Stephen King’s human villains are by far his most frightening. Here are 10 of his most deranged human antagonists…
Stephen King is the creator of many preternaturally terrifying villains. Vampires, devils, demonic clowns, aliens, witches, werewolves, dark wizards, and even a killer automobile or two, but it is his human monsters that are the most frightening. King’s serial killers, despots, murderers, bullies, and crooks of all types could be our neighbors, our friends, our coworkers, and even our family. They exist in the real world and lurk around every corner, just waiting for their moment to strike.
Here are just some of King’s most enduring human monsters that may not exist under your bed, but they could be next to you on a bus, in the next bathroom stall, or next to you on the couch.
10. Margaret White
“I can see your dirtypillows. Everyone will. They’ll be looking at your body.”
Is there anything more vile than an abusive mother? In Carrie, Stephen King’s very first novel, the pig’s blood and the prom incident may have been the dynamite that caused Carrie White to finally explode, but make no mistake; Margaret White lit the fuse long before that fateful night.
Margaret’s first thought when she got pregnant with Carrie was that she had contracted “cancer of the womanly parts,” and she didn’t treat her daughter much different after she was born. Insulting, torturing, punishing, judging, Margaret wielded religion like a sword. She betrayed her motherly duties by not educating Carrie about changes a young girl goes through which causes the inciting events that takes place after Carrie panics over the simple act of menstruation.
Margaret is a subtle evil, her every word possessed the power to shame her mentally fragile daughter. Carrie was a broken girl, broken by the woman that should have been her protector. Margaret drove her daughter insane and may have been the cause of Carrie’s incredible mental powers bursting free in a fit of her rage over her mother’s cruel hand. There are many villains on this list, killers and criminals who have no regard for anyone, but Margaret was a mother who should have protected her most precious gift, a child with incredible powers. Instead, Margaret was the demon she accused Carrie of being, and her brutal hands caused the first sting of cruelty in Carrie’s sad life.
9. John “Ace” Merrill
The Body (1982)
“We’re gonna get you for this. You’re dead.”
If The Body, adapted into the film Stand By Me in 1986, was about the last days of simplicity before the rigors of adulthood, than “Ace” Merrill was the wolf waiting to devour that innocence. Merrill went beyond a simple archetype of a bully; he was seemingly made of cruelty, a constant threat to a group of boys trying to live their last summer of true childhood. The four young protagonists’ quest to see the dead body began out of innocent sense of curiosity, but Merrill seeks out the body in question with almost a serial killer’s obsession with death.
There is no goodness in Merrill; he exists to torment and to threaten. Merrill seems to have a sexual glee in the fear he inspires making him much more than a mean teenager that wants to bloody a few noses. Merrill seems to want to beat all joy and innocence out of the boys in his quest to be able to look death in the face. King again uses Merrill in Needful Things as an employee of Leland Gaunt. Listen, if a person works for Leland Gaunt, that person is a special kind of evil.
8. “Big” Jim Rennie and Junior Rennie
Under the Dome (2009)
“Murder is like potato chips. You can’t stop with just one.”
Before Dome Day in Chester’s Mill, Maine, “Big” Jim Rennie was a meth dealing parasite disguised as a local politician who sucked his town dry of resources and morality. After Dome Day, he became a pocket Hitler that was determined to rule his town or destroy it. His son, Junior, was a serial killing sexual predator and a necrophiliac. Together, they were Chester’s Mill worst nightmare, and the residents of the domed city were trapped with them.
“Big Jim” is probably King’s most selfish villain, a black hole of greed that sucked everything into his void, while Junior was a time bomb, suffering from migraines, paranoia, and fits of rage. Father and son’s evil fed off each other with “Big” Jim’s apathy feeding Junior’s neediness and rage.
Junior was a more overt threat, with an attic full of rotting women he enjoyed diddling and a hunger for more, while his father was a subtle threat, a control freak that did not kill for appetite like his son, but for a need for control. “Big” Jim used the tragedy of the dome for his own benefit, becoming a dictator of a town besieged by tragedy, while Junior became the monster under the bed, Chester’s Mill’s own Grendel.
“Big” Jim hides behind a veneer of religious virtue while lying and betraying with every word he speaks, which makes him not only an irredeemable monster but a hypocrite of the highest order. He is the classic villain that truly believes himself to be the hero. Stephen King said that “Big Jim” was patterned after former Vice President Dick Cheney. We’ll let that one just sit there.
7. Craig Toomey
The Langoliers (1990)
“Time? What the hell do YOU know about time? Ask ME about time, ask ME!”
A man like Craig Toomey is dangerous in any situation. He is the ticking time bomb that will walk into a diner or a school and open fire just because he had a bad day. He is the rage and the hatred that could live behind the eyes of any man. When you put this type of volatile sociopath on an airplane that gets lost in time, you have a scenario of pure soul chilling terror.
In The Langoliers, a commercial airplane gets displaced from time. The people on board are forced to witness giant, round creatures devour the seconds left behind them. Lost, confused, and desperate the passengers must work together; it’s too bad that one of them had just become completely unhinged.
Toomey was evil before the plane disappeared, he cost his company millions of dollars, and he did it purposely, to watch the suffering it caused his co-workers and peers. He has an overinflated sense of self importance that feels the world exists only for him. As he sits on the lost plane and slowly tears paper, each rip signals another piece of his sanity unraveling. The Langoliers presents an extraordinary situation, but the truly frightening aspect of a man like Toomey is that he can appear anywhere at any moment, on any plane or any shopping mall, ready to snap and make sure innocents are caught in his explosion.
6. Mother Carmody
The Mist (1980)
“The end of times has come. Not in flames, but in mist.”
When a group of shoppers are trapped in a supermarket by a mist containing otherworldly, flesh hungry creatures, it is the evil on the inside of the store the survivors must be most wary of…the evil of Mother Carmody. Like Toomey, Carmody is one of King’s recurring villainous archetypes, the everyday human evil that makes a bad situation so much worse.
Carmody thinks she has God on her side, a cruel Old Testament God that is punishing humanity with the Mist. She is so charismatic that the terrified shoppers start to believe her. She is the worst of the Westboro Baptist Church mixed with Jim Jones, a charismatic lunatic who is able to sway people to her cause. She turns the supermarket into her own mini-Salem Witch Trial, and demands sacrifice to her God so the mists will dissipate.
Her ability to turn normal people into bloodthirsty zealots through manipulation is her most frightening ability, along with the way she takes God’s words and ideals and uses them to fill her own bloodlust. She is a mythical witch, a hag in human form that always has a Bible quote ready. She is everything potentially wrong with religion and faith embodied in the form of a lone woman. All she has to do is evoke the name of God, and people do her killing for her.
5. Henry Bowers
“You’re dead meat, fat boy.”
Like “Ace” Merrill, Bowers is a school bully who terrorizes his neighborhood. The gleeful joy in human suffering makes him a terrifying human evil in a book fraught with supernatural danger. Bowers torments The Loser Club, King’s protagonists in It. Bowers carves part of his name in Ben Hanscom’s belly, he whitewashes Stan Uris’ face in the snow until Stan is lacerated, he breaks arms and glasses, Bowers’ presence is almost as soul clenching as Pennywise the Clown, and in many ways, Bowers is worse.
Pennywise, or It, was put on Earth to kill, he is a monster whose existence is defined by killing, Bowers chooses to cause pain and spread fear. His potential for violence informs readers that as he gets older, Bowers’ cruelty will escalate to rape and murder. Bowers is so evil that he is framed for It’s killings because people fully believe that the abhorrent boy was capable of such acts. Later in life, as The Losers return to Derry, It is able to use Bowers as an agent. Bower’s cruel but human heart makes him a perfect puppet for Pennywise, a manipulable bag of cruelty in human skin.
4. Wardens George Dunahy, Greg Stammas, and Samuel Norton
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (1982)
“Nothing stops. Nothing…or you will do the hardest time there is. No more protection from the guards. I’ll pull you out of that one-bunk Hilton and cast you down with the Sodomites.”
In the novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, it is three greedy and wretched wardens that force Andy Dufresne to come up with an escape plan for the ages. The three wardens combine together to make one piece of crap. They don’t see Andy or the other prisoners as humans, they seem them as means to an end, pack horses to be worked and ridden till they die. All the evil in Shawshank happens under their watch, the beatings, the rapes, the murders, and all three are so apathetic to the plight of their charges that it makes the three wardens of justice worse than the prisoners they are charged with keeping.
All three take a perverse pleasure into robbing Andy and the others of life’s simple pleasures, they enjoy playing gods, all knowing and cruel. When Andy and his accounting skills become important, they would do anything to keep him there so they could make a buck off his skills, innocent or not. The wardens are the devil of Andy’s Hell. When Andy does formulate his escape he does so in a way that he can also bring down Norton, a fitting end for the last of a series of vile men whose evil managed to make the unendurable worse.
3. William “Wild Bill” Wharton
The Green Mile (1996)
“You can come in here all you likes, but you’ll go out on you backs. Billy the kid gon’ guarantee you that.”
The prisoners of The Green Mile, like those of The Shawshank Redemption, were meant to be sympathetic, everyday men who had made horrible mistakes and waited for their day to exit this world. They were real people, who had interests, loves, fears, and hopes…all except “Wild Bill” Wharton.
Wharton was the anti-John Coffey. Where Coffey lived to ease the pain of others, Wharton lived to cause it. Wharton was no more responsible for his actions than a hurricane or a tragic car accident; he was a force of destruction in human skin, an uncaring blade in the darkness. John Coffey was in jail for killing two little twin girls, an unspeakable act of cruelty that set into motion the events of the novel. It turns out; Wharton committed the act, and enjoyed it. He did it not for money or to gain power, he did it because the twins were just there and Wharton could not abide beings so innocent to simply exist. Wharton’s sins are many, like the murder of a pregnant woman during a robbery, and every word he said made readers want to shower.
2. Percy Wetmore
The Green Mile (1996)
“You’ve been declared competent, son, ‘know what that means? ‘Means you gonna ride the lightning.”
Yeah, two villains from The Green Mile. It really is that darn good. While William Wharton is a primal sort of evil, Percy Wetmore is a cruel and petty evil that can be potentially more dangerous. The inmates living on the Green Mile must constantly face the specter of death that is their punishment. Wetmore makes sure that each moment these lost souls spend on the Mile is filled with mocking cruelty that sucks any hope and joy from their last days.
As fans know, one of the inmates kept a mouse named Mr. Jingles as a pet, as a way to find joy and self-worth during the prisoner’s last days. When Wetmore steps on the mouse just to watch its owner suffer, it is one of the most enduring moments of pointless cruelty in modern literature. Wetmore does not stop there; he sabotages an execution just to watch a man suffer, causing the prisoner to catch fire and making his last moments an unspeakable agony.
Wetmore does all this because he can. He is a man completely corrupted by power and his position of authority. When confronted with a true evil, Wharton, Wetmore wilts, losing his bravado and reveals himself to be a coward. His hypocrisy and random acts of abject cruelty makes him a greater evil than a man like Wharton. Wharton’s evil just is, while Wetmore chooses to cause pain because it makes him feel like a man. Wetmore’s evil is a coward’s sort of evil designed to make a small man feel large.
1. Annie Wilkes
“SLIPPED AWAY! SLIPPED AWAY? SHE DIDN’T JUST SLIP AWAY! YOU DID IT! YOU DID IT! YOU DID IT! YOU MURDERED MY MISERY!”
King fans are more familiar with Annie Wilkes, Paul Sheldon’s number one fan, than probably any other King villain besides maybe Jack Torrance or Pennywise the Clown, but Annie possesses the insidious evil that makes her top this list. She is the evil lurking behind the eyes of even the most unassuming person.
On the surface, Annie is a lonely spinster, a woman who lives for her novels by author Paul Sheldon. She is seemingly as harmless as a sponge cake, until poor Paul gets into a car wreck and ends up in Nurse Annie’s care, right when he killed Annie’s favorite character in his books. Annie is not happy and what follows is a harrowing journey through pain and control. It turns out Annie was a dragon lady, having committed several infant murders as well as murdering her own father. Sweet, matronly Annie, seemingly so naïve and out of touch was a cunningly evil master criminal who now had her favorite author under her complete control (no fans, do not dream of having George R.R. Martin in this situation, it wouldn’t be right).
Misery brings up the themes of the responsibility of a caregiver and how much power someone like a nurse really has on her charges, a power that Annie profanes by torturing Paul and inflicting her iron will on his helpless person. Annie cuts of Paul’s leg and seals the wound with an iron and slices off his thumb for daring to complain that the typewriter she forces him to use is missing a letter. She takes glee in causing his suffering which makes her more than a sick person, but a devil disguised as an angel of mercy.
Annie is like a cruel and ancient god, stone like and immovable, a powerful will and a cunning mind in a doughy and harmless looking body. Annie’s evil is sudden and shocking, making her King’s greatest human villain, and if you disagree, well, that’s just to bad for you Mr. Man.
A version of this article first appeared on September 5, 2014.