Slaying Genre: Cut to the Bone
There is no other way to say this: writing emotionally devastating scenes is freaking hard. Especially when you’re dealing with the horror of post-apocalyptic worlds, the havoc wreaked by monsters, or even the evil-doing of the amoral but very human antagonist. You’ve got to be willing to wade through the flesh and the blood, to cut right down to the bone, in order to catalyze our deepest fears and emotions.
Because the thing is, you’re not just trying to frighten or sadden your reader; you’re creating something entirely more evocative. You’re accessing emotional truths that need to resonate on an absolutely visceral level, that shake the psyches and zap the nervous systems of readers into unsettling self-recognition. All writers strive to reach this level, though few do with such absolute conviction and horror as Cormac McCarthy.
In his post-apocalyptic road novel, The Road, McCarthy relays the harrowing journey of a father and his young son trying to make it across a charred landscape before they are swallowed up by the decay of the elements, their own mortality, and gangs of cannibalistic rapist cults. In one of the many difficult passages in the book, they come upon an abandoned house they hope will yield shelter or at least some supplies. Instead, locked in the basement, they find the following:
Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.
Jesus, he whispered.
From The Road by Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy is absolutely unflinching in this portrait of torture, fear, and chaos. And as readers we are not only horrified at the gruesome nature of the passage but also at ourselves, at how fast we believe that, as humans, we are indeed capable of these deeds, and like the father and his boy, of running away from them to save our own skins.
When you write, you’ve got to be willing to go there. It doesn’t matter what you’re intending to put to the page, a thriller, a memoir, a fantasy. You’ve got to go where the hard, bloody truths are. It’s no use running away, because like the ravaged world in McCarthy’s novel, the darkness will always be there, and your job is not to run from it but to figure out how your characters can survive in a world where it exists.
To learn more about dealing with the deepest, darkest, most disturbing fears and desires in your writing, sign up for Blood and Bones: Horror and Dark Fiction meeting next Saturday, March 30 at Grub Street!
KL Pereira's chapbook, Impossible Wolves was published by Deathless Press is 2013. Her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction are forthcoming or appear in The Drum Literary Magazine, Shimmer Zine, Lightning Cake, The Golden Key, Innsmouth Free Press, Innsmouth Magazine, Mythic Delirium, Jabberwocky, The Medulla Review, Bitch Magazine and other publications. Pereira’s work on fairy tales, sexuality, Wonder Woman, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are featured on Studio 360 and other radio programs, cited in numerous publications, and assigned in courses all over the United States and Canada. Find Pereira online on klpereira.com and @kl_pereira.See other articles by KL Pereira