'Scowler' Author Daniel Kraus Picks the Most Evil Characters in Lit
In Daniel Kraus's latest book, "Scowler," the protagonist, Ry, has to conquer a big baddie--his own father--who is seemingly devoted to destroying his son's life. Here, Kraus reveals to Bookish the literary villains he loves the most.
It is risky behavior to begin an essay with praise for your own book, but lemme do it anyway:
Doctorow is talking about my new novel, "Scowler," and though I'm tickled by his kind words, the first time I read them, they took me by surprise. Marvin is a "monster?" Yeah, I suppose that's true. After years of work on "Scowler," I had almost convinced myself that Marvin was just a misunderstood fellow whose poor decisions originated from an honest longing for success and respect.
That got me thinking about my favorite villains from literature. By and large, they aren't unstoppable killing machines. In fact, they are the opposite--We understand them and so we fear them. It's the same reason you don't have nightmares about Dracula but probably do about that cheerleader who made middle school a living hell.
So here are five of my favorite fictional baddies. Read 'em and weep.
Bounce from "The Children and the Wolves" by Adam Rapp
Bounce is a wealthy 14-year-old genius who alleviates her boredom by plying two schoolmates (her "two lost wildebeests") with OxyContin so they'll do whatever she says. And what she says is to kidnap a three-year-old girl, chain her up in the basement, feed her stolen pharmaceuticals and then use the sad story of her disappearance to collect money donations from neighbors. And why is Bounce really collecting money? To buy a gun, of course.
Danny from "The Little Friend" by Donna Tartt
Ten years we waited for Tartt's follow-up to "The Secret History," and for me, the wait was worth it the moment I met Danny Ratliff, the paranoid, pill-popping meth manufacturer who becomes obsessed with 12-year-old protagonist, Robin. This is Robin's story, but each time Tartt lets us into the deteriorating mind of Danny, the stakes are raised ever higher. Look, all of us knew a Danny at some point in our lives. We just didn't know how far he was capable of going.
Hattie Dorsett from "Sybil" by Flora Rheta Schreiber
Perhaps you are among the millions traumatized by this 1973 account of multiple-personality disorder (or, sweet tap-dancing Jesus, the 1976 film!). Who wouldn't be dumbstruck by a mommy dearest who administered constant abusive enemas and confined her daughter to a box in the barn? But Debbie Nathan's "Sybil Exposed" explains the "truth" of the so-called nonfiction book, illuminating the complicit agreement between journalist Schreiber, the ambitious Dr. Connie Wilbur and Shirley Mason, the troubled woman who most people still know as "Sybil." If Nathan is to be believed, "Sybil" is nothing short of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"-style horror fiction. Thank god.
Ken Kiang from "The Order of Odd-Fish" by James Kennedy
Ken Kiang isn't even the primary antagonist of Kennedy's absurd, grotesque, and impossibly funny young adult fantasy. (That honor goes to "the Belgian Prankster.") But Kiang is a hilarious second bad-banana, a bored millionaire who dabbles in villainy as a hobby, gleefully selling his soul "to any supernatural being who cared to bid on it." (Once for nothing more than a bag of barbecue-flavored potato chips.) From leading "a squad of elite barbers" to a keen interest in "mouse abuse" and the production of soul-destroying pies, Kiang is evil with a solid-gold flair. His climactic, self-produced, self-aggrandizing song-and-dance musical is one of my favorite scenes in any book ever.
The Shrike from "Hyperion" by Dan Simmons
All right, here's the exception to my rule of understandable villains. The Shrike--a towering, four-armed, red-eyed entity covered in metal spikes and barbs--haunts every page of Simmons's untouchable sci-fi masterpiece. He (or it?) possesses a special "tree" on which his victims are impaled to enjoy the slowest of deaths. The Shrike's depravity is so absolute that that he transcends morality to emerge as something godlike. He is ageless, unknowable and invincible--fear itself, our vision of Hell made humanoid, the last image we wish to see the moment our final flame flickers out.