I often wrestle with the question of “how dark a story is too dark?”. Intellectually, I know that being able to plumb the depths of the psyche’s dark well is not in itself a hallmark of a genuinely distubred mind. Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Jeff Lindsay, all of these and more have written some truly dark material, stories that go straight down to the Hell than can be found in the human soul or that stretch out hands to grasp at the worst insanity the mind can fathom. I do know this. Yet, how dark, how depraved can one be before people stop being impressed by your prose and start wondering it it’s a Serial Killer’s Cookbook or the mad ramblings of a maniac? I often worry that I might write something that will be off-putting or make my fiction too unapproachable. My counter to that is that ultimately, I must stay true to my world, to the narrative I’m crafting and the journey I want my characters and readers to take.
This does pose something of a dilemma for me as a steampunk author, though. The general ambience of steampunk (although by no means a rule of any sort) always feels like it takes it cues from 1950’s serials: unsullied heroism, triumph over evil, enlightenment over ignorance. In the end, the hero is always a hero and he always wins. I’ve read plenty of authors who by no means follow this to the letter, who sometimes turn it on its head. Some, such as the inestimable Cherie Priest, seem wholly undaunted by tackling the darker corners of steampunk and Victorian horror. Despite that, I feel this unspoken pressure to try to conceive of the end of my narratives with golden rays of sunshine and the whir of perfectly crafted steampunk machinery.
I just can’t conceive of my story being told through goggles that are too rose-tinted. I want the darkness, the horror, the despair. Not strictly in a Lovecraftian way, but in the ‘recoil in this man-made horror’ way. I want to challenge my readers to attempt to always see eye-to-eye with my characters without blinking. To believe in the causes that my characters follow without recoiling at times. I want to muddy the waters and see if the reader always ends up on the same shore as my characters. In some ways, I hope that sometimes they don’t.
Don’t mistake me; I feel that the ‘anti-hero’ character is becoming a boring trope. Complexity does not equal depth and being morally ambiguous does not make a character’s choices have some sort of sublime gravitas in itself. it just makes them indecisive and unappealing. That’s one of the landmines I now face. I want characters that people can still see themselves in, believe and love and cry for, but whom they can’t always agree with. We all have dark sides and sometimes those tales need to be told, if the telling of them has song to it and if what we gain from the tale is maybe a glimpse back into ourselves.