Examining the Impact of the Moment of Horror in
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood
I want to switch gears a bit. So far I’ve been writing about supernatural horror, for these thirty-one days of Halloween. But horror comes in all types. Take for example Capote’s seminal work.
For what feels like forever, fiction writers in all genres have tried to emulate real life. It doesn’t matter what they are writing; it has to feel real. Why? For the connection. If we can’t connect to the characters and the story that drives them forward, then the fiction has failed. This is true no matter the genre. There must be a recognizable trait, something we as humans can identify with, in order for us to willingly press on through the pages.
An aside, an epiphany – perhaps that’s why we don’t read as much anymore, because we no longer desire that connection, that identification, or perhaps we’ve lost that connection because we don’t read as much anymore. Or perhaps the rate of reading has stayed the same, and there are just a lot more assholes in the world.
But there also happens, and perhaps this is a more modern trend, to write nonfiction as a prose narrative story—a novel. The blending of the two genres is not awash in a single direction. Fiction doesn’t just aspire to be nonfiction. Capote attempted the reverse with this novel, and Hunter S. Thompson gave us gonzo journalism and fictional novels that were thinly-veiled attempts to disguise the true circumstances. Creative writers are told “Write what you know” and T. S. Eliot expounded on how literature should, ideally, closely mirror real life.
In any case, I offer up this review of a true story as frightening as any horror story:
Not until page sixty of the edition I possess is the murder of the family realized, and then it is only through the eyes of the townspeople who first discover the bodies in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. But Capote follows an old adage first quoted by Alfred Hitchcock, when capturing the moment of horror in his non-fiction crime piece that reads like a novel, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Capote captures this masterfully throughout this book by making the reader care about the family and allowing the reader to get to know the killers outside of the killing, and also by not showing the murder in real time.
Even though the murder and the discovery doesn’t take place until around page sixty, the reader knows from page one what is to happen. Part One of the book is titled “The Last to See Them Alive,” and by page five Capote foreshadows the events to come with two separate sentences. “Until one morning in mid-November of 1959,” Capote writes, “few Americans—in fact, few Kansans—had ever heard of Holcomb” (5). This suggests that after this date, not only all of Kansas but all if not most of America will recognize the town by what happened. When he writes later in that paragraph that “foreign sounds,” which he clarifies as “four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives” (5), the reader knows exactly why the town is made famous.
The section that begins just after this introduces the reader to Herbert William Clutter, a successful farmer in the area, a prominent businessman who made a go of it and succeeded. The reader is given a nice history of the man in the town, how he met his wife and they fell in love, how he built up his farm and attained that level of privilege in the town of Holcombe. We see Clutter as a beloved member of the community, cherished by everyone. It isn’t until the end of this section eight pages later that the reader understands why Capote chose to focus on this particular citizen, when he writes “Then, touching the brim of his cap, [Clutter] headed for home and the day’s work, unaware that it would be his last” (13).
The next section introduces the reader to Dick and Perry, and here Capote does something interesting. He starts the section off drawing a comparison between Perry and Mr. Clutter, their aversion to coffee. In this early section of the novel, how Dick and Perry are related to Clutter and his family isn’t directly stated. Capote never comes out and says “These guys are the murderers.” Rather, these sections about the two friends feel (deceptively) at once extraneous and unnecessary even as they feel (intentionally) ominous, especially the sections detailing their late night drive as they search for a particular farmhouse and, upon hearing a noise, kill their headlights. They are two men with a plan and two men on a mission. Minor details peppered throughout their sections let the reader know they aren’t nice men, but it isn’t until after the murder is the reader really aware of what they’re capable of. Prior to the murder, Dick and Perry might be thieves and delinquents, but Capote suggests nothing that would indicate these men are murderers. Later in the novel, though he never implicates them to the murder until they are arrested, his hints change, and he talks about how they could kill someone. Though the reader never experiences the moment of horror in scene, the view of Dick and Perry has changed, and it is easier to see them capable of such a horrendous act. All of this is accomplished by the back and forth focus, scenes of Dick and Perry sandwiched in between scenes of the townspeople and law enforcement’s search for the killers.
At the beginning, however, the story of Dick and Perry is intertwined with the story about the last day of the Clutters, showcasing the children and Clutter’s wife in just the same way as Clutter was revealed. The Clutter sections always end on an ominous note. Capote points out a bookmark at the end of section about Nancy that reads, “Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is” (30). Mrs. Ashida says to Mr. Clutter: “I can’t imagine you afraid. No matter what happened, you’d talk your way out of it” (36). Mr. Helm the farmhand says of Nancy leading her horse off to the barn: “And that…was the last I seen of them…Like I said, nothing out of the ordinary” (41). Nancy’s boyfriend, Bobby Rupp, says “Only now when I think back, I think somebody must have been hiding out there. Maybe down among the trees. Somebody just waiting for me to leave” (52).
As well, the passages narrating Dick and Perry’s trek to their unstated destination grow shorter and shorter, giving the impression that they are getting closer to their intended target. Capote, through all of this, never out-and-out says the danger that is looming just off the page, but allows these two elements—the foreshadowing and the placement of these passages—to suggest the danger.
The buildup to the murder might seem unresolved given that the murder never plays out in scene, but that only adds to the horror. That the only way the reader can “see” the murder is through others discussing it allows for the murder to play out in the imaginations of the readers. But this also plays into the guilt and innocence question. Towards the end of the book, Perry swears that Dick did all the killing while Dick swears that they both pulled the trigger. Without seeing the murder in scene, there is no way to know who is telling the truth. Now taking this narrative stance was probably necessary for Capote who was reporting what happened to the best of anyone’s knowledge. It would be irresponsible for him, in fact, to put the murder in scene, from a factual stance, given that the only eye-witnesses to testify on what happened can’t agree as to how it went down, but the ambiguity as to which man did what ultimately adds to the horror.
That the moment of horror is never shown works well for this piece of crime-reporting that reads like a novel. While the murder is discussed and its events recounted by investigators and the murderers, the horror is not revealed “in scene” for the reader to experience. Instead the reader is left to imaging what happened. We are introduced to the Clutter family as they interact with their community, and then a few pages later they are dead. They are mourned, their deaths are discussed and affect the people around them, who start to lock their doors at night, who are afraid. That they are here one moment and gone the next is the true horror of In Cold Blood, elevated only in that we cannot know exactly what happened, save for the unreliable testimony of two killers.