Here's the blurb for The Eternal Border :
Are there taboos in dark fantasy? At what point does the fantasy stop and the psychosis begin?
Deborah Biancotti, Terry Dowling, Richard Harland, Jason Nahrung, Catherynne M Valente
Terry Dowling was unfortunately unable to make it to the panel.
J: What we’re really interested in here is pushing boundaries, then probably breaking them into pieces. Looking at taboos in fiction. I have some very well-established and boundary-pushing people with me today. I’m going to introduce them, then we’ll get into what taboos exist, which are left to break, and should we be doing it?
J: So taboos. Things that endanger society or the people around them, things that shouldn’t be done, we write dark fantasy and we tend to work in the realm of the things that society’s a little bit afraid of, because that’s where we can test society and test the rules that go on in our lives. This is the beauty of writing under that broad umbrella of horror writing, and you get to scare people and ask them what it is about this idea that scares them, it’s pushing boundaries. To start off, I thought I’d ask these guys what taboos they’ve broken, what was the reaction to it, and why break them? I think I should probably go first because I think I’m the first most least-achieved, I’ve had a story get into a year’s best collection which flirted very much with the line between sex, pleasure and pain, the giving and receiving of pain, but in a very fantastical way. It was a slightly uncomfortable story to write, I’m not quite sure what it was saying or what it says about me, and I think sometimes you worry about that, the reader not differentiating between the narrator on the page and the person behind those words. I think authors can put a lot of the things on the page and talk about them, like racism or homophobia, and talk about them and believe the opposite. Stephen King often gets abused for being racist, when in fact he’s presenting these beliefs and debunking them throughout the story. Deb?
D: The taboo I play with most is death, I think it’s a taboo because we don’t talk about it, but apparently we all do it, so I’m told (Laughter). But we don’t talk about it at all, especially I the Western society where I was raised. One of my stories was mostly related to by a mother, and it’s a story about a mother making a journey to mourn her daughter, and I thought these people would really be disturbed by this, but they actually felt very close to it.
C: I’ve got two. The first is incest, that’s a huge one in most cultures, in my book it makes a lot of sense in context, and they do what they have to do, I’ve read it out loud a lot and it kind of falls like a brick in the middle of the room, and when my parents brought my very religious grandfather to the reading, I just cut that part out. (Laughter) I think in current society we don’t talk about incest, murder or adultery, which can also be incest, but the second deeper level is consensual incest, which is really disturbing on many levels. My short story, 13 ways of looking at spacetime, apparently contained too many autobiographical elements, and they started debating that it should be more literature, and I didn’t realize how much of a taboo it is to lay stuff out there in the science fiction community without putting robots on it. (Laughter)
R: When Ferrin and the Angle came out, I had a lot of negative comments from the librarians about the plasmatics, beings constructed out of body parts, and I have a scene where one of these beings is plunged into a pit and the butchers went through dividing up the body parts and choosing which ones to use, and I wrote it because it seemed to fit, but it is probably a bit extreme for younger readers. In World Shaker, there’s an elderly man who tortures someone with a kind of medical torture, it’s pretty black, it’s pretty nasty, and I wondered after Ferrin and the Angel how this was going to go down, and I haven’t heard a peep about it. In fact, I gave a school visit recently and a class of girls was studying Worldshaker, and none of them mentioned it at all. I think times have changed.
D: We watched Legion on the hotel TV the other day, and it starts with the old lady coming in on a walker and telling the lady who’s about to give birth to the savior of humanity that her baby is going to ‘fucking burn’, and it’s great to see taboos broken, like an old lady with a mouth like a sailor, especially when they’re unnecessary taboos.
C: I think that’s why people like Betty White.
R: Old people aren’t supposed to swear!
C: Well, it’s not a taboo to do it when you’re young anymore, because it doesn’t shock old people.
J: I was reading an article that said that nothing is sacred anymore in terms of story, that everything’s been done, but do you think there are some things that should be treated with perhaps a bit more respect?
D: Joan Rivers said something along those lines, there are no taboos in comedy, but comedy is very similar to horror, in that it examines society. Snuff films are very much still a taboo, obviously killing someone on film is very wrong. Appropriating other cultures or misrepresenting them is also not a good idea.
J: The power of the written word is exploring these things without physically hurting anyone.
C: People tend to get touchy when you use Christian mythology, and just tweeting the phrase “Christian mythology” got people super offended. I mean, I know America sucks, our relationship with religion is pretty FUBAR’d at the moment, but it’s not just us, I’m pretty sure Greece and Italy don’t want you to call it mythology either.
R: I think things like consensual incest, or consensual pedophilia, is something that really gets to people.
J: Where that comes in is with vampires, you get to something where you can have a 150 year old man making out with a highschool student. But if you want to go back to real vampires, you get something from Anne Rice like the child vampire…
C: But she didn’t go out seeking pedophiles, which, I think if it was written today, is what she would do. She gets all angsty about not expressing her sexuality, but she could, just not with the best kind of humanity. (Laughter)
J: Let the Right One In did that in an interesting way…
C: Oh, certainly. But in a lot of these stories they tend to get killed at the end.
J: And you have someone like Lucy who liked having sex with a vampire, so she gets turned into one, and becomes a pedophile, and essentially gets gang-raped to death, so that also deals with issues of female empowerment.
D: Freud said there are two great taboos, incest and patricide, which seems unfair to me, because killing your father is bad, but killing your mother is okay.
C: But a daughter killing her mother is disturbing in another way, because you have women expressing violence.
D: Didn’t King do that?
C: Yes, but if we stopped writing all the stories King has written, we’d all be out of jobs. (Laughter)
C: But I think the popularity of angel fiction in America, it doesn’t get banned, but these books don’t get put in the fantasy section, they get put in the literary section, because everyone in America is supposed to be Christian, so these are seen as a form of fictional realism, rather than fantasy. (Outcry) Stranger in a strange land, I know!
R: Movie title - flapping…? The terrifying concept of life after death. It was the idea of you not being good or bad, but this just being the way things are, that’s terrifying.
D: To my mind, there’s a book called The Painted Eorld that’s just page after page of violence, some of it sexual, a lot of it bestial, and a main character who’s incredibly innocent until you get to the last chapter, and he turns into an ass, and the writer tries to make a point by saying “See? If you’re nasty to people they’ll be nasty to you” and I think if you want to write that, you shouldn’t pretend you’re trying to do anything else. I was going to bring the book along and toss it into the audience, but it turned out I’d already burned it. (Laughter)
C: And angels now have gone from being alien and strange and unfathomable to being birds, kind of cute talking parrots.
C: In Ferren and the Angel, I said angels are beautiful and terrible, why try to make them friendly?
C: I think something that’s missing a lot from horror recently is that it’s supposed to be both terrible and beautiful, and a lot of the horror these days just focuses on the terror, rather than the beauty. A book like Lolita, maybe why it’s so popular is that the way it’s written is very intimate, and he’s sleeping with this young girl, and yet it somehow implicates the reader in the act, which is a way in which you can watch people in a way that’s not possible in the real world.
J: This is a country where we debate the reality of R18+ rating for games. Cat, you were on a panel recently where someone suggested books have these kind of ratings?
C: Yeah, that person was an idiot. (Laughter) It was someone suggesting that every book contain a warning that has all the things it contains on the front so you can only ever read the things you want to read, and the whole mood of the audience was asking us if we didn’t feel it was our duty to make our audience feel safe, and all of us were going “No, not really.”
D: What about labels like “Threesome 3 MFF”?
C: You try in your next book having 4 people who are all in a relationship and they’re all happy and all of the partners have equal standing, that’s a huge taboo.
R: In YA you can get away with almost everything to do with sex, except enjoyment. (Laughter)
Q: In England, with the program ratings for television, everything is getting listed just in case
J: We do that here, my favourite is ‘contains sex scene’ which means once I’ve seen that, I can turn the TV off. (Laughter)
Q: Is this okay for us?
J: This is about people who want to know what they’re getting, they like to feel safe – these are the people who read trilogies, but there are other people who want a good challenge, who want to leave a story feeling a little bit dirty.
D: I think these days there are so many ways to watch TV, I don’t watch it on TV, I don’t download it illegally, but if I ever do watch it, it’s always without those warnings.
C: Another panel I was on, I said I don’t think that readers really know what they want until they’ve had it and they realize they were gunning for that, it’s just that the books that really get you usually surprised you. I think a classification system like that is to comfort the reader, and that’s not our job.
C: One of the taboos is still violence against animals.
C: That’s how you know who the bad guy is, he kicked his dog. (Laughter)
J: And yet Chuck Norris has killed how many people?
Q: Autobiographical works?
C: Heinlein’s done autobiographical, so has Gaiman, the difference is that they’re men.
Q: He said at the end “Spot the mistake in the story” and the mistake is that it happened to him.
R: People are okay with it being just fiction, but as soon as it’s real, we feel differently about it, and I don’t know why.
Q: Rating – rape scenes?
C: I feel that if you’re talking about speculative fiction, you’ve got about a 70% chance of a rape scene in there, especially in horror, it’s pretty common, and yet literature should be about more than personal triggers.
R: People have nightmares about wolves, should there be a warning about wolves?
C: AS I said in the other panel, the safe word is always closing the book. A rape scene lasts more than 3 words, you can tell what’s coming, you can close the book, you can escape. I was abused a lot as a child, and that upsets me, but that feeling of getting upset can be cathartic, books can help you work through this, and that’s a good thing.
D: There were two girls who were abducted in the US and their pictures were flashed up on every highway in case you saw them, you could call the police, and they were eventually found, but they had been sexually abused, and at that point their pictures disappeared from every media in the world, and in a way that made it more shameful, and I think not talking about rape makes it more shameful by hiding it behind a taboo.
C: Bella should just screw both of them, she’s in high school, okay, but if she was I college, that’s totally what she would do. (Laughter)
Q: Suicide bombers?
J: Tragedy plus time equals comedy. After an event you can start to sift the events and find out why it happened.