The Care and Feeding of a Villain

King of the Dead by Joseph Nassise

Written by Joseph Nassise

I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of psychopomps; those creatures, spirits, or deities that show up in many myths and religions, whose responsibility is to escort newly deceased souls to the afterlife, and while looking for a villain for the sequel to Eyes to See, I decided to dig into the idea a bit more to see what, if anything, might work. The more I dug, the more interested I became.

While you might not have heard the term “psychopomp” before, I’m sure you’re familiar with them. Charon the Ferryman, the Greek mythological figure whose job it is to guide the dead across the River Styx, is a psychopomp. The Valkyries of Norse legend, who bring the vanquished to Valhalla, are likewise psychopomps. The Morrigan, the Celtic Goddess of War and Death, is another.

Psychopomps exist in modern culture as well. Stephen King uses sparrows as psychopomps to great effect in his novel The Dark Half. George Lass and the other reapers on the television program Dead Like Me could accurately be described psychopomps, as could the Reapers from Supernatural. Even Grim, the hound from the wizarding world of Harry Potter, might be a psychopomp.

Everything I’ve read states that it is not a psychopomp’s job to judge the dead, but solely to escort them to their destination. That got me thinking. What would happen if a psychopomp went “psycho,” so to speak, and began to judge the dead? What if they went a step further and acted as judge, jury, and executioner all rolled into one? What if they considered every living thing on this plane worthy of their attention?

Suddenly I had a purpose for my villain and a problem my hero had to solve. Then, while hunting through various examples of psychopomps, I stumbled upon the legend of the Ankou, sometimes written as the Angeu, a psychopomp from Breton mythology that appeared as a skeleton-like man dressed in a wide brimmed hat and old cloak, carrying a scythe, and driving a rickety old wooden cart pulled by two horses, one whole and hearty, the other blind and diseased. Some stories say he is the first child of Adam and Eve, damned for their transgressions. Others say that he is the first dead in a given year and is required to collect the others for the next 364 days until passing into the afterlife himself. One story in particular called him the King of the Dead.

That one line caused everything I’d been thinking about to finally gel together. Not only had I found my villain, I found a title, too.

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