I recently reviewed a book on my future fiction blog (here) which was essentially a celebration of pulp genre – unabashedly raw, rambunctious, and disgusting in parts. A lot of folks liked it, giving 4 & 5 stars on Goodreads. It was a little over the top for me and I wondered if maybe I’m behind the times. I miss things. We don’t have cable — that was a conscious decision before having kids — though we do have internet. (That was not a superfluous decision in the beginning!)
One might be tempted to bemoan the callow ‘modern era’ as being desensitized by video games, violent movies and sex on TV. Take Game of Thrones. I first was introduced to GOT on an airplane, when the gent next to me opened his laptop and started playing the first episode. Look, this was coach, it is hard not to see naked women cavorting in my peripheral vision. He was on the aisle, too, so there were a good 5 rows with a view. I thought he had something from Bob Guccione going over there. I was rather taken aback. Later, I discovered it was Game of Thrones, available to anyone on HBO. Yeah, things had gotten pretty steamy on cable since I had last watched it.
Some months later, having read the series, we got the DVD and watched the first season. My kids were all teenagers by then and had seen some racy stuff. Amelie, yeah, I forgot about the ‘clock towers ringing’ scene. Oops. Oh, and Reddit. I shudder to think. So we watched GOT together.
GOT was a real wake-up call. I had some trepidation about what my kids were watching. I don’t mind the sex so much; we worry more about the impact of violence on them than sex. (As kids, my buddies and I tore through all the copies of Playboy we could find. Didn’t seem to do any harm…) And I was amazed at how far T.V. had come since Gilligan’s Island and Hawaii Five-O. GOT has some fairly brutal scenes of people coming to great harm. But are things really different? Is putting sex and violence onto the small screen a major shift compared to past generations? Thinking back on some seminal experiences of my youth, I wondered how does Ned Stark’s beheadings (and beheading) compare to what happened to my generation (post-boomer).
Well, if I may be so bold as to assert, the 20th century was no better. Different delivery vehicles, for sure — more of the sensational stuff was in print (ref. Playboy, Penthouse et al) and it had gotten explicit by then (ref: Hustler). And not just sex. Really nasty violence wasn’t hard to find, America was steeped in it, even then. Case in point: Super Man Chu.
This is a work I first came across in the mid-70s, at a primary school of all places. Some dauntless student had left the book in my desk (that was in the days when teachers would shuffle you around so you did not get too cozy). It had a lurid cover (see exhibit A, left, thanks to vintageninja.net) which immediately drew me in with tales of derring-do. But the derring got pretty hairy, right quick — the hero had a neat trick to take down the bad guys (of which there were many). He flung vintage American silver dollars, not the now-familiar shuriken. They were heavy and struck hard when thrown by said hero. When i read of one of his victims (deserved i am sure) scrabbling at his eyes, where now two silver dollars protruded, I put the book down for a while, grossed out. But I soldiered on, fascinated. I still remember the line where I finally put the book down for good. The evil villain had snatched the lovely target of the hero’s affections and had her in a brothel, where she had disappointed Mr. Evil somehow. Intending to show her resistance was futile, he proceeded to whip her clothes off; when the author described the villain lining up his bullwhip to remove her more delicate parts, I could read no more.
Then there was The World According to Garp. John Irving, 1978. Famous book, but probably more famous from the movie. I never saw the movie. But I read the book in high school, a gift from a girlfriend (what was she thinking?). In it there is a story-within-a-story, The World According To Bensenhaver. I don’t remember how it related to the book. At the time it seemed out of place. The climax of the story was the description of a rape scene. That was bad enough, but then the woman escapes by wielding a fillet knife on her attacker. Irving very graphically details the passage of said knife through the innards of the rapist, and as much as the guy deserved it, I could almost feel the blade severing all the bits as he described them in that passage and it left me with a feeling of horror.
Those books were many decades ago. And I can say with some confidence that reading of such vile acts had as much effect on me as watching equally bad stuff. I had seen a graphic theater preview as a young child. The film was called Bloody Butchers. In the preview, people were tossing knives around, whacking cleavers into heads, stabbing each other inadvertently, chopping off hands. Neat stuff, for a 7-year-old.
Horror — it has been around a long time. We seem to adapt.
Note: I can find no reference to Bloody Butchers. That movie died so dead not even the Internet can revive it (no, it was not the British movie of a similar name, that was a Sweeny Todd take-off), As for Super Man Chu — they made a movie from the book and of course it is on YouTube.