According to an English Evangelical bishop writing in 1991, the clear signs of Satanic possession include inappropriate laughter, inexplicable knowledge, a false smile, Scottish ancestry, relatives who have been coal miners and the habitual choice of black for dress or car colour. Some of us associate evil with different circumstances — for instance, those in which two ten-year-old boys tortured and murdered a toddler in Liverpool 17 years ago. Terry Eagleton bases the first chapter of his book On Evil on this case. Not once in this chapter does he refer to the killers or their victim by name, and not once does he need to. The murder of Jamie Bulger by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson was uniquely traumatising enough for it to be burned into our collective memories (yet not unique enough almost to happen again last year in Edlington).
Jon Venables: A Killer by nature or nurture?
Eagleton starts his book with this case for the same reason that I've started the review with it — because we both know that it makes our writing infinitely more interesting. Because the thing that sells almost as much as sex is evil. Because Huntley and Carr, Hindley and Brady, Venables and Thompson are all sure things when it comes to a good news story, even years after the crime. (In the last few months, both Huntley and Venables have graced the front pages of the papers.) There is something about evil that absolutely enthrals us — even more so if it involves women or children — and there is something terrifyingly thrilling about the thought that there are monsters, psychopaths and sadists in our midst. On Evil is laced with these villains and anti-heroes, both real and fictional, and automatically becomes much more absorbing because of this: Pinkie, in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, with his "slatey eyes...touched with the annihilating eternity from which he had come and to which he went"; the nihilist Iago, who seeks to destroy the angelic pompousness of Othello; even Satan himself, who cries "Evil, be thou my good!" in Paradise Lost.
We classify such killers as monsters in order to separate them from the merely wicked, and to separate them from ourselves. After all, life would be pretty unbearable if we were to believe that evil was commonplace or something that we could all succumb to in the right circumstances. Evil has to be a category on its own, that exists above and beyond understandable human behaviour.
Eagleton is out to spoil this illusion that we've created for ourselves, arguing that evil isn't as mysterious or incomprehensible as we may like to believe.
A police officer involved in the investigation of Jamie Bulger's murder said that the moment he clapped eyes on one of the culprits he knew he was evil. Eagleton sees this as a "pre-emptive strike against soft-hearted liberals", a ploy to secure full punishment for the boys by arguing that their actions were without rhyme or reason and couldn't be explained away by looking into Thompson's and Venables's backgrounds. Evil people are therefore evil by nature, not nurture, and must be punished as such. They are like it from birth, like Kevin in Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, who, to some, displays sociopathic tendencies even as a baby. Unfortunately, this is a circular argument: if someone is evil by nature then they can't really help who they are and what they do and are, perversely, innocent. They have been born with a disease or psychosis.