Halsey’s new song that she performed on Saturday Night Live, “You should be sad” (you can watch it here) has had me D E E P in my feelings all week, ever since I heard the song. It reminds me of the only man I think I ever really loved, and how that relationship was doomed because he “…can’t love nothin’ unless there was somethin’ in it…” for him. In the story of my life (and all writers believe their lives have plot and theme and depths of meaning), he is most definitely a villain. No matter how handsome, how charming, how complicated, or how conflicted he might be, he is most definitely a villain, a dangerous narcissist, a sociopath who takes and takes until there’s nothing left and simply leaves.
Thinking along that admittedly bitter and self-serving vein conjured up images of villains crafted from ink and paper rather than flesh and blood. Do imagined, constructed villains have anything in common with those of the living and breathing variety? The answer: absolutely they do, so for your reading pleasure, here is my list of truly terrible and terrifying villains in literature (in no particular order and there’s only nine because I couldn’t think of one more villain; I’m the worst, I know, and I’m sorry). AND SPOILER WARNING!!! SPOILERS ABOUND!!! (Actually, I think I did okay in keeping secrets, but better to be safe than sorry).
- Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
When they entered the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom they found Professor Umbridge already seated at the teacher’s desk, wearing the fluffy pink cardigan of the night before and the black velvet bow on top of her head. Harry was again reminded forcibly of a large fly perched unwisely on top of an even larger toad” (Rowling 238).
One of the best qualities of a villain, outside of the comic book variety, is his or her ability to surprise by flying under the radar. What I mean is that Dolores Umbridge is perfectly put together, what with her matching cardigan sets and bows and seemingly perfect manners. The depths of Umbridge’s dastardly depravity are revealed slowly, layer by layer, as the character herself unravels as she spirals into madness. At certain points throughout the fifth installment of the Harry Potter series, it seems as if she is simply unbeatable. She matches Harry step for step and is a worthy adversary. I would even argue she’s a more terrifying villain than Lord Voldemort because Voldemort is essentially a monster while Umbridge is a monster hiding in plain sight. And while she does not have special skills or super strength or advanced technology, she does have the scariest weapons of all: political backing and the ability to completely manipulate the bureaucracy.
- Amy Dunne from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
“I’m so much happier now that I’m dead. Technically, missing. Soon to be presumed dead. But as shorthand, we’ll say dead. It’s been only a matter of hours, but I feel better already; loose joints, wavy muscles. At one point this morning, I realized my face felt strange, different. I looked in the rearview mirror–dread Carthage forty-three miles behind me, my smug husband lounging around his sticky bar as mayhem dangled on a thin piano wire just above his shitty, oblivious head–and I realized I was smiling. Ha! That’s new” (Flynn 219).
Amy Dunne is without a doubt a psychopath, maybe even a sociopath. However, Amy’s ability to remain hyper focused on her goal to meet success at all costs is admirable … except for the fact that she’s either killing or manipulating every single person around her. Amy is the voice inside a woman’s head that tells her to forget everything and everyone else and “do you.” Amy seeks revenge against her cheating husband in a brilliant plot that involves her faking her own death and becoming a more authentic version of herself. What terrifies me about Amy is that the authentic version is amalgamous and essentially nonexistent. Amy is a chameleon and can change her personality in order to achieve whatever her aim is. That kind of intense and fearless and devotion to one’s self is something I envy on my really bad days. Still, Amy is a horrible narcissist and violent psychopath with no redeeming qualities, really.
- Randall Flagg from The Stand by Stephen King
“He looks like anybody you see on the street. But when he grins, birds fall dead off telephone lines. When he looks at you a certain way, your prostate goes bad and your urine burns. The grass yellows up and dies where he spits. He’s always outside. He came out of time. He doesn’t know himself” (King).
It’s no secret that King can have trouble constructing plots; sometimes they’re convoluted and sometimes they’re lacking in a satisfying conclusion. What King is always a master of is creating dynamic characters and his legendary antagonist Randall Flagg is no exception. He is as charming as he is terrifying and King’s careful construction of his character shows glimpses of humanity. King doesn’t completely alienate his reader from Flagg, which is brilliant, because it keeps readers invested in his story. If there was nothing to latch onto, this ageless and universal adversary would become tiresome and excessive. But to see him become frustrated when thwarted and to see him become threatened when meeting his match rounds out and fleshes out his character. I would totally buy Flagg a beer at a local dive bar. The kick is that I’d be in some serious, fatal trouble before I even knew what was happening.
- Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan from Carrie by Stephen King
“‘Period!’ The catcall came first from Chris Hargensen. It struck the tiled walls of the steamy locker room, it rebounded in vibrations, and struck again. Sue Snell gasped in laughter from her nose and felt an odd, vexing mixture of hate, revulsion, exasperation, and pity. She just looked so dumb, standing there, not knowing what was going on. ‘God!’ said Sue, ‘You’d think she never…’ ‘Period!’ Chris shouted again, even louder than the first time” (King).
King’s my favorite author, so it’s no surprise he makes my list twice. Also, I’m a complete and total sucker for toxic couples. Chris Hargensen is the popular bitch who’s had everything handed to her and has to feel like she accomplishes something by shitting on others. Chris is a girl we all knew in high school, but King does what he does best and pushes Chris to the extreme. Her need for revenge becomes obsessive, overly cruel, and deadly. Naturally, such a bitch on wheels needs a hapless but equally psychotic lover boy to assist. Chris and Billy are disgusting and miserable in their relentless pursuit of Carrie. But before they go balls to the wall, they’re kids you avoided in the halls, kids you gave a side-eyed glance to during class. They’re rooted in the real world high school hierarchies, and that realness makes them all the more terrifying.
- Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
“I’m mopping near the ward door when a key hits it from the other side and I know it’s the Big Nurse by the way the lockworks cleave to the key, soft and swift and familiar she been around locks so long. She slides through the door with a gust of cold and locks the door behind her and I see her fingers trail across the polished steel–tip of each finger the same color as her lips. Funny orange. Like the tip of a soldering iron. Color so hot or so cold if she touches you with it you can’t tell which” (Kesey 4).
OMG NURSE RATCHED. I truly believe she’s the most hated character in all of American literature and even American cinema. Her cold, calculating, unfeeling demeanor as the head of the psychiatric ward perfectly sets up the conflict between her and McMurphy. She is unflinching, immovable, and undefeatable. She’s exhausting and terrible and miserable. Generations of readers have had such strong and visceral reactions to Nurse Ratched, and that is a testament to her power as a literary figure. She’s simply awful and as a reader, you don’t just root for her downfall, you deeply and desperately desire it.
- Tom and Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (Fitzgerald).
Another toxic couple I love to hate. Much like Chris from Carrie, Tom and Daisy have had everything – absolutely everything – handed to them on a silver platter (probably literally). How do they feel alive and know that they exist? They ruin everything around them. They’re apathetic to the plights of others, careless in cruel and even calculating ways. I know Luhrman wanted to create a more sympathetic Daisy in his film adaptation, but I call bullshit. When you read the novel, she never calls Gatsby, never thanks him, and was never ever going to leave him. She just wanted to continue to have her cake and eat it too. She’s a mother who doesn’t raise her own daughter – hired help takes care of that. Tom may cheat, but Daisy does the same with Gatsby, and there’s no actual evidence of Tom being abusive other than a bruised pinky. Daisy’s full of shit, manipulating Gatsby into believing exactly what she wants him to, to keep him hanging around for her own amusement. And Tom’s just a douche bag.
- Tyler Durden from Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
“Tyler spliced a penis into everything after that. Usually, close-ups, or a Grand Canyon vagina with an echo, four stories tall and twitching with blood pressure as Cinderella danced with her Prince Charming and people watched. Nobody complained. People ate and drank, but the evening wasn’t the same. People feel sick or start to cry and don’t know why. Only a hummingbird could have caught Tyler at work” (Palahniuk 31).
It’s been said that we are our own worst enemy and damn, does Palahniuk drive that point home in his amazing novel. Tyler is everything a man would want to be; sexy, charming, carefree, hyper masculine, stylish, unapologetic … but all of those attributes come with a price, and the cost is compassion. Tyler’s a great villain because for 90% of the novel, he’s a role model. Readers gulp his Kool-Aid in greedy swallows, nodding enthusiastically to his anarchist, libertarian ranting and raving. But when his ideology is actually put into practice, it is violent and dangerous. Tyler’s terrifying because on paper, he’s perfect. In practice, he’s a deadly disaster.
- Macbeth from Macbeth by William Shakespeare
“ I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4.142-4).
I am a total sucker for a tragic hero. I love me some Macbeth. Equal parts tragic and terrifying is Macbeth’s total descent into madness. He’s loyal and brave and valiant and loved; he has it all. When he’s promised more, and when the woman closest to him urges him onward, he’ll stop at nothing to obtain and maintain his glorious destiny. Macbeth is every single one of us, wanting to make those who loves us proud and wanting the best for ourselves. When Macbeth is unable to stop and finds himself drenched in blood, it’s scary because it happens all the time in real life. Greed and ambition are common motivations when committing serious crimes and Shakespeare knew it over half a century ago.
- Eliot Andrews from Her Beautiful Monster by me 😉
“‘Do you know what our last session together consists of?’ Eliot was smiling, but tears were pouring down his cheeks. It was pathetic. Sammy shook her head, terrified and trying to think of what to do next. This was no time for a conversation. ‘I’m going to give you a Glasgow smile. Do you know what that is?’ Again, Sammy shook her head and squirmed fearfully in Eliot’s arms. ‘I slit your mouth from ear to ear, and the scars that remain resemble a big smile, like the Joker from Batman. You saw that movie.’ Sammy needed to run, needed to get free; but how? Eliot was still rambling. ‘That in and of itself isn’t deadly, but if I were to then punch you in the stomach or make you scream in pain, you’d bleed out because the wounds would be constantly kept open. It’s a beautiful piece of irony, isn’t it?’ Grinning, Eliot took his shining scalpel and tried to slip it between Sammy’s lips. The metal in her mouth helped her to concentrate and she brought her knee up as hard as she could against Eliot’s groin” (Bean).
Shameless self-promotion here. Eliot is a GREAT villain. He uses the greatest gift there is, love, to manipulate and injure Sammy. What could be worse? Buy it here.
So how did I do? Did I miss your favorite literary villain? Comment and critique my list!