Several years ago I came across a list of the 50 Greatest Villains in Literature. The list was interesting both for its in- and exclusions. Among the surprising inclusions were Moby Dick, Creulla DeVille, and The Joker from Batman fame. Oddly overlooked in this eclectic crowd were Grenouille, from Perfume, Stephen King’s Randall Flagg, and Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter.
All-Time lists are always great fun and terrific argument starters, but this one did very little to inform as to what are the attributes that elevate one villain over another.
One thing is certain—a whale trying to save his own blubber is not the embodiment of evil. The truth is, ‘embodiment of evil’ is really a poor scale by which to judge any villain that doesn’t come out of a cartoon or comic book—with, I think, one notable exception: Mr. Edward Hyde.
You see, I believe Robert Louis Stevenson was actually intent on ‘embodying evil’ when he created this character. That was the whole point of his story. Evil is embodied in all of us. The dark as opposed to the light. No, Mr. Stevenson wasn’t splitting any hairs here, he was splitting us—right down the middle. Oh, there are plenty of villains who have longer list of heinous crimes than Mr. Hyde, but none so eloquently fit the phrase ‘embodiment of evil.’ The closest I have come across is The Judge from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
I find the number and nature of crimes to be unsatisfactory yardsticks of a villain’s villainity. Crimes are vanilla—at least in the world of evil. Lying, cheating, murdering, raping, beating … it’s all so much blah, blah, blah on Blofeld’s resume, or Iago’s to-do list. If we were to rate villains by the size of their crimes, the numbers of people they murder I suppose both Typhoid Mary and Harry Truman need to make the list.
Which is why many of the best writers present us with bad guys who are bad pretty much for the fun of it. Oh, there are often historical, societal or psychological window dressings slightly parted so the reader might peek in and discover an ‘explanation’ for gleeful depravity, but we know in our heart of hearts there can be no explaining away Shakespeare’s Claudius, or Chandler’s Helen Grayle/Velma Valento. Which is another reason I keep coming back to Edward Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson explained his creation, but offered no excuses for his nature. That’s my kind of villain.
I have other favorites, too.
Another Stevenson creation, Long John Silver absolutely tickles me with his dual personality. Likeable, humble, funny, but as duplicitous and self-servingly refined as they come. Iago with a peg-leg, and the aroma of grog.
I will always have a hard spot in my heart for Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. In many ways he provided the template Ian Fleming used when creating his parade of villain one-up-man’s-ship. Now Blofeld is the template for a new generation.
Among the women I love to hate (I already mentioned Helen Gayle from Farewell, My Lovely) is the Marquise de Merteuil from Le Liaisons Dangereuses. Claire Quilty from Nabokov’s Lolita almost steals the hisses from this tale so rife with moral corruption.
I believe every hero/villain pairing has its roots in the Old Testament, so don’t be shy about borrowing from Genesis. Read Steinbeck’s East of Eden if you don’t know what I’m alluding to.
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