Certain works of art are meant to be disquieting and disturbing. I think of the work of film-makers like David Lynch or Lars Von Trier, or the paintings of Francis Bacon or the music of Siouxsie And The Banshees. Classical music that incorporates dissonance into their sounds, like some of Stravinsky or artists that include menstrual blood or urine in their work. The diamond-encrusted skulls of Damian Hirst…. The list can go on. At it’s worst, such works of art feel like they are chores to get through; I am not fond, for example, of the “torture porn” sub-genre of horror films and some Goth/Emo music that is dark for the sake of being dark is tedious. At its best, though, disturbing art can be illuminating, cathartic and empowering. Think of Octavia Butler’s bleak futures or the blistering satire of Herzog’s film Even Dwarves Started Small.
Tanith Lee’s short novel, Killing Violets (subtitled God’s Dogs) is one of her most disturbing works. It has the raw, unadulterated atmosphere as a Von Trier film. Plot-wise, it has “break the beauty” as a major trope. Certainly, Lee has explored this theme before in many of her works. What makes Killing Violets different is it set in the recent historical past (1934) and is a realistic novel.
The novel opens with a lost, fragile woman named Anna starving to death in some small European town. She is picked up by a man, Raoul, who dashingly brings her out of the rain and gives her food and shelter at his hotel. He also initiates a sexual relationship with her, and lures her to England and his obscure aristocratic family’s vast estate. Once there, Anna notices that the Basultes are horrible people, who play complex power games with their servants. The Basulte men, in particular, delight abusing the female servants. Realizing this, Anna attempts to escape, but is captured, and, as a punishment, demoted from love interest to scullery maid. Anna’s tragic past in an unnamed small town (it seems vaguely Hungarian) is interspersed throughout these horrific stories, like a dreamy fable.
Like Selma in Von Trier’s Dancer In the Dark, Anna is an innocent, a shattered, vulnerable soul who is forced to suffer for no reason. And like many Von Trier heroines, she also has dark secrets of her own, and can assert her atavistic power when she has to. Like many Lee characters, Anna mostly lives in her head, and is aloof and allusive, sometimes maddeningly so. In that way, she reminds one of Blanche DuBois—stubbornly clinging to illusions of the past at the expense of her sanity.
Killing Violets is beautifully written, with a blurred water-color touch to the imagery. Love and passion is at the center of novel, but it is a horror novel in way, with the brutish, rigid class caste British system rather than the supernatural as the thing that terrifies. Indeed, some of the scenes recall the elegant cruelty depicted in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films. The title’s meaning becomes brilliantly clear in the tragic third act.