The scariest monsters, it turns out, are all too human.
My Friend Luke McCallin‘s great book The Man From Berlin is a historical thriller set in Nazi-occupied Sarajevo. It’s a page-turner, ideal for anyone who loves reading about other times and places. McCallin creates (or re-creates) a time period with mesmerizing detail.
But part of me was hesitant to read it. Why? The protagonist, Gregor Reinhardt, is an officer in the German army. When I read I like to try and identify with the main character. I didn’t want to identify with a Nazi. Luke reminded me that not everyone in the German army during World War II was a Nazi.
That distinction wasn’t fine enough for me (and I’m still borderline). Lucky for me I got past this hesitation, because McCallin very subtly walks Reinhardt through the Nazi house of horrors. In the beginning, Reinhardt compartmentalizes: he’s a German soldier, separate from the Nazis. By the end, Reinhardt’s eyes are opened and he sees, like it or not, that he is playing a part in the evil the Nazis are perpetrating, even if his own hands aren’t bloody.
What is common knowledge for all of us – the atrocities committed – is new learning for Reinhardt, and through his eyes we come face to face with the scariest monsters of all, and they aren’t the demonic type. They are not vampires or werewolves or aliens. They’re human.
Take the character of Marija. The novel opens with Reinhardt being assigned to investigate her murder. She’s Croatian, but she collaborates with the Nazis, cataloging, observing, maybe even participating, in their horrors with creepy glee. Now, I have some doubts about whether she was as evil as depicted – she’s only described by others; we never actually see her in action. There’s a chance she was a scapegoat for others with their own agendas. Maybe. But it’s hard to read her as anything but a gorgeous monster.
I love to write about ghosts and monsters. The Last Conquistador stars a demon wreaking havoc on the life of a young Army soldier. But what I write is pure escapism – it’s safe to live in an imaginary world of ghosts and demons and vampires. It’s much harder to look head-on at the evil and danger that exists in this world, which is probably why we love roller coasters and monster movies.