The Other Mother was huge – her head almost brushed the ceiling of the room – and very pale, the colour of a spider’s belly. Her hair writhed and twined about her head and her teeth were sharp as knives…
What colour is a spider’s belly? I imagine there are as many colours for spiders’ bellies as there are spiders' bellies, but it’s such a horribly delightful image. (Unlikely you’ll find ‘Spider Belly’ in the paint brochures at your local hardware). Add in the height and the echoes of Medusa in the description of the Other Mother’s hair and you’ve got a villain that would probably put the heart crossways in most other villains.
And like most other female villains, the Other Mother starts out benign. She offers Coraline everything her distracted real parents can’t: attention, conversation, nice food. Coraline’s bedroom in the Other Mother’s house is packed with the most wonderful toys. But as the story unfolds, the villain finds it harder and harder to maintain this façade and ultimately turns into the most hideous creature, trapping Coraline in that horrendous parallel world.
Neil Gaiman’s monstrous and wonderfully-named Other Mother is particularly insidious in the way she subverts the maternal figure, but it’s common for female villains to hide their villainy behind a gentle and caring veneer.
One of the first things Roald Dahl tells us in The Witches, is that the book is not a fairy tale, in which the witch is easily identified by her black clothes, pointy hat and broomstick.
Real witches dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs.
Dahl carries off a wonderful trick in these opening passages. They read like a work of fact, like a handbook, detailing the horrifying nature of witches, with particular emphasis on the fact that witches, who take great pleasure in killing children, are hiding in plain sight.
She might even be, and this will make you jump, she might even be your lovely schoolteacher who is reading these words to you right at this very moment.
Not sure anything this terrifying would get past the gatekeepers in these days. And of course he doesn’t stop there. There are witches, and then there’s the Grand High Witch, who is so appalling that run-of-the-mill witches are terrified of her.
I did something similar with my villain. Sweet, charming Peaches McCloud. So kind! So talented! Every parent in town loves Peaches, and wishes their children were a little more like her.
Ask the children of Blunt what they think of Peaches and they’ll say things like ‘Peaches is great’, or ‘Yeah, we all love Peaches’. But as they say these things, their eyebrows will twitch, their fists will clench and they will look around nervously. This is because they are lying. They know that beneath those blonde ringlets lies a head full of nasty plans.
She terrorises the children of the town by finding out what each is scared of, and then subjecting them to it.
MG Leonard’s Lucretia Cutter, from the Beetle Boy series carries off the same whited sepulchre act, though I guess the name is a pretty unambiguous signal. To the world, Lucretia is a famous designer. As is discovered in the first book however, she has transformed herself into a monstrous half woman/half insect who plans to destroy the world’s food supply.
Lucretia Cutter turned her head, her lidless eyes glistening like two inky cysts. Her four black chitinous legs clung effortlessly to the white ceiling, the fabric of her purple skirt tumbling towards the floor.
For so many of these villains however, there’s nearly always a telltale sign, something that gives the lie to the flawless facade. With the witches, there are a host of giveaways: they always wear gloves to hide the lack of fingernails. They are bald, have large nostrils, no toes and blue spit. In the case of David Walliams’ Demon Dentist, the flawless facade is the giveaway. The first thing you notice about Miss Root is her teeth.
Her teeth were absolutely flawless. So flawless they couldn’t possibly be real. The second thing you noticed about Miss Root was that she was impossibly tall. Her legs were so long and thin, it was like watching someone walk on stilts…
Miss Root will of course turn out to be the eponymous villain. Instead of leaving money under pillows, she leaves things like slugs, spiders, even a freshly gouged eye.
Honorable mention too to Cruella de Vil, Jadis from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and and of course the packs of conniving step-mothers glowering at us from fairy tales. In my copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Cinderella’s step mother induces one of her daughters to cut off her toe to fit into the slipper, reasoning that she’ll have no need to go on foot when she’s a princess.