And yet, it happens --- more often than we probably realize: the story’s villain… wins. And not just in modern literature, either. Both of Orwell’s most famous and tremendously influential works, 1984 and Animal Farm, end with the bad guy on top. Big Brother triumphs over Winston Smith in the former, and the pigs under Comrade Napoleon ensure the inhabitants of Animal Farm exchange one dictatorship for an even worse one, just as the Russian people did in the wake of the 1917 Revolutions. And Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death is just one of his stories where evil triumphs. (Granted, Ed was never exactly what you’d call a glass-is-half-full kind of writer.) And quite a few of Stephen King’s tales --- novels and short stories alike --- end with badness triumphant. I could go on. It’s as though such stories are supervised by some dark conglomerate catchily named Evil Ascendant, Inc.
So why do it? Why not see every story end with the stock “they all lived happily ever after” kind of conclusion we were raised on in fairy tales? Well, probably because it’s still good for shock value. And it remains a very counter-cultural story concept. Generally, most of us want the good guys to win, so it’s something of a gut-wrenching moment when that doesn’t happen. Leaves us with rather a sick feeling. Especially in our so very broken world. (My wife gets on my case for following the news because, as she notes, it’s just a never-ending parade of murder, madness and mayhem. She has a point, but please don’t tell her that.)
I was thinking of this the other day… while mulling over a particular Stephen King story: titled Storm of the Century (SOTC), it actually wasn’t one of his novels… or novellas… or short stories. It was a screenplay, written as a TV miniseries back in 1999. And I found it chilling.
Set on the island of Little Tall, located off the coast of Maine, SOTC follows its inhabitants as they are hit by a paralyzing blizzard that knocks out power and all communication with the mainland. So, step #1 in the horror genre, our characters are isolated. Then they discover this… person… on the island (step #2: introduce the evil outsider, not one of the group). He commits a horrific murder, and then, inexplicably, waits to be taken into custody by Michael Anderson, the community’s sheriff… almost like he wants to be taken into custody. (Step #3: give the villain bizarrely inexplicable behaviours.) His name is Andre Linoge, and it’s kind of a tossup who --- Mike or the viewer --- will first figure out ‘Linoge’ is simply an anagram of Legion, the name of a bunch of demons Jesus cast out of a possessed person in the Gospels.
Being in prison doesn’t stop Linoge from committing other horrific acts, and eventually he just… walks out of jail. Into the storm. But he’s been leaving clues on walls (usually written in someone’s blood): “give me what I want, and I’ll go away.” (Step #4: provide cryptic hints that keep us guessing at the villain’s motivation.) His penultimate act is to “kidnap” all the young children, putting them in some sort of dream state/coma (kind of a nod to Freddy Kreuger, now I think of it) and threatening their parents he’ll murder the kids if not given what he wants.
And what does he want? Well, turns out it’s one of the kids: he’s a very old man and wants a successor. (Guess he hasn’t had much luck on Bumble or Tinder --- hardly surprising when we finally see his true appearance.) But, in one of those curious “rules” writers hang on their characters from time to time, he can’t simply take a kid; nope, the townspeople have to agree to it. (I’m not knocking Mr. King here… many writers craft similar constraints.) So, he wanders off for a pleasant stroll through the blizzard and leaves the townspeople to debate the issue, as though they’re discussing a recycling bylaw or something.
It’s a great scene, filled with plenty of anguish and raw emotion. Mike the sheriff wants the townspeople to unite and stand up to Linoge. (I like to call narrative times like this “brief moments of shining hope,” because Mike’s eloquent, passionate speech leads us to think, for just a few seconds, perhaps the people of Little Tall will rise above their terror and do something truly inspiring. That maybe they can unite and resist.)
Except, of course, they don’t, ‘cause this ain’t no fairy tale. No one will stand with Mike, not even his wife. They’re just too afraid. (Dammit.) So they overrule him. And, when Linoge returns and they do a kind of dark lottery (one Shirley Jackson would have approved of) to determine which kid Linoge takes, in a supremely ironic twist, guess whose kid wins the booby prize? Yep. Mike’s. And Linoge puts on a pretty good pyrotechnics display to ensure no one tries to stop him.
The denouement comes years later. Mike has divorced his wife and gone clear across the country to escape the events of that night. He’s a federal marshal in San Francisco and thinks he’s been able to make his peace… but one day, he spots his son with Linoge. There’s a brief moment of mutual recognition… but the son has bonded with Linoge, and they melt into the crowd as Mike stands there, paralyzed with shock. Evil triumphant, indeed. Fade to black. (Pun intended.)
It’s kind of a cautionary tale: bad stuff happens. And sometimes, the bad guy seems to win. Not in the long run, if you’re a person of faith, but the trouble with the long run, as John Maynard Keynes famously observed, is that in the long run, we all wind up dead.
It was a great story. Was it uplifting? No. But it was compelling. Would I allow my literary villain to win? Hmm. Don’t think I could. The consequences would be too horrendous. I think I’d want to see Sauron defeated and the Dark Tower cast down. Maybe at a price, because that’s legitimate, but I think most of us need to believe Light will triumph over Darkness.
Because if it doesn’t… well, that’s a pretty bleak life outlook, isn’t it?