The Violence Threshold

by John Gilstrap

The first corpse I ever saw outside of a funeral home was that of a twenty-something newly-wed who’d been given a terminal diagnosis by his physician earlier in the day. Unwilling to face death in slow motion, he decided to die on his own terms. He stripped naked, sat Indian-style on his bed and rested his forehead on the muzzle of a .357 magnum revolver, his thumb on the trigger. His wife heard the shot from downstairs and rushed up to find the resultant horror show.

I got involved as a rookie firefighter riding as “third aid” on the ambulance. (That means I got to carry the heavy stuff and do my best to stay out of the way.) “Horror show” didn’t touch the reality. The panic-stricken wife, streaked red from her efforts to revive her husband. The anatomical eruption that was the bullet’s path. One of the most vivid memories for me is the fineness of the blood spatter, and how it settled on everything. To this day, I wonder how anyone can live in a house where a shooting has occurred. I guess you just have to replace everything.

Subsequent to that first fatality, over the course of fifteen years in the fire and rescue service, I witnessed hundreds more fatalities, more than a few the result of violence. Unless you’ve experienced it, I’m not sure you can understand how it changes you; how it molds you into the person you ultimately become.

Now I’m a thriller writer. People die in my books, and every now and then I get slammed by a critic for over-the-top violence, and every time I read that, I am shocked. Certainly, the violence is vivid, true to my memories of what bullets and knives and baseball bats do to people, but to my mind, I never cross over into what I think of as violence-as-pornography. The violence in my books has consequence. Every time my protagonists are forced to take a life, they become damaged goods. The violence evolves them, shapes them into more interesting, darker people. Consider those creative values against the consequence-free pornographic bloodfest that is The Matrix and its ilk.

In movies, books and television, I wonder sometimes if the downplayed violence–the off-screen murder that drives the meat of the plot–isn’t more of a disservice to society than their couterparts which take you and your senses into the true horror that violent crime inflicts. The dead butler in the library didn’t just arrive there to provide a puzzle for our sleuth to solve. He was a person whose last moments were anguished and wracked with agony. I’m not sure it’s good that the likes of Miss Marple, Jessica and Hercule are so able to push that aside.

Obviously, tastes vary. I respect that different forms of suspense attract different readers, but when it comes to desensitizing people to violence, I do wonder which form erodes the social fabric more. Or, as an alternative, does fiction have a measurable impact at all on such real-life sensitivities? What do you think? What are your violence thresholds?

My Second Life

by Michelle Gagnon

So the last stop on my book tour for BONEYARD was a virtual one in Second Life. I was a little trepidatious. I’m not exactly a Luddite, but when forced to deal with computer tech support people I find myself saying “Which thingy was I supposed to click on again?” with alarming frequency. And they assume the tone one takes when explaining things to a very small, somewhat slow child. So the thought of navigating a virtual environment was nerve-wracking to say the least.

Apparently the good people at the writer’s enclave on Athena Isle have dealt with my kind before, since they sent multiple documents explaining the entire process step by step. I’m sure they thought the experience had therefore been idiot-proofed, but I was the idiot that proved them wrong.

I successfully downloaded the Second Life software, only to have it crash every time I tried to open it. By the tenth attempt I was ready to throw in the towel. One of my Second Life advisors suggested I try installing it on a different computer, since Vista was notoriously quirky. So I appropriated my husband’s Apple and presto: I was in.

Of course, figuring out where the heck I was, and how I was supposed to get to Athena Isle, was a different matter. I alit on some sort of “welcome” island, with lots of confusing signs everywhere. Remember that scene in the Matrix, where they pull Keanu Reeves out of the water and he can barely see? Kinda like that. I found a “sample” house, wandered inside and ended up chatting with another girl who was having the same issues that I was, in that a) she kept walking into walls, and b) she couldn’t figure out how to sit down. Or do anything else, really, aside from type.

I should back up a bit here to describe my avatar. Turns out that in Second Life it’s possible to buy yourself blue eyes, pink hair, and a complete outfit for the equivalent of two dollars This was extremely exciting, the only downside being that the only clothing retailers I could find apparently catered to streetwalkers. Seriously, the attire in Second Life is scanty at best. And even if you skew your avatar toward the “athletic” body type, she’s still going to be endowed with a Lara Croft-esque bust line. Not exactly my usual author look, but I decided to go with it.

After wandering around aimlessly for an embarrassing length of time, I discovered “teleporting.” Yes, teleporting, as in Star Trek. I’m one of those people who absolutely cannot wait for this technology to be available in my day to day life, along with that food machine that makes whatever you’re craving in a minute or less. I don’t care if teleporting means occasionally getting separated from a body part, as long as I no longer having to deal with the debacle that air travel has become. So far this was shaping up to be my kind of experience.

Unfortunately, regardless of which island I clicked on, every time I teleported I somehow ended up on the bottom of the ocean. Which forced me to circle the entire thing until I found a beach to climb on to. Seriously sad, I know. One of my gracious hosts finally sent me a link directly to the event location, and I ended up in what looked for all the world like a Tahoe cabin.

Another thing I want from Second Life is this magic table that my host, Alas, had. Every time a new person arrived, another chair appeared at the table (and a lot of the guests materialized in the air above the table, a very cool effect. Clearly they’d figured out how to avoid the whole deep-sea diving thing.)

The event itself went well, as far as I could tell. I’ve done online chats before. For some reason, it was actually more distracting being able to see other figures there while chatting. I suspect part of the reason was that as someone was typing a question, their hands moved as though they were at an imaginary keyboard. And the time lag felt a little more unnatural when I could see everyone else sitting there awaiting my responses. Plus it was fairly silent, aside from some simulated ambient noise. I’d compare it to a Quaker meeting, with Friends dressed like they dropped by en route to a rave.

The questions were fairly standard, there’s a transcript posted online here

However it was the first time I’ve fielded questions about getting an agent from a Faerie (at least I think that’s what she was, but I could be wrong.) I wandered around on my own afterward, visiting a few more islands. People kept trying to bite me, which I found somewhat disturbing, and they got offended when I refused (I think I missed the biting protocol sheet). I also discovered that I’m just as inept at small talk there as I am in my first life. Plus, I tried to change into a new outfit and ended up wearing the bag it came in. I did finally master flying, however, and that was very cool.

When I looked up, five hours had passed. Ouch. I reluctantly signed off and decided to steer clear for a few weeks while I got my life back in order post-tour. Honestly, if I had more free time on my hands, I could see quickly becoming hooked. The various environments you can visit there are so amazing, it really is a virtual Shangri-La. But I barely have time to get through my email every day as it is, and I’m constantly missing deadlines. I’ve already sworn off Scrabulous (temporarily—I mean, let’s be reasonable) and have begrudgingly acknowledged that the last thing I need in my life is another time-suck. And even at $2 an outfit, I could still probably do some damage to my bank account once I figured out how to wear what I purchased. So Second Life, I’ll be back for more someday. Just promise not to bite me.