So... pathetic villains. Seems almost a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? ‘Where can we find an example?’ you ask. Well, I know just the place and person: Roald Dahl, well-known and beloved children’s lit author. Who can forget classics like James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and so on?
Did you also know Dahl wrote creepy stories that were definitely not children’s lit? (Unless you wanted to give the wee ones nightmares, any road.) Stories that involved some really dark stuff. I’m thinking of one short story of his in particular: The Landlady. Seventeen year old Billy Weaver, newly employed by an unspecified company, makes his way to the city of Bath, England to take up his position. He arrives on the evening train. Where to stay? A porter suggests a pub nearby, but en route, Billy encounters a house with a small sign in the front window advertising bed and breakfast. Feeling strangely compelled, Billy knocks on the door and at once the Landlady answers it. Not a minute or two later, but at once. Strange. (That should have been his first clue, but like characters in these kinds of stories everywhere, Billy is woefully unable to reconcile apprehension with self-preservation. We can, but that’s because we’ve read stories and seen films of this type many times before --- apparently the characters in these kinds of stories have never had the same experiences.) Billy decides to stay the night at the Landlady’s B and B, and although he doesn’t know it, he’s doomed the moment he steps over the threshold.
What does the Landlady actually do to her victims? (Dahl never gives her a name --- intentionally so, I suspect, because he doesn’t want to really personalize her.) Well, she poisons them: a nice, steaming mug of tea laced with everyone’s favourite nightcap, cyanide. And then, after they’re dead, she stuffs them and keeps them. She’s into taxidermy in a big way, our landlady is. As she says sweetly to Billy in one of several moments of foreshadowing, “I stuff all my pets when they pass away.” She is very sweet. Dahl goes out of his way to make her both sweet and very strange in vague but troubling ways. Billy notes that she’s “off her rocker,” speculating that perhaps she lost a son in the War and never quite got over it, but he never feels threatened by her.
And here is where the genius of Dahl’s characterization shines through: the Landlady is pathetic in the original sense of the word. She doesn’t know she’s a villain. She murders innocent young men who come to her B and B, but doesn’t really understand that she’s doing anything, much less doing anything wrong. She may well have lost the only person close to her, and it tipped her over the edge.
There really are people out there like that, tragically. They wander aimlessly through life, fairly unbalanced and teetering gently on the precipice of madness, but as long as nothing truly devastating happens to them, they’ll continue to teeter harmlessly. But if that terrible event does occur, it’s enough to give them the gentle push over the edge. Now, the Landlady doesn’t explode in a mindless fury of random mass violence, the way some of these types do today with depressing regularity. No, she targets her victims very carefully, and selects them quietly, one at a time, simply because she’s lonely and wants someone to talk to. But she really doesn’t realize that she’s doing anything wrong.
In real life, these kinds of people are both terrifying and shocking, and are the authors of much misery and destruction, but as a story character, the Landlady is fascinating because we really feel sorry for her and want to like her --- but at the same time, she does this gruesome thing that is so repelling, so... so evil, that we’re genuinely shocked --- as I suspect Billy is, when he belatedly puts it all together in the last couple of sentences in the story. She’s a great character, and a great villain.
And if she offers you a cup of tea, beware the smell of bitter almonds.