How Bleak Is Too Bleak?

As a fan of dystopian fiction my tolerance for bleak and dismal storylines is obviously quite high. I like something a bit gritty and dark that has unusual and unpredictable themes to it, but after finishing the first in David Peace’s Red-Riding Quartet (Nineteen Seventy-Four) I have begun to see a very clear distinction between fiction that happens to be bleak and fiction that is bleak just for the sake of it.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought Nineteen Seventy-Four was incredibly interesting, especially as it was so different from the novels I usually read. To summarise it briefly: a journalist for a Yorkshire newspaper stumbles across connections between the corrupt local police, murdered schoolgirls, local businessmen and politicians. The more he digs the more horrifying truths he discovers, but his quest for the truth has not gone unnoticed by those involved. He ends up drawing a lot of attention to himself as he battles between finding a good story and finding justice.

The main character, Eddie Dunford, is a foul and selfish man who is largely unlikeable. He is complex and contradictory, much like the plot, and was compelling to read. The delicate way multiple plots are intertwined together in the book is fascinating and undeniably clever, but I did have a big problem with this novel.

I didn’t enjoy it.

It was thought-provoking, shocking and harrowing, but all in all it was a slog to get through. The characters were evil tyrants or pathetic victims, either out to get what they wanted or were killed in the most horrific and torturous ways. Perhaps I’m getting old, but I don’t want to read anything else by Peace or finish the quartet simply because it made me feel that life is too short to submit myself to such grim ideas for no reason.

This is coming from someone who loves dystopian, post-apocalyptic and horror fiction.

Like sex scenes, violence and dream sequences, all devastatingly bleak storylines must be justified in order to do their job, i.e. make a point in a memorable way. If you’re being grim for grim’s sake, it’s not only innutritious for readers but it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Being disturbed by a violent scene rather than excited is one thing, but reading paragraph after paragraph of sordid, unspeakable acts is, in my mind, a wasted opportunity to make a statement of more significance.

A great example of this would be the series of films called The Human Centipede, in particular The Human Centipede 2, which was a purposeful attempt to be the most vile horror ever created. The sequel was horrible but not in any commendable way; the disgust that the movie instils in its audience is pointless and ultimately inconsequential.

The current series of the TV show The Walking Dead is following a similar path with the character of Negan, who bludgeons people to death and steals without any remorse. The thing is, I don’t think fans of fiction want an out-and-out villain comprised of nothing but pure evil; they want an interesting, diverse and complicated individual who has some redeeming features, because in reality everyone has something positive about them and that’s what makes them interesting. Yes, even Hitler.

By endeavouring to make the worst, most horrific fiction imaginable, even though it’s ‘not real’, it becomes a question of morality and responsibility for the artists that they must be accountable for. To simply label something fiction or entertainment doesn’t mean it won’t have consequences. Fiction has the power to lift or drag down society, although many dismiss this idea.

I’m not saying bleak fiction should be abolished. I believe in freedom of speech and think it’s important to constantly push the boundaries in society even if it’s not well-received, but I feel it says something about me as a person if I immerse myself in worlds that revel in revulsion. Like I said, I think I have a very high threshold for gloom and doom, but I don’t want to get desensitised to it.



Emily created Dystopic in July 2012 after requiring an outlet for her love of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. Her debut novel 'These Unnatural Men' was published in 2018.

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