Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Practice Your Malevolent Cackle

Villains. We secretly love them. Actors always say they love to play them. On Halloween, kids dress up like witches and devils and the Scream killer. They feed our dark, visceral side: wouldn't you love to do exactly what you want to do whenever you want to do it? Wouldn't you want the glory? Sure, heroes are great and all, but they don't have a good cackle.

Because lists are awesome, here's a list of the Top 50 Literary Villains. (You knew it had to involve books because it's me posting.)

Some favorites:

"45 The White Witch from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis

Beautiful, proud, cruel and with an excellent line in confectionery, though since it's always winter and never Christmas, you won't get any in your selection box. At her house, all towers and statuary, she comes to an end as sticky as her Turkish delight."
Aslan saves the day and all, but the White Witch is so fascinating.

"39 Moby-Dick from Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Captain Ahab's nemesis sends him round the bend for having the cheek to escape harpooning and its blubber ripped out with hooks. "The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them." Or perhaps it's only a whale."
Sea creatures will kick your ass.

"35 Mrs Coulter from the His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman

The beautiful, elegant, widowed Mrs Coulter is chief "Gobbler" in Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy for kids, but she isn't nearly as friendly as she sounds. She wants to amputate children's souls - or "daemons" - in the name of the Magisterium. She eventually sees the error of her ways, but - let's face it - she's no Mary Poppins."
Beyond the creepiness, what I love most about Mrs. Coulter is that Pullman constantly keeps you guessing about where you stand with her. Should you feel empathy for her? Is she a cold-hearted bitch? What's her angle?

"18 Mrs Danvers from Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" begins du Maurier's ingenuous narrator, but Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper who torments the young woman and almost persuades her to commit suicide, is more likely from a nightmare. In the end it all ends up happily enough after she is burned to a crisp. Or is she?"
Judith Anderson in the movie is CRA-ZY.

"4 Iago from Othello, by William Shakespeare

Othello's "honest, honest" subordinate, quietly intent on the destruction of his boss's world for reasons whose slightness has nettled critics ever since. Coleridge's formulation "the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity" seems the best answer: behind the smiles and jokes, Iago's mind is pure seething white noise."
I like to think that, somewhere way deep down, Iago has a motive for being a complete life-ruiner. But at the end, when everyone's dead, he doesn't even say anything--the deed is satisfaction enough for him.

And some I didn't agree with:

"3 Cruella de Vil from The Hundred and One Dalmatians, by Dodie Smith

Recognising the perfect business synergies between her likes (pepper, hot things, fur coats and having one side of her hair white, the other black) and dislikes (animals), Cruella sets about turning the one into the other. To some she is a perefectly self-actualised human, to others a monster; it depends on what you think of dogs."
Puppy killers suck, for sure, but is she more evil than Iago?

"8 Claudius from Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

Hamlet is sure who the villainliest villain is. "Bloody, bawdy villain!" he exclaims, and just to remove any doubt: "Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!" Yes, it's Claudius, the effects of whose villainy we observe on Hamlet."
Claudius is not my favorite Shakespearean villain. He seems more like a bad person who got in over his head than an evil mastermind. Now Richard III, he's a villain.

"24 Don Juan in (among others) El Burlador de Sevilla, by Tirso di Molina

One of literature's favourite subjects, Don Juan - libertine, serial seducer, murderer - turns up time and again, but the one thing we all agree on is that he ends up - rightly - in hell. Byron cast him as an innocent, but that was Byron."
Being a sexfiend doesn't make you worse than Cthulhu. (But it's a good excuse to post a picture of Johnny Depp, right?)

Who are your favorites?