by John Gilstrap
The first corpse I ever saw outside of a funeral home was that of a twenty-something newly-wed who’d been given a terminal diagnosis by his physician earlier in the day. Unwilling to face death in slow motion, he decided to die on his own terms. He stripped naked, sat Indian-style on his bed and rested his forehead on the muzzle of a .357 magnum revolver, his thumb on the trigger. His wife heard the shot from downstairs and rushed up to find the resultant horror show.
I got involved as a rookie firefighter riding as “third aid” on the ambulance. (That means I got to carry the heavy stuff and do my best to stay out of the way.) “Horror show” didn’t touch the reality. The panic-stricken wife, streaked red from her efforts to revive her husband. The anatomical eruption that was the bullet’s path. One of the most vivid memories for me is the fineness of the blood spatter, and how it settled on everything. To this day, I wonder how anyone can live in a house where a shooting has occurred. I guess you just have to replace everything.
Subsequent to that first fatality, over the course of fifteen years in the fire and rescue service, I witnessed hundreds more fatalities, more than a few the result of violence. Unless you’ve experienced it, I’m not sure you can understand how it changes you; how it molds you into the person you ultimately become.
Now I’m a thriller writer. People die in my books, and every now and then I get slammed by a critic for over-the-top violence, and every time I read that, I am shocked. Certainly, the violence is vivid, true to my memories of what bullets and knives and baseball bats do to people, but to my mind, I never cross over into what I think of as violence-as-pornography. The violence in my books has consequence. Every time my protagonists are forced to take a life, they become damaged goods. The violence evolves them, shapes them into more interesting, darker people. Consider those creative values against the consequence-free pornographic bloodfest that is The Matrix and its ilk.
In movies, books and television, I wonder sometimes if the downplayed violence–the off-screen murder that drives the meat of the plot–isn’t more of a disservice to society than their couterparts which take you and your senses into the true horror that violent crime inflicts. The dead butler in the library didn’t just arrive there to provide a puzzle for our sleuth to solve. He was a person whose last moments were anguished and wracked with agony. I’m not sure it’s good that the likes of Miss Marple, Jessica and Hercule are so able to push that aside.
Obviously, tastes vary. I respect that different forms of suspense attract different readers, but when it comes to desensitizing people to violence, I do wonder which form erodes the social fabric more. Or, as an alternative, does fiction have a measurable impact at all on such real-life sensitivities? What do you think? What are your violence thresholds?