Monday, June 04, 2012

Hellboy's The Sleeping and the Dead: The Platypus Reads Part CLIV

This story gave me nightmares.  That's rare.  I don't usually even dream; at least that I remember.  Now here's what I learned staring at the ceiling at four-in-the-morning.

The Sleeping and the Dead is a two part story collected in Hellboy Volume 11: The Bride of Hell and others.  It features Hellboy doing a little free lance work for the B.P.R.D. in England back in the 60s.  It's also one of the few vampire pieces Mignola has done.  Over the course of the story we find out why there are so few vampires in Hellboy's world, but the main plot line is how an ancient European vampire takes over a Victorian English family and uses them to pray on the village of Hoxne.  At least that's what it appears at first...  In reality, it's really about what evil does and how, in the end, evil is undone by its own hubris.  The real terror in the story is not the vampire, nor his English mistress, nor his subverted manservant, but Mary, the youngest daughter in the house.  With a servant and a mistress, the vampire has no use for little Mary but, rather than kill her or send her away, he chooses to torture her for spite.  Almost a hundred years have passed when Hellboy discovers the horror the little girl has become, locked undying in the basement.  When their fight, carefully orchestrated by Mary, breaks down a wall into the family crypt, the tormented soul unleashes her fury on her former tormentor before turning to dust.

So here's what disturbed me: of all the Hellboy comics I've read, this one somehow came closest to portraying supernatural evil as it is; the sheer spite, the delight in horror, the pettiness.  Ever since Blake, Satan has been portrayed as some sort of tragic hero, suffering for the sake of free will and self-realization.  At the most noble, a patron saint of those who fight authority and go their own way, at worst as a sort dissipated bon-vivant luring people into "having a good time" when they really should be doing something else.  Lost is any notion of gas chambers, torture cells, sexual assault, years of petty cruelty, or even just pulling the legs off a spider for the pleasure of watching it squirm.  That's the real face of evil; delighting in other creatures' terror, petty, relentless, cruel.  Sure, there are "jocund" evils of excess and later-regretted indulgences, but they're just the edge of the pit.  Follow it down long enough, and Hell at bottom is frozen over, not dancing with flame.  That's a frightful thought.

Now here's the good news: it's in the very nature of evil to be self-defeating.  The very excess, the lack of cool reason in deference to petty-spite ultimately destroys evil in the end.  The Church Fathers believed that it was Satan's very eagerness to torture and humiliate God that led him to miss the divine purpose of the cross and ultimately lose his claim to the earth and so many of its inhabitants.  That's what Lewis and Tolkien spent so much time trying to say in their works and that's what plays out time and again in Hellboy's universe; not the least in The Sleeping and the Dead.  Contemplating that might just be worth losing a little sleep over.

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