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Killing children. Phew. It’s not all gravy.

You’d think it would be easy to do; they’re so small and inconsequential. But despite this, I struggled with writing the scene.

In my novel, I have one chapter where a little girl is trapped in a gridlocked car on a motorway. And a rampaging B-movie-style creature gets to eat her.

Penning a novel about a giant monster attacking the British Isles, munching its way through every ethnic and social group you can think of, makes my task a bit easier than, say, writing about the more prosaic menace of a child murderer or a road accident. That more humdrum situation might present a challenge. I might have to make it sound convincing. Hell, I might actually have to do some proper, emotion-teasing writing.

Monsters are easy in comparison. Get some of the big guys into the narrative, and every bugger can be a child killer; anybody can throw out a few lines on some toothy menace ingesting a little one. Hey, Steven Spielberg ate a child (or I should say, his finest creation, Bruce the Shark, did) in Jaws, so I am at least following in some big footsteps. Finsteps. You know what I mean.

It’s all about manipulation. With a child’s death, I want you to think: strewth, he’s not kidding. We’re not safe. Anybody can bite the big one here (or be bitten by the big one, in this case). It’s a question of shock value: how appalled can you get? How effective can any character’s death be?

In fiction, we open page one pre-programmed to think about deaths, a stock set of responses to stock situations that we come to expect, even demand. It doesn’t matter whether we’re reading a by-the-numbers thriller or the highest art the form can throw at us. Does the baddie get their just deserts? Will you cheer at the end? Will the hero’s best friend (that’s never a good job title if you’re a character in a detective novel, by the way) end up getting iced? Will we be shocked when the love interest dies simply to give the protagonist a bit of mental gravel rash? Will the hero make it to the end, or will he go out like Valentino?

You’ll probably have guessed by now, but Snarl isn’t the most serious piece of work you’ll ever read. Like a B-movie scientist sporting a popemobile forehead, I’ve attempted to create an evil hybrid of political satire and classic monster movie. I had a blast with it. I made silly jokes and caused utter carnage. The 350ft monster, who you should properly regard as a romantic hero, has his public and eats it.

I have to make you care about some of the characters, at the same time. You might expect the sneering idiot I’ve introduced as a villain to end up in the creature’s tummy, but you won’t be surprised by this. So, to give you a real punch in the guts, some of the nicer characters have to clock out. Which is a difficult prospect for me; after a while, the characters who populate your long novel seem like friends, or children. It’s far more difficult killing these people off than turning some child who’s in the book for six pages into chunky salsa. And this takes us that little bit closer to real life, real people and real emotions.

How I depict fatalities in books and how I treat the characters I create makes me think about how we might feel about the ugly, blunt trauma of a real death out here in the real world. The closer it gets to the truth, the real deal, the more of a fraud I feel. 

People’s responses to some of the death scenes in Snarl have been fascinating. Early on, a bus stop-full of happy slapping schoolboys are swallowed whole by the monster. I was licking my chops as much as the beast was, putting these obnoxious little gits into my monster’s gizzard. And I wasn’t alone in these thoughts either. On (where the Beast lives for now) I got plenty of comments like: “Brilliant! I cheered when those horrible children died!” And it gets better. Later, the main character’s annoying boss – who, guffaw! Has OCD – meets his maker when he decides to run back into his office and click the light switch on and off five more times while everyone else flees the rampaging monster.

But then there are other scenes, harder scenes, which have passed almost without comment. One of them featured a block of flats being turned into rubble by the monster. The creature scoops up great clawfulls of the flats’ residents and gobbles them up. Some of them, in a bid to escape that ugly fate, choose another way out by leaping to their deaths. From their collapsing building.

How’s your sides? Have they split yet?

But just as the harsher death scenes have uncomfortable parallels with real life, the same is true for the silly ones. Every other day newspapers detail these tragedies. And these epochal moments which the relatives of the victims will never, ever get over are reduced to something you might post a link to in an email. You’ll laugh at this, I will assure you. Check out the man who walked into an industrial mincing maching; the woman who stuck her head in the washer-dryer to see what the fault was before switching it on; or, as the old joke has it, the woman who ironed the curtains and fell out of the window.

There was an awful story recently, where a runner on a beach was killed by a plane crash-landing on top of them. I can see this person, pounding the sand, not hearing the whining engine as the plane bore down on them because they had their headphones on. Oblivious, until the shadow enveloped them and they looked up –

And, yes, the poor bugger whose parachute didn’t open. Wile E Coyote couldn’t have done it any better. You can see Wile E Coyote now, can’t you? The frayed ends of his Acme ripcord trailing in the wind as he falls, falls, falls, resigned. Growing smaller in the overhead POV, diminishing to a puff of dust in the desert. And yet this happens. Right now, people are grieving over such a thing happening to a loved one. Look in your newspaper tomorrow, click open that tiresome Darwin Awards chain email. How can you laugh? How can you snicker?

More to the point, how can I write about such things? I’m not evil… Well, not all of the time. I’m certainly not ignorant of death and grief.

I think the answer lies in a true story I heard one time. I’ll withhold the names of the persons involved to protect… well, lots of things. Reputation. Basic decency. Treasured memories. Facial features and basic bone structure. Once upon a time this person had a relative who died very suddenly. Still in shock, this person called up a friend to let them know what had happened. And when this person was telling their friend about this most weighty of issues, with the uncomfortable pauses, the catches in the voice and the crushing weight of sympathy bearing down, the friend on the other end of the line burst out laughing. They just couldn’t help it. Total hysteria.

And the caller – the person whose relative had died, God help them – burst out laughing too. And one drunken night, years later, when I heard this confession, I burst out laughing, myself. I laughed till I cried.

They weren’t drunk or on drugs and they weren’t mentally ill. They simply couldn’t help it. It was a gut reaction, an instinct. It’s not that they didn’t care, and it’s not that the caller wasn’t upset. It was something that had to be done. A release. An exorcism, almost. As grief is heads, the hysterical laughter – in the face of Death – is tails.

And that’s why we take refuge in sick jokes or comedy movies about the zombie apocalypse or, indeed, novels about giant creatures swallowing an orphanage full of helpless children. These ugly ironies gives us that little bit of distance from the true fear and horror of death. If you aren’t already familiar with that fear and horror, you will be, some day. The laughter in the dark pushes us a bit further away from considering our own mortality, or worse, that of our loved ones. It’s twisted, but perfectly natural, and perfectly human.

So how did I write about the child, up at the very top? Simple. My beastie closed its eyes, and took a great big bite.


One Comment

  1. I have a problem with it as well and I have yet to get over it – I wonder how Stephen King does it?

    Plenty of Kids kick the bucket in “It”… so why can’t I let my Chainsaw Maniac do it? And describe it in the same detail that I use in erotica?

    Hmmm – great piece Pat! I’m going to think about this for a while…

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