Koren Zailckas's Mother, Mother is the kind of book that keeps you up at night, and it features a mother to rival Medea or Mrs. Bates. Zailckas picked 11 of her favorite evil characters.
Evil is one of those capital-letter themes in literature. It’s right up there with Love, Death, Beauty, Friendship and Fate. Maybe that’s because Evil, like Death, catches us off guard. Sooner or later, we’re all assured a chance encounter with Evil, but we can’t predict when it’s coming for us, and we can only guess what painful form it will take.
Most of us have encountered enough real-life villains to know Evil isn’t hooved and horned. Most disturbingly, Evil comes to us in human form, and the image it first puts forth is reasonable, even charismatic. Evil arrives to the job interview with a killer resume and big talk about improving profits. It shows up to the first date with a fistful of flowers and a magnetic smile, holding open doors and saying what it senses you most want to hear.
If we recognize Evil at all, it’s usually only in retrospect, after the things we cherish have been contaminated, our energies have been depleted, our sense of self has been swapped out for paralyzing self-doubt. In the words of Zbigniew Herbert, “the proof of the existence of the monster is in its victims.” Evil blankets things in a fog of confusion, wounding you long before you feel the first painful twinges, robbing you years before you think to lock your valuables away.
These 11 baddies from books have a lot to teach us about Evil’s motivations and methodology. The tools of Evil’s trade are pretty consistent across the board: seduction, gaslighting, gossip, lies, exploiting our empathy to its advantage. But the purpose seems unclear even to Evil itself. In the end, maybe the scariest thing about villains is their total mindlessness. If we struggle to know Evil that’s because it doesn’t know itself.
Mr. Hyde, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Evil intersperses cruelty with kindness. Almost ninety years before the Norrmalmstorg robbery that brought about the term “Stockholm Syndrome,” Robert Louis Stevenson had an uncanny understanding of the way evils bonds with its victims. What keeps people locked in dangerous relationships? It’s Evil’s changing face--the way mind games are preceded by flattery, the way discord is glossed over with promises.
The most painful thing about Evil is the duality of the feelings it inspires in us. As Jekyll says, “If each [good and evil], I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable...” Evil is freaky because we love and loathe it in equal parts, and we give it countless chances to redeem itself.
Patrick Bateman from Bret Eason Ellis’s American Psycho - Evil is empty, emotionally flat, and perpetually bored. Patrick Bateman, who fancies himself a yuppie serial killer, has pretty much no personality to speak of: “There is no real me, only an entity, something illusory.” Bateman’s critics include Naomi Wolff, who called American Psycho “the single most boring book I’ve been forced to endure.” But I’d argue that’s proof Bateman, like a skilled sociopath, has made her confuse his inner landscape for hers. “Indifferent to art, originality or even pleasure,” Bateman’s primary emotion is boredom. He is as bored by designer labels as he is by butchered body parts, and still he can’t stop his mindless pursuit of them.
Evil lives as though life is a movie, and he or she is the star. Grandiosity is Bateman’s M.O. And Ellis’ cinematic style--using third person to describe the big chase scene, complete with big-budget-esque helicopters and gunfire--gives us one final glimpse of Evil’s unrealistic self image. Lacking empathy, Evil sees itself as the star of its own action film. Evil can’t feel for other people because it doesn’t believe the damage it inflicts is legitimate. Are the people clutching their wounds in pain real? Not to Evil. Evil assumes other people are as fake as It is.
Mrs. Danvers from Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca - Evil likes to toy with other people’s boundaries. If Manderley feels like a haunted house, that’s due in part to head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, whose voyeuristic talents practically include the ability to walk through walls. Like some omnipresent ghost, Danvers has her ear to every wall and her eye in every key hole. She uses what she finds to incrementally tear down our narrator down, moment by moment, notch by notch until the new Mrs. de Winter is such a trembling mess she’s open to even the most dangerous suggestions.
Evil colonizes people. The fact that Danvers looks like a walking Scream-mask--dressed perpetually in black, with hollow eyes and a “white skull’s face”--seems to be Du Maurier’s way of reminding us that she’s killed off any semblance of herself. As the novel progresses, Danvers seems like little more than the sock puppet through which dead mistress Rebecca speaks. Danvers talks about Rebecca with the reverence of a Manson follower: “Of course he was jealous [of Rebecca]. So was I. So was everyone who knew her.”
Evil makes people drink the Kool-Aid.
Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations - Evil takes a victim stance. When Pip’s heart is broken, he uses the experience as an opportunity to become a better man. When Miss Havisham is left at the altar, she uses it as an excuse to become a “rich and grim lady” and say sayonara to housekeeping and hygiene. One of literature’s all-time greatest man-haters, Miss Havisham swears off men completely and adopts Estella for the sole purpose of creating a heartbreaker. Poor Pip and Estella are both collateral damage in a war that has little to do with them. But how can you make a hermit see you’re suffering when she’s still wearing her mangy wedding dress and hasn’t seen sunlight in a decade?
Why is it so hard to hold Evil accountable? Because Evil’s damn good at playing the victim. Ain’t no party like a pity party cause a pity party don’t stop.
Tom Ripley from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley - Evil wants status, even if it has to fake it or steal it. Living in New York at the book’s start, Ripley is “bored, goddamn bloody bored, bored, bored,” enduring “constant demoralization because of having no money,” and taking up with “silly, stupid people in order not to be lonely or because they could offer him something for a while.” Leaping at the chance to go to Italy and bring home Dickie Greenleaf, the playboy son of a shipping magnate, Ripley finds what’s he’s actually been missing: a personality, and a larger than life one at that. First making a study of Greenleaf’s mannerisms, interests, preferences and past, Ripley goes on to assume his name, wear his clothes and cash his checks, murdering (or trying to murder) anyone who suspects the truth.
Ripley is a chilling example of the way Evil sizes people up, taking an interest only in things it feels it can use to its advantage. And Highsmith leaves us with this frightening reminder: faced with its own inconsistencies, Evil would rather kill the person doing the questioning than take a realistic look at itself.
Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello - Evil does it for kicks. People have been debating why Iago meddled in Othello and Desdemona’s relationship for centuries. He wasn’t driven by revenge (like Hamlet) or ambition (like the Macbeths). I tend to side with Coleridge who figured Iago was fueled by pure “motiveless malignity.” He seems to like the process of Evil, even better than the outcome of it. Maybe sadistic entertainment kills his boredom. Or maybe it’s like a drug high, giving him short-lived feelings of dominance.
Scoffing at virtue and seeing no inherent meaning in life, Evil has a lot of time on his hands--time it fills up with pointless deceits. If only Evil could take up Monopoly instead. But then, why be the little boot when you can play God?
Count Dracula from Bram Stoker’s Dracula - Evil can’t be solitary. Evil preys on the isolated. In Bram Stoker’s book, being alone is the equivalent of offering your neck to a vampire. Mina, for instance, only gets attacked by Dracula because she stays home alone instead of going along on a vampire hunt. Aloneness in the world of Dracula is synonymous with being at risk, and everyone guards against it with hyper-vigilance: “You must not be alone; for to be alone is to be full of fears and alarms.”
It’s easier to inflict evil on those who are cut off from a support system. But Dracula’s fear of solitude also clues us into Evil’s fears about itself. At it’s heart, Evil is parasitic. Evil would starve without the the willful (or forced) participation of others. It finds the shyest, most vulnerable part of ourselves and gleefully sticks its teeth into it.
Don Juan from Tirso di Molina’s El Burlador de Sevilla - Evil is smooth-talking and impulsive. It makes grand gestures and loves a conquest. “How well you talk!” Tisbea says, when a nearly drowned Don Juan still finds the breath to shower her with come ons: “While I’m alive, I am your slave;” “Why fill my ears with wax when you kill me with your eyes?” But what read like cheesy lines to us works a treat on single girl from a modest background, who confuses her desire to take care of someone with “love.” Tisbea adopts Don Juan like an unemployed drifter with bad credit until, lied to, deceived and robbed of her honor, she realizes that she “nursed (her) ruin.”
Why do we fall for Evil? Because in the beginning, Evil is very attentive. It figures out what we want and then makes itself compatible. Everything that follows is a bait-and-switch scam. Evil is a damn good pick up artist.
Cruella de Vil from Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians - Evil objectifies.Cruella de Vil’s crimes of fashion are even more pronounced in Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel. Cruella dreams of pairing a dogskin coat over a black suit; “[it] would go so well with my car and my black and white hair.” But this isn’t just a case for PETA. It’s also a very good example of the way Evil reduces companions to accessories or status symbols. We get the impression that Cruella has assessed every person and pet in her world and attached a numerical value to them. She even claims she’d drown her beautiful, white Persian cat “if she wasn’t so valuable.”
Evil, it would seem, reduces living things to commodities, especially those foolish enough to lick its knee.
Mrs. Coulter from Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy - Evil ruins childhood and refuses kids the tools to grow up. Mrs. Coulter, the head of the General Oblation Board, looks and even “smells” like glamor, but she is also described by Metatron as a “cess-pit of moral filth,” “pure, poisonous, toxic malice.” Maybe that has something to do with the fact that she wants to separate children from their souls (daemons) or, dare I say, their growing agency. The procedure involves a silver guillotine, and the result is stunting, keeping them from ever reaching adulthood.
It’s hard to say what evil has against children. Maybe Evil envies childhood innocence. Or maybe kids are simply an easy target.
Lucifer from (among others) Dante’s Inferno - Evil is mindless suffering and a blind compulsion to act out a painful past. Dante’s Lucifer is the perfect amalgamation of everything I’ve mentioned so far. Lucifer is isolated. Lucifer is blank: “a once splendid being (indeed the most perfect of God’s creatures) from whom all personality has now drained away.” Covered in ice, Lucifer alone is to blame for his freezer burn. He beats his wings, creating the cold breeze that keeps the Ninth Circle of Hell arctic.
Why can’t he stop flapping? Maybe because he’s having flashbacks, still reliving the moment he tried to ascend into heaven and establish his throne above the stars and God. Either way, in Dante’s world, Satan is in just as much agony as the three sinners he holds in his mouth. He’s no all-mighty Hell-beast, just another victim of his own tortures.
Evil, it would seem, suffers most of all.