We all love—or love to hate—a good villain. There’s nothing better in a story than a truly unscrupulous villain or an absolutely horrific monster. The history of literature and film are full of unforgettable villains and creatures, from Grendel, the monster that struggled with Beowulf, up through Darth Vader.
However, we tend to associate great villains and monsters with more epic tales, like those contained in novels or series. These tend to give us more villains and more time to get to know them, to see how they work and what they’re capable of. Sometimes, though, a short story can leave us with a villain just as unforgettable as any longer work, as you’ll find in these classic stories (most of them from the so-called golden age of sci-fi and fantasy).
Thulsa Doom, “The Cat and the Skull”
While most of us probably know Thulsa Doom best for his appearance as the villain in the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian, where he was played by James Earl Jones, that version of the character actually more closely resembles a different Conan villain named Thoth-Amon.
The original Thulsa Doom first appeared in the 1928 short story “Delcardes’ Cat,” which was later renamed “The Cat and the Skull,” and which didn’t actually see print until many years after the death of author Robert E. Howard. In spite of this, Thulsa Doom, with his face “like a bare white skull, in whose eye sockets flamed livid fire” set the prototype for any number of other undead sorcerers who have plagued fantasy stories ever since.
If Thulsa Doom set the stage for countless undead spellcasters, the nefarious Althol of Karl Edward Wagner's British Fantasy Award-winning short story is one of the most recognizable, even among people who have never read the tale itself. We first meet this lich of a villain when our protagonist encounters him in the basement of a secluded house.
Of course, Althol, with his caved-in skull from the story’s unforgettable opening segment, isn’t the only memorable part of “Sticks,” which was first published in the March 1974 issue of Whispers. The eponymous lattices of interconnected sticks, inspired by the art of classic weird-fiction illustrator Lee Brown Coye, have been cited as influences on everything from The Blair Witch Project to True Detective.
Described by P. Schuyler Miller as “probably the most unforgettable story ever published in Unknown,” a popular science fiction magazine of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Theodore Sturgeon’s 1940 short story “It!” has the unusual distinction of creating from whole cloth a new type of monster. The story describes a monster made of muck and slime that forms around a human skeleton – an idea that would later be put to use for such classic comic book heroes as Swamp Thing and Man-Thing, among others. It is in Sturgeon’s short story, however, that the muck monster finds its … roots, shall we say?
The Coeurl, “Black Destroyer”
Originally published in 1939 and later reworked into the novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle, “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt has a unique legacy. Not only did the monster from the story—an intelligent, cat-like creature called a Coeurl that feeds on id—quite possibly inspire the creation of the displacer beast in Dungeons & Dragons, but the story has also been cited as a precursor to the Alien movie franchise.
In fact, van Vogt saw so much resemblance between the Coeurl of his story and the xenomorph of Alien that he took 20th Century Fox to court, collecting some $50,000 in an out-of-court settlement.
AM, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”
Author Harlan Ellison famously received a settlement of his own after allegations that his scripts for the Outer Limits episodes “Demon with a Glass Hand” and/or “Soldier” were the basis for the film Terminator. However, one of Ellison’s most famous short stories could also be credited with possibly inspiring at least one aspect of that movie franchise.
The massive, self-aware supercomputer known as the Allied Mastercomputer, later the Adaptive Manipulator and, eventually, the Aggressive Menace and then just AM, could easily be seen as a precursor of Skynet, the supercomputer that wipes out most of humanity in the Terminator series.
In “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” AM is more successful even than Skynet, destroying all but a handful of humans who survive wholly at AM’s pleasure, so it can torment them in an underground housing development.
Reworked constantly by both Lovecraft himself and later writers, the dark figure known as Nyarlathotep first appeared in H. P. Lovecraft’s 1920 prose poem of the same name. It subsequently made new manifestations in such Lovecraft stories as The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath and “The Haunter of the Dark.”
Most of Lovecraft’s antagonists tend to be monstrous entities from beyond space and time—and there are hints that Nyarlathotep, himself, is no different, acting as perhaps a harbinger of those same entities. However, the charismatic Nyarlathotep, who is described in his first appearance as resembling an Egyptian pharaoh of old, at least feels more like a human villain than such inscrutable figures as Cthulhu or Azathoth.
The Eyes, “I Am the Doorway”
Stephen King may be best known as a horror writer, but several of his most unforgettable stories are also tinged with science fiction. One of these is “I Am the Doorway,” originally published in 1971, which chronicles an astronaut who returns from a disastrous mission to Venus.
Upon the astronaut’s return, he begins to develop eyes on his hands, through which some alien intelligence is watching our world with sinister intent. Eventually, this intelligence is able to affect his actions, causing him to commit abominable murders. Though he holds the force at bay for some time, even going so far as dousing his hands in gasoline and setting them on fire, the story ends with him preparing to take his own life as a “ring of twelve golden eyes” have appeared in his chest.
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