Cold Killing: What is Too Dark?

A term that many times fascinates readers is the idea of darkness. It dances in the shadows, plays with our fears. We find it comforting that we can stand up to the presumed evil in books, simply by reading about them. But this is not a dissertation dealing with subconscious findings of all things dark and bed wetting.

This asks the age old question, the blurred line in fiction: What is dark?

What action, if described as dark, labels it firmly as dark or too dark? Have we as a society become too desensitized to understand what is too dark and what is not, even when both are equally as bad? I believe we have. I believe people see what they want to see, not caring about one thing that is equally terrible when compared to the same bloody tragedy.

Cold Killing by Luke Delaney is a very intriguing novel, very dark and despicable. Personally, I didn’t find the work too dark, merely the pacing too slow, but that’s a thought for another time. Nonetheless, this work of fiction is ranked as one of my most highly read dark books. It doesn’t have the bleak feel that characterizes truly despicable novels, but it revels in death and torture.

But my question doesn’t stem from seeing death and all that bad stuff in works of art. No, it asks the question of what is too dark?

In Delaney’s debut novel, the killer is a brilliant man, disguising his murders as what they’re not, cold, remorseless killings, all in the name of Nature. While a psychopath isn’t all that amazing, it is from the sheer indifferent detail that we see his perspectives on the death. In the beginning, the killer knocks a gay prostitute upside the head, then proceeds to take an ice pick and plunge the blade into the man’s skin, multiple times.

Too dark?

Is meticulously attacking and killing a man, all on first degree, pre-planned, murder something that would irk you? It should.

But I kept on.

Moving with the plot, the killer strikes again. This time, he watches a young woman cry her way out of an abortion clinic. Context clues lead you to what happened inside. Naturally, the woman walks away all by her lonesome, and the killer comes to pay her a visit. Thus she becomes trapped, led to her death by a painful throw to a running train. Suicide, the police claim. And the killer walks away.

Too dark?

Is creating an alibi for another death and using a distraught young woman for your needs (the need to murder and appease Nature) a psychopathic tendency that should be put down and labeled as wrong to read? Probably.

But I kept on.

The third attack, my third strike, was when the killer watches some children play at an arcade.  The land is slummy and dank for London. It’s not a great place to live, let alone raise children. So the little ones survive on smoke and prostitution. And this is where the killer sneaks in to steal a little girl. He strikes her in a desolate alleyway, makes her take off her clothes. The reads squirms at the idea of rape, but none comes. She’s killed like that, a nick to the throat, then all is done with. A kid is found murdered in the back streets of London, missing, and not a care in the world.

Too dark?

While I might argue, this was where I stopped, pacing wise. But the last scene did make me tense unlike the others. I think it was on the dealings with children, or more importantly, with the prospect of raping a child.

Thus my question comes back around, anew: Why does rape get labeled as bad when we can deal with murder all day long? What distinguishes the two as bad and worse?

One you lose your life and can’t heal from. The other scars you, but can heal from.

One there is no going back. The other can be dealt with.

Now that’s not to say rape is a light thing. Not at all. But it irks me when reviewers and people cite rape as the specific thing turning them off from the book. Why is it we can read about people swarming in to kill large swaths of individuals, such as in war fiction and the gritty fantasy, but can’t stomach one instance of rape?

Why is it the popular story Game of Thrones can be labeled as sexist for rape scenes, but called realistic and gritty from all the gray areas of death? Why can we not stomach Donaldson’s casual beginning to Thomas Covenant’s story? I will not deconstruct these examples, merely offer a sweeping generalization to beg the question.

It sickens me that we have overlooked one bad thing to focus on social rites of one people. The dead have nobody championing for them to be heard. Maybe it is from our dehumanization of the idea that we tend not to care so much about death than rape.

But I would say we are wrong, that the reason is an excuse to face one tiny problem, instead of one that we have resigned cannot be mended.

We all have a line in reading or watching films that says to us “this is too dark.” My line has only been crossed once in the time I can remember reading. Richard Kadrey gets this honor, specifically his book Kill the Dead. A man would summon a demon, a zombie better said, to have his needs sated. His little boys would get nibbled on by a zombie.

If that doesn’t make you guys squirm, there’s something wrong. Just imagining that makes me cringe.  Is it death? No. Is it rape? No. So my open-ended question is: What makes things too dark for us as human beings? I would guess it would be things we have experienced ourselves. While I’ve never had a zombie attack me, I can understand the pain to a degree.

And maybe that’s the answer; experiences define us. They decide what is too dark for our tastes. But it pains me that we can tolerate one darkness over the other. People would like you to believe darkness is a gray thing, but I don’t believe it is. One heartache is just as strong as any other.

So why should we discriminate between the two?

5 thoughts on “Cold Killing: What is Too Dark?

  1. I think, a gratuitous use of violent themes that don’t move the plot along whatsoever is completely unecessary. In this day and age, we are becoming more and more desensitised to dark violence. Its very sad.
    Back in the early days of Dr Who our parents hid behind the sofa at the sight of a dalek. These days it has to be something particularly shocking to get some sort of visceral reaction, and the ante is always being upped for that shock-value element. Great post Caleb!

    • I agree, and I’ve truthfully never understood the “gratuitous” usage of violence. While I write with each violent scene in mind to show emotions, opposing sides, and needed conflict for the plot to advance, I’ve never understood how a writer can differentiate between the two consciously. But I never use death unless needed to make a huge statement, which I think is underused in today’s books.

      Suffice to say, I believe you can write bleak stuff without writing dark stuff. Take Iain Banks’s Stonemouth.

      But all this blood and gut shock-value stuff that you pointed out is unnecessary. Hmm. You’ve got me thinking about another post….

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  2. Interesting post here. I really don’t like it when a death in a book serves no purpose. It either means that the author just wants to kill off this character, or s/he wants to make a point that death is meaningless. In which case, I probably wouldn’t want to read the book anyways.

    In my book, I have a lot of death. (Not a spoiler. It’s in the summary!) But, all of it affects the characters greatly. Does that make all those deaths okay? Maybe not, but I try to avoid depicting the deaths as something… cool?

    I might check this book out. Sounds kind of interesting. But I hope you write another post about how people view darkness nowadays. I’d be very interested to read that. 😛

    • As I said, the pacing is very slow. It’s got the dark, noirish police procedural I love, but so much death. The killer is extremely smart, which I love. But it took too long. Gave up halfway.

      I’ve got this new idea, as seen from the title, to write quandering posts on books I don’t finish, finding a strong topic and seeing the problems. Hoping it works.

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  3. Why does rape get labeled as bad when we can deal with murder all day long? What distinguishes the two as bad and worse?

    This is a very difficult and sensitive topic. On a personal note though, I can’t really “deal with murder all day long” and because the four attacks from the novel you describe were without context (reasons, killer motivation etc), I still found them troubling to read. Perhaps I am more sensitive to it, I’m not sure.

    Rape is physically scarring – bruises, cuts etc. More so than this it is incredibly, emotionally scarring and even though the victim may not have been “killed” as in murder, it can just as easily end their lives.

    I remember reading an article about why it is such a brutal and disgusting crime, but unfortunately, I can’t remember the title (and I’m not about to google it). But the jist of it was a brief description of how a a burglary can make a victim feel unsafe in their home (or wherever the burglary took place). They feel their home and their safety has been violated. For some, it may be too much to remember and they move away, leaving their old home behind.

    But rape is something more, it is when you yourself have been violated that “space” is you and you cannot escape that, cannot walk away. And the victim, if they ever recover, carry it with them for the rest of their lives.

    As a side note, I wouldn’t say Game of Thrones was sexist for including rape, such topics should be covered, but they should be done so with tact and care. I personally, (though I have only seen the first season of the TV show, so I have no idea how it relates to the books) didn’t think it was handled particularly well at all, but there we go.

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