I recently came across a book (a crime/thriller, not a horror) which, over the first few chapters, describes the rape and decapitation of a woman in a sort of snuff film style. I say snuff film as it turns out the rape and murder are being filmed and the killer is apparently doing it for the money.
Pretty unpleasant, you'd probably agree, and it was. However, what really stood out to me - and made the scenes worse - was the piss poor level of writing. Depending on the story, situation and what mood the writer is going for, a kind of basic, emotionless style can work well. It didn't here. The scenes just felt amateurish and distasteful. Now obviously the publishers, editors and everyone else involved thought otherwise, and as the author has sold around a bazillion copies of their books, I'm guessing plenty of readers thought otherwise, too. That's not really the issue for me. It's the writing I'm interested in and why it was such a failure.
To start with, the chapters of around a page and a paragraph didn't help. It was like reading a kid's book or being told a story by a child who's so breathless with excitement that they have to speed their way through the tale, desperate to not leave out anything and equally desperate to get to the good bit at the end. Secondly, detailing an act as foul as rape in a and then he did this and then she did that...way doesn't work. Where's anything below the surface? The woman had nothing other than a body. All the reader knew about her as this went on was she was good-looking (because only attractive women are raped) and worked as a model. No personality, no character. Just an object for the killer to attack which could have maybe worked if we were reading the attack from the rapist's POV: he's turned her into nothing because she's worthless to him, for example. Problem was the POV wasn't his so all we have is a nasty situation described in an immature, base style.
It might sound strange and a bit hypocritical for me to slate a book featuring horrible, violent acts given I write horror. I don't think it's either. Effective horror and violence comes from character, not solely from shitty things happening to people or gore being described in graphic detail. It's exactly the same if we're talking happy or moving events. If we care about our fictional characters, then their reconciliations make us happy; their grief hurts us, and their triumphs are ours.
If we care about our characters, then their pain is our pain. If we don't know them or care, then the writer has failed.