Battling Our Demons: Fighting the Influence of Evil

The other day, while looking through some of my folders of old writing and abandoned projects, I stumbled across an essay I wrote back in May 2015 for my Readings in the Genre: Contemporary Mysteries course at Seton Hill University as part of my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program. Of late, I’ve used this blog as a way of kick starting myself into writing on a more regular basis; something I struggle with on an almost pathological level. My friends will tell you that I’m writing all the time. This year, since February I have written a total of 27 blog posts about fictional characters I find sexually appealing, and since around May, I’ve written over 120 haiku poems. I’ve drafted chapters in a novel I’m writing, and I’ve written a few short pieces of fiction here and there. So yeah, I guess I have been writing. But, I don’t feel like I’m writing enough.

And, although I had a short story published in an anthology back in November 2014, I haven’t been able to sell my first novel, Invisible Chains, acquire an agent, or get any other bites on the poetry I’ve been submitting. I currently have poetry out to three publishers and I’ll be submitting three short stories within the next month to different publishers. I’m going to participate in NaNoWriMo 2016 in the hopes of completing that second novel I mentioned, A Marriage Made in Hell. I WILL finish the first draft of Marriage by November 30, come Hell of high water.

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading some of my writing that doesn’t involve lewd comments about my favorite fictions characters, read on…

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Battling Our Demons: Fighting the Influence of Evil in Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

In his famous study on human behavior, Beyond Good and Evil, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche warns us to take care to not be influenced by the intrinsic and often seductive nature of darkness when confronting our demons. He proposes, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you” (Section 146). Sage advice, but is it possible to confront Evil and not be somehow changed by it? Can you keep company with monsters without becoming like them? This is the dilemma faced by both Sookie Stackhouse in Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark and Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Each character must face her demons. Tempted as they may be, each character still manages to avoid becoming Evil.

Evil can be a very subjective concept. Each of us defines it a little differently based on our own personal experiences, but we can usually agree on the difference between “right” and “wrong.” The mystery genre uses this dichotomy as one of its central themes or plot points, and while an amateur sleuth or police inspector may be driven to solve a crime in order to uphold the law, at the heart of most mysteries is the desire for Good to win out over Evil. “Crime fiction in general, and detective fiction in particular, is about confronting and taming the monstrous. It is a literature of containment, a narrative that ‘makes safe’” (Plain 3). The battle between Good and Evil has been fought in fiction since before written communication. In the oral tradition, people told tales of epic battles between men and monsters – Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh. With the advent of writing, the popularity of monster tales never waned – The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Inferno. Monsters have always been with us. They are creatures of myth and legend, and they often stand in as metaphors for the less palatable human behaviors and emotions. Judith Halberstam suggests in her book, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters that even though our desire for stories about monsters and villains never seems to fade, the appearance of those monsters evolves to meet cultural needs. She says, “The body that scares and appalls changes over time, as do the individual characteristics that add up to monstrosity, as do the preferred interpretations of monstrosity” (8). Monsters change as our society changes, and the monsters of our current fiction, which is especially true in the mystery genre, tend to be humans more so than the beasts of Homer and Dante’s creations.

Like Sookie and Lisbeth, we sometimes find ourselves in less than ideal situations and come face to face with monsters. For some of us, the monsters we must face are people we thought we could trust who later betray us, or worse, cause physical as well as psychological damage in the form of abuse, rape, and ultimately murder. In her essay, “Vivid Villains,” Sandra Scoppettone tells us that “the nature of the villain, and how absorbing a character he or she is, will affect the flavor of the whole rest of the story” (86). The nature of the villain should definitely determine the nature of the protagonist. Whether we’re talking about a serial killer, someone seeking revenge, or jilted lover who commits a crime of passion, as we gain a better understanding of human psychology, we also understand that we are the monsters represented in the fiction we read. Darkness lurks within all of us, but for most people, it will continue to lie dormant until some violent act or traumatic experience awakens the beast within. The real challenge then for any protagonist facing such a worthy opponent, as Nietzsche warns, is to avoid becoming a monster. Sookie and Lisbeth are sexualized others who both fall victim to violence at the hands of human monsters.

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“Forty-six percent of women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man” (Larsson 139). In his novel The Girl with Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson wishes to make it very clear to his reader that violence against women is a cultural reality in Sweden, and to most Swedish women, much like his protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, the threat of violence, sexual or otherwise, is an expectation if not an inevitability. Lisbeth is a ward of the state and becomes the victim of rape at the hands of a man assigned to her case. She is an adult, but due to her designation based on a history of aberrant behavior as a youth, she is treated like a child, mentally deficient, and then taken advantage of due to her abuser’s belief that she is somehow stupid. While Lisbeth has experienced quite a bit of emotional and psychological trauma, some of which is not revealed to us, she is far from stupid, and definitely not mentally ill. In fact, she is uncannily smart and more than capable of looking out for herself, except at the hands of the sadistic monster Advokat Nils Bjurman. Over the course of several meetings, Bjurman makes it very clear to Salander that she is at his mercy if she would like access to her bank accounts. Each encounter with Bjurman becomes more and more inappropriate until he forces Salander to perform oral sex on him in his office. Larsson reinforces his point about the violent nature of Swedish society by making Salander another statistic. “In her world, this was the natural order of things. As a girl she was legal prey, especially if she was dressed in a worn black leather jacket and had pierced eyebrows, tattoos, and zero social status” (249). Later, when Salander seeks revenge for this assault, Bjurman restrains and rapes her at his apartment. It is this second act of violence that pushes her to her limits and flips a switch that begins her own transformation. She falls prey to the desire to do monstrous things herself. “Bjurman felt cold terror piercing his chest and lost his composure. He tugged at his handcuffs…He could do nothing to resist when Salander bent over and placed the anal plug between his buttocks” (282). Salander reverses the tables on Bjurman. She assaults and humiliates him much like he did to her. She attempts to restore balance through an act of revenge, pushing her closer to the edge of the abyss. Lisbeth unleashes her darkness to reclaim her power and walks a fine line that could easily transform her into a monster worse than Bjurman. She threatens Bjurman with blackmail and bodily harm to prevent him from hurting her again—an act of self-preservation. By marking him, she hopes to save other women from becoming his victims. Justice is served.

On the surface, Sookie Stackhouse and Lisbeth Salander couldn’t be more different as protagonists go, but when you take a closer look at these two strong female characters, you’ll begin to notice some commonalities. First, they are both amateur sleuths with unique abilities that allow them to have access to information others aren’t privy to in the narrative. Salander’s abilities are half-heartedly explained through the eyes of Salander’s lover, Mikael Blomkvist, who assumes that the young hacker has a form of Asperger’s. Since Sookie’s world has paranormal elements, she has the benefit of being able to hear other people’s thoughts. Calling this ability a benefit is debatable, as Sookie herself sees it as a handicap.

Second, both women often find themselves at the mercy of men who threaten them with violence. Or, at the very least, objectify them sexually. Although they come from very different cultural backgrounds, they both have “zero social status” (249) in the economy of sexuality and gender equality. In Dead Until Dark, a serial killer targets young women who seek out vampires as sexual partners. Sookie not only shares this in common with the victims, but she also fits the profile with her high school education and minimum wage job.

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Monsters exist in Sookie’s world – vampires, weres, and shifters – all of which can be quite dangerous. In fact, her boyfriend is a vampire. Despite the fact that there is trend in fiction romanticizing relationships between vampires and humans, vampires are still monsters. Even if they don’t kill you outright, there is always the chance that things might get out of hand, and a moment of passion may end with the human’s funeral. Even if the vampire poses no direct threat to his partner, the secret lives of vampires seem to be violent by nature – ancient enemies, unresolved love affairs, power struggles with other supernatural beings. All of this adds up to danger for any human who meddles in the affairs of monsters, much less falls in love with them.

Sookie could literally become a monster if she continues to drink vampire blood. Bill Compton gives Sookie his blood several times to speed up the healing process. But when Sookie is recovering in the hospital after her encounter with the serial killer, she refuses to accept Bill’s blood for fear of losing her human qualities. “‘I’ll heal you,’ he offered. ‘Let me give you some blood.’ I remembered the way my hair had lightened, remembered that I was almost twice as strong as I’d ever been. I shook my head” (Harris 310). Sookie resists the urge to become monstrous by refusing to act like one. Sookie reclaims her power by maintaining her humanness.

Sookie and Lisbeth are victims of violent crimes. Both women fight back to protect themselves. They are survivors and each play an important role in vanquishing the monster, or at the very least, identifying the villain. They both realize there are too many villains in the world to fight. Even though they have temporarily restored the balance in their worlds, they know the fight between Good and Evil will continue. Not only externally, but internally as well. Each time you gaze into the abyss, the abyss changes you. So, to answer my earlier question, is it possible to associate with monsters and not become Evil? Yes, but only if you remain vigilant to protect your humanity, and in Salander’s case, the humanity of others.

Works Cited

Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Print.

Harris, Charlaine. Dead Until Dark. New York: Ace Books, 2009. Print

Larsson, Stieg. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2009. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1989. Print.

Plain, Gill. Twentieth Century Crime Fiction: Gender, Sexuality and the Body. New York: Routledge, 2014. Kindle.

Scoppetone, Sandra. “Vivid Villains.” Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America. Ed. Sue Grafton. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2002. 86-90. Print.

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Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

Dragon-Tattoo-jpgI was skeptical about reading The Girl with Dragon Tattoo. I don’t usually allow book reviews to guide my choices in reading materials, but this particular book received a lot of attention from the press, both good and bad, and the sheer volume of copies sold must be some indication that I should at least put it on my to-be-read list. But, I kept putting it off. Then, last year I read a scathing review of the book that not only made me think deeply about how I will publicly discuss the work of other writers, but also that this book needed to be bumped up the list, because I needed to see for myself why it was generating such outcries of love and hate. Prior to reading the first novel, I saw the American film version of the text starring Daniel Craig. I enjoyed this film adaptation, but it in no way did justice to the depth and breadth of Larsson’s literary mystery chock-full of Scandinavian history (real and imagined), commentary on contemporary Swedish society and its inherent evils, and meta-fictional references to the mystery genre and works by other mystery writers. I fully intend to watch the Scandinavian films, but not before I read the rest of the novels. I’m hooked. Lisbeth Salander quickly became one of my favorite fictional characters, and I can’t wait to see what adventures and self-discovery awaits her in the next two books.

Stieg Larsson created some very interesting villains in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but are they really some of the most evil in literature? And, more importantly, do they receive the punishment they deserve in the end? Before I begin discussing how satisfying I found Larsson’s villains, and also how happy I was with their punishments, I think it is important to identify who these villains are and what makes them uniquely evil. I’m going to talk about the villains in order of what I consider the most heinous and despicable/terrifying acts committed in the novel. I count a total of six villains (possibly more if I dig a little deeper in to human behavior and psychology) in the novel, both literal and metaphorical.

Since they are such low-hanging fruit, I’ll begin with the Vanger family – a lineage of inappropriate and malicious people who spend their lives in denial about the horrors they participate in and witness. If they weren’t so rich and deeply entrenched in the lies they tell themselves and the public at large, I might almost be inclined to feel sorry for some of them, but I don’t.

  1. Martin Vanger has the most kills under his belt. He has a long history, roughly 40 years, of not only killing, but also fantasizing about, stalking, planning, abducting, and torturing his female victims. By all outward appearances, he seems to be the biggest evil in the novel. He fits the role of serial killer, but as he explains to Mikael Blomkvist after luring him to his dungeon of horrors, he sees himself as a serial rapist. Murder is simply a by-product of his evil compulsion to cover up the abduction, torture, and rape. To-MAY-to, To-MAH-to. Serial killer or serial rapist, if you kill each of your victims after brutally torturing, raping, and reducing them to psychological jellyfish, what difference does it make what you call yourself? Ah, semantics.
  2. Gottfried Vanger was not only a Nazi (it’s hard to get much more evil than that), but also a serial rapist/murderer and child molester. I waffled between putting him at the top of the list given the fact that his unique perspective on parenting created Martin Vanger. While I read, I kept thinking about how disgusting it would be to keep company with a man like Gottfried, but I also asked myself if Larsson went a bit overboard in depicting this villain. Is Gottfried Vanger too monstrous to be believable even as a fictional character? A drunken Nazi who molests both of his children, forces them to have sex with each other, and considers serial murder a family outing. Too far? Some readers might think so, but the list of atrocities committed by actual serial murderers and rapists would give Gottfried a run for his money.
  3. Nils Bjurman uses his position of power to take advantage of Lisbeth Salander, and possibly other young women who have been at his mercy as wards of the state. While Bjurman’s taste in bondage and domination and other sexual practices will be enough to put many readers off, it is the non-consensual aspect of his practices that turn my stomach. Creating a character who is into fetishes such as these is a clichéd and lazy way of depicting a villain. Not all bondage is evil, but if all of the participants aren’t on board with what is happening, there’s a problem. Bjurman is a sadist. He uses his authority to humiliate and sexually abuse Lisbeth, and although she is unable to find any other victims in his spotless career record, that doesn’t mean other women like her haven’t slipped through the cracks due to fear and intimidation.
  4. Hans-Erik Wennerström doesn’t seem all that monstrous at first glance when you compare him to the other villains in the novel. In fact, aside from being a cut-throat entrepreneur and rumors of his corporate misconduct (I mean, isn’t that how most people become successful in the business world – at least the old world system that made his success possible), we get very little indication that he is otherwise evil until the end of the novel when Salander reveals her detailed findings about his criminal activities obtained through high-tech spyware to Blomkvist. The one act that connects him to the other villains – his brutal treatment of a woman – still pales in comparison to the lifetime achievements of Martin and Gottfriend Vanger. Wennerström sends his minions out to threaten an ex-girlfriend to have an abortion by holding her head under water in a bathtub. Classic torture. He doesn’t even bother to get his own hands dirty. He sends his employees to handle inconveniences like pregnant girlfriends. He is essentially a gangster as Salander describes him, a business mogul with a history of corrupt dealings, ties to the Russian mob, and intimidation of anyone who threatens his way of life and authority, including Blomkvist and his ex-girlfriend. He’s a bully, and a coward in my book.
  5. Isabella Vanger is a lesser villain, but her lack of action, and therefore compliance in the molestation of both her children at the hands of her husband makes her a monster. One of the worst kinds of monsters in my opinion. Someone who denies the mistreatment of others to maintain their own well being and position of power. Many people will tell you that the horrors experienced by the Vanger children happened in a different age, a magical golden era where people could freely use and abuse each other for personal gain, and epic historical evils took root for decades, sometimes centuries – imperialism, slavery, the Holocaust, and the institutionalized oppression and domination of women and children – yep, the good old days. And, by placing these atrocities most of us would like to forget in a past, we somehow make these horrors and the people who committed them less threatening and…real. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a work of fiction. However, it examines a very real past where people joined the Nazi party and turned in their neighbors because they happened to be Jewish or somehow not Aryan enough. You know, real evil.
  6. Contemporary (or Modern) Swedish Society is the setting of the novel even though we spend a lot of time examining the past. Larsson uses the society as an over-arching theme that pulls all of the characters and plot lines together as he shines a light on the reality that violence against women is not only commonplace, but for many women in Swedish culture, an expected inevitability.

So, those are the six most prominent villains I took note of in the novel. I’m curious to see what others have to say on the subject. Back to the questions posed at the beginning. Did I find the villains in this novel especially evil? Hm. Not particularly. Why? Mainly because they are mirror images of real people hiding in plain sight every day – our relatives, neighbors, co-workers, etc. Scary? Yes. Unsettling? Yes. But evil? I’m not sure where I fall on the spectrum of Good vs. Evil exactly, but if enough people commit similar acts of violence again and again throughout history, maybe we should just call that what it is: human behavior. Labeling those behaviors evil won’t make them go away. Meting out punishment for those behaviors may cull a few evildoers from the herd, but it won’t completely erase the compulsion to hurt others from the human psyche.

The second question deals with whether or not I found Larsson’s punishments befitting of the crimes. In terms of genre fiction, no, the punishments of the worst villains seemed more like escapes to me. Death isn’t an ideal escape, but it beats having your crimes brought to the attention of public scrutiny. In both cases, the worst villains in the novel die suddenly and never come to justice. But, the reality is that in most cases, people who commit these kinds of atrocities often go unpunished for years, and some of their crimes aren’t discovered until after their deaths. In fact, most of the villains in the novel are essentially set free by dying. Harriet Vanger drowns her father, which I suppose is a punishment of sorts, but the punishment doesn’t fit his crimes and the act of killing her father ends up causing further torment for the abused girl. Martin dies in a car crash. Talk about never having to take responsibility for your actions. In fact, aside from paying reparations to the families of his victims and donating a substantial amount of money to charity, the Vanger family swept the whole we-have-two-serial-killers-in-the-family thing under the rug. So, in that case, the incorporation of reality in this work of fiction is satisfying to me.

The only punishment that did satisfy me was the revenge Salander took after she was humiliated and brutally raped by Bjurman. After the first sexual assault in his office, we get a glimpse of Larsson’s take on Swedish society through the eyes of Salander. “In her world, this was the natural order of things. As a girl she was legal prey, especially if she was dressed in a worn black leather jacket and had pierced eyebrows, tattoos, and zero social status.” (249) We learn that Salander sees herself as a marginalized member of society that no one will take seriously if she reports the rape. “There was no point whimpering about it.” (249) But we also quickly learn she is not someone to take lightly. “On the other hand, there was no question of Advokat Bjurman going unpunished. Salander never forgot an injustice, and by nature she was anything but forgiving.” (249) Although her initial attempt at punishing Bjurman goes horribly wrong, eventually she takes the upper hand and exerts her power over him. She humiliates him, tortures him, and limits his options for seeking more victims. Go, Salander!