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I've been dreading this, since it was only a matter of time: some creep would go on a murder spree with a crossbow.

That's the weapon of choice for the school killer in my seventh novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. The 15-year-old spurns a gun, which he considers obvious, ordinary and less demanding of skill than a crossbow, so his selection of this lethal yet legal implement is carefully calculated to distinguish him from the run-of-the-mill. After all, high-school massacre is classic "attention-seeking behaviour", just as the juvenile grotesquery of Stephen Griffiths's alleged murder and dismemberment of three prostitutes was doubtless designed to grab headlines.

Lacking any declaration of literary allusion by the accused, it would entail a perverse sort of vanity on my part to assume that the self-styled "Crossbow Cannibal" got the idea of using a crossbow from my novel. Nevertheless, I scanned the books apparently mentioned on his websites with trepidation. Mercifully, Griffiths favoured nonfiction: Women and the Noose, Britain's Bloodiest Serial Killers. Thus far, though the odd blog has speculated along these lines, no detective or investigative journalist has revealed that the gruesome killings with which Griffiths is charged were inspired even fractionally by the climax of Kevin.

Yet let's hypothesise for a moment that Kevin did influence his weapon in this case. Would that make these deaths my fault?

After all, my former literary agent, who first refused to represent that novel, was not only repelled by its cold narrator and the woman's unpleasant son, but also warned by email of this very advent. She was "extremely fearful of the idea that some kid might read this and get some copycat idea to use a crossbow. You think I'm kidding? Just imagine how that would feel." Good question. If the 40-year-old adolescent Stephen Griffiths were to claim he'd imitated the fictional Kevin Katchadourian, how would I feel?

Queasy. Still, if we're blaming popular culture for planting depraved notions in the minds of the pure-hearted, Griffiths has also paid internet homage to Ravenous, a film about vampire cannibals, David Lynch's Eraserhead, a film in which a baby seems to have been crossed with a giant maggot, and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. So there's plenty of culpability to spread around.

People often demonise the influences of demons. America's high-school shootings have resulted in (failed) lawsuits against everyone from poor Marilyn Manson, with that heavy hand with the mascara brush, to the video-game designers of Doom. Driven by a craving for meaning, for an order in which big, dumb, terrible things have a clear cause and, therefore, a clear remedy, this desperate finger-pointing is wrong-headed. Were artists held criminally responsible for everything that individual members of their audiences get up to, no one could ever afford the risk of recording a song, publishing a book or distributing a film.

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August 24th, 2010
3:08 PM
Speaking of Columbine, and life imitating fiction: I remember that a copy of The Bachman Books, a collection of novellas by Stephen King, was found among the possessions of the killers. One of the novellas, entitled "Rage", described a high school massacre carried out by a deranged student. Another, "The Running Man", ended with the protagonist crashing an airliner into a skyscraper. After the massacre, it was revealed that the two murderers had planned to hijack an airplane and crash it into New York City. If I remember correctly, a big deal was made in the media about Manson and the video games, but relatively little was said about King's books, which is rather strange. I don't think King was ever sued, which would have been ridiculous.

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