The Villain Inside Me: On Literary Bad Guys and Loving Scoundrels
I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)
Scribner, 2014, 256 pp.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
The Old Testament
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
In preparation for a long airplane ride from Miami to Berlin in August, I finally picked up a copy of Chuck Klosterman’s I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) (Scribner, 2014). I am fascinated by fictitious villains, baddies, rapscallions, and scoundrels. Their evil-doing, mustache twirling, and mischief making are entirely appealing, because the successful ones are often composed by their creators with keen detail that is both bewildering and monstrous, sometimes appalling. Yet, the baddies I am so drawn to are continually complicated. Yes, they can be marked as wicked, but they often have a separate layer that gets muddled with their obvious pernicious streaks, making them less like bland types reserved for homilies.
It was not lost on me that I was reading this book—this book featuring fascinating no-good contemptibles—on my way to testify as a witness in an attempted murder trial. The accused is a villain, no doubt, but I do not count him among those characters which I want to see developed or adapted. I didn’t even want to look at him in his defendant’s box. Nevertheless, the idea of loving miscreants, reprobates, and sinners nagged in the back of my mind.
The Appeal of the Depraved
Perhaps, my love for villains began in high school English class when we were assigned to read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847). The character Heathcliff, first described as “a dark-skinned gipsy” (sic)—no doubt, a physical characterization that led him to being cruel and vindictive in adulthood—was my first villain fascination. Heathcliff was so much more interesting than the pasty and intermingled Earnshaw/Linton clan that torments him throughout the novel. In the latter half, Heathcliff is intent on making their lives miserable by forcing characters into loveless marriages, thereby ensuring their overwhelming misery. Admittedly, my 17-year-old self was often confused by the overlapping family tree of the Earnshaws and Lintons, but Heathcliff, that dark-skinned gypsy urchin filled with anguish and suffering, was bold in my mind. Because Brontë’s villain so stuck with me, I could honor him in no other fitting way at the time then to name the large, brooding algae eater in my fish tank after him (none of the other fish were as lucky as to gain a moniker).
Heathcliff digging up Cathy's grave. Wood engraving by Fritz Eichenberg for the 1947 Random House illustrated version of Wuthering Heights
I proffer that the appeal of villains can be found in visceral reactions readers have to them. There is no logic behind our love of imagined psychopaths and malefactors, unless we, too, can count ourselves in their numbers. But the majority of us would fail the psychopath test.1 Klosterman quotes Klaus Kinski, a known “super nihilist”: “One should judge a man mainly from his depravities. Virtues can be faked. Depravities are real.”There is a sense that our inner debauched subconscious takes pleasure in siding with the bad guy.
Recently, I was asked about books that have stayed with me throughout my life. I immediately answered with Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (William Heinemann, 1962). The protagonist (or is it antagonist?) Alex narrates his various depraved exploits (some were even toned down for the 1971 film adaptation). He is an obscene young man in near-future London, but it is Burgess' fabricated slang language that adds to the novel's notoriety and distinguishes Alex as a villain in comparison to the everyday folk he encounters.
The book also has a peculiar publishing history in that a final chapter was omitted from the U.S. editions for decades before being added for contemporary copies. Stanley Kubrick neglected this final chapter in his film and leaves the viewer with the notion that, after all of the institutional reform, Alex will go back to his dastardly ways. And you know what: I like that. When I read the real final chapter that Burgess wrote, I was let down. It seemed forced and too conclusive when it offered an Alex who possibly was moving toward redemption. I'm unsure why in 1963 W. W. Norton (the American publisher) decided to leave this denouement out, but I would like to believe they thought U.S. readers would have enjoyed a more muddled and less atoned end. Alex was bad and we want him to remain so.
At one point in his book, Klosterman discusses a conversation he had with his editor, where the latter asked him why he wanted to write a book on villains. Klosterman offered no answer, but the editor had his own idea: “I think I know why you want to do this. I think it's because you're afraid that you are a villainous person.”
Villains Like Me
I shall dare a cliché and state such an obvious statement: As we get older, life gets more complicated. You are completely deluding yourself if you think life is so clear cut, so good versus evil. Because fiction is well, fiction, the notion of siding with a villain can remain between you and the pages. Theoretically, it will not affect your real life. Bad behavior in actuality is far more troublesome. But silently admiring fictitious baddies allows us a chance at self reflection and examination, and to wonder what Freud would say about us if we were to spread out on his couch.
I think mostly back to an incident from a year ago. It was summertime and crowded in New York City. The outdoor tables at Bryant Park on 42nd Street were coveted real estate. As I plopped down in one chair and put my bag on another while waiting for a friend to return with our lunch, an impolite man came over, pushed off my bag, and took the chair away. I shot up out of my own seat and ran over immediately pulling the chair from his grasp. He yelled profanities at me and tried to wrestle it back. With the chair in my hands, I was about to beat this man. I wanted to beat this man. I had completely lost my rational mind over the most trivial of things. Like a villain, I didn't care about him. I cared about myself. I would be kidding us all if I said I stopped my potential crime because I realized how inhumane it would be. Instead, I was overcome by the idea of potential punishment. Only because I stopped was I able to go from villain one minute to slightly crazy New Yorker in midtown Manhattan the next.
But how is it in fiction that I can go along with unhinged protagonists, but the above behavior is inexcusable and deplorable?
Lou, the young deputy sheriff in Jim Thompson's classic The Killer Inside Me (Fawcett, 1952) is somehow both bold and secretive. He is conniving, and his sadistic and homicidal tendencies are so vile, but I can't help but count this novel as one of the most thrilling of the 20th century. I must admit that part of this is due to the fact that it is such a starkly written novel about such a depraved character from the mid-1950s (a decade where I imagine such characters would stick out). Lou is supposed to be an average guy, yet he is entirely the opposite. When I loaned a copy of this book to a friend to read, he gave it back unfinished and told me he just didn't get it. For various reasons, we are no longer friends, but I would like to believe his misunderstanding of the significance of the novel played a large part in it.
Wall Pissers and Justified Sinners
As a college student, I found myself enrolled in three semesters of “Translation of Classical Hebrew.” I was a proud Classics minor, albeit a lazy one, who opted for the three-day-a-week translation of classic Hebrew over the more suitable Greek class, which met five days a week (more suitable for the mere fact that I concentrated on society and civilization of Ancient Greece and had no scholarly commitment to classical Hebrew). But the Old Testament is not lacking in villainy.
It is useful for finding passages concerned with archetypal evildoers. Mass slayings, incest, and general crooked activity essentially make up the Old Testament. My interest piqued during the third semester when we were tasked with translating a section on King Ahab and his strumpet wife, Jezebel, who was known for her strumpety actions like practicing polytheism and wearing makeup. An unknown phrase came up and when I looked for it in the dictionary it said: him that pisseth against the wall. So in layman’s terms, a wall pisser. I was immediately inclined to side with Ahab and Jezebel. Their status as wall pissers seemed far more interesting than the pious yet overtly homicidal “hero” who was sent by God to dispatch of them. Clearly the authors of the Old Testament had an agenda, but it was one I wasn't buying. Ahab and Jezebel were marked as villains by these long-dead unknowable scribes. I couldn't tell you what other passages we translated for a year and a half, but my odd kinship with the wall pissers has stuck with me. Their extravagant lives and brutal ends were far more salacious than knowing which day of the week birds were created.
The realm of libertine continues with the entirely enjoyable The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by Scotsman James Hogg. He published it anonymously in 1824 and it sold quite poorly. However, the novel is gaining some popularity and if you take only one notion away from this whole essay it should be to immediately read this book. The narrative is told twice; first, by “the editor,” who is detailing only what he knows and believes to be the facts. The second portion, however, is the justified sinner's own confession.
It is a remarkable novel featuring an unreliable narrator. So in this case, I'm hesitant to give much away. There is madness, murder, possible fratricide, prostitutes, and a man who may or may not be the Devil or the sinner himself or both. As the sinner narrates his section with murky details, which are wholly unreliable and questionable, I relish in a once religious fanatic's downfall (I suppose the Devil and I have this in common). When the reputed righteous fall onto the side of villainy, my delight runneth over.
There is an element of satire to Justified Sinner, too. The heinous deeds that the sinner carries on are almost comical (except to the believers in the book). It's as if the holy rollers need the sinner to commit his crimes for them to find salvation. Hogg writes such a perfectly poignant sentence:
"Nothing in the world delights a truly religious people so much as consigning them to eternal damnation."
Everyone but the sinner is feeble, judgmental, and albeit, a little less murdery, but the fun is had with him. Throughout he is no doubt losing his mind and he is never on stable ground. Hogg writes him as layered and not completely knowable. His cruel behavior is not entirely understood by both the reader and the sinner himself.
Inviting the Immoral
It can be difficult to track what these imagined villains have in common. Sometimes they have engaging personalities that allow them to be quite popular in their social circles of the respective books. Yet, other times they are just the odd balls that their community has deemed the other. In literature, it's far more interesting to be with the charismatic reprobate. Who would choose to sit through a fire and brimstone service when you can go out back with the wall pissers? Their shenanigans have to be far more gratifying. Because they only reside on the page, their moral depravity doesn't have to be condemned. In fact, we invite.
Literature is filled with a never-ending litany of wicked, unprincipled players who are more than happy with their irredeemable acts and chicanery, and so am I.
As for the man on trial, the one with whom I had an unfortunate run-in on a street in Berlin, he is certainly a villain. He is just not one who captivates me. He is a dastard in the real world. There is no mustache twirling or off-stage cackling. He is not part a world populated by an author’s imagination made up of fictitious encounters and extravagant plot points. No, he’s just a lowlife.