Reading about grisly sex murders and mutilation is a safe way to explore the threats we sense in the world around us
A couple of weeks ago, I was about three-quarters of the way through Becky Masterman's gory crime thriller Rage Against the Dying – a book about a series of grisly sex murders along the old Route 66 – when I was struck by a sudden, awful thought: "I hope I'm never raped and murdered." Masterman's novel, populated as it is by sadistic, psychotic rapists and necrophiliacs, had got under my skin to the extent that for a moment it felt impossible to envisage my own life uninterrupted by extreme male-on-female violence.
My reaction was certainly symptomatic of the kind of paranoid, hyper-aware symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (I was violently attacked in 2010) and some of the content could definitely be said to be "triggering". Certainly more so than The Great Gatsby, a book from which necrophilia is notably absent but which American students are saying should come with a content, or trigger, warning. And yet I kept reading, just as I did on holiday last month when unexpectedly confronted by a brutal rape scene during a Stephen King short story.
According to several crime writers this week, women love reading about other women being murdered, which perhaps accounts for the genre selling about 21 million books a year in the UK. I would count myself among those consumers, though I'm not sure "love" is quite the right word when it comes to how the process of reading a book featuring extreme violence against women makes me feel. I don't enjoy it necessarily, but I do find it compelling.
The writer Val McDermid rightly says that "women are better at scaring us", partly because "since childhood we have learned to imagine this". This definitely plays a part; from the time we are little girls, we are taught to imagine ourselves embodying a variety of roles, not least – with our first utterance of the words "don't talk to any strange men" – that of potential victim. Crime fiction allows us to explore those looming horrors, and what they might entail.
When it comes to reading about the rape, murder and mutilation of fictional women, I do think there might be an element of curiosity, a feeling of "let's see what we're dealing with here". Germaine Greer said that "women have very little idea of how much men hate them", a generalisation that any female beneficiary of the love, affection and support of the men in their lives would obviously refute. But we are brought up to know that there are men out there who hate us, and who would like to hurt us, and we are taught to fear them.
Many women I know spend their nocturnal lives in a state of heightened preparedness: they carry rape alarms, and makeshift mace or lemon sprays for the blinding of male predators; they have emergency strategies in place (wet yourself, grab their balls, ask after their mother). Ever since I was a child, I have walked as far as possible away from the curb, hugging the walls of houses, in case someone in a passing vehicle tries to snatch me. I think crime fiction plays into that fear, and also the desire to know what we are up against, or could be up against. It renders concrete what can feel like a vague threat.
Friends can spend hours online, reading about serial killers. I myself became fascinated by the Black Dahlia case in the 1940s, after reading a reference to it in a crime novel. The female author Jessie Keane says that consuming crime fiction allows women to examine violence "in a safe way". In other words, we are attempting to address our fears. This is probably the case for me, someone who has never been able to stomach onscreen violence (I was that child at the Halloween sleepover, threatening to tell the others' mums if they didn't turn off The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).
There is something addictive about fear, about pushing your tolerance for darkness to the limits. But I have to admit, I do prefer it when the female victims, having finally had enough of all the torture and the rape and the violence, turn vigilante and embark on some hatred-fuelled murdering. In the last two books I have read women turn the tables on their attackers. As a woman reader who got away, in real life, there's probably something in that.
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