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Shock and Awe

2010 October 6

About a month ago, I wrote about this image and its function as book cover art. At the time, Joe was reading it and when he finished, he warned me that it’s an upsetting but fascinating read. I waited for a couple of weeks, deciding if I was really up for that kind of emotional book–a raw, true story of mass murder. But though I was apprehensive, the book still exerted a kind of pull for me, sticking out from the bookshelf each time I walked by. So I picked it up last week. And have not been able to put it down since.

The book is nearly 500 pages of exhaustive detail about the Columbine shooting, the teenaged killers, the victims, and the community. Dave Cullen does an excellent job of discounting the myths created by the media and painting a human portrait of not only the victims, but their families, and the families of the killers, and even the killers themselves.  The shooting happened in the spring of my junior year of high school and I remember hearing about it, being frightened by it but not truly shaken because it seemed remote and far away from my tiny world. I believed what I saw on the news, which was that the killing was perpetrated by two outcast teenage boys who never fit in, dressed strangely,  and were taking out their anger on jocks, pretty girls, and other popular students.  In reality, the story was far more complicated–the boys were pretty well-liked and probably had more friends than I did in high school. Their motives weren’t as clear-cut as hatred of the popular clique. In fact, it was a much more general (and terrifying) hatred for humanity.

It’s also surprising just how gripping the story is. Part of me feels sick at how much time I spend reading the book–in the morning while I have my coffee, on the train, on my lunch break, before bed. What is this morbid fascination with such a horrible event? Am I a weird person because I am enjoying reading this book? Can this experience even be called enjoyment, or is it something different?

We all read depressing books, watch horror movies, and listen to sad songs. I know that. But for some reason, this feels more deliberate.

What are your thoughts? Do you ever feel guilty for feeling fascination with horrible events or stories?

9 Responses Post a comment
  1. October 6, 2010

    i totally know what you mean! This isn’t exactly the same, but in college, a friend’s mom gave me a copy of a novel called “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” a fictional tale from a mother’s perspective about her son, who shot up his high school. I was totally enthralled and, like you, couldn’t put it down. But as much as I loved it, I have not once recommended it to a friend (recommending books is a favorite habit of mine). I think I’m a little mortified with how memorized I was.

  2. Joe permalink
    October 6, 2010

    I was actually so tired of being so completely wrapped up in it that I read the last 200 pages or so in a single day. It was a good decision. Afterwards I was tempted to hide it so I wouldn’t think about it at all… but I knew you wanted to read it.

  3. Mallory permalink
    October 6, 2010

    I’ve always thought that the descriptive language used for art that portrays difficult subject matter is incredibly interesting. And I think that you hit the nail on the head with the word “fascination.” You will never be able to say that you “love” this book, or that you think this book is “great,” but “fascinating,” it sure is.

    When I was in high school I had a psychology teacher who, while teaching a unit on serial killers, informed us all that we were never to say that we enjoyed studying serial killers. They are interesting, fascinating, captivating, etc., but never enjoyable. It somehow seemed disrespectful to assign a measure of happiness to something so tragic.

  4. October 7, 2010

    Thanks for the really nice review. I’m glad it sucked you in. I decided early on, that if I was going to ask people to dig in for 300-500 pages–I didn’t know exactly how long it would run–I better find a way to make it interesting.

    Luckily, there was a wealth of great material to work with. But I studied a lot of narrative nonfiction to figure out how to shape that material. I think I grew a lot as a writer doing it, for whatever that’s worth.

    I think most people are interested in crime–especially when something is that horrific. There’s a sense of urgency to understand how it could happen, and a puzzlement about how anyone could do it.

  5. Llalan permalink
    October 8, 2010

    I think “In Cold Blood” would be an excellent example of a horrifying book that I enjoyed. But I agree with Mallory: it was more the structure and language that I enjoyed. The men and act themselves could of course never be enjoyable–grimly fascinating, indeed–but not enjoyable. And this book is regularly deemed a classic, a must-read, as unnerving and unpleasant as it can be.And I would like to read it again.

    Then again, Chopin’s “The Awakening” is equally horrifying in a more domestic sort of way. Would anyone say that is an enjoyable story? I wouldn’t; but I would say it is beautiful.

  6. Melissa permalink
    October 8, 2010

    Since my work so directly involves crimes and victims of crimes on a daily basis I am probably a little biased on this subject, but of couse I get it. The fascination you discussed is why my Crime and Criminal Justice class is so popular as an elective for such a broad range of students.
    Also, I think that for all of the victims of that event (and there were so many) paying attention to it is an effort to understand and honor their experiences in some small way.

  7. October 19, 2010

    I too often feel that fascination for these sort of unbelievable events: murders, huge catastrophes, war. Being able to write about it in a way that keeps people interested is an achievement, and I think it’s important for people to learn about these things so that they can understand, or try to understand, them. It is important to learn about the dark sides of human nature, and because most of us don’t delve that deeply into it in our own lives, it seems natural for us to be curious about it. I find that it’s fair for me to say that I enjoy the story telling, but I don’t enjoy the subject matter. As a few others have mentioned, “In Cold Blood” is a good example of this.

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