This habit of not reading the synopsis is getting me into trouble, and this is only review number two. Pretty Girls is, on a technical level, acceptably written. On a real level, this shit is filth. And I’m done with it.
I have never enjoyed horror movies; I am too empathetic and cannot suspend disbelief that the people on the screen are not real people who are suffering. Oddly, I have had far more success with books, especially horror and psychological thrillers/mysteries; however. This book is about a young woman who goes missing, and her family; years later, her little sister discovers snuff porn on her husband’s computer and, as one can guess, things only get worse from there. Much worse. Let’s be clear: this book is about rape. It’s about murder. It’s about the fallout and the conspiracy and the darkness and the psychopaths and the etc etc. This is a mystery novel in that the way in which we learn the level of depravity and the things that always somehow manage to get even worse than you could have imagined unfolds slowly throughout the book, and we do have a kidnapping victim to rescue. However, this is not a mystery on the same level as, say, The Alienist. Or Silence of the Lambs. This is about pushing as far as one can push, and then pulling up the bootstraps and going just a bit farther. Because you can, so why not?
I am a mother. I have a toddler daughter and a second daughter on the way. And I cannot pretend that it is acceptable to use the degradation, sexual abuse, murder, exploitation, and rape of women as entertainment anymore; as an emotional hook to invest us in the story and push us to our limits. Authors (and their publishers) figured out long ago that if a writer can go there but still manage to be a ‘brilliant writer’ then they will have made a real ‘accomplishment’ and folks will pay good fucking money to read it because we as a species seem hardwired to crave holy shit! reactions. But there are ways of eliciting these reactions that don’t require making you feel like you are implicitly involved in the depravity. This is the Game of Thrones argument writ large; it’s not just a part of the story, it is the story, and each person will react as they will.
I cannot say for sure that Karen Slaughter is a bad writer per se; I can say that she did not create a compelling enough narrative besides the depravity to not make the book feel exclusively all about that. Because of that lack of alternative substance or driving force, this book feels like it is appealing to the basest of emotional reactions. It is appealing to the darkness for the sake of appealing to darkness because shocking!, amIrite? Nothing is learned by reading it. Nothing is gained by reading it. Does every single thing have to have a purpose? No. Can’t something just be fun and a way to check out for a bit? Yes. So why can’t reading about the systematic torture, rape and murder of hundreds of women for paying customers not be fun? Well, I guess we have different definitions of fun.
Does this make you, dear reader, an idiot or a horrible person if you liked this book? Nope, not at all. You and I have different requirements for the narratives we derive entertainment from, that’s all. But there is something I genuinely do not understand: how are you able to read a book this blatant with its desire to shock for the sake of shocking and get entertainment out of it? To not constantly have your brain buzzing, squirming, whispering that the reason this raw depravity is shocking is because this happens in real life, including to children? I am not asking that in a ‘you horrible people! You are disgusting!’ way; I am GENUINELY asking this question, because my brain would not stay quiet. My motherhood and my feminism and my empathy would not stop ripping this apart saying there is no pleasure in the suffering of innocent people, fiction though it may be, when the purpose of said fiction appears to be a pure reveling in that suffering. The ignorance or ambivalence to the darkness of the real world it would take to get through this without being affected is a luxury that I have long since lost.
And that may be the root of the issue for me in consuming this type of media: it requires a silencing (or a genuine ignorance) of what humans have previously, are currently, and will always, be capable of doing. How someone could manage to maintain the separation of reading this purely as fiction because hey, it’s fiction, while reading about the true stories on a near sickening regular basis of sexual slavery, imprisonment, torture and murder baffles me. And we are supposed to revel in it for fun; I simply do not get it.
I am aware that one big appeal of these books is that, more often than not, the bad folks get their comeuppance in the end. But when you’ve destroyed the lives of countless families, when you’ve (for example) forced family members to watch their children or sibling be tortured, murdered, and raped while they are dying, I don’t get much out of reading about the villain’s demise. I am also aware that there are books that deal with this very subject matter or matters close to it that do not feel this grody; they are painful, yes, but they seem worthwhile and you feel like you’ve gained something by reading it. This is not that book.
When you shine the gloss of the gripping writing style off and really say what exactly it is we are reading, no emotional holy shit! hooks that come with good wordsmithing can hide how needlessly depraved it all looks.
And I, for one, am done here.