I’m not a fan of the daily news as interpreted by the television networks—any of them. I don’t watch cable or broadcast news on a regular basis; I don’t follow any pundits; I don’t even tune in to the local news except to hear the weather. I get my news at a week’s remove, from a magazine that distills the stories from a variety of sources to produce a more balanced viewpoint. This keeps me relatively sane.
But occasionally something happens—a hurricane, a mass shooting in Las Vegas—to break through the barriers I’ve erected, and I’m forced to participate in the tragic moment with the rest of the nation. And, in the case of yet another mass shooting by a crazy individual with a bunch of guns, I pause to pray for all the victims’ families. And wonder why.
This is not a post about gun control, although I certainly think as a nation we should ask ourselves some hard questions about that issue. It’s not even a post about mental illness and the community response to people in trouble, though that’s a legitimate issue, too. This is a post about the motivations of villains, and whether, as writers, we can simply say our bad guys are “evil” without any underlying reason.
As most of you know, I’m a huge Stephen King fan, and I’ve been avidly watching the television adaptation of his novel Mr. Mercedes on the Audience Network (created by David E. Kelley). The story follows retired detective Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) as he revives the cold case of a mass killer driving a stolen Mercedes who deliberately ran over 23 people lined up for a jobs fair. As the killer becomes aware Hodges is on his trail, he first cyber-stalks the detective, then tries to kill him, instead blowing up Hodges’ lady friend with a car bomb.
In this week’s episode, Hodges is asked why “Mr. Mercedes” does these things. He answers that some people just have a “great black hole” inside them, they were born that way, and eventually the black hole just swallows them up. He says this—and believes it—even though he suspects a lot about the man’s true background.
King the author takes pains to show us everything about his villain, Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadway). We know his father died when Brady was a child, electrocuted at his linesman’s job; his younger brother choked on a piece of apple, was revived, but survived brain-damaged, and Brady, still just a child, pushed the toddler down the basement stairs to his death. Brady’s mother, as a result of these tragedies, drinks to excess and abuses Brady sexually. And Brady works at a crummy job at an electronics store, berated by the boss and the customers alike.
So, which is it? Does Brady just have a “black hole inside?” Or have the circumstances of his life made him the way he is?
King is quite capable of depicting “pure evil” in his novels. The antagonist in It is a good example. The clown figure is simply a personification of a greater, deeper evil that haunts the town. That evil must be cleansed for the town (and its pre-teen defenders) to survive. (The latest film adaptation of this classic novel is faithful to the concept in every way. The film is a must-see for King fans.)
Though it is “horrible,” the Mr. Mercedes tale (actually spread across three novels—Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers and End of Watch) is meant to be a crime story, not a horror story per se. Brady Hartsfield, aka Mr. Mercedes, is not meant to be pure evil in the It sense. He’s meant to be human. But if you know anything about Stephen King, you know people can be every bit as horrifying in their humanity as any supernatural monster he can come up with.
Like the kind of human who could kill indiscriminately with a stolen Mercedes—or by shooting a specially modified weapon at an outdoor concert crowd in Las Vegas.