The old man in science fiction and fantasy is multitudinous. He shows his age in ways physical and spiritual. He can be a wise old mentor or a forbidding elder. He can be a distant God or a loving grandfather. He can be a mad king or a cackling peasant. Sometimes he is ancient without looking it—Tom Bombadil—sometimes he is jolly and kind—Tom Bombadil—sometimes he is unearthly and strange—Tom Bombadil—sometimes he sucks and is awful—Tom Bombadil.
My favourite hideous old men in books are the ones who are dreadful, but whom I also love on sight. I love little old men who cackle, and I love dignified greybeards, and grizzled old soldiers. But mostly I love them when they make me want to drink the cursed red liquid from the mummy’s sarcophagus, and die.
Here are five books about bad old men. You will notice that one of the books is a video game, in my ongoing attempt to bring SFF video-game writing to the fore. For is not a video game just like a book, except one with sounds and moving images, which you have to interact with, and which is not in fact anything like a book at all?
Tó Neinilii from Storm of Locusts, by Rebecca Roanhorse
This sequel to Roanhorse’s high-octane apocalypse ramble contains an old man whom I at first disliked, then liked again, and by the end realised was bad news beyond reckoning. If this was just a list of ‘old men who make you feel pain’ I’d put Tah, Kai Arviso’s wonderful granddad, but matchmaking Tah is an angel cake who only makes me feel pain in that I was terrified over his survival prospects. No, the bad old man of Storm of Locusts is Tó Neinilii, whose deceptively lighthanded appearance involves Hoskie and her travelling band of badasses encountering him while dealing with the White Locust. Tó wears pyjamas recreationally, lives on a houseboat, and forces Maggie Hoskie to make him a refreshing iced tea in the greatest power move of the series. To say that he is more than he appears is not a spoiler. To say that he is the surprising locus of some explosions I expect to see echo through the next book is, but I will say it anyway. Tó twinkles whimsically, chuckles more than once, and is responsible for Maggie’s group having to do an extended fishing minigame. In a very typical bad old man move he tries to give Maggie a metaphorical life lesson, but she’s genre-savvy and is having none of it. Great stuff.
Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling
Albus Dumbledore is the bad old man who broke a bad old mould. He is awful in every single Harry Potter book, but particularly so on his first outing. There is so much I could say about why Dumbledore is one of the baddest old men you’ll find in SFF—so much I did say that I had to cut down this paragraph by five thousand words. Take this as evidence: Dumbledore is so bad that every single spin-off Dumbledore in the major Harry Potter parodies sucks in a totally different way, from the constantly naked Dumbledore of Potter Puppet Pals to whatever is going on in Wizard People, Dear Reader. Yet in each he remains recognisably Dumbledore, proving that a specific Dumbledoric terribleness transcends all individual manifestations of the form. Anyway, Harry Potter’s grandpa stand-in and the greatest wizard in wizarding history is horrible not just because he is both intensely hands-off and grotesquely meddlesome, but because as a former boarding-school teacher myself I cannot bear to think how bad it would have been working under him. There’s a meeting about size-and-shape for next year, Albus. Oh, you’ve buggered off to London again? That’s cool, can you pick up an entire structure of support staff while you’re there?
Ubertino of Casale from The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
Ubertino of Casale was a real-life figure, a 13th-century priest who insisted on stricter interpretations of Christian poverty. In The Name of the Rose he is still a 13th-century priest insisting on strict interpretations of Christian poverty, but also an extremely terrible old Franciscan who interrupts the murder mystery constantly to talk about anti-popes and to try to stick his tongue in the hero’s ear. He is also very hot on the topic of magical nuns. Eco’s metanarrative novel about that one book you super can’t find is not quite science-fiction or fantasy—you would be forgiven for thinking so during any one of Adso of Melk’s visions—but Ubertino deserves mention because he is the worst bad old man in a cast thronging with bad old men. He is as twinkly as Dumbledore, but entirely more sinister; more embarrassing and awkward than Tó; inarguably at the top of his game, but arguably also someone you wish wasn’t currently there in the novel. Ubertino of Casale gets the old-man award of old man on this list I most would not want to be stuck in an elevator with.
Mustrum Ridcully from Discworld, by Terry Pratchett
Unlike with Dumbledore, I cannot pick a single book in which Mustrum Ridcully (the Brown), (DThau, DM, BS, DMn, DG, DD, DMPhil, DMS, DCM, DW & BElL) is the worst, because he is equally bad in all of them. He does not even try very hard to be. Ridcully, the Archchancellor of the Unseen University, rowing champ and lifestyle shouter, just—is. As with the monastery in The Name of the Rose, all of the UU wizards are bad old men, but Mustrum is their king. He is a homicidal, crossbow-wielding maniac who is nonetheless the funniest ongoing Oxbridge joke in the books. Though a civilian, I have myself sat through dinners with Mustrum Ridcullys, and to be honest I did learn quite a lot about fly fishing. Despite being extremely clever he is totally dense. You cannot negotiate with him. You can rarely get through to him. He is totally unkillable, and entirely endearing. He is the one vile old man in this series that I would wish romantically upon anyone, if wish romantically involved a gimlet-eyed Esme Weatherwax talking shit at his funeral.
The Narrator from Darkest Dungeon, by Red Hook Studios
Darkest Dungeon begins with your late ancestor, also the Narrator, negging you into saving your family seat from the ghastly Lovecraftian excesses he has visited upon it. He is already dead by the time the story begins and does not get any deader. The awful thing about the Narrator is that you could be forgiven at the start for thinking that he was just a bad Lovecraftian scholar who got in over his head, but as you move through the story you realise that everything is entirely his fault. The pirates scourging the land? He hired them to bring him evil drugs. The undersea abomination in the cove? An ex. The necromancer? A guy he invited to his birthday party, then shanked. Every pig man, every gibbering prophet, every cultist and monster, came at his explicit invitation or direct interference. He then jumped out a window and left it all to you, and you are never quite able to shake off the idea that he is enjoying watching you suffer at the hands of rabid dogs and human-sized trout. I also hate all the hints as to how he indulged in a sex life. I mean, I guess he’d have to in order for you to exist, but I can’t stand it.
He is easily the worst old man of the lot, even despite direct competition with the other bad old man in the game, the Caretaker, a man who is meant to be helping you but instead constantly escapes to get spanked by nuns. Awful.
TAMSYN MUIR is a horror, fantasy and sci-fi author whose short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the World Fantasy Award and the Eugie Foster Memorial Award. A Kiwi, she has spent most of her life in Howick, New Zealand, with time living in Waiuku and central Wellington. She currently lives and works in Oxford, in the United Kingdom. Gideon the Ninth is her first novel.