Illustration by Ben Beechener
Alfred Hitchcock once said, ‘the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture’. Why do I know this? Well, I guess you could say I needed yet another one-liner to whip out at a dinner table when trying to justify my love for all fiction dark, maniacal and twisted. But -before this gets too narcissistic- Hitchcock is dead right. If you were to compile a list of the most ‘successful’ characters in fiction I am more than certain most of them would be villains, or at the very least would engage in (or with) villainous action. A hero might be pretty and perfect, but they are also perfectly dull.
I could illustrate this easily by making a list of the top 10 greatest literary villains of all time. It would also be a list like one of those Buzzfeed what’s the point articles where you already know exactly what you will see on the list before reading even the first line. So yeah, I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to waste time compiling a list that begins with Iago and ends with Lord Voldemort. Instead, I am going to introduce you to some of my favourite (if favourite is the right word?!?) literary villains, the ones that I feel are grossly under-appreciated (or just ignored because they are too BookTok famous to be considered evil, but more on that later!) and deserve more attention.
I should also quickly say, this is an article about despicable people who do even more despicable things and, as a result, any discussion of their characters will deal with themes and events that people may find upsetting or disturbing.
Aeneas Manston – Desperate Remedies, Thomas Hardy (1871)
Beautiful, brilliant, beguiling, Hardy’s Aeneas Manston has all the makings of everyone’s favourite broody Byronic anti-hero, but, god, he is so much darker. His villainy lies in his cunning, his ability to direct every situation so that it turns in his favour. How is this villainy I hear you asking, surely that’s just succeeding in our dog-eat-dog world? Aeneas Manston has no need to get ahead, he has already reached the societal apex; equally, he gains nothing by marrying the novel’s hero Cytherea Graye – she is not rich, she has no reputation, he does not love her – yet he pursues her relentlessly anyway, murdering or manipulating anyone who gets in his way. Manston is a man who enjoys seeing people squirm in elaborate and increasingly abhorrent schemes that ruin lives and livelihoods – the worst absolutely being how he mutilates an innocent woman before burning her alive just so he can say his first ‘wife’ died in a fire. Why does he do this? Just because he can.
In a world where we are so obsessed with looking for reasons as to why a person is so dark, so cruel, the sheer absence of any motive or explanation for Aeneas’ villainy is truly shocking.
Norton Perina – The People in The Trees, Hanya Yanagihara (2013)
Yanagihara has written her fair share of characters that I think of as ‘beyond-villains’, men so awful that the word ‘villain’ seems insufficient, empty. For me, there is none darker than her first, Norton Perina – partly because he is a rewriting of a real man. Not a man that you know must exist somewhere in America’s dark ‘underworld’, as with her other characters, but a person with a name, a life, a story. Yanagihara also only allows us to see Perina’s world from his own twisted perspective, which makes us feel almost complicit in his actions. Sometimes, you don’t even notice that what he is doing is wrong until you step back from his inner monologue and realise it is you, his reader, who he has been truly exploiting.
I also have never read a line so utterly repulsive as,
‘I have been with many boys over the years, a few of them, I am not ashamed to admit, my own…I had loved those boys, loved their beauty, their dreamy, resigned compliance. They were lovely, and I was a man who appreciated their loveliness’
Cordelia – Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood (1988)
Anyone who has attended an all-girls school growing up has almost certainly met an incarnation of Cordelia, albeit one that is probably less villainous and much less violent. She is the classic mean girl, the best friend-turned bully who leeches all the colour and joy from your high school experience (and does this so quietly that you never fully realise how much they have broken you down). Nothing she does is that bad – especially when stacked against other characters on my list – but she is just so real, so relatable, so impossible to escape.
I came to Cat’s Eye through my mum who told me, when I was having a particularly shitty school day, that reading it would make me realise ‘it’s not just me’. I guess Cordelia won’t be everyone’s villain, but she absolutely was mine.
The Count – The Snow Child, Angela Carter (1979)
Quite possibly the worst character ever to have been put to page. He occupies a single page in Angela Carter’s acclaimed The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories and yet in his pure, unadulterated, unchecked villainy he eclipses all other attempts at constructing a perfect ‘villain’. Earlier I talked of ‘beyond-villains’ and he Count goes beyond even that (I wonder if Yanagihara was inspired?…probably!). The Count: a necrophilie a paedophile, a seriously perverted Dr Frankenstein, an oedipal maniac, a monster in every single sense of the word, the only ‘villain’ that truly makes every part of my body scream.
Yes, A-Level students will forever obsess about how The Snow Child changed ‘everything’ about their approach to reading, heck even about their lives – which is a tad melodramatic. But, to be honest, (and I do somewhat hate myself for saying this), I can see their point. The writing, the characterisation, the sheer insanity of it all…incredible.
Julian Morrow – The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
I already anticipate this will be unpopular. Mainly because Dark Academic BookTok has hijacked The Secret History and rewritten all Tartt’s narcissistic, twisted, broken, characters as beautifully attractive Gods-on-earth. There has been much argument over who is the true villain of the piece. Henry, because he is the centre of gravity, the master-manipulator, the actual real-life murderer; Charles, because he is abusive, violent, physical, and forces his sister into an incestuous relationship; Richard, because he can foresee everything that will go wrong, because he claims to be the novel’s moral core and yet he just sits back and lets the chaos unravel?
No, try the man who – out of pride, arrogance, perversity, an unhealthy obsession with morally-ambiguous mythology – encourages his students to have a bacchanal without informing them of the consequences. The man who emotionally violates his students, the spider who ensnares them in such a messed-up web of internal loyalty that they forget a world exists beyond their classroom, that they forget their own conscience, their ability to tell right from wrong. And when everything does go wrong, what does the great inspiration, the Mother Teresa that is Julian Morrow do? Well, he just fucks off. I hate him.
Some honorary mentions (a.k.the ones I wanted to write about before I realised just how much I was going to be over word count. I felt they needed to be included anyway. Why? Why not? They’re cool…)
Vernon Halliday and Clive Linley – Amsterdam, Ian McEwan (1998)
What could be more villainous than ‘murdering’ your best friend of 30 years as part of a strange suicide pact that certainly wouldn’t stand up to any scrutiny? Dreadful book. Brilliant characters. The vilest of villains. A 192-page oxymoron really.
Atticus Finch – Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee (2015)
He might be every law student’s intellectual-crush, he might be every 13-year-old’s hero, but we cannot just ignore all he is (a.k.the central villain) in Go Set a Watchman because we loved To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t know about you, but I automatically hate anyone who says, ‘negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people’ – even if they did have some killer fridge-magnet lines earlier on in their life.
Odysseus – The Odyssey, Homer (who knows? – a long time ago)
Because, yes, it really takes 10 years to sail from Troy to Ithaca. Because, yes, he really needed to stay with Calypso and rest from your traumas for 7 of those (difficult difficult) years. He deserved to be killed by his illegitimate Circe-son. Not a joke, just a fact.
Ayoola and Korede – My Sister the Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)
The clue’s in the title! However, what this title doesn’t give away is just how iconic these sisters are. I am reticent even to put them down as villains because I love them so much. Guaranteed villainy goes hand in hand with guaranteed good times. And that’s not concerning in any way…