On the last day of the World Fantasy Conference, I attended a panel regarding the art of leaving things to the reader's imaginations. Some of the comments got me to thinking, and I knew this was an important topic for me, as I usually try to hit my audience over the head with whatever point I am trying to make. Repeatedly. With a big-ass hammer.
When I was a kindergartener, I suffered from chronic nightmares. While my sister dreamed of watchdog rocks that blew her on the butt and scrambled her like a TV screen, I don't remember much of what I dreamed. I only remember that it terrified me and occasionally gave me glimpses of Armageddon.
I loved to poke around in my dad's library in the office, which sounded grand, but it really consisted of a shit-ton worth of books on bowed bookshelves. Most were pretty heavy-duty, consisting of dad's college texts from his chemistry degree, his chemistry set, and Step-Grandpa Art's artificial kidney. There were range management journals and a bunch of very old National Geographic issues, which soon came to include the most awesome issue ever: the one with the holographic Australopithecine skull on the front. Totally legit. But I digress.
Also contained therein were my grandfather's college texts, mostly from his med school days at the University of Tulane. He went to med school in the 30's, before the advent of gigantic CSI units, and doctors were often expected to serve as forensic pathologists and crime scene investigators. One of his texts was simply titled Homicide Investigation. It covered how to remove a bullet from a body without damaging the grooves left by the gun's barrel, how to handle advanced decomposition, etc. If you've ever seen the Brad Pitt movie Seven, the old black and white pictures in the serial killer's journal were cut from this book. Despite the grisly content, I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame.
At some point, my older brother was angry about something and threatened to run away, and so my dad whipped out that book to show him what happens to runaways. There were horrible photos; there was a kid who had multiple axe wounds to the face, a little girl who had fallen down a well and had her face eaten off by a turtle, and a guy's neck that had nearly been severed, among many other things. In a weak moment, Dad let me thumb through the book, and keep it for further examination.
My nightmares stopped.
It made no sense for a long time. Thinking back on it, I was almost as sheltered as the Amish, but was a deeply anxious kid. Nebulous thoughts of bad things that could happen floated around in my little head, but never fully materialized, making them even more terrifying in their intangibility. Looking through that book cemented in my mind the worse thing that could happen...an axe murder...a reptile eating your face...and it was a comfort. The unknown was known and could be faced. I slept soundly. Do I advocate showing photos of mutilation to your kids? Absolutely not. I'm lucky it didn't make things worse.
One comment made by the panel at the WFC was that, by leaving key details out of a narrative, the dark shadow in the corner can be far scarier because it leaves details to the individual reader's imagination. What pushes my scary button could be vastly different to what pushes another's, and when left to fill in the blank, we all imagine something that scares us individually. My scary button, even as a kid, was not pressed by reading about mutilation, though, as an adult, injuries to kids bother me on a very fundamental level now that I have one of my own.
It's a lesson I need to keep in mind as I revise my novel's draft.