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This answer by JRE to a Writing question about the unlikeability of villains mentioned this ~30+ year old book, a.k.a ~1992 or older:

That one particular fantasy novel started with (at least) two chapters of a point of view character torturing, skinning, and dismembering other people.

The descriptions were (extremely) vivid, and the character was quite obviously enjoying the process. What's more, it was implied that this (evil) character was of a common character type in the universe of the story and that the behaviour such characters was normal and accepted.

Does anyone know what book this is so I can avoid it?


Added by JRE:

  1. The novel was published before 1990.
  2. The copy I had was a paperback.
  3. The cover may have been predominantly orange with gold/brown stuff drawn on it or it may have been predominantly brown/green.
  4. The main character in the (small) part of the book I read was a priest.
  5. The religious order the priest belonged to had a lot of power in the world - it may have even been the ruling government.
  6. All copies of the "bible" of this order were hand written in blood on human skin.
  7. The part that I read was of this priest going about his daily business - typical scene building introduction to a novel in a foreign world.
  8. The scenes I read took place in one of the order's temples. The impression was of stonewalls, dark tunnels, and torches for light.
  9. The priest's "daily business" included skinning a human being alive so that more copies of the order's "bible" could be made.
  10. The "skinning" had to be carried out while the victim was alive - that was part of the beliefs of the order.
  11. The priest rubbed salt into the skin while removing it - this was supposedly to preserve it, but it also made it even more unbearably painful for the victim.
  12. The skinning was done slowly so that the victim didn't pass out or die from the pain.
  13. The text was quite vivid. While reading, you felt the weight of the stone blocks of the temple above you. You smelled the scent of the burning torches and heard the screams of the victims. You felt the dank darkness of the tunnels. You heard the dripping blood. The skinning scenes "smelled" of blood.
  14. The priest was planning how to advance in the priesthood - the implications being that all of the priests are conniving psychopaths who would make Machiavelli's The Prince look like Mister Rogers by comparison.
  15. This priest obviously enjoyed what he was doing. The skinning, the killing, making parchment from human skin, plotting who to kill (and how and when) to maximize and speed his advance within the order. All done with pleasure, joy, and anticipation.

All of the above was told in first person perpective. You not only saw what the priest was doing, you experienced his thoughts as he was doing it.

That view into a (very) twisted and sick mentality was horrifying. Almost as horrifying was that the author had to think those things and how to describe them - the existence of a supposedly normal person who could think of those things and describe them with such enthusiasm was scarier than the fictional priest.

I quit reading after maybe two chapters. It wasn't getting any better, and I wasn't going to read another couple of hundred pages of that kind of thing.


I don't know who the author was. I don't normally read fantasy, so I wouldn't recognize the author even if he were famous. I do think the name implied a male author.

Whoever it was, he was not unskilled as an author.

He succeeded (all too well) in pulling me into his fantasy world in just the bit I read. His use of words and writing techniques was good - but his story telling was taking me somewhere I had no desire to visit.

The author may not have been objectively all that great - I don't know. For me, he managed to evoke a lot of stuff in relatively few words. Kind of like how an impressionistic artist can create a recognizable scene using (relatively) few details. Your mind fills in the details to fill out the scene.

I think that was the worst of it. The written story was only (can only) be an impressionistic sketch. The horrifying details were coming from my imagination in response to the story. It was horrifying to find those details in my imagination.

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  • The wikipedia page on Anthropodermic Bibliopegy does have an "In Popular Culture" section, but it doesn't look like any of the options match.
    – Showsni
    Aug 6, 2022 at 13:03
  • @Showsni Am I the only one disturbed that there is not merely a specific term for this, but one that rates its own Wikipedia page?
    – DavidW
    Aug 6, 2022 at 13:55
  • I'm eagerly awaiting the answer as well, I skimmed though the literature-section of flayed alive on tv-tropes, but I found nothing that fit the description there either.
    – Achi
    Aug 8, 2022 at 14:33
  • I'm not looking forward to finding the book again. I tried to forget it, but only succeeded in losing the name and the author.
    – JRE
    Aug 8, 2022 at 14:58

2 Answers 2

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The description, while spare, makes me immediately think of Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer (1980).

The first chapter starts with a bit of light grave-robbing, with a bit of near-death experience thrown in. Chapter 2 is a retrospective of Severian as a child, but chapter 3 dives into the whole "torturer" thing.

Flaying and other tortures are fairly graphically, if clinically, described.

The major differences are that Severian is actually the hero of the book, not the villain, and he doesn't enjoy torture. (He doesn't hate it either, it's just his job.)

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  • 2
    Sadly, this doesn't fit any more after the further details added by JRE (not the OP here, but the person who originally recalled this book and mentioned it on Writing SE).
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 6, 2022 at 9:35
  • 1
    Definitely not the book I was thinking of. I found a copy of The Shadow of the Torturer online and had a look at the first chapters. No match, though it does (sort of) match the extremely vague description in the question as originally posted. I hadn't intended the description in the answer on the writing stack to be enough to identify the story.
    – JRE
    Aug 6, 2022 at 15:03
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This is highly reminiscent of Mark E. Rogers' ZORACHUS (1986) and its sequel THE NIGHTMARE OF GOD (1988). The time frame is right, both covers are orange/flame-colored and both contain some of the most graphically violent fantasy ever published. The main character - Zorachus - is a priest/warrior monk - and the book is filled with scenes of torture, skinning, and cannibalism. The first book opens with a murder-scene prologue that is very bloody but torture scenes come several chapters later. Por Por review with cover image

Rogers was a very vivid novelist. The descriptions are highly detailed - mentioning sight, sound, and smell. They are not however written in first person (perhaps misremembering? or this is the wrong book).

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  • Certainly not The Nightmare of God. The preview included one of the first pages - no match. I don't think it is Zorachus, either. From all the reviews, Zorachus starts as a not evil person who gets corrupted. The book I had in mind started the character already about as evil as could be.
    – JRE
    Aug 6, 2022 at 22:32

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