I’ve long had the impression that, for all of the bluster about triggering snowflakes and smashing safe spaces, a lot of the people involved with right-wing SF/F are – at the end of the day – just as prone to pearl-clutching as Mary Whitehouse, the notorious British moral activist who campaigned against everything from Doctor Who to 1980s zombie films. Today I came across a good example of this courtesy of Samuel Collingwood Smith, a blogger also known under the pseudonym of “Matthew Hopkins”, who has just posted an utterly laughable attack on author Jason Sanford.
For context, Jason Sanford has been under attack from various right-wing SF/F authors since last month over his blog post documenting violent rhetoric at the official forum of publisher Baen. I’m planning to cover that controversy in more detail in a later post; for now, suffice to say that a number of bloggers have tried a variety of tricks to discredit him. The latest trick is to attack Sanford through his fiction, described by Samuel Collingwood Smith as “offensive, depraved and vile”.
So, what exactly are these “offensive, depraved and vile” stories that Sanford has allegedly written? I decided to take a look.
The first story condemned by Smith is “The Wheels on the Torture Bus Go Round and Round”, which can be read online here. This tale is built around the cartoonishly absurd image of a yellow bus that carries an iron maiden and other torture implements, stopping from door to door to punish people for perceived misdeeds. This premise would be at home in an episode of The Addams Family or a Tim Burton film, and like much of Tim Burton’s output, the story has a subtext about the cruelty and backbiting that can occur behind the picket fences of suburbia: the protagonist, Jane, is a little girl who mistrusts the Torture Bus and questions whether its victims really deserve their punishment. This paragraph, in which torturer Leroy lists his victim’s misdeeds, is typical of the story’s tone:
“Let’s see,” Leroy said. “Ah, look here. The tipping point was a few days ago in a grocery store. Mrs. McKinney took so long paying that Betty Deviny, who lives down the street and was in line behind her, complained. But that’s merely the peak of our nasty little iceberg. Mrs. McKinney also recently yelled at her grown daughter for staying engaged to a man who abuses her. And she’s said sacrilegious things to the preacher at her church — on Easter, of all days — and there’s something here about a baseball in her backyard not being returned.”
Speaking as an avid horror reader, I found the story to be a solid but unremarkable contribution to the genre. It certainly isn’t particularly graphic, given that the acts of torture are never described. If you posted the story to a community of horror enthusiasts, I doubt any would find it objectionable in terms of content.
Why does Samuel Collingwood Smith object? Well, in his analysis, he tries desperately to read a sexual subtext into the story. He refers to the child protagonist as a “minor” and “an underage girl”. Quoting a passage where the torturers are described as wearing “black coveralls embroidered with a grinning cartoon devil holding a red whip”, Smith comments that this reminds him of BDSM websites. After summarising the story’s conclusion, in which Jane decides to send the torturers after her school bully, Smith denounces “an uncomfortable and disturbing paedophile subtext” and – despite admitting that none of the characters express sexual feelings – makes the ludicrous claim that…
There is a parallel with the arguments of paedophile apologists, where the little girl in this story becomes not merely a recipient or passive observer of the torture, but the initiator of it – just as paedophiles try to claim children are sexual beings who come onto them.
Having read the story, I have to say that the parallels that came to my mind were rather different. Sanford is working in the tradition of children’s literature that includes the likes of Struwwelpeter and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which naughty children suffer nasty punishments. He adapts this model for an audience of adult horror readers, however, allowing room for the message to be more ambiguous. The way I interpreted it, the story is commenting on how the cruelty of the adult world influences children and how victims of bullying sometimes become bullies in turn, with Jane gradually being nudged into siding with the torturers she once questioned.
Smith’s mind apparently works in a different way to mine, however. After reading the story, he found himself imagining paedophiles masturbating:
By way of opinion, this story seems to be one that paedophile sadists could find arousing and masturbate over. As such it is extremely uncomfortable and unpleasant reading. It is disturbing that a reputable organisation like the Ohio News Media Association (ONMA) would associate with this man, or that a magazine such as Interzone would give him such prominent treatment.
Off the top of my head, I can think of any number of works from across the horror canon that could just as easily be attacked as the Torture Bus story. Remember the crucifix masturbation in The Exorcist? How about Ray Bradbury’s “The October Game”, published back in 1948, which ends with the (implied) discovery of a child’s mutilated corpse at a Halloween party? Are these to be condemned for the same reasons as Sanford’s story? If not, why not?
Smith goes on to discuss a few of Sanford’s other stories, but not in detail. He objects to a story called “The Emotionless Love” for misusing the term “psychopath”, and questions as to why the artificial beings in “Paprika” are described as resembling children (but nowhere does he assert that these beings are ever described as doing something inappropriate for children). He also makes these comments on another story, “Toppers”:
Suffice to say the story resolves with the young girl, “Hanger” surrendering to having her timeline torn apart by the flowing white mists. Readers can consider the symbolism themselves, including of the necklace she obtains, made up of tiny globes containing some of the flowing, ambulatory, white mists.
Your guess is as good as mine as to what Smith is on about this time. The overall impression is that, after covering the Torture Bus story, Smith has reached the bottom of the barrel. Make no mistake: if Sanford is to be condemned for these stories, then so is just about every other writer in the contemporary horror genre.
Having covered Sanford’s fiction, Smith fires in a number of different directions. He makes the inevitable comparison to the paedophile author Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose weaponisation in right-wing SF/F circles I’ve discussed at length here and here. He quotes approvingly from alt-right author Vox Day, whose website Infogalactic has a page defending real-life child-torturer Ella Draper; Smith gives no indication that he is aware of this (those who tilt at windmills often fail to notice the real monsters: remember Mary Whitehouse’s oblivious endorsement of Jimmy Savile?) He encourages his readers to contact Sanford’s employers about the “distasteful” stories, and to pressure a prominent sci-fi convention into barring him.
After Smith made his post, a few other writers joined in the pearl-clutching. Jason Cordova commented on what he took to be “twisted and vile shit… about this Jason Sanford guy”. Richard Paolinelli contacted Sanford on Twitter to accuse him of having “issues”.
History repeats itself: anybody familiar with the Whitehouse-linked moral panics of bygone years will recognise this rhetoric all too well.