On Gore and Horror

For those of you who read Hell Spawn, you might have noticed that it was the least glory bloody novel you may have read in a while.

Everyone knows the writing axiom of “show, don’t tell.” But with horror, how much do I need to show you? In fact, do I need to tell you?

Here, we have three levels of description.

If I tell you “Daniel tortures animals,” that’s …. very abstract. That’s telling you what he does, not showing you.

If I write, “The kitten was pinned to the metal table with nails through the pads of his paws. Daniel took the scalpel to just below the cat’s sternum and began the vivisection, the kitten yowling in pain and terror,” do I need to show you that much more?

The third level of description involves going into specific cuts and blood and organs taken out of poor Heathcliff here, as he squirms and cries out as his life is cut away, piece by piece. But I don’t think anyone needs to read that on the blog.

And this is how I got away with so much in Hell Spawn without the audience noticing. Later on in the book, I did go on into detail about what happened to our victims, but I made certain to discuss them in such basic, clinical terms, that no one made a single mention of excessive, gratuitous violence and gore. Everyone notes my fight scenes, but no one even points out … things that I wouldn’t even mention on the blog. Yes, that’s how bad they are.

But no one objected, which tells me that I covered some really sensitive topics without triggering any but the most sensitive — and the reviews tell me that they were largely the politically sensitive.

Even Christopher Lee, in his commentary on Lord of the Rings, pointed out how the unseen horror is scarier and more frightening to the viewer, because the vague, ephemeral horrors we can generate are probably more terrifying than what can be put on screen.

In this sense, I have an advantage over any filmmaker. Because I have you.

When I’m going over the crime scene of the first victim,

“Carol Whelan. Thirteen. She never made it to school. The parents work in the city, so they had to be up and out before she was even awake. She generally made it to the bus on her own.”
I nodded. “The bus stop is only a block away. Where’s school for her?”
“Grammar school down near the Cross Island. Saint Gregory the Great.”
I sighed and shook my head. “God. My son goes to Greg’s. She must have only been a year or two ahead of him. What happened to her?”
Packard frowned, stuck his hands in his pockets, and looked away. He stared off for a moment, and I was actually worried about him for a moment. My partner was perhaps the most sarcastic and cynical cop I knew in a profession that bred sarcastic and cynical.
Packard looked back at me with his deep blue eyes. “The question is more like what didn’t happen to her.
“Obvious signs of cause of death include dismemberment and disarticulation.”
I raised a brow. “Both? That seems like … I can’t tell if that’s overkill or the most disorganized psycho ever.”
“Embrace the power of ‘and,’ Tommy. From what the Medical Examiner guys could tell before they ran out of the room, most of the bones are broken, and the body cut to pieces at most of the major joints. It means ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows, shoulders, though he was at least nice enough to leave her head attached to her upper trunk.”
I held out a hand. I didn’t want to hear any more, and that was more than enough between now and the autopsy. “We can assume that he knows how to carve a turkey and wield a hammer. Got it. Time of death? Or did the ME not bother with a liver temperature before they ran out?”
“That would be difficult,” Packard told me. “The liver isn’t there.”
I rolled my eyes. “Of course not. It wouldn’t be a complete slasher film if the perp had left it behind. At this point, I’m just going to assume that there was a sexual component to this.”
Packard shrugged. “That’s the good news. For the moment, we can’t tell. Our brave boys from the coroner couldn’t hold onto their dinners that long. They say they’re going to go in again in a few minutes. And that was a half-hour ago.”
I sighed and shook my head. At the very least, I wasn’t there for when they had discovered any of this nightmare. It was bad enough to hear about this without having to perform an in-depth examination to discover these horrors myself. “Now here’s a real question: How did everyone beat me here? I literally walked to the crime scene, Alex.”
He shrugged, and finally gave me a small, cynical smile that I knew him best for. “There was a debate about whether or not we should invite you in. We had to get hold of Statler and Waldorf to make certain that you were clear to work a crime scene already. Wouldn’t want this guy to get off on a stupid technicality—though they’re all stupid, really. This assumes he makes it to trial. Circulate the crime-scene photos around Rikers Island, I wouldn’t lay money on him lasting long, unless he’s in solitary the entire time.” Packard’s smile became evil. “But I’m told that’s cruel and unusual punishment.”
I gave him a flicker of a smile to show that I saw what he did there, but I wasn’t in a mood to be amused. While I fully believed what I had told Internal Affairs that afternoon, and I knew that most of our perps were good people who did bad things, there were two exceptions that I had experienced: rapists, and people who committed crimes against children. It wasn’t a coincidence that those two had the highest recidivism rate, and they seemed to be completely unrepentant. Funny enough, other criminals tend to enforce their own death penalty on them when they could.
“Anything else?”
Packard nodded. He pulled out his phone and flipped through a series of photographs. He picked one, played with the magnification, then showed it to me. “Then there was this.”
I leaned forward. It was a photograph of the crown of Carol Whelan’s head. She was apparently a brunette, but that was the only detail I could make out about her. The picture was focused on what looked like a large-bore needle mark in the girl’s head, and possibly her skull. “What the hell?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, Tommy.”
I frowned. This was the “cleanest” part of the murder, from what was described, and the most puzzling. Then again, it was like there were two killers: one was precise and methodical, who made incisions to disarticulate joints and used a needle; and a second killer who was violent, deranged, and broke bones apart.
“It’s too much to hope for fingerprints left in a pool of blood?” I asked.
Packard pulled back the phone. “Yup. Even though he did enough finger painting.”
I blinked. Did I miss a memo? “Explain, please?”
“Oh, right, the Jackson Pollock in her blood. One second.” He flipped through the photographs on the phone again, then handed it back to me. “Make like it’s Tinder and swipe right.”
I did. It was like Packard had made it just for me. There were no images of Carol Whelan, but there were plenty of the walls. I presumed that the red and black “paint” was her blood.
There was a circle with some spikes coming out of it, and what looked like a hand with an apple being thrust at the circle. There was no reason I could think of, but the image left me cold. The next one looked like squiggles, though it could have been a language that didn’t use the Latin script. The third image was a triangle with lines coming out of it, and an oval in the middle. It looked like a bizarre child’s drawing, with art materials prepared by Stephen King. The last and final one looked like nothing so much as a demonic cow, complete with horns. If the circle and apple left me cold, this dropped the temperature to “sub-zero.”
“He’s not getting into art school, that’s for certain,” I drawled. I made certain to text the relevant photos over to my phone and then handed Packard his. “Has anyone checked the organs? Or is that also something the ME didn’t get around to yet?”
“The latter. But I can’t blame them. This is one meat puzzle I wouldn’t want to assemble.”
“Any sign of forced entry?”
“None. Windows are shut tight. Doors were locked. The parents had to unlock the front door with a key.”
I winced. “Which one found her?”
“Both.”
I nodded, and turned towards the house. It was time to head inside. “Shall we?”
Packard put away the phone, and we went inside.
I did my best and did not gag with the scent of blood the moment I opened the door. In fact, there was no decay in the air, which I would have expected, given everything that Packard had told me.
I will spare you the gorier details on the corpse of young Carol Whelan. It was indeed a mess. The only relevant detail was the layout of her remains. Each part that had been disarticulated was itself split in half. Each piece was carefully laid on the floor like she had been laid out on a bed, or a slab in the morgue. But there was nearly an inch of space between each part, just to show that they had been separated.
This was perhaps the neatest, most organized crazy person ever.
The second relevant detail … the floor was wall-to-wall carpet, so we all needed to slip paper coverings over our shoes, just to make certain that we didn’t tread blood all over the place. It was probably too late, but minimizing contamination was a real hazard. I was trying to reconcile how much blood had soaked the carpet with how much was on the wall. Who knew she had so much blood in her?

It’s amazing what you can get away with when you’re being clinical, isn’t it?

Another, larger part of horror?

Context.

In the middle of the day, a loud thud in your house is annoying. If you’re alone in the house, and it’s someplace upstairs, you’re wondering what valuable thing fell over. Or what the cat jumped on now. Or what bit of breeze trashed part of a room. Worst case scenario, you pause and hold your breath, waiting for some second bit of noise to tell you if someone has broken into your house. If you’re really concerned — you live in a bad neighborhood or have a string of robberies lately — then you grab a gun or call 911.

A loud thump outside a hotel room is similarly annoying, especially in the middle of the night. Even a loud series of thumps isn’t going to scare you that much. Some idiot is screwing around in the hall, some family can’t keep their kids under control.

However, when the floor above your head is going THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP   THUMP THUMP…. and there’s no one else in the house, that’s when you grab a gun and call 911… Or if you are a cop, you go and investigate yourself.

Then he turns the lights on and the thumps stop, and no one is in the attic.

This is when the problems start.

Heh.

Anyway, those are just my thoughts on horror.

When I start writing City of Shadows, I wanted that. Which is why Tommy should pay really close attentions to the shadows. Heh Heh heh

Anyway, please buy City of Shadows. As you wait for the book to download,  please join the discussion about the Dragon Awards. I’ve got the latest post updated and ready to go, and I seriously want to hear from you and your thoughts on what you enjoyed.

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