I just returned from this year’s Bouchercon mystery conference, where the world’s alcoholics who also happen to write mysteries gather every year. In all seriousness, it’s an amazing event for both writers and readers and it’s already one of my favorite things to do as a writer (writing is not first).
One of the most interesting things I learned, however, was unexpected tidbit that I now have printed out and taped to my computer. Stuart Neville, author of The Ghosts of Belfast, was asked why so many readers are offended by the seemingly “lesser” act of a child being slapped or a pet being killed when that same book might be full of gory, graphically-depicted murders.
(This is a fairly common question and less interesting than you might think, since almost all writers are a) human, and b) self-aware, so the normal topics of rape, pedophelia, etc. are mentioned. The panel usually agrees, nods, and moves on to the next question.)
Stuart, however, had a different take on the subject and to demonstrate, he mentioned that in one of his books he writes about a pair of psychopathic brothers who kill for fun. The older brother–who would actually like to quit–is kept in line by the younger who does so by biting him.
The crowd in the room gasped and Stuart, in so many words, said that the gasps are the most common reaction he gets when he mentions it. The reason, he said, is that we all know what it’s like to be bitten, whether by a person or an animal. Few of us know what it’s like to be shot or stabbed or bludgeoned. It’s one of the few cases where the known is exponentially more frightening than the unknown and why a book full of murders elicits a shrug…but a bite gets a gasp.