I don’t know how Dr. House managed to function at all when taking Vicodin. I’ve been taking a couple a day for the past week or so because one of my wisdom teeth has decided it wants to grow out sideways and smashing into the teeth already there like a god damn bulldozer.
I can see why House takes it all the time for his leg, this stuff just makes you forget the world. Unfortunately it also makes you incredibly tired, drowsy and lazy. So while I haven’t done much writing this past week, what I have been doing is reading. Reading a lot. More specifically I’ve been reading George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
It’s a damn good thing I’m reading a Clash of Kings while taking Vicodin, because each successive chapter is like being sucker punched right in the goddamn stomach. Martin just seems to take a sadistic glee in torturing all of his heroes while at the same time rewarding all the scumbags. I haven’t seen the HBO series yet, but I can already tell that they probably had to cut out and tone down some of the abuse that occurs in these books. HBO isn’t afraid to show tits and blood on their programs, but some of the horrific things described in this book would traumatize even me if it were depicted on film. And it’s not just the violent deaths that occur during the book that I’m talking about, in fact his descriptions of soldiers dying in combat are practically mild compared to some I’ve read who practically write out autopsy reports for their stories. The fighting isn’t the problem, because even when it’s a character we care about, at least they have a chance to defend themselves. It’s when the weak and the young suffer, incapable of defending themselves.
I highly recommend the books to those few people who haven’t already read it, its sold 15 million copies so I know there’s probably only two or three of you, but at the same time I would warn everybody that it’s not for the squeamish. Rape, murder, and torture, both physical and mental, not only happen in these books but often they happen to the youngest and the most vulnerable characters in the story. For the record, I’ve watched Saw and Hostel and all those other movies that claim to be “horrifying.” I didn’t really like them, but it’s not because of the torture I don’t like them. I didn’t like them because the torture didn’t really seem real, it was too gratuitous for one and second, the characters suffering were never really, well, characters. Watching the main character in Hostel, whose name or actor I can’t even remember, was just a walking crash dummy. I didn’t feel any sort of compassion or empathy toward him, I’ve felt more horror watching a five year old gleefully dissecting his sister’s barbie doll.
I’m getting into spoiler territory here, I’ll try and keep as vague as possible but be warned there are minor spoilers from A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings in the next three paragraphs. Skip down to the bold text if you want to just get on with my main point.
I was extremely surprised to find that almost all of the main characters in a Song of Ice and Fire were under the age of 16. I’d heard George RR Martin books were all historically accurate in their depiction of a Feudal Age society, and being a bit of history buff myself, I knew how brutal those days were. Surely having kids aged 7-14 would force good old George to tone down the violence, and personally I hate it when writers hold themselves back to keep things clean and civilized. And then the author throws a seven year old boy out a window, and any doubts I had were erased in that horrifying moment. Now, halfway through a Clash of Kings, I find myself wishing he would tone it down, if only so I could keep reading without constantly feeling my heart in my throat. One of the main characters is a girl named Sansa, a sweet 12-year old girl who has a romantic vision of how things should be, a world with noble princes and valiant knights. And then her father is beheaded in front of her eyes by the Prince she’s betrothed too, a cruel, sadistic little 13-year old monster named Joffrey. Oh, and if that’s not bad enough, Joffrey makes her look at her father’s disembodied head as its mounted on a spike on the walls of the castle. Yeah, this guy is a class act.
And then it gets worse, oh so much worse. Joffrey, too weak and stupid to do his own brutality, has his huge brute of a knight abuse Sansa in his stead. And we’re not talking about a hard slap across the face, though that alone would be awful. No, we’re talking a hard slap across the face with a hand that’s clad in chainmail, with vicious punches to the girl’s tiny body and swords being used like canes to ravage her legs and butt. This is on top of the mental torture the likes of which I haven’t read outside of George Orwell’s 1984. She develops a mix of Battered Child syndrome and Stockholm syndrome from the constant abuse, until she doesn’t even remember if she loves Joffrey or not. She becomes so terrified of angering this abusive little monster, and lies so frequently to protect herself, that she starts to believe she does love him, that she wants to marry him. The lies have become truth. It’s horrible to think of anyone being mentally broken down this way, but it’s made infinitely worse by the fact Sansa is a child.
Surely George RR Martin couldn’t get any more cruel I thought to myself, and then he threw Sansa’s 8-year old sister Arya to an even more vile pack of wolves. Arya is a tough girl, a girl who would much prefer to become a knight rather than a noble lady, so it was easier reading her trials during her escape from the city. And then the Mountain that Rides, a huge knight with an evil reputation, captures her along with dozens of other refugees displaced by the war. Here’s the beauty of this section, the author doesn’t once describe the torture that occurs, no specifics are mentioned. Her inner monologue, however, the cold traumatized detachment at what she’s seen and heard, were even more horrifying than the actual descriptions of Sansa’s torture. Maybe I’m just overly sensitive, but I swear I nearly threw up reading about the Tickler, and how he tortured women and children for hours before finally letting them die. Or about the poor peasant girl who was raped every night and finally beheaded after she deigned to defend herself with a rock. I have a vivid imagination, so the author’s choice to let my imagination fill in the blanks he intentionally left, made this scene unbearable.
Spoilers End Here
So why am I going on and on about this? Well because as a writer, I find myself having huge respect for George RR Martin’s courage to write this stuff. Earlier this year I talked about how regrets were holding back my writing, particularly in writing about a story set in Warsaw during the uprising of 1944, a story which also features two young characters. First the trouble was not wanting to have my characters experience the same troubles and trials I experienced in my life, mostly because I was embarrassed to look back on those days myself. Now the trouble is I’m afraid of describing anything too dark and violent. As much as I’ve written about embracing our darker emotions and not being afraid to explore the cruelties that exist in this world, I don’t walk the talk. It never occurred to me before reading A Song of Ice and Fire, but I am the very thing I hate, a writer holding himself back to keep things clean and civil.
Both problems I’ve had with my Warsaw story, stem from a single problem: the fear of being judged by what I’ve written. I don’t mean my writing ability being judged, obviously that’s okay, I’m talking about being judged as some kind of horrible leper by the content of my stories. Most writers I know, and I suspect all writers, have that one special person they let read their work before anyone else. Stephen King has his wife read his manuscripts before his editor, same with Terry Brooks and Hemingway. Being inexplicably single, my special person is my best friend Hali, who I talked about earlier this year. She gets to read everything I write before even my mother, though she’s second in line. I have a close circle of friends who I let read my stuff after that, some former teachers I still keep in touch with who give me some objective technical opinions (grammar, punctuation, voice etc). Brian, a librarian friend who I’ve known since I was five, reads some of the stuff I write.
On a subconscious level I’ve been self-censoring myself. Deep down on some level I know that some of closest friends and relatives will be reading what I’m writing, and I censor myself accordingly. The thing is I don’t need to be, my subconscious isn’t giving these people enough credit. Hali has read a Game of Thrones, my teachers have read A Clockwork Orange and Lolita, featuring rapist and pedophile main characters respectively, so that only leaves my mother to be disappointed.
It’s time to stop censoring myself, quit making my Warsaw characters desperate fight for survival in a war torn city look like a bad day at summer camp by robbing it of all danger and emotional turmoil. I need to stop carrying on in hypocritical complaints about stories that pull too many punches, when I’m guilty of the same goddamn thing. I need to remind myself that I’m not going to end up on an FBI watch list because I wrote about something awful happening to a child.
And finally, I need to thank George RR Martin for giving me some backbone and showing the rest of us writers that you can write it how it is without also becoming a social pariah. Well, at least not any more of a social pariah than we already are. We are writers after all.