Where the M Comes From

By C.M. Saunders

 

I’ve been doing this for a while now, and you may have noticed I use different names for different kinds of writing. For academic writing and more formal or serious stuff, I use my full given name. It looks more official. For sport, lifestyle and comedy writing, I use the slightly snappier moniker Chris Saunders. And for fiction, I usually use the name C.M. Saunders. There are practical reasons for doing this. I like to keep different facets of my writing career separate because it’s easier to get my head around. Besides that, the people who read my horror fiction would probably be deeply disappointed if they accidentally picked up one of my travel books, or the one I wrote about Cardiff City FC, and vice versa.

Over the years, a lot of people have asked me why I use C.M. Saunders, especially since I don’t actually have a middle name, and so no middle initial. It’s kind of a happy coincidence that my boyhood nickname was Moony. Because I have a round face, apparently. I guess it could have been a lot worse. There was a boy in my street called Dickhead. Anyway, no. That’s not where the M comes from. It’s not as straightforward as that. But there is a very good reason for it and for the first time in public, I’m going to reveal what that reason is.

It’s for my grandfather on my mother’s side. Firstly, he’s probably part of the reason I grew up to be so into the whole horror thing. He was a big reader, and would go to the local library a couple of times a week. This was back when libraries had books. Whenever I went to visit him and my grandmother in his bungalow at the top of the village when I was a kid, he would always have the latest horror novels lying on the table next to his reading chair. I was too young to read them, or even remember much, I just loved looking at those covers. Stephen King, James Herbert, Graham Masterton.

A little word about my granddad, or Pop as we called him. His name was Stanley Martin. Like my other granddad on my father’s side, he was a coal miner almost all his life. Proper old school Welsh. Being a miner was a hard life. He would delight in telling me, my sister, and cousins horror stories. Some were things that really happened to him or his friends, some were local myths or legends, and he probably made the rest up just to entertain us. The man was covered in little blue scars where coal dust had got into his cuts when he was underground, and he was still coughing up black shit twenty years after he retired. He met and married a Welsh woman called Lillian and they had three daughters, including my mother. All three daughters grew up and got married. As per tradition, when they got married they took the names of their husbands so pretty soon, the Martin name vanished. I always thought that was a bit sad, and when I started taking fiction a bit more seriously and was looking around for a pseudonym to distinguish it from my journalism, I thought using the ‘M’ initial might be a cool way to keep the name ‘Martin’ alive. He died a long time ago, and when he did his surname died with him. Now, every time I have something published under the name C.M. Saunders, it’s a silent nod to the man who introduced me to horror. If there’s a heaven, I know he’s up there looking down with pride in his eyes. Cheers, Pops.

 

61yusXRXjwLX3, the third collection of fiction by C.M. Saunders featuring revised versions of stories taken from the pages of The Literary Hatchet, Siren’s Call, Morpheus Tales, Gore Magazine, Indie Writer’s Review and several anthologies, is available now. X3 also includes two previously unpublished stories, extensive notes, and exclusive artwork by the award-winning Greg Chapman. 

Meet the airline passenger who makes an alarming discovery, the boy who takes on an evil troll, an ageing couple facing the apocalypse, a jaded music hack on the trail of the Next Big Thing, the gambler taking one last spin, and many more.

 

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Why Dark Fiction?

So, I get curious from time to time, and I force the other dolls to play along and answer my many questions. This week, we’re all going to share why we choose to write dark fiction. (By dark fiction, I mean speculative, dark comedy, etc.)

Michael: I don’t limit myself to dark fiction, though there is darkness in all of my books. I have three ‘historicals’ in the pipeline – two set in the twilight years of Roman Britain, and one in early colonial America. In these, as with the Gift Trilogy coming out this year, the speculative part lies in the interstices of historical fact. But to answer the question why do I like dark in the first place – in my case it might be a very traditional Catholic education where there was no light without dark and Hell was a real place.

Steve: Dying is easy and comedy is hard, or so it goes. I’ve never died, so I can’t really attest to it. But, of all the many jobs comedy and fantasy has, one of them is trying to make sense of the dark. And in doing so, perhaps see the funny side.

Katrina: Because realism is too hard to write and reality is boring anyway. Some people call speculative fiction “escapist” like an insult, but I think it’s the best part about it. Why wouldn’t you want to escape?

Christian: I wouldn’t know what else to write. At least ‘dark fiction’ is a big playground big enough to get lost in. When you think about it, it can encompass almost every other genre, from crime noir to sci-fi. It overlaps a lot. I used to call myself a horror writer, then I asked myself what horror was and I couldn’t come up with a satisfying answer. It means different things to different people. Besides, I wrote a love story once and nobody liked it.

Renee: I write in multiple genres, but “darkness” is a constant element in all of them. I enjoy writing dark fiction/speculative fiction, because it’s such a broad category. You can delve into almost every genre and writing it is like an escape that allows me to go to those places we all avoid, because we’re not maniacs.  Also, I find the best characters in the dark.

Peter: I write in a range of genres, but there is certainly a darkness to each of my stories (with the exception of my children’s book, of course!), and that darkness comes in different forms. I find there is a certain freedom that comes with writing speculative fiction; an opportunity to be more imaginative with events, giving greater range to the topics that can be covered.

Liam: Because it’s there.

What about you guys? Writers and readers, why do you write/read dark fiction?

 

Happy Halloween

by Steve Wetherell

 

I guess I was maybe five years old or so when my dog died. Her name was Sherry, a big loafy German Shepard who I assume was brought as protection, but whom I never recall even snarling. I had come down into the hallway on an ice white morning, barefoot in my pajamas, my parents not yet up. I found her lying there in a way that I must have known wasn’t natural. Her eyes were open, she had a dried trickle of blood on her nose. I suppose I must have been old enough to process this as ‘dead’ rather than ‘sleeping’.

I don’t remember being scared, horrified or even sad. I found my siblings and we told our parents. Then Sherry was taken away. It was just a thing that happened.

If I remember one emotion I attached to the event it was excitement. Let me explain, because I know that sounds pretty awful.

As a kid I was obsessed with the paranormal. Ghostbusters was my favourite movie, even though the librarian gave me nightmares. Thanks to a big sack of pirated VHS tapes and our parents often leaving us to our own devices, my brothers and sisters let me watch a whole host of horror movies we shouldn’t have. If you think the furry scene in The Shining is disturbing as an adult, try processing that shit as someone who is only a few years removed from learning where poop is supposed to go.

The night before the death of Sherry I’d been up with my brother and cousin, swapping tales about the White Lady. No, she wasn’t a pumpkin spice obsessed yoga instructor. She was a typical Victorian apparition of a long dead lady who had flung herself from a balcony. She was rumoured to haunt the private school my brother attended, but I later found out she was sort of a franchise operation, claimed by any old building with a balcony that wanted to jazz up their history. When I found the corpse of my dog, I didn’t process it as a natural death. I clearly remember exchanging hushed whispers with my siblings. It was the work of the White Lady. She had come in the night. Our dog had died protecting us.

This would similarly link up to the next time we saw a dog corpse. We were creeping around a junk yard, that same brother and cousin and I, when amongst the majestic piles of abandoned appliances and spindly old bikes, we saw a dog, lolling out of a pile of trash-bags as though frozen mid catch. Clearly this dog was another victim of the White Lady’s gaze.

I guess it’s understandable. I guess it’s just taking a big, complicated shape and squeezing it into something a child can hold in his head. What should have been at least a little traumatic became a jump scare in an ongoing game.

That obsession with the supernatural never really left me. I don’t believe in ghosts (except the brief moments when I do, before I remind myself I’m a 250-lb grown up with a Quarter 4 planning meeting early in the morning,) but I sort of want to. Maybe that’s just ingrained in me now. That when something awful happens, it’s because of something.

This is not a healthy habit, and I wonder how many other writers, comedians and creators have it at their core. That little part of you, in the midst of disaster, is already weaving this awful news into punchlines, blog posts and prose.

That thing that, when finding a pet dead on the floor, won’t let you stay with it. Is already licking the tip of its pencil.

I mean, that’s sick, right? That’s got to be some sort of obsessive compulsive narcissism? Or maybe it’s just sad, maybe it’s just a human looking through a window at a sky full of terrible void, and writing something distracting in the condensation. I dunno. It’s pretty scary.

Happy Halloween.

 

Five (More) Thoughts with Katrina Monroe

by Katrina Monroe

  1. I can’t science.

I like science. Science makes things blow up and makes my phone cooler and takes care of animals. I appreciate science. I do. I just can’t do it. I started going back to school this year to finish up an English degree I’ve been drooling over for over a decade, and part of it is taking an environmental science class. I read the chapters and cry when I can’t make them stick in my head. I take quizzes that don’t make sense. But, at the end of it, I’m coming for you climate change denying mother-fuckers, so WATCH OUT.

 

  1. Academic writing bores me to tears.

Okay, yes, more school stuff. If I have to obsess about it, you have to hear about it. My required writing class is led by a professor who thinks stylized writing is “confusing.” (I can’t wait to see what he thinks of my rogue italics and one-word paragraphs in our first paper. *eyeroll*). At the beginning of the semester, he emphasized that we would be reading non-fiction. That’s fine. I read A LOT of great non-fiction. Except, in this class, it’ll be academic essays from the medical field, to appeal to the eleventy-billion nursing students in my class. Gag me.

 

  1. You’d think momming got easier once the kids started becoming independent. Guess what, losers. It doesn’t.

When my kids (now ages 9 and 10) were smaller, it was easy to write off their little eccentricities and forgetfulness as a result of their being little. Of course she won’t remember to pick up after herself, Katrina, she’s a toddler for fuckssakes. Now, they still don’t clean their room; they still forget things at school; they still leave behind little trails of pizza cheese and homemade slime, except NOW it’s willful. I have no point other than I’m losing my god-damned mind. Send help.

 

  1. Get your flu shot.

Otherwise you’ll be stuck chain-sucking sugar-free cough drops so you don’t hack up a lung in the middle of class. Oh, and those cough-drops? They give you the runs. Your PSA for the week, kids.

 

  1. Sometimes strangers will sniff your furniture.

This week, I sold our old recliner on the Facebook market because I figured it’d be safer than throwing it up on Facebook and attracting creepers. Facebook users have pictures, right? And you can totally tell a creeper from a non-creeper by their photo (yeah, I’m laughing too). After dodging a few bullshit offers—“I’ll give you twenty bucks and that’s being generous,” fuck off, bro—a legit offer came through and someone showed up to pick up the recliner. Which he sniffed. Allllllll over it. The seat. The back. He said he was looking for mold, but he paid cash so I didn’t ask questions. The chair’s gone now, and so is the sniffer.

Writer’s Toolbox: The Notebook

by Renee Miller

We decided to challenge ourselves to step outside our usual writing aids, methods, tools, etc., and try something that’s either new, or that’s an often-recommended thing we usually don’t use. We’re going to try said aid/method/tool for 7 days and let you know how it works for us. Does that even make sense? Not really. Let’s move on.

I chose the notebook. Back in the day, like about ten years ago, I used a notebook all the time. I had several, actually, and wrote all of In the Bones, The Legend of Jackson Murphy, Bayou Baby, and my first ever novel that shall not be named here, in a notebook. By hand. Every single one of the 80,000+ words for each was scribbled onto paper before I typed it into our ancient, temperamental desktop computer. That’s about 400,000 words handwritten. Yikes.

And then I got a laptop and I said, screw this notebook shit. Never used one again aside from when I have ideas and I’m not at home (although, I often use my phone instead of pen and paper) or when I’m editing or outlining. However, I know a lot of writers who swear by using pen and paper in early stages, so I decided to give it another go.

Supplies: Notebook (I went with the one below, because they were 47 cents at Walmart), brand new pen

20170912_084954

It says “Mom’s Writing Shit” so that the hooligans don’t use it for their own writing.

Day 1:

This thing is so new and white. Just smell those crisp, clean pages. I LOVE that. Ugh. I don’t want to write in it. I must, though. Got this new pen and everything. Here goes.

First entry: Ideas I’ll never use.

Filled three pages.

Day 2:

Wrote a bit of a story in my nifty notebook. Four pages, front and back. It’s kind of okay. My hand hurts and I’m hungry. Because I don’t want to take up story pages, I made a few notes in the back of the notebook. I think this is going to get confusing.

Also, watched a documentary about haunted places. Mentioned the Cecil Hotel. So, this happened…

Day 3:

Lost the notebook. Edited a finished project instead. Stop judging.

Day 4:

New notebook. Tried to rewrite the shit I wrote in the first notebook, but I know I forgot shit. Spent two hours writing beginnings and endings. Forgot how fun that was. My hand hurts again and there’s a new season of Bones on Netflix. What? I have to let these new prompts marinate.

Day 5:

Lost my new pen. Why does writing in pencil bother me so much? Can’t find a pen in this house. Kids must eat them or something. The pencil is REALLY messing with my head. It’s just not right. Wrote a couple of chapters anyway, but I don’t like any of it. Might be the pencil, though, so I’ll sit on it.

Day 5, part two: Found a pen. Wrote over the pencil stuff. Is that OCD? I don’t know. I feel better about what I wrote now. It’s a comedic horror thing, with witchcraft, creatures, sex (of course) and lots of killing. I think it has potential. I need to research and do some outlining, but I like it.

Day 6:

Found the first notebook. I must’ve put it away, because I found it in the junk cupboard. No way anyone else in this house put it there, because they don’t put anything away. And I clearly used it at some point to make note of vet appointments for the cats…

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Anyway, I did forget a lot of stuff. Day 5’s idea about the witch comedy thing is in it, sort of. I just wrote “witches, comedy, horror.” Also, a grocery list.

20170912_085719

Hmm. Anyway, wrote some more in the second notebook, and I’m itching to get on the laptop and “properly” start this thing. Did some research instead. Time travel is cool. I should add that to the story. I made a note.

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Day 7:

Finally, one more day of writing with my poor, cramped hands and then I can get cracking on the keyboard. I made a feeble attempt at it today. Didn’t get very far. I did list all the names I’ve ever used in my stories/books. I’ve used a lot. Going to have to get creative soon, eh? Yeah. Sigh. Of course, minor character names are recyclable, so it’s not so dire. Right? Right?!

New list: Names I haven’t used.

Conclusion:

The notebook is handy, for ideas. It’s not so handy for someone who writes bits and pieces of story impulsively and rapidly, and it’s not at all organized. I lose things constantly, as we’ve seen. If I were to use a notebook regularly, I’d need several. One for ideas, one for general bullshit like character names, and one for each story I’m working on. I’d probably lose track of one or two, so I’d end up with at least a hundred notebooks lying around. That’s too much paper for this girl.

However, it really does get the creative juices flowing, so I think I’ll save it for those times when I feel like I’ve run out of shit to write.

Any unusual writing tools/aids/tricks you’ve heard of, but haven’t tried? Which ones have you tried and would recommend?

The Swearing Corner: USA vs UK

 by Steve Wetherell

Like much of the world, I grew up on American television, and so was comfortably exposed to a lot of American swear words. (‘Shit’ was the big deal when I was a kid. People always seems to be shouting “Ooooh, shiiiiiit!”)

However, I’ve also always been proud of the wonderful rainbow of swearwords in my own country. I don’t think you’ve really heard ‘wanker’ until you’ve heard it said by an angry cockney, and the sheer dismissive silliness of a northern Englishman calling you a ‘bell-end’ is a whimsical thing indeed.

So, I’ve always considered it a fine thing that I have two pots of foul language to draw from. But, let’s be real here, not all swear words transfer across the Atlantic particularly well. There are some words that just sound better in Americanese, and likewise some that sound better in Original Recipe English. 

Ass versus Arse is a great example. There are some British who seem to think these are interchangeable, and in fairness they both technically mean the same thing. There’s a whole different universe of inflection there, though. Arse is just…well… a bit grimy, and so is suited when a bit of dirtiness is called for. Ass is generally more positive, more action orientated. You’d kick an ass, you’d move an ass, you’d get some ass. Arse, has an insidious drawl to it. If you kick an arse, you might need to disinfect your foot afterwards, and god help the sinister pervert who openly says he wants to get some arse. People will, quite rightly, move away from him on the bus. 

On the other hand, if you call someone an ass, it’s very PG13. Call someone an arse, and it packs more of a punch. This stands up even to the addition of ‘hole’. 

On the flip side, Americans can simply not say ‘twat’ properly. They pronounce if ‘Twodt’ which sounds like a fish course for which you need an acquired taste (I realise there’s a solid innuendo there.) But that softening of the consonant robs it of any veracity. 

The British pronounce twat in two distinct ways. There’s ‘twadt’ with a soft T. This is when you roll your eyes because someone’s being silly. Then there’s ‘twatt’ with the hard T. This is for when the knives come out. 

The final comparison is in the old staple for when you desire personal space; ‘fuck off’. Again, there’s no separate meaning, but it’s all about inflection. American’s tend to emphasise the latter half of the phrase: “Fuck OFF” or even ‘Fuk’OFF’. Shortening the Fuck and elongating the Off. That’s got a real nice aggressive ring to it. Carries a lot of weight in a small package, like a pool ball in a sock. In Britain, it tends to be the opposite; “FUCK off.” A pronunciation particularly prevalent in Scotland. While this pronunciation acts the growl of its American counterpart, it does have an airy dismissiveness to it that can be useful. In short, the American version serves as a warning. It implies consequence. The British version merely scatters your opinion to the wind and then goes off to buy another drink.

Multiculturalism is a wonderful thing…

 

The Swearing Corner: The “C” Word

by Steve Wetherell

I was in Newfoundland once, for whatever reason, sitting in the smoking area in their seemingly eternal winter and talking to some locals. They were curious about my English heritage, and as a bit of fun, we got onto popular swear words. What, they wanted to know, was a common swear word unique to your neck of the woods.

“Bawbag,” I said, after some consideration. It’s essentially “Ball-bag” (or scrotum) filtered through the Scots-English heritage of my hometown. It’s a nice handy put down, often said with a half smile and a shake of the head when someone accidentally throws up on his own dog. My turn done, the locals turned their attention to my sister, a Londoner then of five years or so.

She squinted into the perennial snowstorm for a moment, before answering; “Cunt.”

Unexpectedly, the tone of the gathering changed almost instantly, and I was surprised to see genuine shock on the faces of our hosts.

It seemed that “Cunt” had a little more sting in its tail across the cold Atlantic than it did on our own side.

Since this worldly revelation, I’ve been more careful about using the word in company, particularly in front of Canadians, Americans, and other weirdos. Where I come from “Cunt” is a fairly genderless put down that can be used both casually and with venom. Someone leaves his wallet at home? He’s a silly cunt. Someone runs over your cat, deliberately? He’s a proper cunt.

However, whenever I see the word used in American media (and that’s rarely) it is always a man being venomous to a woman. it seems that, in a very popular sense, it is very much a word that hates women. That’s a shame, because it’s a create word. Think of it phonetically.

“Kk”

“UUUnn”

“Tt”

There’s so many hard, visceral sounds in that word its practically pornographic. It’s a word that can be growled, spit or screamed with utter confidence. It’s a word that carries.

Is it anymore offensive to women than, say, ‘prick’ is to men? Yes, I think so, simply because of the strength of the word. The soft ‘Puh’ or prick doesn’t sand up to the hard ‘Cuh’, and while Cock has a Cuh’ sound going for it ‘ock’ lacks the deep undulating ‘uh’ and the final disapproving ‘tttt’.

You can see why we Brits adopted it as punctuation.

Still, knowing its power, and because my audience is mostly American, its a word I try to use sparingly.

Other than in this article, of course.

You cunt.

The Swearing Corner: Dicks

by Steve Wetherell

 

When Stephen Colbert suggested that Trump’s mouth was only useful as a holster for Vladimir Putin’s dick, there was a backlash suggesting this comment was homophobic. I am here to argue that it wasn’t.

For a start, I have a feeling this accusation is disingenuous. There’s a culture war going on right now that exist whether you acknowledge it or not, and this backlash whiffs of “Oh the left think they’re so progressive, but here they are making gay jokes!” Sadly, though, political correctness is at present such hot territory that a lot of leftists (most of them likely straight) are considering that perhaps there’s some truth to it. This is because, in this culture war, either side is united by the theory that tactics are irrelevant and targets are all that matter.

So, is telling someone to go eat a big hot dick homophobic? I’m going to say no.

To put it in context, there once was an Irish king who, when subjects swore fealty to him, would demand they suck his nipples. Now, this wasn’t because the King happened to be in a loving consensual relationship with his subjects, it was about power. He was subjugating them. When Colbert says Trump sucks Putin’s dick he isn’t implying they are two men engaging in a  completely normal sex act for their mutual pleasure, he is implying that Trump is willingly subjugating himself to Putin in a graphic and obvious way.

There’s a similar backstory to fag. In English private school history there was a tradition of older boys forcing younger boys to be their dogs bodies. This was called fagging for someone, or being their fag. No sex involved (although, being an English private school, there was bound to be at least some sodomy). It’s all about power.

Now, this theory doesn’t give carte blanche to start dishing out the gay insults, of course. There’s a distinctive difference between demanding someone choke on a dick salad, and merely showing disgust in the fact they like sucking cock. Statistically, a great deal of people must at least be tolerable of sucking cock, or agree with the act on principle, so merely saying “I bet you like sucking dick!” is a lot different from saying “I’m not surprised all you can talk is bollocks considering so and so’s dick is so far down your throat.”

It’s all about context.

But what about the casual “Eat a dick dumb shit!”? It would seem to suggest that the act of dick sucking is indeed bad, so let me try and grasp it another way (as the nun said to the vicar.) Like so much in life, it’s all about give and take, and there’s something emasculating about taking it. The process of emasculation comes with its own baggage (“Oh, so being anything other than a man is BAD somehow?”) but for the sake of practicality, I’ll focus on what is actually being said, rather than the uncharitable ocean of implication. Emasculation is a big part of social leveling in men- you can’t have someone getting too big for their boots, or taking themselves too seriously. Every bully and thug is a guy who was too big and tough to be mocked, who let all that raw testosterone go unchecked, so the process of “busting someone’s balls” is, metaphorically, exactly that. It’s a process of humiliation, and going down on someone else, whether you are gay or straight, is an act of humility and subservience. So, that’s the mechanics sorted, but down to the nitty gritty. Is it homophobic? Nah. Conversely, if I tell another guy to suck my dick, it’s not about being gay, it’s not even about sex. It’s just a gorilla thumping its chest. It’s about power.

However, you don’t get to choose who takes offence, so do I force a future where telling someone to go and eat a dick is a progressive no no? Yeah, it’s possible. So what I intend to do is what I do in most situations- destroy any serious implication with ridiculous hyperbole. With this in mind, here’s a few examples that can’t possibly be interpreted as homophobic by anyone who actually understands what a gay is. Enjoy!

“Drown in a tsunami of dicks.”

“I hope you are slapped a million times in a hurricane of dicks.”

“I hope that when you die the ghosts of every dick you thought about sucking but didn’t because you’re a fucking coward is waiting for you with your mom.”

“Dine out on a dick salad. An over priced, low-calorie dick salad.”

“I hope they throw you out of the all you can eat dick buffet before you’re even full.”

The Hermione Factor: Why I’m Bored of Strong Female Characters

by Steve Wetherell

I stopped looking for myself in Hollywood movies a long time ago. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I entertained the leading man fantasy. I recall as a boy watching Young Guns and trying to jut out my jaw like Emilio Estevez, hoping that with enough stretching my ball-like face might become a little narrower. I trained myself as a teen to raise a single eyebrow like Bruce Campbell, as though the rest of my body might get its act together and follow suit.

It didn’t, of course. There is no Hollywood representation of me, because even Paul Blart had a full head of hair.

But it’s undeniable there’s no shortage of straight white men on screen, in far more variations than their non-straight, non-white and (least forgivably perhaps, seeing as they’re half the world,) non-male counterparts. This is not to say that men aren’t dumbed down into boxes by Hollywood. Of course. That is what Hollywood does. But there are far less boxes for women, it seems. Maybe only three, in fact. Love interest, Mother and Unflappable Bad Ass who Knows Everything and is Always Right Bar A Few Instances of Watery Eyed Vulnerability. Otherwise known as The Strong Female Character.

These three boxes, to me, are each exactly as boring and predictable as the other. The Strong Female Character is a damned yawn fest and I’m sick of it. I have been for a long time, and I’ll set the scene for when I first noticed;

Years ago I was working on a self-financed short film and talking to my assistant producer about casting. I needed a guy to play the lead; a soldier in a post-apocalyptic zombie infested wasteland. I can’t remember why I wrote the soldier as a guy, I just did. I get the impression it was a mixture of pragmatism (I knew more guys than girls who might be interested in running around in a field for no pay while I shouted at them,) and unconscious wish fulfilment (like many young men, I secretly believed that I could only truly be happy when everyone else was dead.)

Anyway, as it turned out, my assistant producer didn’t know any men, but did know an interested woman. “Why don’t we turn the stereotype on its head?” she suggested. I agreed. But the phrase bothered me.

At this point, wasn’t a badass, undead-fighting woman already the stereotype? Had she not heard of Buffy? Underworld? Resident Evil? Countless B-movies where slight blonde women used the power of kung-fu to beat down men and monsters twice their size? Had she, by all that’s holy, forgotten about Xena?

Anyway, as the years went by the ‘turned on its head’ stereotype became the plain old mainstream stereotype. Was I surprised when watching Shrek that Princess Fiona, for no real reason, had an entire scene dedicated to her exceptional kung-fu skills, which are then never mentioned again? Nah. That’s just girl power. Just another trope, a shortcut to remind you that, while she may not be the leading man, she can kick his ass anytime she wants. She just doesn’t feel like it at the moment.

Flash forward to present day and I’m watching Guardians of the Galaxy 2. There’s an opening scene where the Guardians are all getting their asses handed to them by a giant space beast. Well, almost all of them. While every male Guardian takes his lumps, Gamora, the Unflappable Bad Ass who Knows Everything and is Always Right Bar A Few Instances of Watery Eyed Vulnerability, never has a shot landed on her.

Why not? Why can’t she be part of the fun? Peter Quill, the leading man, endures all kinds of physical and emotional humiliation, and we love him for it. Gamora’s entire emotional journey apexes with her admitting she might have emotions. Do I have a problem with that? No, not really. Differing characters make for a fun movie, and GoTG2 is all about very different personalities finding a sense of family with one another.

But here’s the thing- more and more people are starting to realise “Hey, wait, if Gamora is stronger, smarter, more capable and more mature than Peter Quill, why isn’t she the leading character?”

It’s a fair point, and to answer it I’d like to introduce you to a trope I call The Hermione Factor.

Harry Potter is a story about a young orphan boy destined to be the saviour of the wizarding world. He has two key allies- Ron Weasley, who is good hearted but bad everything else, and Hermione, a girl so smart her teachers force her to break the laws of physics just so she can over-achieve to her full potential. Hermione’s only weakness is that she’s so much smarter than everybody else that she finds it difficult to make friends, and this weakness is all but obliterated as soon as she grows tits. (She may have developed as a character beyond this. I’ll confess- I couldn’t force myself to read beyond Goblet of Fire. Still, if it’s true for four books, please do indulge me.)

There’s a lot of joking (and serious) memes that Hermione should have been the one to take on Voldemort, as she is vastly, vastly more capable than Harry, and so far ahead of Ron that he may as well be a sentient ginger turd. Remember, in the wizarding world, knowledge is power. Literal shooting-lightning-at-a-motherfucker power. And Hermione is more knowledgeable than everyone else. And so we have the Hermione Factor- a supporting character, almost certainly female, who is best qualified to be the hero but somehow isn’t.

Think about it- Harry Potter as a hero character is pure, balls-out wish fulfilment. Sure his parents are dead, but their love of him echoes through the ages. He’s a fish out of water, but he garners instant wealth, celebrity, sporting heroism, an enigmatic benefactor and the favouritism of the most beloved teacher. The guy’s made. But still, Hermione consistently one-ups him. And yet she’s not the hero.

Is this patriarchal injustice? Or is it bad story telling?

Neither, it’s just an over correction. Women have been denied a fair share of leading roles, so to make up for it we subconsciously make them invincible, the same way movies will make up for the lack of black leads by making the police chief/president/wisest character black. We forget to treat them like fallible human beings, so they become just another box. A positive one, sure, but boxed in none-the-less.

This, to me, becomes very boring. I don’t want an invincible character in the lead. That’s dull. I want a John McClane. Sure, he’s technically invincible (all action heroes are,) but he does a very good job of convincing you he’s not. Remember when action heroes used to sweat? Used to get beat down? Rebuffed? Remember when they used to show fear? Genuine comical fear? Indiana Jones was the ultimate macho leading man, but he spent a good portion of his screen time being a sweaty, beat-down, desperate punchline.

When’s the last time you saw a female action star do any of that? We’re so busy putting the ‘strong’ In Strong Female Character we forget to make them fun.

And that’s the ultimate flaw of the Hermione factor. For all her strengths, she’s just not that interesting a character. If we read the adventures of Hermione, it’d be a very short book about how there was a problem and how she instantly solved it because she’s never wrong. Gamora’s the least popular character in GOTG2 precisely because she is the least fun. When you’re far more sensible than everyone else, you almost always default to wet-blanket.

The danger of the Hermione factor is that it has stifled the way Hollywood writes women, and so further boxed our expectations as an audience. To site Guardians 2 again (yeah, I really enjoyed that movie) a new female character they introduced was Mantis. I was speaking on a marvel movie panel at a convention recently, and a fellow panellist could not disguise his contempt for the movie character. She wasn’t the badass she was in the comics. She was submissive. She was weak. She perpetuated negative Asian woman stereotypes. All of those things are true, from a certain perspective, but here’s the thing; she was fun. She was a funny, likeable, warm character. And you know what? She took her lumps! She was made fun of! She was physically hurt in amusing ways! Just like the guys! She was by no means a Strong Female Character, she wasn’t icy and no-nonsense, but she made me laugh more in one scene than Gamora and Nebula had over two movies. She endeared me to her in the same way that Rocket, Groot, Drax and Quill had. She was flawed, and silly, but still brave and capable and true when it counted.

As of writing, I’ve yet to see Wonder Woman. I will, I’m just waiting for my daughter to pester me about it (she hasn’t, yet. Much like me at that age, her idea of a strong character is based on how many anvils they can take to the face.) But I have to say, I’m genuinely surprised by the emotion surrounding the release of the movie. I read a lot of posts about people genuinely crying to see a woman triumphing in an action scene (I read similar about Holtzmann’s action scene in the Ghostbusters remake*.) And if the posts are anything to go by, seeing a female lead directed by a woman director is literally going to explode my head.

Am I little cynical? Yeah, probably. I am, after all, a prick, and to be fair I did watch the Ghostbuster’s remake. But I’m also a little hopeful, because maybe Wonder Woman is what I’ve been waiting for- maybe she’s not just another Strong Female Character. Maybe she’s just a great heroine.

 

(*As an aside, I recognise that the Ghostbuster’s remake was cast with character that were silly, funny and non-sexualised, yet also capable and brave. It just goes to show that good female characters aren’t in and of themselves enough to save a bad movie.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Swearing Corner: Why Swear?

by Steve Wetherell

Swearing is fucking great. I mean, some people don’t think so, and that’s fine, but you can’t deny swearing has power. No really, you can’t, science fucking says so. Studies show that your pain management greatly improves when you swear. It’s purely psychological of course, you can’t just substitute the swear word with an angry noise and get the same effect. So, when you hit your thumb with a hammer, you call the hammer a cunt, and then throw it through a cunting window and then scream at your bastard wife when she asks you what the cunt you think you’re playing at.

Swearing has power, and that’s why it’s a useful tool for the writer. The right swear word at that right time can amplify a threat, lend further weight to despair, or sharpen the edge of spite. And that’s not even getting into the comedic potential, where a swear word can act like a punch line in and of itself (if you ever need to end a scene on a high note, have a sweet old lady say “piss flaps”.)

This is not to say, however, that a writer shouldn’t exercise restraint. Not for any kind of moral reason, but to increase the impact. Just like violence, sex and humorous ethnic comic relief, too much of a good thing can lessen its value. Saving your big guns for the right moment can give you some vital muscle when its needed, which might otherwise be lost in the static of a dropping an f-bomb every paragraph.

Of course, that’s no iron clad rule. Casual swearing can be hilarious, or it can set the entire tone of your piece. Think about any Tarantino movie, for example, or anything by Irvin Welsh. Your book may want to reflect a type of social environment where everything is expressed through enthusiastic genital references. That’s fine and perfectly valid.

You may, however, want to write a book where no on uses any foul language at all. It’s perfectly possible, I’ve done it myself (if you don’t count crap, bugger, arse and hog-shagger which… I guess are swear words, actually, now that I think about it.) But you will be depriving yourself of some of the most creative, historic and powerful words known to the English tongue. These words have weight and history, and no, I don’t mean internet puffery like “twat waffle” and “cum burglar”, I mean the classics. Stuff that goes right back to Chaucer. You shouldn’t be ashamed of them, or to admit they have power. Break ‘em out like a surgeon breaks out the bone saw now and then.

 Fuck it.