It’s all pretty awful (albeit suspenseful, and gruesomely entertaining) stuff, but the way in which one author handles this familiar scenario vs. another I think sheds a little more light on my discussions of realism in fantasy literature.
Here’s how J.R.R. Tolkien handles anthropomorphs as monster food in The Two Towers (Chapter 7: “Shelob’s Lair”):
And sometimes as a man may cast a dainty to his cat (his cat he calls her, but she owns him not) Sauron would send her prisoners that he had no better uses for: he would have them driven to her hole, and report brought back to him of the play she made.
That to me is a great piece of writing. It tells you plenty about the cruelty and maliciousness of Sauron and his relationship with the giant she-spider (which he half-hates and half-fears, but tolerates as a valuable guardian into Mordor).
As for the gory details, it allows my mind to fill in the rest. Tolkien goes on to explain that Shelob cares not for wealth or power, but spends all her time brooding on her next feast. "For all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness," he writes. That's about as nasty and explicit as Tolkien gets.
Now compare that passage with this preview of Richard Morgan’s forthcoming novel The Cold Commands:
In the wild, a Hanliagh black octopus would have wrapped tentacles around surface prey this large and dragged it deep, where it could be drowned and dealt with at leisure. Defeated by the bobbing wood and the manacles, the creatures settled for swarming the boards, tearing at the chained bodies with frenzied, suckered force, biting awkwardly with their beaks. So skin came off wholesale, gobbets and chunks of flesh came with it, finally down to the bone. Blood vessels tore – in the case of a lucky few, fatally. And occasionally, a victim might smother to death with tentacles or body mass across the face. But for most, it was a long, slow death by haphazard flaying and flensing – none of the creatures was bigger than a court-bred hound, they could not otherwise have squeezed in through the chamber’s vents, and even their combined efforts were rarely enough to make a merciful end of things.
Jhiral was watching her.
She forced herself not to look away – the spray of blood, the up-and-down flail of tentacles like thick black whips, the soft, mobbing purple-black shapes hanging off the wood and flesh, crawling across it. Her gaze snagged on a wild, wide-open human eye and a screaming mouth, briefly blocked by a thick crawling tentacle, then uncovered again to shriek to shriek, to shriek……
As for that passage, man, it’s brutal. It’s effective, and horrifying, and well-done. But it’s not why I read fantasy. It jerked me back into reality with its clinical descriptions of flensing and tearing blood vessels. Perhaps Morgan intended this scene as a condemnation of torture. It vaguely reminded me of the real-life practice of waterboarding, albeit turned up to 11. I don’t know. I read it and it just felt — too much.
Perhaps what I object to in some modern fantasy literature is the degree to which it emphasizes violence—graphic carnage is shown in vivid, sometimes nauseating color, vs. implied in the older forms. Because in the end, being the plaything of a monstrous, reeking, millennia old spider, paralyzed with poison, and eaten alive, isn’t any more comforting than being consumed piece by piece by a swarm of ravenous octopi. But I know which one I’d rather read. And it does not involve cephalopods.
I’ve said my piece on this a few times and have little else to add; I happened to see that Morgan posted that excerpt at his website and thought it provided a timely example of what I was trying to convey in my couple of previous posts on the subject.
Just more food for thought (no pun intended) and a rather lighthearted example in the ongoing realism debate.