This world is a dark world.
Open a newspaper and see for yourself. Murder, genocide, civil war, assaults, rapes, kidnapping, sex trafficking, corruption, on and on, and endless litany of crimes high and petty. Any outrage, if any, will last until the moment a celebrity opens her mouth or the media moves on to the next event it deems worthy of outrage.
Evil has been with humanity since the dawn of time. It has been with us long before you and I were born, and will continue to be part of the the human condition long after we are dust.
But if we will, we can become as flames, and drive back the darkness from our part of the world.
And pass on the flame elsewhere in the world.
Artists hold a special place in society. With their gifts they touch the hearts, minds and souls of their audience. Be it a book, a play, a movie, a sculpture, a game, every work of art has the power to influence its audience. For better or for worse.
In the name of realism, many artists today chase the darkness. Every vice is elevated, every taboo broken, every blasphemy committed. Nothing is sacred, everything is false. There are no heroes, only degrees of evil. No saviours, only monsters wearing the masks of men. No virtue, only the will to power.
The intelligentsia claim this is ‘dark’, ‘gritty’, ‘realistic’. It is the defining aesthetic of our times, a relentless march towards deeper depths of degradation and desecration.
But what does this do to the reader?
Humans are strongly influenced by their environment, by what they take into themselves, and how they act in response to it. If you surround yourself with the gross and the perverse, you become gross and perverse. If you consume only material that is dark and depressing, you become dark and depressing.
And if you seek out beauty and truth and goodness, you will embody it.
We already know this world is a dark world. But we also know that there is much light in it.
Buried among everyday horrors are stories of virtue, sacrifice and heroism. Ordinary people risking life and limb to save complete strangers from accidents, deadly diseases, criminals. The ultra-rich donating generously to noble causes. Uniformed personnel giving the last full measure of devotion to protect the weak and innocent.
To spotlight the worst excesses of humanity and simultaneously ignore the best of us is unrealistic. Not to mention unaesthetic.
The shock value in dark and brutal fiction rests on the audience already being acquainted with the light of justice and civilization. But in a barbaric world filled with murder, rape and other atrocities, where the weak are meat for the strong, where there is no law but the law of the mighty, foul deeds will have little to no impact on its inhabitants. They simply have no frame of reference for a better state of existence. In such a universe, a universe without hope or justice or redemption, without a benchmark for an ideal state of existence and codes of conduct, all that is left is a downward spiral of ever-escalating horrors. Inhabitants of such a story universe will have little of their souls left to blacken; all that remains is degradation porn for the reader.
The pulp tradition follows a different approach. In recognition of the ethical standards that shaped society, our readers and ourselves, we choose to contrast the good against the evil, the white against the black.
Evil holds no impact without an understanding of good. Weirdness means nothing without a baseline of normality. Horror shakes us only because we already have a framework of how things are supposed to be. Without truth, beauty and goodness, there is no true understanding of lies, ugliness and evil. All that remains is the pleasure and pain principle, a reduction of men to beasts.
By a man’s work shall he be known. If a man’s works worship malevolence and corruption, ugliness and defilement, you see what he worships in his heart. Likewise, of those who are attracted to such works, who hold them up as exemplars of art, you know what they truly value.
As for myself, and those of us in PulpRev and pulp-aligned groups, we seek to banish the darkness. And to dispel the dark, you need a light.
You need to go bright.
But this does not automatically confer victory over the forces of Clown World in the Year of Our Current. On the contrary, it demands greater skill and awareness.
No one cares about weak, feckless villains. Such petty ne’er do wells are not worthy of a hero, except perhaps as comic relief or a minor character. To present a true threat, to be seen as a monster in the shape of a man, he must engage in the kind of evils that demand a champion to avenge. He must reflect the darkness of the world, and the darkness of the human heart.
But in portraying these evils, we must be careful not to taint our readers too. We must peel off the gilded mask to reveal the maggots squirming beneath, without ourselves becoming contaminated by the rot and miasma. We must not inflict ourselves–our wounds, our weaknesses, our vices, our failings–on our readers.
The deeper you go into the muck, the more powerful and urgent the message becomes. Herein lies the appeal of the noir genre, with its flawed characters working towards their own self-destruction, unable to overcome their weaknesses. Here, too, is the realm of writers like Andrew Vachss, who expose the methods and mindsets of monsters, and offer the reader a glimpse into Hell on Earth.
In skillfully exposing the evils of the world, in demonstrating the final outcomes of succumbing to vices and temptation, and in the fruits of resisting evil both grand and banal, the writer goes from beyond providing mere entertainment to offering education, and even inspiration.
But in staring into the abyss, the abyss stares back.
It changes us. It is an inevitable human response upon exposure to outside stimulus. And when we write of the abyss, we pass on the contagion to our readers, filtered through our individual lenses.
The darker the evil you write about, the more you must guard your own soul. Never lose sight of the light, and indeed, bring that light into the depths. You cannot stop yourself and your readers from being changed from this exposure, but you can dictate how you change in response to it, and in turn influence how your audience changes in response to your work.
Treat the imagined evils you create as simply fuel for a furnace. To establish characters and to create opportunities to act. To reflect a world groaning under the world of injustice, and to make possible the coming of a knight to make right these terrible wrongs. To burn away the impurities of the soul in brilliant flame.
Through your work, take the poisons of malice and suffering and transform them into medicine for the soul. Let this intention guide you and inform your creation. Be as the lotus, which thrives in murky waters, which removes toxins from the water without itself becoming contaminated.
Corruption has always been part of the human condition, darkening the world everywhere it spreads. But a pulp writer of skill, imagination and iron will can burn it up and bring light back into the world.
This is a dark world. Let’s go bright.