Today, I’m pleased to welcome author Michael Bolan. He’s celebrating the launch of his new novel, The Stone Bridge, the third book in his Devil’s Bible historical fantasy series. (You can read my review of the first novel, The Sons of Brabant, here. Michael talks about the power of fear and describes the literary villains that still terrify him — did your favorites make the list?
When I was a young child, my parents moved us from the huddled safety of a village to the remote isolation of a newly-built house in the country. During the day, life was idyllic, with acres of space to run around, the beauty of nature everywhere, was so peaceful. At night, however, darkness fell, and brought with it a silence and foreboding I had never before experienced.
I had grown used to falling asleep with a dull glow sneaking through the crack in the curtains, the streetlights standing sentinel over my bed. In the countryside, there’s no light other than the moon, and in foggy, wet old Ireland, she’s loath to put in an appearance. The darkness of the countryside is the blackest of phenomena that no city dweller could contemplate. And alone in the darkness, with hours to wait before sunrise, a child’s imagination conjures the most devilish creatures and wickedest monsters.
I was a happy child, the typical mix of shyness and confidence that only a child can be, but in the stygian gloom, I was scared. Had you asked me to elucidate my fears, I would have struggled. After all, what did I really think would happen? In fact, if I had rationally worked through the list of possible outcomes, I may have realised that there was no monster, no tarantula, nothing coming to get me at all.
As a reader, I have dabbled with many genres, but I have always had a love/ hate relationship with horror. I don’t like being scared, but I do. IYKWIM. The problem that I have with most horror is that it’s just not scary. Maybe shocking or gruesome, but nothing that would turn my blood cold like those dark nights alone in bed. Just as voicing my fears as a child would have allayed them, so too does the written word. A gory murder scene? Predictable. But the thought of deliberately harming my loved ones in a fit of rage – now that raises the hairs on my neck.
What does it for me is me. My mind. My fears.
You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.
— O’Brien, 1984
Orwell had it right. Horror, and fear, is different for everyone, which makes the genre so challenging. But for me, the key to fear is to leave plenty to the reader’s imagination. It’s the not knowing that causes the heart to pump in a fight-or-flight reflex, it’s the suspense that is what we dread, not the denouement.
However, thankfully millennia of fascination with scary stories has produced some fairly bone-chilling baddies, and here are a few of my favourites:
1. Hannibal Lecter works as a villain in a way that Freddie Krueger can never manage. The sophisticated doctor of Thomas Harris’ books eats people, but is more concerned with the wine pairing that with the evil of his deeds. There’s a sense of dread in imagining what he will do next, and how directly you as a reader might be involved.
2. A Clockwork Orange has been cloaked in scandal since it was released, but it’s not the beatings or the rape or the brutal murders that make Alex scary: it’s the fact that he simply doesn’t accept that he has done anything wrong. His sense of purpose protects him from any humanising emotion. “Unfortunately there is so much original sin in us all that we find evil rather attractive. To devastate is easier and more spectacular than to create.”
3. Shakespeare’s Iago is a twisted manipulator, whose only motive for his evil seems to be that he enjoys it. Why would he wreak such destruction on someone he once called friend? Spite, jealousy, selfishness – Iago is a creature of the basest emotions. If he can’t have something, then no-one else will.
4. Mr. Hyde is a representation of the darkness that lives in all of us. That’s why he’s scary. How far would you go, what would you do, if you were pushed far enough? If each I told myself could be housed in separate identities life would be relieved of all that was unbearable. Hyde’s actions are bad enough, but the thought that he could be us or we could be him, now that’s truly scary.
5. If Mr. Hyde is ‘us’, then O’Brien from 1984 is definitely ‘them’. We all know that Big Brother is watching us, but O’Brien embodies the fear that someone or something knows what we are thinking: our hopes and fears, the brightest and the darkest of what is within us. His cruelty to Winston is usually what attracts attention, but it’s the depth of his understanding of Winston, and his simultaneous commitment to the cause, that is truly scary. “Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or laughter. You will be hollow.”
6. A dinner-party companion once described Heathcliff as a romantic hero. After I had wiped up the food that had sprayed from my mouth and apologised for my lack of manners, I offered my humble viewpoint. That his cruelty does not stem from his love of Cathy, but rather that he’s simply a sadistic bully. His weapons of choice are not only brutal violence, but insidious mental cruelty and neglect, meticulously planned and executed on those weaker than himself.
7. Lady Macbeth’s descent into evil is entirely of her own making. Seeing an opportunity to advance her husband, and hence herself, she invites evil into herself, feeding on its strength to achieve her goals. Once she has crossed that threshold, nothing is off limits. She loses her mind and eventually dies, but not before half the protagonists. Come, you spirits, That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe topful, Of direst cruelty!
8. The dichotomy of Cathy Ames’ alluring presence and her ‘malformed soul’ creates a sense of loathing in Steinbeck’s East of Eden. She believes that there is only evil in the world and, like Lady Macbeth, surrenders herself to it fully. She sees the good in others, but doesn’t understand it, so she uses others’ trust to achieve her own parasitic ends. Had she been alive a century earlier, they would have burnt Cathy at the stake.
9. Devotion to a cause is a common foundation for evil, and nowhere more so than with Star Trek’s Borg Queen, leader of a vast hive of forcedly-assimilated half human, half cyborgs. Her unwavering focus on the modern-communist Borg vision and an insatiable thirst for more bodies mean that no-one cannot be bettered by joining her collective, despite their screams of protest. Couple this with graphic visuals (her head and spine being lowered into a cyborg body) and a touch of ice-cold sensuality and you have the ultimate terrifying, if slightly sexy, baddie.
10. Rounding off the Top 10 is Reinald, Duke of Brabant from the Devil’s Bible Series. Sociopathic, psychopathic, schizophrenic, soulless, Reinald is only too eager to commit acts of senseless brutality because he wanted “to do the right thing”. Not only does he kill his brother, he seeks to destroy the entire world because there is nothing of substance in his. I’ll never forget the first time I saw his eyes clearly – there were beyond dead – like a Gorgon, they sucked the life out of everything they saw.
Nowadays, as I climb into bed an older and wiser version of my young, scared self, I have a (more or less) self-assured sense of confidence that these baddies are resigned to the page and celluloid, so I sleep a little more soundly than I used to. In any case, I am assured by my wife that my snoring would scare off the most fearsome of predators, so I guess I’m safe for now.
The Rapture continues to wreak havoc across Europe in its quest to acquire the elemental Seals, the only thing preventing the Devil’s Bible from purging the world in fire. Brought to Prague by the Fianna, the Seals’ only protection lies in the secrecy that shrouds them.
Reinald, leader of the Rapture, enlists the world’s greatest minds to free the Devil’s Bible from the depths of Prague Castle, where it has languished under lock and key for centuries. Meanwhile, the plans of the Four Horsemen unfold, wreaking havoc and misery across the entire continent.
Not content with forcing his siblings from their ancestral home, Reinald sends a vast army to harry and persecute them, forcing them to flee ever eastwards. Taking shelter with their friends, Willem, Leo and Isabella commit to one last act of bravery, making a final stand to defend the city of Prague.
As each nation commits its final resources into the conflict, all roads lead to the Stone Bridge that divides Prague, where the Sons of Brabant and their Fianna allies will face the ultimate test of their strength.
More About Michael
It took Michael Bolan over two decades of running in the corporate ratrace to realise that all he actually did was tell stories.
There was no Damascene revelation for Bolan which caused him to pen his first work of fiction, “The Sons of Brabant”. An avid reader, he simply felt that he could do as good a job as many of the authors he read and decided to put his money where his mouth was.
Living and working in many countries left him with smatterings of a dozen languages and their stories, and his love for history focused his ideas on the Thirty Years War, the most destructive conflict that the continent has ever seen.
Now living in Prague (again), Michael brings alive the twisted alleys of the 17th century and recreates the brooding darkness of a fractured Europe, where no-one was entirely sure who was fighting whom.
Michael writes while liberally soused in gin, a testament to Franz de le Boë, who was mixing oil of juniper with neat spirit while the Thirty Years War raged around him.
His website (http://www.michaelbolan.org) is a place where he can post his thoughts and feelings – along with reviews of books he finds lying around the internet.