“O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter into this firm bosom” (Hamlet, III.ii.409-10).
Did Shakespeare flinch when he wrote scenes of rape, mutilation, and cannibalism in Titus Andronicus? Or did he worry that his audiences might think he had gone too far in his depictions of murder, betrayal, and madness in Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, or Hamlet?
I’m currently writing a novel involving time travel, Jack the Ripper, and a modern day serial killer. Recently, it came time to write a scene involving the serial killer. I set about the task with a certain amount of trepidation—as I do most writing (a blank page can be an intimidating thing). But what stuck me as especially odd was, after I had finished the scene, I found myself avoiding the pages I had written. They sat on my desk, untouched and unread for almost two weeks before I had the courage to look at them again. Why is this?
Apparently while Bram Stoker was in the process of writing Dracula, the novelist’s friends grew worried because they thought the book was causing him to go a bit mad. Is this the root of my fear? Am I afraid that by delving too deeply into my fictional characters’ dark psyches, I will somehow become tainted myself? Didn’t Friedrich Nietzsche warn, “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you”? Or am I afraid that my characters’ deviant actions will somehow be judged as an extension of my own personal values or inclinations? After all, writers like Thomas Hardy and Kate Chopin were soundly condemned in their day for depicting characters who drifted too far from the established social norms.
The truth is undoubtedly a combination of all these conflicting impulses. So for me, one of the main tasks in writing this novel will be confronting both the dark characters within the story as well as my own artistic doubts and fears. Who would have thought that writing a book would demand so much courage? Then again, anyone who has ventured into the creative void knows exactly how dark that journey can be.