By Katy Munger
There are very few writers in this world who don’t eventually get around to inviting evil into their books. But few revel in the exploration of pure, unadulterated evil as much as we crime writers. It is an irresistible lure — to examine the age-old question of whether people are inherently good or inherently bad, to ponder whether the way we have evolved has helped us conquer evil or simply helped us find new ways to celebrate it.
As a writer, I started my career depicting evil as the inevitable by-product of good people gone bad, misguided souls who had somehow taken a wrong turn and stumbled onto the dark side. By the time I was in the middle of my Casey Jones series, I had acknowledged that there are people who walk among us who embrace evil, who think of no one but themselves and who have turned their backs on the better impulses we humans share because their sole motivation is to have what they want. But it is only with my latest series, the Dead Detective, that I have come to believe in — and to write about — evil as a force independent from the existence of humans. Evil now finds its way into my books about life and death, infiltrating the characters that inhabit my books, and surviving even when those characters are gone. But what may be surprising to some of you is that I do not write about evil in this way to add suspense to my books or to scare readers. I do not even write about evil as a symbol of human behavior. I write about it and its manifestations because I truly believe that, while good lives in each of us and binds us together, evil is a tangible force that roams our world, searching from person to person, seeking entry in envy, deprivation, shame, anger, resentment and more — all those emotions that spread over us like fissures in the shell of an egg, cracking ourselves open and inviting evil to enter.
I did not evolve into acknowledging evil lightly. It is not the culmination of some sort of New Age beliefs nor is it born of any sort of religious fervor. I believe in evil because, many years after the fact, I have at last come to terms with the reality that I once met it. I am going to tell you about that night now.
It was 1986 and I was driving solo from my home in New York City to New Hampshire to attend a good friend’s wedding near Dartmouth. I-91 seemed to stretch on endlessly. Many hours into the trip I grew weary and pulled over near Brattleboro to take a break. It was a dark, starless night and as I pulled into the parking lot, I saw no other cars or trucks parked in the rest area.
Leaving my beloved gold Mazda 323 behind, I shook off the ingrained caution that I, as a woman, had long since learned to respect, and headed toward the Ladies Room. As I turned from the sidewalk onto the path that led to the main building, I saw a man in the distance, standing in the shadows where the smaller sidewalk turned once more toward the bathroom. Te was a wiry man only a few inches taller than myself, dressed in blue jeans and a denim jacket with a leather cap pulled down low over his face. He did not look up at me. I could not see his face, only the tip of the cigarette he held between two fingers and pulled at furtively, the smoke curling up from below to cloud his face.
I walked slowly up the sidewalk, already wondering how he’d gotten there when I had seen no other cars in the parking lot. Part of me wanted to stop and go back to my car. Part of me was sure I was being silly. Why would he be standing there, so close to the entrance of the ladies room, smoking a cigarette, unless he was waiting for someone? I kept walking. He made no sign of having seen me and stood motionless except for the rapid movement of one hand as he sucked on his cigarette again and again.
I was about six feet away from him when I stepped into a fog of evil so real I could feel it against my skin. The air became cold and clammy and my heart felt filled with despair along with a bone-ringing fear. It felt like I was like falling backwards into the darkness with no end to the void in sight.
My feet kept walking of their own accord even as the feeling deepened. I was too confused by the intensity of what I felt to do anything but keep walking through that that miasma of darkness. I passed the man and could not breathe. He did not so much as twitch. I quickened my step and pushed the door to the Ladies Room open with an urgency I later realized was my body’s need to escape. I stood with my back against the door, instantly looking around for another way out. There was no lock on the inside of the door and the sole window in the bathroom was not only too narrow to crawl through, it was submerged halfway beneath the ground to boot. I looked up at the ceiling, seeking a vent or any other way to escape. I would have taken anything. I was not afraid as much as absolutely certain that if I did not find another way out, I was going to die.
There was no way out.
I stood until, unwilling to risk so much as a moment vulnerable in a bathroom stall with my pants around my ankles, I acknowledged that I had no other option but to leave the same way I had come in. I took a deep breath, pushed through the door and, with my head held down, walked briskly past the stranger, once again stepping into the cold blackness that surrounded him. Turning the first corner, I breathed in his cigarette smoke and quickened my step. Now my back was to him. With every step I took, I expected his hands around my throat or a blow to my head. In desperation, I lifted a hand up in the air and waved, calling out to a nonexistent person, “I’m coming, I’ll be there in a moment.” It was a pathetic ruse but it gave me the courage to keep going until I escaped the bleakness that clung to the stranger.
I was almost running by the time I reached my car. Fumbling with the keys, I finally opened my door open, not daring to look up at the man still standing less than twenty feet away. I slipped inside the car and slammed the door shut, triple checking all four of its locks. For the first time, I noticed that in one corner of the parking lot there was a small RV parked in the shadows. It was the only other vehicle in the lot. I fought to get my breathing under control in my hands shook so much the keys jangled as I turned the key in the ignition. I quickly threw my car into reverse and sped away, feeling as if I had escaped something more terrible than I could ever have imagined, something more real and more evil than I had encountered yet in my life.
I shook for miles and miles after that encounter and remained compelled to mention it to many friends in the years that followed. There was just something about that man, I kept telling them, he felt so evil. I began to flirt with the idea that maybe the devil really did exist. I became obsessed with reading about exorcisms and real-life serial killers. I wanted to understand what I had felt.
But it was over twenty years later when I finally understood what it was I had met that night. I was staying at a friend’s beach house and looking for something to read deep into the night. I began rummaging through a pile of paperbacks, hopeful that at least a few lurid true crimes might be stacked among the otherwise dismayingly high quality fiction, all novels but not required way too much thinking for a writer on vacation. There, toward the bottom, I found it: the story of the Connecticut River Valley killer, never found, suspected of killing at least seven women whose main link seemed to be that they had lived nearby or traveled I-91 regularly. The killer, the author and several detectives working the case surmised, had escaped detection for years because he had preyed upon women at the frequently deserted rest stops along I-91. No real evidence leading to him had ever been found and, one day, the killings had simply stopped. The murders remained unsolved.
He was probably dead, I remember thinking to myself, a conviction I remain quite confident of. No man who takes that much cigarette smoke into his lungs can live for long. But what about what lived in him? Was it gone, too? I had felt it surrounding him. I had been there. And I knew it was still around. I knew it was real, and it was stronger than one man, and that it would continue to search for new vessels whenever its current vessel died because it existed to grow and it needed to feed. I had met evil, and having met it, I knew I would recognize it when I saw it again.
Since that day so long ago and the realization that belatedly followed, I have learned to trust my instincts. I am no longer willing to dismiss my instant dislike of rare individuals or tolerate flashes of cruelty in others as something inevitably human. My recognition of evil has awakened in me a will to fight it off and I have enough sense to listen to this inner angel of mine. Evil is out there. Evil is real. I have met the enemy — and it is not us. We write about evil because we somehow know that we all need to recognize it. We read about evil for the very reason. So, please, join me in believing in the inherent goodness of people and in celebrating the joy we bring one another. But join me, too, in recognizing that — as much as we would like to pretend otherwise — evil truly does walk among us.