When this month started, I had no idea that one of the dominant topics on my blog would be a single, largely unremarkable horror story, but here we go. Having already written two posts (here and here) about the attacks on Jason Sanford’s “The Wheels on the Torture Bus Go Round and Round”, a recent development has led to me writing a third.
To recap: “The Wheels on the Torture Bus Go Round and Round” is a story with the Addams Family-esque setting of a suburban neighbourhood that’s regularly visited by a yellow bus carrying medieval torture equipment. It has a message about bullying and no graphically-depicted violence; I found it to be very tame by the standards of the horror genre, and when I showed it to a community of horror readers, they agreed with me.
Yet the story is facing a backlash. Why? Because author Jason Sanford also wrote an exposé of violent political rhetoric posted at the official forum of publisher Baen Books. This led to him being subjected to a volley of attacks by various right-wingers; one of them, Samuel Collingwood Smith, found the Torture Bus story and decided to use it as a stick to beat him with. Smith’s main accusation is that the story (which contains absolutely no sexual content whatsoever) might, hypothetically, be arousing to paedophiles – an obviously absurd assertion that could just as easily be levelled at any other work of fiction which includes children as characters.
Smith has recently made another blog post about the Torture Bus story, and this one includes a new detail: that “Jason Sanford’s work has been specifically discussed on established child abuse forums”. Smith avoids mentioning these forums by name or providing links, although he does excerpt one of the posts. A Google search revealed that the forums in question are the Reddit communities r/survivorsofabuse and r/adultsurvivors, and the facts of the matter are a rather more complicated than Smith’s post might indicate.
Less than two weeks ago, a user called BitterSurvivor started a thread at each community talking about the Torture Bus story. Here’s what the individual said at r/survivorsofabuse:
I find it personally very helpful to lose myself in escapist fiction like sci-fi and fantasy. It is normally relaxing and distant from my suffering. Once incident left me boiling with rage, about a story that came up in sci-fi this week.
There is this short story, online and on Amazon. It was called The Wheels on the Torture Bus Go Round and Round, by Jason Sanford. He is supposed to be some white-hot upcoming sci-fi author. But, it’s a story about a little girl being groomed and drawn into having grown-ups torture a little boy. I see the torture as a metaphor for pedophile rape and frankly it’s not even a very subtle metaphor. There isn’t even a trigger warning.
Some people have tried to minimize it due to political bullshit but I hate to see this kind of thing in the media just like I hate to see it on TV. I feel it is like profiting from abuse. It hurts me personally and makes me feel they are profiting from my abuse.
The impression I get is that this poster is basing their opinion not on Sanford’s story itself, but on Samuel Collingwood Smith’s lurid description of it. They clearly have some awareness of the surrounding controversy (as evidenced by the reference to “political bullshit”) and their interpretation of the story as a metaphor for grooming and paedophilia, rather than simply bullying, meshes with Smith’s portrayal. Given the amount of contemporary fiction themed around abuse, much of it far more graphic than the almost cartoonish “Wheels on the Torture Bus”, I doubt that this person would have singled out Sanford’s story for criticism had they not come across Smith’s post beforehand.
Of the replies to BitterSurvivor’s post, this is the highest rated:
That sounds way more like horror or splatterpunk than straight sci-fi which is a bigger issue. I appreciate that things can be horror sci-fi but I just read the first chunk of that story and it read like straight horror, I didn’t really see the sci-fi aspect beyond an implied dystopia (which isn’t exclusive to sci-fi).
I don’t have much helpful to say but I want to share that I agree this is a problem. I like splatterpunk horror, these books go out of their way to be vile and explicit but that’s made clear before you open the book. I know that anything in that genre will have triggers right and left. But when you open a sci-fi anthology you don’t expect a story that focuses entirely on depravity and that’s a reasonable expectation. If he had marketed it differently (more accurately) you likely wouldn’t have read it and that’s incredibly frustrating.
I don’t watch movies or shows anymore where they use abuse, r*pe, or assault as character building. I just can’t. I made it through one episode of Game of Thrones and decided I couldn’t watch anymore. You’re not alone in thinking that there should be some restructuring in how this content is created, marketed, consumed, and normalized in genres that are generally considered “safe”
I want to clarify that I’m not saying no one should ever put this content in their works, but that there should be tact. And if there isn’t tact it should be marketed clearly (like splatterpunk). It shouldn’t be in random shows/movies/books just to be scandalous or push the envelope – there are specific genres for that kind of content and, again, they’re clearly labelled.
This post strikes me as pretty reasonable. The poster calls for fiction with disturbing content to be adequately labelled, but also acknowledges that there’s nothing inherently wrong with authors choosing to explore such sensitive themes. (The one issue I’d raise is that the poster seems to be under the impression that Sanford’s story was included in a general science fiction anthology; it wasn’t).
The next two highest-rated posts run along similar lines:
Yeah, I think there should be trigger warnings for all stories so you know beforehand if it’s something you won’t be able to get through safely. Also, I’ve heard there’s a site called doesthedogdie.com that archives stuff about movies that could trigger people
I am a survivor, not of sexual, but emotional physical abuse and honestly I love reading or seeing stuff where characters who suffer abuse, the more I can relate the better. I don’t really know why, I don’t know if this is uncommon…but I just don’t usually like characters that don’t have some kind of trauma, addictions, whatever… I never thought they were ”profiting from my abuse”. If well done it makes me feel less alone and make me more invested in the story and the characters. I hate it when in fiction people goes through stuff that would be hugely traumatic and sort of brush it of, like what?
I tried to imagine what I would feel if there were no such characters or type of books, and honestly, it would be unpleasant for me…when younger I would have felt more alone because ”this thing seems to happen to no one else, not even fictional people, or it is so shameful and extreme that writer can’t write about that”…now I don’t know, but I would not like it. …they should put trigger warning, but in my case I usually get triggered from other kind of situation and not in fiction.
So, at this point, general consensus among the replies to BitterSurvivor’s post was that stories themed around abuse are acceptable, even necessary as a means of capturing the full range of human experience, so long as they are adequately labelled.
But then things took an abrupt turn when two newly-registered members called HurtHearth and BrightBranches joined the discussion; to date they have never again posted at Reddit, having apparently signed up purely to condemn the Torture Bus story. Neither poster indicated that they were personally a survivor of abuse, but both demonstrated sizeable grudges against Jason Sanford. Here’s the post from HurtHearth:
I couldn’t help myself but I googled Jason Sanford’s story to see if there had been any coverage. Its kind of like tonging a hurting tooth, I just could not stop. There is actually a polite email writing campaign going on to the media company Sanford works for, using public email addresses of executives. The media organisations ONMA and Interzone Magazine he works for have some high profile trustees. I would like them to face some consequences and accountability.
Scott Champion is the owner of Champion Carolinas which makes him the face of local news in a large part of the United States. I wish I could grab him and scream at him that this story and his failure to condemn it makes abuse victims feel like he is raping them too.
There are also Karmen Concannon, Lane Moon and Kirk Dougal of AIM Media Midwest. It feels like they are participating in, endorsing, salivating over the abuse. I know that is emotional but I would like AIM executives confronted with the pain they are causing. I looked up the CEO and Chairman of the company and it is Jeremy Halbreich. I feel that he needs to intervene and all these sponsoring organisations and trustees have to condemn the content of Jason Sanford’s work. Otherwise he is enabling sadistic, pedophile child abuse material. Good folks need to confront him so his company does not become a pedophile rape enabler.
Mark Cohen, Jana Collier, Kurt Franck, Bill Hudnutt, David Keller, Beryl Love, Mary Huber, Archbold Buckeye, Chris Quinn all of them are ONMA trustees. All of the ONMA trustees are gross and disgusting. Everyone who employs or empowers Sanford. They need to be fired from their jobs and never work in the media again. All of them are accountable for enabling pedophile sadism.
Here, HurtHearth is effectively paraphrasing Samuel Collingwood Smith’s rhetoric about Sanford and the Torture Bus story. The “polite letter-writing campaign” was either initiated or signal-boosted by Smith in an effort to get back at Sanford for his article about the Baen forum. HurtHearth claims to have come across all of this after Googling the story, but it seems implausible that someone could be so thoroughly on-board with the anti-Sanford side of the argument (to the extent of naming and shaming people who happen to be professionally related to him) so quickly.
The reply from BrightBranches is more of the same:
Scott Champion is disgusting – – – his silence is complicity. SHAME ON HIM! The same with Karmen Concannon, Lane Moon and Kirk Dougal. It is like they are holding down the children to be raped and tortured (metaphorically).
They are not the worst though! Sanford is actually being given carte blanche to promote his repugnant vomit-inducing child abuse fantasies by WorldCon 2021, which is a large science fiction convention. There have been complaints, but the Chair, William Lawhorn, has not responded adequately. There is a Code of Conduct, which is meant to respond to things like this, but the Listeners Team have not dealt with it. The so-called Listener’s team is Heather Urbanski and Judith Kindell.
If they are listening, they have not replied. A google suggests that Heather Urbanski teaches. I don’t think she is a fit person to work in any kind of school I don’t know what Kindell does but someone ought to find out. Like I said, metaphorically, it like they are holding down a child to be raped and tortured. They also basically ignored complaints that Jason Sanford harassed a female guest of honor called Tony Weisskopf. That is a whole political thing like OP said but I agree. It is exploitation. I hate it and resent it. The ONMA peeps should not work again and neither should Lawhorn, Urbanski and Kindell.
As you can see, we have more naming and shaming of people who have worked with Sanford, and more ludicrous rhetoric: apparently the publishers of the Torture Bus story (which, again, has no sexual content, let alone paedophilia) are “metaphorically… holding down a child to be raped and tortured.” Good God. Note, also, that Sanford’s article about the Baen forum is distorted into personal harassment directed at Toni Weisskopf.
For those unaware, the controversy over Baen led to Toni Weisskopf losing her position as guest of honour at the 2021 WorldCon. The post’s attacks on Heather Urbanski and other people involved with WorldCon look like nothing so much as a tit-for-tat response to this event.
I’m going to be blunt here. i don’t believe for a second that HurtHearth or BrightBranches are arguing in good faith. I believe that they’re a pair of trolls (or possibly a single troll and a sockpuppet) who have a grudge against Sanford over his article on Baen and are trying to hijack a discussion group for abuse survivors as a means of getting at him. It’s despicable.
Samuel Collingwood Smith clearly disagrees with my assessment. He quotes the highly dubious BrightBranches comment in his post, while also acknowledging that it came from a disposable account:
Jason Sanford’s work has been specifically discussed on established child abuse forums, and users there have expressed distress at her failure to speak out or exclude Sanford. They consider her silence complicity […] I note that some of the posters criticising Urbanski are established, some are 1 use disposable accounts.
For clarity, I’d like to point out that it wasn’t just some of the attacks on Urbanski in the thread that came from disposable accounts: it was all of them. I should also mention that Smith avoids acknowledging the r/survivorsofabuse posters who found the story defensible.
(As I said earlier, BitterSurvivor also posted about the Torture Bus story at r/adultsurvivors, but there’s less to comment on there. The opening comments are the same, and the people replying give no indication that they’ve read Sanford’s story and instead move the discussion towards depictions of abuse in film and television. BitterSurvivor has made no contributions to Reddit outside of these two threads.)
There’s one more thing I want to bring up. I considered mentioning it in my earlier posts on the matter, but I was concerned that I might be sinking to the same level as Sanford’s opponents. After seeing the ludicrous posts from HurtHearth and BrightBranches, and the ridiculous rhetoric about WorldCon staff “holding down a child to be raped and tortured”, I really do have to bring it up.
As noted, the attacks on Jason Sanford are ultimately a response to his criticism of the Baen Books forum. One of Baen’s top authors is John Ringo. Before I go on, I’d like to make clear that I’m not calling for Ringo to be condemned or shamed for his fiction – I’m simply exposing a double standard on the part of Sanford’s critics.
Here’s an excerpt from Islands of Rage and Hope, one of the John Ringo novels published by Baen; for context, Faith is a 13-year-old girl who was tough enough to become lieutenant (in the post-apocalyptic world of the novel, certain age restrictions no longer apply) while Smith and Hooch are grown men:
“This is gonna cause one hell of an interesting set of tan lines,” Sergeant Smith said, making sure his shades were in place so it wasn’t obvious he was watching his jailbait boss.
Faith had just run down the beach to dive into the water wearing a blue bikini top, pink shorts, a trench knife and dual .45s in tactical thigh holsters.
“It’s like Zombie Raider,” Hooch said, shaking his head.
“But with a better butt,” Smith said, then grimaced. “I’m going to hell for that, aren’t I?”
Other characters in the novel include 12-year-old Lee Ann and her 17-year-old boyfriend Kevin. A subplot involves Lee Ann falling pregnant even though she’s a virgin; it turns out that this happened because she accidentally sat in a puddle of Kevin’s semen. The situation leads to a scene in which a medical professional advises the 12-year-old to lose her virginity so as to make the birthing process easier:
“Get to the part where Kevin has to boff his twelve-year-old girlfriend,” Olga said.
“Could be any male at this point but Kevin is the best choice,” Walker said. “Vaginal sex during late pregnancy thins the cervical walls and makes for an easier delivery. No matter what, Lee Ann’s delivery is unlikely to be anything like easy. But it makes for an easier delivery. It’s the difference between likely to be deadly and maybe possible. With some actual medical assistance and something resembling an infirmary, which means that she needs to be back on the Boadicea. ASAP. But, yes, Kevin needs to begin having sex with Lee Ann. Soon. And frequently. At least once a day.”
“I’m in favour,” Lee Ann said, raising her hand. But she looked a little frightened.
The subplot appears to have been intended as comic relief, if witticisms like this are anything to go by:
“It should be noted that Romeo and Juliet were fourteen and thirteen respectively,” Walker said. “Ah, true love. Which, among other things, causes the labia to open.”
Now, I want to restate that I’m not here to attack or shame John Ringo. Anyone who follows my blog will know that I’m an avid fan of splatterpunk fiction: I’ve read and enjoyed so many gross-out horror novels that I’m in no position to condemn the above passages. If Mr. Ringo wants to write novels where grown men leer at 13-year-old girls’ backsides and discuss the gynaecological implications of preteens sitting in semen, that’s his business; and if Baen decides to publish such material, well, that’s their business.
What I’m condemning here is the blatant double standard on the part of the people attacking Sanford for his Torture Bus story while defending Baen to the hilt. There’s absolutely no internally-consistent reason for objecting to “The Wheels on the Torture Bus Go Round and Round” while giving a free pass to Islands of Rage and Hope. Sanford’s story doesn’t depict children in a sexual manner. Ringo’s clearly does.
If HurtHearth and BrightBranches were sincere in their outrage, they’d be treating Baen at least as harshly as they’re treating Sanford’s publishers and employers. Instead, their version of events presents Baen’s Toni Weisskopf purely as a victim. This isn’t about protecting children from paedophiles; it’s about protecting Baen from criticism.
EDIT: Oh, yes, and I couldn’t finish without bringing this up:
Jason Cordova co-wrote a short story for John Ringo’s zombie series, which also includes Islands of Rage and Hope, so I’d be very surprised if he hasn’t read the saga of Lee Ann sitting in her boyfriend’s semen. I’m genuinely curious as to how he can justify treating Sanford’s mild horror story as the more “twisted and vile” of the two.