All crime fiction fans like myself have read at least one or two torture scenes in the last few years. But where does torture stop being an entertaining plot device and where does it descend into brutal gratuitous savagery?
As an author I am curious about how far is too far and where to draw the line. Admittedly as a reader I am quite inured to violence and torture scenes have to be really graphic to shock me although I do understand that there are many other readers with much more delicate sensibilities.
In the last year’s reading I can recall such horrors as a soldering iron inserted into a urethra, countless waterboarding incidents and rats being forced to escape fire by eating their way through someone’s stomach. However the scene which I will always remember as the one which was hardest to read was in a book I read many years ago by Wilbur Smith. It was Eagle in the Sky which was basically a love story and yet when the hero crashed his plane and was on fire the account given by Smith was so graphic and detailed it made me flinch anew with every passing word. I couldn’t stop reading though such was the power of the scene.
The aforementioned soldering iron was only mentioned as if an afterthought whereas the flesh eating rats were described in great detail as they burrowed their way to safety though the victim. Which way is right and which is wrong? Both made me flinch and left enough of an impression for me to recall them with ease.
I have used torture scenes in my own writing (including one scene involving pepper and sellotape) although I shied away from being too graphic with the detail. Another story I have written features a piece of torture which is mainly psychological although there is a physical element to it.
As an author I have always felt that torture cannot be too graphic unless there is a need to shock and revile the reader. Violence can be a bloodthirsty as you like because it tends to be spur of the moment whereas torture is generally premeditated. The fact that someone has planned to torture the hero / heroine / victim #whatever and has brought along their instruments of pain always seems more evil to me and is behind my reasoning to go with the less is more theory when describing torture scenes.
What do you do? And what are your tastes as a reader? Feel free to comment below.