If the surprise Netflix hit The End of the F*cking World (based on Chuck Forsman’s graphic novel) has taught us anything, it’s that sociopaths can be absolutely endearing (though it’s true James, one of two misfit teenagers who flee their homes seeking adventure and get wrapped up in a terrible crime, only suspects he’s a stone-cold killer). But of course, we already knew that: the disturbed teen at this story’s center is far from the first sociopathic child to charm our boots off—here are five other murderous kids found in literature who hide behind a facade of adorableness.
Kazou Kiriyama in Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami
Handsome, rich, intelligent, and a good student: you might imagine Kazuo Kiriyama be popular with kids and teachers alike. He’s also a pretty good fit for the Battle Royale, a brutal government program that pits students against each other in a fight to the death. After a car accident damages the part of his brain that processes emotions, Kazuo becomes an extremely bored genius who masters challenges with ease—to the point where his decision whether to play along with the government’s demand he murder his classmates is left to the flip of a coin. He proves to be as good at killing as he was at playing the violin.
Steerpike in The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake
One of the tricks Peake pulls off in his classic work of grim fantasy is the character of Steerpike, initially presented as unattractive in just about every way. Despite this, he slowly evolves into an anti-hero worth rooting for, despite his horrific actions and complete and utter selfishness, and a self-centered worldview that suggest classic sociopathic tendencies. By the end, Steerpike’s rage and campaign of terror against, well, everyone who isn’t Steerpike somehow seems almost noble, and his aspects of the sprawling story are the most interesting and enjoyable. You might not want to hang out with him, but you won’t mind following him around and observing him.
Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, by William March
Rhoda is eight years old, and the absolute definition of an adorable child. She’s pretty, polite, and obedient, she does her schoolwork, and she treats adults with respect. The fact that her classmates keep their distance and that people (and sometimes cute puppies) occasionally die when they irritate her (or when their deaths benefit her in even minor ways) doesn’t take away from the fact that if you were googling for stock photos of “adorable little girl,” Rhoda would show up every time. Using her cuteness and youth as a shield, Rhoda literally gets away with murder, and even when her own mother attempts to put an end to her tiny reign of terror, her age and appearance save her. Awww.
Joffrey Baratheon in A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Sure, now we know just how awful was King Joffrey I, first of his name. But Joffrey inherited his (true) father’s good looks and his mother’s superficial charm, and for a long time before ascending to the throne, he managed to at least appear to be a handsome, if unpredictable child. Of course, once he gains the crown, his sociopathic tendencies blossom into full-fledged tyranny as he declares a whole world his to torment for fun. No, no one shed a tear when he was assassinated (well, we assume Cersei shed a tear, and decided to launch a campaign of murder in his honor), but plenty of people in Westeros were charmed by this kid in the early going.
Merricat Blackwood in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson
Jackson’s crowning achievement is the slow burn realization that Merricat is actually far from the damaged and persecuted teenager we think we meet early in Jackson’s most celebrated work. She is actually an unreliable and psychotic murderer. And yet, you never stop hoping she’ll find some kind of comfort and happiness, even after you learn she poisoned her family and burned down her own house because she was literally unwilling to accept a change to her small universe. Merricat seems like a sort of kooky twist on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl—until the inky blackness within her starts to leak out. The deep impression she leaves on readers is why she’s become one of the most interesting characters in literary history. The fact that she embodies many of Shirley Jackson’s own fears and struggles just makes her even more interesting.
Who are your favorite fictional bad seeds?