It’s nearly Halloween, which means that fictional bad guys will be out in the streets in full force from now until Monday (and likely even longer). If you’re not sure who’s who among the villainous greats, we’ve got you covered: Kim Newman, whose newest novel Professor Moriarty: Hound of the D’Ubervilles hit stands this month, is pretty much the authority on literary villains. As Newman explains, “To be a great villain, it’s not enough just to be thoroughly evil – you have to be entertaining with it. A certain panache helps, especially for villains who fall into the category of arch-nemesis and have to prove themselves almost the equal of a flamboyantly brilliant hero. Colossal schemes are also useful, to differentiate them from low-rent thugs like Fagin and Bill Sikes, and an unusual physical appearance, fondness for novelty pets, an impressive lair and sheer persistence do help. Unusual psychological conditions are also recommended, but they need to be wedded to real malevolence for the proper chill.”
“I include one vampire – how could you leave Dracula off the list? – but have confined myself to roughly human beings, so Wells’ Martians or Lovecraft’s Cthulhu don’t get in.” Well, you have to draw the line somewhere. Click through to see Newman’s list of the best villains in literature, and then be sure to check out Professor Moriarty for more delightful, smoldering evil.
Count Dracula (Bram Stoker’s Dracula )
He gets romanticized in the movies – which make him a snappy dresser and a lounge lizard – but, really, Dracula is everything Bad. Especially from Bram Stoker’s point of view – he’s a brutal, smelly, scheming, foreign, abusive, wife-stealing, wife-beating, arrogant, bigamous, presumptive, bigoted, thieving, monomaniacal invader of decent British homes (and women). Even his monster brides accuse him of not loving them. His idea of pacifying the creatures is to feed them a baby.
Ernest Ralph Gorse (Patrick Hamilton’s The West Pier , and sequels)
When these books were adapted for television as The Charmer, Nigel Havers made a smoothly appalling Gorse. Based on the murderer Neville George Heath, Gorse is a con-man with a very plausible line of patter who cynically and casually preys on older women, after their money in the outset, but eventually graduates to homicide. Few British writers create characters as loathesome and compelling as Hamilton.
Kaspar Gutman (Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon )
The Fat Man, obsessed with the Falcon – Sydney Greenstreet, immortally, but all the dialogue in the film is taken straight from the page. Gutman, essentially a crooked antique dealer, is the one who spins the historical yarn about the trophy so many are willing to kill to get, and in his exchanges with detective Spade (‘I like a man who drinks’) we see in embryo the barbed conviviality and magnanimous act later common among Bond villains.
Rupert of Hentzau (Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda , and sequel)
Strictly speaking, Black Michael – the dour rival claimant to the throne – is the villain of the novel, but it’s stolen by his roguish, dashing, utterly unscrupulous sidekick. Hope must have seen how Rupert took off, because he called his sequel Rupert of Hentzau. He’s a rarity in Victorian fiction – a witty, sexy villain, admirable in his daring (and genuinely pleased by the hero’s daring heroics and improvised sword-fighting style) yet a smiling rotter. In the movies, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and James Mason have given wonderful accounts of the scoundrel.
Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde )
Jekyll is not a good man who becomes a bad man, but a bad man – a hypocrite, who wants to indulge his vices (whatever they may be) but retain his standing in society – who becomes a worse one. The Hyde of the book isn’t the hulk/gorilla/werewolf of most film versions, but a nasty little man – a bully who tramples a child without a thought, but is then terrified when seized by a vengeful mob and runs blubbing to Jekyll to get him out of it. There’s something of Poe’s imp of the perverse in Hyde, who gives the impression of being deformed but isn’t obviously hideous, but he’s also an unregenerate caveman who takes his (rather, Jekyll’s) walking stick to the skull of a Member of Parliament in a scene written so ambiguously you almost want to cheer him on.
Fu Manchu (Sax Rhomer’s The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu , and sequels)
Of course, ‘the yellow peril incarnate’ is a paranoid racist fantasy, but Fu-Manchu (who lost his hyphen along the way) is the greatest of the many oriental masterminds who littered pulp fiction in the first half of the 20th Century. Rohmer tricked him out with fanatical followers, a variety of novelty pets (a marmoset) and sadistic Eastern torture methods, a seductive but disloyal daughter and a sense of honour the Western heroes never quite understand.
Professor Moriarty (Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Final Problem’)
The anti-Holmes, created to do away with the Great Detective, the Napoleon of Crime is sketched with very few masterly strokes. A maths tutor (author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid) gone to the dark side, and ’the organiser of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city’, a criminal with a continent-spanning gang and a scientific approach to wrongdoing that mirrors the hero’s methods. I’m not the first author to feel that there’s more to be said about him than Doyle manages.
Tom Ripley (Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley , and sequels)
Ripley has a lot in common with Gorse, with the exception that Highsmith casts him into a world that’s such a moral vacuum that his sociopathic detachment and ability to improvise makes him if not a hero then someone we hope will scrape through his latest predicament. The films – especially the one with Matt Damon – have always tried to tip the character one way or the other, but we shouldn’t sympathise with him, though we are always complicit with him.
Dudley Smith (James Ellroy’s Clandestine , and sequels)
A crooked cop is always a useful villain, and Ellroy’s Captain Smith – eminence gris of the Los Angeles Police Department throughout his LA Noir cycle – is a monument to law enforcement gone wrong. He’s also a great detective, and probably does his bit to make the streets safer – though the novels in which he appears always present him as a jovially mephistophelean figure, ensnaring well-intentioned, idealistic cops in a morass of politics and sin. James Cromwell is fine in the role in the film of LA Confidential, but he should have been bigger.
Annie Wilkes (Stephen King’s Misery )
Every author’s nightmare. ‘Paul, I’m your greatest fan.’ King perhaps over-eggs the pudding by making her an unapprehended serial killer nurse, but he’s writing from the point of view of his own paranoia, the commingled gratitude for and terror of the less-than-ideal reader who just wants more and more of what she wants until the creator is sucked dry and thrown away. Kathy Bates won an Oscar, but King gifted her Annie’s homilies, slyness (she’s not stupid or simpleminded, and she wont’ accept sub-par work), turns of phrase and propensity for imaginative violence administered with tender love.