I don't believe in evil. It's a word I use, certainly, because words are shortcuts and we all take the short way round from time to time, but that's all it is, a word to describe something we cannot or will not understand or articulate in any other way. If there were such a thing then I would have a much harder time condemning acts that I find selfish, cruel, or otherwise indefensible, because to say that evil exists is to provide an excuse for what I find to be obvious: that humans are animals, and as such often act in ways that other animals can never fully understand.
The first thing I thought when Powell's offered me a soapbox was, Don't come off like a pretentious jackass, be sincere, talk about something you love, like hiking or Vincent Price or Jack Vance or Umberto Eco, and next thing I know I'm using a Milton quote for the title and waxing on about philosophical uncertainties. I'm going somewhere less bombastic, really! Evil as human weakness versus evil with a capital E as a means of segueing into why I've always loved villains, not as a clumsy rant about ethics.
While most "you're either this or you're that" demarcations have the ring of bunkum to my tin ear, I do think there is one sweeping generalization that holds true: you are either interested and willing to hear the villain's side of things or you're not. I am, and so are a lot of people; there's a reason why Dante's Inferno is far more popular than the latter two parts of the The Divine Comedy. Whether my personal interest in villainy is the result of my feelings about the nature of evil or simply because I watched a lot of horror movies as a kid is irrelevant to the point I'm dancing toward: I love villains.
Vincent Price and Christopher Lee were always more interesting to me than Peter Cushing, grand as the Cush most assuredly was, and growing up I couldn't get enough of monsters both human and, er, monstrous. The makers of the Price films definitely understood this, and often provided a thin little scrap of plot to explain Price's wicked ways and give the audience an out to root for him: the so-called "abominable" Dr. Phibes would never have imaginatively dispatched all those doctors if they hadn't killed his wife. Sure, the death of Mrs. Phibes might have been an accident, and granted, covering a woman in honey so that locusts will devour her isn't really a constructive way of dealing with grief, but as a kid my sympathies were always with Uncle Vincent.
Until Witchfinder General, that is, marketed in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm to cash in on the Price/Poe craze. The film, about the infamous, Commonwealth-era witch hunter Matthew Hopkins, sucker-punched me. In one of his least hammy roles Price is actually chilling, and for the first time I recoiled from him as one would a stinging insect. Yet I was just as fascinated as when I was cheering him on in Theatre of Blood, and to date Witchfinder General remains one of my favorite Price films. As a child I couldn't quite articulate the difference between a villain I could root for and one I couldn't, but I think now it comes down to my predilection to side with the underdog. A weak villain, one without agency or other recourse, is one I can and did get behind, but a villain like Matthew Hopkins, someone who had power and exploited it to satisfy his sadistic desires, is far less sympathetic.
Not that a villain need be sympathetic; indeed, the difference between hero and villain is often one of perspective, and even when the storyteller establishes a dichotomy between the characters based on the audience's conceptions of good and evil, we are still drawn to the villain, to the mysterious motivation that we cannot understand or sympathize with. Not everyone feels this way, as I said, and many a storyteller is content for their villain to be a bland caricature, but we recognize our own, we villain-sympathizers, and we often seek out something to sympathize with when we like a villain, even if involves a bit of stretching. Sometimes the storyteller makes it easy, sometimes the villain is even the star, but more often than not we're left following around some Goody Two-shoes until the character we're really interested in shows up to menace the hero.
An innocent young woman is menaced by a monstrous villain, and after much physical peril she is saved by virtue of her virtue. This is the fashion in which mainstream audiences seem to prefer their villains displayed, as an object to contrast against the righteous protagonist while providing some cheap scares. Fans of contemporary horror cinema and fiction could doubtless catalogue an enormous list of titles that more or less follow that plot, and even John Milton employed that formula for his masque Comus.
In Paradise Lost, on the other hand, Milton took the very different approach of featuring the villain as protagonist, and, arguably, a sympathetic character to boot. This shift from villain as Evil foil to villain as complex, thinking individual at odds with convention caught Milton quite a bit of flack at the time; the difference between glorifying a villain and exploring his personality to better understand him is a distinction that can be difficult to explain to critics. Not that Milton was first or the last to focus on the villain and portray him in human, as opposed to strictly monstrous, terms; Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare's Macbeth and Richard III, hell, in almost every literary movement (particularly the Gothic) up to the present, the villain is humanized to varying degrees. Best of all for fans of villainy, the villain is increasingly the focus instead of the obligatory conflict catalyst. Whether this focus is used as a means to contrast Good with Evil, virtue with vice, or as an examination of the human condition depends entirely on the author, and, for that matter, the audience.
Talking about Milton serves a greater purpose than proving to Dr. Boehrer that I was paying attention at Florida State: Milton took the greatest villain of all time and made him human, made him understandable. Flawed, enormously flawed, but so are we all, and if the Devil can be made understandable and human how can we settle for villains whose motivation is some amorphous Evil, who are caricatures in the same way that Lucifer was prior to Paradise Lost?
As someone who has suffered through many a plodding novel to get to the monsters, who has peered over the shoulder of countless witless cinematic "teenagers" to see if this time the villain's appearance will justify the slog, I say "enough." I'm not saying I want sadism for sadism's sake, I'm saying thatI often find villains far more interesting and complex characters, so why not more focus on them? I'm not talking about an anti-hero who doesn't care whose toes he steps on as he seeks revenge for the murder of his _____, I'm talking about a villain, an antagonist, a Bad Guy. Or two.
I don't want just to watch them, either; I want to try to understand them. Sympathizing might be pushing it, especially since I'm not ten years old watching Christopher Lee harried into yet another shallow grave, but understanding would be nice. I mentioned at the beginning that I use the word evil as shorthand, but what I left out was that to me the word villain is just another shortcut. I don't want "villains," I want complicated characters, characters who challenge me, characters with a skewed perspective, characters who explore the darkest, strangest regions of humanity, characters whom I don't think I could ever comprehend yet do come to understand, and characters whom I never will.
The thrill of villainy for villainy's sake was sufficient when I was a kid, but as an adult I want to wince when I drop a V-bomb to describe a character because they are anything but a caricature who can be summed up with a single word. As I said, I don't believe in evil, and although I'm perfectly willing to hear a story about something I don't believe in, I much prefer to be able to believe, even when monsters roar and the gods rage. I know it's possible because I've experienced it, in books and films, and though I may fail in the attempt, it is what I'm chasing with The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart.
Given my thoughts on villainy it should hardly come as a surprise that my debut novel is teeming with characters who are morally skewed. Navigating whom exactly one ought to be rooting for may prove difficult, as was my intention, for all the characters operate from their own complex motivations rather than out of a need to have someone contrast with someone else or set a plot into motion. Yet I've tried to craft a story as devoid of villains as it is lacking in heroes, in the contemporary sense of the word.
If we were to adopt a classical sense of the heroic, however, the notion that heroes are those cunning individuals who enforce their will at the cost of anything that gets in their way, individuals whom only fate and the gods can stop, the Brothers Grossbart suddenly take a step toward heroism. While admittedly ruthless, they are honest men in a world that gives honest men no quarter, and in bloody deeds they are not far removed from the quintessential Greek hero Odysseus, a character far more deceitful than the Brothers Grossbart. Even when changing notions of the heroic snatched Odysseus from Elysium and thrust him into Hell, our dear Dante seems to disagree with his guide's assessment of the fallen hero and lets the sailor keep the dignity that Virgil's Aeneid denied him; indeed, Dante seems to have some sympathy for the too-human Odysseus.
I've been talking about the words evil and villain as problematically imprecise but I might just as well have spoken of those other slippery shortcuts, the words good and hero, which are no more real or static. There are no heroes and there are no villains, only people shaped by their worlds, their minds, and their passions, none of which they can fully control or understand.
Are my grave-robbing twins villainous in our modern conceptions of acceptable behavior? Undeniably. Are they evil? No. They're human, which is, to me, far more frightening. They are also, I hope, understandable, though they may not be wholly sympathetic to even we happy few willing to put aside our own morals long enough to follow a smiling face into those shadows where the only light is a glint of metal in a stranger's left hand.
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Jesse Bullington spent the bulk of his formative years in rural Pennsylvania, the Netherlands, and Tallahassee, Florida. He is a folklore enthusiast who holds a bachelor's degree in History and English Literature from Florida State University. He currently resides in Colorado and can be found online at www.jessebullington.com.
Books mentioned in this post
Jesse Bullington is the author of The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart