(This is the first of a three-part set of posts. Tomorrow part 2 will be posted at The Naked Truth blog, and part 3 will be posted at my site on Saturday. Blame Amanda. She asked me to write about Impaler and why I wrote it, and this is what happened.)
Have you ever desperately wanted to do something you knew was wrong? Have you ever done it, and then thought up all manner of justifications why it wasn't really wrong in the first place? No, don't answer. I'm not who needs to know.
If you answered "no" to either question, you've either successfully convinced yourself, or you've been lying to yourself. Humans are good at that - at both "that"s, really.
Now, one of the things I find terribly unsatisfying about a lot of fantasy and SF is that the evil is so often hollow, unconvincing. You look at it and - if you're me, which fortunately is a rare phenomenon - you wonder why anyone would want it. For instance, in Lord of the Rings, the evil side is uniformly deformed and twisted - there's no reason the average orc would want to stay there, and they can't all be fallen from elf-ness. Admittedly, Tolkien was writing what he thought was mythology, which has a different flow and needs than fiction.
Thing is, coming off 100 years packed solid with examples of populist and/or popular evil - they had to appeal to enough people to get into and consolidate power. After that it wasn't such a big thing - your standard ugly, repulsive evil just doesn't cut it, at least for me.
I'm prepared to admit that I might be a tad on the strange side here (when am I not?), but I've been fascinated by the nature of evil for as long as I can remember, so unconvincing evil irritates me. Evil is attractive: it's supposed to be.
At a more basic level, evil involves letting our least human aspects (i.e., the animal nature) run free. Not being stuck with all those stupid rules and getting a good solid boost over those (insert your epithet of choice here) who make your life miserable... you bet your sweet ass that's attractive. When it's wrapped in a charismatic package, it's very attractive. The idea is to seduce people from what they know is right, after all. And, Rule 34 notwithstanding, orcs and seduction just do not go.
All of this is one heck of an introduction to how I came to write Impaler, and why - trust me, it's relevant. See, my guilty sideline in my reading habits is history. Specifically, the history of such charming topics as torture, of regimes like Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, Pol Pot's Cambodia, the Mongolian Hordes, and other equally delightful regimes. I joke that I have a hotline to Evil Bastard Central in my head, but whether it's the subconscious processing of my unclean fascination or springs from some other dark corner of my subconscious is something I don't know and prefer not to investigate too closely. I might find the answer...
Enter serendipity, in the form of (I think) a 1980s documentary. At that point, I had what you might call the pop-culture image of Dracula: the pale dude with fangs who wore old-fashioned evening dress and a high-necked cloak. Discovering that there had been real man named Dracula, and that he made even your nastier-than-average vampire look like a wuss, hit me like a hammer on speed.
Naturally I started reading vampire fiction as well as the history of the vampire mythos. Of course, I read Bram Stoker's Dracula. Most of the fiction that mentioned Dracula stuck with the Stoker image, although some (Jeanne Kalogridis (Diaries of the Family Dracul) and Dan Simmons (Children of the Night) come to mind) incorporated the history of Prince Vlad Dracula with the vampire myth. Vlad - of course - was always evil, and usually chewing-the-furniture insane as well.
Eventually I managed to get my claws on the books that are still the gold standard for Vlad: the McNally and Florescu Dracula books (In Search of Dracula, Prince of Many Faces, and assorted others). Fascination turned borderline obsessive: there were (and are) gaping holes in the history, and massive inconsistencies in the narrative. This was a man who was revered by his people (and to some extent still is). How could that reconcile with the standard "perverted mass murderer" narrative?
My first - and thankfully long-buried - attempt to write Vlad's story from his perspective started around then. I wasn't a good enough writer to do it. Besides, I didn't have the resources or the research material I needed. Yes, this was before the Internet.
The situation and idea nagged at me during the following years, generating a crude outline for an alternate history - which is recognizably Impaler, although the resemblance is like an artist's sketch beside the final painting. Over the same time period, my writing kept cycling back to the theme of someone who - for whatever the reason - does evil in the service of good. Not evil rationalized into faux-good, but actually in service to good.
In Impaler, I made the analogy between what a ruler like Vlad has to do, and a gardener pruning diseased branches so the whole plant doesn't die. It's not the only time I explicitly called out that what Vlad is doing is evil by most standard but is in service to a much greater need. Vlad doesn't - usually - excuse his actions on these grounds. He mentally adds them to the long list of sins he'll ultimately be punished for.
This dichotomy between action and goal, between cruelty now to prevent worse later, is a topic I find endlessly fascinating, and I'll be exploring that and the circumstances of Vlad's life - the things that shaped him into the man who dominates Impaler - tomorrow at The Naked Truth.
Update: Post 2: The Kindness of Cruelty is available.
Updated Update: Post 3: The Man Behind the Monster is now posted.