LitReactor recently published its list of Literature’s Ten Most Disturbing Sociopaths, and you may be surprised by some of the entries here.
10. Becky Sharp — Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
“Becky is what the hip-hop crowd would refer to as a natural-born hustler. An orphan whose goal is to increase her social standing, regardless of what it takes, Becky seduces other women’s men, steals from creditors, pulls a variety of financial cons, helps her husband cheat other men at cards, and quite possibly murders someone for the insurance money.”
Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero is a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, first published in 1847–48, satirizing society in early 19th-century Britain. The book’s title comes from John Bunyan’s allegorical story The Pilgrim’s Progress, first published in 1678 and still widely read at the time of Thackeray’s novel. Vanity fair refers to a stop along the pilgrim’s progress: a never-ending fair held in a town called Vanity, which is meant to represent man’s sinful attachment to worldly things. The novel is now considered a classic, and has inspired several film adaptations.
9. Anton Chigurh — No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
“Chigurh ruthlessly exacts revenge on the world at large, taking lives with absolutely no remorse and sometimes determining whether or not to murder someone based on a coin toss.”
In his blistering new novel, Cormac McCarthy returns to the Texas-Mexico border, setting of his famed Border Trilogy. The time is our own, when rustlers have given way to drug-runners and small towns have become free-fire zones.
One day, a good old boy named Llewellyn Moss finds a pickup truck surrounded by a bodyguard of dead men. A load of heroin and two million dollars in cash are still in the back. When Moss takes the money, he sets off a chain reaction of catastrophic violence that not even the law–in the person of aging, disillusioned Sheriff Bell–can contain.
As Moss tries to evade his pursuers–in particular a mysterious mastermind who flips coins for human lives–McCarthy simultaneously strips down the American crime novel and broadens its concerns to encompass themes as ancient as the Bible and as bloodily contemporary as this morning’s headlines.
No Country For Old Men is a triumph.
8. Tom Ripley — The Ripliad series by Patricia Highsmith
“Over the course of five novels, Tom—–described by Highsmith as “suave, agreeable, and utterly amoral”–—lives the high life using dead dude’s cash and callously murders anybody who starts to suspect he’s a fraud.”
Since his debut in 1955, Tom Ripley has evolved into the ultimate bad boy sociopath, influencing countless novelists and filmmakers. In this first novel, we are introduced to suave, handsome Tom Ripley: a young striver, newly arrived in the heady world of Manhattan in the 1950s. A product of a broken home, branded a “sissy” by his dismissive Aunt Dottie, Ripley becomes enamored of the moneyed world of his new friend, Dickie Greenleaf. This fondness turns obsessive when Ripley is sent to Italy to bring back his libertine pal but grows enraged by Dickie’s ambivalent feelings for Marge, a charming American dilettante. A dark reworking of Henry James’s The Ambassadors, The Talented Mr. Ripley—immortalized in the 1998 film starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gywneth Paltrow—is an unforgettable introduction to this debonair confidence man, whose talent for self-invention and calculated murder is chronicled in four subsequent novels.
7. Hannibal Lecter — Red Dragon and others by Thomas Harris
“Licensed psychiatrist, extreme charmer, Epicurean, bibliophile, music lover, foodie–—if you didn’t know about the cannibalism and serial killing, you’d be tempted to invite him to your next dinner party.”
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.
6. Frank — The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
“We meet Frank at the age of 16 but find out that he’s already been busy, killing three kids before the age of ten but explaining that “it was just a stage I was going through.” ”
“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.”
Those lines begin one of the most infamous of contemporary Scottish novels. The narrator, Frank Cauldhame, is a weird teenager who lives on a tiny island connected to mainland Scotland by a bridge. He maintains grisly Sacrifice Poles to serve as his early warning system and deterrent against anyone who might invade his territory.
Few novelists have ever burst onto the literary scene with as much controversy as Iain Banks in 1984. The Wasp Factory was reviled by many reviewers on account of its violence and sadism, but applauded by others as a new and Scottish voice–that is, a departure from the English literary tradition. The controversy is a bit puzzling in retrospect, because there is little to object to in this novel, if you’re familiar with genre horror.
The Wasp Factory is distinguished by an authentically felt and deftly written first-person style, delicious dark humor, a sense of the surreal, and a serious examination of the psyche of a childhood psychopath. Most readers will find that they sympathize with and even like Frank, despite his three murders (each of which is hilarious in an Edward Gorey fashion). It’s a classic of contemporary horror. –Fiona Webster
5. Iago — Othello by William Shakespeare
“One Shakespeare scholar said, “evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the evil character of Iago.” That’s a bold statement given the range of Shakespeare’s villains.”
4. Cathy Ames (aka Kate Amesbury) — East of Eden by John Steinbeck
“As a young woman, she drives one of her teachers to suicide, seduces a married man, and frames two young boys for rape. She spends her life manipulating men for her benefit (going so far as to sleep with her husband-to-be’s brother on her wedding day), eventually marrying a man who she shoots after unsuccessfully trying to abort his twins with a knitting needle. When asked if she’d meant to kill her husband, she snipes, “If I’d wanted to kill him, he’d be dead. Just ask my parents.” ”
One Amazon reviewer describes the novel like this:
This is not so much the story of brothers Aaron and Caleb Trask as it is the story of their parents, Adam Trask and Catherine Ames. And in “Cathy” Ames, Steinbeck creates one of the darkest characters in all of 20th Century American Literature, a creature devoid of virtually anything recognizable as human emotion. Fleeing from a past that includes murder, perversion, blackmail, and prostitution, Cathy assumes an angelic demeanor and lures the emotionally needy Adam Trask into love and marriage. And when she no longer requires his protection… she destroys him.
It is the stuff of classic melodrama, but in Steinbeck’s hands it becomes more than melodrama; it becomes a novel that alternately reads at leisurely pace and then suddenly reads with the speed of a whirlwind, a tale that forces us to consider the nature of good and evil and the legacies we may leave for later generations. For Adam and Cathy have two sons, and in the wake of their tragedy they will be left to fight out issues of moral choices, right and wrong, and love and hate in the sun-drenched Salinas Valley of California, the “golden west” of the “new world” as it rushes headlong into the modern age. It is a novel epic in history, geography, and morality.
3. Alex — A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
“Alex and his droogs’ antics were so hardcore, referring to them as violent wasn’t enough. Their nights of ultra-violence included assault, rape, stomping homeless people, robbing stores, vicious beatings, and worse…Alex spent evenings chilling in his apartment, fantasizing about more violence while relaxing with some classical music.”
One Amazon reviewer says this about the book:
When Alex’s friends gang up on him and leave him to be arrested by the police, Alex is sentenced to 14 years in prison. But then the opportunity to change presents itself to Alex, and he can’t help but take the offer. Without ruining the story as so many previous reviewers have already done, I can say that when everything is said and done, important questions arise: is being good truly good if it is not by choice? Is it good to be bad, if that is what one chooses?
2. Kevin — We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
“Described as “a shell game in which all three cups were empty” with “an apathy so absolute that it’s like a hole you might fall in,” Kevin was cold and contemptuous when he came out of the womb. His most potent venom is reserved for his mother, who has another child just to be able to connect with another family member…”
That neither nature nor nurture bears exclusive responsibility for a child’s character is self-evident. But generalizations about genes are likely to provide cold comfort if it’s your own child who just opened fire on his feellow algebra students and whose class photograph—with its unseemly grin—is shown on the evening news coast-to-coast.
If the question of who’s to blame for teenage atrocity intrigues news-watching voyeurs, it tortures our narrator, Eva Khatchadourian. Two years before the opening of the novel, her son, Kevin, murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and the much-beloved teacher who had tried to befriend him. Because his sixteenth birthday arrived two days after the killings, he received a lenient sentence and is currently in a prison for young offenders in upstate New York.
In relating the story of Kevin’s upbringing, Eva addresses her estranged husband, Frank, through a series of startingly direct letters. Fearing that her own shortcomings may have shaped what her son became, she confesses to a deep, long-standing ambivalence about both motherhood in general—and Kevin in particular. How much is her fault?
We Need To Talk About Kevin offers no at explanations for why so many white, well-to-do adolescents—whether in Pearl, Paducah, Springfield, or Littleton—have gone nihilistically off the rails while growing up in the most prosperous country in history. Instead, Lionel Shriver tells a compelling, absorbing, and resonant story with an explosive, haunting ending. She considers motherhood, marriage, family, career—while framing these horrifying tableaus of teenage carnage as metaphors for the larger tragedy of a country where everything works, nobody starves, and anything can be bought but a sense of purpose.
1. Patrick Bateman — American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
“In between comparing business cards and drinking cocktails with other investment bankers, Patrick busies himself with senseless murders and stomach-turning torture sessions…Bateman’s charm, complete detachment, and lack of emotion or remorse make him the most disturbing sociopath on our list. There are things here that can’t be un-read.”
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.