Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Readercon: Why Is Ancient Evil Ancient?

Last of my panel notes, though in this case, it's really more like "notes."

Why Is Ancient Evil Ancient?. Erik Amundsen, Elizabeth Hand (leader), Matthew Kressel, Sarah Langan, Kate Nepveu, Ruth Sternglantz.

"Ancient evil" tends to be used as a shorthand for all the things we fear in our hindbrains, and everything lurking in the dark that we can't explain. It calls to mind something primordial that we feel we should have evolved past but still fear on some basic level. When we cite ancient evil in fiction, is its ancientness just a way of disclaiming that the evil isn't our fault, and thereby dodging the need to deal with evils that we could have prevented and could still avert? What if the ancient evil isn't entirely evil, just misunderstood? How do fictional treatments of ancient evil differ in cultures that venerate tradition and age versus those that prioritize innovation and youth?

So my main thought about this panel going in was that there was power in ancient-ness both in the sense that if it hadn't been defeated yet it must be really hard to do so and in the sense that if it had been scary for so long then it must hit something really deep. My main thought after the panel was a reminder that I'm just not that interested in defining evil in real-world terms; it strikes me as a less interesting question than what concretely to do about any given situation. So I don't have a lot to say about the parts of the panel where people talked about defining real-world evil, ancient or otherwise. To be clear, I don't think there's anything wrong with being interested in the definition of real-world evil, it's just very much not my thing.

Also, it's been a while so my notes are more cryptic than usual.

I believe we were asked early to offer our definitions. Someone said "fear of death," which they admitted was not universal; someone read from Arthur Machen's novel The Great God Pan, which I believe was a quote about devolution to primordial (something, I have "ooze" down in my notes but I don't know if that's literal); someone (else?) offered the fear of loss of self, citing Chronus eating his children, which I am not convinced is either universal or actually an example of the other.

There was mention of the tendency to view things that cause terror (certain reactions to vast wilderness) as evil. I have a note about possession/return of the dead being an upheaval of the natural order (this may have been related to the trope of sentient evil ancient books). Also we discussed the idea of ancient evil having to be disturbed, or indeed often dug up, which is a very id-appropriate metaphor. Toward the end we also talked about ancient evil as cyclical.

We were asked if there were any depictions of objective evil, which in the context of discussion referred to universal, cross-culturally accepted. The only thing I could think of were folk tales, what with the motif index, though that's a much smaller scale than I usually think of evil in story terms—which may be an answer in and of itself.

Someone from the audience offered three reasons for ancient evil being ancient: (1) everyone's had the experience of being at the mercy of vastly older and incomprehensible beings, i.e., parents (or other adult caretakers); (2) all cultures are built on the bones of others and there's a fear of revenge/bills coming due; (3) since the Enlightenment progress has been seen as moving away from history. This is highly paraphrased and I am also not sure how entirely serious the audience member was.

The panelists were asked to recommend a book about ancient evil.

  • The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart, which is about the 36 righteous ones in Jewish tradition for whose sake the world is not destroyed, and was mentioned with regard to the weight of history (Wikipedia).
  • Beowulf, which has three distinct kinds of evil (Grendel, Grendel's mother, the dragon).
  • Andersen's fairy tales.
  • Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," in which efforts to deny death force Death to take an active role
  • (me) John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost, which admittedly is funny [*], but which also scared me like nothing but The Shining has. It has an evil sentient book, possession/loss of self, perversions of the natural order, and the creeping horror of distortions around the edges. It's been recently reprinted in the collection Magic Mirrors (along with St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies, which is apparently hilarious if you were raised Catholic). I was pleased that several people asked me for an author/the name of the collection, because it's a seriously great book.

    [*] First line of story proper: "Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn't matter, there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either."

This is very sketchy; feel free to ask, hey, what about X? and possibly I will remember that we did talk about X and said Y, or maybe we can have a conversation about X regardless.

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Tags: cons, cons: readercon, cons: readercon: 2012

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