Ew! Moments in Books

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Most books have a gross or horrifying part. When I was a kid, I disliked these parts. (I was an impressionable child. I had nightmares for what seemed like months after someone told me the story of how Odysseus used a heated log to poke out the cyclops’s eye.)

The ew! moments in books are sometimes all that people remember about them. I can remember a few occasions when someone would see me reading a book and say, “Ew, that’s the book where _________ happens.” And in the blank was always the most disgusting incident, which usually was just an aside and wasn’t even a major part of the plot. I guess you could say that grossness is salient.

Why Authors Include Ew! Moments

I never thought I’d include ew! moments in my own novels, but lo and behold, they have quite a few of them. It’s a matter of simple realism. My plots deal with sometimes desperate survival situations. They include death and birth (a lot of births). One of the characters is paraplegic, which comes with its own indignities. I try to handle any necessary grossness tastefully, but I don’t skip it entirely, because I don’t want to romanticize anything … not parenthood, not paralysis, not the nomadic lifestyle. Also, it is through these horrifying and humbling incidents that the characters grow. If I skipped all that, I’d be skipping the whole story.

It turns out that grossness is a part of life. We might not want to dwell on it, but we can’t completely avoid it either. And this is true for any book that aspires to being realistic.

Fantasy author Neil Gaiman titled his 2015 short story collection Trigger Warning for the following reason:

We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what others see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered, because I was not ready for them and they upset me: stories which contained helplessness, in which people were embarrassed, or mutilated, in which adults were made vulnerable and parents could be of no assistance. They troubled me … but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could. (page xiii)

Ew! Levels Are Culturally Determined

How much ew! to include in fiction is a convention that has changed over the years. One hundred fifty years ago, the standard was basically … none. Take The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I adore this book. It paints a perfect picture of the horror that results when we are enslaved to sin … whether through addiction to a substance or to some aspect of our own sin nature. (In Dr. Jekyll’s case, it’s literally both.) The horror in this book does not come from any gross-out scenes. It comes from the progressive loss of self-control and the dawning realization that you are the monster. However, I can think of one part of the story where Robert Louis Stevenson’s discretion causes some confusion. Dr. Jekyll mentions that his “pleasures” were “undignified” and that he created Hyde as a way to allow himself to indulge his pleasures without Dr. Jekyll suffering any “indignity.” As a modern reader, it’s not immediately obvious to me what this means. My guess is that Dr. Jekyll had started out frequenting music halls and had progressed to brothels. But I don’t know, because he is too dignified to tell us. Perhaps Victorian readers would immediately have known what was meant by “undignified pleasures.”

Nowadays, obviously, there are entire genres dedicated to ew!. Of course this is just as misguided as the Victorian standard. Grossness is a part of life and so must be included. But it’s not the main story.

It’s Good for Ew!

How much ew! to include in your reading is a personal decision. I can tolerate more of it now than when I was younger, and that’s as it should be. For example, it was just within the last few years that I read Stephen King’s Misery. I deliberately avoided it before because I didn’t think I could handle the horror at the time. I still think that was a good decision. The story is most famous for the scene where the rabid fan, Annie, amputates the author’s leg at the ankle. But as you might expect, the real horror in the story does not come from that scene alone, but from the increasingly complete picture we get of Annie’s mind. And the story is not only about horror. It’s about literary snobbery (really!), the creative process, the relationships readers have with books and that authors have with readers. But I doubt I could have appreciated all of those themes (or even the glimpses of Annie’s mind) if I had read it as a younger person.

Having said that, there was one scene in Misery, worse even than the amputation scene, which I skipped as soon as I realized what was coming. You gotta know your limits. You do not have any obligation to read every horrifying scene that is out there.

Yet despite that know your limits is a good rule, it has sometimes been the cringiest scenes in books that have done me the most good. Yes, even moral good. They bring home to the reader the details of what some people have to live through (such as sexual assault in Pillars of the Earth or leprosy in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever), thereby increasing empathy. For those of us fortunate enough not to have grown up suffering war, crime, or abuse, our first encounter with the reality of these things was probably through books.

Of course, some horrors are entirely fictional (vampires, zombies, aliens, portals to hell). Yet even these are telling us something that is in some sense true about the world. There really are evil spiritual powers, and they really do seek to affect human history, and sometimes it can get very bad. In the case of these fictional or metaphorical horrors, reading about them inoculates the reader against the shock of that particular thing. Hopefully we will never encounter it in exactly that form, but we are going to come up against the concept – and the power – again.

It is a wonderful thing to be able to encounter a particular horror for the first time in the context of solitary reading, where you have some space and time on your own to be shocked by it, go back and re-read it, meditate on it, and ultimately, to face that this is part of reality. And maybe to go for help.

Here is Jordan Peterson making a similar point about why you should invite Maleficent to your child’s christening:

Now, read the comments section at your own risk. It could really get away from us if people start telling their own ew! stories.

12 thoughts on “Ew! Moments in Books

  1. I have not read Misery, but I thought the movie was great. Stephen King loves his ‘Ew’ moments, even when they don’t have anything to do with the plot! There’s one in his novel, Cujo, that I was probably too young to fully understand at the time when I read it.

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    1. Hmm, OK, I don’t want to know what it was then. 🙂

      When I was in grade school, a bunch of my classmates would gather in a circle while one of them read Cujo out loud. But I’ve never read it.

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    1. Hi Grandma! Thanks for the visit.

      I haven’t watched the Lion King analysis but in general I love JP’s perspective on Disney movies. (I am thinking of The Little Mermaid.) He is conversant with Jungian archetypes, so he helps you see the depths in Disney. (I realize we have to be careful with Jung, but there is some wisdom there as well.)

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  2. Benjamin Ledford

    Have you read/listened to N.D. Wilson at all on this? He’s got great stuff about the value of scary stories. I guess scary and ew don’t completely overlab, but I think a lot of the reasoning would apply to both in that it’s a real part of the world and it’s better to be able to encounter it in fiction first when you have some distance from it and can learn to process it vicariously, as it were.

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    1. No I haven’t, but it sounds good. Really this post was not 100% clear. I kind of talk about scary and ew both. Because there is a ton of overlap.

      I have seen another writer (Rich Colburn, author of The Formulacrum) speculate along similar lines about why we have nightmares.

      And coincidentally, last night the kids and I were watching a kids’ movie in which one of the characters cries passionately, “Horror movies make people happy!”

      Once you start looking for it, this concept is everywhere.

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  3. Benjamin Ledford

    I do think that there’s a difference when it comes to movies. When you’re watching a movie you’re less in control, less able to pause and process it, and the imagery is more defined and, of course, has the tendency to dominate. When you read something disturbing you’re left grappingly with the event itself. There may be graphic descriptions that stick in your mind and create a clear mental picture, but even so, you didn’t *see* it. With film, on the other hand, you’re presented directly with the images themselves, and you’re left grappling with what you saw. For that reason, I think the value of including the “ew” is lessened in film, and the potential negatives are perhaps greater. I’m shooting from the hip here though.

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    1. I agree, absolutely.
      We definitely have more control when reading than when watching. I think it has to do with the nature of the medium itself: the way the human mind interacts with words vs. with something that we directly witness.

      There’s a whole discussion to be had here about why, in the Old Testament, God revealed Himself primarily through words and even forbade images. I’ve seen people try to say that propositional truth is best expressed *only* through words, but there are problems with that too. For one thing, we aren’t talking about propositional truths exactly but about verbal pictures of reality, including stories with mythic power. For another, God also gave His people visual symbols too and even ceremonies where they could “do” the truth. I’ll bet Alistair Roberts has written some stuff about this.

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  4. One more thought about the distinction that Benjamin raised between ew! and ‘scary.’

    A lot of things can be scary, of course, but often I think when we say scary, we mean something that is alien in nature to us (not human, or not living, or something) and wishes us ill.

    Whereas ew! moments are the moments that force us to consider the fact that we are animals in our physical nature and are subject to all kinds of physical laws that we’d rather not be.

    Essay question: write about stories that combine these two elements.
    Extra credit: When are human characters saved from the alien thing by the very fact of our animal nature?

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    1. Benjamin Ledford

      I’m not sure about that. It seems like some of the scariest stuff is when you have pure malevolence from other humans. Reminds me of C.S. Lewis: “People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beast. A beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel.”

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      1. Oh certainly. Human wickedness is super scary. So is insanity. But those scary items show up in all genres … crime, thriller, domestic suspense. (As do ew! moments, actually.) Whereas I think the idea of an antagonist that is in some sense alien is more distinctive to the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genres.

        Of course these scary things all interact with each other. Sci-fi/alien horror gets really tense when it leads to people not trusting each other or their own minds. Human cruelty gets really horrifying when it leads to physical defilement, in which case we are back to ew! moments that highlight our physical nature.

        You could also make the argument that when a human being is insane or has been possessed by an extremely wicked set of values (e.g. during a purge), they are filling the role of alien antagonist relative to the hero. But I just came up with that idea, so it could have huge holes in it. Have to think about that one.

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  5. Pingback: “Please God, Don’t Let Me Become a Christian Novelist!” – Out of Babel

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