Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the Evil

Do you believe in evil? Notice I didn’t ask, “Do you think pure “evil” exists as an identifiable entity in this world?” The concept of “evil” is so intimately entwined with most religions that attitudes towards evil generally operate at the gut level of belief. I suspect our attitudes towards evil-or the religious Evil—strongly influence the fiction we write and, to a lesser degree, the fiction we read.

John Connelly, for instance, believes in Evil. Raised an Irish Catholic, his belief in Evil permeates his books. No one who didn’t believe in Evil could have written those books although one does not need to believe in Evil to both read and enjoy his work. And yet I suspect someone who does not believe in Evil experiences his books in a different way, or at a different level, from those who do believe. The Evil in BLACK ANGEL operates at basically the same level it does in THE LORD OF THE RINGS or in a Stephen King book. Perhaps this is part of the appeal of horror and fantasy—they explore their stories at a fairy tale level where Good and Evil are absolutes. Perhaps that’s why those genres don’t appeal to me. I believe in a world with shades of gray.

Yet I’ve noticed an increasing trend among writers—especially writers of thrillers or romantic suspense—to simply create an Evil villain—or villains—and never move beyond that cartoon-like figure. While that Morality Play approach might have a place in fantasy and horror, I see it as lazy writing in genres that purport to be taking a more realistic look at life. But then I wonder, Do I feel this way simply because I don’t believe in Evil?

Both Osama bin Laden and George Bush, for instance, are denounced by those who hate them as “Evil.” Osama may (or may not) have collaborated with nineteen young men to fly planes into buildings and kill nearly three thousand people. George Bush launched two wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of people (three if one counts Somalia), bombed what was once a prosperous nation back to the Stone Age (although in this he only completed what his father began), and destroyed countless irreplaceable artifacts, historic documents, and archaeological sites from what was once the Cradle of Civilization. Yet neither man believes he is evil. On the contrary, both believe they are guided by God.

And now I’m going to wade into very deep water and take a look at Hitler. He has been morphed into the ultimate EVIL. Please don’t get me wrong: I believe that what he did was horrible. But I’m wondering if we have turned him into a caricature of Evil simply to reassure ourselves that he was nothing like “us.” How much scarier to see him as a man much like ourselves who thought he had good justifications for what he did, who made very bad choices and simply gave in to the baser promptings known to all.


Chap O'Keefe said...

Now here you've given us a very thought-provoking entry!

Coincidentally, over at westernsfortoday.blogspot, Russell Davis puts forward today the argument that his genre tends toward moral absolutes: "Many genre books today don't have this, and that's fine, but I think a lot of what our young people are exposed to lacks even a moral compass - everything is in shades of gray. In my opinion, this is doing a grave disservice to our young people because they aren't being exposed as often as they should to the possibility that there is such a thing a honor, and that values shouldn't always be put on a sliding scale depending on circumstance."

From this, I conclude Russell takes an opposite view of your belief (and mine) of a world with shades of gray.

I think fiction -- thrillers, romantic suspense, whatever . . . westerns! -- must reflect this world if it is to be convincing and appeal to a younger, discriminating audience.

In my comment at Russell's blog I've included a mention of yours. I hope to read further views on the two sides of the coin!

Charles Gramlich said...

I think that in the real world of the day to day that there can be evil. I don't think of it as supernatural, but as produced by human beings. When people see the their worlds as ideals, as perhaps Bush and Bin Laden do (and I'm not sure they do), then I'm not sure I would call it evil, although it might be, and often is, horrific. But tonight I watched a show about Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy, when a parent (usually a mother) deliberately and repeatedly harms their child in order to gain attention for themselves. I would think of that as evil.

Most of the time, of course, the real world has shades of gray. This is why I prefer to read fantasy or horror where there is absolute good and evil. I live in the world of shades of gray. When I read I prefer, most often, to escape that world.

cs harris said...

It's funny because I don't believe in shades of gray in one sense, Chap: I do believe that there are certain absolutes that are right or wrong. For instance, I see honor as a noble thing, torture as wrong (who'd have thought even ten years ago that more than a third of all US troops would say they believe in torture?) The problem is that as imperfect beings our perception is sometimes skewed. For instance, many honorable German officers were imprisoned because they did what they thought was right and fought for their country. I guess I have a problem when issues that are shades of gray are presented in black and white terms. And Charles, I think you're right, it is that wonderful pull of a world with absolutely definable good and evil that makes fantasy so appealing.

Kate S said...

Interesting. I was making a list yesterday of the things I found to be common among best selling books, and one of the things that interested me was that there had to be a fight between "good and evil", but that the villians were often not entirely "evil." They were usually charming in some way, though flawed.

Also saw a woman in a burka on PBS the other night referring to "the triad of evil": the US, Britain and Israel. My initial umbrage was immediately replaced by a wry recollection of Bush's "axis of evil." It's in the eye of the beholder.