One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Listing the world's scariest film characters has killed time for countless movie buffs, but it is much harder to decide what characters from literature are the most bone-chilling. The movies are a visual medium relying on directors and actors as well as screenwriters, while books rely on the skill of the author to conjure fear in the imagination of the reader. AbeBooks is conducting a poll to discover the scariest characters in literature and we would love to get your vote – take the poll.

In many scary movies, the body count is in double figures before you have taken a second mouthful of popcorn. Yet in a novel, someone like the cold, calculating, utterly ruthless Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest does not have to actually kill anyone to generate utter fear in the reader.

Shakespeare relished his villains but Othello’s second-in-command Iago and Lady Macbeth stand out as plotting evil-doers who manipulated those around them in order to achieve their ends. They don’t want to get their hands dirty.....

Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster have been parodied so often and had such a massive influence on popular culture that it’s almost impossible to think of either as serious contenders, but they are cornerstones of gothic horror. Forget the movies – think about how Bram Stoker preyed on very real fears of the night and Mary Shelley’s monster was 150 years ahead of its time.

Then there are the crazy ones like Norman Bates, who terrified readers before Hitchcock’s legendary movie, and Annie Wilkes, the worst nurse you will ever encounter (unless you bump into Nurse Ratched), and Hannibal Lecter although he often comes across as quite sane for a cannibal.

To Kill a Mockingbird

For pure brutal menace, can anyone match Bill Sikes? A career criminal, Sikes does not think twice about murdering his girlfriend Nancy. Remember Bob Ewell’s simmering racism and resentment in To Kill A Mockingbird? How can anyone so young be so vicious when recalling Pinkie Brown from Brighton Rock? Stephen King knew there was something terribly wrong with clowns when he created Pennywise in It. The last person you would wish to meet in a pub would be Irvine Welsh’s sociopath Francis Begbie from Trainspotting.

The modern era sees Patrick Bateman killing with designer style in American Psycho but is creating fear in the reader all about the threat of death? Take Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab – one of the greatest creations in literature who was characterized by such single-mindedness that the lives of his crew are secondary to his pursuit of Moby Dick.

William Peter Blatty put the supernatural into the body of a small girl. The movie version of The Exorcist is more infamous than his book from 1971 but the demon that possesses Regan MacNeil is one of the most memorable evil creations in the past 50 years.

The choice is yours – take our poll.

Authors' Thoughts on Literature's Scariest Characters

Kelley Armstrong

Kelley Armstrong, author of the Women of the Otherworld fantasy series, released her first crime novel, Exit Strategy, earlier this year.

"Fiction is full of terrifying monsters. The ones that made the greatest impression on me weren't the unstoppable fantastical creatures like vampires and zombies, but those most recognizable as human. My choice, then, for literature's scariest creation would be the title character from R. L. Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

"Dr. Jekyll doesn't set out to be a monster. He's trying to divide the nature of man (good and evil) into separate entities, so he can suppress the evil. In most horror stories, poor Jekyll would then find himself forced, against his will, to become the sociopath Mr. Hyde and commit crimes Jekyll would never dream of. But Stevenson takes the more interesting route. Jekyll decides he likes being Hyde. He enjoys indulging his worst nature. He has, at some deep level, dreamed of committing those crimes and now he can…with the excuse of being Hyde. In trying to isolate the evil in his nature, he is eventually consumed by it.

The true horror of the story is that Jekyll isn't possessed by a demon or infected by an outside contaminant. His "monster" is a part of himself. And, in some small way, it's a part of all of us - the primal, self-absorbed id that wants what it wants, with no regard for others. If left uncontrolled, it can consume us. But, perhaps, if suppressed and denied, it will do the same."

Matt Haig

British writer Matt Haig has three novels under his belt - The Last Family in England, The Dead Father’s Club, and Shadow Forest, which was published as Samuel Blink and the Forbidden Forest in the US (Read our interview with Matt).

"There are, essentially, two types of scary character in fiction. There is the traditional notion of scary that might be embodied by a Hannibal Lecter or a Count Dracula, and these characters scare us because they might suck our blood or wash down our liver with a nice Chianti. These characters could be described as 'externally scary' because they are always 'other', something outside ourselves.


"For my money though, the truly fearful type of character is the one which presents us with a distorted mirror, and makes us confront a universal element of human nature and the threats that exist inside us all. This type of 'internally scary' is perhaps embodied best by Victor Frankenstein. Victor's crime is simply that he is too idealistic. As a student of natural philosophy he is taken by the notion that he can create life from the inanimate. This can be seen as a metaphor for any amount of human follies, from wanting to believe in life after death to simple career ambition. Anyway, the results are monstrous.

"The moment Frankenstein's creature comes to life Victor's dream turns into a destructive and fatal nightmare. He had pursued his aim 'with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that it had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.' Never have the internal forces that work against us been better illustrated than by Victor Frankenstein, so that's why he gets my vote."

Robert Hough

Robert Hough, author of just-released The Culprits and also The Stowaway and Commonwealth Prize nominated The Final Confession of Mabel Stark.

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea

"The scariest character in modern literature? Easy – any of the bad-asses in Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea. It's not so much their casual attitude toward murder, voyeurism, wanton destruction and animal torture that is so chilling, but their pursuit of a cold, psychopathic creed they call "absolute dispassion." It's a book about how ideas can be generated to justify any behavior, no matter how vile, and in so doing it proves that philosophy can be way scarier than any monster, ghoul or madmen. Oh, and one other thing. They are children."