The Devil You Know

Wanna know why I like grilled cheese sandwiches? OK, probably not, but the answer is the same as why I write scary stories: I don’t know. I just do. I love scary stories—thrillers, horror—and always have:

• The first book I remember truly loving as a child: Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are;

• The first full-length book I ever read: Washington Irving’s The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow;

• The book that made me want to be a novelist (when I was 12): I Am Legend by Richard Matheson;

• The book that showed me how big stories can be: The Stand by Stephen King;

• My favorite movie: Jaws (and don’t let anyone tell you that’s not a horror story).

See the pattern? I have always been attracted to stories that thrill. I spent much of my youth hunting down stories by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, David Morrell, R.L. Stine, and so on.

So, when it came time to tell my own stories, is it any wonder that they took the form of thrillers? My novels for adults (such as Comes a Horseman, Germ, Deadfall, Deadlock) all involve average people facing human foes whose intent and actions are a hair’s breadth this side of a nightmare. My series for young adults (The Dreamhouse Kings) introduces a more fanciful element (time travel), but retains the theme of pretty decent people challenged by seemingly insurmountable odds and bad guys aligned against them.

While I can’t tell you exactly why I write such stories, just as with cheese sandwiches, I can identify the primary ingredients needed to  keep me putting them together. Besides a propensity for heart-pounding adventure (did I mention my fondness for scuba diving, skydiving, and talking to auditoriums of middle-school kids?), I have a keen desire to know what makes people tick. Take the average Joe, someone who may never have been in a fistfight, who spends his days behind a desk and coaching little league; a guy who’s gone through his life believing in civility and the general goodness of people: How does he handle a life or death situation hurled at him by a murderous psychopath? What does it take for him to stand up for what’s right? Where does he find the strength? The skills?

I’ve always believed a person’s true character comes out when the heat’s on, when the wrong move leads not to an unemployment line or a brief visit to the E.R., but to a cold, steel table at the morgue. At heart, is he (or she) a coward or a hero? Is he so out of shape or witless about anything other than balance sheets or spark plugs that he couldn’t enter the arena even if he wanted to? Watching someone reach deep to find what he needs to survive, to save someone else—bravery, endurance, that part of his brain he hasn’t used in two decades—that’s interesting. That’s what drives me to hurry up and write it!

And what about the bad guys? Why do they choose that shadowy path? Do they even know they’re as awful as they are, or do they believe they’re simply more enlightened than the rest of us? Writing fiction lets me peek inside their heads. A psychologist friend once suggested that it was my way of exploring my own dark desires. Fortunately, no one’s found his body yet. No, really, I don’t think that’s it. I never wished a poodle-bite on a door-to-door salesman, let alone dreamed of hunting humans with wolf-dogs and an axe, as one of the killers in Comes a Horseman does. But that my character does it is fascinating.

A proverb says, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” The principle behind this is worlds away from the voyeuristic theory of why people enjoy reading about villains (that it’s akin to craning our necks at an auto accident and aren’t we glad that bloody mess isn’t us?). Instead, it suggests that we have a better chance of prevailing over evil if we know what we’re facing.

The French philosopher Albert Camus put it another way: “The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.” Could it be that knowledge of good is only part of what it takes to combat evil? Might we be better champions of good if we understood just how terrible bad can be, if we at least knew what it looked like? I don’t mean to play Martin Luther here, but maybe that’s why the Bible is so full of villains. They not only vividly contrast against Godly men and women—the darkness that makes the light that much brighter—but they show us what not to do, how not to think, and they teach us to recognize their villainy. Perhaps even more important, Biblical heroes and their contemporary thriller-fiction counterparts show us how to stand up to evil, how to dig deep and find what it takes to survive and triumph.

So there it is: why I write scary stuff. I’m reminding myself—and I hope my readers—that bad guys exist. But they don’t have to win; their evil is not tougher than the wisdom and strength most of us possess. All I have to do is see past the papers on my desk, the TV remove in my hand, and the cheese sandwich on the grill.

0 thoughts on “The Devil You Know

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  • Louisa's Writer

    ..and what of he evil you cannot see, or feel? Is there something in the dark, just beyond the shadow line, next to the closet door? Does it want to hurt me? Our fears usually spring from something that we don’t know that, perhaps, may be just about to happen?

    • Keith Thomson

      I enjoyed the insight into your choice of genre and your work, Robert. Well done. Am reminded: in middle school in CT, I saw on the schedule that we were going to Sleepy Hollow, NY, to play their school in sports, and I was terrified. Hadn’t known it was a real place, just the setting of the story that scared the bejesus out of me every October.