Saturday, May 7, 2011

Evil children

A stereotype about children is that they’re cute, sweet and innocent.

*pause for laughter*

That’s one reason Lord of the Flies had so much shock value when it was first published (now, of course, we’ve seen children do much worse things). It wouldn’t have had the same impact if Jack and Roger had been grown men. But that made me wonder what other books featured cruel and sadistic children, and what impact these had.

Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called “The Small Assassin”, where the titular character is a murderous baby. Some children may be naturally evil (in speculative fiction and horror, not in real life!) or they may have been made this way through some process such as vampirism. Whatever the vampire children in 'Salem's Lot were like in life, after it they’re just… thirsty.

Ditto for the creepiest child vampire of all, Claudia in Interview with the Vampire.

Some kids may be disturbed or mean, but as long as they’re by themselves, that’s as far as it goes. However, when they’re put in a group and all constraints on their behavior are removed… matters can move out of control. There’s a horror novel called Let's Go Play at the Adams', where a group of children tie up their twenty-year-old babysitter and torture her.

I read the book some time ago and don’t really want to again - this review says it all – but the psychology behind it is solid. One of the children is the ringleader, another is the muscle, another is going along for the ride and so on. Alone, none of them could accomplish much – together, they’re deadly.

Children may also be twisted by their environment to the point where they have no moral compasses or empathy. I have a manuscript with a character who was systematically brainwashed and brutalized from his infancy, to the point where he’s now half-insane and fully lethal. In some ways he’s still a child – since he was locked up for most of his life, he’s fascinated by small things that most people would take for granted, like nesting birds.

It’s sweet. And hopefully it’s also a wrenching contrast to the fact that he’s murdered dozens of people, feels no regret at all and would murder thousands more if he was ordered to do so.

Realistic children have negative qualities, and sometimes these flaws go all the way down to evil. Eva and Little Lord Fauntleroy will never be as interesting as self-centered, arrogant, wild-child Peter Pan.

What kinds of flaws would you like to see in child characters?


D. Travis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JH said...

One thing I'd like to stop seeing is the cliched "creepy child." Not evil, just "ooh long hair wafting around, wide eyes, strange movements, echoing nursery rhymes, crescendo violins... that child is weird and disturbing!!!"

Anonymous said...

I find evil children interesting. I think one of my favorites is probably a book I've yet to finished called The Child Thief by Brom. It's a very interesting take on Peter Pan.

Marian Perera said...

JH - Yes, those kinds of atmospherics always come off as weak, especially if there's nothing fundamentally different about the child to back them up.

It's like the Star Trek alien-of-the-week who has pointy ears, purple skin and a wrinkly nose, but who behaves exactly like everyone else.

If the children are evil, they'll do cruel and disturbing things no matter what they look like or what they're dressed like.

dldzioba - Thanks for the recommendation! I'll see if the library has that book.

Anonymous said...

I can think of three reasons why we may find children creepy:

1. They are a sign that we are weak: They are the next generation and sooner or later they will be in charge, making the kind of decisions we make now, over us.

2. We remember (however vaguely) our own childhoods, and how many times did we act out of spite, or without a second thought?

3. Bad children grow up to be worse adults. One could argue that we don't really grow up. We remain by enlarge selfish, cowardly and reactionary. The fear of the Man-Child, with the ignorance/malice of a child but the power of the adult.