My previous blog post raised some eyebrows. What am I doing reading a book about “Murder, Body horror, Child abuse, Death, Violence, Torture, Physical abuse, Kidnapping, Death of parent, Stalking, Injury/Injury detail?”
Because I choose to put Content Warnings first some people might be misled to think those are the topics of the book. However, just because a book has mention of something does not mean the book is about that thing.
A great (short) introduction to the purpose behind trigger warnings (essentially the same as content warnings) is this article I use trigger warnings – but I’m not mollycoddling my students by Dr Onni Gust in the Guardian.
“A trigger warning does not give permission for students to skip class, avoid a topic or choose alternative readings. What it does do is signal to survivors of abuse or trauma that they need to keep breathing. It reminds them to be particularly aware of the skills and coping strategies that they have developed and to switch them on.” says Dr Onni Gust.
Content Warnings are not themes.
Unless, they are. Let’s take one of the questionable content warnings from Keeper of Enchanted Rooms, Body Horror, as an example. Yes it may be a theme for some stories. The classic example of this is Frankenstein, a more modern example might be Saw. But when listed in my Content Warning section it should not be taken as a theme.
For a topic to be listed as a Content Warning it doesn’t have to be graphic. It doesn’t have to include long descriptions. It doesn’t have to be integral to the plot. Though if you removed all the topics listed in the content warning there wouldn’t be very much left of any of the books, even the classics.
However, for some people any mention is too much. You can never tell what a persons past trauma might entail. PTSD, refugee situations, accidents could all be things that might lead to body horror being a potential struggle for a reader.
Trigger Warnings database puts it like this “… so how do trigger warnings help?
Most readers are triggered because they were not aware a book contained their personal trigger and could not prepare for it. Trigger warnings allow readers to be aware of a book’s content beforehand, so they can make informed choices of what they choose to read and when they choose to read it. They may choose to avoid certain books until their mental health improves or until they hit a certain point in their recovery journey. Other people find being aware of potential triggers is enough for them, and simply proceed reading with caution.”
What is body horror? According to Wikipedia its “fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the unnatural graphic transformation, degeneration or destruction of the physical body. Such works may deal with decay, disease, deformity, parasitism, mutation or mutilation.”
So in the Classic Newbery award winning book The Door in the Wall, the main character looses the use of his legs after a crippling illness. This could be considered body horror. Another example would be the description of transformations in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Or in nearly every story set during the American civil war, where a person gets an amputation. It’s fairly standard in action/adventure, fantasy and science fiction. It just sounds a lot worse than it usually is.
So what about Keeper of Enchanted Rooms?
Our villain, one Silas Hogwood, has learned to pull magic from others by a process of combined spells. It leaves the person alive but shrunken and desiccated. In the book he calls them his dolls. While they remain in this state he is able to add their magic to his own.
Here is the first (and most graphic) description of it from the book. Setting up the ruthless villainy of Silas:
“Water. Shrink. Condense. His mouth dried as he worked, and a strained mewing escaped his mother’s throat. He felt his shoulders mutate as his mother’s body gradually warped and shriveled, taking on a dark-green cast. His bones enlarged and pushed against skin as hers waned and withered, until the spells could pull nothing more out of her…
His mother was unrecognizable. Not only as herself, but as a human. Her body was dark and ghastly, about the length of Silas’s forearm, and wrinkled as a fingertip after an hours-long bath. Her limbs had sucked into her body, leaving little flaps behind. Her face had caved into itself until there was no longer a face at all.
And the new spells, her magic, still burned brilliantly within him.” Keeper of Enchanted Rooms.
Content Warning are there to help readers in pretty much the same way Movie and TV ratings do. Would you watch a PG Movie that contained “Nudity, Violence & Gore, Profanity, Alcohol Use, Drugs & Smoking, and Frightening & Intense Scenes?” You probably already have this is the list of Content Warnings from IMDB for the 1981 release of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.