“I wonder which of them would win, in a contest for worst father? Frankenstein, Rappaccini, Jekyll, or Moreau?”
-Theodora Goss, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
When I was thirteen I wrote what I was pretty sure was my magnum opus. Well, my parvum opus, maybe—it was fourteen pages long. But it seemed like the first step of something much longer, and it was cool. So cool. Mark, the main character, was so cool. I showed it to my friend. She read it and said, “That’s sad.”
I was confused.
Mark was so cool. In the beginning he was walking through a city, and then there was this knife fight, and he was all like, “Yeah, knife fight, I can handle that,” except he didn’t even say that, he didn’t say anything, he just saved this person and then walked away and sterilized the wound on his ribs with whiskey before drinking some. Of the whiskey, not the wound or the blood or anything. I didn’t like vampires, even then. I pointed out all that to my friend, in case she had missed the cool, but she’d seen everything I pointed to.
“It’s sad,” she repeated. “He’s so—trapped. So small. There’s so much more he could be.”
And, of course, she was right. Mark was my James Bond knock-off, my tough-guy cliché of insecurity and emotional confusion swept away by a good jawline, a good leather jacket, and the promise of nothing—no vulnerability, no hurt, no heart—inside. Luckily I really liked and respected my friend, so I grumbled a bit, and held on to my Mark. And started looking past him.
There’s a Thing where villains often end up heroes. I think there’s something good in that—in a world of strict expectations and forced perspectives, villains can give us the why-nots, the could-bes, the shadow. A sterilized garden doesn’t grow much. Then there are heroes who end up being villains. I’ve talked with boys who idolize DiCaprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street. And why not? They look at him, and they see smart, handsome, successful, wealthy—everything you’re supposed to be. He does whatever he wants. Isn’t that what a good life means?
Well, no. It’s not. But when we have heroes who say it is, we start to listen. Look around at all the heroes (or villains) who seem so cool, so powerful and mysterious and passionate, and who don’t have any thought for the people—the friends, the spouses, the children—around them. Where are the others? Where’s the ubermensch who’s great, not because of what he takes, but because of what he gives and shares?
In the original stories, Sherlock Holmes (who appears in Goss’s book, too) goes through life saving the day and stepping on the people around him. He gets away with it because he’s brilliant. His disregard for others’ emotions is almost portrayed as part of his brilliance. Goss’s Holmes sees deeply, too, but he’s not as invincible, and he cares when he’s hurt someone. I like that. I suppose I want to read more stories named for people who, instead of twisting the world for themselves, tend to it for their children.