Tales of the Horrific and the Tragic

November 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

My prescription for a sickening and depressing story: end with a decapitation,  preferably of the main character.

It’s probably fair to say that, for the most part, writers do not kill off their protagonists at the end of the story. They don’t subject them to anything particularly terrible, in fact, because the expectations of most readers are for a positive resolution. Not necessarily an outright happy ending, but it’s undeniably harsh to get interested in and attached to a character and then watch them die. See ‘The Mill on the Floss’ for an exercise in the extremity of misery it’s possible to inflict on a reader by doing this. Or ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, which I have recently read and wept over. Or ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’, to choose a slightly more modern example. Heart-wrenching tales, all, in the tragedy line. I cried, a lot, every time. Curse those artistic sensitivities.

That said, these are great examples of how powerful a story can become by introducing that element of tragedy, or horror (because both genres do this but in different ways – tragedy is likely to be about pathos, horror is probably going to be gruesome and rather sickening). Would Maggie Tulliver’s story be so memorable if she had resolved her difficulties at the end and gone on to live happily ever after? If she had even left to become a governess and entered a life of penance and separation from her loved ones, even that piece of misery would not have rivalled the impact of the actual resolution. Possibly this technique is so distasteful to some readers precisely because it’s painful.

This is really about horror, though, and the use of a Bad End to pack a punch, so to speak. It’s not really a matter of making the reader feel sorry for your character, but of making them wince and grimace a bit, and feel glad they aren’t under the knife. I don’t entirely like this, so I don’t read that much horror. But for some reason I find myself writing it. Curious.
My latest excursion into the writing of fairy tales started out lovely and then firmly crossed over to the dark side. My heroine starts out expecting her Prince Charming at any moment, and ends the story subject to a fairly direct demonstration of the darker side of life beyond the pale. I can’t decide if this is interesting or gimicky. Ah, the trials of writing. Not that I intend to change it, I actually like the gruesome part best. (By the way, isn’t that an excellent word? Something that is full of ‘grue’. Expressive. Makes me think of grey mud populated by slimy things).

Anyway, does it work to mix and match genres? And in two stories that end with the death of the protagonist, what makes one horror and one tragedy – other than the extra blood on the one side of the fence, and the extra melodrama on the other? Trying questions all. In the meantime, Onwards with the next episode of Chaelen’s Twisted Tales of Sparkles and Doom.


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