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The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Keep those screams a-rollin’

My new novel Slow Wilhelm Exit is an irreverent analogy of the accumulating wounds we suffer at the hands of the people we let into our hearts. It’s a literal death of a thousand cuts. But what is that title supposed to mean?


Needless to say, Slow Wilhelm Exit isn’t a reference to the venerable author Kate Wilhelm, who is very much alive as I write this. Nor does it refer to a German Emperor, Leonardo DiCaprio, or any of several baseball players.

There is certainly a link to the orgone energy that Wilhelm Reich considered a universal life force, but primarily it refers to that absurd movie effect, the “wilhelm scream.”

Generally the character undergoing a wilhelm exit is suffering a gruesome but swift demise. A slow wilhelm exit, in contrast, is likely to involve being run over at snail’s pace by a road roller, or being lowered by clockwork motor into a pool of piranha.

Think what might have resulted, for the rest of the running time of the movie, if Sean Connery really had been sawn in half by Goldfinger’s industrial laser. Would he have wriggled sideways so his leg was cut through, rather than risk damage to his beloved crown jewels? And would you have paid to see it?

Executioners throughout history have known exactly what to do to produce a slow wilhelm exit. If you were being burned at the stake for heresy, say, the point wasn’t to let you get engulfed in flames. That’s just not horrible enough. The executioner would employ people to stand near your pyre, fanning the smoke away from your face.

The first rule of being a really good executioner is this: Keep those screams a-rollin’.

Take a look at the engraving I’ve used at the head of this post, for example. Though it doesn’t involve fanning, it’s one of the most gruesome deaths ever recorded.

In 1556, three women were burnt at the stake on the island of Guernsey for their refusal to believe in the Catholic religion decreed by Mary 1, the bloodiest queen of England. One of the women was heavily pregnant. According to eye witnesses her stomach burst open, presumably due to her amniotic fluid boiling, and the infant tumbled out into the fire. Onlookers rescued it, seemingly still alive, but the Bailiff ordered it thrown back in the fire.

Can you not hear god cackling, even now?

Though my original plan for my novel was to be utterly pitiless — to sneer at the kind of people who find comfort in reading about other people’s terminal illnesses, or write letters to the author expressing how peaceful What Dreams May Come made their ailing mother feel in her final days — it was also going to have to deal with exactly those sentiments. Few of us bear up well under the threat of death. Once faith has been stripped out of the equation, courage is a hard-won currency.

There’s no stiff upper lip here. There’s no quiet desperation. This is a novel named after a scream of agony. It tells you from the start what it’s going to do, and then it does it. Just like life.

I wrote the original outline in third person, but the more I thought about it, the more I knew I didn’t want to be on the outside of the process. Documenting the story in third person would be mere reportage — a tale told in a bar.

I wanted to be on the inside. I wanted to be tied to that stake with some grinning toothless rictus right in front of me, fanning, fanning, fanning me alive.

The obvious problem if you’re writing a first person narrative about a man being burned at the stake is that you have no ending. Your narrator could be rescued at the last moment, just as they’re basting his legs with the goose fat. Or he could die.

There’s a place for supernatural fiction, but it’s not appropriate in my case. You can’t have a techno-thriller narrative that is scrupulous about its scientific plausibility and ends with the words of a ghost.

Neither did I feel I could end mid-sentence, an effect I’d barely rescued from Criminal Writing Practice when I used it myself to dispose of a character in my novel Biome.

Worse still, I knew I was going to get involved in this narrator’s life. There’s no way around it. Nick could remain in Pythonesque good humor throughout his slow wilhelm exit, but he’d still need to have a life to reflect on, from time to time, when he wasn’t singing on the cross.

We all close our mind to debilitating illness, and to the winding down of old age. We have no choice. Some of us even go willingly to the dentist for root canal work. How, then, to keep Nick detached from his own demise, while ensuring I don’t suggest he’s in some way mentally unhinged?

Naturally, he’d need to be. But maybe it’s not all that different from Houdini asking strangers to punch him in the stomach, or that Caligula slave I allude to in the novel, who has his hand chopped off in the cause of entertainment and seems joyously pleased with his performance. He didn’t, after all, disgrace himself by screaming or fainting.

In other words, he’d deal with the demise — however he did it, he’d deal with it. The other stuff was going to hurt more: his various relationships with women, the petty betrayals and lost opportunities all of us carry around festering in our breast.

Even with the breast removed, they still fester.

I purposefully placed the ugly fantasy of Nick’s death in a precise geographical and creative landscape. Growing up in England, I lived through the scrabble of the Young British Artists, visited many a Dorsal Gallery and Candycane, and eventually realized that YBA told me nothing of importance.

It’s not that their vision was wrong. It’s that they had no vision at all.

The artists themselves are not of interest, either to me or as facilitators of the plot. The point is that YBA was a last hurrah for a London desperate to regain its standing in a world that had long since passed it by culturally. Everyone colluded on the project to make London seem significant again, from critics to politicians. But I guess the Millennium Dome put an end to all that.

Nevertheless, and particularly in the wake of the sweet-wrapper extravagances of the 2012 Summer Olympics, Body Dock actually does sound like something I can imagine being staged in one of those old riverfront warehouses in East London.

You can guarantee that if it were, the entire British art community would leap to support it the moment it seemed cool enough to attract attention, investment, tourism, or just puffed-up patriotic leaders in the press.

And think once again about those Guernsey martyrs. You can bet there was a huge crowd. How many of them, I wonder, noticed that one of the women was close to term, and craned even harder to see what would happen once her clothes had burned away and that fluid started bubbling?

It was going, they would have known, to be a particularly spectacular show.

Slow Wilhlem Exit-S

Robert Maas’s thriller Slow Wilhelm Exit is available to buy at Amazon.


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