Written by: Matt Molgaard
Everybody loves a hero. But in the realm of horror, the villain is often just as memorable, if not more. Take for example Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Is it Jonathan Harker that immediately leaps to mind when discussing this classic tale? Is it Mena? No, it’s the titular character that stands out first and foremost. It’s Dracula who has thrived for more than 100 years, influencing countless genre contributors, spawning too many related tales to count. As much as we love heroism, we’re drawn to the dark side of terror, there’s no refuting that.
History has been crammed with top notch antagonists. Assembling a list of this nature is not only challenging, it’s both correct and simultaneously incorrect. This is a subjective article that focuses primarily on novels, excluding novellas and shorts. It’s my opinion, and that makes it right. It’s not likely to mirror your list, and in a sense that makes it wrong. Either way, I think this list covers a wide variety of fiction. But, hey, you be the judge.
13. The Women (Bethany’s Sin): You’re probably reading this pick and shaking your head. Bethany’s Sin never seemed to catch on, but I’ll always consider this one to be a standout effort from Robert R. McCammon. Never before has an entire gender – as a whole – seemed so profoundly menacing. If you’re a man, and have ever been in a rocky relationship with a woman, then you may have felt the same terror I experienced while reading Robert’s often overlooked gem. The ladies of Bethany’s Sin aren’t above murder, although they seem to favor torture, mutilation and to an extent slave driving and manipulation. They’re all driven by a sizable measure of evil, and they couldn’t care less about remorse. These broads will hobble their own damned husband for Heaven’s sake! I’ve been married 13 years now, and I can honestly say that’s a nauseating thought only amplified by its strange sense of realism!
Synopsis: Bethany’s Sin is a tiny, picturesque village in rural Pennsylvania. Its tree-lined streets, beautiful houses, and manicured exteriors offer—or appear to offer—both peace and a place of refuge. Evan Reid, a man haunted by his memories of the Vietnam War and by a history of viscerally disturbing dreams, comes to the village with his wife and daughter, hoping to make a fresh start after a series of discouraging setbacks. At first, all goes as planned. Evan resumes his career as a freelance writer while his wife, Kay, begins teaching math at a local college. But there are things going on in Bethany’s Sin that no one wants to talk about: unexplained disappearances, houses that stand strangely vacant, half glimpsed figures that appear to be female, the impossible sound of hoof beats in the night. At the center of it all stands a single imposing woman: Dr. Kathryn Drago, a scholar and community leader who holds the key to the mysteries that enshroud the town.
12. Mephistophilis (Dr. Faustus): What’s a list like this without that damned demon of the Faust legend? Probably inaccurate. There’s something about Mephistophilis that really resonates. Perhaps it’s his uncanny ability to completely destroy attention and hamper the decision making process. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that he’s ultra-engaging as the bad ass devil, who does the dirty work of the head honcho demon himself, Lucifer. Whatever it is, it goes a long way in making this character abnormally unsettling. Look into Christopher Marlowe’s, Doctor Faustus for a fantastic example of a piece of fiction that never deserved to fade as drastically as it has over time. This is one of those genuine creepers that still shines with a focused read.
Synopsis: One of Western culture’s most enduring myths recounts a learned German doctor’s sale of his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power. Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe transformed the Faust legend into the English language’s first epic tragedy, a vivid drama that abounds in psychological insights and poetic grandeur.
11. Patrick Bateman (American Psycho): How crazy was Patrick Bateman? Was he crazy enough to kill and torture, or was that all in his mind? Bret Easton Ellis creates an incredibly dark, legitimately terrifying character here. It’s not only Bateman’s extreme actions that render him genuinely frightening, it’s his complete and utter sense of disconnectedness. The man is a lunatic, operating so far from a grounded reality that it’s hard to feel anything other than on edge when trapped inside his tormented world of pain. Somehow the essence of ambiguity exists, all the while not existing (if that makes even a shred of sense), leaving readers to ponder what the hell is truly going on in Manhatten circa the Wall Street boom of the 1980’s. I can tell you this much: In Ellis’ mind, whatever was going on, was accompanied by outright savage violence and psychological chaos.
Synopsis: In American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis imaginatively explores the incomprehensible depths of madness and captures the insanity of violence in our time or any other. Patrick Bateman moves among the young and trendy in 1980s Manhattan. Young, handsome, and well educated, Bateman earns his fortune on Wall Street by day while spending his nights in ways we cannot begin to fathom. Expressing his true self through torture and murder, Bateman prefigures an apocalyptic horror that no society could bear to confront.
10. Mr. Hyde (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde): This brief tale is probably (don’t quote me!) the first example of a character with split personality disorder to find his way into a fictional tale. The fact that the idea of duality in the brain wasn’t exactly commonplace in the late 1800’s, likely set this one apart from the rest of the pack immediately. These days it’s not the most original concept, which has left the story feeling a bit tame and dated when compared to other similar works, but that doesn’t change the fact that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde probably scared the pants off readers upon arrival. It doesn’t alter the terror that this brilliant creation still elicits to this day, either. The transformation in Dr. Henry Jekyll is extremely disquieting, and offers a comprehensive look at the darker side of man. The side we all have, but fight (the degree obviously depends on the individual) to keep tucked away, far beneath the surface. Hyde is that element, and he’s just about paralyzing. A total opposite of Jekyll, Hyde isn’t necessarily intelligent, and he’s certainly not overly rational.
Synopsis: This intriguing combination of fantasy thriller and moral allegory depicts the gripping struggle of two opposing personalities — one essentially good, the other evil — for the soul of one man. Its tingling suspense and intelligent and sensitive portrayal of man’s dual nature reveal Stevenson as a novelist of great skill and originality.
09. Karl Ruger (Pine Deep): Jonathan Mabbery’s Pine Deep series is one of the most engaging tales available today. Maberry’s been a somewhat slept on (I stress the word somewhat, as Maberry has done just fine for himself) commodity the last few decades, but he’s still got a pretty respectable fanbase, and I’d be willing to bet just about everyone who follows Jonathan’s work would praise this pick. For my money, Bad Moon Rising is the standout effort of the trilogy, but you really can’t lose with any of the Pine Deep novels. Get ready for some insane lycanthropic action and plenty of other hideous creatures. Helping front the evil charge is Karl Ruger, a mean spirited son of a bitch who can be accurately described as legitimately psychopathic. But there are more wrinkles to this character than one may expect, and his presence is accompanied by thick tension and serious fear. Karl Ruger may not be as appreciated as some of the others to make this list, but he’s every bit as terrifying.
Synopsis: The Pine Deep Trilogy is a series of supernatural horror novels by Jonathan Maberry. The series is set in Pine Deep, a fictional rural Pennsylvania town that becomes plagued by an evil force thought previously killed thirty years ago. In the books the town is considered to be “the most haunted town in America” and has a booming supernatural tourism industry based around the town’s history and Halloween. The trilogy is composed of Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song, and Bad Moon Rising.
08. Mr. Dark (Something Wicked This Way Comes): Smug villains are the worst. What’s more petrifying than looking in the eyes of your assailant and knowing they’re not only going to kill you, they’re going to enjoy every second of it and they’ll likely incorporate a hint of gloating? Probably nothing. That’s a miserable way to go out. That’s also the way of Ray Bradbury’s amazing creation known as Mr. Dark, should he bypass the chance to add you to his carnival of horror. You’re more likely to end up seriously disfigured and added to the lineup, labeled the newest “performer” of the darkest traveling entertainment show in history. Either way, you lose. Something Wicked this Way Comes, you say? Yes, yes it does.
Synopsis: Few American novels written this century have endured in the heart and memory as has Ray Bradbury’s unparalleled literary classic SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. For those who still dream and remember, for those yet to experience the hypnotic power of its dark poetry, step inside. The show is about to begin.The carnival rolls in sometime after midnight, ushering in Halloween a week early. The shrill siren song of a calliope beckons to all with a seductive promise of dreams and youth regained. In this season of dying, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has come to Green Town, Illinois, to destroy every life touched by its strange and sinister mystery. And two boys will discover the secret of its smoke, mazes, and mirrors; two friends who will soon know all too well the heavy cost of wishes. . .and the stuff of nightmare.
07. Max Cady (The Executioners): Technically, John D. MacDonald’s amazing novel, the Executioners isn’t horror. It’s more of a suspense thriller that flirts with some profoundly dark topics. However, I’ve always found the book to be extremely disconcerting. And, Max Cady – head villain of the tale – is the reason for that fear. This dude is an absolute savage with very little regard for anyone or anything. He also holds on to a grudge like few others and isn’t above putting his sinister charm on underage girls. A cold blooded killer with a heart as black as ink, Max Cady is one of the most frightening creations to land on paper. The Executioners is also one of the most underrated works of fiction to see release in the last sixty years.
Synopsis: An insane criminal threatens to destroy a family, and the police are powerless to protect them.
For fourteen years convicted rapist Max Cady nursed his hatred for Sam Bowden into an insane passion for revenge. He lived only for the day he would be free — free to track down and destroy the man who had put him behind bars.
Murder was merciful compared to what Cady had in mind — and what Cady had in mind was Bowden’s innocent and lovely teenaged daughter . . . .
06. Randall Flagg (The Stand): Randall Flagg’s appeared in quite a few of Stephen King’s novels, most notably the highly praised The Stand and numerous books in the Dark Tower series. He’s a wicked sorcerer with all kinds of supernatural abilities, and it just so happens he’s really rather frightening. This monster is capable of controlling would-be foes, bending their wills and forcing hazardous actions. He’s a psychologically manipulative and rather vile bastard who stands out in just about every story he appears in, and he’s fast become a star in the mind of diehard Stephen King fans. It’s easy to understand the connection Randall establishes with readers. He’s a colorful character who’s had some major attention invested in his presence. Even Stephen King himself, who’s crafted too many stellar personalities to count, has acknowledged Flagg as one of his finest creations.
Synopsis: A patient escapes from a biological testing facility, unknowingly carrying a deadly weapon: a mutated strain of super-flu that will wipe out 99 percent of the world’s population within a few weeks. Those who remain are scared, bewildered, and in need of a leader. Two emerge—Mother Abagail, the benevolent 108-year-old woman who urges them to build a peaceful community in Boulder, Colorado; and Randall Flagg, the nefarious “Dark Man,” who delights in chaos and violence. As the dark man and the peaceful woman gather power, the survivors will have to choose between them—and ultimately decide the fate of all humanity.
05. Norman Bates (Psycho): Norman Bates was a creepy bastard. Robert Bloch may have been just as creepy, given the fact that he created the character. Of course, Bloch may have also been a certified genius and nothing more. His fiction lends credence to the idea of the latter. That much I can say with certainty. Everything about Bates was chilling, from his off-beat social presence to his physical mannerisms, right down to his morbid obsession with his deceased mother. The man was just… off. But he breathed as an actual man might, leaving behind the page to take place in the mind. Bloch was special in that way, the ability to turn characters into near tangible personalities was part of what made the man special. He all but gifted Norman Bates a heartbeat, and that still leaves me a little rattled today.
Synopsis: Norman Bates loves his Mother. She has been dead for the past twenty years, or so people think. Norman knows better though. He has lived with Mother ever since leaving the hospital in the old house up on the hill above the Bates motel. One night Norman spies on a beautiful woman that checks into the hotel as she undresses. Norman can’t help but spy on her. Mother is there though. She is there to protect Norman from his filthy thoughts. She is there to protect him with her butcher knife.
04. Pennywise the Clown (It): Stephen King’s It taught me one very important lesson: down in the sewers we all float. Pennywise scared the hell out of me as a child, and still, as a grown thirty-something, he sends shivers up and down my spine. Pennywise is completely remorseless, and has absolutely zero qualms in destroying youth. One of the nastiest child killers in history, Pennywise the Clown is without a doubt one of the most deplorable characters ever created. This monster enjoys some rather epic physical transformations, but none rival the primordial impact of that damned clown and those strangely menacing balloons. If you haven’t checked this classic novel out, it would probably be a wise idea to do so soon. Just don’t pick up It if you intend on getting a good night’s sleep. It’s just not happening.
Synopsis: They were just kids when they stumbled upon the horror within their hometown. Now, as adults, none of them can withstand the force that has drawn them all back to Derry, Maine, to face the nightmare without end, and the evil without a name…
03. Hannibal Lecter (Red Dragon): Everyone loves a psychiatrist with a taste for flesh, right? Okay, perhaps not, but that doesn’t change the fact that Thomas Harris birthed a legitimately terrifying antagonist (perhaps anti-hero would be a better brand) the day he created Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is the ideal bad guy – hyper-intelligent, cunning; suave and always two steps ahead of the game. Much like Harris himself (seriously, who is this guy?!), there’s also an air of mystery surrounding Lecter. The man’s backstory runs deep, and has left Thomas Harris with a gruesomely gorgeous story to tell. Hannibal Lecter really is one of those rare personalities that could probably be explored for a solid five decades without ever having uncovered all of his calculated mystery. Did I mention the man is absolutely paralyzing when in his element? This is a riveting character that isn’t likely to fade from the minds of fans anytime soon, if ever. Lecter made his return in Silence of the Lambs and has made subsequent appearances in Hannibal as well as the prequel, Hannibal Rises.
Synopsis: A second family has been massacred by the terrifying serial killer the press has christened The Tooth Fairy. Special Agent Jack Crawford turns to the one man who can help restart a failed investigation, Will Graham. Graham is the greatest profiler the FBI ever had, but the physical and mental scars of capturing Hannibal Lecter have caused Graham to go into early retirement. Now, Graham must turn to Lecter for help.
02. Annie Wilkes (Misery): Annie Wilkes takes obsession to a completely new level. As a former musician, I can attest to insane fandom. I never pulled down hordes of persistent followers, but more than a single person surfaced throughout the years, fully aware of my home address, what form of automobile I drove, my personal email address, where my wife and I worked… it was a little off-putting, to be direct. I’ve since left that world behind, but I remember the tense moments well. Knowing how crazy fans can be really strengthens the impact that Misery’s Annie Wilkes has. Poor Paul Sheldon has some seriously crazed fans, the most terrifying of all being the homicidal and lonely Annie Wilkes, who finds him trapped in his car, a bit beat up from a car accident. At first it seems as though Annie is Paul’s savior, but as the successful novelist soon discovers, this woman is bat-shit crazy, and this road to recovery is going to be a whole lot rockier than your typical rehabilitation. Is Annie Wilkes really a scary villain, you ask? Absolutely!
Synopsis: After an automobile accident, novelist Paul Sheldon meets his biggest fan. Annie Wilkes is his nurse-and captor. Now, she wants Paul to write his greatest work-just for her. She has a lot of ways to spur him on. One is a needle. Another is an ax. And if they don’t work, she can get really nasty…
01. Count Dracula (Bram Stoker’s Dracula): I’ll be completely honest here: I’ve never been a huge fan of the pacing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I think the novel had the potential to uphold its sense of mystery while functioning – effectively – at a far more frenetic pace. It could have been a cool combo of balls to the wall action and atmospheric dread. Rather than being what I would consider a masterpiece, we’ve got a damn fine novel (not too shabby!) that paved the way for one of, if not the most famous villain in history. I’m not sure if anyone alive is actually unfamiliar with Count Dracula, and that says something serious about the power of Stoker’s novel. The now iconic piece of fiction – initially released in 1897 – didn’t break new ground, it completely shattered it, breathing new life into vampirism. Equal parts quiet eroticism and animalistic terror, Dracula opened up doors that very few literary works ever managed. If you’re not a fan of the original Dracula, chances are you’ve stumbled upon a mind numbing vampire tale or two. Those stories wouldn’t be here without Stoker’s effort, which, pacing issues or not, is a damn disquieting piece of work, showcasing one of the vilest and most frightening villains in history.
Synopsis: A dreary castle, blood-thirsty vampires, open graves at midnight, and other gothic touches fill this chilling tale about a young Englishman’s confrontation with the evil Count Dracula. A horror romance as deathless as any vampire, the blood-curdling tale still continues to hold readers spellbound a century later.