Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Allure of Evil

(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.


Sarah A. Hoyt said...

It's a very difficult thing to write, but I completely understand what you mean about the allure.

After all, I'm the woman who didn't believe sloth could be a sin till she had kids, because being forced to sit still and do nothing sounded like a torture. Until, of course, you're really tired.

Anonymous said...

See, now that's just about exactly what's missing from both attempts at "Real" novels I've got sitting waiting for re-writes or something. On the other hand, when a writer can "become the evil they are trying to write" (careful there, this is just ficiton...) as I have to when I'm writing the Villain Paths for this video game series, then it all get's more believable, more real. As a result if it's done right, then we can go back, read it, and get that feeling of "Yeah, I know where he's coming from.. He's wrong and evil, but I can relate..."
Or something like that anyhow.
Looking forward to part 2.

Chris Large said...

"At a more basic level, evil involves letting our least human aspects (i.e., the animal nature) run free."

Interesting you've taken this view. The phase, "I'm only human", is mostly used to argue the opposite. On a basic level we are animals, so do those animal urges to better ourselves (at the expense of others), make us evil?

It sounds like you are taking the Star Trek/Dune view of humanity, that we are defined by the things that separate us from our primal instincts.

I often feel the opposite, that civilisation is a thin (and changeable) veneer, masking what it really means to be human.

MataPam said...

Kate, just don't pull a "Sarah" and tell us you wrote your husband. ;)

Believeable bad guys are tough. I'm looking forward to seeing it done.

MataPam said...

Chris, I agree, to a degree. I think humanity has, in becoming the hyper-creative creature we are, lost a lot of instinctive "animal" behaviors.

I think what is generally called culture is the remains of that, and civilization a conscious attempt to replace that with something that will work in a technological environment.

Looking around right now, I think our current civilization is failing badly. Most obviously in the failure to raise children "properly" and in the self-hatred Western Civ is being indoctrinated with.

What wolf "hates" his pack? how could such a creature be trusted by the others?

Kate Paulk said...


For me it was despair. Until I was in the thick of it. Then I understood - it's not the despair itself so much but the way it twists everything into a nihilist view that for me ended with the notion that my parents would be better off with me and my problems permanently out of their life.

Anything with the capacity to warp you that much has to be a sin.

Kate Paulk said...


It's a very dangerous balance to walk - the seduction of evil is something I think we underplay to our peril. Keeping a distinction between what is "character" and what is "real" helps, as does explicitly acknowledging to yourself that you personally would not ever do this. And holding yourself to that promise no matter how tempted you are.

Kate Paulk said...

Chris L,

Actually, no. "I'm only human" is - or should be - used to mean "I'm not infallible". And while I don't go for either Star Trek utopianism or the Dune model, we are to a large degree defined by our ability to suppress or overrule our animal instincts.

The animal instinct is - among other - to eliminate rivals, usually by killing them. To kill the young of competing males in territory you've just claimed (this instinct is one of the reason young children with a step parent are considered to be at rather more risk than if they're with biological parents: and the statistics, particularly among specific socio-economic strata - bear that out (that is, a LOT more kids are abused by a stepparent or parent's significant other than are abused by their biological parents). Instinct also drives the subordinate partner to accept the dominant partner's killing of the young.

Societies that place large "taboo" fences around the animal nature tend to end up with better conditions for all members of that society. Those that don't tend to follow typical pack or herd structures, with a small leadership core, bloody succession battles, and ruthless suppression of everyone else - along with a rigid hierarchy. Since in the latter case innovation can only be introduced by a very small proportion of the populace, it tends not to happen.

Oh, and as a side note - when a large minority of the baby boom kids decided in the 60s to reject all the restrictions of civilization? They recreated a tribal culture that was anything but idyllic (you have to go digging into some pretty obscure places to find this information, but it's there).

Kate Paulk said...


No, I didn't do that. He was - and still is - a wonderful bolt from the blue.

And yes, believable bad guys as opposed to scenery-chewers are difficult.

Kate Paulk said...


Not only have you got the wrong end of the pineapple there, you should have been getting an apple!

Seriously... "If it feels good, do it" is animal instinct. Doing something you don't want to do, and sometimes doing it day after day for a long term goal - that's a civilized behavior. You won't find much - if any - of that in animals.

Modern Western civilization is failing badly, but not for the reason you're giving. It's failing because the people doing the indoctrination are not civilized people. They're at best tribal, and their tribe is the tribe of Mao/Lenin/Che/Stalin/Pol Pot. Civilized people do not throw insults when someone suggests they might have their facts wrong. Tribe members responding to a perceived insult to their chief do. If they don't throw weapons instead.

I concede it's not necessarily obvious what's driving the current mess, but it's there for anyone who does a bit of digging and a bit of thinking about what they're seeing.

Daniel O Casey said...

Kate - Yes. Not Real. Have to remember that *grin*. Fortunately most of my better evil Villains are the 'Save the world from itself, because I can see the true path" sort, so there's not much crossover... mostly.
Although one does get odd looks when random discussions incorporate such things as how to neutralize the world communications network for a week or two... yes, odd indeed.

Sarah, yes, sitting = torture (Life's too short) until you realize you've fallen asleep under the toddler once again... *Sigh*

MataPam "What wolf "hates" his pack? how could such a creature be trusted by the others?"
Thanks for this, you've crystallized the problem I was having in what I was seeing in my 13 year old's school... but this is about it. Well, that and the rampant disrespect for us older wiser fold *wry grin here* (Yeah, like I know more than them. NOT!)


Jim McCoy said...

"Serving good by doing evil" is a powerful concept. Ask any Nazi (and no I don't mean average German, Goldfarb be damned, I'm talking about guys like Hitler, Himmler, etc.)and they thought that they were serving good. Hmm. Now I wanna read your book and I don't have a Kindle. I wonder how long it would take me to download the thing and then print it out.

Amanda Green said...

Jim, you don't need a kindle to read Impaler -- or any book NRP publishes. You can read them on any computer, laptop or smartphone. All you need is the appropriate software. If you have any questions, email me off-list.

As for hard copy of Impaler, it is possible that we will be putting out a printed version. Not in March, mind you, but a couple of months after. The key is, as I told Chris Kelsey in an earlier post about Impaler, it depends on demand.

Kate Paulk said...


Oh, yes, the looks you get when you ask questions like that are impressive.

On the "what wolf 'hates' his pack?" question, I think the problem is mis-identifying a jackal in wolf skin as a wolf.

Kate Paulk said...


There have been a lot of cases. We know about the "good Germans" phenomenon because they've had a lot of study. I'd put the firebombing of Dresden in that category - and I've heard accounts of it from someone who was in the city at the time. She said outright that it was something the Allies had to do, despite the horrific cost.

Doing evil in the service of good tends to happen rather more often during wartime and other crisis periods.

There are alternatives to having a Kindle. A smartphone or PDA works. There are free computer programs if you don't mind reading on a computer screen. Or if you really must, it takes about an hour and a lot of ink, at least for my original file.

Kate Paulk said...


I certainly hope you can do a print edition! In the meantime, lots of sales help :)

Chris Large said...

Hi Kate,

You seem to be focussing on the negative aspects of instinctual behaviour.

I think humans are programmed for awesomeness. I don't really care about what system of gov't any particular group end up imposing on themselves. In the end, everyone wants to succeed. Sometimes it will be at the expense of others, sometimes not.

The rules of a society are there for a reason (no judgement implied), granted -- but they don't make us who we are, and often they detract from who we could be, if only there weren't so many damn hoops to jump through.

"I'm only human," in the context of 'Sorry I had sex with that hooker but I'm only human' or 'Sorry I hit that annoying jerk but I'm only human' is an example of someone justifying base behaviour on the grounds of their simian heritage.

All I'm saying is, I don't know if I'd call our machine code-level programming, evil.

For example, I will defend my kids from any threat, no matter what, with my life if need be. I don't think about that, it's as natural as breathing. I'll render first aid, if I can without hesitation. It's not courage or bravery or heroics. It's programming.

And it's not evil.

Stephen Simmons said...

Kate, you're going to drive me crazy, you know that?

As I told Sarah yesterday, I've been struggling for years, trying to overcome an irrational internal taboo against vampire-stories. I read the snippet from "Impaler" you posted here last month, and based on that I WANT to read the book ...

I found it interesting that you didn't list Fred Saberhagen's "Old Friend of the Family" and "A Matter of Taste" among the Dracula books you've read. I'm told that he had an unusual "take" on the legend, casting Vlad in a much more sympathetic light than most others do. (Though I never managed to bring myself to read them ...)

Your post is well-timed, for me, because I've been struggling with this subject for the fantasy series I'm working on. I've reached the point where the first of the villains is emerging "on-stage", and I've been very worried that he'd end up coming across as Snidley Whiplash or Simon bar-Sinister, when I was aiming for something more like Saruman or Denethor ...

Stephen Simmons said...

Oh, and just for the record ... we're definitely buying it, whether I manage to get through it or not. Because either way, my wife has already made it clear that she's VERY interested. :-)

Kate Paulk said...

Chris L,

There is a difference between instinct and deep programming. There is an instinctive drive to protect one's offspring - but depending on the cultural programming that drive can be increased or decreased.

I'm not calling the basic animal instincts evil - I'm saying that evil allows those instincts free reign irrespective of the damage they do. It's not a coincidence that most tyrants live in opulent luxury. Wanting the goodies now is a very strong instinctive drive.

One thing that makes tyranny evil is that it perverts wanting to do the best you can into wanting to keep breathing - and doing whatever you possibly can to keep breathing. Mahatma Gandhi acknowledged that his peaceful resistance tactics could only have succeeded against a civilized opponent.

Kate Paulk said...


Driving people crazy is all part of the job.

Vlad is a fascinating man. It's something of a shame he's become so firmly hooked to the vampire mythos you can't separate them - but I can promise you there's very little "vampireness" and absolutely NO sparkling in Impaler.

There are people who simply can't write "on-stage" evil. The only way they can make it convincing is to keep the villain as an off-screen threatening presence.

Me, that's not a problem. Keeping the evil bastard from taking over and turning into an antihero, on the other hand...

I probably can't give much advice about avoiding Snidely Whiplash, simply because I can't write those. Even when I want to.

p.s. Thank you for buying! I hope you and your wife enjoy it.

Unknown said...

Pardon me while I curl up in a ball and whimper about the invocation of Rule 34 with respect to orcs.

I feel the need to point out that many comments are projecting fiction onto real life. I've had the misfortune of meeting a few truly evil people, and the word best fitting them was "pathetic". They were generally banal, petty, and self-destructive.

That said, I love a good Magnificent Bastard in fiction. (At least until he converts the author. Yes, Thomas Harris, I'm looking at you.)

Vlad Tepes is an interesting study. There's good reason to call him a monster. But the boyars, Corvinus and Mehmet II weren't much better (and generally, for much less reason).

Kate Paulk said...


Yes. It's not a happy-making thought, that one. And yes, fictional evil tends to be rather different than the real thing, and most of the real cases are rather pathetic.

A few aren't - and those are truly disturbing. There's at least one in power at the moment who's definitely evil and equally definitely a long way from pathetic.

Vlad is certainly an interesting man to study. Even with the scanty documentation, the information I've been able to tease out puts him rather more on the "sinned against" side - despite him doing things that are pretty stomach-twisting. The boyars, Corvinus, and Mehmed II were at least as bad, and in a lot of ways worse.

Chris McMahon said...

Great post, Kate. I guess in books we need people to cheer the good guy and boo the bad guy - its easier to demonise a snarling orc than a poncey elf.

Imaging LoR if the good guys lived in the Mordor wasteland and the bad guys were from Rivendell with a legion of good looking High Men and Elves at their back. 'Join us darling, our parties are sooo fab.'

Great questions though. Why did Morgaroth make the orcs such repulsive creatures? Maybe they were so far beneath his notice he did not care what his tools looked like.

You've got me thinking now!

Kate Paulk said...

Chris M,

Careful there. You really do not want me opining on nancing elves vs crass orcs. Trust me on this. The results get weird.