It's not often that one encounters strong, well-etched out negative characters in books. In fact, IMO it is infinitely more difficult to craft an interesting villain, than to flesh out the hero. Perhaps this is why many times, villains end up being mere stereotypes (heroes do too, but that's another story). Here are some villains who are anything but:
Hannibal Lecter: truly one of a kind. Almost synonymous with Antony Hopkins ever since the movies released, this Thomas Harris creation (Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon) is often downright chilling, and never less than disturbing. This article offers some insights into the events that made Hannibal the Cannibal. In an awe-inspiring description, Harris describes Hannibal as 'not really fitting into any psychological profile' and also goes on to say that while at prison, he 'attacked a nurse, tore out her eye, dislocated her jaw and ate her tongue; his pulse never went above 85 all the while'. What's more, Hannibal has 6 fingers, maroon eyes that reflect light and small white teeth. He has an exceptional sense of hearing and smell, and tilts his head to one side when listening (a mannerism that Hopkins adopted in the movies too).
Can you imagine the increduility that I felt when I heard that they were launching Hannibal Lecter into Bollywood? Guess who played Hannibal? Apna Akshay Kumar!
Jackson (The Winner, David Baldacci) is not a 'real' character, unlike Hannibal Lecter. Yet IMO he remains one of the most ingenious and cunning villains to be created in recent thriller fuiction. For much of the book, Jackson is a faceless man; appearing in disguise after disguise, he hides his true identity until the very end. The lottery scheme described in the book is pretty decent, and the book would make a great movie. The cat 'n' mouse game between Jackson and the heroine (LuAnn Tyler) is pretty engrossing as well.
Annie Wilkes (Misery, Stephen King): who can forget the lunatic, scheming nurse who keeps captive her favourite author Paul Sheldon - all because she's his 'number-one fan'? 'Misery' is one of Stephen King's earliest novels, if I am correct. It also happens to be my introduction to Stephen King, and o-boy, was I hooked! For the uninitiated, King is a master storyteller (especially the ones he writes as Richard Bachman), and 'Misery' finds him at his best. Annie Wilkes is a haunting character who stays with you for days after you have completed the book.
There was a recent Tamil version of 'Misery' - Balu Mahendra's 'Julie Ganapathy'. Veteran actor Saritha gave a scintillating performance as Annie Wilkes (or Julie Ganapathy, if you please). However, director Balu Mahendra succumbed to box-office dictates and inserted a couple of item numbers (doesn't even an eminent director of his stature have any sense? I mean, come on - having a wet dream in the last thing a man living in virtual terror would do!).
Norman Bates (Psycho, Robert Bloch): One of the very best in the horror genre, featuring an immortal fictional character. Tony Perkins enacted the role (in the famous Hitchkockian thriller of the same name) to perfection; Norman Bates brings to mind only Perkins, and nobody else. The done-to-death shot of the nubile girl in the shower being watched by an unknwon was pioneered by this film, I believe. The fact that the movie is on par with the book speaks volumes about the genius of Alfred Hitchcock.
Prof. Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle): Perhaps best known as the man who 'killed' Holmes. To many, that alone would make him the most-hated villain of all time. Moriarty was perhaps Holme's worthiest antanogist, and this should make him a certainty in any such list!
An interesting tidbit: I have read an interview of Stephen King that his main inspiration behind 'Misery' was the widespread protest that followed Holme's death while grappling with Prof. Moriarty.
Rainbird (Firestarter, Stephen King): John Raibird is a Red-Indian assassin who makes his entry only toward the latter half of the book. However, he makes a creepy villain alright - especially as he is pitted an innocent Charlie, a young girl cursed with pyrokinetc powers due to no fault of hers. His psychological skills as he toys with the young girl's mind invoke admiration as well as hatred in us.
The Poet (The Poet, Micheal Connelly): To put it simply, 'The Poet' is one of the best thrillers I have ever read (and as you can make out, I have read quite a few). Connelly exceeds himself in this exquisite book that does not star his usual assortment of characters (Bosch etc). Although the climax is not all that great, the journey to uncover the killer is awesome. The fact that Connelly establishes such a strong villain, using only his adversary's findings, is what makes this book such a good dread.
Btw, the title is a famous bit from one of the Hannibal Lecter books.