospect) story that I read a few years back.

        A couple is visiting an extreme matriarchal society on this one planet.

        The husband, who had left his extreme patriarchal society, notices that the stereotypes about the sexes on in this society are extremely similar to the stereotypes held by his former society.

        Where his former society would use the stereotypes about women to explain the lower status of women, the same stereotypes was used to explain the higher status of women in this matriarchal society and where his former society would use the stereotypes about men to explain the higher status of men, the same stereotypes about men were used to explain the lower status of men in this matriarchal society.

        As it turns out this matriarchal society was founded by female refugees from his former patriarchal society. 👿 👿 👿 👿

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        Back when I was entirely clueless about planning stories, I thought about doing a ‘girl runs away from arranged marriage’ where the girl’s motivation was pure and simple racism.

    • When you’re reading, you’re taking the ideas into you.

      If you’re eating something that makes you feel sick, STOP!

      Sound about right?

      (I am among those who gets sick and tired of being told how I’m not allowed to not like something.)

  18. I used to read horror when I was younger, but now my imagination (and anxiety) just won’t allow it. The only non-horror books I’ve read that left me feeling gross are the more recent Game of Thrones books. The serial killer/rapist character was just too much for me. And although I like most of the story from Name of the Wind and it’s sequel, there is something about the mystical villains the Chandrian that rub me the wrong way. And leave me creeped out. Not sure why.

    • Me too…only read the first GOT and I knew before I even got to crucial scenes that it was a book that did not set well with me…but so many friends recommended and raved about it, I had to find out.

      Per fantasy, I really think Tolkien’s first thoughts about Fairy Tale would be taken to heart when it came to fantasy.

      • I managed to make it through the first three GOT (which had all been published by the time I found it) and I kept waiting for it to get better, and it never did. The fourth one was taking so long to come out that I decided that I was better off not waiting for it to get better. Reports are that it didn’t and isn’t likely to. It’s not on my reread list.

        • By the fifth volume he had succumbed to Farmer’s Disease* and stopped bothering to write a novel at all, merely ending the book after an excessive number of pages.

          *Named for Philip Jose Farmer, whose Riverworld books fell victim to this syndrome.

          • The Riverworld books didn’t have all that much of a plot to begin with, as I recall. I tasted the first one, and decided that it wasn’t for me.

            • Same here. I barely got halfway through it. I did like the SciFi mini series they did several years ago though. It was well done.

            • The Other Sean

              My high school library had a large selection of Farmer. It was the only science fiction in the library I read and simply said “meh” to, not continuing to read; I had that reaction more commonly with fantasy. They had a good selection of classic and then-new (1990’s) sci-fi and fantasy, though I’d largely exhausted it by early junior year. I didn’t notice the publication time period of the various books, some seemed very different than others in terms of outlook. I later realized the “average” outlook got darker over time, and that it seemed to be in waves of style/outlook.

        • I made it to the fourth book, and realized this thing wasn’t going to get any better. Buh bye.

    • NOTW sequel was ghastly. It was as if the author discovered sex and martial arts, and decided to write about that. So his hero boinks the fairy queen for months, then goes back to the real world and is suddenly “shy doofus dude” around the unattainable ice goddess again? Gimme a break.

    • I’ve never been able to read horror or watch horror for that matter. That oily darkness feeling, the inability to do anything, to know that the characters are doomed, is too much for me. Even when I’m writing, there has to be some kind of chance for survival for a character, otherwise I just feel sick to my stomach after writing.

      A book that crossed the line for me, being both brilliant and terrifying was the first book of the Dexter series, about the serial killer who kills murderers. I finished it, really enjoyed it, yet I just felt utterly unclean, relating to such a monstrous character. Excellent writing made the character relatable, but a very dark theme.

  19. I’ve had it happen sometimes.

    The only time I could put my finger on why I couldn’t stand it is the time that it suddenly hit me that it was dehumanizing– treating an entire group as…well, animals. Not moral beings.

    I’d never read anything that was really racist before, and that’s including things that were written for racist ends. All the rest assumed that “those guys aren’t really people” was something that had to be proven, not a baseline assumption in the course of a totally different story.

    • Ran into this as a reader with a series call the Horsemen. The first few books were fun and interesting, then in the middle of the third book the main characters were suddenly calling for the extermination of an entire city’s populace, because some of them were “infected”. I went from enjoying the series to suddenly nauseous. Never finished the book and still feel chilled whenever I think about the book.

  20. When I was in second grade, _The Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear_ which I thought was about invisibility and turned out to be about mental illness. (It was young adult book (early young adult?), not meant for seven-year-olds. I had the vocabulary and the reading comprehension. I *didn’t* have anything vaguely close to an adult or teenage mindset.) It messed me up for about a month, and I didn’t tell anyone why because I didn’t want my parents to censor my reading — not that they’d stop me from reading anything I wanted to, but that they wouldn’t have the time to examine as many books as I wanted to read.

    I don’t think that was the taint of evil experience, though; just a powerful depiction of something I wasn’t emotionally equipped to handle.

    • Oh mean, I read that one too, in 7th grade. I think my English teacher gave it to me. And I Too was expecting a tale about invisibility, and instead got an abusive story about a kid who turned inward so much that people stopped noticing him.

  21. Personally, there’s two plots I just cannot read, cannot get into no matter what.
    One is the “deliberately framed/wrongly accused/the fugitive” – where the protagonist has to clear their name. Takes me out of the story every single time.
    The other is the “moronic lack of communication with comic/tragic misunderstandings” plot.

    • The latter I understand, and agree (see The Walking Dead); would you care to elaborate on why you dislike the former?

      • I really can’t explain- probably has something to do with being a brutally honest Aspie kid. I actually get angry when I see that plot happening.
        Funny enough, if the plot involves the protagonist clearing someone else wrongly accused, or if it’s unclear from the start if the protagonist is guilty, that doesn’t bother me.

    • The other is the “moronic lack of communication with comic/tragic misunderstandings” plot.

      AKA 90% of kids’ shows drama?

      (Seriously, if you remove ‘randomly decide to be an idiot and not communicate on this thing,’ most of the conflicts would go away. I couldn’t stand it when I WAS a kid.)

      • Merry Wives of Windsor as well plus to a degree Much Ado About Nothing (whose title is a pun on “noting” using in the sense of “overhearing”).

    • Reality Observer

      Hmmm. Not quite the same thing, but does this not describe the Vorkosigan books?

  22. I think the “I need to scrub” thing can be a major, and important, defense measure.

    It’s one that has to be trained– you’ve got to be able to tell “uncomfortable” from “No! Bad! Where’s my holy water!?!”

    Another reason to “feed” kids’ minds the good stories, make sure they’ve got the sense-of-self, before they read the “challenging” ones. Challenging isn’t necessarily bad, but you’ll cause damage if you put someone through a challenge they’re not yet ready for.

    • Birthday girl

      “It’s one that has to be trained– you’ve got to be able to tell “uncomfortable” from “No! Bad! Where’s my holy water!?!””

      I so agree here … I grew up in a home of very little pleasure reading. Still, my parents were happy I was an avid reader and never censored anything from me … I see now, that was from ignorance. I read some King long before I should have been exposed to it (because Best Seller!!!), and I still regret it. I made sure to instruct my children that if they ran across a book that made them uncomfortable, to STOP reading and to tell me about it, if they felt the need. I told them how King made me feel for so long, until I had enough life experience to organize my thoughts about it, and that I did not want them to live with that kind of thing.

      I think my own thinking/feeling in this area really came together after reading a couple of Anne Rice books (I was in my mid-20’s), which I thoroughly enjoyed as very imaginative stories, but which I said to my spouse “this author must be really messed up in real life.” And he agreed. And then I realized it wasn’t just me and that was what was going on with the King books I had previously read.

      I am not a psychologist, nor do I play on on TV, but it seems to me that there are some people who just have to put their ickiness out there in the world, due to whatever demons ride them. And in our day and age, perhaps that tendency is greater than in the past when there were different kinds of gatekeepers?

      • There was a period (4th grade, perhaps) when the Daughtorial Unit got heavily into R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps books, devouring one after another. Rather than make those Forbidden Reading we suggested it was a bad idea to read a whole bunch of just one author, and she might want to mix in some other authors, just to break up the menu.

        She never read another Stine, although she did enjoy many a good writer of horror. A recent request was for Andrew Klavan’s The Uncanny, which I happily tossed to her.

      • Reality Observer

        Yep. I think I must have been somewhere between six and eight when I saw Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Maybe a bit older when I watched about the first ten minutes of some movie (cannot recall the name) where a woman chops up her unfaithful husband and his lover with an axe – then comes back years later after she’s released from the nuthouse (that’s as far as I got before turning it off).

        I had trouble with those images into my twenties. (And the wife cannot get me to watch Hitchcock at all, ever. I acknowledge his greatness – but cannot stand his work.)

        • I live in an area which will get very large congregations of crows, and have heard many a complaint about The Birds. I admire Hitchcock’s work, but can see that some of his movies are not appropriate to a mind in formation. I have also liked both Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson as well, but by the time I met them I wasn’t that young.

          Hitchcock told a story, I believe it was on the old Merv Griffin show, about making Physco. The studio special effects people had made him a torso to stand in for Janet Leigh, which could be stabbed and would spurt blood everywhere. He did not choose to use it. He believed that it was far more effective and would create more tension — in the end be more horrifying — to actually see less. Something that seems to be lost in today’s market, where they are all to inclined to go for the quick shock value than the slow build.

    • Yeah, the book that I never finished in high school was Beloved, by Toni Morrison. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but around the third or fourth chapter I was feeling like the book was a well of darkness I was sinking into, and I just couldn’t stand to read any more. It was a school assignment, so I went to my teacher and asked him to please be assigned a different book. He argued the “You should read books that make you uncomfortable and challenge your world view” line for a bit, but when I told him I just couldn’t stand to read any more, he relented and assigned me a different book — A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce. I think he wanted to find out if I was just trying to skive off a hard assignment, by giving me a harder one. But when I finished Portrait of the Artist and thanked him for giving me a book that I enjoyed reading, and turned in an analysis that showed I had (at least somewhat) understood it, he figured out that I had been genuine in my request.

      • I can’t read any Toni Morrison. Like you, I get to the third or fourth chapter and quit. And I have a (worryingly) high tolerance for darkness.

    • The Other Sean

      overused = time-honored and tested?

      • Respect cliches. Cliches are old and wise and powerful. Nothing gets to be a cliche without being used and used and used — and nothing gets used that much without having a lot going for it.

    • Reality Observer

      Mixed bag, there. Some are ones that keep on selling, for some reason. Some are ones that started with other genres (and are used by all, pretty much). And yet others – they are true to life, so why not expect them to be used in fiction? (Does #2 ring a bell, there?)

    • At least one of those tropes recently won a Nebula and another is current DoD policy.

  23. “Are there messages there? Yeah, pretty sure. Are they consonant with how I see the world? I’d hope so. Otherwise someone else wrote the book.”

    See, I’m not sure that an author always writes messages that are consistent with his own world view. I’ve found that often, truths the authors don’t intend sneak into things.

    My prime example of this is “Windhaven” by George RR Martin and Lisa Tuttle. I don’t know what Tuttle’s politics are, but I do know Martin’s are the very opposite of conservative. Yet “Windhaven” is arguably the most conservative book I’ve ever read, all about how changing one tradition to make the world a fairer place can potentially unravel the fabric of society. I suspect that the authors simply followed their idea to its conclusion and ended up revealing a truth that was more conservative than they realized.

    Another possible example would be “Animal Farm.” Orwell was a Trotsky-ite, and in many ways, “Animal Farm” reflects that: evil Napoleon drove the good Snowball away from the farm and hijacked the animals’ revolution. Yet buried within that fable are some hints that maybe Snowball wasn’t all that good either, and the revolution could never have delivered on its promise. Again, not something I think Orwell meant to push, but something that found its way into the story none the less.

    • Orwell was not a Trotskyist. Socialist, yes, Trotskyist, no.

    • I think that at some level, all themes in fiction must be able to acknowledge that there is no simple resolution to the big questions, and message fiction frequently goes wrong in not acknowledging this. What I see that resembles this ‘truths authors don’t intend sneaking in’ is that authors that are true to a theme will have to acknowledge the incomplete nature of their message.

      Take Terry Pratchett’s ‘Jingo’, which stands out for me as one of his mid-career books with the most (for him) ham-handed presentation of its themes (of opposition to war and racism), and he still doesn’t play the themes completely straight. A message fiction author would have played the story completely, almost boringly straight: racism is bad, and any time the story can use that as a message, it would have been hammered in. However, Pratchett doesn’t do that, at one point, the protagonist’s desire to not be racist is used against him, and we’re reminded that sometimes the foreigners really can be bad guys.

  24. I always thought it was more the mood _I_ was in at the time I read it rather than the mood the author was in at the time they wrote it. Maybe it’s more of a shared thing, huh?

  25. Stephen R Donaldson’s books did that for me back in the early 80s. It had been touted as “similar” to Tolkien, but in actuality was “anti-Tolkien” to me, and anti-fairy tale. It was violent and hopeless, and I tried to finish the 2nd book. The friend who recommended it was actively “existentialist” and thought it better than Tolkien, but I remember being insulted by it. My friend tried to make me feel like I was immature and unreasonable for disliking it, like I wasn’t cool enough or stable enough to handle it, but it was just plain creepy to me.

    • I suppose I’m in a distinct minority here in liking the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Perhaps it’s because I can appreciate a character who is at war with both his own dark side and the world around him. The win doesn’t come easily or without a lot of moaning and groaning, but I find some gold in all the muck. I will admit that a lot of readers don’t seem to see it.

      • You’re not alone. I devoured Donaldson’s work in high school and college and bought them new in hardback when I could. I haven’t read them lately since I’m pretty sure my tastes have changed enough that I wouldn’t like them anymore.

    • Catticus Finch

      My dad recommended The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant to me when I was in high school. I read as far as the rape scene and couldn’t go any further. I’m ok with having a character who is struggle against his demons, but rape was just too squick for me.

      I also remember thinking it was an odd book for a dad to recommend.

      • This. Me. Particularly since he raped and went on with life. Uh. No.

        • He tried to just go on with life, but he kept running into the consequences of that one act every time he turned around. The horrifying devastation in the lives of Lena and her family, and the ripple effects in everyone they touched, just kept compounding and coming back to him. That inescapable guilt was one of the demons he had to wrestle with.

      • Ditto, minus Dad recommending it to me. He likes to pretend he doesn’t like fantasy books.

      • ^ Yep. I got to the rape scene (all of, what, twenty pages into the first book) and said “NOPE.” Someone once tried to convince me it was just because he was so elated at not having leprosy any more that he just couldn’t help himself. My response was “If an individual’s overjoyed response to no longer having a terrible disease is to rape the first woman he comes across…then that person needs to die, not be the protagonist of an alleged ‘heroic’ fantasy novel.”

        Especially since there was, apparently, zero remorse or fallout from it. Nope, nope, nope.

        • Okay, I stand corrected: from what Confutus said above, there *was* fallout. Thing is, though…I just cannot root for any kind of character for whom ‘rape’ is ever an appropriate response to *anything*. I don’t mind my heroes not being perfect, in screwing up…but really, that one put it beyond the pale for me.

          • Covenant had convinced himself that the magical difference of the Land from his own grim reality meant that he was in a dream. If nothing he did or said had any real consequences, he could let his desires run wild. But nope, not in this dream you don’t. HUGE mistake.

            • Still not an excuse for rape. (This being on the author for thinking it would fly.) It is what one does when one believes no one is watching, or where there may not be consequences, that defines a person’s character. And for a protagonist to show his character to be so vile and below reproach as to think that it was just fine to rape because it was ‘only a dream’ leaves me, the reader, going “Nothing you do will ever make me sympathize with you.”

              I’m sure that the author was trying to get ’round to that idea–that what you do in the dark defines you, and paying the piper for being something vile in the dark–but…I dunno. I’m all for a good redemption story, but that just lost me so *very* early and quickly that whether or not it turned into just such a story meant nothing in the end–I wasn’t going to read it far enough to find out.

              Which is why rape-as-plot-device is such an incredibly tricky beast. I am having a really hard time thinking of an example I’ve read where it actually *worked* (and then *never* where it was a nominal hero/protagonist committing the actual violation) and didn’t come off feeling like a cheap shock-jock gimmick and left me just cold and disgusted and taking my valuable time and entertainment dollars elsewhere. (The closest thing to an exception I can think of is Sergeant Bothari, from the Vorkosigan books. But a.) he wasn’t the protagonist, and b.) while he *was* sympathetic as a character, sort of, no attempt was ever made to excuse the vile acts he had done–under orders, true, but still–in the past as anything other than monstrous and horrible.) Murder-as-plot-device (when done by the protagonist or other hero-character) is not quite as tricky. Perhaps it’s because rape, in so many ways, is almost more a violation than murder? Or perhaps because even very moral people can, under the right circumstances and for the right reasons, kill another person with very little remorse. You can kill–even murder–in defense of yourself or others. The same really cannot ever be said of something like rape, so I suppose therein lies the difference. It’s also why I have zero use for Game of Thrones. I don’t care about the excuse that “well, it’s realistic for this kind of society/setting, women would naturally be brutalized.” So? Is that any reason to glorify it? To be blase about it? To use it for titillation? To my mind, that is doing nothing more than propagating those very attitudes. (Which is one of things I find so deeply hypocritical about those SJWs who just ‘adore’ GRRM and his works, and yet turn around and accuse thoroughly non-misogynistic folks like Larry or our esteemed hostess of sexism, promoting rape culture, and misogyny.)

              So, yeah. And correspondingly, that brief foray into the Thomas Covenant books also meant that I never picked up anything else by Stephen Donaldson ever again. That oil-slick nastiness was always there, reminding me that if he thought it was a good plot device once, there was no reason not to expect it elsewhere.

              And, of course, as with so many other things, tastes and ‘lines’ (as in the ‘do not cross’ variety) vary. I don’t think someone who enjoyed the Covenant books is a horrible person, nor do I think someone who is a fan of GoT is a horrible person (I love my dad, for instance, even though I cannot fathom why he is a fan of those books/series.) I might question their taste, but taste is, after all, subjective. 😀

              • I think Donaldson was trying to do several of things and did them poorly with the rape scene.

                1. Demonstrate the Donaldson thought the Land was a hallucination.
                2. Convey the overwhelming sensations coming back to Covenant in a burst due to his dead nerves regenerating.*
                3. Convey how the enforced social isolation on Covenant was leading him to become the monster everyone in the town he lived near feared.

                #3 especially is a huge focus of the first chapter where Covenant thinks he should yell, “Unclean” as people approach him as he goes to town to pay a bill which is being paid by someone else so he won’t have to come into town.

                As you say, “Which is why rape-as-plot-device is such an incredibly tricky beast,” so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it fails for a lot of people. That said, I don’t think it was quite the same as modern, rape for shock’s sake or even rape for rape’s sake, that a lot of other books, especially more modern ones, are doing. #2 is especially a hard one to convey and of the three is the one I understand using the rape as a vehicle to convey (especially in 2016 where a “sexual emergency” justifies the rape of an 11 year old boy in Europe in the mind of the rapist).

                * I’m not surprised he showed sex as it is very hard psychologically on men where the nerves don’t function in that region and thus it doesn’t work.

              • In this particular case, I find no reason to argue that Covenant’s rape of Lena was anything other than a serious violation and betrayal, not only of her innocent trust and friendship, but his own moral principles; and in my opinion the author always treats it as such. It’s a struggle to account for how an otherwise decent and principled man could do such a thing. Explanation is not excuse. I did find it a good redemption story and I will defend it on those grounds. I will admit that it’s not for everyone.
                (GRRM’s rapists, however, are monsters of an entirely different order.)

                • I guess I find it hard to accept than anyone can claim ‘moral and principled otherwise’ and yet commit rape. That’s…well, for me that’s a pretty big moral event horizon, and one does not accidentally rape in the heat of the moment.

                  Possibly it’s the misinterpretation as ‘rape’ being a sexual act when it is an act of domination and violence and has very little to do with sexual desire (at least, that’s what I, personally, consider rape)? I could see the author making that mistake (many people do). For me, however, rape and sex are a planet apart, and so I cannot think of any situation in which a moral, ethical being would ever commit rape. Because to me, it isn’t an act related to actual sex.

                  (Which is why I get deeply irked also with those who are trying to change ‘drunken, inadvisable sex’ into ‘rape.’ Because stupidity while drunk *does*, in my view, fall under the heading of ‘sex’ and not ‘violent domination.’ So there’s that.)

                  But I will agree with you–though I still can’t bring myself to read the books–that the author totally meant it to be a journey of redemption. I just found his jumping-off point to be beyond my ability to want to read about. 😀

              • In two words, Sarah – THANK YOU (for verbalizing my thoughts on Donaldson and Martin.) Unless you’re willing to write a book on the holistic effects of rape in a story, its a nasty plot point that can be avoided most of the time.

          • Wayne Blackburn

            Okay, I stand corrected: from what Confutus said above, there *was* fallout.

            it didn’t just amount to “fallout”. He was tormented by it for the rest of his life. Not trying to convince you to go back to it, but more to simply indicate that it was sort of a deliberate plot device used to goad the character into doing immense things later as some sort of minor restitution for what he had done.

  26. starfleet dude

    There’s good, bad, and evil and then there’s Philip K. Dick, who stood all that on end in novels like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, Ubik, and A Scanner Darkly by making the reader uncertain about what was and wasn’t “real” and if it even made a difference. Dick shakes the reader out of their omniscience in ways that still haven’t been duplicated, much like no one has ever been able to do what Jimi Hendrix did on the guitar.

  27. Christopher M. Chupik

    Stephen Baxter is mine. All through the ’90s he was hyped to the gills, but his books kept ending on incredibly depressing notes, often with the human race becoming extinct. Joy.

    • Same here. Very pessimistic….

    • Baxter can write well, but he always writes the same story: “It’s all a waste of time, and then you’re all going to die.”

      Yeah, I went through that phase as a teenager too, but that was enough to last me for a lifetime.

  28. “Miasma of evil”, and “needing to scrub after reading” – that describes an experience with a book I’ve read recently. I remembered liking one of the author’s other books, and so I bought it on a whim.

    The first chapter was interesting, if twisted and dark. The second chapter … uhh . By the third, I had deleted it off my kindle. There is some pretty strange stuff on my kindle, but miasma-of-evil level stuff gets deleted.

    Hugh Howey’s stuff was dark (perhaps the last thing I remember reading that was literally nightmare inducing), but Hugh Howey’s stuff wasn’t evil. It wasn’t a sucking moral vacuum devoid of honor, humanity, or any notion of a better things.

    “This is how the world is, and you’re supposed to be okay with it.” “It’s naive to expect otherwise.” “This is how humanity really is, don’t kid yourself.” “This is all that you can really hope for.”

    I don’t know why, but some books read like an attack on the soul. Just like some other art, or architecture (the panopticon prison, for example).

    • PS – Ayn Rand once wrote something like “Art is man’s metaphysical mirror. What a rational man seeks to see in that mirror is a salute. What an irrational man seeks to see is a justification…” (Or an excuse.)

      • Aristotle, I believe, observed that we like characters to be as good as we are, or a bit better. Compromising more than moral goodness, but definitely including that.

    • PPS – your mileage may vary. I may be being oversensitive. Several friends of mine loved the movie, but I had a reaction like this to the movie Fury.

    • They are an attack on the soul. The soul yearns for the light. Saying that there is no light (goodness) is torture and warps the soul.

    • Feather Blade

      Hugh Howey’s stuff was dark (perhaps the last thing I remember reading that was literally nightmare inducing), but Hugh Howey’s stuff wasn’t evil.

      I, Zombie by any chance?

      That one was… a good book that I never want to read again.

    • Free-range Oyster

      “This is how the world is, and you’re supposed to be okay with it.” “It’s naive to expect otherwise.” “This is how humanity really is, don’t kid yourself.” “This is all that you can really hope for.”

      I’ve heard those statements before many times, almost word for word, coming from inside my own head. Those are the constant, soul-crushing drone of depression, the hateful digs of the black dog. [snarl]And they’re lies, every one of them.[/snarl] I’ve personally been having a knock-down-drag-out fight to the death with the dog the last two days, and I’ve had to metaphorically kick him in the face when he starts spouting that bullsh*t. Those lies steal joy, snuff delight, shatter peace, and leave in their place a dull, lifeless misery relieved only by occasional spasms of agony, and they try to convince you that anything else is delusion and folly. And there are fools so benighted and lost that they claim that believing those lies makes them sophisticated realists. Idiots.

      *deep breath* But we don’t have to believe those lies. Because they are lies, and if you can get your head up enough to look around, you can see it. Lately I’ve discovered a very effective opening salvo in beating back the black dog: stupid jokes. I’m prone to them anyway, might as well make them useful, right? When I’ve been crushed down, or raging at the world, or huddled in my office trying not to splash my misery on anyone, I’ll crack some dumb pun, or make some humorously obnoxious remark. It makes me feel a little better, sure, but more importantly, it’s like… like a bat’s call. I send it out into the world, and what reflects back shows me the real shape of the world. My son laughs and gives me a hug. My wife smiles and rolls her eyes at me. Everyone relaxes a little. Sometimes it sets off a barrage of bad jokes from the family at large. Then I can look around and go “Oh yeah, this is what my life actually looks like!”

      I know there are parallels in storytelling and media and the state of the culture, but I’ve spilled my brain on the page more than enough for now, ‘Specially on a blog that ain’t mine. Deny those lies, my friends. Ignore them. Mock them. Create joy and peace and prove the black dog a liar. Be not afraid, but be of good cheer.

      • I think you’ve nailed what I find so troubling about the whole “magical realism” – “realistic fantasy” trope that seems to have taken over a lot of books these days. My response is a bit lame but its the only way I can think of to express my own battle against the black dog: “if I want realism, I’ll go talk to my best friend who happens to be a crime scene tech. The things that she and the police officers can tell you about how nasty and horrible REAL LIVE people can be to each other far exceeds anything G Martin comes up with! You want realism? Pick up a history book!”

        • Fiction needs to make sense. IRL some kids do murder a mother with a hatchet and nearly the daughter just because they wanted to know what it was like to kill someone. Putting darkness in the story is one thing. Letting it consume it is another.

  29. Oh dear, I felt the pin prick, but I shall let it go.

    No, there are books which, on the recommendation of people I trust, I do not attempt to read. If you had my reading speed you would soon discover that there are far more worthy books than you will ever be able to read in multiple lifetimes, no less the only one you get. This is one of the ways that I sort through the dilemma of a profoundly slow reading speed that the fates have dealt me.

  30. Silence of the Lambs and its sequel Hannibal gave me that icky feeling. My morbid curiosity sometimes gets the better of me when it comes to reading. There are movie summaries that have given me the creeps.

    • There are synopsis on wikipedia which have about made me want to throw up, and which I wish that I had never read.
      Let alone seeing the movie.
      When I was about ten years old, and at a friends’ house for a sleepover, we watched the old Thirties version of The Fall of the House of Usher.
      Guaranteed me so many nightmares, that I never knowingly watched a horror movie after that.

      • Yeah, I have learned to stay away from Wiki when it comes to horror, in stories or real life. Also when people say “don’t google that” you really shouldn’t google that.

    • Hannibal was pot-boiler garbage. I felt ripped off and defiled after reading it. Never again.

  31. I’ve gotta confess, the smell of Doritos (especially the Cool Ranch variety) has that effect on me. I’ve carried home triple garlic pizzas without having to open the car windows, but the Daughter was only allowed CRDs with the windows open.

    • You are not alone. The smell of Doritos–and *especially* the CRD–makes me utterly ill. There are people who think Doritos tacos are the greatest invention ever. I am not one of those people.

  32. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Comment on the “Never-Ending Game Of Thrones”.

    What really p*ssed me off about that series is that the Opening Prologue gives the message that the series was one of these “Ancient Enemies Are Awakening To Threaten Mankind” series.

    Instead, GRRM has given us the “War Of The Roses With The Nastiness Set On Very Very High” and of course the Ancient Enemies are still behind the Wall.

    I suspect that by the time that the Ancient Enemies break through the Wall, everybody will have killed themselves. [Very Very Big Frown]

  33. Or demonstrated themselves to be too stupid and corrupt to be worth saving.

  34. Usually, when asked what a book I’m writing is “saying” I say “I have no idea.”

    Tell people your books are saying “buy me because Sarah has cats to feed.”

    🙂

  35. Christopher M. Chupik

    It can be strange what you can tolerate. The Parker novels have an amoral thief as their protagonist, but I love those.

    • The Parker novels?? There is a series of novels featuring Beth Riesgraf’s Leverage character?

      😉 Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder is not exactly a exemplar of moral rectitude but he is hilarious.

    • Yes, but the key point of Parker, which you also see in Block’s Hitman books, is the idea of a code of honor. Parker may be amoral but weirdly has lines he won’t cross and punishes those who do. You can see his as a toned down Dexter or, in another view, the far end of the spectrum that begins with the typical hard boiled PI or Malcolm Reynolds.

  36. Kiwi was actually a horror story. But I don’t know if any of the dozen or so people who read it caught on to just how early things started going bad for Alex.

  37. Oily evil…kind of the vibe I got from Ellroy. Too much reveling in the depravity. Now I don’t even bother.

  38. Mrs. Hoyt, what was the book where people get killed with a hat pin?

  39. Two different examples of books I could not finish, one for writing reasons and one for head-banging reasons.

    The first book I ever stopped reading was The Grapes of Wrath. I liked the writing but it was the first time I can remember actively hating each and every character in a novel. It was the assigned novel for an entire month in English class and no matter how much I tried to force myself I simply couldn’t get past the fourth chapter. Still did really well on the tests though by following one thought; ‘What is the most depressing thing that could happen to these characters?’ and picking that as the correct answer. Which it almost always was. It was also probably the first time I knew for an absolute fact that a book had been specifically chosen to push a political ideology on students and I resented the attempted indoctrination.

    Second book was by Dennis L McKeirnan, and that one I actively threw against a wall. It wasn’t evil, nothing character driven, it was purely on the basis of words chosen. It was if the writer had been told they couldn’t rely on the standard words and had to go to the thesaurus to find badly fitting synonyms (a pet peeve of mine, synonyms are similar words that may at times be used interchangeably with your original word, but at other times based on context means something different from the original word. Some writers seem to think it’s a simple find and replace). That’s also when I realized that I didn’t exactly read words, I read books by knowing what the next word is going to be and confirming it with a glance. The odd word usage threw me and it was like I was a new reader struggling to sound out the words and never quite falling into the story.

    As to horror books; I don’t understand them. They don’t frighten me, don’t fill me with dread, it’s as if I’m reading a fantasy novel with different imagery and less appealing main characters (horror doesn’t seem to like, respect, or require heroes and I do). But I’m glad the books and the genre exist for those that get it. All things for all people.

    • It was if the writer had been told they couldn’t rely on the standard words and had to go to the thesaurus to find badly fitting synonyms (a pet peeve of mine, synonyms are similar words that may at times be used interchangeably with your original word, but at other times based on context means something different from the original word. Some writers seem to think it’s a simple find and replace).

      One of the rich treasures of English, there– a favorite of mine. 😀

      I don’t speak any other language well enough to say, but I’ve been told that we use entirely different words for shades of meaning that other languages use the same word for; sort of like the classic “English only has one word for love” thing, but reversed.
      (Of course it’s not actually true– we’ve got an over-arching word for a high level of liking in its category, ‘Love,’ and then we’ve got a bunch of sub-words or phrases, and some of the supposed complication is just figures of speech. So there’s no really confusion between “I love pizza” and “I love dogs;” even my uncle who eats dog will draw a difference between “I love dog” and “I love dogs.”)

  40. Because in the things not fully under our control, in every word choice, in every little thing we highlight or ignore, we’re conveying a bit of that which is the author.

    Indeed. Not only is this inevitable, it’s a growth process that should be embraced in all its pain, terror, and glory.

    I didn’t quite get it when I first started writing. I won’t say I was consciously trying to conceal myself; it was more that I felt I had an obligation not to “pollute” the stories I was telling with bits of detritus from my own history and personality. It happened anyway, of course, and after a while I had to admit that I was the better for it — and not just as a writer.

    On reflection, I think this is part of the inherent power of fiction. It’s been said many times that the difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense. Like most aphorisms, that’s an oversimplification: real life does make sense; it’s just not superficially apparent. The process of creating a good story compels the writer to find the sense and bring it close enough to the surface for the reader to detect and savor it. In the process, the writer comes to understand more than he did at the outset — including more about himself.

    It would be going too far to say that this is why writers write. That might be the case for some of us. But I think it might help to explain why virtually every human being yearns, to some degree, to tell stories. The innate need to disclose oneself to others finds its outlets in ways we don’t always grasp consciously. God be praised for that.

  41. Christopher M. Chupik

    Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane stories/novels are a good example. Damn, are they bleak, but they’re excellent, some of the best Fantasy ever written. Probably don’t want to read a whole bunch in a row, though.

  42. The other thing is that authors sometimes are not good judges of their own work, and its power or proper functioning. Something may be really excellent in terms of certain kinds of craft without actually being good for the book or reader.

    Stephen Goldin got told and told that it was not a good idea to include a really detailed rape flashback at the very beginning of his Jade books, because it would put readers off, and because they are supposed to be adventure fun with an arc of character healing, not books about suffering and being oppressed. His mainstream editor had him rewrite the scene, but he put the original version back when he started to self-pub. And sure enough, it puts me off the series, even though I used to reread it fairly often and wish he would write more of it.

    • Arthur Conan Doyle thought that Holmes was perishable hackwork, and his hope of immortality lay in his medieval works.

    • Oh, Goldin. I read the Imperial Stars and quite liked it. His Tsar Wars, a debauched rewrite because the characters were too clean in Imperial Stars, got a quick delete.

  43. John Barnes’ Kaleidoscope Century stands out in my mind as requiring “scrubbing with steel wool”, and “Oh, my God, I’m still reading this?” One scene in particular. Anyone who’s read it will know what it is. I gave up on Stephen King after It. Pet Semetary was bad enough. I don’t need stuff like that in my mind, any more than I need dog excrement on my bare feet. S.M. Stirling’s Under the Yoke was quite disturbing to me the first time I read it, but not sure if that would fall under this category.