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09/27/01: Memo from Firetop Mountain: A Touch of Evil, by Pieter van Hiel

Editor Pieter van Hiel wonders how much is too much. (Mature content)
A quick note is in order. I originally selected the topic for this month’s editorial several weeks before the horrific events of September 11th, and had drafted out several paragraphs.  In the light of the terror attacks, the subject of my editorial is painfully relevant. The story I am about to share is true, though names and certain details have been altered in accordance with a non-disclosure agreement I have signed. Please bear with me – it takes me a while to work up to my point, but I DO get there in the end.

Carl died calling for his mother and Jesus. Early one morning, soon after New Year 1998, his drinking buddies forced him through a tiny bedroom window on their 16th floor apartment.  As the window frame splintered, a tenant in a neighbouring apartment heard the 44-year old screaming “Momma” and “Save me Jesus.” As Carl fell from the window he made no sound, and the neighbour forgot the cries. Carl’s body was not discovered until sunrise. His friends were still drunk in the morning when police questioned them about Carl’s death. They immediately admitted to his murder, and boasted they had shut the little man up for good.

Carl was often being told to shut up. In life, he varied between long periods of apparently content silence, and frantic hours where he incessantly prayed, or sang, or simply gave voice to a frenzied internal dialogue about the weather, his bad arm, the cop who broke his nose twenty years ago – whatever random thoughts he had seem to fire straight from his brain to his mouth.

And yet, he wasn’t an incoherent “crazy.” If you spoke to Carl, he would speak sensibly to you, albeit in a rough and slurred voice. He realized his speech was difficult to understand, and he would take care to speak as slowly and distinctly as he could. Some people said he’d fallen asleep on the street one winter night as a teenager, and almost died of hypothermia. His episodes of frantic speech were said to have started at that time. Others said they were triggered by a drug overdose in the 1970s’.

Carl was a regular at the mobile soup kitchen I work at, and was a long-time resident of the Salvation Army Men’s Shelter. He was an alcoholic, but battled valiantly against his addiction, and was gradually finding himself able to spend longer and longer periods on the wagon. He had fallen off, hard, in the weeks before the night he died. He came to the soup truck periodically in those weeks. He was an utterly miserable figure the first time I saw him in December 1997. He had slipped on some ice, and landed on his “bad arm,” and badly hurt himself. He had lost his winter coat, and requested another from the soup truck drivers. We managed to find a brand new parka for him, but didn’t see him again for a few nights. The Shelter Director worried for him, and stopped by the truck at night after his day at the centre to see if we’d heard news of Carl.

In mid-December, I saw Carl again for the last time. Carl was in one his frantic periods, and he trudged through the slush muttering and singing to himself. The Shelter Director was at the back of the van, sorting donations. Carl was still coatless, and his bad arm was wrapped in a dirty bandage. His 5’3” frame was obviously suffering the effects of exposure, as he was shaking uncontrollably. He made a beeline for the van, and clutched at my coat. There were tears in his eyes, and words spilled from his mouth in a drunken rush. “Pray for me, brother. Pray for me Pieter. Pray to Jesus for me brother. I need His help, brother. I’m so cold Pieter. Jesus help me, brother,” he wept.

Before I could get a word in, I noticed the Shelter Director approaching Carl from behind with something behind his back. The Director, now retired, is a burly, red-faced man with a white beard, and has been compared more than once to Santa Claus. This comparison is not entirely correct. He was a naval officer for several years, and has a generally stoic and taciturn disposition, though he is very much a good man.

As Carl wept and pleaded, the Director took the winter parka from behind his back, and wrapped it around Carl. As he did so, he took the little man in his arms and gave hugged him tightly. When he let go, Carl took our hands and led us in what was surely the least coherent prayer of thanksgiving I have ever heard. When he was finished, the Director and myself were both teary eyed. That was the last time I saw Carl.

He returned to the Shelter that night, and stayed there until a few days before the New Year, when he went to celebrate the holidays with his “friends.” He stayed sober until the very last hours of his life.

His death cast a definite shadow over the work at the Shelter. Carl was undoubtedly a pest at times, but his faith and constant prayerfulness were often cited as an inspiration to he workers, and to other residents of the Shelter. His confessed killers were known to the staff and residents, and more than long-time resident swore revenge if he ever laid eyes on them.

Fast-forward eight months. In the intervening time, Carl’s “friends” recanted their admission of guilt, and claimed he had jumped from the window himself. Past suicide attempts were mentioned. Claims of improper police behaviour were made. In the end, a judge sentenced the two to time served for a lesser charge. I followed the case, and felt the verdict to be strange, but the only one the courts could make by following the letter of the law.

One night, while returning the soup truck to the Shelter about 1 AM, my volunteer spotted a man lying facedown on the street about a block from the Shelter doors. We stopped, and went to check on him. He was a monstrously fat man, at least 400 lbs. As we approached, he wallowed and flopped on the sidewalk, trying to get upright. We were unsure whether he was hurt or drunk… until we got downwind of him. The volunteer and I managed to heave him upright. As we did so, his filthy pair of trousers fell off. He was naked underneath, and he pulled his face into mine. “Don’t call the cops. Don’t call the cops,” he said. I told him we would take him to the Shelter. I knew they wouldn’t take him in this state, but I figured they could call for a taxi to take him to the Men’s Detox Centre across the city. He could sit on the inside steps, at least.

The man pulled his trousers up with one hand, and leaned the other heavily on my shoulder. We slowly shuffled the block to the Shelter. As we got closer, he pulled up short. “They won’t let me in there. I don’t want to go there,” he said. I told him we could call a cab to take him to Detox, or home, and he grinned strangely. He pulled me closer to him again. “I just beat a murder charge. They won’t let me in there. I killed the little shit, and I just beat it,” he said.

The volunteer and I realized who he was at the same time. This man was one of the two who may well have killed our mutual acquaintance, and he seemed to be confessing to the act. We pulled him forward to the doors, and I spotted the night desk man looking out the window. A former con that’d straightened up, he was one of those who had sworn revenge against the men who killed Carl. He was watching us as we laboured along the sidewalk. His arms were folded, and his eyes were hard.

I left the fat man and my volunteer outside the front doors, and spoke to the night man through the safety glass. “I’m not letting that fuck in here,” he said, flatly. I asked if we could leave him on the stairs. “I won’t be responsible,” he said. Through the glass walls of his office, I could see some of the men from the shelter – old men, regulars who had known Carl for years. They knew whom it was I was bringing in.

I left the fat derelict on the street outside the Shelter, and called for a police car to take him to Detox. He got angry when he heard me talking to a police officer on the telephone, and managed to walk a ways down the street. However, the police knew his name, and knew he was at risk. A squad car arrived shortly, and took him away. I never saw him again.

That night, I feel I came closer to real evil and corruption than I ever have before. As a reporter, I often am forced to write about unpleasant people and acts, but they are removed from me. That night, I looked into the eyes of a confessed killer, and I did not see Hannibal Lector. I saw a wreck of humanity, an utterly dissolute sack of childish appetites, and I felt entirely repulsed. This was evil.

RPG’s would be very dull affairs without evil. So would movies, books, and computer games. As participants in role-play sessions on IMC, we are often required to play the role of an evil person. Some users seem to revel in this. On occasion, IMC has been obliged to discipline a user who has crossed the line, and started to use the site as a means of exercising his own sick fantasies about rape and murder.

It is my contention that all too often we forget that the third letter in “RPG” stands for GAME. I feel we should indulge in this hobby as an escape from the travails from the real world. There is a surfeit of evil in real life, and it seems horribly unhealthy to wish to wallow in it in fantasy. I think of computer games like ‘Kingpin’, or RPG’s like ‘FATAL’ and ‘Little Fears,’ games that seem to have forgotten what it is to be a game.

When I run an RPG, I am generally content to run cartoonish villains of the pulp variety. On occasion, in a particularly gritty game, I will throw in a ‘real’ villain, a rapist or profiteer of human sorrow. This is done rarely, and meant to add a little relevance to the game. They never BECOME the game. I prefer moustache twirling, larger than life baddies who want to blow up the world just ‘cause. Give me gusty, melodramatic blackguards with a penchant for deathtraps and elaborate schemes.

Why?

Villains like this aren’t real. Real villainy, real evil, is far cry from these caricatures. Real evil is the blank eyes of a wasted man with no future, no life, boasting with a drunken smile of the harmless transient he has killed. Real evil is the rapist, the bigot, the banal and conscienceless suburban teens who kill 23 classmates in the name of nothing. Real evil falls unwelcome from a sunny sky and burns 5000 people to ash. The real world has enough of real evil. Let’s shut that out of IMC. Let’s put the “game” back in RPG.

I’m going to steal a line from IMC sysop Tewson here. “Evil does not respect us because we do not respect evil. We turn it into a toy.” To put it another way – Hitler turned Jews into soap. Hollywood turned Jews into soap opera. By creating films that revel in evil (Hannibal), or producing countless hour-long specials about serial killers, we in some way dishonour those who have suffered by it. The antidote to this is not silence, by any means, but a respectful recognition of the enormity of evil. Do you need to play out a rape scene online? No. By doing so, you insult millions of victims, and signal that the desire is somehow acceptable if separated from the action.

Again… let’s put the “game” back in RPG.

Pieter promises that next month’s editorial won’t be so depressing.

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