Writing The Evil Other
No, I didn’t screw up my title. In this post the term ‘the evil other’ is used to refer to those forms of evil that are innately and absolutely inhuman, perhaps unhuman is a better way of saying it. Writing ‘Other’, whether evil or not, is often one of the most difficult ventures in the fantasy/science fiction genre. It is also a difficulty fairly unique to the fantasy/science fiction genre. In most genre’s of fiction, whether historical fiction, mystery, romance, political fiction, etc, the cast of characters are entirely human. Even in the vast majority of fantasy and science fiction the characters are, while not completely human, at least similar. Tolkien’s Elves, Orc, Dwarves, and Hobbits are all essentially human in their personalities. While they exaggerate certain traits (for example purity, or greed), they still have an essentially human psychological make up.
Even Sauron, while most certainly not human, has many traits that easily fit within human psychology. Sauron’s wickedness is driven by a need for power, for control, which is (let us admit) a profoundly human motivation.
Introducing a creature into your story that is profoundly unhuman is extremely difficult to do in an effective manner. Today I am going to talk about H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps the best author of the ‘evil other’ that I have ever read. I have mentioned him a few times in the past, usually in this same vein. Lovecraft lived from 1890 to 1937 and, overall, had a fairly sad life. Between his parents mental illnesses, his own brief bouts with madness, near constant poverty and failure, one failed marriage, and the general tone of loneliness that pervades the story of his life, it is fairly depressing to read. However, while his stories were never particularly popular during his lifetime, Lovecraft’s writing changed the face of the horror genre forever.
Before Lovecraft, and certainly still popular, the genre of horror writing was predominately monster stories. Movies like The Wolfman or Creature from the Black Lagoon come to mind, or books such as Dracula or Frankenstein. The basic plot of these stories is generally the same: man meets/creates monster; monster runs amok killing, maiming, crippling, and generally causing horror and tragedy (and often public panic); some man (perhaps the original, perhaps not) finds a way to defeat/destroy/subdue monster and saves the day. Details vary from story to story, as does quality. While Creature from the Black Lagoon is something of a B movie, Dracula and Frankenstein are classics. Lovecraft’s writing, on the other hand (especially later in life), focused not on the monster, but on the ‘Evil Other’. While the monster in monster stories is always powerful, Lovecraft’s Cthulian creatures were beyond the scope of human imagining, often literally. Lovecraft does not often describe his creatures, and when he does the descriptions are vague, leaving the majority of the creature to the reader’s imagination. Often the sight, or even the very presence of the creature is enough to drive a character into madness so that description becomes impossible.
Moreover Lovecraft brings across the unhumanity of his creatures by focusing on the effect it has on the characters, rather than by making the monster one of the characters itself. In Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, etc the monster is effectively made one of the characters. The reader can discern what the monster’s motivations are and those motivations are always human. Lovecraft avoids the problem of trying to create an unhuman motivation. The reader will never understand the motivations of Lovecraft’s creatures. However, Lovecraft does not do this in such a manner that it seems as though his creatures have no motivations, but instead in a manner that makes it seem as those these creatures have motivations and desires of a nature and scope that the human mind cannot comprehend.
Lovecraft presents us with a universe in which human beings are wholly and completely unimportant. Humans are the fleas hopping around on the game boards of dark and alien gods. The terrible endings that befall many of Lovecraft’s characters do not happen because they gained the god’s attention, but because the god’s very presence was enough to destroy the human mind.
This is a large part of what makes Lovecraft’s writing of the ‘evil other’ so effective. The ‘evil other’ is not an antagonist, it is not even a character. It is a thing that has goals, desires, and motivations far beyond the scope of the story. The ‘evil other’ is not active in the story, instead the story simply takes place in its overwhelming presence…indeed the story is often caused by its overwhelming presence. While this presence can be felt through the entirety of the story it is subtle, often understated, or even unstated until near the end. The story is about how the characters react to the presence/influence/existence of the creature rather than about the creature itself.
An example of this is Lovecraft’s story “The Call of Cthulu”. In the story Cthulu does not act. Yet the story is driven by his presence as his awakening drives the narrator mad. This use of ‘other’ as a defining aspect of the story, rather than as a character, is what makes its unhumaness effective.