21 November, 2020

#GuestPost :: How to Enjoy Difficult Stories by Greg Hickey - @greghickey5 #Thriller #Crime

How to Enjoy Difficult Stories

Warning: this piece contains spoilers for the books The Bell Jar, The Lovely Bones, Lolita, Blood Meridian, and especially 1984 and V for Vendetta.

It is a challenge to enjoy difficult stories. Everyone loves a happy ending. Or a hero or heroine. Or at least a hint of romance or thrill. And these preferences make sense. We prefer to experience positive emotions rather than negative ones. We prefer to be entertained, without the disclaimer “if you can get past the violence/depravity/horror/disgust.” 

So any book that engenders positive emotions has a leg up on books that only evoke negative ones. It’s easy to like pieces that inspire happiness, triumph, love, relief or joy. It is far harder to like difficult stories that engender sadness, despair, anger, shame or heartbreak.

The Best Difficult Stories

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is an unrelenting portrait of a woman in the throes of a complete psychological breakdown that captures both the horrors of her condition and her treatment. Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones begins with the rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old girl and follows her into the afterlife as she watches her family torn apart by grief while her killer remains free. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita chronicles the relationship between a pedophile and the twelve-year-old girl he desires. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian depicts a gruesome 1850s American frontier where a gang of scalp hunters massacres Native Americans.
Each of these novels is devastatingly sad or despicable or disturbing, yet all have achieved significant critical and popular acclaim. So what makes these difficult stories good as works of literature? And how can readers appreciate these books and others like them despite the troubling subject matter?

A Tale of Two Dystopias

To examine this question, let’s compare another depressing story, George Orwell’s 1984, to a similar story in the same genre, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.

V for Vendetta

Both stories chronicle an ordinary person as they achieve political awareness and begin to resist a totalitarian government. In V for Vendetta, a woman named Evey sees her family destroyed by civil unrest and a rising dictatorship. She turns to prostitution and is in danger of being raped and murdered by two members of the secret police when she gets rescued by a masked rebel vigilante name V. Evey begins to help V take his vengeance against the agents of the state, but he then casts her out on her own.

Later, Evey is captured and imprisoned. She is tortured repeatedly and ordered to reveal the identities of her conspirators to overthrow the government. In her prison cell, Evey finds a letter written by an inmate named Valerie. Valerie’s story and her message of hope sustain Evey. When her captors declare Evey guilty of conspiring against the government, they give her one last chance to cooperate or face execution. “Take her out behind the chemical sheds and shoot her,” the head interrogator orders. Her would-be executioner begs Evey to confess anything to save herself. She replies, “Thank you, but I’d rather die behind the chemical sheds.”

It turns out that Evey’s capture and imprisonment is a sham arranged by V to strengthen and test her resolve. But even when I reread the story, knowing that Evey will not face execution, I can’t help but feel a surge of triumph at her bravery. While there is tragedy in Evey’s (apparently) impending death, there is also exaltation at her courage and integrity.


In contrast, such courage in the face of death is not even possible in George Orwell’s 1984. In this quintessential depiction of the relentless totalitarian state of Oceania, two ordinary citizens begin a romance that highlights their individualism and defiance of the state. As their relationship blossoms, the reader feels hope for Winston and Julia. Maybe they can keep their romance a secret. Maybe they can somehow escape the constant surveillance of the Big Brother-led Oceania.

But this hope is soon crushed when Winston and Julia are betrayed, captured and tortured. In contrast to V for Vendetta, 1984 does not end with the heroes’ escape or even with deaths that allow them to maintain their integrity. Even when Winston confesses all his supposed crimes, his interrogator still knows that Winston does not believe he is a criminal and does not accept the state as a benevolent power. Even at the worst moments of torment, Winston still clings to his love for Julia.

It is only when his interrogator threatens to allow starving rats—Winston’s greatest fear—to devour Winston’s face that he finally gives in. “Do it to her!” he insists, meaning Julia. He is willing to give up Julia to save himself. Julia, we later discover, does the same. In renouncing each other, Winston and Julia no longer have any shred of individual integrity to cling to. They are both broken to the point where they can once again accept the brainwashing propaganda of the state without resistance.

Embracing the Darkness

In reading these two stories, I feel far better about the outcome of the torture sequence in V for Vendetta than I do about the parallel sequence in 1984. Even though I know Evey’s imprisonment is a hoax, I still feel triumph bursting up inside of me when she utters that unforgettable line: “Thank you, but I’d rather die behind the chemical sheds.” It almost makes me proud to be a human being, even though I’ve never experienced anything close to that level of physical and mental anguish. But I can’t help feeling that maybe I could do that, maybe I could be that brave.

In contrast, when Winston gives up Julia in 1984, I feel the whole weight of Orwell’s novel come crashing down around my ears. Everything he warned us about totalitarian power comes true, every bit of hope gets snuffed out when Winston screams, “Do it to her!” And yet, I prefer the whole of 1984 to the whole of V for Vendetta. I would even go so far as to say that I would not prefer that Winston achieve some Evey-esque redemption. Rather, I feel satisfied with the grim ending to 1984.

Immersed in Discomfort

But why is that? Why do I prefer the soul-crushing conclusion of 1984 to the life-affirming scene in V for Vendetta? For one, it is because the world Orwell creates in 1984 is so convincing, overwhelming and terrifying. Reading 1984 makes me believe that my country could someday become like Oceania, given the right circumstances and leaders. The detail Orwell gives to this world makes for chilling fiction. Thanks to Orwell, I can vividly imagine how horrible it would be to face a government that wants nothing more than to crush every iota of independence out of its citizens. The ending of 1984 affirms the terror of this possibility.

And the emotions evoked by these descriptions are overpowering. I sympathize with Winston and Julia; I thrill at the combination of their new romance and their defiance of the regime. And I feel both crushed and understanding when Winston and Julia finally capitulate to torture. I wish they had resisted until death like Evey was prepared to do even as I realize that such resistance was almost impossible for them (and would be impossible for me). V for Vendetta remains a very good story. But it doesn’t drive home the terror and the inevitability of totalitarian power in the same way. As the predecessor to Moore’s masterwork Watchmen, it doesn’t quite deliver the all-encompassing experience that 1984 imposes.

More Than a Story

Finally, the ideas in 1984 are so well-developed that the novel is truly the perfect blend of fiction and theory. There’s even a fully-realized political treatise in the middle of the book. And that section is fascinating, not boring! In addition to this section, Orwell weaves the machinations and motivations of totalitarian power throughout the novel. In reading 1984, we develop a complete understanding of power and a deep fear for the characters who face it.

1984 and other difficult stories succeed because they immerse us emotionally and intellectually in their fictional worlds. With supremely talented writers like Orwell, we do not just have the feeling of reading a story but of uncovering some truth about the world. Orwell reminds us that totalitarian power is not a mere fiction that can be thrown off by a few plucky heroes, but a real, menacing possibility that exists in some corners of the world and may even threaten ours. Other difficult stories succeed in a similar fashion. Alice Sebold reminds us that murder and grief do not always end in revenge and justice. Cormac McCarthy makes us realize that the American frontier movement was much darker and bloodier than a John Wayne movie.

The Power of Catharsis

Yet we still don’t leave those difficult stories feeling good about ourselves or the state of the world. In his analysis of tragedy, the Greek philosopher Aristotle used the term “catharsis” as a metaphor for the way tragedies arouse powerful, usually negative emotions in the audience and then purge them. A good tragedy is emotionally devastating but leaves us with feelings of renewal and restoration. 

Often, that emotional renewal is accompanied by a reinvigorated desire for action. Reading 1984 leaves me emotionally drained. But it also helps me shake off some complacency and dependence that comes from living in a governed society. It makes me more willing to challenge state power, more willing to speak up for marginalized individuals, more willing to question established wisdom, all of which are positives attitudes for individuals and society as a whole.

It takes a skilled storyteller to accomplish all this without relying on a happy ending. But the difficult stories that succeed really pack a punch because their worlds are so immersive and because they evoke a positive outcome through an onslaught of negative emotions. So don’t be afraid of difficult stories. Find authors whose ideas resonate with you and prepare to get swallowed by a new world and come out refreshed on the other side.

Why does this keep happening?

A mass shooting at a Chicago beach leaves several dead and dozens injured. In the year before the crime, four individuals emerge as possible suspects.

An apathetic computer programmer.

An ex-college athlete with a history of head injuries.

An Army veteran turned Chicago cop.

A despondent high school student.

One of them is the shooter. Discover who and why.

“Parabellum is taut, slow-burning crime fiction at its best. And it’s a great deal more than that.” - Paul Flower, author of The Great American Cheese War

“A vivid, harrowing journey.” - Jenny Milchman, Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author of Cover of Snow

If you like nuanced literary crime fiction that explores the depths of the human psyche, you’ll love Greg Hickey's compelling and unforgettable novel.

Book Links:
Goodreads * Amazon India * Amazon US

Read an Excerpt from Parabellum

The heat of the day had lingered into the evening, encapsulating the smells of human death. The absence of wind, uncharacteristic for Chicago, left the lake a sheet of dark gray glass nudging the shoreline in slow rhythmic pulses and fixing the stench in place.

The loader glanced at his partner. He guessed the other man was a couple of years younger than he was. Early thirties, maybe.

He asked, “Did you ever play Oregon Trail growing up?”

“Of course,” his partner said. “Ever since they put a computer in my first-grade classroom.” 

“Apple LC II,” the first loader said. “That’s what we had.”

“I don’t remember ours.”

“A bulky gray box. It was longer front to back than it was wide.”

“And those floppy disks. The big ones.”

“That were actually floppy. If you held them by the corner, they actually flopped.”

“Yeah. Back before the so-called floppy disks everyone remembers. The square black ones.”

“With the triangle chunk missing from the corner.” 

It helped to talk. He had learned that his first day on the job. He hadn’t seen the other loader before. If it was one of his first scenes, he seemed to be handling it all right. 

“Exactly,” the other man said. “When my parents finally got a computer, I played that game for hours.”

“I’m guessing you didn’t have Nintendo.”

“No. Computers were educational.”

“Right.” The first loader took a deep breath and coughed at the stench. He wondered if the other man was even taking in the smell—a stale, rusty, sour, ammoniac cacophony of blood and sweat and piss and shit.

“But you know what I did?” his partner said. “On Oregon Trail, I mean?”

 “Of course.” He grunted as they shifted another body. “You hunted. Everyone did.”

The other loader wiped sweat from his face and looked out at the lake. “Over and over and over again. I mean, sometimes I’d play the game out for real, try to make it to the end with everyone alive. But all I really wanted to do was hunt.”

The first loader smiled. “And every time it warned you: ‘You shot 947 pounds of meat but could only carry two hundred pounds back to the wagon. If you continue to hunt in this area, game will become scarce.’”

He zipped the bag. On the count of three, they hefted the body and hauled it to the van. 

The city limit was one body per van. Two at the most. Which he never understood, because the rule seemed like a violation of basic mathematical identity. Today it was two bodies, which still wasn’t enough. The pair of company vans had spent hours shuttling back and forth through the snarl of Saturday afternoon traffic to the medical examiner’s office.

“I felt bad for about two seconds,” the other loader said. “Then I’d hunt squirrels because all the buffalo were dead.”

“It was better than Duck Hunt,” he said.

“I never played Duck Hunt.”

“No Nintendo.”


As they returned to the beach, the sun hid behind the lake-shore high rises, casting thick bands of light and shadow across the sand, except for where the bands were lost in the spotlights of news teams and the flashing blues and reds of squad cars mounted on Lake Shore Drive or rooted in the grassy swath above the beach. 

Down below, liver mortis had set in, blood had pooled, eyes had gone white or crimson. Amid the light and shadow and color, the beach was a haunted house of shrouded mannequins with purple, red and blue-tinged skin, ebony blooms of blood and grotesquely distorted features fixed in shock and agony.

About the Author

Greg Hickey started writing his first novel the summer after he finished seventh grade. He didn't get very far because he quickly realized he preferred playing outside with his friends.

Eight years later, he began to find a better balance between writing and life. He wrote the early drafts of his first screenplay Vita during his last two years of college. Vita went on to win an Honorable Mention award in the 2010 Los Angeles Movie Awards script competition and was named a finalist in the 2011 Sacramento International Film Festival.

After college, he spent a year in Sundsvall, Sweden and Cape Town, South Africa, playing and coaching for local baseball teams and penning his first novel, Our Dried Voices. That novel was published in 2014 and was a finalist for Foreword Reviews' INDIES Science Fiction Book of the Year Award.

Today, he still loves sharing stories while staying busy with the other facets of his life. He is a forensic scientist by day and endurance athlete and author by nights, lunches, weekends and any other spare moments. After his post-college travels, he once again lives in his hometown of Chicago with his wife, Lindsay.

Greg on the Web:

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