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Shock Horror!

#1
In classic literature there are shocking incidents that stand out, being more memorable than the rest of the novel. Things such as Sherlock Holmes seemingly dying during a fight with his arch rival Moriarty, after plunging from the Reichenbach Falls in The Adventure of The Final Problem—though Conan Doyle resurrected him for The Hound of the Baskervilles. Unexpected death is a great way of scandalising the reader—and it can happen in horrific or matter of fact ways.

As a child, I recall being appalled by the death of the kestrel in A Kestrel for a Knave, by Barry Hines. The death of Piggy towards the end of the William Golding's The Lord of the Flies was unpredictable. Roald Dahl was merciless in the fate of his narrator hero in The Witches, a boy who gets turned into a mouse by the witches, before having part of his tail chopped off—although he defeats the witches, he's still a mouse at the end of the story and even with his grandmother to look after him, he faces an early death. Unsurprisingly, the Hollywood adaptation saw him transformed back to a boy to make for a happy ending—outraging Dahl.

I recently read James Lee Burke's Robicheaux, the latest in his series about a Louisiana detective. Although I've read all of the books, I was still shocked at how Dave Robicheaux descended into alcoholism following the accidental death of his wife in a road accident, after being clean and sober for years. Suffering a blackout, he's implicated in the murder of a loathsome criminal, who likely caused the fatal collision with his wife. This scumbag is also abusing his own son, but he ends up dying from a horrific beating and torture with a drill. Robicheaux can't remember if he did it, so there was a lot of dramatic tension: I couldn't believe what I was reading, and roared through the 464 pages in a couple of days.

It's hard to be shocked at what I'm writing myself in my crime novels, though putting a manuscript away for a couple of years, before reading it as a reader (rather than as an editor) certainly helps. It's satisfying to catch the reader out with a bombshell, but sometimes a surprise can be telegraphed well in advance, giving the reader the pleasure of having guessed what will happen before my protagonist detective does.

In my Cornish Detective stories, I've included some shocking incidents:

*The murder of the deputy detective by a serial killer his team are hunting.

*Incestuous twin brothers, who are part of a human trafficking and gun-running operation.

*Cannibal murderers, a husband & wife team with pagan beliefs, who consume their victims to gain their strength.

*A mummified corpse, that has been sitting undiscovered for five years in a remote farmhouse.

*A sinkhole opening up which swallows a serial killer hiding in a prehistoric burial chamber, just as he's been cornered by detectives. (My two readers both called that a 'WTF moment!')

In my WIP, The Dead Need Nobody, there'll be another shocking ending, when the protagonist detective is stabbed; he's at death's door in the closing chapter.

Do you have any favourite shock horror moments from literature?

Have you ever been outraged by an author's plot twist? This happened to me with one of Dennis Lehane's novels (I won't say which one), in which he casually killed off the heroine on the last page, someone who'd strived to be with the hero for the whole story. I felt like punching the author on the nose!

Have you written any gruesome and upsetting scenes? Things that shocked your readers....

 

Amber

Benefactor
#2
I guess.

Do you have any favourite shock horror moments from literature?

Yeah. I think I do. If only I could remember. Moments of unexpected mercy and/or grace. Times when events unfold in a typically tragic way but I can't help hoping that just this once, something would save fictional humanity from themselves.

Have you ever been outraged by an author's plot twist? This happened to me with one of Dennis Lehane's novels (I won't say which one), in which he casually killed off the heroine on the last page, someone who'd strived to be with the hero for the whole story. I felt like punching the author on the nose!

Just say the name of the novel next time. We can certainly google it. Just saying... not revealing the name isn't really discretion.

Um. This is one I can remember. There was a scene where a character's mother dies. It sort of pissed me off. I got over it.

Have you written any gruesome and upsetting scenes? Things that shocked your readers....

I think so.

General Comments about Paul Whybrow's Topic:

I don't like shock for shock's sake any more than I like sex for sex's sake (not usually).

Killing the heroine at the end of the novel, or killing a protagonist, is either an outrage, which is slightly different from shock, or it's a sort of triumph, where even though it breaks the reader's heart, the sense of it, the inevitability of it, satisfies what we've learned about the characters and what has happened to them.

Outrage means that particular reader feels let down. Which is totally different than surprising a reader.

I'm outraged by how often I'm surprisused interruptus. It's just like premature ejaculation. So close!

Cannibalism is a taboo and so you could say that each time cannibalism appears in fiction, it's shocking. But is it? The challenge would be to use cannibalism in a way that isn't shocking, to weave it into your story or make it a logical part of your world's culture. What would that look like? You'd have to look at what function cannibalism serves in other cultures and consider what function it could serve.

There's a very famous book where cannibalism is a way of honoring the dead. When it's first introduced, it's disembodied and impersonal aliens who cannibalize their dead. By the end of the book, humans are using cannibalism as part of their grieving ritual. The author quite rightly points out that cannibalism has long been a part of traditional Christian religious rituals.

This is the difference between gratuitous shock and meaningful shock. It adds to our understanding, creates layers and depth.

Incestuous twins--what else were the those Doublemint commercials about? Don't lie to yourself! And they're lesbian incestuous twins. Damn.

If you can put incestuous twins in a novel, and cause me to understand why and how they love one another, to appreciate them--that would be something wouldn't it? Incestuous twins who are evil and do bad things might be one dimensional. Because isn't that sort of incestuous twin expected? If you can make them do bad things and still show the value and beauty of their mad true love. That would be interesting.

If you can make the reader say, "I didn't want to go there ... it's against everything I know is right... everything I believe in... but I did and I'm glad I did." Well, that's a shock worth earning.
 
#3
My breath was taken away by what Trollope did between novels. He introduces Phineas Finn, gives him a parliamentary adventure, then wraps things up by giving him a nice job back home in Ireland and marrying him to his childhood sweetheart. Then when he wanted him back for another novel, he sort of just casually tells us she died in childbirth, so Finn is back and ready for a new constituency and a new love interest. I remember thinking, Jesus, Tony, you really don’t waste any time on the back-story do you, you heartless bastard...
 
#4
Let's see, my novel's got a horribly antisexy makeout session, a puppy dog spy, a car crash, a very physicsy seduction involving ursine DNA, green people who don't need to eat, incestuous, bisexual, male twins with a robot fetish and a crush on the protagonist, a flood which kills millions, cannibalism involving feral video gamers, brutes who have been hunted by robots for centuries and are barely human, a woman burnt at the stake, public decapitation, disembodied heads speaking, exploding heads, reattached heads, mind replacement, abusive AI assistants, people who think themselves to death, somewhat nonconsensual sex with a stranger, naked singing, public orgies, and public suicide. The story ends with the protagonist's apotheosis after a city psychiatry worker zaps her head with a battery that he carries on his back. All in 60k words! But gruesome detail is omitted. That stuff is yucky! Did I mention that it masquerades as a YA novel? I was trying to be satirical and funny, but people will probably just think that it is just weird and that I was trying to compensate for a lack of storytelling skills.

The most gruesome story I remember reading was the one written by Salman Rushdie's wife. It was a female version of the Lord of the Flies. Aggggh the little girls were slowly eating the protagonist's love interest while he was still alive!!! Bleeeech.
 
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#5
There's dark and there's disgusting. The distinction is a matter of taste but I will read or watch dark, but I can't do disgusting. Eating someone alive, disgusting. Eating anything alive, disgusting.

'Saw' for instance, nope, or 'The Human Centipede'. Disgoooosting!

Though I did make myself watch 'The Road', Cormac McCarthy. Do I want to read it? Mmmmm. Not much. Maybe sample, to know the style.
 

Amber

Benefactor
#6
There's dark and there's disgusting. The distinction is a matter of taste but I will read or watch dark, but I can't do disgusting. Eating someone alive, disgusting. Eating anything alive, disgusting.

'Saw' for instance, nope, or 'The Human Centipede'. Disgoooosting!

Though I did make myself watch 'The Road', Cormac McCarthy. Do I want to read it? Mmmmm. Not much. Maybe sample, to know the style.
I know someone who has bodily function type stuff all throughout his writing. It's so silly and gross. But mostly silly. He hasn't gotten literally scatalogical, as far as I can remember ... but there's blood and urine and breast milk and uterine linings... but he's a harmless guy... I think. I think he's only entertaining himself ... and sometimes others. Most of the time it's funny and only every now and then I want to say ... 'please stop with the farts and the burps and the...'
 
#7
The death of Mrs Ramsay in the middle of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse shocked me the first time I read it. It was described only briefly, but was completely unexpected.

The other one is a particularly unpleasant torture scene described in detail by Richard Morgan in his Sci-Fi novel, Broken Angels, the follow-up to Altered Carbon. <shudders at the memory>
 
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#8
In the book by Salman Rushdie's wife, you only find out about the disgusting thing they are doing in a single paragraph the end of the second to last chapter. It was subtle, shocking, allegorical, and not at all funny.
I used silly horror which has none of the power of real horror. Laughter is a good way of dealing with awfulness and fear of darkness.
 
#9
I killed a main character's fiance. Nice guy. All the readers loved him. They hated me for killing him. But it was critical to the plot that he be there, and it was critical to the plot that he vanish, and the only way such a nice guy was going to leave her was if he was dead.

I've felt betrayed by writers in the other sense--where they have a plot that can only end badly for the MC, and as a reader I've accepted the book's trajectory, and understand it is right and fitting ... and then in the last paragraph, some random event occurs and it all turns out happy in the end. What?! I can totally understand Roald Dahl's outrage that Hollywood gave his story a happy ending. Not that I don't appreciate when an author can save a nice character from misfortune, but sometimes a story can't end well and remain internally consistent. A great example of this is Rogue One, in which EVERY main character is dead by the end (but you knew it had to happen that way, and they've accomplished their mission, so it's okay).
 
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