Posts Tagged ‘Apocalyptic fiction’

Tell me, where would you put Godzilla in this classification system?

For a while now, I’ve been thinking of the different kinds of antagonists in horror stories. Not divided by type, but by level of threat. What do I mean by this? I mean, aren’t all antagonists in horror stories a threat? I mean, it is horror!

Well, yes. But how big that threat is can vary from story to story, and can even influence what kind of tropes and stakes we can expect in the stories. To further illustrate this, let me categorize the level of threats using Starbucks sizes: Tall, Grande, and Venti. Yes, I know they have a Short size and a Trenta size, but I don’t know anyone who uses them. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the cups for those sizes.

Also, Starbucks, please don’t sue me. I’m just using your sizes to help illustrate a point.

Getting sidetracked. Let’s start talking about the levels of threat, starting from biggest to smallest.

Venti: While all horror antagonists are a threat to the protagonist(s), the Venti-level threats are usually threats to many or all people. Cosmic entities like Cthulhu or the Devil in stories taking place during the Apocalypse usually rank this high. They’re a threat to all life or to all we hold dear, and the suffering they could induce if they succeed would be terrible.

This level can also apply to threats like Pennywise, aka IT. While he’s restricted to the town of Derry, Maine, he’s responsible for countless deaths since the 17th century. Even when he’s not active, his influence over the town of Derry is such that he controls it at all times, causes all sorts of horrors while sleeping. IT is Derry. Thank goodness his children didn’t get anywhere, am I right?

Bughuul from Sinister is a great example of a Grande-level villain

Grande: An antagonist of this size may be a threat to many people, but they’re not as all powerful or have such sweeping implications as a Venti-level threat. Still, you wouldn’t want to cross one of these guys if you ended up in their stories.

An example of a Grande-level threat would be Leland Gaunt from Needful Things. A demonic figure who looks at things from a business-like perspective, any town he comes to faces annihilation once he sets up shop. Half of Castle Rock either ended up dead or blown up because of him, after all.

Another example might be Bughuul from the movie Sinister, a Babylonian deity that eats children. Throughout the centuries, he’s manipulated children into killing their families so he could eat their souls. Anywhere he goes, you can expect blood and death to follow. He’s definitely no small potatoes, though he doesn’t warrant the same level of panic as a Venti-level threat might.

Tall: While they may be the on the lowest level of horror antagonist, that doesn’t mean you should relax. In fact, these villains tend to be much more personal than the likes of Bughuul or Cthulhu.

Tall-level villains may only be a threat to the protagonist and a few others, but they bring with them the power to destroy everything the protagonist holds dear. Demons seeking to possess a soul, vengeful ghosts, stalkers and serial killers focused on one particular victim, cursed objects, etc. They may not be seeking to end the world or blow up a town, but they will destroy the protagonist’s happiness and sanity for their own goals.

I would even include the Overlook Hotel in this category. It may be powerful and evil, but it’s only able to be so in the presence of someone with the shining, and then it only seeks to add the shining to its own power so it can be active more often. In the novel’s case, it breaks down Jack and terrorizes Danny to make them more vulnerable and ultimately to possess the former and kill the latter.

Like I said, what they’re missing in power or scope of threat, they make up for in how personal they are.


This, ladies and gentlemen, is a way to classify the threat level of horror villains.

Where does Jason fit on this scale? It’s not easy to tell.

That being said, it’s not perfect. What villains belong where is entirely dependent on who’s doing the categorizing. Is a slasher villain like Jason Voorhees a Grande because he has a particular hunting area and has killed many over the decades? Or is he a Tall because he’s only a threat if you step into his territory? And this doesn’t even cover stories like Gerald’s Game, where there is no antagonist but a pair of handcuffs and the protagonist’s own psyche. Even the Space Cowboy who visits her doesn’t really threaten her. He’s more of a reflection of her own terrors who turns out to be a real person than anything else.

So why do I write all this, if it’s not a flawed system? I do it because it’s not to categorize the villains themselves, but the stories they belong to. A story with a Tall villain is much more character-focused and can often lean into the character’s mindset. A story with a Venti-sized villain often requires the story to encompass a huge cast, lots of locations, and putting an entire population at risk. A Grande may straddle the line of the other categories, while also having varying kill counts depending on what the story requires.

In a way, The Starbucks Levels of Antagonism (copyright pending), are like the Bechdel or Mako Mori tests: exercises to examine stories, the decisions made while creating them, and how you can learn from them. And given the nature of fiction writing, as well as how difficult it is to categorize fiction like a scientific system, that’s probably for the best.

Thanks for giving me a chance to air some thoughts, Followers of Fear. I’m off to figure out where on this system I belong. Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

Over the past couple of months, people in the horror-themed Facebook groups I belong to have been raving about this particular book. I looked it up and it sounded up my alley, so when I had an Audible credit, I downloaded the audio book. But before I started it, I found out the book was written by the same guy who wrote the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, as well as wrote/directed its movie adaptation. Really? Isn’t that a sweet, YA rom-com? How do you jump from that to horror? (looks up what that book is really about.) Oh. That’s pretty dark. Yeah, I can see how the dude transitioned to horror.

Imaginary Friend follows Kate Reese and her son Christopher as they leave Kate’s abusive boyfriend and move to a small town in Pennsylvania. However, soon after they move there, Christopher disappears in the woods near his school. He reappears a week later, unable to remember what happened to him, except being led out of the woods and back to civilization by someone called “The Nice Man.” While Kate is happy to have her son back, and things start to improve after he returns, Christopher has changed. He’s smarter now, unable to sleep, and suffers from headaches a lot. And he’s in contact with the Nice Man, an invisible being who instructs him to build a treehouse in the woods he disappeared in, and to do it before Christmas. If he doesn’t, something bad will happen. To the town, to his mother, and to him.

This one was hard to put down. I normally only listen to audio books while at work, but the story was so intriguing and out there that I listened to it while checking email and cooking dinner. Imaginary Friend feels a lot like Stephen King novels like It or Needful Things, these huge stories based around weird concepts that are both scary and hard to put down. I mean, you got a kid who goes missing in the woods, and then when he comes back, has to build a treehouse to save the world from the Apocalypse. And that’s just what I feel I can tell you without spoiling too much.

I also have to give Chbosky credit: I had a hard time predicting what was going to happen as we got further into the story. Every little piece of the puzzle had the potential to surprise me, and quite a few did. During the “darkest hour” of the book, when things are at their most pessimistic, you felt the misery and the tension as the situation deteriorated. And that climax! Woo-boy, that was epic. Like, the final battle of an Avengers movie epic.

Not only that, but the characters are very well-developed. Also like some of King’s books, especially earlier ones, just about every character is well-developed. I felt like I’d known some of these characters my whole life, from Kate and Christopher Reese to the two or three old ladies suddenly regaining their faculties after years of dementia.

I do have one major gripe about the book: as the story goes further on, the novel takes on an…evangelistic air. It’s not like the Left Behind books, where it’s trying to get people to become born-again, but the story leans more in that direction than in the direction of The Stand or Supernatural. I don’t think the goal is to convert me: rather, I think Chbosky is using his Catholic upbringing to give the story a particular authenticity and philosophy other non-evangelistic Ultimate-Good-versus-Ultimate-Evil stories don’t have. There are some interesting ideas on the nature of guilt, our relationship to God, and how to find different kinds of salvation presented in the story.

Still, there were times when I was like, “Dude, scale it back a bit. I’m starting to get how people feel when I start ranking villains in horror, and they’re not horror fans.” That’s happened before, and it’s gotten awkward.

On the whole though, Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky is an engrossing horror novel that’s weird in the best of ways and full of terror and twists. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’ll give it a 4.4. Pick it up and see for yourself. You’ll never look at treehouses and deer the same way again, but you’ll have a hell of a ride thanks to it.