A Dark Fixation: Psychopaths In Literature

A certain type of character has always inspired awe, revulsion, fear, and arousal. But as our understanding deepens, so does our appreciation for the well-written psychopath.

Stories transform us. Literally. We know from brain imaging research that engaging with a story lights up the same sections of our brains that process sights, sounds, tastes, and movement in real life. We don’t just take in words. We live them alongside characters — even when the character is a psychopath.

“Psychopath” is a term only for those who score high on the Psychopathy Checklist, which was devised in the ’70s by psychologist Robert D. Hare, whose Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us is still the leading source on the topic. Hare described psychopaths as “social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations, and empty wallets.” Psychopaths are highly represented in prison populations, but are perhaps even more disproportionately represented in crime fiction. Why the love for the character without conscience?

“There’s a certain morbid fascination in being a voyeur into the dark underbelly of human nature,” says Jen Waite, author of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing, a memoir detailing her suspicions that she married a psychopath. “That fascination is compounded by the fact that, outwardly, psychopaths often appear quite normal, even charming and attractive. When we watch these characters in movies or read about them in books, we are on the one hand horrified and assured of our own humanity, and on the other hand secretly wondering, ‘Do I have any of that darkness in me?’”

Even more chilling, perhaps, is the closeness of the psychopath voice whispering in your ear. “When you’re listening to a story, it’s kind of a hostage situation,” says Dana Norris, a writer and the founder of Story Club, a monthly, multicity live storytelling event. ”People like hearing a story told to them … You feel connected to the teller in a very immediate way.” 

When you think of psychos in literature, maybe the first to come to mind is American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman — but he wasn’t the first, the last, or the deadliest. Consider these psychopath-centric stories, which take listeners and readers to the darker side of humanity:

Lolita

There’s no better place to start than Lolita, a “love story” between a murderer-pedophile and the girl whose childhood he wants to steal. The story seduces the reader through Humbert Humbert’s lyrical, playful, and unreliable account. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” Humbert intones. Nabokov’s meticulous attention to the sound of this story makes the audiobook, read by Jeremy Irons (who played Humbert in the 1997 film), the perfect way to look upon “this tangle of thorns” that is Humbert’s desire and undoing.

You

Addressing the listener, Joe catalogues in detail every second since he has met "you," Guinevere, in the bookshop where he works. He is smitten. Obsessed. Dangerous? Kepnes’ urgent present-tense, high-wire, second-person story is a perfect fit for narrator Santino Fontana, who gives Joe’s internal voice — frustrated, focused, and fast — the fretful twinge of the misunderstood, the guy who lives inside his head, where all wrongs are someone else’s fault. (You will see more of You: It’s being made into a Lifetime movie starring Penn Badgley from Gossip Girl.)

A Sight for Sore Eyes

Rendell’s novels — she wrote more than 40 in her lifetime — often feature unstable characters calculating their own doom. In this one, narrated by Jenny Sterlin, a passel of self-centered Brits trapped in stifling lives careen toward a collision: One handsome young man interested only in beauty, one beautiful girl raised within a stepmother’s too-tight restrictions, and one aging pop icon whose vanity will bring her into contact with a killer.

The Silent Dead

At 29, Lt. Reiko Himekawa is a rising young star in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police’s Homicide Division, but being unmarried is a problem for her parents. In this Japanese noir procedural, the reader meets the vengeful killer up front, and then watches as Reiko’s almost supernatural talents for understanding a murder bring her into striking range. Giles Murray’s translation retains a voice that could only come from the Land of the Rising Sun. Narrator Emily Woo Zeller’s proper tones stretch to paint the grit and violence Reiko can’t evade.

My Sister Rosa

Seventeen-year-old Che has enough problems without his kid sister being a psychopath. “Rosa ticks off everything on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist except for promiscuity, driving too fast, and other adult sins,” says Che. “Give her time.” He’s the only one who knows. His parents? Clueless. So when his expat Aussie family moves from Bangkok to New York, a vibrant new playground for Rosa’s “game,” Che must save the world — from a 10-year-old. Narrator David Linski’s Australian accent reminds readers that Che has found himself far from home.

Maestra

"Desire and lack, I told myself, and the space between them, were what I had to negotiate,” says young Judith Rashleigh, whose appetites — for beautiful objects, for sex, for the next thrill — leave little room for lack. Her working-class background and her low-end job in high-end art, however, provide nothing but desire. A moonlighting gig as a hostess at a London champagne bar pushes Judith toward the life she thinks she deserves. The first murder, she says, was an accident. Emilia Fox’s narration fits Hilton’s dead-eyed prose. Domina, the sequel, launched July 11.

The Killer Inside Me

Say the word “psychopath” to crime fiction buffs, and this is the book that most often comes up. Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford is a seemingly dopey guy charged with protecting sleepy Central City, Texas. But he’s just playing the role to hide how smart he is — smart enough not to get caught with blood on his hands. When Lou gets called in to hurry a prostitute out of town, he feels “the sickness” coming back — and then a chance to avenge his brother’s murder. Narrator Kevin T. Collins gives Lou’s voice the gentlest Texas twang.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Jackson’s classic is the story of two sisters and their disabled uncle, the last of the Blackwoods after a ... mix-up, with the family sugar bowl. Mary Katherine, or Merricat, protects her older, exonerated sister from the townsfolk until cousin Charles Blackwood arrives, sniffing out any remaining family fortune, and gets Merricat’s back up. Narrator Bernadette Dunne gives the little sister a steadier voice than she deserves, serving up a story that is terrifyingly sweet.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Inviting the fictional psychopaths to dinner and not setting a place for Mr. Ripley? Unforgiveable. In 1950s New York, Tom Ripley is a handsome, ambitious con man — perfectly suited to trading his lot in life for anyone else’s at his first opportunity. When he’s sent to Europe to bring back a rich, bored classmate he barely knows, Ripley tastes the sweet life and decides to keep it at any cost. And he’s good at it. There are five Ripley novels in the “Ripliad,” each produced with Kevin Kenerly narrating.

Lolita

There’s no better place to start than Lolita, a “love story” between a murderer-pedophile and the girl whose childhood he wants to steal. The story seduces the reader through Humbert Humbert’s lyrical, playful, and unreliable account. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” Humbert intones. Nabokov’s meticulous attention to the sound of this story makes the audiobook, read by Jeremy Irons (who played Humbert in the 1997 film), the perfect way to look upon “this tangle of thorns” that is Humbert’s desire and undoing.

You

Addressing the listener, Joe catalogues in detail every second since he has met "you," Guinevere, in the bookshop where he works. He is smitten. Obsessed. Dangerous? Kepnes’ urgent present-tense, high-wire, second-person story is a perfect fit for narrator Santino Fontana, who gives Joe’s internal voice — frustrated, focused, and fast — the fretful twinge of the misunderstood, the guy who lives inside his head, where all wrongs are someone else’s fault. (You will see more of You: It’s being made into a Lifetime movie starring Penn Badgley from Gossip Girl.)

A Sight for Sore Eyes

Rendell’s novels — she wrote more than 40 in her lifetime — often feature unstable characters calculating their own doom. In this one, narrated by Jenny Sterlin, a passel of self-centered Brits trapped in stifling lives careen toward a collision: One handsome young man interested only in beauty, one beautiful girl raised within a stepmother’s too-tight restrictions, and one aging pop icon whose vanity will bring her into contact with a killer.

The Silent Dead

At 29, Lt. Reiko Himekawa is a rising young star in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police’s Homicide Division, but being unmarried is a problem for her parents. In this Japanese noir procedural, the reader meets the vengeful killer up front, and then watches as Reiko’s almost supernatural talents for understanding a murder bring her into striking range. Giles Murray’s translation retains a voice that could only come from the Land of the Rising Sun. Narrator Emily Woo Zeller’s proper tones stretch to paint the grit and violence Reiko can’t evade.

My Sister Rosa

Seventeen-year-old Che has enough problems without his kid sister being a psychopath. “Rosa ticks off everything on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist except for promiscuity, driving too fast, and other adult sins,” says Che. “Give her time.” He’s the only one who knows. His parents? Clueless. So when his expat Aussie family moves from Bangkok to New York, a vibrant new playground for Rosa’s “game,” Che must save the world — from a 10-year-old. Narrator David Linski’s Australian accent reminds readers that Che has found himself far from home.

Maestra

"Desire and lack, I told myself, and the space between them, were what I had to negotiate,” says young Judith Rashleigh, whose appetites — for beautiful objects, for sex, for the next thrill — leave little room for lack. Her working-class background and her low-end job in high-end art, however, provide nothing but desire. A moonlighting gig as a hostess at a London champagne bar pushes Judith toward the life she thinks she deserves. The first murder, she says, was an accident. Emilia Fox’s narration fits Hilton’s dead-eyed prose. Domina, the sequel, launched July 11.

The Killer Inside Me

Say the word “psychopath” to crime fiction buffs, and this is the book that most often comes up. Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford is a seemingly dopey guy charged with protecting sleepy Central City, Texas. But he’s just playing the role to hide how smart he is — smart enough not to get caught with blood on his hands. When Lou gets called in to hurry a prostitute out of town, he feels “the sickness” coming back — and then a chance to avenge his brother’s murder. Narrator Kevin T. Collins gives Lou’s voice the gentlest Texas twang.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Jackson’s classic is the story of two sisters and their disabled uncle, the last of the Blackwoods after a ... mix-up, with the family sugar bowl. Mary Katherine, or Merricat, protects her older, exonerated sister from the townsfolk until cousin Charles Blackwood arrives, sniffing out any remaining family fortune, and gets Merricat’s back up. Narrator Bernadette Dunne gives the little sister a steadier voice than she deserves, serving up a story that is terrifyingly sweet.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Inviting the fictional psychopaths to dinner and not setting a place for Mr. Ripley? Unforgiveable. In 1950s New York, Tom Ripley is a handsome, ambitious con man — perfectly suited to trading his lot in life for anyone else’s at his first opportunity. When he’s sent to Europe to bring back a rich, bored classmate he barely knows, Ripley tastes the sweet life and decides to keep it at any cost. And he’s good at it. There are five Ripley novels in the “Ripliad,” each produced with Kevin Kenerly narrating.

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