Cloacal Obsession

by wjw on February 23, 2008

My current audio book is The Religion by Tim Willocks, a big sprawling action/romance set in and around the siege of Malta in 1565. If you haven’t read it, you might think of it as a sort of overlarge Bernard Cornwell book with a better vocabulary and a wider fictional range. There’s a lot of larger-than-life handsome, big-shouldered swordsmen, beautiful, courageous ladies in gorgeous gowns, scheming Inquisitors, thick slabs of historical detail, epic battle scenes, and a rather astounding amount of piss and shit.

This book has a really high body count, and no one dies without voiding his bowels and/or bladder. I would have thought this a result of some kind of weird cloacal obsession on the part of the author, but I’ve read a lot of action fiction over the last few years that make a point of including this sort of detail, so it seems to be a feature of the genre.

And if it’s not bowels voiding, it’s bellies, with details descriptions of innards being pierced, spilled, toasted, fed to pigs, or whatever. A subspecies of action fiction that dotes on these sorts of descriptions has been called “war porn.”

Which I avoid, by the way.

There seems to be some kind of movement toward Xtreme Action Fiction, providing the same sort of gruesome detail that you get in the more graphic video games. Or worse.

I suspect it’s the sort of grim, realistic detail that authors who have never been in war themselves provide in order to show that they know their stuff.

May I just offer the suggestion that it’s time to stop with all the p. & s.? I asked Sage Walker, who in civilian life is an emergency-room MD, whether bowels and bladders void on receipt of traumatic injury, and she said not. (It might be different if you’re hanged, she said. She never worked on anyone who had been hanged.)

So now, if you’re reading one of these novels in which your chevalier is wading ankle deep in the doo-doo in order to smite his enemies, you can just sneer and mutter, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

So there.

diana February 24, 2008 at 12:29 am

For what it’s worth, I’ve seen probably close to a thousand corpses (including a few dozen hangings), and I can think of only a bare handful that might have voided bowels or bladder. And it seems that most of those who did die in such condition died of drug overdoses, which in my non-MD opinion might be due to their state of relaxation. But it’s most assuredly not a common side-effect of the death process, traumatic or otherwise.

John Joseph February 24, 2008 at 1:45 am

I prefer the slightly different phrasing “Battle Porn” to “War Porn,” but it amounts to the same thing. The funny thing about it is, while I enjoy Bernard Cornwell’s books–which definitely fall into “battle porn” mode–I often find the extended battle sequences the least interesting parts of the book.

Thai McGreivy February 24, 2008 at 3:54 am

My 2 cents…

I too am an ER doc and have seen a fair number of people loose control of their bladder and bowls (though usually the latter, not so much the former). We call this incontenence.

Incontenence is really rare in young/healthy people, unless they happened to have had a seizure. In fact, as far as I can remember, I have never seen incontenence in severe young trauma victims (though I am sure it could occur), nor have I seen it in any hanging victims (alive or dead).

Most commonly we see incontenence it in the elderly, during times of ‘severe stress’, when the blood pressure drops very low and the body is producing lots of adrenaline– a condition we tend to refer to as ‘near syncope’. It is often a very bad sign.

So while I have never read any “battle porn” (I doubt I ever will), my take of your desciprion of Tim Willocks’ writing is that it is theoretically possible, but incredibly improbable– unless (I guess) his characters are killing lots of elderly.

dubjay February 24, 2008 at 5:13 am

I’ve fallen far behind on the Bernard Cornwell books ever since I realized that I really dislike Sharpe. For all his heroic qualities, he’s a deeply unpleasant person to have to spend time with.

(Kathy was a big fan of the Sean Bean Sharpe, however, with his tight trousers and his shirts open to the navel.)

I wouldn’t consider Cornwell to be war porn, because the stories end up being about a lot more than Xtreme Action.

I recall that even so classy a historical writer as Stephen Pressfield described Greek hoplites going into battle with shit staining their legs below their pteriges.

Of course that was fear, I suppose, rather than traumatic injury. Maybe that’s a different thing.

Zora February 24, 2008 at 9:47 am

I like the term “carnography”.

I can’t read Cornwell either. Too ugly, and revelling in it.

Dave Bishop February 24, 2008 at 12:00 pm

I got about two thirds of the way through ‘The Religion’ but had to give up because I found it just too “pornographic” (to use your adjective).

This is a pity because it depicts a deeply interesting time and place. I am fascinated by the Ottoman Empire and also the Knights of St John.
Incidentally, the KoSJ had holdings in North West England (where I live) and it is still possible to find a species of Crocus (C. nudiflorus), growing wild, which is supposed to have been introduced by them. They used the saffron as an ingredient in a treatment for malaria – as well as being ‘warrior monks’ they were also a medical order and were sometimes referred to as the ‘Knights Hospitallers’.

Synova February 25, 2008 at 7:31 am

I wonder… the Greek hoplites… is it possible that, often as not, they simply had to go? When everyone was forming up they might have food with them and they’d certainly have water, but how many hours did they have to stay where they were and were they excused to head off and find a bush whenever?

I’m wondering because the “war porn” I tend to read isn’t battles so much but the sexy SF guys tend to brag as how they didn’t move for a day and a half, even when it meant crapping their pants more than once.

And astronauts, of course, wear diapers.


halojones-fan February 27, 2008 at 7:45 am

But WJW, if they didn’t make sure to tell us how horrible war is at every possible opportunity, we might end the book without having had our proper dose of rightthink. And that would be ungood.

mdmnm February 27, 2008 at 9:57 pm

Interesting to hear from the doctors. I’ve noticed the frequent reference to voiding bowels in both battle and hunting scenes. I’ve never dealt with a corpse, but I’ve hunted a long time and never observed a recently dead animal releasing its bowels in manner frequently described in fiction. I was wondering if that was just a cervid thing (having killed mostly deer, elk, and pigs) or if the authors were off base. Now I know. Thanks!

mdmnm February 27, 2008 at 10:05 pm

I know pigs aren’t cervids. Should have said “mostly a cervid thing”.

dubjay February 27, 2008 at 10:59 pm

HJF, I suspect you’re the first person in history to think of the Sharpe books as being politically correct.

Of course, I may have missed the book where Richard Sharpe joined the Peninsular Leftists and learned to sing “Kumbaya.”

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