Literature’s great heroes and heroines are no one without fearsome villains to challenge their mettle. And we readers delight in being terrified by a smooth-talking cannibal like Hannibal Lecter (first introduced in Red Dragon) or the equally shudder-inducing Miranda Priestly (the fictionalized version of Anna Wintour) in The Devil Wears Prada. Villains are a tenet of many a genre story, but few authors can write them so convincingly every single time.
That’s where Stephen King is the master of villain creation. Whether he’s writing straight-up horror, psychologically-driven thrillers, or sharp detective stories, we can count on King to deliver the most interesting of bad guys. It’s telling that the villain of his 57th (!) novel Mr. Mercedes is a disturbed man who, in the novel’s prologue, drives his car into a crowd of unemployed men and women at a job fair just for the thrill of it.
The term “good villain” is somewhat of an oxymoron, but King is an expert at creating morally ambiguous characters who teeter on the edge between sympathetic and revolting. They aren’t bland—evil for the sake of being evil—but are are the products of very real circumstances. These villains often have pasts filled with abuse, trauma, and neglect, or else they suffer addiction or mental illness. King is wily: Not only does he make his villains as interesting as his protagonists, but he also often uses his novels’ antagonists to reflect the cultural and social concerns of their time.
In his first novel, Carrie, King was already playing with the definition of the villain. Carrie—bullied, abused, friendless—is a remarkably strong telekinetic. It’s no mistake that this shy misfit discovers her powers at the same time she gets her first period. And since Carrie’s crazy, religious mother never explained puberty to her, Carrie already thinks something is seriously wrong with her, only to find herself ridiculed by the other girls, who throw tampons and pads at her.
Though Carrie’s antagonist is a prom-queen wannabe who pours pigs’ blood over her (blood again!), Carrie still comes out as the villain, since her wave of psychic vengeance decimates the entire town. Written in the 1970s, at the height of feminism’s second wave, Carrie can be seen as the embodiment of the fears American society felt at the advent of women’s liberation, both sexual and social.
The main character of The Shining—which is itself more psychological thriller than horror novel, published in 1977—serves as both protagonist and antagonist. A writer, father, and husband, Jack Torrance is also a recovering alcoholic. During a bitter winter spent as the custodian of what turns out to be a haunted hotel, Jack’s disease comes back to bite him in the ass. The novel’s paranormal elements are a thinly veiled metaphor for his alcoholism, as he becomes abusive and homicidal towards his wife and his son, Danny. When Danny reaches out telepathically for help, he saves himself and his mom, but Jack is killed. King wrote the book at a particularly fraught time in America—after the end of the Vietnam War, when thousands of troops were returning to wives and children who barely recognized them. Many turned to alcohol in order to deal with their PTSD. Jack is a cautionary tale, and he is one of the most terrifying villains in pop-culture because he is still so familiar to us.
Similar to Jack is Annie Wilkes from 1987’s Misery, though her motives differ drastically. Subject to her own madness, she is the (literally) diehard fan that won’t let an author kill off her favorite character and who forces him to write out a book resurrecting his romance heroine Misery Chastain. Disgruntled fans are timeless: Not only do we all know the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyleresurrecting Sherlock Holmes due to readers’ reactions, but thanks to Game of Thrones, many of us are familiar with the GRRuMblers who obsess over the next installment of A Song of Ice and Fire.
A masterpiece of horror in 1986, It ensured that Pennywise the Dancing Clown would always infiltrate our nightmares. This archetype of the terrifying clown has so entered our culture that an episode ofBuffy the Vampire Slayer showed Xander fleeing one who bore an unquestionable resemblance to Pennywise. I can guarantee that you or one of your friends finds clowns creepy, maybe without even knowing why.
The startling thing about Pennywise as a villain is that he manifests in the hometown of the cast of main characters and has been there long before any of those characters were born. Pennywise, who lures people to him and manipulates them to do his murderous bidding, is the expression of the Stranger Danger mentality that began in the ‘60s and was especially present, through PSA videos, in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But he’s not just an emptily evil character, either—he is also a metaphor for the fear so many of us having of returning home, only to discover things have changed or gone horribly wrong. Pennywise is also the only reason the main characters, who are old friends, reunite. In that sense, he’s a force for good—albeit unintentionally, which makes him even more interesting.
The villain and the good guy share equal space in King’s newest book, Mr. Mercedes. It’s no spoiler to tell you that the villain is a man in his 20s who lives with his alcoholic mother and whose sole joy in life is sabotaging the lives of others. As readers, we’re able to spend ample time in this man’s mind, and so we identify with him even in some of his darkest moments. Though he’s clearly mentally ill, he’s never received treatment of any sort or given the attention that could have spared him the violence he ends up committing. With the rising discussion in the media about the connection between mental illness and mass shootings (especially surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which King said was “too creepily close for comfort” to the book), we can’t not see this book as commentary. King even includes a character, on the “good” side, who is also mentally ill but has been receiving treatment her entire life. If Mr. Mercedes had gotten the treatment she had, maybe he would have been odd, an outcast, but not a killer.
These villains resonate with us because we see ourselves both in them and as their victims. King’s capacity for convincing us of the ambiguity of evil is stressful—are we all capable of horrific actions?—but also contributes, ultimately, to incredibly satisfying reads.