Plenty of video gamers and moviegoers have come up with lists of the ten most villainous villains (see here, for example, or here or here), but readers of literature do not seem to think in such terms any more. In a rare exception, the author of the Bite Me blog, in an illustrated list which leans precariously toward the movies, creditably includes Milton’s Satan and Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein’s monster among his 10 Freaking Awesome Villains and Antagonists! My only complaint is that Milton’s Satan (“by merit rais’d To that bad eminence”) isn’t his #1!
Ever since Conrad closed out the century with a long story about the villainous Mr. Kurtz in Blackwood’s Magazine, his disciples and successors have been few and far between in English-language fiction. When a villain does appear—think of Henry Wilcox in Howards End, for example—he is offered a measure of redemption by the end of the novel. Coming up with a list of the ten most hauntingly horrible of the horrible characters in fiction since then (the phrase is Kingsley Amis’s) is no easy task:
(10.) Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (1925). Former college football player; breaks his adulterous lover’s nose with a short punch; earnestly talks her husband into murdering Gatsby. Fitzgerald attributes his behavior to a “vast carelessness.”
( 9.) Hollis Lomax in Stoner (1965). Chairman of the English department in which William Stoner teaches; a hunchback, barely five feet tall, he tries to destroy Stoner’s career to avenge a protégé whom Stoner had flunked; unable to get Stoner fired, he refuses to promote him and for twenty years assigns him nothing but sections of English composition five days a week at all hours of the day; when Stoner finds a little happiness with a young instructor in the department, Lomax fires her. A memorable portrait of the academic hack for whom bureaucratic power compensates for a lack of scholarship.
( 8.) O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Agent of the Thought Police; pretends to belong to the resistance movement, dupes Winston Smith into revealing himself as a thought-criminal; tortures Winston until he breaks, but not before defining the essence of totalitarianism for him: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” (For some reason, NPR lists Big Brother as the fifty-ninth best character in literature since 1900, even though Big Brother is not a character at all but the public face of the Party—a face on posters. Might as well call the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg a character in The Great Gatsby.)
( 7.) Clare Quilty in Lolita (1955). Humbert Humbert’s “shadow,” even more monstrous and perverted than the self-confessed pervert and monster; abducts Lolita and spirits her away to Duk Duk Ranch (“an obscene Oriental word for copulation”—Alfred Appel), where he presses her into orgies with young boys while he watches; antisemite, pornographer, mediocre playwright.
( 6.) The two nameless mountain men in James Dickey’s Deliverance (1970). So famous they have entered into American myth, the popular image of menacing rural Southerners. Their anal rape of Bobby Trippe is one of the cruelest scenes in American fiction. (Their even more famous line, “Squeal like a pig,” from John Boorman’s film, is not to be found in the novel.) The suburb-dwellers canoeing down the Cahulawassee River have never encountered “such brutality,” “such disregard for another person’s body.”
( 5.) Bigger Thomas in Native Son (1940). The first mass murderer in American fiction who was not a Gothic exaggeration. Richard Wright cannot decide whether he is responsible for the deaths of Mary Dalton and his “girl” Bessie or whether the “whole sick social organism” of racist America is to blame—the indecision, strangely enough, is one source of the novel’s greatness—but no reader can forget Bigger’s chopping off the head of Mary’s corpse to fit it into the furnace nor the way he beats Bessie with a brick again and again until “he seemed to be striking a wet wad of cotton. . . .”
( 4.) Popeye in Sanctuary (1931). As a child he sliced up small animals; as an adult, he murders two men and a dog; impotent and syphilitic, he rapes Temple Drake with a corncob; he “smells like that black stuff that ran out of Bovary’s mouth and down her bridal veil when they raised her head.”
( 3.) Judge Holden in Blood Meridian (1985). The murderous pedophile who leads the scalp-hunting Glanton gang and acts as its spokesman, delivering a philosophical defense of its butchery by calling it the “dance of war” (“Only that man who has offered himself up entire to the blood of war, who has been offered up himself entire to the floor of the pit and seen the horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance”). His thinking is more frightening than his violent actions.
( 2.) Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1962). The teenaged sociopath, a rapist and murderer and apostle of “ultraviolence,” who narrates Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel. The American Film Institute ranked Alex the twelfth greatest movie villain and the highest-ranked literary character, unless you count Nurse Ratched from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which I don’t. As Burgess said of him later, “He rejoices in articulate language and even invents a new form of it”—the vocal charm is more blood-curdling than any dark philosophy.
( 1.) James Todd in A Handful of Dust (1934). Tony Last escapes the savages of the South American jungle only to fall captive to the most savage human being ever drawn up by an English-language writer: an illiterate recluse who obliges him to read Dickens aloud—the entire Dickens corpus, over and over and over again—for the remainder of his days. No worse torture can be imagined.