13. The Evil of a Bad Man Asserts Itself LITERARILY, a man is capable of two kinds of evil: the evil which he admits is evil and which he disowns, and the evil which spontaneously proceeds from him and for which he feels no moral regret. Iago, a purely evil man, is a good example of the latter; Macbeth of the former. The difference, of course, lies in the evildoer's ethical convictions or lack of them. And the reader will put these two types to two entirely different uses. He will watch the purely evil man with emotionless fascination and usually feel that the has no insight into the workings of such a mind. But he will identify with the evildoer who disowns his evil and is harried by it.
The most powerful characterizations of evildoers are undoubtedly those capable of eliciting sympathy from audiences. As an example, take Hamlet's uncle, Claudius. For the first half of the play only the facade of a cold and calculating villain who is one with himself and his deeds is shown to the spectator. Because Claudius seems entirely at home with his evil, the spectator finds himself not emotionally involvel with the character. But, suddenly, we are shown Claudius on his knees asking forgiveness of God for the murder of his brother. Throughout this repentance speech, the spectator ceases to watch Claudius and, in a
sense, becomes him. For the remainder of the play, Claudius is an immeasurably more full-bodied character by virtue of this momentary sympathy he managed to elicit. Any evil Claudius had done or will do, then becomes truly terrifying, because the spectator is sharing the responsibility for it.
Slick fiction never deals with true evil in this ambiguous fashion. We will see how nominal evil can be associated with a sympathetic character. But whatever is mean, low, or avaricious unfailingly gets straight black and white care. To a large, hard-working rural family was born one son quite different from the rest. He was smaller than the others; and, whereas his brothers and sisters were industrious, open, healthy-minded folk, this undersized son was indolent and covert. From the very first, he showed a gratuitously cruel nature. As a child, he was known to torture animals and insects, get into raging fights for no discernible reason. When the war came, he went off to the Army, but was immediately discharged as a psychopath. He then came home, got into some local trouble, and was sent to prison for three years for assault. Now he has returned again to his home town. Almost to a man the townspeople are working folk, but the bad son comes back in a black derby, a form-fitted overcoat, pointed shoes, and pegged pants. He slouches about the streets with his hands ominously plunged into his pockets. Re spends most of his time alone at home in his room reading cheap stories about crime and violence. Everyone in town is certain this runty aberrant soon will get into trouble again. They and the reader wait to see how.
His evil nature finally asserts itself. One night he sneaks up on the elderly owner of the town grocery store just as the old man is about to close for the night. He beats the owner with unnecessary violence, robs the store, and is about to leave when he is apprehended by his brothers who happened to be passing by. They belittle him by pulling his symbolic derby hat over his ears and then turn him over to the sheriff. Awaiting trial, he is ragged by another prisoner in his cell. He attacks the man and has his ribs crushed in. His end is made to seem as ignoble as that of a squashed mosquito that has been so improvident as to attack a fly swatter. Dostoevski's villainous protagonists were representative of Everyman. Their evil is so thoroughly investigated that it seems to spring from a Freudian-necessity for which they are not responsible. In Dostoevski's explanations of the psychic set-ups that precipitated the evil deeds the reader sees so many attributes which the reader recognizes to be also in his own heart, that the evil protagonist achieves the stature of a true hero.
The slick bad man, on the other hand, is a bug, no more. But since he appears in human form, and since he is the most outstanding human on the scene, care must be taken that the reader in no way feels the writer is intimating that this evil man represents either human kind or even certain facets of the human mind. In other words, those very qualities of Dostoevski's stories which make them great literature must be studiously avoided. To do this, the writer should guard against ascribing to his evil character any saving attributes whatsoever. Ther e
may be no mitigating circumstances, no psychological interpretations or qualifications which might tend to lessen the guilt. He must be all bad, the way cancer is all bad. In addition to these precautions against the evildoer taking on any broad symbolic significance, he must be surrounded by good people. Dramatically, this has the effect of pointing up the bad man' s badness; philosophically, it puts him into an insignificant minority.
The suspense of the story is created in a curious manner. The writer does not establish an evil man and then bid the reader wait to see how he will be punished. The certainty with which the slick reader knows that the bad man will be punished brings the suspense-potential of such a question down below the usable level. The question which the writer establishes is, how will the bad man' s evil assert itself in the given story-situation. Whatever retribution there is to be must, of course, be srrroothly and neatly introduced, but on the whole the final punishment performs the function merely of a wind-uP. To give it undue prominence would be anticlimactic. Take this story. The sheriff has never cared for a certain local, gun-totin', no-'count character who has never been good for anything but hiring himself out for a day's work here and there, and bullying weaker men than himself. He is forever shooting off his mouth and bragging about what a good shot he is. Three years before the story opens, the braggart once drew his gun on the son of a local ranchowner, threatening to shoot him next time they met. The son rode off and was never seen in town again. Everyone assumed that he had been peTma. nently scared away. The boy's father is so ashamed of his son's apparent cowardice, that he has never mentioned the boy to any of the townspeople.
As the story opens it strikes the sheriff, who has been troubled for some time about the boy's disappearance, that it is unnatural the braggart cowboy has never boasted about his success in frightening the boy off. This seems so unlike the braggart that the sheriff comes to suspect foul play, and intends to investigate. He searches the surrounding desert land and, sure enough, finally locates the boy's bones. The boy had not fled the town in fear. The braggart had followed him after threatening him and shot him in the back... . If the writer plans to attempt such a piece about evil, he must establish the protagonist' s character immediately and uncompromisingly. Stories exclusively about bad men are rare enough to be off-beat fiction, and it is essential that the reader be informed of that fact at the outset. To do this, the writer must put his protagonist beyond the pale immediately by ascribing to him sins which in the slick world are indefensible. He is mean to animals, cruel to children, beats his wife, curses his parents. He does not respond to suffering in others. He is inordinately selfish. He has broken the law for selfish reasons. He is devious, untrustworthy, slandering, lustful, avaricious. The writer need not run the whole gamut. He will find that the reader is so well accustomed to meeting characters wh o have understandable and forgiveable failings that any vice presented without mitigating qualifications is sufficient to establish the character as a heel.
Radio and television are crowded with half-hour shows that deal with men and women who are thoroughly detestable types and who are allowed to tell their own stories. They follow the familiar biter-bit formula, bringing about their own demise with their evil machinations. On television, such stories constitute an entirely acceptable and popular type of fiction. In the slicks, they don't--and they never will. Why this dramatic format should be acceptable to one advertiser-supported medium and not to another I have no idea, except perhaps that the most popular slicks are always assuming, in their articles and editorials as well as in their fiction, a very righteous pose with which horror material would be incompatible.
At any rate, a bad man telling his own story, explaining the contours of his warped brain, is out for the top slicks. The morally degraded protagonist is a psychopath, a subhuman phenomenon. Slick editors never let him get near the microphone.