Violence – when is enough, enough? Such a very good question. Personally, I avoid violence in film, TV and literature. You can keep your 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre', your zombie movies and even the more realistic blood fests. I'm not into gore. Buckets of blood don't interest me and pretty soon it becomes 'oh, lord, another grisly scene'. When I decided to try my hand at a novel about the wreck of the 'Batavia' and its murderous aftermath, that was an issue I had to confront.
A short narrator's note to explain the story. This isn't a spoiler – the events are recorded, historical fact. In 1629 the Dutch merchantship 'Batavia' on its way up the Australian coast to Java, struck an uncharted reef fringing a group of low islands known as the Houtman Abrolhos. The crew managed to ferry the majority of the people on the ship to one of the islands. Thereafter, the senior merchant (you could say he was kind of the admiral in charge), the captain and most of the senior members of the crew left in the ship's longboat to try to bring back first fresh water and if none was found, go for help from Java. This left about one hundred and eighty people stranded on a tiny, barren island. The only senior man left, Jeronimus Cornelisz, quickly realised there were insufficient provisions for so many to last until a rescue ship came. He set about separating the survivors, moving some to other islands with promises of food and water which he never intended to keep. Then, at first surreptitiously and later more openly, he and a band of willing set about killing people. It is estimated that Cornelisz's gang murdered around one hundred men, women and children over a period of about ten weeks.
I guess I could have written a series of murders. They weren't all the same, after all. Some people were drowned, some hacked to pieces, some strangled, stabbed, beheaded. I didn't for two reasons. One was that the manner of death – for me, anyway – wasn't so much the point as the psychology behind it. And the second was that it would simply have been dead (pardon the pun) boring. In that respect, it's a bit like sex in a book. The first scene might be engrossing as you get involved in the event. The second might still hold some interest but by the third, it's all a bit ho hum and can we get on with a story, if you don't mind, please, author?
Nevertheless, I couldn't avoid altogether describing any graphic scenes. They happened, they had a profound effect on people and it would have been... maybe even disrespectful NOT to include them. That said, I spent a lot of thought on deciding what I would show in all its gory detail and what I would not. In most cases where I give a graphic description I show the scene from the point of view of beautiful Lucretia van der Mijlen. She was one of the potential victims but she was lusted after by Cornelisz, so, unlike almost everybody else, she enjoyed a degree of safety – if she played her cards right. So I used her eyes to describe the first public killings, when a group of people were waylaid on a handcrafted raft. The men were dragged ashore and stabbed to death at Cornelisz's feet, the women were taken out to a deep channel and thrown overboard to drown. This scene was vital in showing the transition from surreptitious disappearances which may have been quite legitimate, such as people being moved to other islands, to open violence, when the survivors knew they were mice in a cage full of cats.
One graphic scene is written from Cornelisz's view point. He himself never killed anybody and this was no exception. He and his gang, having run out of legitimate targets, decided to decapitate a boy for sport. This was one of the last deaths and showed the depths to which the murderers had descended. It's one of the few where he was actually present, a witness to a murder he ordered.
I also described the scene where Cornelisz was executed. I felt I owed it to the characters – and my readers – to show that justice was served. I might add that in those few scenes where I describe the incident in detail I went to some lengths to ensure that my description was physically accurate.
In the scheme of things, though, that's about a dozen people out of around one hundred. For other deaths, I used dialogue to convey the impact of murderous raids on the survivors, who told what they had seen and escaped. Probably the hardest scene of all to write – and it had to be written – was the deaths of the predikant's family. The predikant (Dutch for parson) was relocating from Amsterdam to the city of Batavia (now Jakarta) with his wife and their seven children who ranged in age from about eight to mid-twenties. One of the senior gang leaders, a well born young fellow named van Huyssen, wanted the predikant's oldest daughter, Judyck, for himself. Eventually, while the predikant himself – and his daughter – offered some value to Cornelisz and his men, the rest of the family did not. On one night, while the predikant and Judyck dined with Cornelisz and van Huyssen, the rest of the family was attacked and murdered in their tent and the bodies buried in a shallow grave. Incidents like this are mind-bogglingly ghastly. But again, how to get across the horror? I did it by being inside Lucretia's head, attending a dinner party, listening to noises in the night while van Huyysen and Cornelisz discussed hunting expeditions. I'm told that worked rather well.
In summary, this book could so easily have been a never-ending litany of violence, assaulting the senses and dulling the brain. I never wanted it to be that way. I wanted to write a story about humans in all their naked glory. The story of the Batavia is so much more than a succession of murders. I was interested in many aspects of this amazing tale, such as the remarkable feat of seamanship displayed by the ship's captain. Under his leadership a longboat designed to carry about forty passengers carried forty-five men, two women and a babe in arms safely to the city of Batavia, a journey of some two thousand miles across uncharted ocean. Meanwhile, back at the Abrolhos, where atrocities were being committed, a group of soldiers ferried to another island and left to die found food and water and became the resistance, the obstacle to Cornelisz's plans. They were the other witnesses, who never saw the murders but who saw the horror reflected in the eyes of those who escaped.
Sure, violence has a place in fiction. It's an unfortunate part of the human condition but I, for one, would rather explore the mind set that starts down that dark road than study the bloodstains they leave behind them.
Greta van der Rol loves writing science fiction with a large dollop of good old, healthy romance. She lives not far from the coast in Queensland, Australia and enjoys photography and cooking when she isn’t bent over the computer. She has a degree in history and a background in building information systems, both of which go a long way toward helping her in her writing endeavours.
Supertech, Iron Admiral: Conspiracy and Morgan’s Choice are available now. Iron Admiral: Deception will be released late September. See more…
Her historical fiction novel Die a Dry Death was published by Diiarts in London in 2010. Since then, she's changed publishers. To Die a Dry Death is the same book, with added bonus material. See more…
Greta van der Rol Action-packed SF with a dollop of romance - http://gretavanderrol.com/ - http://twitter.com/GretavdR - http://www.facebook.com/Author.Greta.vanderRol?ref=ts