From Big Brother to Voldemort, EW's pop culture columnist shares his picks for the fictional characters that are at their best when they're doing their worst
Stephen King: Top 10 villains
Early this month, a friend sent me a blog post from Examiner.com in which the author, David Finniss, listed ”the top 10 greatest Stephen King villains.” I was a little disappointed to see that his pick for numero uno was Pennywise, the psychotic (and supernatural) clown from It. My personal pick for No. 1 — Annie Wilkes, R.N. — was Finniss’ No. 4. But his piece got me thinking about all the great villains I’ve encountered in fiction, the guys (and gals) I’ve absolutely loved to hate.
Then — there are no coincidences in life, but there is such a thing as fate — EW decided to do its own lists of heroes and villains. Given such a perfect fit, I started making my own list of fictional book baddies, and it was soon two pages long. Below are my picks for the 10 worst, culled from a list of nearly 70. I’m sure I missed some obvious choices, and I’m sure that when you let me know (as you always do, Constant Reader), I’ll slap my forehead and groan, ”Of course!” Because this is a case of so many bad guys (and gals) and so little space.
10. Max Cady Don’t recognize the name? Would it help if I said Cape Fear? Cady is the crazed-for-revenge psychopath who stalks the Bowden family in John D. MacDonald’s The Executioners (1957). Played on the silver screen by Robert Mitchum in 1962 and Robert De Niro in 1991, but never more scary than in MacDonald’s tightly wrapped novel.
9. Anton Chigurh Cormac McCarthy’s scariest creation. Mostly, I think, because of Chigurh’s weapon of choice, an air-driven cattle gun that shoots a retracting pneumatic bolt.
8. Popeye Not the cartoon sailor but the small-town criminal in William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. He commits the most infamous rape in modern fiction. It’s so gruesome that I can’t describe it in a family magazine.
7. Big Brother He’s watching you from every telescreen in George Orwell’s more-relevant-than-ever novel of a nightmare dictatorship where war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, and one man struggles for a better, saner life. (Good luck on that.)
6. Harry Powell The preacher who hounds two children through the pages of Davis Grubb’s Night of the Hunter. Has LOVE tattooed on the fingers of one hand and HATE on the fingers of the other. In the film version, Robert Mitchum gave him the face that caused a thousand nightmares.
NEXT PAGE: Stephen King’s top 5 literary villains, and his picks for best of the rest
5. Rhoda Penmark What a sweet little 8-year-old kid! Too bad she’s a cold-blooded murderer. Patty McCormack gave her all as Rhoda in the film version of The Bad Seed, but during the mid-’50s Hollywood was in Full Prude Mode, and the movie is oddly lifeless. For true malevolence, you have to go to William March’s novel.
4. Voldemort Good God, he tried to kill Harry Potter and all his friends! Do I have to say more?
3. Sauron Probably the prototype for Voldemort, but even scarier. And with bigger ambitions. Bloated with the power (and the evil) of the Great Ring, the villain of Tolkien’s trilogy wants to destroy everything. Great Evil Minions, too. (And a side note: In a battle between Darth Vader and Sauron, can you doubt that Vader would be screaming for mercy after, oh, I’m gonna say 30 seconds?)
2. Pazuzu The demon who possesses Regan in William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, The Exorcist. Linda Blair’s portrayal of the haunted little girl was frightening, but the demon who lives in the pages is far scarier.
1. Count Dracula Bram Stoker’s courtly, sinister creation is still literature’s greatest villain, and although he’s been portrayed on the screen by a dozen actors — Christopher Lee is surely the best of them — none can equal the one in the book. And Stoker’s most amazing achievement? After the first 100 pages, the sanguinary count mostly lurks off stage. It’s a lesson for all of us: Villains are scarier in the shadows.
Not satisfied? Here are a few that didn’t make the top 10:
Tom Ripley (from the novels of Patricia Highsmith), Frederick Clegg (who tires of mounting butterflies and kidnaps a girl in John Fowles’ The Collector), Cora Papadakis (the amoral sexpot in The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain), Drake Merwin (the psycho teenager in Michael Grant’s extraordinary YA novel Gone), Jaws (from the Peter Benchley novel), Norman Bates (from Psycho, by Robert Bloch), Miss Havisham (from Dickens’ Great Expectations)…and, of course, Thomas Harris’ signature creation, Hannibal Lecter.
Others? Dozens. For instance, there was this dog named Cujo…