Monday, 31 October 2011

Dead Pets Society

What is read without doubt influences what is written. What is read in childhood, those first words that strike a chord, that ignite as yet unexplored emotions, will be fundamental to the development of a writer. My own writing is rather dark - families dealing with tragedy, battling to recover, desperate to cope again. Shortly after my book was accepted for publication Mum asked to read it. A few days later she handed it back to me, silent, her face downcast. I felt a stab of disappointment.
     "You didn't like it."
     "No, I did. It's good..." Her reticence was painful.
     "What's wrong with it?"
     She looked forlorn. "I just don't know what I did wrong. You seemed such a joyful child." She was right. My sister and I had very happy childhoods: we wanted for little, our opinions counted, and we were loved. We were fortunate.
     Poor Mum.
     I blame my reading material. My first memorable book (after the Enchanted Wood, the Famous Five, and every Asterix book I could lay my eight-year-old hands on) was Susan Cooper's monumental The Dark is Rising Sequence. I quite literally climbed on to her magic carpet and let her fly me to a world  of seventh sons of seventh sons, The Light versus The Dark, amulets, runes, Old Ones, Walkers and Sleepers. My heart raced and my hands scrabbled to turn the pages as I ate up her words. A year or two older and my need for that adrenalin hit took a darker turn. Bypassing the Judy Blumes and Jilly Coopers (okay, maybe I did read Riders, but wasn't that on the curriculum?), I landed upon Virginia Andrews. Her twisted, sinister writing found the dark nooks and crannies of my teenage brain and fed them incarcerated children, sibling incest, abuse and torture, and then finally the mind-altering paragraphs that described the family dog, tethered and dead, a bag of bones, sores around its neck from desperate attempts to reach the bowl of water left just inches beyond its reach. That hit me hard. We had a menagerie growing up. We have our own now. A life without animals around me is unthinkable. But I haven't yet written a story that doesn't include a dead pet.
     There's something vital about the abuse of a helpless animal, something that cuts through us, our humanity. Those trusting eyes, the unconditional love, the unwavering loyalty. Dead pets stir emotion. Think Glenn close and that poor boiled bunny. It’s such a powerful device, often used at the peak of the drama, when things have got really bad, when the last threads of decency have flown. It's not illegal to kill a pet (humanely, at least). And cruelty is rarely punished with anything more than a fine. Yet animal abuse is linked to psychopathic behavior with many serial killers admitting to it as a child. Put it this way, if your husband-to-be tells you he used to cut the tails off field mice as a boy, however gorgeous he is, I advise you to start backing towards the door, and when you get there, turn and run as fast as you can.
     After Virginia, Stephen King and James Herbert were my next beloveds (it was an 'open' relationship, my love divided equally between them), and both know a thing or two about using animals to ratchet tension. In King's The Dead Zone a Bible salesman beats a barking dog to death with a bible and in doing so we learn all we need to know about the man. In The Magic Cottage, Herbert conversely uses the miraculous recovery of a half-dead thrush to establish a feeling of elated happiness (his subsequent transformation of the cottage in the story from love-filled haven to menacing epicenter of evil, in my opinion, is a master class in tone and mood). Now, I don't write horror. I don't even read it anymore (though having just written this post I might well go and blow the dust of The Magic Cottage). The pets in my books aren't starved or beaten to death, but I have been known to run one over and have it lie undiscovered for a day or two. Thanks to the lessons I learnt as a child, there's nothing I find as symbolically emotive as a dead or dying pet. 
     So, Mum, do you believe me now? My fascination with grief and loss, and the appearance of the occasional maggoty cat, has absolutely nothing to do with you...unless, of course, you blame yourself for having such poor control over what I read. I mean, Virginia Andrews? Good God, woman, what on earth possessed you to leave me alone with her?


  1. You have to go a long way to beat Virginia in the dark and gloom stakes - my mother was equally remiss and I remember whole weeks engrossed in her books. To satisfy your love of all things death related, particularly where pets are concerned... did you ever read The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh?

  2. No, I haven't read it. I'll stick it on my Christmas bool wish list. Nothing like a good dose of misery to make my heart sing!

  3. Can't spell. I don't have a bool wish list. I have a book wish list..!

  4. Flowers in the Attic is one of those books that will stay with me forever and I've recently been thinking about re-reading it. It's far from the normal genre I gravitate to but I still recall how disturbing I found it.

    1. I was thinking about rereading it too. I'd love to see what it was about the writing - other than the dark and never-imagined subject matter - that was so absorbing! If you do pick it up again, do let me know what your thoughts are. I'd be very interested.

      Thank you so much for commenting (and also for retweeting it). It's lovely to have the feedback/discussion.


  5. It's such a long time since I read Virginia Andrews (and also Riders, for that matter!) I might go back to it. I always find reading about cruelty to animals worse than to people. Even when I read War and Peace with all the passages about (rather obviously) war, the only time I got really upset was a bit about hunting a wolf. Upset me for ages...

    1. It's so interesting, isn't it, the abuse of animals being so emotive. It's the idea of hurting something so vulnerable - the same applies with children, of course, but this is too obvious, too taboo. You can write about cruelty to animals/animal welfare as an aside. If you were to mention children, it would have to be important to the narrative. You couldn't just drop in that so-and-so starved a child, you'd have to expand on it, whereas you can mention that this was the type of person who didn't feed their cat and let its wounds go septic - incredibly description of his character, but you need not revisit the cat in any more detail unless you wished. A very strong device, I think!

      Thank you so much for commenting. Love to hear people's points of view on posts!