Thursday, April 9, 2009
An ancient evil has awoken
This topic fascinates me.
I’ve read about a hundred variations of it in fantasy and horror, and it still gives me a visceral thrill when I browse a blurb or summary and realize it’s one where the protagonists take on some hyperpowerful, hyperevil creature. Maybe it’s because there’s room for infinite variation with such a creature’s nature or abilities, or maybe it’s because the premise and the situation are so easy to grasp.
This plot ranges from thrillers like Jaws to Lovecraft’s work and all its imitators to epic fantasy (J. V. Jones’s Sword of Shadows series). A few things all of these have in common, though…
The ancient evil is powerful
No two ways about this. Whatever has opened its eyes in the darkness, it has to be epic in its menace. A great white shark can terrorize a seafront town, but to do the same to an entire medieval land, you’ll need an entire race of creatures or else something much larger and stronger.
Even if the ancient evil is physically impaired in some way (like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings), it could have an army to send on the offensive. This is also a great opportunity to pull out most of the stops when it comes to magic – though be careful not to write the protagonists into a corner here.
I once read a horror novel where the ancient evil was none other than Satan, and no one was able to stand against him until the hero remembered that one of Satan’s names was the Master of Lies. So the hero said that he would sacrifice his family provided Satan admitted to wanting them dead. Unable to tell the truth, Satan was defeated, so he turned on his nearly-as-powerful henchman and slaughtered him. Which was convenient, to say the least.
The ancient evil is evil
This isn’t the best place for a conflicted character who has a good side to him (though such a character might work as the ancient evil’s henchman). This is one of the few instances where the antagonist doesn’t need to have any redeeming characteristics or a three-dimensional personality. The thrill of horror operates here, rather than any empathic connection to the character.
The ancient evil is larger than life
I love it when such antagonists have cool names. “Cthulhu” worked well for Lovecraft, though I’ve never been keen on the “Others” of A Song of Ice and Fire. Physically they’re great, but “Others” as a name just doesn’t do it for me. The Dreaming God, the Blindlords (A Cavern of Black Ice), She Who Is Beheaded (Song of Kali) and even Yahweh Sabaoth, El Shaddai (Jericho Moon) are more evocative.
Originality counts here. Yet another Dark One or Dark Lord probably isn’t going to cut it, whereas something like “Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world” will lead me into temptation and bring me face to face with evil. And I’ll long to see how the protagonists deal with that.