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This place matters

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I've been reading a lot of mysteries and thrillers lately, trying to discover how other authors go about frightening their audiences. 
I've been discovering just how often books include the whole "dead/mutilated animal on your porch" routine. If you're reading a mystery and there's a cat, there's at least a 50% chance that critter's going to be dead and mutilated on somebody's porch by the end of the book. 
Unless it's that series about the cat who solves mysteries. In that case, does the cat find people dead and mutilated on her porch? And, I mean, cats kill and mutilate other critters all the time and leave them on the porches of their loved ones as gifts. So maybe, instead of scaring the mystery solving cat, you'd actually just be paying her a compliment. 
I think the last time, maybe the only time I ever found the dead or mutilated animal bit frightening (as opposed to just gross) was The Godfather when they stuck the horse's head in Woltz's bed. Because dude, that just ain't right. 
Anyway, I was thinking how dead animals aren't remotely an effective way to frighten readers, unless the reader happens to have never seen The Godfather or read a murder mystery before. I've had dead animals in my porch. Not scary. Most if not all found their way in by accident, I would hope. I haven't been pissing off any wise guys or trying to solve any murder mysteries, and I can't imagine why else someone would be intentionally sticking dead toads in my porch. 
So over the years, I've had to clean up quite a number of toads, a bird or two, and a small rodent who have managed to die on my premises. It's a little gross, but not particularly, you know, scary. Not after you clean up the first one anyway.
You know what is scary? Finding live animals in your porch. Like muskrats. So last week, Jeremy notes there's a muskrat down in our porch. I was just finishing making dinner, so we decide we'll worry about it after we eat. While we're eating though, we start hearing rattling at the screen door - the thing is trying to break into the apartment. It was very horror movie-esque, aside from the fact that he was tiny. It's just a little unnerving to have woodland animals trying to tear down your door. Especially when you go outside and he has eaten half of the screen. Everyone knows that once the screen gets eaten, it's just a matter of time.
Anyway, Jeremy and I put on everything leather in the house, so as to not get bit, and go out there armed with a cat litter bucket and a shovel. The idea is, I'll corner him, shove the box in front of him, and Jeremy will nudge him into the bucket with the shovel. But damn that bastard was stubborn, and Jeremy and I jumped up and screamed like little girls any time the thing made a sudden move. I mean, have you ever seen a muskrat? The thing's got big front claws, webbed feet, a rat tail, big sharp teeth, glowing red eyes, venom, some tear gas, a sawed-off shotgun... *it's pretty damn scary.
Then we finally get the thing into the bucket and close the lid, and now there's the problem of getting rid of it. Neither of us is about to kill the thing, and if you don't take them far enough away, they'll just come back. Problem is, you've got a screaming red-eyed hell beast in a bucket, shrieking for your blood. I mean, you don't exactly want to stick the thing in your car, do you? The whole time we're carrying the littler bucket full of death-rodent over to the swamp on our property, we're just waiting for it to chew through the lid and go right for the jugular. Or the crotch. I was somehow convinced it was going to go right for the crotch. 
What I'm saying, what the point is, and this is some free advice to all you budding mystery writers out there: forget the dead animals. You want to give audiences a real scare, go with a live muskrat. I mean look at this thing. You can see malice and murder in its beady little eyes. He wants to mutilate you and then murder everyone you love while you watch.
*Okay, slight exaggeration. They are freaking weird looking though. 


kevin said...

yeah,it seems weird.......and not a good look.

JennAventures said...

Thank you for stumbling upon my blog and leaving a comment. Much appreciated!

As for what scares the pants off a reader-I'd say it's the unpredictability of a character that can do something like leave a mutilated animal out. That, or when a character does something vicious and doesn't seem to care. That "offness" and out of touchness is super creepy.

Anonymous said...

Having read 2 different series of cat detective novels I can safely state that there are no mutilated animals. The cats are experts at finding wildly mutilated people. Is it sad that I still read cat detective novels at 31?