A Thrown Fist Always Hurts The Hand

Some really nasty business went down in Boston yesterday, as I’m sure we all know. It’s tough stuff, and as I said yesterday on Twitter, it becomes easy to fall into the trap of cynicism and suspicion, fear and finger-pointing, but for me it’s about trying to pull away from those baser instincts and look to the people doing so much good immediately after the shit hits the fan. (That proven Mister Rogers quote about “looking for the helpers” is one I’ll share with my son when he’s old enough to parse this sort of thing.

Yesterday I said a related thing, which was, “The evil of a handful of fuckos cannot be allowed to outweigh the love the lion’s share of us can and do feel for one another.” Patton Oswalt said a similar thing (I’d link but I’m writing this from my iPad in a hotel room in Florida): “So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerence of fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good will always outnumber you, aand we always will.’”

I ruminated a little too on the images of violence that spring up after this sort of thing — on the one hand, I think seeing the realities of war and violence is useful if only so it turns us away from any potential bloodthirst we may have. On the other hand, I don’t know that it works that way, particularly when images that trend toward gore porn end up in front of us without warning — stuff like that can trigger some deep emotional responses in people, including depression or PTSD

Someone then responded on Twitter with an interesting question of whether or not I feel bad about the violence in my fiction, and my thought then and now was, well, that’s a bit different, isn’t it? Violence in fiction is, first of all, fiction. But it’s generally expected — we read a crime novel or a horror novel, that violence is usually part and parcel. And in the realm of fiction, violence can be framed by context and informed by consequence.

Or, more to the point, it should be. And that, I think, is what I want to say, here — in fiction, violence even in silly pulp material is best when it has some sense of consequence behind it. It isn’t just candy-floss or cartoon fun — a fist thrown always hurts the hand. Things happen as a result to violence. Sometimes good things. But something always bad, too. Even in the Dinocalypse series I try to inform the pulp action with a sense of cause-and-effect; the pulp heroes aren’t violent because they like it, they’re driven to it because that’s sometimes how you stop the bad guy. But even still there exists a kind of lightly erosive, corrrosive component to it — like I said, even if that is just so simple as a hand that hurts after throwing a punch.

Anyway, random thoughts here — apologies for the slap-dash nature of it, but such is the way of hammering together a post while on a trip. I’ll be back home later today (well, much, much later today), so, see you on the other side.

EDITED TO ADD:  If you want to do something for Boston, beware scam charities or “RT this and we’ll donate” nonsense. Best option right now is to donate to the Red Cross or donate blood — though I don’t suspect that the blood will go to Boston.


  • It is difficult to watch this kind of ruin in humanity, and we tend to cheer ourselves on, but that does nothing for those directly impacted. Pessoa said something like, if I were brought fully conscious, I could not bear this life.

  • I actually think horror writers, and dark fiction writers, or whatever label you choose, have the finest hearts around by fully grasping the glory and the tragedy of the human predicament. (just wrote on it here: http://markmatthewsauthor.blogspot.com/p/the-oldest-and-strongest-emotion-of.html, along with a story of how, to me and many other runners, Boston Marathon is holy, sacred ground. There is no hyperbole that can overstate the visceral and spirtual power of a marathon finish. This power will endure, but in the same way 9/11 changed air travel, this event will forever change the finish line of a marathon.

  • Thanks for this, Chuck.

    And Just to append a thought to suggesting people donate blood, Boston has enough supply to treat the wounded of this incident, but everyone’s local area has trauma and somewhere, someone needs blood. It may not go in the veins of a victim of the bombing, but if this inspires you to give a part of yourself to care for someone injured, that kind of goodwill is always valuable and appreciated.

  • The motivation behind acts of violence on innocent people is sick, evil and illogical. It is awful. The attacks in Boston will change the lives of all Americans forever, especially those who were there. As we try to recover, hopefully beyond the ugliness, we are able to recognize and hold on to some good things. To name a few:
    Bravery of first responders
    Selflessness of bystanders that jumped into help
    A more intelligent, effective homeland security
    A more united, patriotic country
    New friendships that come through by surviving a tragedy together (My husband was very close to the towers on 9/11. The man he was with throughout that day is now a close friend. Our families share a special bond.)

    As I watched the coverage on Morning Joe, I contemplated how we carry on with one step in front of the other. Well, in honor of the elite Boston marathoners, those steps will be fast and many. I’m not going to walk through my work. I’m going to run.

  • “I think seeing the realities of war and violence is useful if only so it turns us away from any potential bloodthirst we may have. On the other hand, I don’t know that it works that way, particularly when images that trend toward gore porn end up in front of us without warning” I agree with you on this. I’ll also add that I think it loses its impact when those images are repeated again and again and again. I found myself watching the NBC special last night, and within the first five minutes they showed the explosion at the finish line video at least three times, then repeated it at odd times throughout the broadcast. It becomes numbing, and loses its purpose.

    And yeah, blood given in New York or Tallahassee or Anchorage won’t make it to Boston, but blood is something that’s pretty much always needed wherever you are, or *could* be needed at any time.

  • Well put everyone. Like Chuck says, ‘a handful of fuckos’ indeed. Mark, I agree. This will change the finish line of every large, international marathon for a very long time. I find myself wondering whether people will put out of the London Marathon this week. I hope not. Other the other hand, I would not blame them.

    • I didn’t realize that is next week. It’s one of the World’s Majors. I suspect it will go in, with a whole different somber yet triumphant tone. I’m set to run New York in the fall after last years Hurricane cancellation. And just to add to my point of writers having the finest hearts around, especially many dark fiction writers, it is blogs like this and similar writers who offer words of insight and fortitude. The gore and torture porn writers (hard to define who they are, I know) are quiet on days like today.

  • I agree with Mark. Those of us who write things people find in their nightmares are the ones that have a grasp so tight on the sanctity of life (not saying others don’t, just saying that it’s in our vision every single moment, especially when writing). The same can be said for many of the military and notably vet, alongside the first responders. Find a peacekeeper and you’ll likely find someone who’s put their life on the line — those who are doing so much good in the face of tragedy, just as Mrs. Rogers said to her son so many years ago. I put my lens on the helpers, not the handful of fuckos.

    Now we just need to tread carefully that we allow fear to eradicate the good and beauty of life.

  • Hi Everyone.
    We’ve proven we’re a violent species.
    I like the part in your post best, Chuck, where you say that our goodness will always outweigh our bad. I believe this.
    If you can’t defend yourself, people will walk all over you. But just the ability to defend oneself can discourage aggression.
    A few days ago, I had to stop reading what promised to be a good story, when I came to the part in the fighting dog training where they took the orange tabby cat out of the pet carrier. I know terrible things happen in this world, but I don’t want to read about them. Reality is vicious enough.
    The thing about violence in fiction is that if someone is battling ghosts, orcs, trolls, vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches, little green men; you know it’s not real.
    Fictive violence allows us to learn about violence without hurting anyone.
    Have a great time in Florida, Chuck.

    • I like what you say about defending oneself. This is where my personal paradox of violence lies. There are countless good people and I do believe there exist “good” fights. The good fight is usually fought against a dirty enemy who isn’t moved by hugs and compassion. So I’ve asked myself can a dirty enemy be fought clean? And if not, how does a good person fight the good fight dirty?

  • Violence needs no justification, no fair-and-balanced analysis, no tasteful depiction, no good reason at all to occur…in art.

    The realm of creative expression must be protected as a free and peaceful place in which to exercise individual agency.

    Art provides a valve for releasing tensions that seek destroy us. It is our retreat. It is our safe house. No one is to be flogged (by himself or others) for imagining or witnessing any of the horrors committed there. Agreed?

    Unless, of course, you imagine something that specifically horrifies me. Then I can flog you all I want. I say you are a sucky artist. And you can flog me back. And so on.

    I can counter with my own creative expression.

    Or I can conspire with others to have your voice suppressed in whatever manner best serves my sense of agency in the world at large.

    Where will you go to express your repulsive imaginings then?

    There’s always the real world. All the great works of fear, humiliation, frustration, and despair are freely produced there. Mass shootings are “plotted”. Acts of terror are “staged”. Wars are waged in geographical “theaters”. Holocausts are the definitive “fuck you” of art school flunkies. Real world violence is usually masterminded by dangerous artists. Right?

    In a recent NPR interview with Terry Gross, Quentin Tarantino was asked whether he ever loses his taste for violence in film following incidents of egregious real world violence, such as the recent school shooting in Sandy Hook, CT.

    Whether you are fan of Tarantino’s work or not, you have to acknowledge the integrity of his response to society’s knee-jerk indictment of artists as purveyors of violence:

    TARANTINO: Would I watch a kung fu movie three days after the Sandy Hook massacre? Would I watch a kung fu movie? Maybe, ’cause they have nothing to do with each other.

    GROSS: You sound annoyed that I’m…


    TARANTINO: Yeah, I am.

    GROSS: I know you’ve been asked this a lot.

    TARANTINO: Yeah, I’m really annoyed. I think it’s disrespectful. I think it’s disrespectful to their memory, actually.

    GROSS: With whose memory?

    TARANTINO: The memory of the people who died to talk about movies. I think it’s totally disrespectful to their memory. Obviously, the issue is gun control and mental health.

    Rest of transcript here: (http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=168200139)

    Real world violence is about squelched agency.

    Art is about nurturing agency by telling a story which may or may not depict violence.

  • April 16, 2013 at 12:00 PM // Reply

    I’m totally not clear what the point is of the Twitter question about if you feel bad about the violence in your books. As in, do you feel bad about pushing that violence out into the open to be optionally consumed like the post-Boston bombings (/whatever event) video, and thus having a negative impact on people?

    As you say, the violence you undertake (lack of pants not withstanding) is fiction. I don’t get how someone whose writing includes violent acts is… er, supposed to?… feel bad about doing so. As with any other art form, a book can be enjoyed or ignored depending on personal tastes. You’re of course as free as any other artist to express what you want to in the way you want to, and if it’s not a reader’s cup of blood, spittle, and broken teeth, then they’re just as free to move on to whatever else turns their crank.

    It’s perhaps a more relevant question to ask if you think readers should feel bad for enjoying books with violence in them (i.e. in a world where so much real violence is already happening and is horrible). But again, whether produced or consumed, it’s fiction. I’m ok with horror stories and violence and harsh language (among a huge variety of other things). If that’s not someone else’s thing then hey, all the Garfield a person can handle (and all the lasagna he can handle… that crazy cat!) is readily available to read instead.

    Bizarre question.

  • I don’t think there’s anything wrong with hardboiled fiction. Compare a farm kid who’s been forced to watch the butchery of pet animals to a city kid who’s had nothing but contented kittens and plump puppies. Perhaps the unsheltered life is the better one? We aren’t living in Downton Abbey.

    aka Darlene Underdahl

  • I asked this question of Chuck via Twitter. Honestly, I was really just curious and wanted to know his answer/opinion. My intention wasn’t to spark a huge debate or get him to post on the subject in the blog. It’s cool that he posted on this topic though. And the question did generate partly from yesterday’s events in Boston.

    I’ve always been interested to know whether or not creative types feel a sense of social responsibility for his/her work if that work includes violent/immoral topics. To me, fiction is fiction is fiction. I am able to clearly distinguish the difference between a made-up world and the real world. Reading a violent piece of fiction has no impact on my actions. I know what is right and wrong and what is fake and what is real. But we have seen artists or creative types share some of the blame in the past for horrific events that have taken place (i.e. Columbine). I was curious to know from Chuck whether or not he thinks about the perceived ramifications (if any) that may result of including violent scenes in his work. I don’t agree personally with society blaming tragic events on the arts. I never will. But knowing that there could be a chance that if you write a book about murder by chainsaw and then some kid goes out and replicates the book, would that impact your decision to write a book like that?

    One thing that consumers (for lack of a better term, or non-creators of art) fail to recognize is that there is no story without some bad things happening. No one wants to watch a movie or read a book about a rich guy that gives money to the poor, eats his vitamins, adopts orphan puppies, and reads The Bible. There is no story there. There has to be conflict. And with conflict, that usually means that something bad has to happen to someone.

    • April 16, 2013 at 9:04 PM // Reply

      Thanks for explaining the thinking behind the question. Twitter’s inherent limitations can sometimes obscure the thrust of what’s been said or asked.

  • As you say, blood donated in other parts of the country probably won’t get to Boston — but it’s still worthwhile to do at a time like this. You never know when there’s going to be a sudden need, and as a cliche goes, it could save someone’s life.

    “But it’s generally expected — we read a crime novel or a horror novel, that violence is usually part and parcel.”

    This jumped out at me. Aside from the obvious horrors of what happened — the grime, the gore, the loss of life and limbs — there’s the *unexpectedness*. The Boston Marathon is a city-wide party where everyone comes to cheer on individual feats of amazing athleticism. It just…it feels like the best parts of humanity, on display. And then to have it literally explode? That’s not part of “the plan.” It is decidedly NOT expected.

    When we pick up a book of crime or horror, we pick it up *intentionally* for the violence. We want to be scared, we want to be outraged. But it’s all at a distance. We can put the book down and go about our normal, expected day.

  • Here’s what I put out, after learning about the Boston Marathon bombing:

    “My thought, in regards to Boston: In all things born of human nature, there tends to be a balance; a handful of assholes leaping to use it to justify their hatred and bigotry; a sea of confused people trying to do what they can as they can to help others; and a handful of brilliant, brave individuals heedless of their own safety, needs, and desires, leaping into action to mitigate disaster and improve/save lives.

    I hope that the spiteful, the hateful, and the bigoted are told to shut up and either help or get out of the way; the world needs to focus on those who help, not those who hate.”

    There was more, but they’re points I was making to help encourage people. Chuck’s covered them well enough himself.

  • Love qualifies here too :) Both as something you can give forever and not run out and as something we can do to combat the horror of scenes like yesterday.

  • And…since my comments don’t seem to nest properly when I reply, I’ll add the second part of the comment after:

    I’m in total agreement with the idea of fiction as “showing consequence.” I write crime fiction, and I’ve got some fairly graphic murder scenes – but I don’t consider that gratuitous because the nature of the crime serves a purpose to the larger narrative. Also, there’s a benefit – cathartic as well as intellectual – to fiction which shows that people who commit evil acts should (and do) receive the consequences of their actions. In life, we cannot always assure the “right” outcome. In fiction we can, and it serves to reinforce that sense of justice which events like yesterday leave us seeking.

    In some small way, I may well write as I do because it allows me to exert some small control over the fictitious world, to ensure justice in ways I cannot always do in the real one.

    Or…it could just be that I dig the ninjas.

  • Re: donating blood in ANY part of the country – blood is organic; it has a shelf-life, and most hospitals keep a fridge or two of the stuff. In extreme cases, such as this one, hospitals in surrounding areas will give their supply to the hospitals where the patients actually are, depleting their own stores, which other hospitals, somewhat further out, will then help to replenish, and then if necessary, ask for more from still other hospitals, yet further away from the tragedy.

    That’s how it was explained to me, anyway; I am not a medical professional and I welcome a correction if that is wrong.

    If I assume that it is right and the system is functioning properly, my blood here in California will not get to anyone in Boston, but the fact that it is available still makes it easier for the Boston victims to get what they need. No matter where you are, it helps.

  • Watching the quiet acts of heroism moved me. I am still reeling from the violence of the bombing at the marathon. Boston is my (adopted) home. We watch the marathon from the bottom of Heartbreak Hill to cheer on the runners facing the most grueling part of the course. Every year, we have friends and neighbors who run the race.

    My husband has helped staff a medical tent at the marathon almost every year, going back the 20 we’ve lived here. This year,ironically, he wasn’t there: he had to speak at a conference out of town. I suspect he feels an unholy combination of relief and guilt.

    I have stood at that spot in downtown Boston, many, many times. I still can’t wrap my head around someone wanting to cause so much harm.

    I can’t imagine that violence in a book or a movie or a video game has anything to do with these acts of terror. Evil will find its own justification. Maybe there are just people in the world who are so broken, they have to break everything around them. I suspect even if there is some sort of motive discovered, it will not help our understanding one bit.

  • April 17, 2013 at 2:53 PM // Reply

    On 9/11 I lived in the Bronx. It was our daughter’s first day at her high school in Manhattan. I was driving to my job in Ardsley, NY, when I heard about the World Trade Center. I called her high school and was told that the kids were all safe and were in the auditorium, where parents could pick them up.
    My husband who worked in the city, walked miles to her school. I remember shaking until I heard he got her.
    My son’s elementary school closed early that day. One of his friend’s fathers was a fire fighter. His station was a first responding station.
    That evening our Bronx friends gathered at one house to hear any news. The next day we learned that he was killed, saving lives.
    That memory will stay with me forever. Bronxbeanie

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