Last week I wrote about blogger Samuel Collingwood Smith and his attack on author Jason Sanford over a horror story written by the latter. My response focused mainly on Smith’s post, but really, the comment section deserves its own reply. If you’re familiar with the moral panics over horror comics in the fifties and horror videos in the eighties, you’ll know exactly what Samuel Collingwood Smith and his readers are trying to stir up.
Sanford’s story (“The Wheels on the Torture Bus Go Round and Round”) struck me as rather tame as far as the horror genre goes, and I got the feeling that Smith’s commentators were either feigning outrage (bear in mind that the attacks on Sanford were spurred by his research into violent right-wing rhetoric at the Baen Books forum) or had simply never read a modern horror story before. My impression was reinforced when I posted the story at a community of horror readers (namely, r/weirdlit) and they generally agreed with my assessment of it:
I think it’s rather tame honestly. It’s not gratuitously violent or anything. A little dark, but you expect that from the title.
Yeah, this was not nearly as bad as the title led me to expect. It’s definitely grim, but not graphic. It’s also quite good in my opinion.
A pretty tame great-great-grandbaby of the Lottery and similar.
It’s slightly unsettling and really slickly executed. I admire the craft that went into it. Almost New Yorkery.
i was surprised by the ending – i thought there would be more of a twist… did i miss something? but no, don’t see the controversy at all.
Now we’ve established what horror enthusiasts make of the story, let’s delve into the twilight zone that is Samuel Collingwood Smith’s comment section…
First to weigh in is “cancel_jason”:
[Sanford] clearly is not a nice guy. I mean regular people don’t write about child torture and they certainly don’t parade it proudly all over their social media. I hope Monica Nieporte’s career fries for employing Sanford.
Hmm, wonder if this person’ll be joining the “cancel JK Rowling” bandwagon. I mean, she’s written about children being tortured — and promoted her books on social media, shockingly enough.
Another commentator is Michael:
There’s a decidedly anti-Christian sentiment to the story. If you’re bad, you’re going to be tortured by little demons led by the King (Le Roi). Notice, the truly evil, are no longer afraid of being punished. (My mom and dad have been tortured many times, I can take it).
For those who haven’t read the story, one of its characters is a torturer named Leroy. I can only imagine how Michael interpreted Leroy Jenkins fifteen years ago.
Next up is novelist Edward Thomas, who posts under the screen-name “The Phantom” (I’m in no way violating his privacy by mentioning this, as he links to a review of his book in his post). Here’s what he has to say:
I do think his story was disgusting and I skipped most of your description.
So, he apparently hasn’t read the story, and didn’t even fully read Smith’s (wildly distorted) synopsis. Not the best starting point.
Many of the top Puppy Kickers from the Sad Puppies 1-4 era have since been exposed as outright molesters or some type of malignant deviant causing harm to others. They’re into it, pretty much.
In case any readers are unaware, Sad Puppies 1-4 were a series of campaigns from 2013 to 2016 that involved conservative authors influencing the Hugo Awards. By “Puppy Kickers” he means people opposed to these campaigns. But I can’t think of anybody who could be termed a “top Puppy Kicker” being exposed as a molester. Possibly he’s thinking of Marion Zimmer Bradley, who was outed as a paedophile in 2014 — but she died in 1999, years before there were any Puppies to kick.
The child torture and etc. is pretty standard since ~2014 for the WorldCon crowd. Lela Buis reviews all the Nebula/Hugo nominees, and I think in 2018 pretty near every nomination had some form of grotesque child murder/torture/what have you as a theme or part of the plot.
I scratched my head at this comment, as well. It’s been a while since I read the 2018 Hugo finalists, but I’m struggling to remember much in the way of children being murdered or tortured. Is he thinking of Seanan McGuire’s Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which was about two adolescents living with a vampire? That was fairly macabre, but again, quite mild by the standards of the horror genre (and on the Hugo ballot, balanced out by softer fare like Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s “Fandom for Robots”).
Notice the reference to Lela Buis’ blog — I’m familiar with the blog in question and recognise Edward Thomas from the comments sections. His taste in authors is quite remarkable when considered in light of his statements here. For one, he’s a fan of Arthur C. Clarke’s fiction; when Jason Sanford collected allegations that Clarke was a child molester, Thomas’ response was “I just don’t care.” So, yes, I think we can safely file this one under “feigning outrage”.
In his conclusion, Thomas warns against censorship: “I don’t think Jason Sanford should be -prevented- from writing through deplatforming, because that’s their thing.” Other commentators disagree. Here’s Michael Kingswood:
This is why you lose. A weapon is legitimate to use as soon as one side uses it. The side that sticks to gentleman’s tactics when the other pulls out a gun is not noble. It’s stupid. And dead. Pull your head out.
And Iman Azol:
Exactly this. Name him. Shame him. Put him on food stamps. Get the state investigating him and his kids. Put him on the street. And then sue him into dumpster diving.
Destroying a man’s life for writing a frankly rather mild horror story. Fred Wertham and Mary Whitehouse would be proud!
Then we have Lydia:
I went and read the Torture Bus story, and I personally did not get any pedo vibes from it. There is a legitimate literary function of having the story told through the eyes of a child. It enables the writer to allow the reader to question and discover the answers along with the child, whereas an adult in the same story, presumably, should have already known these answers. Thinking about it, he could probably have achieved the same results with a male child protagonist instead of a female, so I’m not sure why he chose a female. But the telling a story with a moral through the eyes of a child is definitely not an indication of pedophiliac inclinations in and of itself.
Egad! Are we at last seeing some actual perspective? But wait, she’s got more to say:
I will say it was deeply disturbing, and the more I thought about it, the more twisted it seemed. The story seems to me to be an attempt at some sort of allegory or metaphor, but of what I have no idea. What is the moral of the story? Good and evil don’t exist, so get while the getting is good?
Hmm. Speaking personally, I found the story to have a fairly straightforward message: that bullying begets bullying. I’d say that’s about as clear cut as we can expect from a genre devoted to leaving the reader unsettled; possibly Lydia fits into the category of commentator who just doesn’t go for horror.
Finally, we have this comment by C. Goldvine:
This is a pretty good story. Not the best satire I’ve ever read (neither Swift nor Saunders nor a younger Will Self need to worry about being unthroned) but it does a nice job of being unsettling while also lacerating the phony, threadbare values holding society together. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! Will make sure to read/buy more things from the writer.
For context, this was posted after I’d linked to the story at r/weirdlit, which likely accounts for the sudden incursion of good sense.
I’m wary of overstating this matter. Let’s not forget that these attacks on Jason Sanford’s horror story are, ultimately, part of a larger attempt to punish him for posting his exposé of the Baen forum. The thing that holds my attention about this particular smear is how it fits into a long tradition of attacks on the horror genre. I suspect that a number of the people raking Sanford over the coals for his story view themselves as advocates of creative freedom and opponents of cancel culture, and would be displeased at the thought of being bracketed with the likes of Wertham and Whitehouse.
And yet, here they are.