Newly released THE HEART OF A DEVIL: A HORROR VILLAINS ANTHOLOGY features 33 stories, including my dark tale “Demon’s Lament.” Released April 3 by Fantasia Divinity Publishing, the anthology challenged writers to tell a story from the perspective of the villain.
Using the publisher’s theme as a prompt made writing “Demon’s Lament” much easier for me than starting from scratch. I needed a villain, so I picked a demon as my main character. Demons personify evil. I picked the demon’s potential victim, which was a baby. Harming a baby is the evilest act I can imagine. The challenge was to explain why my demon would want to harm an innocent baby and not make the reader totally despise the demon.
Oddly enough, a magazine called CROSS+DECAY, which is scheduled to release its debut issue in May, accepted my latest short story titled “Birthday Boy.” The theme of the issue was ghosts. But like “Demon’s Lament,” “Birthday Boy” is also about the main character (this time a man) and his motivation for wanting to harm an innocent baby.
Two totally different stories, but they explore the same question: “Why would anyone want to harm an innocent baby?” Both stories are told from the third-person perspective of the villain and the villain alone.
However, the more important question that I wanted readers to ask at the end is: What would you do? What would you do in the same situations as my villains?
As a reader, I enjoy how the horror genre and its best writers explore evil. And villains are key in that exploration.
Some readers want to be challenged with an in-depth character study of their villains. Fortunately, I don’t. I just want to be entertained, and I love the horror stereotypes. I don’t necessarily need to understand the motivations of inbred hillbilly cannibals to enjoy the story. Reading about how the victims survive or don’t survive is enough for me.
When I think about it, virtually every inbred hillbilly cannibal story causes me to ask the question: What would you do? What would you do if you encountered violent human beings on a camping trip or a hike in the woods? What would you do if your car broke down on a lonely stretch of road and a suspicious-looking stranger stopped to offer you a ride?
Two of my favorite horror novel villains are Mary from Robert McCammon’s MINE and Simon from the late Richard Laymon’s ENDLESS NIGHT.
MINE is about a psychotic woman named Mary Terrell. She kidnaps a newborn from a hospital, but McCammon’s masterful writing allowed me to understand why Mary did it. McCammon caused me to feel sympathy at times for the irredeemable Mary because he spent as much time developing Mary as he did his determined protagonist Laura.
ENDLESS NIGHT is another insanely suspenseful read that falls into this category. It’s about a break-in that turns into a gut-wrenching night of terror. Laymon tells the tale from both sides, including a rapist-murderer named Simon, which added to the intensity of the story. The difference from MINE is I never felt sympathy for Simon, which caused me to root for the protagonist Jody even more intensely.
In the instances of my short stories, “Demon’s Lament” and “Birthday Boy,” I never really sympathized with my villains.
However, I understood why they did what they did … enough to wonder if I might consider choosing the same path under the same circumstances.
I asked my myself, “What would you do?”
WHAT WOULD YOU DO? What an awesome question! Most of my favorite horror novels and stories cause readers to ask this one basic question at some point.
In the case of MINE, the basic question is what would you do if someone kidnapped your child?
In the case of ENDLESS NIGHT, the basic question is what would you do if someone broke into the house you were in and started killing people?
Not only is the question “what would you do” a good conversation starter, it’s a great one for writers looking to jump-start their next story idea.
More importantly, the question causes readers to place themselves in your story, creating a reader-writer bond that is always a win for the writer.
And a well-developed villain can be part of the glue for that bond.
I hope you check back next week for a new column.
Until then, I’ll be asking myself, “What would you do after finishing your latest blog entry?”
The answer: Go to Dunkin’ and order their new Caramel Chocoholic Donut.
I’m so weak.
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