Creature Comforts

13 Oct

“Faust” by William Henry Margetson (1885)

(I was asked by Grey Matter Press — who published my story “Wombie” in their fantastic Equilibrium Overturned anthology — to blog about the nature of evil, and how it relates to my writing process. Be sure to check out the work of my fellow contributors over at the Grey Matter blog.)

*  *  *

It is said that if you want the reader to dislike a character in a story, make him harm an animal.

Classic example: Man comes home from work, kicks the family dog. Pretty bad — but is that really the best (or worst) we can drum up in our collective imaginations?

We harm animals every day, after all — we stomp spiders, swat flies, shoot at squirrels when they invade our strawberry gardens; we are complicit in the murder and torture of animals simply by breaking eggs into a pan and frying some bacon; we do all of this before breakfast.

We harm each other, too — by backbiting and gossiping and bullying. With words and with weapons — by carpetbombing huge tracts of desert for no good reason. All the little acts of unkindness we do to each other, all those times we were too busy to say hi to the bum on the street, or to pick up the phone and call a sick relative. All the horrors of all the wars being fought for the rich. A thing called scaphism which I dare you to look into. Racism. Duplicity. Genocide.

And yet the swiftest, most accessible route to eliciting a feeling of “evil” in the reader is the old punt-the-puppy trick.

* * *

“The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.” — Jonathan Franzen

I have two rules for writing. The first rule is that a book is not a static, solid object; not an ornament on a shelf, not a collection of pages bound by leather and twine. It is a thing of motion, with a revving engine behind it. Sometimes with the whole force of nature behind it: a hurricane. A thing swapped easily between friends, and among cultures, passed down through generations as if by osmosis. For a book to succeed, it has to move.

The other rule involves a Creature.

* * *

The Creature is the road disappearing beyond the horizon. It is the thing the story is chasing. It is the wonder to the endeavor, the mystery, the magic. It is the horror hiding in the closet. The shark swimming underneath the surfboard. The Creature may just be a general sense of menace, encroaching upon the lives of bracingly bland people, such as you will find in Franzen’s The Corrections or Alice Munro’s better stories. In David Cronenberg’s film The Fly — still one of the greatest influences on my writing — the Creature is an actual creature named “Brundlefly” … but the caves of literature are painted with the faces of rawer, and yet somehow more grotesque creatures, creatures with names like Fagin, Lear, Voldemort, Mephistopheles. Character and conflict are all good and fine, and sometimes even dandy, but the Creature is why we really turn the pages. Why we keep our foot on the gas. Why we plow through the bridge rail. Why we drown.

* * *

“My definition of evil is unfriendliness.” — Muhammad Ali

(Not lost on me: that the man who said the above quote was paid to punch other men in the face, in a rather unfriendly fashion.)

But evil is not a punch to the face, or a bullet to the brain, or a man sleeping with another man’s wife, or murdering his best friend, or selfishness or avarice or psychopathy or even unfriendliness.

Evil is indifference.

Indifference to the sad, paunchy man who comes to work every day and does his job and does it well and eats shit from his coworkers and boss, and then goes home and polishes his guns. Indifference to the girl with a bow in her hair that makes her feel pretty for five minutes before her father comes along and snatches the bow right off the top of her head, and crushes it under his boot. Indifference to all the things we crush under our boots, merely by walking along.

All of which is to say that if you want the reader to dislike you … be indifferent to her. Fail to seduce her. Ignore her, for even one sentence, one second, and she will go away, because the opposite of love, in the end, is not hate; and the opposite of good is not evil: it’s indifference.

* * *

The Creature in my story “Wombie” is a large, goofy-looking rodent with an unknown organism growing inside of it. Our protagonist is a man named Dr. Ethan Sarvas, whose task it is to identify the parasite, and to take radical action once he realizes its horrific intent. He does this not out of professional obligation or even a vague sense of duty to his own species, but out of sheer dumb curiosity. Which is to say: out of love.

I like doing this — giving my characters impossible problems that they have to solve for me, and handicapping them with cynicism and cowardice. I’m partial to broken characters who find themselves acting bravely at the absolute worst moments. I enjoy putting them into the lobster pot with snakes and spiders and scorned lovers and loaded weapons and apparitions from beyond, and cranking up the flame. I even harm some animals in the process. I do this because to spare the creature, to treat it gently, to euthanize it prematurely, would be to rob the reader of the gift of Caring — and what could be more sinister than that?

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