Top 10 real-life monsters in fiction

Bringing the very worst humans – from Joseph Stalin to Idi Amin – to life in novels is a tough call. But it can be done well, if you can bear to read

Depicting monsters from real life in fiction is tricky. Novelists thrive on intimate detail, but this is precisely the kind of information that is lacking when one researches a character such as Adolf Hitler, say, who was famously secretive about his private life; Stalin, likewise.

In researching my own novel, The Tristan Chord, I was lucky. My source material was August Kubizek’s 1953 memoir The Young Hitler I Knew, a remarkable account of his friendship with the adolescent future dictator. It is a three-dimensional portrait: all the traits of the adult megalomaniac are apparent at an age when Hitler is still recognisably human and capable of loneliness, visible insecurity and grief. But translating this into fiction was far from easy. Try creating a convincingly human portrait of a character whose very name is synonymous with evil.

Despite the challenges, some writers have created interesting and complex fictional portraits of monstrous characters from real life. Here is a list, for those of you who care to delve into the minds of some of the worst our species has to offer:

1. The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
Llosa’s celebrated novel focuses largely on those affected by the reign of Rafael Trujillo, who seized power in the Dominican Republic in 1930 and ruled until his assassination in 1961. Trujillo is an out-and-out sadist and narcissist – he sleeps with the wives and young daughters of his associates and prefers to personally supervise the interrogation and torture of his enemies and friends. Llosa manages to capture Trujillo’s underlying insecurities and self-pity, and his ability to rationalise his behaviour. But perhaps it’s not even this complicated: as one of his colleagues observes, Trujillo is “simply the devil”.

2. The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
At 14, Gary Gilmore began building the resumé of a textbook sociopath: petty theft, car theft, reform school, armed robbery, followed by a 15-year stint in prison. On release, he hooked up with a 19-year-old woman. When he beat her, she left and Gilmore, on successive nights, robbed and murdered a gas-station attendant and a bank clerk, shooting each in the head although neither resisted. The state of Utah sentenced Gilmore to death, which he demanded it carry out. As the first US citizen to be executed in 10 years, Gilmore became a media sensation. From a vast trove of information, Mailer cobbled together a “true-life novel”, using terse, utterly believable dialogue, set against the vast, empty backdrop of the American west.

3. The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden
The depiction of Idi Amin here is brilliant; the novel comes to life whenever he is on the page. Amin can be endearing, generous, whimsical – and switch in an instant from jovial to menacing. The narrator is a young Scottish doctor named Garrigan who, as his personal physician, is privy to his Amin’s routines and habits. The bodies mount and Garrigan, who both likes and fears Amin, becomes increasingly compromised.

4. Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn
Of the “monsters” in this list, David Melrose is the only one to (most probably) never have committed a murder. His legacy is domestic. His presence dominates Never Mind and haunts the other Melrose novels. David rapes, and continues to rape, his son Patrick, and terrorises the boy’s alcoholic mother. St Aubyn has made no secret of his having based the character on his father, Roger St Aubyn. “He had a small canvas,” St Aubyn says, “but he was as destructive as he could be. If he had been given Cambodia, or China, I’m sure he would have done sterling work.”

5. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
The character of Lester Ballard in this novel was inspired by an actual killer, whom McCarthy refused to name, in the Appalachian hill country of Tennessee. At 27, Ballard is living alone in an abandoned house, scavenging and stealing. When he finds a young woman dead in her car, he takes her corpse home, has sex with it, and begins building a stolen wardrobe for it. He then shoots and kills another woman, adopts her corpse – and so on. He is so isolated, so ill at ease in the world, so impulse-ridden, he can only find intimacy with a corpse. Ballard is monstrous, and pitiful. As one might expect, this is not an easy book to read.

Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in the film version of The Night of the Hunter.
Accelerating menace … Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in the film version of The Night of the Hunter. Photograph: Allstar/United Artists

6. The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb
Written in the eccentric, colourful dialect of the part of West Virginia where Grubb grew up, protagonist Harry Powell is based on Harry Powers, a middle-aged, seemingly devout gent who met widows through the lonely hearts columns, seduced and murdered them, and at times murdered their young children. Grubb captures Harry’s charisma and charm, and the story acquires a sense of quiet, accelerating menace.

7. Perfume: the Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
The character of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was reportedly based on Manuel Romasanta, a 19th-century Spanish serial killer who extracted the body fat of his (female) victims to produce expensive soap. Grenouille, born in 1738, is a savant and connoisseur of scent. He apprentices himself to a master chemist of perfumes, and begins to murder young girls in order to extract and analyse their scents. The book can be read on many levels: as a story of exquisite addiction; as a meditation on compulsion and lust, and as an exploration of a primitive aspect of experience that is usually sanitised and repressed.

8. The Autobiography of Josef Stalin by Richard Lourie
Lourie wisely has his narrator begin this fictional memoir in 1937, at the height of the Great Terror. At the same time, Leon Trotsky, in exile in Mexico City, is beginning his own memoir of Stalin. Trotsky poses no threat to Stalin, yet Stalin is obsessed with him. Through show trials, purges and deportation, Stalin cleanses the party and the population of imagined Trotskyites, and finally succeeds in having Trotsky killed. This is where the book is at its best: in depicting the outlandish vanity, ruthlessness, and paranoia of its narrator. It is also an engaging literary duel between two of the Soviet Union’s great revolutionaries.

9. HHhH by Laurent Binet
Hitler may have conceived some of the worst crimes of the last century, but men like Reinhard Heydrich carried them out. As head of SS intelligence services, head of the Gestapo, “Reich Protector” of Bohemia and Moravia (hence, “The Butcher of Prague”), Heydrich was an early architect of the Final Solution. Binet follows his career along with those of the two Czechs who assassinated him on his way to work at the Prague Castle. Binet’s Heydrich is convincingly cruel, and the Czechs heroic.

10. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Even those who have read this novel a dozen times rarely know that the character of Raskolnikov – easily the most sympathetic “monster” on this list – is partly based on “The Elegant Criminal”, the French murderer Pierre François Lacenaire. A superb student who once dreamed of literary success, he became an embittered murderer who claimed that “for me, killing a man is like drinking a glass of wine”. Elegantly dressed at his trial, he freely confessed his crimes and lack of remorse, achieving instant celebrity. While awaiting the guillotine he wrote his memoirs, which became a posthumous bestseller. Raskolnikov, guilty of similar crimes, ambivalently turns himself in, and is sentenced to years of hard labour.

• The Tristan Chord by Glenn Skwerer is published by Cornerstone, priced £16.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £14.61, including free UK p&p.

Glenn Skwerer

The GuardianTramp

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