death in fiction

Don’t Kill the Dog!

I’m halfway through reading Nick Cutter’s The Deep, having heard a feverishly enthusiastic endorsement of it by a local radio commentator. For the most part I can’t argue with his opinion — the book has all the right stuff for a can’t-put-it-down horror/thriller:  a research station at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a mad scientist and a crazed one, a lurking evil, and a couple of people who descend from the surface to find out what’s going on. And some experimental subjects — specifically two dogs.

So far, I’ve met only one of the dogs — a skinny, anxious chocolate Lab. Don’t know what’s happened to the other one, but I’ll bet it’s something bad. And I have a bad feeling about the ultimate fate of both dogs and all the humans. This can’t end well. It’s that kind of book.

Here’s the thing: suspecting a bad end for those dogs gets in the way of enjoying the story. I’m fine with the scientists going crazy, with the humans encountering everything from claustrophobia to terrors behind closed hatches to depth-induced nightmares. That’s the whole point of reading a book like this — experiencing terrible things vicariously while reclining on your couch with your favourite cat and a bag of snacks. But expecting to share the experience of an already frightened dog suffering and dying is too real to be enjoyable. When I get to that part, I will skip over it, or just close the book and put it down.

Weird, isn’t it? In a world where millions of factory-farmed animals die every day, where small children endure terrible conditions in refugee camps, I can’t bear to read about the suffering of fictitious dogs (or, even worse, cats). Maybe it’s because I’ve witnessed the illness and deaths of three cats in the past 20 years. Maybe because unlike humans, animals don’t have any concept of hope for the future or self-sacrifice for a good cause. They are simply swept up in humanity’s projects and become unheeded debris along the road to… whatever. (But then, so are those kids in the refugee camps).

Conclusion? Horrors are great to read about, as long as they aren’t too real. As long as reading about them doesn’t bring us to a place where we don’t want to be, reminding us of the sadness and tragedy inherent in our mortal lives. Which is why many readers simply avoid the horror genre altogether, and some of us read it with relish only if we know no animals will be harmed in making the mind-movie.