It's gruesome, graphic, bloody - and the readers love it

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BOILED, PUTREFIED, freshly slaughtered or washed down with a drop of Chianti, whatever dreadful fate awaits the human body at the hands of a psychopath, we want it graphic and we want it gory. Explicit Lit is the new fiction genre and readers can't get enough of it.

Last week the latest novel by Thomas Harris, the writer who elevated serial killer Hannibal Lecter to iconic status, sold an entire print run, 300,000 copies, in a day. Parts of Hannibal have been described as rather more horrific than his other novels. Without giving too much away, one chapter details a particularly unpleasant scene in which a character is eaten alive by starving pigs.

Harris's popularity rivals that of Patricia Cornwell whose latest paperback offering, Point Of Origin, is top of the bestsellers list. It is described as "bleak" and "shocking" on the cover, but some readers would opine that downright disgusting would do just as well. In one passage, not the worst, Cornwell writes: "I opened the sheets, exposing bones stripped of most of their tissue, the extremities pitifully truncated like burnt sticks. I gently placed femurs and tibias into the pot, then the pelvis and parts of the skull. Vertebrae and ribs followed as the water got hotter and a sharp-smelling steam began to rise."

If that leaves too much to the imagination, then there's always Kathy Reichs, billed as "better than Patricia Cornwell" and an American forensic anthropologist. She has already published one bestseller, Deja Dead, known for its graphic descriptions of the autopsy process. A taster: "What I saw was no longer a face, but a skull stripped bare by scavengers. What appeared as eyes and nose and lips were, in fact, mounds of tiny crabs, parts of a seething mass that covered the skull and fed on its flesh."

Thomas Harris says that we have been anaesthetised to horror. Early on in Hannibal he writes: "Now that ceaseless exposure has callused us to the lewd and the vulgar, it is instructive to see what still seems wicked to us. What still slaps the clammy flab of our submissive consciousness hard enough to get our attention?"

According to Lynne Drew, publishing director for fiction at Heinemann, publisher of Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs, writers are not competing to "out-gore" one another in the quest for sales, but are offering readers the chance to understand the mind of a killer. "The public isn't responding to the buckets of horror but the intellectual challenge of the psychology of the criminal," she said.

Readers used to a diet of forensic colour on television started by Cracker and continued by series such as Silent Witness expect fiction to keep up with such gritty realism. "We've moved on from Agatha Christie and matching a footstep to a shoe," said Ms Drew.

Film and television are also having an impact on novelists by the opportunities they offer to make money. Professor Christopher Frayling, dean of the Royal College of Art, believes there is a temptation to keep prose graphic in the hope of securing film rights. He says that most horror stories divide into two camps: post- and pre-cinema. "There used to be the mummy and the werewolf," he said. "Now audience expectations have gone further than that. And the serial killer has replaced the vampire as the mythical beast."

New writers are also following in the footsteps of Harris and Cornwell by submitting manuscripts which even the publishers find worrying.

"I've turned a few down this year that I've found disturbing, where the horrors of the killing are not balanced by characters or substance of plot," said Ms Drew. "It's a very fine line."