Don’t kill the Horse!

Juliusz Kossak (1824- 1899) – Collection of National Museum, Warsaw,

Animals can be a writer’s best friend.  There are many occasions on which they serve a really useful purpose: they can move the plot along; throw light on the inner nature of a character; add a touch of poignancy to a scene.   However I have found that their appearance is often the forerunner of tragedy, to the extent that often now when I am watching a television programme and an animal appears my heart sinks.

‘That’s probably toast,’ I invariably remark, expecting to see the fluffy ball of joy destroyed before the end of the series, or even the episode.  The fate of the unfortunate Yorkshire terriers in A Fish Called Wanda usually then flashes unbidden before my eyes.

The most ingenious and sadly hilarious death of an animal that I have recently encountered was the murder through  stupid carelessness of a hundred year old tortoise in John Boyne’s very funny satire of the way we live now,  The Echo Chamber.   I won’t give details, as I really recommendthat you read the book, but suffice it to say that the beast’s death well illustrates the solipsism and ignorance of the character entrusted with the animal’s care

In my forthcoming book, Small Acts of Kindness, I kill off two animals:  a horse and a dog.  Their deaths are not pointless or gratuitous.  The demise of the horse in a fight between the authorities and rebel serfs adds much needed flavour of brutality and horror to a scene that needed to be brutal and horrid.   The dog dies to emphasise, with a touch of poignancy,  the nastiness of the regime in Russia in 1825.  The latter incident was actually based on a true story that involved bad behaviour on the part of Alexander 1st,  although it has to be said that the dog was an addition of my own.

The danger that lies in bumping off our furry friends is that it often offends the reader.  I have found that it’s fine to do away with innumerable characters, but the death of an animal invariably results in cries of protest: ‘Did you have to kill the horse…?’

So now I’m into the sequel and am writing about a desperate battle around the walls of Warsaw. I imagine that the Uhlans are on their way, lances outstretched, pennants flying.   They’re going to attack, there will be death and destruction.

But what should I do about the horses?

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