Despite the fact that many of my books contain more death and atrocity than the average day at Auschwitz it might surprise you to discover that I don’t have a problem with censorship. Well, to a degree anyway. Over the years many of the things I’ve written have been subjected to cutting (many would probably say that the entire books should have been cut!) and if the reasons for the cuts have been valid then I’ve never complained. It is a bit galling when you write a scene that you’re proud of only to then have an editor wailing at you that it’s unprintable for whatever reason but that hasn’t happened as often as you might think.
It seems a bit churlish to me to be bothered about too much violence in a horror book. After all that would be like moaning because there was too much sex in a porn movie! It’s the type of violence, the nature of it that terrifies some editors (particularly these days). Even when I started writing way back in the eighties there were some nervous editors who recoiled from sexual violence and I’m not talking rape scenes I mean violence that was connected with anything below the belt. When you’re writing violent scenes there are certain body areas that will elicit a more intense response from readers if they’re damaged such as teeth, eyes, knees, fingernails and of course, the naughty bits as Monty Python used to call them. I had a scene in Spawn trimmed heavily for this reason. It became known infamously at my publishers as the ‘bloody-lingus’ scene and I’m not going to spell it out you can work it out for yourselves! A scene that was to have been included in Erebus was cut before it was even written when I discussed it with an editor who assured me it was far too vile to see the light of day and the most amusing hatchet job was done on a book I wrote under a pseudonym called Chainsaw Terror. My publishers at the time asked me to write a novel about a maniac with a chainsaw (it was the days of the literary nasty for Christ’s sake…) and I was told as I left the office to “go as far over the top as possible.” Telling me something like that was like letting a fat kid loose in a sweetshop so fifteen days later I finished the manuscript and submitted it. After it was read more than twenty-five pages were cut from it! One of the lengthier cuts included a woman being raped by a chainsaw and another involved a guy having sex with his dead sisters’ severed head. I tell you Mills and Boon were hard bastards to work for! Now I know that some of you (probably younger readers) will recoil from what I’ve just told you but it doesn’t mean I’m sexist or a violent criminal with sociopathic tendencies. It was what that character would have done for fuck’s sake.
“The sequence in Compulsion where a cat is tortured caused far more reaction than the horrific violence inflicted on men and women. The lesson is clear, you can do what you like to people but for God’s sake don’t hurt any animals in your writing!”
The book was banned, even in its cut state by a big wholesaler and had to be re-titled as Come The Night and re-issued. Ah, well, shit happens. What I can honestly say is that none of that book or anything else I’ve ever written was done just for the purpose of shocking people. Sitting down with the express idea of shocking readers is pointless and a little bit fucking childish to be honest. If your central character is a child raping necrophiliac who eats his own shit while torturing puppies then fair enough but if it’s too contrived the readers will notice and chances are you’ll never get it past an editor anyway unless it’s in a ‘literary’ work and then it will be lauded as an examination of the human condition, you’ll probably win a Booker Prize and critics will be lining up to lick your arse. However if you’re going to put that character into a common or garden horror novel then be prepared for some stick!
Language can also be a bit of a sticking point for some editors. Too many naughty words and they go apoplectic but again, if the characters you’re writing about are gangsters or villains or just people under stress basically then the chances are they’re going to let slip a few swear words during the course of a novel. How many people reading this have ever stubbed their toe and shouted “Heavens to Betsy that was painful.” Very few I suspect.
The spectre of political correctness has also raised its unwanted head where my writing is concerned on a few occasions but I’ve always wondered where and how some editors grew up when they react so pathetically to certain words and phrases. There was a lot of racial abuse in a book I wrote called Unmarked Graves because there was a racial bigot in the book. This seemed to terrify the editor far more than people having their hearts torn out or kids being sacrificed. On the subject of kids quickly I’ve never found it difficult to write about kids being killed or tortured (I’ve got one of my own by the way) just as I’ve never had a problem with describing the killing of animals but the reaction I’ve had from some people about scenes involving cruelty to animals has been incredible.
There are dog fighting scenes in Relics (which got me a visit from the police at the time by the way…) which sent readers crazy when they read them. The sequence in Compulsion where a cat is tortured caused far more reaction than the horrific violence inflicted on men and women in the same book! So the lesson is clear I reckon, you can do what you like to people but for God’s sake don’t hurt any animals in your writing.
I’ve never wanted or been able to censor myself in what I’ve written. After all, if you’re writing horror then as far as I’m concerned anything goes but similarly I don’t have a list of taboo subjects that I try and break from book to book. If something nasty happens in the book because it’s necessary to the plot then don’t shrink from describing it. I believed that then and I still believe it now. If someone is shot then describe it realistically. If they’re having sex then give the details if it’s necessary and if they swear then don’t be afraid to write their dialogue as they would speak it. As long as what you’re doing is relevant then go for it. You’re writing for yourself after all, not worrying about the minefield of what some people will find offensive or disturbing.
If I’d ever considered that I’d never have written a fucking word.