Remember those stories you used to write at primary school? You know; the ones that would end cheerily with a sudden ‘and then we all went home for tea’ flourish.
Well, sorry to pop a cap in your imaginative ass, but real life – and proper literature – ain’t like that, sonny. It’s dark, horrid and irredeemably ghastly. Well, some of the time anyway. Most notably at times of death.
Literature has captured this agonising wail better than most art forms. So, stomachs clenched and jaws pulled tight, we offer you the 40 most gruesome deaths in literature.
It goes without saying that there are spoilers galore in the following list.
Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran (The Secret History)
Author: Donna Tartt
Bunny Corcoran is a greedy, manipulative, fat rich boy, but even pampered, obese blackmailers don’t deserve to be pushed into a ravine in the depths of winter and left to perish. Or do they?
Nancy (Oliver Twist)
Author: Charles Dickens
Nancy is an archetypal tart-with-a-heart. Unfortunately, as the lover of Oliver Twist’s most dastardly villain, Bill Sikes, she is doomed. After mistakenly fearing she has betrayed him, Sikes batters Nancy to death in her bed. Her corpse is so deformed that the person who identifies her body is so scared by the experience that they’re led away in a straitjacket.
Lavinia (Titus Andronicus)
Author: William Shakespeare
Lavinia might be the daughter of the renowned titular Roman general, but that doesn’t save her from quite possibly Shakespeare’s most graphic death. After being raped in a pit, her tongue is cut off so she can’t reveal her attackers. However, after learning of her attack, her shamed father kills her by breaking her neck.
The Children (Jude The Obscure)
Author: Thomas Hardy
Little Father Time is Jude’s son from a previous marriage. He is a serious and earnest young boy who believing that he and his half-brothers are the cause of Jude and Sue’s financial problems hangs them – and himself – in a misguided sense of duty.
The Old Lady (A Clockwork Orange)
Author: Anthony Burgess
Expecting any morality from Burgess’s chief droog Alex would be a forlorn exercise, but readers are still shocked by the violent death of the wealthy old lady Alex and his friends decide to farcically burgle for hi-jinks. As the robbery descends into madness, Alex brutally – and fatally - attacks the old lady.
The Arab (The Stranger)
Author: Albert Camus
The cryptic Mersault is a masterstroke of fiction – the enigmatic everyman whose actions are diametrically opposed to societal convention. So why would he kill the Arab he recognises on a beach – repeatedly shooting him without emotion even after he knows he’s a goner – in French Algiers? Therein lies decades of existential angst.
Alyona Ivanovna (Crime & Punishment)
Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Readers are divided over Rodion Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s magnum opus. Is he a troubled young soul rebel, or merely a racist murderer? That question may never be properly answered, but what isn’t in question is the horrific manner in which he kills pawnbroker Alyona Ivanov (and her sister) with an axe.
Emma Morley (One Day)
Author: David Nicholls
Obviously we haven’t read David Nicholls tragic tale of Dexter and Emma, we’re far too busy reading back issues of Auto Trader for that, but getting whacked square-in-the-face by a car (probably by some dufus who reads Auto Trader) is a fairly ghastly way to meet your maker. According to Mrs ShortList anyway.
Lennie Small (Of Mice And Men)
Author: John Steinbeck
Lennie Small is not the sharpest tool in the box – not by a long chalk – but his friendly nature strikes an empathetic chord with the reader. That’s why his death – mercifully at the hands of his best friend George to spare him from a lynch mob – still has the power to shock in its shocking reality. Getting shot in the back of the head has got to smart too – you can’t even try and duck.
Paul Owen (American Psycho)
Author: Bret Easton Ellis
You want real gruesome? How about an axe through the face – administered lovingly by Patrick Bateman because he’s envious of your business card - while listening to Huey Lewis & The News’s MOR anthem Hip To Be Square? That’s like gruesome squared.
Jack Firebrace (Birdsong)
Author: Sebastian Faulks
Trapped underground on the French Front in 1917, his legs and ribs broken, Jack Firebrace is heading for heaven – he must be because he’s spent his time in hell – but not before enduring six days of torture, drifting in and out of consciousness and utter starvation. Someone put that man out of his misery.
Trudy (Goodnight Mister Tom)
Author: Michelle Magorian
We’re gonna keep this one brief as we’re prone to welling up if we think too much about it. All we’ll say is this; locking a baby girl with her battered and bruised half-brother in the cellar for days is not going to end well. Certainly not for the baby. Now pass the hankie.
Boxer (Animal Farm)
Author: George Orwell
After defending the exiled pig Snowball’s reputation, Boxer the horse is worked and worked until he simply collapses. The pigs, which have by now lapsed into brutal dictatorship, explain to the other animals that they have sent him to the vet. In reality, they’ve sent him to be slaughtered in exchange for a case of whiskey.
Professor Moriarty (The Final Problem)
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sherlock Holmes’s arch nemesis falls to his death after a fight with Holmes on the Reichenbach Falls – a series of waterfalls in Switzerland. Its thought that coke-snorting super sleuth perishes too, but that would be too, ahem, elementary. He fakes his death.
Myrtle Wilson (The Great Gatsby)
Author: F Scott Fitzgerald
Tom Buchannan’s mistress comes to a particularly messy end when his wife Daisy accidentally mows her down, ironically enough. Naturally, Jay Gatsby takes the blame – it’s his car the pair are driving in – and, as such, seals his own fate.
Leonard Bast (Howard’s End)
Author: E. M. Forster
The hapless Bast is drawn to his death after his affair with the free-spirited Helen Schlegel. After she falls pregnant with his child – while he is married – Bast attempts to make amends at the titular home of the upper class Wilcox’s. Alas, Charles Bast is attacked by Charles Wilcox. After being struck by a sword, the bookcase Leonard tries to hold onto falls upon him, crushing him.
Tom Robinson (To Kill A Mockingbird)
Author: Harper Lee
What’s so disturbing about Tom Robinson’s death is its awful inevitably. After falsely being found guilty of raping Mayella Ewell, Robinson tries to escape but is shot by prison guards.
Gollum (The Return of the King)
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
Gollum’s unquenchable thirst for the Ring leads him to one final showdown at Mount Doom with Sam and Frodo. After battling for control of the Ring, his manic victory dance sees him slip into the abyss of the Crack of Doom and into the lava. Not very Precious!
Dinah Brand (Red Harvest)
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Dinah Brand is a ‘deluxe hustler, a big league gold-digger’ and while she can’t corrupt Hammett’s hardboiled detective The Continental Op, the two do embark upon a relationship. Unfortunately for Brand – the archetypal moll – she dies after being stabbed with an ice pick through the breast by gangster Reno Starkey.
Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina)
Author: Leo Tolstoy
If you’re going to take your own life, jumping in front of a train going like the clappers should see you leave this mortal coil in short, sharp fashion. Wouldn’t want to be the poor chap (or lady) who has to identify the body afterwards, mind.
Susan Norton (Salem’s Lot)
Author: Stephen King
Stephen King is the master of the violent, gruesome and unforgettable literary death. But being killed by your boyfriend with a stake through the heart after turning into a vampire is a fairly ferocious way to go.
Yamamoto (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
Author: Haruki Murakami
Year: 1997 (English translation)
Being skinned alive gruesome enough for y’all? As Yamamoto, a Japanese espionage agent, is skinned ‘like a peach’ by a Mongolian officer, his friend, Lieutenant Mamiya, is forced to endure the barbaric scene. He said: “He bore the pain without a whimper - at first. But soon he began to scream." You don’t say!
The Kid/The Man (Blood Meridian)
Author: Cormac McCarthy
The fates of The Kid and Judge Holden are irrevocably intertwined. Although Holden slaughters The Kid (by now The Man) in an outhouse, we’re spared the repugnant details. We’re not spared the reactions of those that spy the hideous scene. The Man’s death was not a quick, nor was it a pretty affair.
Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights)
Author: Emily Bronte
Love can kill you, that’s for sure. Heathcliff found this out the hard way – a doomed romantic hero, his torment after the death of Catherine Earnshaw eventually fractures him. Does he commit suicide or does his heart (that which he has) eventually break? Whatever, it’s a slow, anguished expiration.
Piggy (Lord of the Flies)
Author: William Golding
Things were never going to end well for poor Piggy. Bullied for his capacious frame, he finally comes unstuck when hit by a boulder towards the end of Golding’s majestic allegory.
Martin Vanger (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)
Author: Stieg Larsson
Martin Vanger would appear to have everything – CEO of the Vanger Corporation, rich and successful. However, his past as a duplicitous murderer is about to catch up with him. As he tries to make his escape his car collides with a truck and he is burned to death.
Inspector Javert (Les Miserables)
Author: Victor Hugo
The conflicted Javert’s swim in the Seine is about the only honourable thing the Inspector does in Hugo’s tour de force. Drowning can’t be pleasant, though.
Author: Irvine Welsh
The death of a baby is no laughing matter, especially when your mind is distorted by the mind-altering fug of junk. When Lesley’s baby girl dies – a cot death or just neglect? in Trainspotting, a little bit of Sick Boy (the assumed father) too. For once, sympathy is in short supply for those closest to the deceased.
Waters (Kill Your Friends)
Author: John Niven
“I expected there to be some crunchy give as his skull caved in and he slumped forward.” Well, when you take out someone with a steel baseball bat you probably would wouldn’t you? Steven Stelfox is one evil bastard and the manner with which he dispenses of gibbering fellow A&R idiot Waters in John Niven’s riotous evisceration of the music industry is just dark, dark, dark. Being finished off by a bottle of Jack Daniel’s as Your Love plays in the background is just hilarious.
Shroom (Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk)
Author: Ben Fountain
We never actually get the full lowdown on how the mystical Sergeant Shroom cops it at the bloody battle of Al-Ansakar Canal, but we know that it involves a group of Iraqi insurgents trying to pull him apart. They fail in that quest, but his death – foretold it seems by the philosophical solider – is sealed.
Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary)
Author: Gustav Flaubert
Emma Bovary is the classic doomed romantic. Her vision of love and romance skewed by too many vacuous novels, she embarks on a series of catastrophic love affairs. Her taste of the good life leads to debt, and baked into a corner she commits suicide by swallowing arsenic. Not quick, nor painless.
Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
Author: J. K. Rowling
Did wise old Dumbledore die because he falls from the Astronomy Tower? Because of the killing curse? Or because he’s been poisoned? All three would probably do the trick. The result is much the same – he’s a goner!
Basil Hallward (The Picture of Dorian Gray)
Author: Oscar Wilde
Artist Basil Hallward paints the titular portrait of the vainglorious Gray, which sets off a spiral of unfortunate events. As Gray laments his decadent debauchery he stabs Hallward believing the painting is root of all his problems.
Pap Finn (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)
Author: Mark Twain
Huckleberry Finn’s father was an abusive drunk. So when it is revealed he was the dead person Huck and Jim discovered in the Floating House – he had been shot in the back – there are no tears shed. Jim, remember, refused to let Huck see the face of the dead man.
Severine (La Bete Humaine)
Author: Emile Zola
Jacques Lantier is a murderous beast who has multiple impulses to do harm throughout his life. After his hurt in a train accident Severine nurses him back to health, but unable to drive his train, the red mist descends and he promptly murders her. That’s gratitude for you.
April Wheeler (Revolutionary Road)
Author: Richard Yates
When April Wheeler falls pregnant with her third child, the fragile peace holding her marriage to her husband Frank slowly comes undone. When she tries to self-abort, she only ends up succeeding in bleeding to death. Oh, the dark side of the suburban dream.
Richard Parker (The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket)
Author: Edgar Allan Poe
After forming part of a mutiny on board his ship the Grampus, Richard Parker and his three survivors endure much hardship. Parker suggests one of them should be sacrificed so as to provide food for the others. His bad – he pulls the short straw. He is cannibalized.
Captain Ahab (Moby Dick)
Author: Herman Melville
Captain Ahab is motivated by a terrible thirst for revenge – Moby-Dick, the whale that bit off his leg must be destroyed. His is an ill-fated quest because as he finally harpoons the whale, he is caught in the line and pulled into the murky waters.
Richard Hickock/Perry Smith (In Cold Blood)
Author: Truman Capote
Hickock and Smith brutally murdered farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife and two of their children in 1959. Truman Capote followed the ensuing case and the pair’s time spent on Death Row with an investigative zeal – resulting in this masterpiece of nonfiction literature. The deadly duo were eventually executed by hanging.
Billy Bibbit (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
Author: Ken Kesey
After being humiliated one last time by the despicable Nurse Ratched when she catches him in flagrante with a prostitute, Billy takes his own life by slashing his throat.