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For many of us, pure villainy is a somewhat outdated, Victorian concept, and we see it most often in literature or film. Count Dracula. Professor Moriarty. Iago. Sauron. Voldemort.

When it comes to my own life, it often turns out that the shadowy villains of my memories are not as black and white as I thought they were, once upon a time.  There was the girl who stole my best friend when I was eight, the bullies who laughed at me when I was eleven, the cool kids who sneered.  I remember them all, for some reason, but now they seem a little pathetic as villains, and I remember just as vividly the times when I disappointed myself by playing the part of the villain.  Many would say, and I would agree, that we all have a touch of the villain within us, and this makes my brushes with mean people who grew up to be perfectly ordinary human beings, capable of exhibiting just as much good as any of us, all the more innocuous.

But where is my nemesis, I wonder?  Why have I never seemed to come across someone who is wholly and completely evil?  We used to have debates in high school English about whether Iago really was a “motiveless malignity”, as someone has put it.  Can a person really be motiveless, their whole purpose wound up in doing evil just for the sake of it?

Of course, by world standards I am very fortunate.  For those who are victims of violence, oppression and genocide, I imagine (but may be wrong) that the question of their oppressors’ motives is often less immediate and important than the day-to-day struggle for life.

Certainly, in trying to discover why people do evil and how they succeed, we do ourselves no favours in starting by painting them as black-and-white villains who wanted to be villainous and therefore succeeded in being villainous, a mistake made by a number of scholars of the Holocaust.  But there is a tension with the need to acknowledge that some things are not okay, that the people who did them did great evil, and that their actions will never be satisfactorily explained or excused.  Their victims deserve that.

The pieces in this issue of Halfway Down the Stairs explore this tension.  You will find villains of all kinds: complex, blunt, small, large, sympathetic, not sympathetic.  We hope you enjoy thinking through this controversial theme and reading these poems and stories.

— Alison Stedman, Senior Fiction Editor


© 2012, Alison Stedman

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