ON THE NATURE OF EVIL

This, from “A Witch Shall Be Born” by Robert E. Howard (Weird Tales, December 1934) is what evil looked like in the great old days of pulp sword and sorcery:

Taramis, queen of Khauran, awakened from a dream-haunted slumber to a silence that seemed more like the stillness of nighted catacombs than the normal quiet of a sleeping palace. She lay staring into the darkness, wondering why the candles in their golden candelabra had gone out. A flecking of stars marked a gold-barred casement that lent no illumination to the interior of the chamber. But as Taramis lay there, she became aware of a spot of radiance glowing in the darkness before her. She watched, puzzled. It grew and its intensity deepened as it expanded, a widening disk of lurid light hovering against the dark velvet hangings of the opposite wall. Taramis caught her breath, starting up to a sitting position. A dark object was visible in that circle of light—a human head.

In a sudden panic the queen opened her lips to cry out for her maids; then she checked herself. The glow was more lurid, the head more vividly limned. It was a woman’s head, small, delicately molded, superbly poised, with a high-piled mass of lustrous black hair. The face grew distinct as she stared—and it was the sight of this face which froze the cry in Taramis’s throat. The features were her own! She might have been looking into a mirror which subtly altered her reflection, lending it a tigerish gleam of eye, a vindictive curl of lip.

“Ishtar!” gasped Taramis. “I am bewitched!”

Appallingly, the apparition spoke, and its voice was like honeyed venom.

“Bewitched? No, sweet sister! Here is no sorcery.”

“Sister?” stammered the bewildered girl. “I have no sister.”

“You never had a sister?” came the sweet, poisonously mocking voice. “Never a twin sister whose flesh was as soft as yours to caress or hurt?”

“Why, once I had a sister,” answered Taramis, still convinced that she was in the grip of some sort of nightmare. “But she died.”

The beautiful face in the disk was convulsed with the aspect of a fury; so hellish became its expression that Taramis, cowering back, half expected to see snaky locks writhe hissing about the ivory brow.

“You lie!” The accusation was spat from between the snarling red lips. “She did not die! Fool! Oh, enough of this mummery! Look—and let your sight be blasted!”

Light ran suddenly along the hangings like flaming serpents, and incredibly the candles in the golden sticks flared up again. Taramis crouched on her velvet couch, her lithe legs flexed beneath her, staring wide-eyed at the pantherish figure which posed mockingly before her. It was as if she gazed upon another Taramis, identical with herself in every contour of feature and limb, yet animated by an alien and evil personality. The face of this stranger waif reflected the opposite of every characteristic the countenance of the queen denoted. Lust and mystery sparkled in her scintillant eyes, cruelty lurked in the curl of her full red lips. Each movement of her supple body was subtly suggestive. Her coiffure imitated that of the queen’s, on her feet were gilded sandals such as Taramis wore in her boudoir. The sleeveless, low-necked silk tunic, girdled at the waist with a cloth-of-gold cincture, was a duplicate of the queen’s night-garment.

“Who are you?” gasped Taramis, an icy chill she could not explain creeping along her spine. “Explain your presence before I call my ladies-in-waiting to summon the guard!”

“Scream until the roof beams crack,” callously answered the stranger. “Your sluts will not wake till dawn, though the palace spring into flames about them. Your guardsmen will not hear your squeals; they have been sent out of this wing of the palace.”

“What!” exclaimed Taramis, stiffening with outraged majesty. “Who dared give my guardsmen such a command?”

“I did, sweet sister,” sneered the other girl. “A little while ago, before I entered. They thought it was their darling adored queen. Ha! How beautifully I acted the part! With what imperious dignity, softened by womanly sweetness, did I address the great louts who knelt in their armor and plumed helmets!”

Taramis felt as if a stifling net of bewilderment were being drawn about her.

“Who are you?” she cried desperately. “What madness is this? Why do you come here?”

“Who am I?” There was the spite of a she-cobra’s hiss in the soft response. The girl stepped to the edge of the couch, grasped the queen’s white shoulders with fierce fingers, and bent to glare full into the startled eyes of Taramis. And under the spell of that hypnotic glare, the queen forgot to resent the unprecedented outrage of violent hands laid on regal flesh.

“Fool!” gritted the girl between her teeth. “Can you ask? Can you wonder? I am Salome!”

“Salome!” Taramis breathed the word, and the hairs prickled on her scalp as she realized the incredible, numbing truth of the statement. “I thought you died within the hour of your birth,” she said feebly.

“So thought many,” answered the woman who called herself Salome. “They carried me into the desert to die, damn them! I, a mewing, puling babe whose life was so young it was scarcely the flicker of a candle. And do you know why they bore me forth to die?”

“I—I have heard the story—” faltered Taramis.

Salome laughed fiercely, and slapped her bosom. The low-necked tunic left the upper parts of her firm breasts bare, and between them there shone a curious mark—a crescent, red as blood.

“The mark of the witch!” cried Taramis, recoiling.

“Aye!” Salome’s laughter was dagger-edged with hate. “The curse of the kings of Khauran! Aye, they tell the tale in the market-places, with wagging beards and rolling eyes, the pious fools! They tell how the first queen of our line had traffic with a fiend of darkness and bore him a daughter who lives in foul legendry to this day. And thereafter in each century a girl baby was born into the Askhaurian dynasty, with a scarlet half-moon between her breasts, that signified her destiny.

“ ‘Every century a witch shall be born.’ So ran the ancient curse. And so it has come to pass. Some were slain at birth, as they sought to slay me. Some walked the earth as witches, proud daughters of Khauran, with the moon of hell burning upon their ivory bosoms. Each was named Salome. I too am Salome. It was always Salome, the witch. It will always be Salome, the witch, even when the mountains of ice have roared down from the pole and ground the civilizations to ruin, and a new world has risen from the ashes and dust—even then there shall be Salomes to walk the earth, to trap men’s hearts by their sorcery, to dance before the kings of the world, to see the heads of the wise men fall at their pleasure.”

“But—but you—” stammered Taramis.

“I?” The scintillant eyes burned like dark fires of mystery. “They carried me into the desert far from the city, and laid me naked on the hot sand, under the flaming sun. And then they rode away and left me for the jackals and the vultures and the desert wolves.

“But the life in me was stronger than the life in common folk, for it partakes of the essence of the forces that seethe in the black gulfs beyond mortal ken. The hours passed, and the sun slashed down like the molten flames of hell, but I did not die—aye, something of that torment I remember, faintly and far away, as one remembers a dim, formless dream. Then there were camels, and yellow-skinned men who wore silk robes and spoke in a weird tongue. Strayed from the caravan road, they passed close by, and their leader saw me, and recognized the scarlet crescent on my bosom. He took me up and gave me life.

“He was a magician from far Khitai, returning to his native kingdom after a journey to Stygia. He took me with him to purple-towering Paikang, its minarets rising amid the vine-festooned jungles of bamboo, and there I grew to womanhood under his teaching. Age had steeped him deep in black wisdom, not weakened his powers of evil. Many things he taught me—”

She paused, smiling enigmatically, with wicked mystery gleaming in her dark eyes. Then she tossed her head.

“He drove me from him at last, saying that I was but a common witch in spite of his teachings, and not fit to command the mighty sorcery he would have taught me. He would have made me queen of the world and ruled the nations through me, he said, but I was only a harlot of darkness. But what of it? I could never endure to seclude myself in a golden tower, and spend the long hours staring into a crystal globe, mumbling over incantations written on serpent’s skin in the blood of virgins, poring over musty volumes in forgotten languages.

“He said I was but an earthly sprite, knowing naught of the deeper gulfs of cosmic sorcery. Well, this world contains all I desire—power, and pomp, and glittering pageantry, handsome men and soft women for my paramours and my slaves. He had told me who I was, of the curse and my heritage. I have returned to take that to which I have as much right as you. Now it is mine by right of possession.”

How fun is that? How over the top? How purely conceived: there are good guys and gals and there are bad guys and gals. Here, one sister, condemned from birth as a witch, was cast out, left to die, but survived to avenge herself against her family and claim what is hers by right—or so she believes. This is a classic revenge tale set-up: You done me wrong, I’m here to settle the score.

And this worked in 1934. And it kept working. These Conan stories have lived for decades now and I will never turn my back on them. It’s all just huge, gushy nerd love.

But can we get away with this eighty-seven years in the future? Is revenge enough motivation?

I’ve written on that in more detail in the past, so I’ll let Steven James sum it up for me, from his book Story Trumps Structure:

All fictional characters, just like real people, desire happiness. As philosophers throughout the ages have pointed out, happiness is the end to which we all aspire. After all, nobody pursues happiness so he can get money and power; he pursues money and power so he can get happiness.

So then, will revenge make Salome happy? Maybe. And is that motivation enough for a short story that’s heavier on action than ideas? Maybe.

If one sister is the good sister and the other sister is the bad sister… is that enough? Can we as fantasy authors in 2021 continue to deal in good and evil?

Though I don’t in any way want to pull back the clock to the point where we embrace what’s lacking in classic pulp fiction—and as fun as it is, there’s a lot lacking there, especially in terms of race, gender, and social enlightenment in general—does good vs. evil still have a place?

In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim wrote:

Evil is not without its attractions—symbolized by the mighty giant or dragon, the power of the witch, the cunning queen in “Snow White”—and often it is temporarily in the ascendancy. In many fairy tales a usurper succeeds for a time in seizing the place which rightfully belongs to the hero—as the wicked sisters do in “Cinderella.” It is not that the evildoer is punished at the story’s end which makes immersing oneself in fairy stories an experience in moral education, although this is part of it. In fairy tales, as in life, punishment or fear of it is only a limited deterrent to crime. The conviction that crime does not pay is a much more effective deterrent, and that is why in fairy tales the bad person always loses out.

Though I’d caution anyone to filter the mass news media of its many biases before joining in on “this person is evil,” “that country is a part of the Axis of Evil,” and so on, there is evil in the world. People do terrible things. And fiction, absolutely including fantasy, science fiction, and horror, has always been a way to work through that, as Bettelheim pointed out, and not just for kids being read fairy tales, but by anyone of any age reading any genre of fiction. Stories are how we work through the bad things that people do, making them more human, more complex now than Robert E. Howard generally went for, but the idea that “murder will out,” that evil will be punished, persists.

This is at least true of what Stephen King referred to, in conversation with George R.R. Martin, as “inside evil”: evil contained in human form, like Salome in “A Witch Shall be Born,” but what of “outside evil”… also like Salome, who seems to have been cursed at birth by some higher power? Is there a thing out there in what Lovecraft called “the black seas of infinity,” or Howard: “the black gulfs beyond mortal ken,” that has no concept of happiness, that has no particular personal motivation? King said:

In a way, outside evil is a more comforting concept… the idea that “the Devil made me do it” is a way of shucking responsibility and saying that I’m not there. So I think that we all understand that evil is inside a lot of people, while at the same time I think that what a lot of horror fiction does and what a lot of fantastic fiction does is it allows us to grapple with the outside evil that strikes us…  So there are two kinds of evil, there’s inside evil and there’s outside evil and I think that when we have the stories like the Lovecraftian stuff, we’re trying to cope with the sort of things that happen in our lives that are bad things that we don’t understand.  

And as authors, I don’t think we’re under some special mandate to understand all the things we have to cope with, that we have some responsibility to explain the nature of evil. Sometimes, all we can do is provide our villains with an excuse, then show them doing terrible things so our heroes can, hopefully, win, and as Bettelheim said, “the bad person… loses out.”

Or, anyway, mostly… sometimes… hopefully loses out.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to ON THE NATURE OF EVIL

  1. James Ross says:

    Fiction is a study in what can be done, the good, the bad and the various shades of beauty or vile.

    There’s still room for villains whose story we don’t understand. Everything, every hypothetical, every scenario is but a piece of the puzzle. Just as when an archaeologist finds an artifact, he does not disclaim it because it does not provide all the answers, so too–in order to be understood or even examined–our stories must be just a fragment of the puzzle. There is a time to tell the villain’s story, and perhaps the evil witch above is a protagonist or even a hero at times. But in this, she is a dastard antagonist in the shadows and must be dealt with as such.

  2. Janetta Maclean says:

    Love that witch!! Maybe I can use her in the current Opus… Have a great day and thanks again Phil for the inspiration.

    On Tue, Sep 14, 2021 at 3:06 PM Fantasy Author’s Handbook wrote:

    > Philip Athans posted: ” This, from “A Witch Shall Be Born” by Robert E. > Howard (Weird Tales, December 1934) is what evil looked like in the great > old days of pulp sword and sorcery: Taramis, queen of Khauran, awakened > from a dream-haunted slumber to a silence that seemed mor” >

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