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Read an Exclusive Excerpt from Serena Valentino’s EVIL THING

Disney’s Villains book series digs into the pasts of the villainous characters you know from the animated films. Serena Valentino has written six novels so far focused on the likes of Mother Gothel, Ursula, and Maleficent. And the next villain going under the microscope? Cruella de Vil. The dastardly villain from 101 Dalmatians takes center stage in Evil Thing, releasing on July 7. It’s the first book in the Villains series that is more like an autobiography. Cruella looks back on her childhood and upbringing, and the choices she made that lead her to events of the movie. And Nerdist has the first excerpt from the upcoming tale.

Evil Thing book cover with Cruella de Vil

Disney Hyperion

If Cruella doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will. The refrain makes for an ideal book title about the puppy-killing villain. But what will Cruella’s memoirs reveal? She has a story to tell about the complicated bonds between mothers and daughters and female friendship. About desires and dreams. Valentino tells Nerdist, “I feel with each villain I’ve written about I’ve really gotten to know these characters, and made them real in my imagination, so they could take over and tell their story. But with Cruella it’s different. This time the story is written in ‘her words.’ For me, and I think for my readers as well, this will make for a much more intimate experience. We really get to know Cruella in an entirely different way than with my other villains stories.”

The following excerpt, which is the first 12 pages of the book, sets the stage in Hell Hall—Cruella’s childhood home. It introduces Cruella’s mother, who is certainly… interesting. Evil Thing establishes early on that Cruella confronts loneliness, and that she could act like a spoiled jerk from a young age.

I suppose I could start my story here, in Hell Hall, where all my marvelous plans were born from the darkness. But I’d rather start from the beginning, or at least close enough to give you an idea of what makes me tick. Sure, you know the story of those puppies, those wretched Dalmatians and their insipid owners, Roger and Anita. And I’m sure you even rooted for them to evade me. Me, that monster, the “devil woman” in a fur coat. But don’t I deserve a chance to tell my own side of the story? The real story. It is fabulous, after all. Behold! The story of me. Cruella De Vil!

Ticktock, darlings, we’re going back in time to when I was a young girl of eleven living in my family’s mansion. So prepare yourselves, dears; you’re in for a wild ride.

My mama, papa, and I lived in a grand house on Belgrave Square. It was large, lurid, and magnificent, an imposing home with four massive columns supporting a terrace that looked down on the square. Our community was tucked safely away from the common London rabble on the other side. We were on the proper side, surrounded by many sprawling parks, creating a world that seemed to belong to us alone.

Of course, one could see the occasional servant polishing the brass on the front porches, or a nanny strolling in the park with her squealing charge. And there were the old women who sold violets on corners, and the little boys who sold the papers and delivered messages, but they were almost invisible, like wraiths. I hardly thought of them as people.

I called them “non-people.” To me, they almost seemed like ghosts.

While of course my own servants were very much alive, most of them were like silent specters, popping in and out of view only when we needed them. They weren’t real. Or didn’t seem so to me, anyway. Not like Mama and Papa. Not like me. Some of my servants seemed more real to me than others. The ones who were always in my view. The servants who weren’t quite servants, but something in between a servant and a member of my family. We shall get to them in good time.

But oh, how I loved my mama and papa, and our grand house in Belgravia with its crystal chandeliers, lavish wallpapers, and shining wood floors covered in exotic rugs. And in a way I even loved our ghostlike servants moving silently and systematically through the house, taking care of our every whim. Always there. Always ready to do my bidding at the sound of a tinkling bell.

The image of our grand house shines in my memory like a light, desperately trying to lead me back home again. If only I could stand within the safety of its walls once more. To live my days as gloriously as I did when I was a child, when everything was simple. There were so many splendid days in that house. They spin around in my memory, sometimes making me dizzy with homesickness.

I spent most of my days with Miss Pricket, my governess, in the schoolroom. Miss Pricket had steered my education since I was old enough to learn how to read. She gave me lessons in French, watercolor painting, needlepoint, reading, and writing. Most girls in our social circle got their educations from their governesses. Had I been a boy I would have been sent off to boarding school, where I would have learned all manner of subjects, such as Greek mythology, history, and mathematics. Girls were expected to learn how to conduct themselves in a morning room. How to behave like proper young ladies. How to host splendid parties, plan menus, and direct conversations at dinner. And that, too, was part of the education I received from Miss Pricket. But she never said no if I expressed interest in a subject that wasn’t reserved for young ladies. She encouraged my zeal for geography, for example, and let me devote as much time as I wanted to learning about the cultures and customs of different countries, because she knew I desperately wanted to travel the world when I was old enough to take such an adventure. I have such fond memories of those days. But my favorite part of each day was when I would go down to the morning room with Miss Pricket to spend a blissful hour with my mama.

One hour every day, entirely devoted to me.

My mother’s passion for exquisite clothes was unwavering. She was always beautifully dressed in the latest designs. No one could hold a candle to her, not even me. And you all know how stunning I am, don’t you, dears? You’ve seen my photos in the papers. You know of my exploits and my relentless devotion to fashion. Well, my dears, my mama was the same. She had an exciting, glamorous life, and she deserved it. She was the most beautiful and beguiling woman I ever met. She was a true lady.

She didn’t have to make time for me, as busy as she was, but she did, at the same time each day right after my lessons with Miss Pricket. I would hold the image of my mama in my mind as I headed down our grand staircase, making my way from the schoolroom to the morning room. I had to will myself not to run down the stairs, to be a proper young lady and not squeal with delight because I was so excited to see my mama. After all, my schoolroom was a new development. It had been recently converted from the nursery, which meant I was on my way to becoming a young lady.

Miss Pricket was always there, holding my hand to make sure I behaved properly. Not that I needed her guidance in how to behave. Though I did need her guidance in how to dress, as I had not yet developed Mama’s ingenious skill for putting together an ensemble. Before we left the schoolroom each day to be presented to Mama, Miss Pricket made sure I was fastidiously put together. I insisted on nothing less than perfection. Miss Pricket would list everything off in succession as she inspected me, checking to see if my hair, dress, and bows were all in proper order, knowing I would be mortified if my mother noticed anything out of place. I wouldn’t dream of going down to the morning room without first changing into one of my prettier dresses, or before making sure my hair was in perfect ringlets.

The morning room was the room Mama preferred. It was her domain, and decorated exquisitely. It wasn’t the largest room in the house; as one of the rooms on the main floor reserved for family, it was smaller but cozy and one of the most beautiful. The far wall was lined with windows, along with a set of French doors that led to the terrace, which looked down on Belgrave Square. In front of the windows was a large wooden desk where my mother did her correspondences and dealt with the daily running of the house. On the right-hand wall was the fireplace. The mantel was tastefully decorated with the precious treasures my parents had collected during their various travels around the globe: a pair of lovely jade tiger statues, a small golden clock, and a black onyx statue of Anubis, the Egyptian god and protector of ancient tombs. Anubis took the shape of a dog, and I always fancied he was a protector of dogs, until my father set me straight. And of course on the mantel were the invitation cards to dinners and parties that adorned the mantels of all the more fashionable households. Mama always had at least three invitations there on any given week.
Painted above the fireplace was a large semi- circular art deco design that has been branded into my memory. When I close my eyes and think of the Belgravia house, I think of that design. I only wish I could describe it more accurately, because it’s not the design I’m trying to describe as much as the feeling it evokes when I think of it. A sense of home. How does one describe that?

The feeling of home.

On the far right of the fireplace was a set of bookshelves flanked by two large potted palms, and a distance before them was a rolling tray with various decanters containing spirits, cocktail glasses, and a canister for dispensing seltzer water. Before the fireplace was a leather couch, and opposite were two leather chairs with a small round table between them. The walls were painted a dusty plum and decorated with oil paintings in ornate golden frames, portraits of austere ladies and gentlemen. They were likely relatives of my father’s whose names have been lost to us.

Almost every visit to the morning room to see my mother was the same, but it took my breath away each time I saw her sitting on the leather couch, waiting for me. She was so striking, my mama. Whatever her plans were after our visit in the morning room would determine how she was dressed. Usually it was an afternoon out with friends for tea and shopping. In one of my memories she wears a lovely tea-length dress with a low sash around her hips, as was the fashion then. Her lipstick is a dusty rose color to match her dress, a striking contrast to her long, shining black hair, which she wore bundled up to look like a bob. In the evenings when she would go out, she would wear red lipstick, but never in the daytime. Red lipstick is for evenings, she would always say. Sometimes I still hear her advice echoing in my mind, and when I do I feel as though I am still a little girl.

One particular afternoon stands out in my mind.

To be honest, I can’t say if this memory is of one day or many, all jumbled up together in my mind. Still, it shines brightly. My mother was sitting casually on the brown leather couch that was draped with a lavish red throw. I wanted to run into her arms the moment I saw her, but Miss Pricket squeezed my hand, a gentle reminder to act like a young lady. Instead, I stood patiently, waiting for her to divert her attention from the stack of letters and cards she was going through. When she finally looked up at me, I smiled my most charming smile.
“Good afternoon, Cruella, my dear,” she said, putting her cheek out for me to kiss it. “I see you’re wearing that red dress again.”

I was mortified. Mama looked disappointed in me, and it made my stomach drop.

“I thought you liked this dress, Mama. You said so just the other day. You said it made me look pretty.” My mother sighed and put down the letters she was going through.

“That’s my point, my dear. I just saw you wearing it a few short days ago, yet you insist on wearing it again, when I know your closet is bursting with new dresses. A lady is never seen wearing the same dress twice, Cruella.” I was livid with Miss Pricket. How could she let this happen? How could she let me wear the same dress twice?

“Miss Pricket, would you mind ringing for tea? Then, please, the both of you, do sit down. You’re making me nervous hovering around me like a couple of birds.”

“Of course, your ladyship.” Miss Pricket pulled the cord hanging to the left of the fireplace mantel, then sat down in one of the leather chairs across from the couch where Mama and I usually sat. While we waited for our tea, Mama would always ask me the same questions in the same succession. Every single time. She never missed a beat, my mama.

“Are you minding Miss Pricket, my dear?”

“Oh yes, Mama.”

“Good girl. And are you doing well with your lessons?”

“Yes, Mama. Very well. Right now I’m reading a book about a brave young princess who can talk to trees.”

“Stuff and nonsense. Talking to trees, indeed. Miss Pricket, what’s this folderol you’re having my daughter read?”

“It’s one of Cruella’s adventure stories, my lady, from the book Lord De Vil gave her.”

“Ah, yes. Well, I won’t have her ruining her eyes, reading in the late hours.”

“No, my lady. I read the stories to her in the evenings.”

“Very well then. Oh, look. Jackson is here with the tea.” And so he was, closely followed by Jean and Pauline, two young maids in black uniforms with white hats and aprons. I could always tell what time of day it was based on the color of the maids’ uniforms. Mornings and early afternoons they were in pink, and late afternoons and evenings they wore black.

Evil Thing will arrive on July 7. Pre-order from your favorite local bookstore now.

Featured Image: Disney Hyperion

Amy Ratcliffe is the Managing Editor for Nerdist and the author of Star Wars: Women of the Galaxy. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.