Monday, May 21, 2018

Indelible Villains

What book published before 1900 left an indelible impression on you? What book published after 2000?

by Terry Shames

I could name Jane Austen or William Makepeace Thackery or anyone of that novelistic ilk. They all made lasting impressions; especially since I’ve read Austen’s books again and again. But the one I’m going to choose here is a book that isn’t really a book, but a long poem: Paradise Lost. It should be of special interest to crime writers, because it illustrates one of the most important rules of that genre—you have to have an interesting villain.

When I was in graduate school at San Francisco State in the 80’s, for reasons now obscure to me, I wanted to take a course in John Milton. There was no such course. I went to the chairman of the Creative Writing Department, Stan Rice, and asked if the department might  consider offering one. He told me there was little general interest in Milton, but that there was a little known provision at SF State, that if I could find a professor on the faculty who was competent to teach such a course, and if he or she were willing, the university would pay the faculty member as it would for any other three-hour class.

Dr. Rice told me that I was in luck—that there was a faculty member who was a Milton scholar. I asked the faculty member if he’d be willing to teach me, a class of one, for three hours a week for a semester. He was thrilled that someone was interested in Milton. He reminded me that as the only student, I would be “on” for the entire class, three hours a week.

It was one of the most wonderful education experiences of my life. I studied hard, determined never to let him down, and in the process I became a Milton devotee. To this day I recall the thrill of finding out for myself, as so many readers of Milton had before me, that the villain, Satan, in Paradise Lost was more interesting than the hero. His observation of life was incisive, his arguments sharper, his fury and despair palpable, and his belief in himself absolute.


“To reign is worth ambition though in hell: Better to reign in hell than serve in heav’n.”

“Moloch, scepter’d king/  Stood up, the strongest and the fiercest spirit/ That fought in heav’n; now fiercer by despair.”

Move forward four centuries, and enter, Hannibal Lecter—the ultimate modern villain: witty, sharp, and utterly convinced of his own worth. The Silence of the Lambs, the most compelling of the books about Lecter was published before 2000, but the final one was published in 2006, so I’m cheating. As a villain Lecter left an indelible impression. There are other books that come to mind, but no more archetypal villain exists.

“Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences.”

“Evil's just destructive? Then storms are evil, if it's that simple. And we have fire, and there there's hail. Underwriters lump it all under 'Acts of God.” 

“Most people love butterflies and hate moths," he said. "But moths are more interesting - more engaging." 
"They're destructive."
"Some are, a lot are, but they live in all kinds of ways. Just like we do.”

If a crime novel is to be compelling, the protagonist has to have an antagonist who matches his wits. The villain has to have cunning and intelligence, maybe even a dark soul. He has to be absolutely certain of the validity of his actions, and be convinced that it’s better to reign in the world of evil than serve in the world of good. Does that make such villains crazy? No crazier than the Satan portrayed in Paradise Lost. He has his own agenda, and he lives by it—like every villain.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”

“So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear.
Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost.
Evil, be thou my good.”


Lisa Ciarfella said...

Those last two quotes from Paradise Lost are so wicked-good!

Terry said...

For this blog, I reread some parts of it. Breathtaking!

-blessed b9, Catalyst4Christ said...

You aint gonna reign in the Abyss, dear;
you'd literally rot with discernment of
all past sins YOU [pl] have committed...
besides, hunger for God's love withe
demons literally torturing you [pl]
24/7 for eternity.

I dont think you want that.
Thus, our precursor...