Columns > Published on December 14th, 2011

LURID: Bad to the Bone? (Part 2: Adults)

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading

Happy Kwanukkasolmas!  Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, here’s hoping you’ve survived prolonged contact with your family, and found the tips contained in the last LURID re: identifying juvenile psychopaths useful during your festivities.

Now it’s time to take a long hard look at your adult associates.  Various estimates suggest that at least one in twenty-five adults possesses psychopathic tendencies.  And that number is growing.  Psychopaths are all about survival of the fittest.  Male psychopaths embody the love-‘em-and-leave-‘em credo.  The most successful are the kind of guys who father generations of children off successive trophy wives, maxing out the replication power of their DNA.  This genetic trend has been mirrored in the ever-increasing numbers of fictional psychopaths found in your local libraries and bookstores.  While we may not love having a psychopathic boss, and psychopathic children are universally abhorred, we love reading about psychopathic individuals in our downtime.  And, these days, ‘psychopath’ doesn’t automatically equate to ‘bad guy’.

Psychopaths form a very specific subset of fictional character types.  They’re not easy to write well because it’s difficult to transport a neurotypical reader (and writer) inside the psychopathic mind. Psychopaths are born bad, and remain beyond redemption, living out their lives beyond the normal boundaries of human empathy and experience.  They never come in from the cold.

“Psychopaths don’t change… They don’t learn from punishment.  The best you can hope for is that they’ll eventually get too old and lazy to be bothered to offend.”1

That’s possibly the core of their fictional appeal – and why that appeal is so difficult to get right on the page.  The truly psychopathic character can never be redeemed by cheesy or moralistic Act Three reversals.  He or she remains consistent to the grave, psychopathic as long as they are physically and mentally able.  In a real world fettered by checks, punishment and balances, the psychopath is unapologetically askew, wrong and unrepentant while all around them follow a redemptive arc.  Naturally, they form the focal point for a lot of Bad Books.

While there are some excellent historical examples out there (Chaucer’s Pardoner, Richard III, Iago, Don Juan, Mr. Kurtz, and Vindice to name but a few), the psychopath only comes into his (and less commonly, her) own in the twentieth century.  Prior to the development of psychiatry, psychopathic behavior was termed ‘moral insanity’ and blamed on the Devil.  It’s instructive to look at how nineteenth century novelists handled individuals who today would earn a clinical diagnosis, but, back then, were viewed as having succumbed to the solicitations of Satan.  For centuries, demonic influence provided a convenient way of understanding the psychopathic condition, enabling readers to construct a safe bridge of ‘Why?’ across the abyss of motiveless Malignity.

Licensed To Kill: The Justified Sinner

The Private Memoirs and Confession of a Justified Sinner was first published in 1824 by former shepherd and self-taught man of letters, James Hogg, and was neglected for over a century thereafter.  It was re-championed by André Gide, in his introduction to the 1947 edition, and has attracted a slew of notable supporters since, including Philip Pullman and Ian Rankin. The narrative, which revolves around incidents in Edinburgh and environs in the early 1700s, is told from three different perspectives.  The first telling is reportage: the dry summary, from an editor’s point of view, of the known facts pertaining to the short life and brutal murder of George Colwan, Laird of Dalcastle.  George’s half-brother, the religious fanatic Robert Wringhim, follows him all around town, from tennis game to public house, jeering at him, predicting his fire-and-brimstone descent into Hell, and kicking and hitting him whenever the opportunity arises.  George tells him “If thou art not a limb of Satan I never saw one”.  After an early morning altercation on Arthur’s Seat, Robert is bound over to keep the peace where his sibling is concerned, or forfeit his own life.  Shortly afterwards, George is involved in a fatal duel with another young blood, Drummond. Drummond flees Scotland and is supposed guilty, until later when a prostitute admits she witnessed the killing and declares it was Robert who dealt the deadly blow.  By the time her evidence comes to light, Robert has disappeared.

This all reads like a standard Gothic melodrama, encompassing misty mountains, crumbling castles, illegitimate half-brothers, a riot on Edinburgh’s high street and the Calvinistic rants of Wringhims Jr. and Sr.   From the editor’s wry perspective, Robert is a classic psychopath (or, in the parlance of the time, a ‘moral imbecile’), oblivious to even his own pain when it comes to inflicting misery on others.  After standing, glowering, so close to his brother during a match that George’s tennis racquet collides with his nose, Robert continues to annoy every single player on the court.

The blood flowing from his mouth and nose he took no pains to stem, neither did he so much as wipe it away; so that it spread over all his cheeks, and breast, even off at his toes.  In that state did he take up his station in the middle of the competitors…[and] ran about, impeding everyone who attempted to make at the ball.  They loaded him with execrations, but it availed nothing; he seemed courting persecution and buffetings, keeping steadfastly to his old joke of damnation, and marring the game so completely that, in spite of every effort on the part of the players, he forced them to stop their game and give it up.”

However, Hogg’s novel is much more than a sermonizing moral tale, and points the way forward for subsequent novels exploring the psychology of evil. The second section is the ‘Private Memoir and Confession’ of the title, and represents Robert’s own account of the events surrounding George’s death.  Robert considers all his actions, from spoilsport to serial killer, ‘justified’, as he is one of the Elect, “adopted among the number of God’s children”, who will ascend into heaven no matter what they do on earth.  Robert justifies all his malevolent behavior as being done in the service of God, and at the behest of his mysterious friend, Gil-Martin.  The savvy reader recognizes Gil-Martin as the Devil from the get-go, but Robert, the psychopath, has no moral compass to set a-quiver, and insists that his buddy is actually Peter, the Russian Czar, in disguise. 

To Hogg’s contemporary readers, Robert’s confession screams “the Devil made me do it”, even though he refuses to admit that on a conscious level, insisting that Gil-Martin is a real person until the end.   However, modern readers will recognize Robert’s psychopathic ego at work, with its “grandiose sense of self-worth”, “lack of remorse or guilt”, and “failure to accept responsibility for its own actions” putting a convenient spin on events.  It’s testament to Hogg’s skill as a writer and his prescience regarding future psychiatric theories that the novel functions effectively on either level.  The third section deals with the discovery of Robert’s perfectly preserved corpse, and the ‘Confession’ buried at his side.  It’s left entirely up to the reader to decide which version of events, the supernatural or the psychological, is correct.

Confessions of A Justified Sinner made barely a ripple upon its first publication, but is now recognized as a prototypic Bad Book, one that has been reworked and revisited for favorites such as Falling Angel and Fight Club.  Hogg’s model of a psychopath, a self-justifying creature aware he or she is operating outside moral and criminal law but clinging to their grandiose notions that their way is the right way, is still emulated.  Notable heirs to Robert Wringhim include Pinkie Brown in Brighton Rock, and Lester Ballard in Child of God.  Pinkie, a vicious teenage thug, believes he can do as he pleases, as long as he confesses his sins before death “between the stirrup and the ground”; he’s the Catholic riposte to Robert’s Calvinism.  Lester does what he does (necrophilia, pedophilia, murder, living in a cave), because he can claim to be, like everyone else, a Child of God, part of some grand master plan incomprehensible to mortal eyes.

This model assumes a certain degree of moral absolutism, that the reader will judge and be horrified by the psychopath’s actions as contrary to a shared ethical code.  However, as we head into the twenty-first century, moral absolutism is disintegrating as a common standard, and we need a different scaffold to cling to when it comes to observing activity in the psychopathic abyss. 

Live And Let Die: The Dice Man

The Dice Man was published by ‘unambitious academic’ George Cockcroft under a pseudonym (also the name of the protagonist) in 1971.  It charts the progress of Dr. Luke Rhinehart, a bored New York psychiatrist, as he constructs a lifestyle and belief system that revolves around the roll of the dice. 

Luke hits his mid-life crisis early, at thirty-two (“Life is islands of ecstasy in an ocean of ennui, and after thirty land is seldom seen”). He’s a mass of unfulfilled ambition, nursed grudges, sexual hang-ups, and he’s on the lookout for something new.  One night, clearing up after a poker session at his apartment, he toys with a long-held fantasy about having sex with his neighbor, Arlene (wife of his colleague and professional rival, Jake).   He realizes that one of the two dice is missing, and that it must be lying underneath a playing card.  In that instant, his whole life changes.

If that die has a one face up, I thought, I’m going downstairs to rape Arlene. ‘If it’s a one, I’ll rape Arlene,’ kept blinking on and off in my mind like a huge neon light and my terror increased.  But when I thought if it’s not a one I’ll go to bed, the terror was boiled away by a pleasant excitement and my mouth swelled into a gargantuan grin: a one means rape, the other numbers mean bed, the die is cast.  Who am I to question the die? I picked up the queen of spades and saw staring at me a cyclopean eye: a one.”

Luke immediately heads downstairs and rapes a not-unwilling Arlene, who has secretly lusted after him for years.  Although the sex itself is unsatisfying (“I felt through the whole act like a puppet trained to demonstrate normal sexual intercourse to a group of slow teenagers”), Luke is transformed by the experience.  He embarks on a part-terrifying, part-hilarious journey of self-discovery as he gives over all his life decisions to the whims of the die. 

Dice Life is straightforward.  Make a list of either six or twelve courses of action.  Roll the die.  Commit to the course of action the die dictates.  Repeat.  During the course of his dice adventures, Luke leaves his wife and children, has many more unsavory sex acts, establishes the Dice Life as a religion, and sets up various Centers for Experiments in Totally Random Environments where his followers and patients can immerse themselves in dice-directed living. 

On one level, Luke’s die-dedication serves as social satire, lampooning the pre-programmed life choices most of us make.  Luke and his cohort feel happier, more successful and more actualized the more random their goals become, the more they repress their egotistical desires in the service of the Die.  Luke declares he has given himself up to pure Chance, without ever addressing or admitting that he still maintains an element of control over what happens next via the choices he offers the Die.  In truth, he's not submitting to the will of the Die, or Chance.  He's submitting to his own whims.  His choices indicate dark thoughts are at work in his consciousness - a tendency towards psychopathic thinking – and suggest that this intelligent, educated, apparently well-adjusted adult has been suppressing some serious personal demons. It doesn't take much - a single roll of a die - and the beast within is free.

Luke, well-versed in disguising his lack of empathy as clinical distance and intellectual superiority, casually admits to harboring an inner killer:

Being an American born and bred, it was in my bones to kill.  Most of my adult life I had carried around like an instantaneously inflatable balloon a free-floating aggression which kept an imaginative array of murders, wars and plagues parading across my mind whenever life got difficult: a cabbie tried to overcharge me, Lil criticized me, Jake published another brilliant article.”

Social constraints mean that he doesn’t act on his murderous impulses for fear of retribution.  However, once he embarks on the Dice Life, those constraints fall away.  Like Robert Wringhim, he is justified in whatever he chooses to do.  Unlike his nineteenth century predecessor, he has no need of a supernatural agent to carry the burden of guilt.  His d(i)efense: the dice told me to do it. 

Part of the seriocomic brilliance of The Dice Man (and what makes it such a seductive Bad Book), is the way Luke couches all his debauchery, all his moral decrepitude, in such logical, affable terms.  He’s a bored scientist. He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s just playing, in a way that entertains both him and us.  It’s difficult not to like him, even to forgive some of his exploits as deliciously subversive. 

Only in the final third of the book does the “glibness/superficial charm” fall away to reveal his truly psychopathic face. When Luke broaches the subject of murder, it seems casual and inevitable, given the context of all that’s gone before (“No self-respecting Dice Man could honestly write down options day after day without including murder or a real rape”).  When the Dice select “I will try to murder someone”, Luke responds by writing out lists of potential victims, in batches of six, and letting the Dice pick his murderee.  He’s moved so far outside a moral framework that he has no ethical concerns, and is instead

determined to commit a nice clean crime – without any sick emotions, without fuss, with dignity, grace and aesthetic bliss.  I wanted to murder in a way that Agatha Christie would be pleased and not offended.  I wanted to commit a crime so perfect that no one would suspect anything, not the murdered, not the police, not even me.”

Luke embodies the post-modern psychopath.  His cheerful nihilism and embrace of antisocial behavior is represented as the ultimate in cool, the only efficient way of negotiating the chaos, violence, confusion and banality of our society.  In the forty years since The Dice Man was published, this brand of psychopathy has trickled down into the mainstream.  The psychopathic villains have become heroes (Jack Bauer, Dexter Morgan, all Tarantino’s protagonists), to be admired rather than feared.  Contemporary psychopaths don’t even need to roll the dice as a flimsy pretext for giving in to their personal Gil-Martin: they just do it.

As we trundle ever-closer to the zombie plague/solar flare/flu epidemic that will trigger the End Times, it seems natural and logical that we should be fascinated by fictional psychopaths, and not repelled by them as readers have been in the past.  After all, with their ruthless survival skills, they represent what’s most likely to be left of the human race, post-Apocalypse.

Who is your favorite fictional psychopath?  Share your thoughts in the comments below; the time to read and research on these people is now, before they completely take over the world.


1. p.47 The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through The Madness Industry(2011) by Jon Ronson

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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