The Violence Threshold

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?


7 thoughts on “The Violence Threshold

  1. High in some areas, low in others. A lot of it has to do with tone. I’ve wondered why “impaling” has become such a common thing to see in movies. I was watching “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” on cable and watched early on as Sean Connery impales a guy on a rhinoceros tusk. And in “The Rock” it’s not enough that a guy gets blown up, but his body has to get impaled on a flag pole. It’s a little bit like, we’re so used to violence that we have to it more impact by making it even more macabre.

  2. I saw death during my years in journalism–the one that sticks in my mind the most was a late-night accident on an interstate in South Carolina. A patrolman on the scene muttered that the body parts (which looked like someone had splattered hamburger) “looked like ‘Nam”. I don’t favor too much gore in books or movies, because I think that, over time, peoples’ senses can get dulled to violence. But perhaps not seeing the result of violence is wrong, too.

  3. John,
    You nailed the reason I don’t care for most cozies, or “traditional” mysteries. The body is provided as an excuse for the hero to solve the crime. I’m in favor of Hammett and those who followed, who, in Chandler’s words, “[give] murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

    I’m more concerned with showing the consequences of violence than in describing the act. Mark Billingham told me in an interview he became much more interested in the victims of crime after he was robbed at gunpoint himself, and that his writing benefited from it.

    Violence lovingly described for violence’s sake is distasteful, but sanitized, “victimless” violence is no better.

  4. I’ll have to agree with Dana on this one. Sanitized violence, whose sole purpose is to provide a killing to be solved, doesn’t do much for me. And unnecessarily graphic violence turns me off altogether.

    But he also said that, in fiction, the consequences of violence are central to the act itself. Crime fiction in general, and noir fiction in particular, tend to follow that credo. And I’m totally on board with it.

  5. I have a pretty high threshold – though I’ve never seen a dead body in real life. I don’t tend to write very violent things however – but I’ll read it so long as it isn’t gratuitous. I’m not good however with anything involving kids or animals.

  6. Violence in books should be tempered to the audience. In kids books I think it should be minimal. Let them see the consequences in a way that won’t stigmatize them. For an adult audience though it should be realistic within the boundaries of not being sans blood or terror, and not being a wantonly violent gorefest either. It should be real for both the victim and the other participants. When someone gets shot its messy. If someone gets punched, the person doing the punching ends up with swollen hands and bruised knuckles. It hurts both ways. And all violence scars a person in someway.

    The stories I prefer need to be realistic. On the other hand, part of writing is creating an entertainment via escapist fantasy, and some folks don’t want to see the real in their dreams.

  7. I’d never killed anybody before, but after I read your blog, John, I went on a spree and left a trail of dead people and animals from one end of the county to the other. I feel much better now, surprisingly less stressed. Now I just have to shower the brain bits out of my hair before the cops show up.

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