11/18/2014 08:19 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Fiction's Goriest Scenes

Is there a line no writer should cross when writing grisly scenes? In my personal view -- and experience -- no. So long as you obey one rule, which is this: Does whatever you write drive your narrative forward? I've never written gruesome descriptions just for fun, or just to give gratuitous pleasure, but I've sure written plenty of dark, nasty and occasional stomach churning scenes. One is in my second Roy Grace novel Looking Good Dead, in which my detective, Roy Grace, has to recover a human head, which is all that remains of a body dissolving in a bath of sulphuric acid.

I have written a fairly grisly scene early in my new Roy Grace novel, Want You Dead, although unlike the poker scene, I have left much of the real horror to the reader's imagination, at the moment of the event and then vicariously through the eyes -- and noses of the four golfers who come across the body the following day. But it was essential to make this a shocker of a scene, to show what the villain of my story, an obsessive, highly intelligent and seriously vicious stalker, is capable of. The violence sets the boundaries, and ensures, I hope, no reader will take any of his following threats to the true object of his hatred, the beautiful lover who has dumped him, lightly...

So, here are eight of my favorite grisly scenes in fiction:

Freddy Lounds wheelchair scene in Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

When is a horror novel not a horror novel? What is that line that any writer crosses to earn that soubriquet, horror, whether welcome or not? A savage mass murderer who can bite a man's face off and has to be kept in a mask in a cage, pitted against Buffalo Bill, a killer with a pet pooch, who likes to wear suits made from his victims' skin. But for me the scene that trumps anything in Silence Of The Lambs comes from Harris's earlier introduction to Hannibal Lecter, in Red Dragon, when the charming psychiatrist superglues Freddy Lounds into a wheel chair, sets fire to him, and sends him hurtling down a steep hill. Wonder if Lounds was humming 'This Wheel's on Fire" as he rolled away. Probably not...

Joe gets a medal pinned onto him in Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

Soldier Joe Bonham is blown up by an artillery shell. It leaves him with no arms or legs, no face, no mouth, or nose, but his mind still functions perfectly. He spends his days in a hospital room, suspended in a muslin cocoon, communicating with his nurse, with whom he has bonded through twitches in response to her finger taps. Then one day he senses unfamiliar people coming into the room. Are they finally going to terminate his life, he wonders in terror. He feels something cold pressed against his chest -- and realizes, he has just had a bravery medal pinned to his chest...

Novelist gets his leg axed off at the ankle and the stump and cauterized with a blow torch by angry fan in Misery by Stephen King

Paul Sheldon rapidly starts to realize that surviving a bad car accident and being rescued by his number one fan, Annie, is not a happy situation. Interestingly King the novelist wrote a more gruesome scene in the novel than William Goldman (Butch Cassidy) wrote in the screenplay. In the novel, Annie hacks his leg off at the ankle with an axe. In deference to squeamish audiences, perhaps, Goldman merely had James Caan's ankle smashed by Kathy Bates's hammer. Tame stuff in comparison!

The death of Piggy in Lord Of The Flies by William Golding

Getting hit by a massive boulder and falling off a mountain is definitely not an ideal way to die - if there is one. Especially not after your glasses have been shattered, leaving you unable to see much of what is about to happen to you. This tale of savagery among a group of schoolboys stranded, unsupervised, on a desert island after a plane crash, is one of the most horrific novels I've ever read - and Golding's story is a terrible vision -- and indictment -- of the human species.

Regan's head swiveling in The Exorcist by Willliam Peter Blatty

No book has ever terrified me as much as this one. I was reading this in a hotel room in Switzerland at midnight and I became so convinced a malign supernatural presence had entered, and was staring down at me from the ceiling that I had to close it and read a few chapters of David Niven's autobiography, The Moon's A Balloon, just in order that I could go to sleep. The scene I will never forget is with Father Merrin attempting an exorcism in Regan MacNeil's bedroom. The bed levitated. Then Regan's head swiveled through a full 360 degrees. I've read page-turners before -- but never a head-turner...

The greatest monsters are the ones authors make us imagine... Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin

This novel, a modern spin on the Faust legend, is all the more gruesome because of the simplicity of the writing style and the sweet innocence of its principal victim, Rosemary Woodhouse. When she and her struggling actor husband, Guy, move into the Gothic Revival New York apartment block (the Dakota, where John Lennon was shot, in the movie version) their sweet, elderly neighbours are not all they seem. Suddenly Guy's acting career beings to fly, and Rosemary's best friend flies out of a window in a stark death scene I have never forgotten. But that is nothing to the pregnancy and ultimately birth of her baby -- the devil itself. The color if its eyes still haunt me forty years on from reading this book.

Little girl eats her own ears in Vicious Circle by Wilbur Smith

Wilbur Smith has never been a novelist to shy away from a bit of gruesome here and there. Whether it is a castration in River God or a hapless prisoner having his eyes gouged out with smouldering sticks, he can sure write bowel-clenchers up with the best of them. In Circle, the tormentor cuts both ears off his hapless young victim and makes her eat one of them. Then he jams a knife into her gut and disembowels her -- and no, he's not doing her a favour by trying to get her ear back...

Dismembering a body is a messy business in The Innocent by Ian McEwan In Berlin in 1955, the Cold War is beginning, and Leonard Marnham, a post office engineer, reluctantly becomes a spy for the Americans against the Russians. Then his life, already turned on its head, takes a darker, deeper tumble, when the ex of his new fiancée, Maria, turns up at their flat, drunk and aggressive. Leonard is beaten almost to death and Maria retaliates by killing Otto. Then the pair have to dispose of the body. The scene in which they cut up Otto's body is the most vivid, the most gruesome and the most horribly believable disposal of a body I've ever read!

Peter James is the author of Want You Dead.