The Sickness Within

by Alafair Burke

I’m dark.  My guess is we’re all a little dark at Murderati.  I teach, study, and write about crime.  All crime, all the time.  So, yeah, I’m a little dark.

But every once in a while, I read words that I placed on a page and think to myself, “Damn, that’s sort of sick.”

I remember sitting in my office a few years ago, knowing that I needed to finish the chapter I was working on before I could join my husband and his Army friend for Friday night festivities.  I don’t know whether it was the momentum of the scene or the promise of a cocktail, but I hammered out the words as quickly as I could type them.  Suddenly the bad guy was doing something I had no idea he was going to do.  And I was describing it.  (No spoilers here, but I’m referring to the big, explosive confrontation near the end of my fifth novel, Angel’s Tip.)

I walked into the living room and threw my hands in the air.  “Finished!  Let Friday night begin!”  As the husband shook my martini, his friend asked, “What were you writing?”

I summed up the scene in a single, bluntly worded sentence. 

My husband’s friend — did I mention they knew each other from the Army? — looked at my husband, then looked at me, and then said, “That’s the sickest thing I’ve ever heard.”  That’s right, y’all, I managed to freak out a West Point graduate who has spent the last twenty-one years in the military.  Hollah!

 I have no idea why this puppy doesn’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re,” but his obliviousness makes him all the more awesome.

Our friend asked where the idea had come from.  I truly had no clue.

That kind of “Wow, I’m sort of sick” moment has happened to me only once in writing seven and a half novels.  Interestingly, though, I’m two for two on short stories.

In 2008, I wrote a short story called Winning (available here), about a husband’s reaction to the rape of his police officer wife.  My own editor said, “I had no idea you were so dark.”

[An aside: The title “Winning” alludes to gendered responses to violence, where men think “winning” means beating down an opponent, and women think “winning” is survival.  Please note that I wrote and titled the aforementioned story prior to this man’s conversion of the word to mean its exact opposite:

End of aside.]

Earlier this month, I turned in a short story for an upcoming Mystery Writers of America anthology edited by Lee Child.  The book is called “Dark Justice” and features tales of vigilantism.  The story took me only a few days to write, but I find myself still thinking about it, wondering how in the world I came up with some of the story’s images. 

I wonder not only where the sickness comes from, but also why I seem more able to explore it in short fiction.  Maybe living a full year with those kinds of thoughts would simply be too much to handle.  Or maybe at a subconscious level I worry about my audience, realizing that very few readers want an entire novel filled with that kind of darkness.  A short story is a low-risk, short-term way to purge some of the crazier voices that are pulling at the corners of my mind.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.  What’s the sickest thing you’ve ever read?  How sick is too sick?  Are you ever surprised, as either a reader or a writer, by the darkness of the books that you enjoy or write? And what is it about a short story that seems to draw out the sickness within?

P.S. A little bit of BSP this morning.  One of my favorite writers, Michael Connelly, was kind enough to write a substantive review of my upcoming book, LONG GONE, for Amazon.  Because he’s cool, the review’s cool, with Frank Sinatra references and comparisons to watchmaking.  You can read the review (and learn more about LONG GONE) here.


23 thoughts on “The Sickness Within

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    I must have blocked everything from my memory. But I would say anything that involved eyeballs. Eww. Just makes me squirm.

  2. Vicky

    Any story that involves torture of children is too sick for me. Any hint of it in the blurb and it stays on the shelf. I also have trouble with animals suffering. The descriptions in "The Horse Whisperer" made me ill.

  3. Kathy Collings

    I still remember the shudder that reading Moon Music by
    Faye Kellerman sent through me. I wondered the same thing you write about today. Where the heck did she get this from? Who is she that she can write this?

  4. JD Rhoades

    Sickest thing I've ever read isn't from a mystery at all, but from Robin Moore's THE GREEN BERETS. There's a scene where a Special Forces detachment comes into a village where the headman and his family have been tied to stakes and tortured to death by the VC for collaborating. It's pretty brutal.

    How sick is too sick? Never gotten there. I'll let you know.

  5. Alafair Burke

    "Too sick," for me, is prurient but of course that's a circular definition. I have a real problem with gruesome descriptions of any kind of suffering, especially kids and animals, as Vicky notes. Perhaps because I was a prosecutor and saw the real thing, I try to write about violence responsibly.

    The kind of sick I found in my short stories wasn't gruesomeness but darkness: Distraught people doing desperate things for reasons they believed were right.

  6. Alafair Burke

    JD, I think every book and movie set in Vietnam has at least one scene I can't take.

    PK and Kathy, Chelsea Cain describes the removal of a conscious man's spleen, as I recall. I found myself holding my torso protectively as I read it.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I won't name names but I was really shocked at a book I picked up recently by an author I'd just met who seemed like a good guy – it was one rape scene, torture scene, rape and torture scene, enslavement scene, and various combinations of the above after another. I didn't keep reading but I really wonder how people justify themselves. Just the little I read made me feel sick and depressed.

  8. Tammy Cravit

    As a writer, this is something I really struggle with – that balance between "sick enough to fully convey the horror of what's going on" and prurience that doesn't move the story, or the characters, forward. It's a tough balance, I think, and I've a number of stories on my hard drive that'll never see daylight in their current form because I don't feel I've struck that balance.

    As a reader, I haven't found the point where I say something's too much and stop reading yet. Two years working as a paralegal for a lawyer who represents abused foster kids, and seven years as a rape crisis advocate before that, made sure of that. Not even the most graphic novel violence I've ever read can top the crime scene and autopsy photos my work has brought me. To the commenters who spoke about torture of children as their "too sick" threshold, I can only say, "count your blessings that you don't know what goes on out in the real world."

    The closest I've come to squigged out from a mystery was probably the torture method in Allison's book, "Sudden Death", but that stems more from my personal distaste for needles than anything else.

    And, Alafair, for the record, I *loved* "Winning".

  9. Louise Ure

    "A short story is a low-risk, short-term way to purge some of the crazier voices that are pulling at the corners of my mind."

    This makes such perfect sense to me, Alafair. Glad you're giving yourself free rein to experiment.

  10. Richard Maguire

    A very interesting post, Alafair, and something, as a reader, I've been thinking about lately. Because it would seem that authors of serial-killer stories are trying to outdo each other when it comes to creating the worst possible antagonist.

    As a lawyer (not in the U.S.) I've defended criminals, so I've seen the depths to which humans can descend. But when it comes to reading the cold, brutal details of butchery, in a novel, I give up. In one book recently that I left unfinished, parents and children were slaughtered, and the details of their final moments were described at length. No thanks.

    I realise that's not what your post is really about. It's darkness. Which is far more interesting to read.

  11. Sylvia

    What a great topic!

    What's the sickest thing you've ever read?
    Anything having to do with the sexual assault of a child. I know it happens, I just don't want the details as it makes me physically queasy.

    The one that still sticks in me (pardon the pun) was Louise's first draft of Forcing AMaryllis that started with a women being raped and having a knife stuck up her vagina. To this day, that still makes me squirm.

    How sick is too sick?
    Graphic and goes on for pages. It's one thing to say "the rape lasted for hours with x tools, etc." It's another thing to go into the details for pages and pages, especially when it involves a child. For that I just want to think the writer who is great can convey this in a shorter point that makes you queasy without full-blown "I couldn't figure out how to make this powerful and concise so I'm just going to ramble to show you I know how to use adjectives". That just makes me think you are a sick f*ck and a poor writer. The best books make me feel uncomfortable and make it stick without torturing ME through 2 pages that you could have done in 2 paragraphs.

    Are you ever surprised, as either a reader or a writer, by the darkness of the books that you enjoy or write?
    Yes and no.

    And what is it about a short story that seems to draw out the sickness within?
    Perhaps the intensity of having to be concise. Short and powerful.

  12. Rae

    Interesting questions. I actually sat and thought about it for a minute (because Monday is being a suckfest and I needed the distraction 😉 and the answer to "what's too sick?" is…I don't know. I've read some really perverse stuff that didn't bother me at all, and some that wasn't so bad that left me cringing. Which leads me to think that it's all about the context in which the sickness takes place, and the quality of the writing.

    Sickest thing I can easily recall reading is something really dreadful that happened to a cat in a book I otherwise liked a lot. And Alex, I read a book similar to the one you're describing where there was a lot of torture and rape that I thought was unnecessary and sort of pornographic. The story would have been just as compelling, if not more so, had we readers been allowed to use our imaginations.

  13. Murderati fan

    The Dark and the Sick
    Sylvia – loved your Ure comment. Isn't it interesting that some of the nicest people can write some of the "squirm in your seat" as you read it passages. I was writing something and I wanted to put in a disclaimer like I really don't know where this came from, but I'm really a nice person with a great sense of humor who would never do anything like I've just written.

    We're not actors on the stage' we're actors on the page.

    And, Alafair, speaking of dark – what's with leaving us in ignorance on how Duffer is doing?

  14. Allison Brennan

    First, congrats on the fabulous review! And I want to read WINNING now, because I love gender reaction differences.

    On darkness — I don't like gory, but I like dark. My favorite story lines are when good people do bad things for the right reasons. Motive means something–killing an intruder who is about to rape your wife vs killing someone for the fun of it.

    I try to avoid over-the-top descriptions of violence, but I don't shy away from crime scenes or the psychological impact of a crime on the victims and survivors. I don't describe a child's murder, for example, but I will go into the head of the mother or cop or sister of the victim and find out how they feel and how the tragedy changed them.

    I declined to endorse a book that was extremely well-written because it described the murder of a child. It's my one taboo. AFTER the fact (i.e. the investigation) I'm fine with, but I can't "witness" the crime. I had to stop reading.

    I think I like to write about dark subjects because there's so much wrong with the criminal justice system. A running theme in many of my books is the light sentences imposed on sex offenders.

    But, I also freak out some people. One reader emailed me and said I should be in a mental institution simply because I could think up such vile sickness (it was a book about teen thrill killers with a secondary theme of self-mutilation i.e. cutting — hardly something *I* thought up all on my own.) And after a friend of my husband's read THE HUNT (not a book for you, Alex), he asked my husband if he was worried about me because I wrote such dark and scary books. My husband laughed, but when he realized his friend was serious, he leaned forward and said, "Now that you mention it, I AM a little worried — she castrated a victim in her new book."

    Oh, and the only readers (who emailed me) who had a problem with my villain cutting off the victim's penis were men. For the record, the victim had raped his stepdaughter on multiple occasions, so I didn't particularly feel too bad about it.

  15. Allison Brennan

    P.S. for Tammy: Sorry about the needles!

    I think everyone has one "don't go there" factor, and as writers, we explore places we don't want to go. I have one storyline I'm scared to death to write because it's about a mother facing an impossible choice. Someday, I'll do it. I'm not brave enough now.

  16. Alafair Burke

    Sorry I've been slow today. Hate to gloat, but I'm on a beach in Anguilla, my last day of a short vacation. I know – sick!

    My first novel, Judgment Calls, involved the rape of a teenage prostitute. The violence took place off the page, before the book even starts, but I do know that some readers just never wanted to give me another try after that. I did my best to keep the description of the actual crime sterile, as they'd read in a police report, but still….

    Duffer has been given the all-clear by his neurologist and won't need surgery. He's still on crate rest, but hopefully will begin taking short walks this weekend once I talk to the neurologist. It's a little sad that he'll need to be more careful now – no jumping anymore, for example – but it could have been much worse. Love that little dude! (Thanks for asking about him)

  17. BJ Wanlund

    I was reading a friend's WIP and there was a pretty graphic abuse scene of a child elf-like creature, but there is some method to the madness. I understand where it came from for my friend as well, who had been bullied as a child and felt the exact same way as the main character. She told me herself that it was really painful for her to write that,

    What makes me shudder? Not much, because I tend to steer clear of books I know I won't like, such as Old Yeller, Where The Red Fern Grows, and any horror books. Dark is okay, but horror is a no-go for me.


  18. Dudley Forster

    I’m not sure posting a response to this subject is, a after a three month depressive episode (that’s where I have been in case anyone wondered), a good thing or not – but the damn black dog is back in his corner for now. So here goes –

    Too dark for me is centered in relationships. Sick, twisted relationships can get to me, especially if the relationship involves a protag. After reading Chelsea Cain’s HEARTSICK I couldn’t bring myself to read anymore in the series. It is not the graphic violence, which is very gruesome, nor that Gretchen Lowell is the scariest serial killer I have encountered, including Hannibal Lector, it’s the sick relationship between Lowell and Archie Sheridan that really turned my stomach.

    Now for a much happier note and some BDP or PPM (Blatant Daughter Promotion or Proud Papa Moment) My daughter, Miriam, has signed with Jennifer Laughran of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Ms. Laughran fell in love with Miriam’s book, THE HOUSE OF A THOUSAND DOLLS (that’s the current title) If you want to read how she got an agent, the story is on her blog

  19. KDJames

    Welcome back, Dudley. I'm sorry you've been in a dark place. I've certainly missed your voice over here. And huge congrats to your daughter!

    Alafair, I laughed when I read the first paragraph of this post. I haven't met you and your books are still in my TBR pile, but your posts over here are always so upbeat and cheerful and full of energy. I'm having a really tough time thinking of you as "dark" in any way whatsoever. I'll have to take your word for it. For now. And congrats on the terrific reviews for LONG GONE, Connelly's included. Impressive.

    I agree with others who said that what is "too much" is influenced by who we are and what we've experienced. I won't read graphic descriptions of cruelty to kids or animals, for instance. But some of the worst stuff I've read is more along the lines of psychological terror/torture. I simply cannot read horror stories.

    I think it depends a lot on how skillfully a writer handles it. I suspect you handle it very well.

  20. Dudley Forster

    KD – Thanks.

    Very few topics bother me enough to stop me from reading a book. However, Nevada Barr’s latest Anna Pigeon novel, BURN had me fast forwarding (audio book) in a number of places. BURN is a departure from other books in the series and delves deeply into the world of pedophilia. She handles the topic well, but goes too far in certain details, causing nausea in the reader. From the comments, it is clear she offended a number of long time readers.

  21. lil Gluckstern

    It's interesting that a few of you thought of Chelsea Cain. I was transfixed but in the end very upset. Dudley is right (welcome back; I know that dog myself), I found Chelsea Cain's writing to be too difficult to read. I, too was disgusted, and annoyed at the sado-masochistic quality of the relationship. I've downloaded "Winning," and I will read it tonight. I'm glad that Duffer's recovery is moving along.

  22. Perry Wilson

    Awesome (perhaps puppy thought awesome was something you could own)
    I write dark too and often find myself grossed out. But for me it comes the way it did for you. I type and it just comes out. I like to think that everyone has this dark side. Some act on it (yuk) some suppress it (not good) and some put it on the page (awesome).

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