Winner of the 1992 Locus Best Fantasy Novel Award, Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper is at times a hard book to read. It is about creating and beauty, and the responsibility we have to both. It contains angels, time travel, dystopian sci-fi, Faery and fairy tales. In fact, its scope is incredibly ambitious. It also has dark and disturbing portions which emphasise that fairy tales are not always written for children, and they can give macabre warnings about unpleasant realities.
One memorable section describes the main character’s descent to hell. There she encounters an author whose work had been based on nothing but violence and horror. He is being tortured according to the stories he wrote. This is what she tells him:
The Dark Lord cannot create. Faery cannot create. The angels cannot create. Only God, and man. I told Barry this…
‘The Dark Lord cannot create,’ I told him again. ‘You have created everything here. You and the others. He has only borrowed it from you.’
‘It was only a story,’ he cried. ‘Only a story!’
‘To those who read it, it was real,’ I told him. ‘They lived it, while they read it. Perhaps afterward, they lived it. Some believed it. Perhaps one of those who did believe it picked up a weapon and did to someone else what you did to a character. Or tried. There was enough belief to give it a reality. Otherwise you would not be here.’
He won’t believe that. He has stopped talking to me.
There is some irony in Tepper’s use of the same style of horror she decries in order to illustrate her point. However, it may be argued that it works precisely because it is purposeful rather than gratuitous. There are stories with no happy ending, stories of war and hatred and ugliness, and they too must be told because they have something to tell the reader about why peace and love and beauty are so important to create and preserve. There are also books about overcoming, and triumphing, whether that means standing bravely against the wall to take the bullet, or escaping to fight another day. But books that do nothing more than excite the emotions are like a drug; they stimulate without nourishing.
Readers should take care which emotions they choose to stimulate, and writers should be wary about why and how they show their nightmares to the world lest they disseminate rather than exorcise their demons.