JG Faherty is the author of Cemetery Club, Carnival of Fear, The Cold Spot, He Waits, and the Bram Stoker Award-nominated Ghosts of Coronado Bay. His latest novel, The Burning Time, comes out Jan. 18. Visit him at jgfaherty.com, Facebook, Twitter, or aboutme.com
In horror fiction, you’ve almost always got a hero and a villain, or perhaps more than one. There are different types of heroes: cops, detectives, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, military specialists, even supernatural characters (supernatural detectives, ‘good’ vampires, etc.) And there are different types of villains: monsters (vampires, ghosts, werebeasts, serial killers, aliens, etc.), humans, and sometimes even large groups (a zombie horde, for instance).
However, the best horror often happens when the hero and the villain have a personal relationship. It doesn’t matter if it’s a case where a kid unleashes an ancient evil from a secret box or a vampire and werewolf have been mortal enemies since before Christ was born. The personal connection always brings the reader in deeper into the story.
In my current novel, The Burning Time, I utilize this strategy with my two main characters. John Root is a simple country mage whose family has, for generations, devoted itself to thwarting evil, in both the small and large senses. Decades earlier, his mother, son, and wife were all killed by an ancient being known as the Trickster, who is on an eons-long campaign to unleash the Elder Gods once again. John has tracked him to the town of Hastings Mills, where the Trickster is posing as a local clergyman. The book then becomes not just a matter of John trying to stop the black magic, but also a personal quest to defeat the creature who ruined his life.
Another aspect of heroes vs. villains is having a villain that is so stupendous he or she or it becomes almost more important to the story than the hero. There are many great examples of this: Captain Nemo, Pennywise the Clown, Hannibal Lecter, Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, and so on. Books where the antagonist captures the reader’s imagination to such an extent that the hero almost becomes secondary.
In my novel Carnival of Fear, I developed a character in this mold, the Proprietor. Tall, skeletally thin, and dressed in multi-colored barker’s garb, he is a demon from a different dimension who rules over his supernatural carnival with an iron fist. Possessed of a mouth that can expand to swallow a little boy whole, and the ability to suck the souls out of his victims, he subtly guides unwary carnival-goers into deadly situations such as the haunted mansion, freak show, fun house, and tunnel of love. He is larger than life, a sarcastic, wicked malevolence that is part Freddy Krueger and part Mr. Dark. How do I know he transcends the story? I’ve gone on to publish several short stories and poems where he is once again a central figure, working his malicious magic in other places and times, as the Carnival travels through the ages.
Everyone loves a great hero, but people go nuts for a great villain. Don’t believe me? Ask people who Pennywise, Hannibal Lecter, or Dracula are, and even people who don’t like horror will instantly know the answers. But ask them about Bill Denbrough, Clarice Starling, or Jonathan Harker, and unless you’re speaking to a fan of the genre, you might just get a blank stare as your answer.
The exceptions to this rule seem to be the ‘anti-heroes,’ those bad boys who end up saving the day. Repairman Jack, Van Helsing, and Blade would be good examples of this type of hero; people who could just as easily be bad as they are good.
Heroes, anti-heroes, and villains – they are what make horror tick. So let’s celebrate them.