A lot of times when a work of fiction creates some sort of extreme group as antagonists, there’s not necessarily a lot of thought devoted to how they actually function or fit into the world. Where did the Gayboy Bersekers and Smegma Crazies of The Road Warrior get their gasoline? Obviously their main interest in besieging the refinery camp was to get more, but in the meantime were they just rationing what was left from the last place they overran? How long have they been at this particular business model, which given the apparent wasteland state of their surroundings doesn’t seem likely to be sustainable in the long run?
The easy answer is to say that they’re wasteful crazies just living day to day with no real thought for tomorrow, and this is the archetype most such antagonists follow. They are the raiders, the plunderers, the brigands, sustaining themselves through a purely parasitic existence… less human beings than prairie ticks. The hard-working villagers grow the harvest, and the villains come and take it — at least until the heroes arrive to stop them. We don’t tend to question it much as a concept because I think we’re all hard-wired at some level to not really think of *why* the bullies are taking our lunch money, only that they are and thus the only thing we really need to know about them is that they are bad. It’s so ingrained that it scales flawlessly in fiction from individuals all the way to nations and even entire intergalactic empires.
So why, then, did J.R.R. Tolkien bother to write one of his appendices on the subject of Middle Earth explaining how Mordor feeds all of its forces of Darkness? Sure, you figure supernatural beings like The Nine are able to subsist on the despair of their victims or something like that, but orcs gotta eat, and the volcanic wastes surrounding Mount Doom don’t seem very conducive to crops or wildlife. Tolkien doesn’t bring it up during Lord of the Rings, but he did think about it, and thus, Nurn exists. Nurn was the South part of Mordor, a part the interloping Hobbits never witnessed, a semi-arid but fertile place that Tolkien claimed was enough to keep the Armies of Evil fed.
Is Nurn enough? Debatable, and it does take away some of the dark mystique of Mordor to imagine that it has farmers or engages in any sort of trade not based on bellowing trolls bashing down your gates, but I found it fascinating that Tolkien made the effort. He wisely left it out of his actual narrative, but I think he made that effort because he really wanted his fictional world of Middle Earth to have some sense of reality to it despite all the fantastic elements. And the reality is that bullies and even entire “rogue states” exist, but they’re more complicated than we might ever usually see or consider. Why is that crazy bully taking your lunch money? Because it has value in whatever economy you and he are both a part of. Yep, both of you. If that bully was truly just a rabid animal doing it for the evulz, why would he care about the coins?
Think about it. North Korea is about as close to cartoony supervillainy as it gets in the modern world, but they still have a lot of individuals and even some countries willing to do business with them. Blackbeard and other pirates always had one or more ports o’ call who wouldn’t ask questions about where they were getting their goods as long as they weren’t paying taxes on them. The mobs of the Prohibition era and modern day drug smugglers all still had buying and selling of goods to do at the end of a day of murder and extortion, and plenty of trading partners willing to take the risk of dealing with ruthless and quite possibly unhinged criminals for the promise of profit.
And so there we are. The Huachucas may be a crazy, bloody cult with all manner of bizarre beliefs, and certainly not above engaging in raiding, but would they have lasted for over twenty years if they just killed and tortured everybody they came across? It occurred to me early on that based on some facts of my world, people like them can occupy a really nasty but profitable niche:
- Zombies are a profitable commodity.
- Zombies come from people.
- It is considered morally repugnant (and illegal) to intentionally get a person infected. It is, in fact, considered murder. Letting them die from that infection like the Huachucas do is just plain sick.
But so long as that murder isn’t happening in front of you, aren’t your hands clean? And aren’t you getting your zombie for a much lower price than a reputable trapper would charge? I mean, who’s to say it’s not just a wild zombie they found, right?
People can rationalize nearly anything if it benefits them, even dealing with the Devil. And if the Devil then takes the gold he earned and walks into your bar and demands to buy a bunch of booze, are you going to refuse him? At least he’s paying rather than torturing you and your friends and family and just taking it, right? Given his reputation, do you really want to make him angry?
Not every fictional property needs to contemplate these things, much less show them occurring, but I do find it a fascinating phenomenon that repeats itself throughout human history, and one that can be no less compelling to showcase. The renegade Brujo of The Missing was leading his band down to Mexico to sell the girls they kidnapped into slavery. Hans Gruber of Die Hard was, in his own words, “an exceptional thief”. They and their cronies killed and tortured, sometimes in very sadistic ways, and yet seemed all the more distressingly real because behind all the mumbo-jumbo and creeds their motives were ultimately profit-based, something I dare say most of us can understand.
Mind you I’m not saying our Brujefe has money first and foremost in her heart… there are always some outlaws who seem to be in it for sheer sociopathic joy, shunning the morals of society in favor of their own code. Those who decide to trade with them had best hope they have the luck and/or force necessary to keep the dealings… if we might use the term here at all… honest.