Violence has always been part of literature, as it has always been part of life, but in recent decades authors have often depicted killings and other kinds of bodily harm more graphically than their writing predecessors did.
As with sexual situations, violence used to be significantly veiled in older fiction. Brutal acts would frequently happen “off stage,” or be shown in a not-too-bloody way. That sanitized carnage could still be very upsetting to read about, but most readers didn’t lose their appetites. These days, things in general are usually less subtle and more “out there.”
This was reinforced for me with the last two novels I read: Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game (1974) and Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked (1985) — both written after violence in lit started to be depicted more explicitly.
In Highsmith’s novel — one of five psychological thrillers, including The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring the rather amoral Tom Ripley — murders of various Mafiaso are chronicled kind of graphically (such as strangulation with a cord, aka garroting). Interestingly, the retaliatory shooting of a sympathetic co-protagonist is described in a more euphemistic way.
The Kingdom of the Wicked — which chronicles all kinds of intrigue during the early years of Christianity two millennia ago — has myriad scenes of revolting violence (crucifixion, stoning to death, stabbings, etc.) amid the wonderful writing.
A living-author king of violence depiction is Cormac McCarthy, who has a high mayhem quotient in novels such as Blood Meridian (1985), No Country for Old Men (2005), and, to a lesser degree, All the Pretty Horses (1992). Blood Meridian may be one of the most violent literary novels ever written, but, then again, the 19th-century American West was often a brutal place that earlier authors had to sanitize to some extent when published in less-candid times.
In Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), a brutal law-enforcement murder of a likable, admirable “Untouchable” is heartbreakingly depicted. As intensely painful as it is to read, vividly showing the power structure’s violence against minorities gives readers a small sense of what the discriminated-against go through.
And how about the nightmare injuries Annie Wilkes inflicts on captive author Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s Misery (1987)? And the excruciating Afghanistan-based scene in which Taliban guy Assef breaks several of Amir’s bones in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003)? And various horrific deaths in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010)?
There’s also plenty of hard-hitting harm in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, with Reacher receiving and doling out violence — and a number of good and bad people dying along the way. (Think “pink mist” rising from heads exploded by bullets — yikes!) One can’t read the 20 Reacher novels (1997-2015) without getting a major adrenaline rush, for better or for worse.
What are some of the most violent novels you’ve read? Do you think reality demands that acts of bodily harm be depicted in a fairly graphic way, or do you prefer a certain amount of author restraint?
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I’ve finished and am now rewriting/polishing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.