I've been thinking a lot about violence in books over the past month, and
in particular the violence in Chasing the Dead. What sparked me off was a talk to a reading group I did at the end of June, in which one of the people gracious enough to listen to me for an hour asked, "Is your book gory?" I got the sense that if I'd said "Ooooh, yes – very!", she would have run for the hills, but – equally – I didn't want to lie to her. After all, anyone out there who has read Chasing the Dead will know that it has its fair share of violence, particularly later on in the story, and to suggest otherwise would be massaging the truth. So, in the end, I told her it was no more or less violent than the books of Stuart MacBride, Mo Hayder or Karin Slaughter.
It's an interesting question, though, and one that's given me a lot to mull over. Until people started writing about Chasing the Dead on the internet, in newspapers and via my email inbox, I honestly never had it pegged as a violent novel. That may seem amazing to some people. But, apart from one (admittedly pretty brutal) 20-page section, there's a couple of quick flashes, a lot of perceived threat and not a lot else. Or am I just remembering it wrong? I've grown to know the novel so well, there is, I suppose, the danger I've become desensitised to it. And yet, every act of violence in Chasing the Dead is a reaction to circumstances, and to fear: the fear of someone hurting you first; the fear of someone dismantling what you've built; the fear of dying before your time is up. And the other thing: perhaps with the exception of one character, no one in that book enjoys being violent. In fact, it's usually a last, and desperate, act.
It's a very personal subject, this, because it depends entirely on what your horror is. What horrifies you? How much is too much? For some people, it may be a man having nails hammered through his fingers, but for me that doesn't come close. Straight off the bat, I can list the two books I struggled to finish, not because they weren't great books – they were – but because the subject matter was so horrific: Stuart MacBride's Cold Granite, and Mo Hayder's The Treatment. The common theme: paedophilia. Cold Granite in particular was so unrelenting in its descriptions of the children's bodies, of the disgusting places they were left, and of the subsequent autopsies, that – once I'd finished it – I had to watch the Disney Channel for a day just to get back onto an even keel. (I'm not joking either. Imagination Movers is highly recommended.) Even before I became a father, the idea of writing about paedophilia – about young children as victims – never appealed; but once you have kids yourself, I think the world takes on a different hue and it becomes even harder. These days I get emotional watching sick kids on Extreme Makeover Home Edition, so I know for a fact I'd never be able to face down a 500-page novel. The idea is just too horrific. The violence in
it would be too gut-wrenching. The experience would be far too upsetting. And yet, for other people, violence against kids, a loss of innocence, of a young life, may come a distant second to nails being hammered through fingers. That's the way we're built. And that's why, basically, it was near-impossible to answer that lady's question. She could have found Tea Time for the Traditionally Built a little dark – or she might have counted the rat scene in American Psycho amongst her top ten literary moments. Everyone reacts differently to violence and tone, which is why it's hard to judge.
What I can say with absolute certainty is that Fast Food Nation (yes, yes, I know I'm late to the party on this one), is truly the scariest book I've ever read. I'm halfway through now, and I'm never going to eat again...
Author of the David Raker novels