Images of Evil

One thing I struggle with as a writer is how much evil to show.  Yeah, I’m someone who wants your skin to crawl with the right image of evil, but I don’t feel gore is the means to that end.

And it’s not my intent to be merely creepy.

So I’ve been trying to remember times when I reacted intensely to a character and thought of two examples:

  • The mother in the His Dark Materials series (though not the focus of this post), especially
    • Her first appearance in The Golden Compass and
    • her calm torturing scene (in the second book, I think it is)
  • Zohak (an early king from an Iranian epic poem), and how he became evil
    • This I wanted to present here (almost in the old TT format) because it’s so striking and I guess there are reletively few who’ve heard it.


There was not yet any meat-eating in the world, and a demon spirit wanted to change that.  In disguise he became Zohak’s cook, and began to cook him eggs, until Zohak was so enamored with the specialty he would eat nothing else.

The glib cook brushed off the praise and insisted he had even better things to offer if the king wished it, and began serving him a new dish each day: quail and pheasant, lamb and chicken, then veal, cooked in wine and spices.

After greedily devouring this last meal Zohak bade the demon ask a favor.  Still in his disguise the demon asked permision to kiss the young king on his two shoulders, which the king granted.  The demon vanished as soon as he had kissed the young man.

[Zohak] had barely recovered his wits after the astonishment of seeing his cook disappear… when he became aware of an unaccustomed sensation on his shoulders.  He looked, and there, on either shoulder, where the demon’s lips had touched his skin, the heads of two black serpents were appearing.  Zohak watched, appalled, as the serpents grew larger and larger until each was the size a large snake would have been if its tail and half its length had been hidden within the flesh and bones of his shoulder.  Then, at last, the black bodies ceased to grow and remained, swaying gently from side to side, hissing and darting forked tongues in and out.

From Tales of Ancient Persia retold by Barbara Leonie Picard

Nothing would remove the serpents, and cutting them off did not keep them from re-growing.  Eventually the demon returned in another guise to offer counsel.  He suggested that if the serpents were fed according to their desire, they may grow satiated and fall asleep, leaving Zohak to live his own life.

When asked, the demon informed the young king that the serpents each required the brain of a strong man daily.  In this way the workers of evil ensured there would be two less men in the world each day.

From then on, with each day that passed, as the black serpents grew stronger, nourished by their ghastly food, so Zohak grew ever more hardened, becoming more cruel and ambitious.

4 thoughts on “Images of Evil

  1. That’s a fascinating portrayal of the “slippery slope” idea.

    I think Harry Potter 4 (Goblet of Fire) has some excellent scenes that really convinced me as a reader of Voldemort’s evil-ness…they focus on his callousness to his underlings, his subjugation of them, and his willingness for them to suffer for his gain. There was enough depiction of violence to be convincing, but not enough for a real “grossout,” which I don’t like.

  2. I love that you are bringing this up. I’ve read far too many books recently that just use the gross factor to be the evil, and I don’t agree with that. Evil people don’t necessarily do gross things. Either they enjoy watching other people suffer (and there are more than enough ways to do that without physical suffering) or they are intensely selfish and therefore no-one else matters.

    One thing that I say that really helped me think of evil in a whole new light was listening to John Travolta once talk about playing a bad guy. I never saw the movie he was in (I rarely watch movies) but he talked about that as playing a bad guy, he could’t play a good guy trying to be a bad guy. He had to look at it from the bad guy’s point of view. From this point of view, everything he was doing was right–it just ended up hurting a lot of other people in the process. I can’t wait to see how you handle this, as this is something that I consider with every book that I read.

    Speaking of evil–the ultimate evil in Mistborn is literally a mist. (It becomes a lot more complicated than that at the beginning, but it’s interesting to think about mist. It kills, but not in a gory way. So very fascinating.

  3. Pingback: Untangling Tales » Blog Archive » The Beginning of the End of Zohak

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