The Sickness Within

I’m dark.  I teach, study, and write about crime.  All crime, all the time.  So, yeah, I’m a little dark.

But every once in a while, I read words that I placed on a page and think to myself, “Damn, that’s sort of sick.”

I remember sitting in my office a few years ago, knowing that I needed to finish the chapter I was working on before I could join my husband and his Army friend for Friday night festivities.  I don’t know whether it was the momentum of the scene or the promise of a cocktail, but I hammered out the words as quickly as I could type them.  Suddenly the bad guy was doing something I had no idea he was going to do.  And I was describing it.  (No spoilers here, but I’m referring to the big, explosive confrontation near the end of my fifth novel, Angel’s Tip.)

I walked into the living room and threw my hands in the air.  “Finished!  Let Friday night begin!”  As the husband shook my martini, his friend asked, “What were you writing?”

I summed up the scene in a single, bluntly worded sentence.

My husband’s friend — did I mention they knew each other from the Army? — looked at my husband, then looked at me, and then said, “That’s the sickest thing I’ve ever heard.”  That’s right, y’all, I managed to freak out a West Point graduate who has spent the last twenty-one years in the military.  Hollah!

(I have no idea why this puppy doesn’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re,” but his obliviousness makes him all the more awesome.)

Our friend asked where the idea had come from.  I truly had no clue.

Now, to be clear, by “sick,” I don’t mean prurient-sick.  Or gross-out sick.  I mean dark-sick.  As in, wow, that person must have gone through hell and back to think of something like that.

That kind of “Wow, I’m sort of sick” moment has happened to me only once in writing seven and a half novels.  Interestingly, though, I’m two for two on short stories.

In 2008, I wrote a short story called Winning (available here), about a husband’s reaction to the rape of his police officer wife.  My own editor said, “I had no idea you were so dark.”

[An aside: The title “Winning” alludes to gendered responses to violence, where men think “winning” means beating down an opponent, and women think “winning” is survival.  Please note that I wrote and titled the aforementioned story prior to this man’s conversion of the word to mean its exact opposite:

End of aside.]

Earlier this month, I turned in a short story for an upcoming Mystery Writers of America anthology edited by Lee Child.  The book is called “Dark Justice” and features tales of vigilantism.  The story took me only a few days to write, but I find myself still thinking about it, wondering how in the world I came up with some of the story’s images.

I wonder not only where the sickness comes from, but also why I seem more able to explore it in short fiction.  Maybe living a full year with those kinds of thoughts would simply be too much to handle.  Or maybe at a subconscious level I worry about my audience, realizing that very few readers want an entire novel filled with that kind of darkness.  A short story is a low-risk, short-term way to purge some of the crazier voices that are pulling at the corners of my mind.