Prose Header

The Revenge Fantasy

by Don Webb

Revenge serves as a powerful motivational theme in all of literature, not just horror fiction, fantasy, or science fiction. It plays a very important role in such great national epics as The Iliad, The Song of Roland, and The Nibelungenlied, to mention the earliest.

Over the years, Bewildering Stories has published a number of stories that distill the theme of revenge to the point where it becomes the story itself. We receive such submissions so regularly that I’ve come to think of them as a sub-genre: the revenge fantasy. Note that the term “revenge fantasy” is meant in a psychological sense; it might more properly be called a “revenge story,” because it doesn’t necessarily refer to the literary genre of fantasy.

I’m sure all our contributors and regular readers can, with a little reflection, cite a number of such stories. I think most of the examples you’ll find will also fit other classifications, particularly horror fiction or, more generally, fantasy.

Now, a revenge story need not be fantasy proper; it can be written as realism, like Shakespeare’s Othello. If a revenge story is a fantasy, perhaps fantasy was the easiest and most direct way the author could think of to present the action of a conscience, be it the revenge-seeker’s own or a kind of “world conscience.”

The revenge story is particularly difficult to write. We recently received a submission that illustrates its problems:

The main character, let’s call him Kane, is in love with Jessiebelle (just to pick a name). He catches her two-timing him. She scorns him brutally. Kane stabs her to death. The murder will remain undiscovered or at least Kane will not be caught. When Kane returns home, a disembodied voice tells him that he will die that evening. Kane goes to bed, happy that he has at least made the world a better place by ridding it of the evil Jessiebelle. And that’s it.

The author explained that the story shows that people do bad things.

And that’s why we could not accept the submission. Readers would shrug and think: “Sometimes people get away with murder. I knew that; I see it all the time on the evening news.” Readers are slow to forgive a writer who leaves them with only “So what?”

Very well, so what: how might an author handle this kind of story?

The revenge story raises the question of equitable justice. Jessiebelle may be a very unpleasant person, but does she deserve to be murdered? Kane may feel grievously wronged, but does that justify his committing murder? I expect a rational reader to answer no to both. And such a reader will ask, “What is this story all about, anyway?’

In a horror story or fantasy, Kane might be confronted by someone or something in this life or the next that teaches him the error of his ways and proceeds to punish him for it. John Vieczorek’s “The Hole,” in issue 196, does exactly that.

If conflict and terror — rather than justice — are the point, the vampire sub-genre might have Kane survive as a kind of Mr. Hyde or Jack the Ripper. He would be a serial killer whose rampage is brought to an end by someone more rational than he, such as a detective, or by something even more irrational, such as a demon.

Those are but two examples of possible story lines. Whatever plot a writer chooses, in no case may Kane — or any anti-hero — get bored with it all and retire to bask in his corpse-strewn notoriety: he and his deeds must mean something. Otherwise, the villain is merely an accidental force of nature such as an epidemic or other natural catastrophe.

Even Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis clos, which is summed up by “Hell is other people,” ends with “Continuons...” Like all stories, a revenge story must have a point beyond itself, even if it’s to leave the audience understanding how ironic Sartre’s famous sentence really is.

Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb

Home Page