Romance and Horror, Theory and Cattiness

Been a while! Can’t promise it won’t be another while, but I’ve been rambling more lately and Twitter’s going through some shit, so there may well be a couple essays coming. This one was supposed to be more toward Halloween, but: fuck it. A scary tale is good for winter, as someone I studied in school said.


By the time we’re thirty, most of us think we have our world figured out.

That’s not saying we know how everything works–most of us will acknowledge the existence of quarks and Bjork and people who enjoy yogurt-covered raisins and our general mystification around same–but we’ve got most of the rules covered. Fire is hot. Water is wet. The Red Line will take you from Quincy to Alewife most of the time, and you can’t ride it in the nude. We’re pretty sure of the rules for everything we think we’ll have to deal with.

What if something changes?

What if you encounter a being, let’s say, that doesn’t follow all of those rules? One that doesn’t even know–or care–that they exist? 

Can you get rid of it? Do you want to? Will you ever look at the world the same way again, even if this being goes away, or will you always know that your rules don’t always apply–maybe that they’re not even rules at all?

Those are a lot of questions. One more:

Are “you” in this situation Fitzwilliam Darcy or Jonathan Harker?


I reread a lot, especially Stephen King–80% of his works are a very weird sort of literary comfort food for me at this point, and I’ll go back to them again and again when I’m sad or stressed or just disappointed by the new stuff I’ve picked up–and lately I’ve been going through Danse Macabre, his take on horror from the 1950s through the 1980s. I’ve had my own takes on his takes–oh, the Inception-style ramblings of people who like books–and it’s reminded me of an essay I wrote for Tor back in the day, on the relationship between horror and romance.

What if that, but MORE WORDS and also some cattiness about the industry?


So okay: as I mentioned back in that essay, the horror-romance crossover goes back a while. Before paranormal romance became its own sprawling genre and “monsterfucker” a household term, there was Buffy, and Forever Knight before that, and Dark Shadows, plus the not-really-sub-except-in-one-sense-text of Anne Rice. (I recall at least a few romance series with vampires from the 1990s, for that matter, even though I don’t think they had their own imprint.) 

By the way, just in case anyone’s out there winding up Big Pronouncements about Ladies and Monsters or Women and Bad Boys, I’d like to note the existence of Dracula’s brides (not even the OG sexy vampire chick, though the first was a lesbian), Poison Ivy, Mystique, and like half of the aliens in original Star Trek. And I’d then like to invite you to go fuck yourself.  There’s a lot to say about the intersection of hot people and people who are mystically or personally outside the norm, and I get into it a little below, but mostly: this happens for every gender, there are a variety of reasons, see also go fuck yourself. 


Even when the monster isn’t an object of desire, you get a lot of peanut butter in your chocolate here. The Gothic novel was all about that: Jane Eyre, for example, combined a swoony inscrutable (if kiiiind of a manipulative dick) hero and eventual happy ending with mysterious fires and stabbings and screamings that, it turns out, were the result of a homicidal woman who gets described as a bloated purple hellbeast in a way that I don’t think any DSM edition mentions. Eighties slasher films generally skip the happy ending but provide plenty of sexual tension before Jason shows up; fifties monster movies usually have a couple or two chastely holding hands after the mutant of the day is defeated.

Plus, let’s face it, romance and horror are the two genres that get the most shit.


I got into Stephen King because, in September of my fifth-grade year, my teacher stood up in front of the class and gave us a lecture on how his books (and horror in general) were turning children into hardened criminals and corrupting the moral fabric of the nation and how we should never ever ever read them. “Just as all American publishers hope that their books will be banned in Boston, so do all English publishers pray that theirs will be denounced from a pulpit by a bishop,:” wrote PG Wodehouse (in an amusingly dated view of Boston–shit, brah, the only thing we ban around here these days is Krispy Kreme), and I would add “middle-aged authority figures will tell children not to read them,” to the list.

Like so many works of fiction rumored to Corrupt The Youth of America, King’s books were far less corrupting than the youth in question had hoped–although far less disappointing in quality than “Beavis and Butthead,” Mrs. C’s other weird boogeyman–but that wasn’t the last time I dealt with unasked-for opinions about the quality or worth or corrosive effect of horror novels. As for romance, my mother’s attempt to keep eight-year-old Izzy from reading about turgid shafts and pebbled nipples was largely half-hearted (and she later said she just didn’t want me to get the wrong idea about love, which “mostly ends in arguments over the right way to load the dishwasher”) and she gave it up when I was thirteen, but the number of essays I’ve seen accusing the genre of giving women “unrealistic expectations” is…reasonably vast and extremely annoying. (Not least because “unrealistic expectations,” for most US cis het dudes, boils down to “go to the gym once a month and shower more often than that.”)

And yeah, horror and romance are associated with some fairly awful tropes from the 1980s–again, something I’ll go into later–although I don’t know that the actual prevalence is any deeper or the tropes worse than the average in other genres or even lit fic. Science fiction and fantasy from similar time periods isn’t exactly known for its emphasis on consent and diversity; nobody is going to accuse Updike of being enlightened about women; let’s not even discuss Tom Clancy. Every genre has to reckon with a fairly problematic history, but only romance and horror are regularly accused of ruining society.


So there’s probably some publishing history inside baseball there. There’s definitely some sexism: romance is largely written by and aimed at women (too often white het cis women, but I promise we’ll get there), and while horror isn’t exactly, there’s possibly something to be explored there with Mary Shelley and Mina Harker and how the patriarchy reacts to strength that doesn’t look like Steven Seagal.

But mostly, I think it boils down to two things.

One: both horror and romance hit you right in the biology. Between the two of them, they cover half of the famous Four Fs of the instincts–maybe two-thirds, depending on your reaction to being threatened and how much a given work crosses the line to action. A mentor of mine once told me that fear and desire are two sides of the same coin (both symbolized by the Devil card in Tarot, for what it’s worth) . He also mentioned “skin hunger,” the unnervingly named need for human contact that you can get through nurturing, violence, or sex–and that can be channeled into the others when one isn’t available.

Name three areas of life where most American culture is shitty, right? (I keep trying to write more explaining this and it keeps turning into an entire essay where I go back in time and punch John Wayne in the nuts, so tl;dr: we are awful, as Americans, about each of those categories in different ways.) Plus, there’s this Victorian hangover where Good Art does not provoke the Baser Urges, because it’s supposed to be on some kind of Platonic bullshit plane above fear (except for middle-class neuroses) or desire (except for torrid-but-oddly-sexless affairs between totally inappropriate people) where we can intellectually explore or morally uplift blah blah blah. 

We don’t trust our desires, we don’t trust our fears, and so art that taps into either on a primal level is, as the kids say, Sus. 

(Note: I am pretty sure the kids don’t say that.)

Two: See my intro.


One of King’s big themes in Danse Macabre is the contrast between the two sides of human nature. He uses Apollonian to mean the socially-approved, logical, respectable aspect of humanity and Dionysian for the wild, impulsive, party-animal bits. The Sun and the Moon also kinda work, if you’re into Tarot, or yin and yang–and you’ll note, or you should, that none of the dichotomies is about good and evil.

(They work out to the same thing in Danse Macabre, but first of all that’s a book entirely about horror and second, King, while liberal enough in a Boomer dad way, is much more monogamy-and-kids-and-backyard-barbeques than I am. I think chaos and indulgence disturb him a bit more than they do me, even when nobody gets hurt.)

Which seems weird where horror is concerned, right?

Like, you can wave your hands around about how The Thing or Cthulhu isn’t actually “evil,” just alien, but frankly whatever: at the end of the day, it’s going to eat your face. Leave philosophy to the ponytailed guys in college. Jason Vorhees isn’t exactly Carnival. Plus I think The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, not to mention King’s own Long Walk, demonstrated that Apollonian respectability and logic can produce plenty of horror themselves. 

So let’s pull back.

Let’s talk about rules.


To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, another major influence and constant source of comfort reading, rules like “don’t fall into this enormous pit of spikes” are there for a reason. If we’re going to live together, we need to establish some safety rails: use your blinker when you change lanes, chew with your mouth closed, and don’t poison your grandmother even if she kind of sucks and you could use the cash from her will. That sort of thing keeps society working and keeps us all from killing each other, on purpose or otherwise. 

Other rules, though? They’re bullshit. “Your gender is what a bunch of adults said it was when you were born, and you can only marry someone who got stuck with the opposite?” Completely wrong. “Rich people deserve respect because they’re rich?” Fuck that. “You have to forgive abusive people if they say they’re really sorry and promise they’ll do better?” NOPE. “Boys don’t cry and girls don’t fuck?” Come over here and let me punch you.

(Note: Pratchett also made his most dire metaphysical villains the Auditors, enforcers of Rules throughout the universe. He was one of the few people who really got how complicated life is, and the world is a lesser place without him.)

You need to think about the rules before you break them, but the rules are there to make you think before you break them, you know? Apollo and Dionysus were brothers, not enemies, and lawful is not the same as good, whatever cocaine-addled Jehovah’s Witnesses might have posited back in the eighties. 

Buuuuuut: humanity isn’t great at that level of nuance, and this country is even less so. Maybe people used to be better, when Saturnalias and Days of Misrule and similar feasts meant everything went for a week or two each year. Maybe we’re better in cultures not dominated by extremely uptight white people. I don’t know–but Americans, by and large, like certainty and simplicity. We talk about knowing Right from Wrong, like there’s no gray area in between, and we hold up the fact that other people “followed the rules” as a reason not to bend them. (Even as we ourselves do so in minor ways all the time:  let he who’s never gone 80 in a 65 zone…get off the fuckin’ turnpike.) We don’t always follow the structures we set for ourselves, but, as anyone who’s read parenting books knows, we really like to have them.

Horror and romance often ask what happens if we don’t.


Horror is generally the most extreme form of Well, Fuck It: the rules it breaks start at “do not cut up campers with a machete” and go all the way into “giant monsters die for serious if you steer a goddamn boat into them, dead pets stay in the ground no matter where you bury them, and the worst result of watching a video is seeing Kevin Sorbo trying to act.”

(This is one of the reasons why some older horror can feel very dated. The Midnight Society and others have brought up the propensity for Lovecraft stories to use OMG ITALIANS as a horror element, and stories by otherwise-talented writers Machen and Matheson throw in OMG ORGIES or OMG LESBIANS and the modern reader is a bit nonplussed because this isn’t horror, this is a pretty good college party. King himself does this in some of his earlier novels–in The Shining, the dogman is creepy because he’s clearly broken and because he’s approaching a six-year-old, but the other intended-as-ominous references to sex leave me going “…yeah, sounds like a fun time, so what?” Sexual rule-breaking, as long as it’s consensual, is never going to be true horror because the rules restricting consensual sex are largely stupid and should be broken.) 

As King says in Danse Macabre, the genre is often small-c conservative at heart: the heroes uphold the norm, basically want to be good, and watch for the mutant. The goal is to get back to life before whatever the threat was, as far as that’s possible. In horror, except for dystopian horror, the rules are good.

But the heroes generally have to break them too.

You don’t cut people up with a machete…unless you have to decapitate the homicidal mother of a long-dead camper before she does it to you. You fight off threats with fists or guns, not garlic and crucifixes…until the guy floating outside your window takes five bullets to the chest and keeps on coming. At the very least, you have to acknowledge that the rules you thought always applied don’t and, say, go get an old priest and a young priest because spinal taps are not solving your daughter’s problem.

After the low-sanity effects in the awesome (and tragically un-followed-up-on) game Eternal Darkness, your hero would often exclaim “THIS. CAN’T BE. HAPPENING!” which is a reasonable enough response to zombies and giant blob monsters and angular eyeball things…but it could, and it was, and they had to live with that knowledge. 

Horror leaves the rules subverted, even when the heroes win.


Romance? The idealist in me says that the rules it breaks uphold larger ones: love and happiness are what matter, good people can overcome social differences and understand each other enough to build lives together, questioning customs is good, etc. 

That’s the ideal. In practice…

The star-crossed lovers generally defy their families and get together–but “getting together” largely means finding a way to inherit a vast estate anyhow. (I can understand this–being working-class is zero fun now and was less so in the 19th century–but I also have to give Wodehouse credit for having half of his plots resolve with the hero opening an eel-jellying shop or something.) Sometimes the stuffy person learns to lighten up, but that often goes along with the free spirit learning to settle down. The rake reforms: the “moral” character doesn’t embrace decadence. (Again I would note an exception, this time from Georgette Heyer’s “Venetia,” where I found her enthusiasm for theoretical orgies delightful.)

Weirdly–or maybe not, because, again, America–we’re a lot more comfortable fucking with the spacetime continuum and the details of murder than we are even considering alternatives to the class system or a very 1950s notion of sexuality. 

I am talking, here, as someone who both enjoys and writes romance. And we have gotten better as a genre (except for the “inspirational” lines, which are basically MAGA with Vaseline on the lens and regularly feature war criminals finding redemption and true love with either virginal or virtuously widowed women): women are largely allowed to have actual sexual desire and agency rather than being “violently introduced to passion” as was the case in the novels of my youth, a growing number of books feature LGBTQA+ main characters and/or happy endings that don’t involve marriage and kids, and there’s even a robust exploration of non-monogamy in many indie presses.

We’re getting more comfortable affirming rules like “consent matters” and “all sorts of people (except fucking Nazis, OMG) deserve happy endings” and “not all happy families are alike, fuck you Tolstoy.”

Or at least, we’re doing that in text.


Here is where I get catty.

The chapter on TV in Danse Macabre discusses how horror on TV was really difficult because of network S&P being butts. It’s sort of an entertaining period piece now, in the era of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones and even network shows like CSI and Criminal Minds. Where violence is concerned, the concept of “least objectionable programming” has gone out the window.

But last time I read that chapter, I thought of Hallmark.


When Netflix was raising its prices and cracking down on password sharing and all that bottom-line stuff, the idea I had for luring more viewers to a non-cable, non-ad-dependent platform was this: make romance movies where the characters fuck.

It doesn’t have to be onscreen–there are cases where I’d like that, but I know that grossly-named “intimacy scenes” involve a lot of completely necessary logistics and consent guidelines and safety rules. People kiss and then wake up in bed the next morning? I’m a big girl, I can live with that. But Hallmark standard, which Netflix originals follow for zero reason, is that a couple will kiss…once. At the end of a movie. In which they’ve gotten engaged after knowing each other for a single week and never banging.


And yes, sex-indifferent or -repulsed ace people exist and deserve happy endings, but–and feel free to correct me, ace friends–in that case there’d be a conversation where one person says they’re not that into sex and the other says hey, that’s cool, and that needs to happen onscreen. Because right now, your heartwarming movies are presenting a world where people make serious commitments after a completely chaste week together, and these people are assumed to be allosexual and not, like, Amish.

Although…they definitely are all a certain type of person, aren’t they?

White. Cis. Het, unless not being het is the focus. Culturally Christian, unless that’s the focus, and usually it’s gross and involves a non-Christian person learning to love Christmas or whatever. Middle class, or the Rockwell image of “working class,” where you do wholesome physical jobs all day and never worry about throwing your back out and not having health insurance or disability. No history of sexuality for the women, though the men may have a “playboy reputation.” Any relationships will have ended because the other person cheated or wouldn’t commit, and not for any of the messy reasons people leave their SOs in real life. All of them want marriage and babies (or learn to do so by the end of the film) and life in a small town. 

To quote King quoting John Wyndham: blessed is the norm.

I get some of the desires here, I really do: while I don’t love that it’s always the woman who has to learn how great small towns are and how horrible the corporate rat race is, corporate culture is vile and making the C-suite of a major company is a pretty empty and destructive goal. (If I ever write a Christmas romance, one of the main characters will leave their high-powered executive job and open a tattoo parlor or take over the all-night pierogi shop by the dance club.) I don’t need to see the squalid underbelly of rural life in a heartwarming holiday film, or have the characters struggle hard to deal with past-relationship baggage. It’s nice to spend two hours with people who are basically good and a community that’s doing okay at the core, no matter how much of a fantasy that may be. Fantasy helps us escape shitty situations and sometimes it gives us the inspiration to improve them.

But when that inspiration involves only the people above, it’s shit. It’s affirming rules that are actively oppressive and (in the case of sexuality and sexual purity) destructive even to those who play by them. It’s upholding the 1980s romance rules about Who Gets a Happy Ending, and those rules were complete toxic bullshit, but even there people fucked before they got engaged, good Lord. 

It also affirms a horrible meta-rule, one that the great Chuck Tingle addressed in a recent post: sex and happiness don’t go together. Works that deal with explicit sex (especially when that sex isn’t vanilla, heterosexual, monogamous and often with the possibility of making children) have to be dark and brooding, or deconstruct traditional tropes and ideals, or have moral universes with no real good guys. 

I haven’t talked about fantasy or sci-fi here, but I see that a lot in those genres, especially in roleplaying. Brightly-colored, idealistic worlds with struggles between good and evil ignore sex or euphemize it away: there may be mentions of succubi or alluring nymphs, but there’s nary a cock to be found. Universes with explicit sex and maybe some BDSM or orgies? GRIMDARK, ALL IS LOST, GOD IS DEAD. At best they’re “deconstructions,” which in practice means “everything you like about this genre is bad and wrong and silly and here’s why,” and I have no interest in that. When “idealism and happiness are for kids” edgelordery collides with “unconventional sex is for morally questionable people,” this is what you get.

And it is, I would like to stress, COMPLETE BULLSHIT.


There are good people in the world. Most of them fuck. Many of them fuck people of the same gender, fuck multiple people, and fuck in kinky ways. There are doms who like rainbows and unicorns. There are drag queens who read stories to kids and stop assholes with automatic rifles from killing people. There are spiritual leaders who go to, or hold, orgies. Openly. Joyfully. With the full understanding that consensual gang-bangs can, and do, coexist with a loving deity and clear moral imperatives as human beings.

Conflating “sexy” and “dark” does nobody a single favor. It encourages apathetic Reality Bites cynicism as an adult model on one side, and on the other, it says that people who don’t want the Hallmark model don’t deserve the heartwarming stories. It definitely contributes more to depression when one major political party is trying to legislate those folks out of existence, but this can’t help…and honestly? Everything’s connected. It’s pretty easy to go from “these people aren’t part of Idealized Universe” to “these people don’t deserve Idealized Universe” to “these people don’t deserve legal protections.”

And that, to bring in the ostensible topic of this essay, is pretty goddamn horrific.

Fictional Serial Killers: Doing it Wrong

Yes, Halloween is over, but I failed to make sufficient Spooky Posts due to moving. Plus, I think we all know I can be creepy any time I want. So, inspired by my last post: fictional serial killer tropes that do not actually happen in real life, two just kinda doofy and one actually harmful.

ETA CW: Discussions of transphobia, mentions of violence and sexual assault

Fiendishly Clever Riddles for the Police/Deathtraps That Can Be Solved does not happen–primarily because most serial killers are not in fact fiendishly clever. I talked about this a little re: Bundy, but it’s worth noting that a lot of the fuckos benefit from shitty police coordination (or, y’know, police being shitty in general), operating before people recognized some of the basic tricks, preying on vulnerable people, and exploiting the fact that it’s hard to solve murders where the perpetrator and the victim have no known connections. Sadly, killing a bunch of people has at no point in human history required genius-level intelligence.

Like, Rader totally believed the police when they told him there was no way they could find his data from a floppy disk. Berkowitz couldn’t even spell “woman” right and also decided to park at a hydrant before shooting people.  Sometimes you get a high-IQ murderer like Kemper, but that’s rare–and even he didn’t go the Jigsaw/CSI/Law & Order route. 

Kemper is also one of the very few serial killers who turned himself in. He doesn’t get points for that–he still murdered a whole bunch of people who weren’t his emotionally abusive mom–but it goes to another reason why these tropes do not happen: serial killers, by and large, want to keep killing people. There may be part of them that wants to stop–although that’s now a debated theory, and depends on the killer in question–but it’s often subconscious and almost never actually wins. 

So they’re not going to go to all the effort of capturing someone and then giving them a chance to get away and maybe tell the police. Hansen comes the closest, and that’s still a stretch, considering he was “hunting” naked women, in the Alaskan wilderness, who’d just been raped…and he did his hunting with a rifle. Notably, he’s also the only serial killer on record to even approach the deathtrap trope, and the victim who did escape and warn the police did it before he got her onto the plane. And I’m willing to bet he wasn’t in it for the challenge–serial killers, by and large, are not.

See also: writing clueful messages for the police. No, Zodiac didn’t. He said he would, the actual cryptogram contained basically “lolz fuck you” rather than his identity, and the messages maaaaybe are different if you remove the letters in a suspect’s name. Police are skeptical at best–the word “bullshit” was used–and even if it turns out to be true, that’s less revealing your identity and more the sort of thing where a director cameos in his movie. You have to know who you’re looking for already or he’s just some pudgy dude with big eyebrows.

Serial killers communicate with the police, victims’ families, etc. all the time, yes. Some of these communications have inadvertent clues in them, some obvious and some not, but again: taunting people generally comes second to killing people (and not getting killed or imprisoned themselves) for these assholes, so even the ones that reach out aren’t going to knowingly offer any information that might tip people off.  Again: just not how it works.

Also Not How It Works, for similar reasons? Killings that intentionally form pentagrams, or smiley faces, or names. (If you’re writing “From Hell” or similar and your killer is in fact actually a time-travelling Freemason instantiating patriarchal control of the 20th century, you obviously get a pass on this one.) Having to kill someone or dump a body in a specific location is a point of vulnerability that even a Berkowitz-level dumbass is going to recognize; having to do so while selecting specific victim types, which most killers do, is just a lot of fucking work even for a psychopath; and it’s for delayed gratification at best. I guess if it gives you private satisfaction to know that your murders have formed a giant bunny rabbit, it doesn’t matter if nobody else notices, but otherwise you’re waiting to complete the pattern and for some guy with a corkboard and string to figure it out, and…good luck with that. 

I don’t claim completely accurate knowledge of serial killer psychology, thank God, but I think I’m right here insofar as nobody has ever done the pattern-killing thing. There was a serial bomber trying to make a happy face, but since that was in 2002 and the guy never managed to kill anyone, I’m going to put that down to “twerp tries to do a thing he’s seen in TV shows.” (He was also in a failed Nirvana cover band, which I find inexplicably hilarious.)

So: those are the harmless but dumb tropes.

Now the toxic one: the equation of serial killers with trans women.

More reputable sources than I have discussed how this is a shitty, harmful trope. Defenders of the media in question come back with “but it’s baaaaaaased on…” and: no, it isn’t. People like Gross Wizard Lady are not only awful excuses for human beings but also factually wrong.

A quick bit of research reveals that there have been, in fact, all of three trans serial killers–one in Germany, one in Spokane, and one in Australia. (This is neither surprising or “evidence” of anything except that trans people are people and sometimes people are evil.) All of them transitioned after the killings in question, two while in prison and one ten years after the killings but before being arrested. None of them are the big names that people cite as inspirations for fiction. 

The ones who are? Either their parents forced them to wear clothes associated with a wrong gender as a form of abuse (which is…not being transgender, and is also pretty strong evidence that misgendering your kids is not good for them) or they themselves had fetishes for women’s clothing.

Being into women’s clothes, especially the underwear, is not exactly unusual in cis guys, even cis guys who don’t kill anyone, in case you were raised in a box. Plenty of people enjoy the clothing of people they fucked or want to fuck. Clothes marketed to women, especially underwear, tend to be soft and colorful and generally pleasing in a sensual way; even formal shoes have a certain smooth and shiny or silky texture. Lots of cis guys find the combination hot. (Cis straight women do this too, but it’s much less sexualized and involves things like “boyfriend sweaters” because we’re expected to be romantic and cis men aren’t expected to wear sensually pleasing clothes and that’s another kettle of very barfy fish.) 

Let me put it another way, and stop reading here if you’re related to me: I personally know of at least two or three cis (at least when I knew them) guys who held onto a pair of my underwear for a while. 

I wouldn’t think this required explanation, but Rowling claimed to have based her transphobic stereotype murderer person on Jerry Brudos, who…had a thing for women’s shoes. That (I mean, that and being a murderous asshole) was his whole deal. I can only imagine Rowling is being a disingenous shitbrick, because otherwise the only way you confuse a spectacularly common kink with being trans is if you just fell off a truck. A truck that came directly from a convent. A convent in fuckng space.

So that’s two of the three bullshit “but in real life” justifications disproven.   

Now we come to Ed Gein, who is the main “ooh but he wanted to be a woman” serial killer invoked in these discussions, and also the inspiration for a lot of the fictional versions by way of Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (He’s also among the least violent, which is not to say that either murder or graverobbing is great, obviously. But he barely made it to serial killer–most of the standards involve three or more murders, Gein only killed two people–and there was no sadism or overkill involved, which is unusual.)

I am not trans, and I am not a medical professional, and I definitely can’t say for sure what gender someone who died two years after I was born was. I will say that, a) he demonstrated (as far as I can find out) no interest in transitioning during 20-some years under close observation, although admittedly the time and place could have influenced that, b) while an “anonymous source” told a paper that Gein had talked during the interrogation about considering transitioning and then deciding against it, that was never confirmed by other interrogators, plus Gein was extremely suggestable, c) his reported interest in Christine Jorgensen’s case is both sketchy (an article saying that “police found her books on Gein’s shelves” when the books in question didn’t come out until nine years after the case) and sketchily related, since he started digging up graves four years before Jorgensen’s transition, and d) said interest was apparently minor compared to his interest in stories about Nazis and cannibals and general death. 

That’s really the thing: whatever gender stuff Gein might have had going on was vastly overshadowed by…everything else he had going on, which was the definition of A Lot. (Even aside from the murder, the graverobbing, the chairs made of human fat…the dude saved used gum in a coffee can and you’re focusing on whether or not he might have been questioning his manhood? God, we’re fucked up here.) He was one of the vanishingly few serial killers who actually got the insanity defense, he was diagnosed schizophrenic (and while I am dubious of 1950s psychiatry, Gein reported constantly smelling flesh and seeing faces in leaf piles ) and the bricked-off pristine shrineness of his mom’s room (in addition to, you know, his entire mom) honestly suggests that his let’s-say-outfits were less about gender and more about a quasi-religious invocation of the dead via imagery. Interesting from an occult perspective on many levels, but basically: the guy could not have a functional life, even by his extremely warped standards, without his mother being around in some form. If he had to embody her to do that, then he was going to give it the old college try.

(Robert E. Howard shot himself when his mom died. Gein, either more survival-oriented or less in touch with reality or both, chose a different path. There’s another paper to be done on early 20th-century masculinity here, somewhere.)

Again, from a cis perspective, Bloch and Hitchcock…got that, or got it as much as was possible for a couple cisgender guys in 1960, but the vast majority of their imitators (ugh, “Sleepaway Camp”) only saw “guy in a dress=psychokiller” and ran with that until they reached the fucking ocean. Harris and Demme made some gestures toward getting it, but really didn’t, or chose not to in the interest of tapping into the tropes Psycho imitations had established. The diminished presence of Gumb’s mother, the sexualization of the new identity, and the choice to make Gumb gay all really fed into a bad place. 

Leatherface, oddly, may be the most accurate portrayal of Gein out there. The family dynamic is changed (though Hooper keeps the control aspect, which is a nice touch) and holy shit is the violence different, but the core concept isn’t sexual or gender-related at all (at least not in the original movie, fuck the sequels): he’s a very disturbed, very isolated guy who uses masks to help express or invoke archetypes like “helpful cook” or “perfect hostess,” two of which happen to be female because of the culture at the time. 

Which is not to say that Leatherface didn’t contribute–if there’s one thing I’ve learned from coming of age in the era of Fight Club, it’s that most audiences, especially audiences of my fellow cis white folks, will cheerfully go with the most basic interpretation that lets them feel good about their bullshit. I don’t know what artists should do about this, but it’s worth bearing in mind the sheer number of people who think Starship Troopers is awesome military fun, Tyler Durden is a Hero for Our Time, and Norman Bates and Leatherface are murderous Because Gender. 

If nothing else, contemplating that should keep Jack Daniels solvent for another year.

Aleister Crowley Again: In Which Serial Killers Are Involved

I hope, as the kids say, you packed a lunch.

Because at this point, you might be thinking: well, this drunken history of early-20th-century Occult Drama is all very well and good, but did Aleister Crowley ever have any theories about Jack the Ripper?

Of course he did. 

Everyone and their mom has theories about Jack the Ripper. (I have some thoughts about that, but that’s tangential and meta and thus will get its own post.) Aleister Crowley had theories about everything…

…although this one, at least the way he expressed it, was not per se his theory but one he “heard” from a “friend” and related in the course of being catty about a number of Victorian occultists. To get to the good part of this, you have to read past about six paragraphs of long-winded description of people who were “sent by the powers of darkness” to destroy Blavatsky (who Crowley seems to have admired, at least here). To wit: one was a Theosophist who wrote a lot about chastity but was actually getting it on in a bisexual fashion (to be fair, Crowley phrases this fairly amusingly) but is more the plot device here than an actual character.

See, Mabel the Theosophist was sleeping with Captain Donston (peak Victorian names for both these people) but was tired of him, perhaps due to the Corrupting Lesbian Influence of Victoria Cremers (whose physical and mental unattractiveness Crowley dwells on at length). Donston had also written a newspaper article in which he theorized that Jack the Ripper was trying to gain ultimate power or make himself invisible by committing murders in a “Cavalry cross” or inverted pentagram or something, and that this had succeeded because someone had seen a couple go into a cul-de-sac and then heard the woman scream and rushed in and found a dead body BUT NO MAN OMG.

(Crowley also says that the Ripper was just eating parts of his victims right there at the murder scenes, which: you eat, or claim to eat, half of one kidney…)

Cremers wants to retrieve some incriminating letters so Donston can’t ruin Mabel’s reputation . All three of them were living together (GREAT IDEA  ALWAYS WORKS OUT)  and Donston had a box in his bedroom that he always kept locked, so Cramers went in one night and opened it and found FIVE BLOODY NECKTIES OMG OMG OMG WTF BBQ.

I guess she…told Crowley about it, even though they don’t seem to have been friends, to say the least. She also apparently did not tell the authorities. (Later, her take seems to have wavered between “I told my Theosophist friends and we had him institutionalized in America,” and “Well he pinkie-promised that there wouldn’t be more murders and I thought he’d get his just desserts in the next life so, sure, Butcher of Whitechapel as a roommate!”)

(This is a massive condensation of the article, which has a writing “style” that lets some people interpret it as Crowley accusing *Blavatsky* of the killings, and in which Crowley refers to himself in the third person, of course. Don’t say I never did anything for you.) 

The parts of this story that are not bullshit: Donston wrote that article and the Pall Mall Gazette published it in a fit of sterling editorial judgment.

The parts that may not be bullshit: If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that Victorian occult threesomes were absolutely a thing. And I guess Donston could have had a box full of bloody neckties in his room, and Cremers could have found it and then chosen to tell Crowley and only Crowley. Maybe there were circumstances behind both decisions that we don’t know about.

The parts that are flagrantly bullshit: everything else, on…several levels. Like, figuring out where to start requires the assistance of Berenjagger.

Granted, “a Victorian serial killer is now a power being” would explain a lot about the world, so let’s stick a pin in the possibility that we’re all living in a fucking Alan Moore comic. At least it’s not Watchmen.

Having settled that, let’s begin with Donston’s “proof” of the spell’s “success.” Take your pick of Nighttime Visibility In 1888 Whitechapel Cul-De-Sacs Wasn’t Great, The Constable Was Probably A Little Distracted by the Corpse, There Are More Doors or Alleys Than We Think, and then put them all on the shelf of shit that doesn’t matter because that incident didn’t happen. Or, if it did, it went unrecorded by everyone except Donston’s off-the-record constable pal. The only murder where anybody reported screaming was Mary Kelly’s: two women heard someone yell “Murder!” and didn’t think anything of it because it was the kind of time and place where you couldn’t get freaked out every time someone screamed about homicide. The past: it kind of sucked.

(Also, as my friend Elise points out, if you’re committing these murders to make yourself invisible and then you are invisible by Murder Three Slash Four, why continue? Did you come for the invisibility and stay for the killing?)

Okay but was Pentagram of Bodies for Vast Occult Power the motive, even if it didn’t actually do anything? 


I mean, I personally am not Jack the Ripper, nor did I know him, but I do know too much about both the occult and serial killers, and That’s Not How Any Of This Works Dot Gif.

1) That’s Not How The Occult Works: I can’t swear to every fuckwit occult theory going around London in 1888–it was the height of Spiritualism and Theosophy and basically the only place and time where you got more magical bullshit for your money was California in 1970.  But I’m reasonably familiar with the field, and I can think of zero spells in any tradition that tell you to gain vast power by killing particular people in particular patterns. Sure, dude could have “worked it out” himself, or had “visions” of the Herbert Mullins variety, but…

2) That’s Not How Serial Killers Work. Arranging killings or body dump sites in a pattern, whether that pattern is a word or a pentagram or a happy face, is up there with “leaving a series of riddles so the police can find you and/or stop your next killing” as Shit Serial Killers Only Do In Movies. (And I may need to make my next blog post about that, because, wow, there’s a lot.) I could be wrong, my knowledge is not encyclopedic, but killing *a person* and not getting caught is a tricky endeavor. (Hello there, FBI!)  Killing multiple people? Exponentially harder. If you add “also drag each one to a specific point in London,” you’d probably get caught before the third or fourth, no matter how bad the cops were at their job.

As for picking the sites and committing the murders there, if you have the planning and perspective to only kill victims of type X in place A, B. C. D. and E, in order, you have probably channeled your desire for human misery into a less legally troublesome form and become governor of Texas.

Similarly, while serial killers do take trophies, the tie thing is just…is he saving the murder cravats as trophies? As an occult link due to the blood? (That would make more sense if Donston’s motive theory were correct, but: q.v. bullshit.)  If you’re already taking body parts, do you also need carefully preserved Homicide Neckwear? That’s a lot, is my point, like, even BTK would think this guy is extra.

Nonetheless, this is *Crowley’s* ridiculous theory, or the ridiculous theory he heard. And now it gets even weirder. 

See, in 1920 Crowley could no longer sponge off zines and sex partners in New York, so he went back to London, got accused of “treason” by tabloids there (and while I don’t love being fair to Crowley, JFC, John Bull, learn how espionage works) and picked up a heroin addiction from asthma medication. Being decently versed in 1920s medicine, I’m not surprised the doctor was like “Asthma? Try heroin!”; being decently versed in Crowley, I *am* kind of surprised he hadn’t picked up that particular addiction already.

So he and his latest women decamped to Paris and founded a Thelemic Abbey, which was basically a commune with more sex magic in front of kids (ew, no) but the eternal commune problem of nobody wanting to do the goddamn dishes to the point where feral dogs were apparently wandering through the place. Crowley was constantly wandering off to, and I quote Wikipedia, “visit rent boys and buy supplies, including drugs.” 

Into this enlightened paradise came Betty May and Raoul Loveday. Crowley was all over Loveday all “ooh, my magickal heir” but Did Not Approve of May because…she worked in a club, may have slept with a bunch of people, and had a cocaine habit, all of which were suddenly not okay with Frater What Nasal Cavity? Nobody does hypocrisy like the  Edwardian upper class, apparently, even when that upper class has spent its last decade or two living on friends’ sofas because it SPENT A WHOLE INHERITANCE ON BLOW AND PUBLISHING SHITTY POETRY. 

Loveday died–possibly because Crowley told him not to drink water from a certain stream, he did anyhow, turned out the warning was less Emanations of the Upper Astral and more Fucking Giardia, Bro–and May kind of flipped her shit. She went to the papers accusing Crowley of a bunch of things like cat murder, which Crowley did deny, and then she published her autobiography. 

In said autobiography? The Ties in the Box story, only in May’s account Crowley was the one with the ties, and he showed them to her and told her how he’d known Jack the Ripper, who was still alive and wore a brand-new tie each time he killed someone AND was a surgeon and a magician and could turn invisible and so could Crowley.

Again, I will note the apparent “Someone I don’t get along with at all? Great choice to hear about my encounter with a serial killer!” logic. 

This story also has the complication that Crowley was all of 13 in 1888.  So either a barely-teenage boy from a fucked-up repressed cult met and befriended a serial killer, or JtR saved the ties for some number of years (during which he stopped killing and went back to a normal life, like totally fucking happens) then met Crowley and passed them on because…he recognized a fellow magician and the Destined Gross Neckwear Scion? And then Crowley knew this guy was a serial killer and just didn’t say anything to any authorities? (Granted, this fits decently with the mountaineering incident, but also Crowley was even more into fame/infamy than he was into cocaine, WHICH IS A LOT, so I’d think he’d want the credit for that shit.) 

Also, the bit where Jack deliberately puts on a new Murder Tie every time is unintentionally hilarious, like, did he buy all of them up front? Was there a point where he ran out? Was his valet or whoever in on it, or was there a scene with “Sir, I just bought you a dozen silk ties, and…”


Just to make things interesting, the timeline here is weird.

See, May published her autobiography. Then a guy named Bernard O’Donnell, writing a book later, asked Crowley about the ties, and Crowley reportedly replied oh, sure, those ties? He got rid of them when he moved. Yeah, he’d known Jack the Ripper, dude had a lousy sense of humor, and he was dead now. That’s (as far as I can tell, fuckers do not put publication dates on things) when Crowley produced his whole Cremers/Donston story. Then O’Donnell talked to Cremers and she told him a whole bunch of things. Possibly. He was apparently not a model of journalistic integrity.

So what the fuck?

Possibility 1: Donston legit did have bloody neckties in a box, God knows why. He wasn’t Jack the Ripper–he was in a hospital when the second murder took place–but Jack was not the only murderer or even the only serial killer around, even if he was the only one recognized as such at the time. Maybe Donston had killed other people. Maybe he had really bad nosebleeds. Maybe–likely, since he had some of the Ooh Look At Me Occult Bad Boy nonsense happening that Crowley did–it wasn’t human blood and he kept them around to feel cool.

Possibility 2: Cremers, who had no love for Donston, made it up and told Crowley before there was bad blood between the two of them.

Possibility 3: Crowley, who really liked having the inside scoop on all things creepy and potentially-spinnable-as-mystical, made it up. The bloody ties? IDK, dude liked bloody ties, maybe it was from the pigeons.

Possibility 4: May made up the bit with the ties and Jack the Ripper for similar reasons to the Cremers-Dunston hypothesis: Ooh, Look How Awful this Guy Is. Crowley heard about it, decided to roll with it, and added the Cremers/Mabel/Donston element to explain how he got involved despite being thirteen at the time. Cremers either did likewise or O’Donnell asked some leading questions and elaborated.

I’m inclined toward 4 based on Crowley’s “Ties? Those ties that I definitely had? I, um, well, movers, you know how it is,” line with O’Donnell: sure, things do get lost over the course of 10-ish years, especially with a dude who moves around a lot and takes all the drugs, but that dialogue sounds like a guy who sees a chance to confirm a story that makes him sound both badass and above it all. Plus there’s the fact that nobody had ever heard of this bloody necktie thing before May started in on it–yeah, maybe everyone was sworn to vast magical secrecy, but as previous posts on this subject indicate, none of the occult orders did a bang-up job keeping its super-secret mysteries either secret or mysterious in any other context.

(Either that or the ties did exist and Crowley sold them to another morbid-ass individual, probably for drug money.)

I am guessing that the “occult ritual for power” angle played a role when Alan Moore wrote “From Hell” fifty-some years later, but Moore, to his credit, seems to have just latched on to good story elements wherever he can find them. The bloody neckties and the ritual and so forth are absolutely those–but honestly, I could probably get a pretty decent novel or three out of the sheer amount of Extra present in the people telling all of these stories, too.


Because I clearly was being too productive, I bought and downloaded a PC game/visual novel called Demonbane.

The premise is that there’s a kind-of-noir-ish city, in which your character is a detective, which regularly comes under attack by evil sorcerers and their giant robots, which draw their power from slash are allied to the Cthulhu Mythos entities, and the associated tomes, which in turn are all embodied as hot chicks.

…as happens.

So clearly the Sentient and Bangable Object subgenre goes back earlier than I had realized. Not much earlier, as this game came out in 2003, but before Chuck Tingle and Ursula Vernon and Boyfriend Dungeon, apparently Arcane Grimoires Except They’re Hot was a thing.

I would not mind if someone brought that back, to be honest. Especially with male books. Let me seduce The Lesser Key of Solomon, dammit!

Anyhow, the combination of Cthulhu Mythos Plus Porn caught me at a weak moment, so here we are, though “here” is not where I have yet gotten to any porn-y bits. There’s been a lot going on.

The non-porn aspects of the novel suffer from the same fate a lot of 1990s/early 2000s anime did where I’m concerned: the worldbuilding is awesome, but the takes on both gender relations and humor…do not translate well at all. Or are not translated well. It’s hard to say, but a) sitting through the super-deformed SUDDENLY YELLING AND WAVING THEIR HANDS AROUND AND FREAKING OUT style of comedy is like chewing on tinfoil, and b) oh my God the romance where each person seems to vaguely tolerate the other at best plus the girl is very prickly at any hint of sexual interest while simultaneously being clingy and jealous and the guy is just immune to…boundaries, at all, ever? UGH. NO.

(Granted, Typical Late 20th Anime Girl Behavior is a lot easier to take from Al, who is in fact a maddening extradimensional being, than it is from anybody who’s supposed to be human and have grown up with human standards of behavior.)

On the other hand, the art is really cool, as is the music. And, y’know, Cthulhu plus giant robots, plus both the main character and his nemesis are reasonably hot, so I’ll probably stick around to see the clothes come off. I am not made of stone, here.

The nemesis, BTW, is named “Master Therion,” because if you’re going to create a hot blonde evil guy who fucks Nyarlathotep, why not use one of Crowley’s three million occult aliases? What it says about me that the name sounded familiar right off the bat, I don’t even want to know.

Silver Lake: Don’t Get Married at 13

Sixteen, on the other hand, is apparently just fine. (#spoilers.)

Laura hears the sobering tale of a girl who does get married at thirteen while out getting laundry with her “wild cousin” Lena, Aunt Docia’s daughter. Neither are thrilled. Laura soberly notes that “she can’t play any more,” while Lena is more direct: “She’s a silly! Now she can’t have any more good times,” and WORD.

Lena is awesome. Lena rides horses bareback and drives her own buggy and “wasn’t brought up in the woods to be scared by an owl” and I would read the hell out of a series about her. Especially because Ma Does Not Approve of Lena.

I don’t know what it is about Silver Lake, but it keeps introducing side characters who clearly have a lot going on, and are frankly more interesting than the Ingalls family. I don’t dislike the Ingallses, except for the racism, but Hotel Girl On Her Own and Bad Girl Lena are a lot more exciting than Grace being spoiled but pretty and Carrie being sickly and Mary being…

…ugh, Mary.

Here’s the thing. I’m (currently, time and chance being what they are) not disabled, so I don’t know if the “Mary has to have everything nice and never bear any hardship Because She’s Blind” deal is actually ableism (I know that Mary’s transformation–or sort-of-transformation–into Saintly Blind Girl is) or what, but it is annoying. Like, Laura and Carrie want to walk for a bit but then MAAAAARY would have to BE IN THE WAGON ALOOOOOONE OH NO.

I mean, the girl is blind, not made of cellulose. I’m pretty sure she can handle an hour on her own–take a nap or something, it’s not like Laura and Carrie are going to be sterling conversationalists for a twelve-hour prairie journey. Or Ma and Grace could sit inside, Ma being so keen on Christian selflessness.

Similarly, in a scene I forgot to mention last time, there’s a bit where Mary is being a giant scoldy priss about Carrie “fidgeting” and “mussing her dress” (good Lord the kid is like ten, lay the fuck off) and Laura gets cranky about it and then feels bad about being cranky because You Must Never Think Bad Things About Saint Mary The Blind.

Which is one of those moments in the books where I wonder whether Adult Laura is presenting the situation totally straight and legit thinks Young Laura was wrong for thinking such things, or knowingly portraying the situation as kind of tiresome and not entirely right, or what. Because: UGH NO. You can TOTALLY think bad things about Mary, because Mary is being an officious little asshole to her sister who ALSO HAD SCARLET FEVER and isn’t in great shape either and Mary is like fifteen so she can calm the entire hell down with this Junior Mom act, and SHUT UP MARY.

Also, if your sister’s describing everything for you, maybe learn to cope with a damn metaphor or two? The whole “you must always describe everything as it is or you are Sinning” deal is…can we just go hang out with Lena the Bad Girl?


Human conflict in general, and more serious conflict than dealing with Tiresome Mary, is much more of a factor in this book. Aunt Docia’s husband has been dicked over by the railroad company–which, it’d be nice if Adult Laura could remember that corporations are kind of awful, and in the Alternate Universe Where None of This is Actual Life she does, so there–and the family gets followed by a menacing guy while they’re on their way to their final destination.

If Plum Creek was Nature Can and Will Proactively Fuck You Up, Silver Lake is And Your Fellow Humans Also Are Fucking Awful. 

Not all of them–there’s Big Jerry, the local Friendly Rogue, who rescues the Ingalls. For some reason, it’s very important to the narrative that we know that he’s “French and Indian,” which is theoretically probably an attempt to be enlightened in a “see they’re not all bad” way, but UGH.

See also Pa and Laura’s conversation about how empty the prairie is now that the white man killed all the buffalo–the Eldritch Wilderness thing makes another appearance here, in the form of silence and emptiness–followed by Pa singing cheerfully about how “Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm,” like PLEASE MAKE EVEN ONE CONNECTION CHARLES.

Spoiler: He does not.

By the Shores of Silver Lake Part 1

CW: Pet Death

With the advent of both Nellie Oleson *and* a plague of locusts last time, I ended up breaking my Little House notes into two parts, and I think I’m going to continue that. For one thing, the books get longer here. For another, there are more distinct and ongoing plot threads in each, rather than Stuff Happens, Other Stuff Happens, Food is Great.

Boy howdy does Stuff Happen in this one. And before it.

Holy Happy Ending Override, Batman! I guess that happens when you’re writing a long-running series, and more so when it’s based on your actual life, but still, the gap between Plum Creek and Silver Lake really emphasizes it. Everything’s looking up, no more grasshoppers, OH HELLO SCARLET FEVER ALSO THE LAND SUCKS NOW FOR SOME REASON.

(It is not known whether that reason is white people or not, but…probably?) 

It actually seems like there are two…quadrologies?…here: Woods through Plum Creek, where there are definitely problems and occasionally the horror that is Nature, but simpler, and then Silver Lake through Golden Years (whoa, see what you did there), where adulthood hits like a brick to the back of the head.

And there’s no better way to express that than having the dog die! Apparently Laura put that in as a deliberate transition–probably not the first instance of Death by Newberry Medal, but a fairly early one nonetheless. At least he dies of old age rather than some horrible prairie mishap.

Still, though: “There were so many times that she might have petted him without being asked, and hadn’t,” JESUS FUCKING CHRIST WILDER.

To sum up: everything sucks, and then Aunt Docia arrives (these people had relatives at some point, remember, or at least Charles did) to offer a job doing administrative stuff at a railroad, and Charles is all, hey, we can also grab yet more land! So they accept and then Jack dies.

“Now she was alone; she must take care of herself. When you must do that, then you do it and you are grown up.” Ooof.

In addition to that bit of 19th-century coming-of-age, this book involves probably the least food porn in the series. (The Long Winter doesn’t count: there’s no food half the time, but when there is it’s so damn lavishly described that it’s almost worth South Dakota Fimbulwinter.) It…makes up for that?…with the most detail about engineering and, specifically, TRAINS.

(Pre-1950s libertarians seem to generally be very fond of trains, which is weird considering the amount of shitting on public transportation they do these days.)

Wilder has a talent for describing mundane modern stuff in ways that make you realize just how non-mundane it was at first. White sugar and lemonade were those things in earlier books. Trains are, big-time, in this one: they’re really fast! Often they crash and people get killed! It’s quite a contrast from my life, where I–and I am in favor of public transit–mostly think of trains as a workaday system of being constantly late and full of noisy people.

On the other hand, the Wilders’ train has red velvet seats, and this was before cell phones were invented, and both of those things probably helped the general experience.

They arrive in a town, to find that OH NO people are filking a hymn to be about HAM AND EGGS oh my god the SCANDAL.

I’m not kidding. The term “shocking words” is used with no irony whatsoever. I try…okay, I don’t so much try to take historical concerns seriously as I acknowledge that historical people (especially white Christian people) were concerned with some incredibly ridiculous bullshit, and most of the time that doesn’t surprise me any more. And then there’s this sort of thing.

Fortunately, there’s a sympathetic dishwashing girl in the hotel who lets them use the parlor–and honestly I want to know more about *her* story–and they all spend an incredibly boring-sounding afternoon while Grace naps, and then Pa comes so they don’t have to hear any more distressingly mildly irreverent songs.

Oh, yeah: Grace exists now, because historical novels about girls absolutely have to have four of them, and reality itself will enforce this. Mary and Laura are Ladylike and Tomboy, respectively, of course, while Carrie and Grace conveniently take on the Sickly and Bratty roles. Grace is never as bad as Amy March, though, for which we can only be thankful.

I Have Opinions. Here They Are.

Well, it’s been A Time. A time in which TERFs argued with Terry Pratchett’s daughter about whether he’d have been in favor of trans rights, and with Neil Gaiman about whether…Neil Gaiman was in favor of trans rights, because a talking detached face speaking for the Moon once told a trans woman she wasn’t a woman. (Which, that particular arc is–as Gaiman admits–very Of Its Time, but maybe detached faces are not generally great moral authorities?) A time in which the RWA gave an award to an “inspirational” romance in which the “hero” was a war criminal.

No, another one.

Seriously, I was explaining this to a friend and mentioned that they’d done it before with ex-Nazis, and went to look it up, and was reminded that no, not ex-Nazis, *current* heads of concentration camps and the prisoners thereof. 

Bethany House: Wholesome Family Values!

Plus there was some other, fanfic-adjacent Discourse that I missed about to what extent character flaws reflect the writer. Cue the usual jokes about Stephen King actually being an extradimensional clown.

So of course I need to give my opinion.

And my opinion comes down to:
1) It’s not the faults themselves, but how the author treats them. 
2) This applies to metatext, too.

To explain the first, I’m going to start with the time I was reading the first book in a fairly popular romance series. There’s a bit of setup in which the hero is brooding because of something military that happened, and then he sees the heroine at a bar. He tries to chat her up. She’s clearly not interested. He thinks it’d be funny if he kept trying, so he does…

…and that’s when I decided that even if I lived a thousand years, life would be too short to keep reading that book.

Because unless the blurb is a fakeout and the next scene is the heroine stabbing the guy because the story is about her life as a much-needed vigilante warrior, that is a) a horrible “hero” and b) clearly an author who thinks public harassment is, if a flaw, a funny/endearing flaw, like Darcy refusing to dance. 

And, dear reader: fuck that entire noise.

See, the character flaws that indicate authorial stances are never the big stuff. Despite their fanboys, Durden and Caufield and Bickles and the Joker are intended to be fucked-up assholes, not fonts of modern wisdom, and anyone who doesn’t read the text through incel-colored glasses can see that pretty clearly. Various Emo Skywalker Boys may get more chances for redemption and narrative focus than any white cis dude with parental issues has ever deserved, but the shit they do is portrayed as being pretty damn horrendous. Lucas has his flaws, but I am under no impression that he thinks killing kids or blowing up planets is okay.

The tells are always little. They’re the “funny” flaws, or the “endearing” faults, or the quirks that the characters never face consequences for–or if they do, those consequences are a difficult conversation, at most. The transphobia in Ready Player One. Fucking everything everyone does in Twilight and 50 Shades. Xander. Riley. The sitcoms where guys wig out about almost kissing other guys. Those are the indications.

How does War Crime Inspie fit in? Well, I mentioned redemption above, and I’ve ranted about it a fair bit here and on Twitter, but: Blue Force Ghosts aside, redemption for the Skywalkers meant death. Redemption for other ex-villains has meant walking the land, trying to make things right, giving up titles. Usually, they aren’t the main characters. Almost always, redemption means more than “finding Jesus and Caucasian tits.”

Also? Said ex-villains have notably not committed atrocities against actual groups of people who still face oppression today, which is another big difference.

A lot of discussion in romance lately is about who gets a happy ending–that the recent expansion of the genre gives HEAs (Happily Ever Afters, and I have Some Thoughts on those, but they’re not pertinent here) to people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQA+ people, etc.  Great!  There is an associated discussion about who doesn’t get them: your serial killers, your rapists, etc, sure, but there’s been considerable controversy over whether, say, people who cheat should get HEAs. 

I think it would be difficult to publish a romance novel through Bethany House featuring someone who’d been unfaithful, even if blah blah Jesus blah blah redemption. I very much doubt it would win the inspirational category. 

The tell here is that Bethany House, Karen Witemeyer, and a proportion of RWA judges think that war crimes against Native American people are…y’know, on par with cheating at cards and  drinking, maybe some backstory premarital sex, definitely better than getting a little strange now and again. 

And that says something.

Okay, so: on to metatext!

Back in The Day, The Day being 2018, someone extremely gross wrote basically a romanticized version of the Larry Nassar story (gross) and published it under “taboo romance” on Amazon. People, accordingly, were all “…the fuck? NO,” to which the author very maturely threw a shitfit about censorship and Puritanism and how we were denying the multifaceted nature of love, and also had all of her fans attack people on Goodreads.

All of this is gross.

And yet, at the same time–because Twitter is not just people being awful but thirty-seven distinct yet oddly related people being awful–there are apparently a bunch of people saying that if you write romantic fanfic about bad characters or fanfic about types of relationship that would be horrible in real life, you are a Bad Person and a Corruptive Influence and blah blah blah, and this…is also gross, and bullshit.

Because…sometimes people enjoy characters who they wouldn’t like at all in real life, or relationships that would be horrible push people’s buttons. The reasons don’t matter–you don’t need an excuse for liking what you like. All of us, I’m guessing, have a trope–sexual or not–that we love in fiction but would be fucking awful in reality. I have read both Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain multiple times, and the only way you would get me to spend a single night without indoor plumbing is to threaten my loved ones. Even then I’d have to think about how much I really loved them.

Characters do not necessarily reflect the author. Plots do not necessarily reflect the author. 

The distinction, the thing that makes fanfic fine while Jesus Redeems War Criminals and Coach/Underage Gymnast Twu Wuv are vile, is self-awareness.

Your average fanfic writer* knows that just because they like imagining a better version of a villain, or a still-bad-but-sexy one, doesn’t make that canon. Just because a particular type of relationship gets their motor running doesn’t mean that relationship is in the same time zone as healthy or, sometimes, consensual. Thus we get labels like “darkfic” or “underage” or “noncon,” labels that signal the author’s self-awareness as well as informing potential readers.** 

(Fanfic also has the thing where you’re working with established pairings and characters. If you want to read about Rupert Giles having het sex, your choices are limited re: women his age–Jenny dies, Olivia’s in two episodes, and Joyce sucks out loud, SORRY NOT SORRY. If you see a dynamic between two characters, eh, that’s a thing. It’s different than sitting down to create a whole new work and deciding that you’ll make one of the main characters fifteen and one thirty.)

A lot of the discussion around Creepy Gymnast Romance was, basically, label your kink, lady. Yes, leaving it unlabeled–or vaguely labeled, q.v. “taboo romance”–means you can post it on Amazon and sell more, but…cutting vodka with antifreeze means you sell more vodka. It’s still a bad move.

Would that have helped with Bethany House’s…masterpieces? Ugh, I don’t think so. “Anyone can be redeemed if they just love Jesus,” may indeed be the fundie version of Omegaverse knotting physics, but it’s a lot harder to sell when you’re talking about atrocities carried out against actual people. Maybe, *maybe* if a Native American or a Jewish author had written the books in question…but they didn’t, and there’s a reason for that. 

I dunno. In summary: Your Kink Is Okay, Except, If Your Kink is Nazis, That’s Deeply Unfortunate and I Don’t Know What You Should Do, Except NOT PUBLISH IT AS INSPIRATIONAL ROMANCE.

* Like, not the fans convinced that Villain Dude was actually for serious a woobie and it was a Total Betrayal when he didn’t get to settle down and have Space Babies with the main character, and definitely not the ones who harass people about this. Don’t get me wrong: some fans are shitheels.  
**Given certain tendencies among cis het men of a certain age, I am coming to think that we need a “douchebag narrator” label, but that’s beside the point.