Wednesday, February 25, 2009
How Much Violence is Too Much?
In the early 1990s I found some 25 books in the “Edge” series of westerns at a used book sale. They cost a little over a buck all together so I bought them. All but the first had a subtitle of “The Most Violent Westerns in Print” on the cover. Well now, I was already writing horror fiction in those days so I felt like I knew something about violence. These sounded right up my alley. They weren’t. I read the first one, The Loner, and it was definitely violent. But to use an overworked term, the violence seemed gratuitous. I didn’t read anymore, but I kept the rest of the books anyway.
Flash forward to 2009. Someone mentions the Edge books on a blog and I pull out my old collection and give book #2, Ten Grand, a go. I seemed to remember from the first book that the violence seldom had a point, and this book reinforced that in spades. Edge is a brutal psychopath. He is a true anti-hero, amoral, vicious, and bent only on using others for his own ends. He beats and mistreats women whose only fault is to mistakenly link their lives to his. The only saving grace is that he usually doesn’t go ‘out of his way’ to mistreat folks. He prefers to be alone, but woe to anyone who ends up associating with him.
I was hoping for Edge to get gut shot within the first twenty pages of Ten Grand, but since I knew the series ran on for something like fifty books that wasn’t going to happen. After finishing book #2, and knowing I wanted to do a blog post about violence in books, I started book #3, Apache Death to see if it was any different. It was equally violent, but at least this time Edge didn’t beat up or kill any women so I found it a bit more tolerable.
I must also admit that there are some redeeming features about the series. They are fast paced, easy reads, all coming in at around 140 to 160 pages. The prose style is readable and even has a bit of poetry here and there, although the grammar is sometimes atrocious. They also have quite a bit of black humor about them, which softens the brutality a bit. You can see, I believe, a spaghetti western influence. Still, they are not my type of books and I simply don’t like the character of Edge. And the endings seem mostly of the type I’d call “convenience.” Edge is about to find a treasure but something happens and he loses it. Then it’s on to the next volume.
I prefer to be careful slapping the gratuitous violence label on anything. Cold in the Light was accused by one agent of being gratuitously violent. I believe she misinterpreted the book. The Warkind in that book are a warrior caste of a non-human species. Violence in defense and attack is essentially the reason why the Warkind exist. So, although they are violent, the violence is part of their very biology and not gratuitous. Or so I argued to myself.
On the other hand, I’m going to label the Edge books as indeed gratuitously violent. Over and over again we see violence that is not directly necessary to the scene. In Apache Death, for example, we see several women killed during an Indian attack on a fort because, for reasons unknown, they run from their hiding places into the open. It looks like they ran out from hiding just so they could die hideously. We also see in books #2 and #3 various women who have their breasts hacked off. I wonder if the breast hacking theme continues through other books in the series.
Like with sex, it’s always an open question as to how much violence is too much. The issue is complicated for me because most of the books I read certainly contain violence, while relatively few contain graphic sex. I’m inclined to think much the same way about the two issues, though. Violence, or sex, becomes too much when they are no longer integral to the plot of the story, when they appear to be there just for their own sake and not because the story demands them.
What do you think? How much violence is too much? And are there any violent books where you think the violence is absolutely gratuitous? I wanna know.