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—outraging Dahl.
I recently read James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux, the 21st story in his series about a Louisiana detective. Although I’ve read all of the series, I was still shocked at how Dave Robicheaux descended into alcoholism after 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 death of a loathsome criminal, who likely caused the 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 in my own crime novels, though putting a manuscript away for a couple of years, before reading it as a reader 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, including:
*The murder of the deputy detective by a serial killer they’re hunting.
*Incestuous twin brothers, who are part of a human trafficking and gunrunning 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 last story, The Dead Need Nobody, there was another shocking ending, when the protagonist detective is stabbed; he’s in a coma 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 in 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….