(Okay, I’m ready. The next paragraph is said in my best Rod Serling imitation.)
Picture, if you will, an elderly woman, the doyenne of cultured civility in her small town. A spinster, her passion lies in two things: her prize roses --- admired by townspeople and visitors alike --- and her desire to ensure her small town is kept free from evil. The problem is, she harbours a dark secret concerning that desire: that the possibility of evil is being fed and nurtured by her. Ladies and gentlemen, presented to you tonight for your approval, an unlikely wolf in sheep’s clothing: Miss Adela Strangeworth.
Several posts ago (found here) I discussed a famous Shirley Jackson piece titled The Lottery. Today, I’m mentioning another of her short stories, one I like a lot. It’s called The Possibility of Evil, and is a delicious romp, like much of Jackson’s work, through the twisted halls of our collective subconscious minds. It’s also relevant to my subject: villains who happen to think they’re heroes. Is there such a beast, you ask? Oh, yes! I reply, rubbing my hands together in malicious glee. And they’re fun to read about. (Not so enjoyable to encounter in real life, though. Nope. Decidedly not.)
Miss Strangeworth is convinced it’s her mission to keep her town free from evil. How does one little old lady do that? Well, since she can’t don tights and a cape, by keeping people alert to the possibility of evil, of course. And how does she do that? By sending awful anonymous notes to people, notes dealing in suppositions, not facts. She sends one to the local grocer, suggesting his nephew might be stealing from the cash register; she sends another to the parents of a teenage girl, suggesting something inappropriate might be going on between the girl and her boyfriend; she sends yet another to the parents of a baby, suggesting the child is mentally defective because she’s slow to reach developmental milestones. Jackson is careful to point out none of these things would have occurred to people if Miss Strangeworth hadn’t brought them to their attention. In short, Miss Strangeworth’s stock-in-trade is a time-honoured technique used by humanity since we learned to communicate: raising suspicion and doubt. And my gosh, how easy it is to sow seeds of discord through their use, isn’t it? Is there a one of us who hasn’t fallen victim to whispered possibilities? But Miss Strangeworth... ah, she’s a pro at spreading fear and doubt and suspicion. She’s a real piece of work, all right.
She’d regard herself as a hero, not a villain. She’s not going around deliberately trying to destroy people’s lives (even though that’s what she accomplishes). No, in her mind, she’s keeping evil at bay... doing her community a service... not doing anything wrong.
Part of the fascination with characters like that is we keep asking ourselves: how on earth can they possibly think that way? And the answer, unfortunately, is all too easy: humanity has an absolutely incredible talent to rationalize just about anything (which doesn’t lessen our fascination one iota). My dictionary defines rationalization as: to devise plausible explanations for one’s acts, beliefs, etc. usually in self-deception. Bang on, Mr. Webster. If we had the same capacity to be brutally honest with ourselves, a great deal of the suffering and misery extant in the world could be instantly eradicated. Sigh. (But then we would have much less fodder for our stories, too.)
Now, some villains know what they’re doing is evil... and they don’t care. They know they’re treading on other peoples’ rights, but it doesn’t matter to them, because those villains revel in their egocentricity: “my ideas, my philosophies, my actions are way more important than yours. A big, fat raspberry to what you want. My desire to control you is paramount.” And there’s nothing wrong with writing villains like that. Writers can have a great deal of fun writing them --- for example, the chief villain in my novel Gryphon’s Heir is just such a fellow. His name is Maldeus Falduracha, and he’s a pretty nasty piece of work, too, a real Mephistopheles type --- although I’m quite cognizant that sooner or later, I’m going to need to add another dimension to him, because otherwise, with bad guys like that, they just become cardboard cutouts and stereotypes. C.S. Lewis’ great book The Screwtape Letters features the letters written by a senior devil to a junior one. Now, there’s another terrific villain (who’s under no illusions he’s any kind of hero, by the way), but Lewis prevents him from becoming just another cardboard cutout villain by allowing a hint --- the merest hint --- of baffled, impotent rage about his situation. And we all know that frequently, beneath rage lies the doubt of rationalization.
But my suggestion is that if you can come up with a Miss Strangeworth in your writing, give her a try. Her type is great fun to read and write, too. Even when the townsfolk discover what she’s doing and wreak their vengeance on her, it never crosses her mind that maybe it’s all her own fault. Nope. Quite the contrary. She’s clueless to her own villainy right to the bitter end.
Sheesh. Talk about your rose with thorns. And Will was right: she wouldn’t smell any sweeter by another name, either.