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Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Loving literature’s prime evil

We love the good guys, but the baddies in literature intrigue us. We probe their motivations, shiver at their evil, spit three times as they pass. Yet there’s something that lures us.

Perhaps we envy their flouting of convention; they don’t have to save the day or make lunch. In real life they are loathsome, but in film they are often attractive, albeit in a damaged way. The best are fiendishly clever.

Buffoons might be the muscle, but true villains are schemers, plotters, out-witters. In literature, the nastiest bad guy is cultured and sophisticated. Yes, he eats people, but Dr Hannibal Lecter appreciates opera.

In fact, the word “Doctor” should raise your suspicions. In the romance genre, he may just be a good-looking neurosurgeon with a secret heartbreak that only a first-year nurse with cleavage can cure.

But think Drs No, Faustus, Lecter, Frankenstein and – one of the most loathsome villains in fact or fiction – Dr Mengele, who, in Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil, created an army of Hitler clones.

Now we are in the terrifying realm of the Mad Scientist – brilliant, complex, hubristic, challenging the natural or social order.

This alchemist’s dastardly business is divining the elixir of immortality or turning base metals into gold, reanimating dinosaurs and human corpses, tampering with nature with dire results.

The only more telling moniker than “Dr” is “Witch”. An experienced reader with a fine intuitive mind might also be tipped off by the presence of animal and supernatural familiars – cats, wolves, ogres, ghouls, bats and such.

The Wicked Witch of the West, from L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, displays a classic villain trait – being mean to animals – when she smacks Dorothy’s dog Toto with her umbrella (gasp!). Sporting only one eye, she exhibits another common baddie feature – physical abnormality.

Scars, missing limbs, enormous height, extremely pale skin and the like are a sure sign that your baby-sitter is a demon in disguise.

In your spare time, it might be fun to rank literature’s most villainous villains. An online trawl reveals Iago is widely reviled as the top bad guy in Shakespeare and, to some minds, the whole of literature. He betrays Othello’s trust and destroys people’s lives just because he’s pissed off. He is envious, jealous, petty, manipulative and racist. In old terminology, evil. Today, perhaps, a psychopath.

Richard III, a former Shakespearean chart-topper long reviled as a deformed child-smotherer, is being rehabilitated, thanks to popular interest in his bones, recently discovered under a parking lot, and the likelihood that he was the victim of a Tudor smear campaign.

Little hope of same for Aaron, in Titus Andronicus, who went to the noose with this memorable speech:

“Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did/ Would I perform, if I might have my will;/ If one good deed in all my life I did,/ I do repent it from my very soul.”

That’s one serious badass.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


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