From A Clockwork Orange to Lolita, The Stranger to American Psycho, many of the most controversial, gripping novels of the last century are first-person narratives detailing the inner workings of disturbed minds. Our collective obsession with abnormal psychology has brought us entire cable stations devoted to true crime, a flood of television and movie procedurals and psycho-killer thrillers, and, most excitingly, some brazen, unforgettable fiction. Is it any wonder, though? What could be more enticing than the chance to safely slink around inside the mind of someone whose entire psychological makeup is (hopefully) both foreign and frightening?
Though I’ll grant it’s a bit morbid, I’m not ashamed to admit that I find terrible people endlessly fascinating. Oh, you, too? Then check out the following titles, all told from the perspectives of some extremely disturbed individuals you would never want to meet in a dark alley. Or at all.
Merricat Blackwood (We Have Always Lived In the Castle, by Shirley Jackson)
From the mouth of Miss Mary Catherine Blackwood, this tale of small-town intrigue starts with the revelation of an arsenic murder of most of Merricat’s family several years prior, which the town has pinned on Merricat’s older sister, Constance. As if tragically losing your parents weren’t enough to knock your marbles around a bit, Merricat has spent the subsequent time in near-total isolation, ostracized by her community, casting protection spells for her sister’s safety, and only leaving the grounds of her estate in order to purchase essentials for survival. When an estranged relative shows up in search of money, Merricat deems him a threat to the remaining family members’ safety. Oh, but she’s such a sweet, charming girl, what could possibly go wrong?
Celeste Price (Tampa, by Alissa Nutting)
Meet the fictional construct who’s becoming known as the female Humbert Humbert. Celeste Price is the middle-school English teacher parents rightly fear, given that the only things she wants out of life are eternal youth and 14-year-old flesh. A predator through and through, Celeste goes to increasingly elaborate extremes to fulfill her desires, relaying her X-rated tale with shameless sociopathic rigor. Warning: this one bites.
Nick Corey (Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson)
Nick Corey is the notoriously sleazy, corrupt, and inept sheriff of a small county in Nowhere, Texas. What’s less known about him is that he’s also a master manipulator and psychopathic killer. In a series of horrifying, darkly comic vignettes, this noir leads us through the stone-cold spree of a disarmingly simple-seeming man so detached from basic empathy that he’d rather kill a gal than be troubled with breaking up with her. Additional recommendations: pretty much anything by Jim Thompson. If he ever wrote a book with a likable character in it, no one bothered to tell me.
Mizoguchi (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, by Yukio Mishima)
Aspiring monk Mizoguchi has some issues with women. And some issues with authority. And some other issues, such as loving the idea of setting fire to irreplaceable architectural structures. Obsessed with his own dramatic interpretations of Buddhist scripture, and driven by a deep-seated violence largely resulting from a grossly malformed sexuality, Mizoguchi slowly slips from his reality as a live-in servant to a megalomaniacal vision of himself as the hand of God, whose sole duty it is to balance the world through whatever means he deems necessary, up to the loss of his life. Adding to the chill, this novel is not only based on true events, but was authored by one of literary history’s most notorious suicide cases.
Libby Day (Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn)
Through Libby Day, Flynn offers up one of the most convincing portrayals of self-destructive depression and hatred of humanity I’ve read in years. (Though I suppose almost your entire family being strangled, shot, and axed to death by your Satan-worshipping brother in one terrifying night when you were only 7 is a pretty decent excuse for being a profoundly sour, troubled individual.) As if the inevitable PTSD weren’t enough, a group of homicide-obsessed murderbilia collectors find Libby 20 years after the crime and attempt to convince her of her brother’s innocence, causing her to explore the blood-drenched recesses of her fragmented memory in search of the truth.
What fictional character would you avoid at all costs?