In 1874 the London journalist James Greenwood reported an incident that was – and remains, to my mind – truly shocking, writes Matthew G. Rees.
Permit me not to disclose this matter straightaway and to keep you in suspense a little. For one of the reasons – perhaps the reason – I invoke Greenwood (1831-1927) in these pages concerns not so much the man himself. Rather, I mention him, and his piece, as a kind of touchstone – one against which the writing of perhaps some contemporary would-be practitioners of the short story (and not necessarily in the horror genre) might usefully be judged.
I refer to the use – no, let me make that the abuse – of shock. By that I mean the deployment by a writer of material that might loosely be called ‘extreme’, often presented in a deadpan but in-your-face way, over which the author has deliberated – and possibly delighted – thinking themselves shocking and, I have suspected, rather cool.
In fact, for all of the detail employed, the take-it-or-leave it insouciance, such material tends to be heavy, flat-footed: assault and battery, by means of a plank, on the very word ‘shock’. In terms of a punch we’re talking a haymaker swung wide of its target, rather than jab, bob and weave.
The biggest (though perhaps no longer) surprise is the forums in which it seems to thrive. I’m thinking here not of publications whose proclaimed and honest devotion is to the grotesque (and which are entertaining by comparison), but, rather, outlets that like to think of their merchandise as literary. As a reader and, in recent years, a student, of short fiction I have grown weary of encountering writing – sometimes heralded – whose raison d’être and acclaim seem tied only to an alleged ‘shock factor’.
Stories that I recall with no relish include a boy’s rape of a young girl, a woman’s monstrous mutilation of a captive man, and multiple pieces with expletives strung with all the charm and lustre of half-soaked laundry on a line. All have appeared in publications presented as literary. Far from possessing ‘shock’, this has all come to seem rather… stock.
Perhaps a reason that I care little for such writing comes from my ten years or so as a newspaper reporter, during which I covered inquiries such as the crimes of Fred and Rose West, and other cases that have faded from public memory – but not my memory – that need not be mentioned here.