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.


Tara Maya said...

I love naming Great Ancient Evils. I have one called Meha Dethrig.

writtenwyrdd said...

I think ancient horrors awakened can be great. Good vs Evil plots of sweeping epic proportions make for wonderful series.

I find it a mistake to equate dark with evil, though. That's too easy and convenient. In "Red As Blood," Tanith Lee's short story collection, one story had a Satan equivalent who wasn't evil at all, but the favored of god for bearing the burden of evil. I loved that take on it, that evil wasn't, or that it at least has a heart.

But what really fascinates me is the story that avoids the idea that Darkness is evil. That's a misconception, I think. Evil, in my mind, will usually have a pretty face. Naming Satan the father of lies is a way of applying that concept; but many writers overlook the great fodder in the inherent duplicity of evil, which is the attractiveness of it. We can all feel that pull to a greater or lesser degree! And there's the meat for a story, that temptation.

I think more writers should lighten up on evil, or stand the old tropes on their head. Make the great national church turn out to be run by the great evil and your protagonist must fight against that; or your analogies for evil about light, or lighthearted things in seeming--instead of about darkness.

writtenwyrdd said...

As an addendum, I've been toying with making something I'd have thought good as a child, bad. Like, say, evil unicorns...

Madison said...

My baddie is Arvil. Love that name. Though he is King of the Dark Ones. And he's called the Dark One King. But oh well. If it needs to change, I'll change it. :)

GunnerJ said...

I bitch about cliches in fantasy fiction a lot, but I just love this one. Yes, it can be pulled off in a boring way, but for some reason the idea of it still captivates when done right.

One thing I would say is that I wouldn't mind if the Evil in a Can weren't actually evil. History is written by the victors, after all, so what if the "sealed away evil ones" were just the guys that lost, and were demonized afterwards by the winners?

Since you mentioned naming the Ancient Evil, I'd like to register that although The Black Company was excellent, "The Dominator" was a terrible, stupid, cringe-worthy name.

One issue I've always had with this idea is, why was the Ancient Evil sealed away? Or maybe, how? It's normally easier to just kill someone than seize, restrain, subdue and imprison him.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Now if I may, I will hijack it and add a few (just a few I promise) things:

Ancient Evil is Primordial:

It is not merely the stuff of legends, it is the source of legends. It suffuses the the very core of existence. It oozes from Chaos. They are Chthonic that is from the Earth as old if not older than creation themselves.

Ancient Evil lies in the hearts of Men:

It appeals to very basic emotions and instincts and drives men of principle and reason to madness. Fight or Flee, Passion, Lust, Hunger, Fear, Hatred. Ancient Evil knows Men better than they know themselves and they either give themselves to their base desires or go mad.

Ancient Evil has Many Faces and Many Names:

Kings, Gods, Demons,Angels, Heroes, Villains. Ancient Evil morphs from one age to the next yet at it's core remains the same.

Ancient Evil Never Dies:

How can you destroy which lies within all of us? How do slay that which renames itself with each generation? You can not kill your anger, your fears or your passions. You may conquer them, but not forever.

Rafael said...

In my current project I went with historical sources of ancient evils. I found tons of fascinating research material on how myths morph and survive from one culture to the next.

Here is a good place to start:

Marian said...

Hey ralfast,

That's another dimension I didn't touch on - the appeal of the Ancient Evil to the characters (rather than to the readers).

If the evil does lie in their hearts, or least has some strong emotional connection, it might be that much more difficult to eradicate and it's certainly going to be more... personal.

After all, when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

Marian said...

Hey GunnerJ,

Some good points there. Yes, it's possible that the Ancient Evil could simply be the Ancient Vanquished.

Which makes me think of an alternate biblical history where the good angels lost and were imprisoned. I'll bet that after millenia of that, plus the humans believing them to be evil, those angels might be a little ticked off at best, and maybe even bitter and hostile at worst.

I'm also guessing the Ancient Evil is sealed away because it's immortal and can't be killed. Which again lends itself to a story idea - why doesn't the protagonist search for someone who can develop a way to kill the Ancient Evil after it's been sealed up? In worlds with magic, surely that's at least a possibility to be considered.

And "The Dominator"? I'd just call it "Dominus" - you keep the root word but avoid dominatrix jokes.

Marian said...

Hey Tara and Madison,

You've both made me wonder what I'd name an ancient evil. I'm actually leaning more towards a nice name, an "I can be trusted and befriended" sort of name. It would be really fun to make the readers afraid of someone with that kind of name.

writtenwyrdd said...

Lots of great comments in this thread! I hadn't seen "Evil in a Can" before, but that's a good one.

I can't help but think I'd pick something rather silly to call Ancient Evil--such as Bruce. I'd end up with a bad parody if I tried to deliberately change up Ancient Evil.

If you haven't read Good Omens by Gaiman and Pratchett, you should if you like Ancient Evil. It's hilarious.

Anonymous said...

And winks Marian, which really creeps me out!

Oh I forgot one more:

Ancient Evil is non-euclidean:

Don't ask me why, it just is. I guess Ancient Evil will not follow the strict lines set down my the Man. Or some such!


Marian said...

Hey writtenwyrdd,

I'm trying to remember the story to which you referred. I know there was a section in "Red as Blood" where the Witch Queen calls up the Angel Lucefiel, who agrees to help her because she knows who he really is - the brother of the Son and the left hand of God. That was a great scene.

Note to self: obtain a copy of the book.

But you're right - it's often too easy to resort to darkness (the cliched appearance of evil) or even typically evil traits when trying to make a character genuinely frightening.

I read somewhere that a person who does great wrong while simultaneously believing that he's doing good is going to be really scary. He's convinced he's in the right, maybe even being compassionate, while he harms others. That kind of disconnection from reality is unsettling. I love the challenge of making dysfunctional characters sympathetic, but not with this type of evil - that which wears the facade of good.

Marian said...

Hey ralfast,

Humor is mandatory in such stories. It can't be all-darkness, all the time. :)

Anonymous said...

And for some reason can also be found inside your local ladies-only sex shop:

I told you that ancient evil played to our inner passions!

Anonymous said...

Hey Marian,

I actually like the simplicity of the term, "The Others". Although now when I hear it, I think of the TV show, "Lost".

Martin- please, we're waiting for book five!

Marian said...

Hey Tasha,

I have this nagging feeling I've read it somewhere before. Or maybe it was the kind-of-synonymous "Outsiders".

But I take your point about the simplicity of the term - it also doesn't give away too much about the nature of the Others until they actually appear.

And as someone else said on the blog, each time we ask about the next book, George R. R. Martin kills a Stark.

Please, think of the Starks.

GunnerJ said...

If he really wanted to scare people, he'd eat a donut or smoke a cigar every time someone asks for an update.

Marian said...

Oh, good one.

Marian said...

Just saw this on TV Tropes and had to quote it. Apparently, from Martin himself...

"No one will be alive by the last book. In fact, they all die in the fifth. The sixth book will be just a thousand-page description of snow blowing across the graves..."

Thadine said...

One thing I'm often left wondering about, is how the Ancient Evil gets it's vast armies with which to conquer the world. So few stories adequately explain this. I mean, if they're so evil, why are people following them? I'd like to see a story that has good people choosing to join the forces of evil because they don't think it's evil. Maybe the "good" armies actually suck, and don't know how to lead people. Maybe the Ancient Evil is very charismatic, and rewards good service. Maybe people are just deceived.

Marian said...

I could buy the armies obeying the Ancient Evil just-because if they were created for that purpose and might be incapable of choosing any other option, like the Orcs.

But otherwise, they need more motivation. Maybe the general of the armies is charismatic and brilliant enough to convince them (and the general could take his/her orders from the Dark One).

When I was reading a history of the Waffen-SS (The Black Angels), I was fascinated by the captains and field commanders who had to find ways to obey Hitler's increasingly unhinged orders while simultaneously inspiring their troops and winning battles. Some of them were pretty good at that, too. I could see good people following leaders like these.

Anonymous said...

Many reasons:

Religious devotion.


Smart diplomacy.

Exploitation of tribal, cultural or national sensibilities.

An offer of revenged against a hated enemy.

writtenwyrdd said...

Yes, it was the angel Lucifiel or something like that. I read that story when the book came out, several times, actually, and it's still stuck with me. I haven't reread the book in some years, but it's still one that I remember for making an impact.