Updated: Apr 18
I view horror like alcohol. So many alcoholic drinks out there, suited to all manner of tastes...
Fifteen Years Later - A look Back at Mother's Boys
by Daniel I. Russell
Real monsters lie within the hearts of men.
I wrote that opening line to Mother’s Boys fifteen years ago. Life was very different for me then. Hell, the world was very different. Or at least it seemed that way looking back. Though some things never change. Like Monsters. More on that later.
If memory serves, in 2006, I was in my mid-twenties. No kids. No mortgage. No back pain! And after a few years of working a terrible job, I had moved up in life, or so I thought, to an equally terrible job in an office. I have a mental snapshot of writing Mother’s Boys on my first laptop (the brick that is central to the plot in Samhane!) during my lunch break.
My social life was predictably more active at that age. I’ve always preferred to sit back and people watch rather than get too involved, so my nightlife experiences and having a wide range of acquaintances heavily informed the themes of Mother’s Boys. The novel is a very 2006 book.
But we’re currently in 2021. Much has changed. And being in the midst of—I shudder to say the words—'cancel culture', my little 2006 novel has been getting some attention. Reviewers have picked up on the social commentary of my work in the past, and now the question is being directed at Mother’s Boys: How does it hold up?
That’s the question that brought me to revisit the world of Nat and Max, Simon and Johan, and to consider the book through older eyes and a different social and political landscape. To see if the book does offend and how I feel about it all these years later.
I’m sure that word brings out a wide range of reactions for different people!
I’d like to suggest that someone being offended holds more weight these days than fifteen years ago. I’m not here to debate this observation, as I’m incredibly bad at debating. I’m a ‘we can agree to disagree’ kinda guy, but always welcome a conversation, as this is where change and growth prosper.
With that in mind, I revisited Mother’s Boys this week—but as a reader—trying not to look at plot points I would do differently or sentence structures that made me cringe. So, how offensive is Mother’s Boys? Well you know…I can’t officially say. I can only report what I felt. I’m sure other readers may think it’s not too bad…while other’s may be claiming refunds.
I’ll admit that now, at age 40 and being a very different person, certain aspects made me…offended is too strong a word. Made me uncomfortable.
And now we return to where the monsters lie.
I view horror like alcohol. So many alcoholic drinks out there, suited to all manner of tastes. The definition of horror is to cause fear, shock, and disgust, and this is the ethanol in your drink. You might like to get a little tipsy. You might like to get rip-roaring drunk. People have different tolerances, and if someone wants to get a good buzz on, they may need to reach for the stuff with a high percentage! For me, this is the land of extreme horror. Extreme won’t hold your hand. It’s not going to walk you carefully to the edge and politely guide you away.
Should you choose to step into the darkness that is horror, anything could happen. A book doesn’t know your fears. A book doesn’t know your past. Drink the heavy stuff and you could either be dancing on the tables, weeping at the bar, or maybe curled up in a bathroom stall…
Very early on in Mother’s Boys is a scene which…yeah, I would say it’s probably one of the most notorious scenes I’ve written. The death scene was originally a strangulation, but a beta reader at the time wanted more, more, more! ‘Make it worse!’ he demanded. So I’d rewrite the scene and send it back. ‘Better,’ he’d reply, ‘but make it worse!’. The finished work is still brought up to this day. ‘This is the guy who wrote that thing I was telling you about’ is how one local fellow introduces me in the pub.
But you know, it’s not the violent scenes of the book that made me uncomfortable this week.
Personally, I feel that violence can be pushed so far that it comes out the other side to become fantastical. We have things being ripped off, bodies hacked to pieces, pointed things going where pointed things really shouldn’t be going…but it didn’t get under my skin.
What did is the quieter moments of fear, and the attitudes of some of the characters (even Nat, who claims to value individuality, has some pretty questionable reactions to the diversity around her).
And this is why—and I can’t stress the unfortunateness of this enough—the core of Mother’s Boys, the fears of what men are capable of, is still relevant in 2021. The scenes that disturb me more now are the moments grounded in reality. The woman walking alone at night who sees a man walking in her direction. The apprehension, the worry, the fear.
Going back to 2006, something I saw and heard about a lot was the mentality of some men on the prowl. And that hasn’t changed in these 15 years. At least I don’t think so. I don’t get out much these days.
To illustrate, just a few years ago, a bar in Perth got in hot water during the first week of term for first year university students. Young men had made banners that they hung from the balconies, containing charming statements like ‘Dear Dads. Thanks for raising your daughters to 18. We’ll take good care of them!’ (and worse).
Yikes. The pack mentality, the hunters and the hunted. Women only being good for one thing. This is where fundamentally my antagonists in Mother’s Boys came from.
The incels before the word entered our social lexicon.
Since 2006, we’ve had #metoo. We’ve had marches. We’ve had an international recognition that this is a major problem. We’ve also had attacks continue. We’ve also had fear continue.
So, what does my older self think of the book? I think the behavior of Johan’s crew in Mother’s Boys is just as relevant in 2021. Does it offend? That depends. While the more outlandish and sickening acts are aimed at the readers that need the strong stuff in their glass, most of their actions are disappointingly grounded. And those actions are not forgiven, or ignored, or justified, or sugar-coated. They’re brutal and carried out by a truly pathetic bunch of bottom feeders. True monsters.
Ah, I guess there is a group of people this book actively seeks to offend.
-Daniel I. Russell