Ten Great Monsters of Literature

In 1816 a cohort of England’s finest writers, who also happened to be great buddies, spent a summer holidaying in the countryside near Geneva in Switzerland. Little did they know that the leisurely cross-pollination of their immense creativity would bring forth some of the darkest and most extreme concepts of humanity the world had seen, spawning works that would go on to change the literary landscape forever.

FrankensteinThe gang included Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John William Polidori, Claire Clairmont, and of course, Percy’s wife Mary. Rumour had it these friends would gather by the fire at night and compete with each other to invent the most psychologically chilling horror stories. Naturally it was Mary who outdid them all, and thus Frankenstein’s monster was born. Or rather, stitched together.

So in honour of the 200th anniversary of the conception of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel, we cast an eye over other literary terrors, both past and present, that have significantly impacted the way we enjoy our frights. Due to the abundance of such characters in ancient myth, this list will focus only on modern works and creatures of the author’s pure invention.

 

Grendel
Beowulf (C8th-11th), Anonymous
Humans have always been fascinated by unnatural terrors, so it’s no surprise that the first recorded piece of English literature is a good old monster tale. A completely original creature that could only have taken form in Viking society, Grendel wreaks havoc on halls of mead-drinking Scandinavians, ripping arms from sockets and such. When he is confronted by our hero Beowulf and driven away, he retreats to his mother, of course, as any good monster should, who turns out to be even more grotesque and blood-thirsty than he. Is there a message here?

 

The Giant Squid
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), Jules Verne
Fast forward a few hundred years to the advent of the novel, and it’s no accident that the majority of truly original monsters were conceived in the 19th century, when writers were enamoured of the curiosities of the natural world and the enormous scientific advancements taking shape around them. New possibilities for exploration and discovery fed the invention of such fantastic animals as the giant squid who lurks in the depths of the ocean ready to drag submarines of men down to their watery graves.

 

the jabberwockThe Jabberwocky
Through the Looking Glass (1871), Lewis Carol
A master of exploring both the delightful and unsettling sides of imagination, Carol most delicately balances this dichotomy in Through the Looking Glass, the strange yet beautiful sequel to Alice in Wonderland. The Jabberwocky is the stuff of nightmares, terrible in its juxtaposition to Alice’s innocence but made far more terrifying through the use of evocative language and invented words that depict a creature we can never fully imagine.

 

Mr Hyde
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1886), Robert Louis Stephenson
Along with technological and scientific advancements, the 19th century was also remarkable for opening up the world of psychology and psychoanalysis as a new way of understanding human nature. Many works written during this era examine the monster within; the duality of virtue and vice that exists in each of us. This analogy is given material form in the alternating identities of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the slow, terrible blurring of their moral and physical boundaries.

 

The Morlocks
The Time Machine (1895), HG Wells
Wells takes the concept of morality a step further by examining the evolution and decay of society in this genre-bending novel, where future humans have devolved into two stunted castes, the Eloi, who live above ground, and the Morlocks who dwell beneath the earth and feed on their surface-dwelling brethren. The Morlocks have since been explored in other works as a highly advanced race of beings, demonstrating the cleverly ambiguous light in which Wells paints these future versions of humanity.

 

Count Dracula
Dracula (1897), Bram Stoker
Advancing toward the turn of the century the supernatural begins to seep into monster literature alongside the prevailing interest in science, technology and morality. In Stoker’s insurmountable Dracula, scientists and doctors are still the most highly respected characters, but they are confronted by a horror that defies rational explanation, even as they attempt rational means to overcome it. And the ship of dead people that crashes into England’s shores is pretty damn creepy.

 

chutlhuCthulhu
The Call of Cthulhu (1928), HP Lovecraft
Cosmic weird really takes the stage when Lovecraft comes on the scene in the early 20th century. Cthulhu is a monster-god, a Great Old One in Lovecraft’s pantheon of the Cthulhu Mythos. One of the first writers to take his monsters beyond the bounds of a single story and into a far-reaching universe of interconnected tales, his approach to writing horror would influence writers for decades to come, not only in the pure strangeness of his inventions but also in the scope of his imagination.

 

The Balrog
The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949), JRR Tolkien
Scope becomes the thing in the 20th century, and JRR Tolkien is one of the pioneers of epic fantasy, creating entire anthropologies, down to detailed cultures, languages and histories within his invented world. Beyond the orcs and the uruk-hai it’s in the big bads such as Sauron and the Nazgul where he succeeds so magnificently in depicting evil. The balrogs, though, take the cake as Middle Earth’s creature-feature for being virtually unstoppable, shrouded in fire and shadows, and living for thousands of years in the bowels of mountains.

 

Pennywise
It (1986), Stephen King
Moving past scientific experimentation, psychoanalytical dilemmas, and supernatural forces of evil, Stephen King can be credited with bringing monster writing into its modern form where everyday, relatable characters are pit against some kind of inexplicable physical and mental force. Iconic and enduringly terrifying, the balloon-toting cannibal clown (with the face of Tim Curry) is one of the most masterful creations of horror literature ever.

 

The White Walkers
A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present), George RR Martin
Rising above the current proliferation of vampires, zombies and werewolves, George RR Martin has managed to create a new breed of monster that is mysterious and terrifying while also strikingly contemporary. In his epic series winter seems to form the backdrop of the greatest threats against humanity, and he populates the icy vastness beyond The Wall with an army of skeletal, humanoid giants whose voices sound like cracking ice and whose victims turn into undead wights. We are yet to understand the details of their existence and their true motivation, but for now they make you think twice about a casual walk in the woods.

 

Elise Janes

 

A Day in the Life

alarmAlarm vibrates. Sensation before first thought. Cold. Am I coming down with the flu? No. Um, possibly. I need to be strong, fight through. Check phone. New emails. Refresh podcasts. Work emails? No. I’ll be there soon enough. Will I write today? Yes, when I get home. What will I have for dinner? How long will it take to prepare and cook? How much time will that suck out of my evening?

Wash. Get dressed. Pack my bag. Will I bring my book today? Yes. Don’t waste time sleeping on the train. Pack notebook. My battered and scribble-filled notebook. Damn, I forgot to read those research articles I printed out at work yesterday. I’ll get to them another time.

Driving to train station. I wonder about my main character. How will he react when demands are made of him? Where will the drama come from? What is his truth? Can I write it well? A reminder to write something down when I get on the train: Rylin Webster wants to tell his story, his way, on his terms. A scene forms fast in my head. I watch the odometer. I check the clock. Train leaves in five minutes. I’m two minutes away from station car park. Trying to hang onto a thread of thought. The scene gets vivid and intense. I speak a line of dialogue out loud.

“Don’t make a promise you can’t keep.”

Who says this?

trainPark car. Hustle to platform. Train comes. Find seat. Flip open notebook. Scrawl and scribble. Thoughts come quicker than I can write. Words are illegible. Will I be able to read this later? Will it make sense or will I lose the gist? PA announcement. Thoughts exhausted. The distraction of landscape speeding by at 100kmph.

Read my book. Can’t focus for more than a page or two at a time. Thoughts beget thoughts. Ideas form but have no place. Context is elusive. Open notebook. Scribble. Empty my brain. Close notebook. Take a few deep breaths. Read some more but don’t absorb what I’m reading.

WTFTrain reaches its destination. Earphone in. Podcasts at the ready. Maybe NBA’s The Starters. Maybe Marc Maron’s WTF. Maybe TOFOP. Twenty minute walk. My mind remains active. Plot lines weave in and out of the audio flowing into my head. Traffic noise on Broadway coming from Harris St drowns out everything.

At work. Put all thoughts of writing and being a writer to one side. Really? Good luck with thtrafficat. Do my job. Earn my keep. Read occasional online articles of interest. Send quotes, links and ideas to myself via email throughout the day. Making a cup of tea, wonder about Rylin Webster’s marriage. Why did his supermodel wife fall in love with him in the first place? Make small talk with a colleague about the upcoming weekend. Day’s end is getting closer.

inceptionWalk back to train station. New thoughts emerge. Links connect. Links miss their mark. Kill the podcast feed. Need music instead. The National? The Shins? No. This story feeds off the energy from movie soundtracks. Hans Zimmer. Interstellar? I know, Inception. Traffic noise. The roar of a motorcycle. The pang of hunger and the yawn of mental, if not physical, tiredness.

Make train ten minutes early. Open notebook. Scribble quickly, furiously, illegibly. Smile to myself that the adverbs I’m using in my notes will not make my manuscript. Why do I care what Stephen King thinks? Bret Easton Ellis, a writer I love, embraces adverbs. Look at Glamorama?Glamorama

As the train pulls out of the station, close notebook. Take out earphones. No music. No novel. No writing. Sydney’s inner-west suburbs slip by. Macdonaldtown. Newtown. Stanmore. Petersham. Lewisham. My eyes start to get heavy. I sit up, get out my book. Red or Dead by David Peace. Read a page. Battle tiredness. Read half-a-page more before my head drops. Strathfield, Epping, Hornsby don’t register.  I wake up with my finger between pages like a bookmark. Read another page. Then jack into another podcast. Pete Holmes laughs then gets deep, questions our understanding of the universe, then asks his guest whether success can come too soon?You-Made-It-Weird

Its six’o’clock. Hunger has full sway over me. That means I won’t be writing until at least seven, maybe eight. I already know what scene I want to write, need to write, if I’m to drive the story forward.

Walk in the front door. Hello to my wife, bear-tackle my son. Get changed and play dinosaurs for half-an-hour. Hunger lingers, distracts me. The desire to write lingers, distracts me. Cook dinner alone. Use the process of flouring a chicken breast, dipping it in egg and covering it in breadcrumbs, to untether my mind from now, from the day that’s been, from myself.

Too full afterdeadmau5-Superliminal-300x300 dinner, I shower and shave. Wash the day away. Start preparing for the day to come. Clothes laid out. Shoes polished. Top up Opal Card. Check work emails. Flick a few away. Exclaim in frustration over a client who is beyond demanding. Turn off phone’s WiFi. Mac on. iTunes is a ‘Go!’ Deadmau5 – Superliminal. Google Docs open. Here it comes. The manuscript loads up. I scroll down to the last page and read the notes I left from the previous day.Timmy-Mallet-with-Malletts-Mallet

I’m writing. Dialogue flows. Too much dialogue. Go back. Insert thoughts, description. Maintain tone. Not enough tension. Too much conflict? Where’s this scene going? Oh, wow. Yes, that works. I could never have planned that. There’s a knock on the door. My son comes in, jumps on my bed. ‘Let’s play Mallet’s Mallett?’

‘Ten minutes, Buddy.’

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Lots of dialogue to finish. Lots of red squiggly lines under misspelt words. Rylin Webster is angry but doesn’t know it. He’s pushing everyone around him away. He thinks this is normal. A lightbulb moment. A new scene. Not the next scene. File it away. The door opens. My wife brings a glass of wine. ‘House of Cards is starting.’

The manuscript automatically savhouse-of-cardses. I shut down the computer. Frank Underwood, my wife and a glass of wine awaits.

Later, sleep beckons. I hold on through a nothing episode of Game of Thrones. I wonder about tomorrow? What will happen? What will I achieve? How long will it be until I get to write again? In bed, before sleep fully takes over, I imagine Rylin Webster on the basketball court. He’s hurting his defender. He’s hurting his team. He’s hurting himself. An idea teases, never fully settles and then, nothing.

Writing Seasons

No this will not be a discourse on the figurative seasons of a writer’s life. There are plenty of those oozing around the web and many more hidden in forgotten spiral notebooks on your study shelves.

Right now I’m focused on a much more literal literary problem. I’m interested in the craft of writing seasons.

Weather plays a pivotal role in narrative. Beyond the objective way it motivates plot and action, climate affects mood and tone in both monumental sweeps and incredibly subtle nuance. Seasons define culture, customs, language, symbols and associations in ways that few other narrative features can. It is inevitably a major player in any creative work.

walden_pondImagine, for example, that Thoreau had secluded himself on a Florida beach instead of the woods of New England. Walden would be an altogether different experience (with a different title) and we never would have had such an enlightened discourse on the transformative power of Spring:

The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and sluggish hours to bright and elastic ones, is a memorable crisis which all things proclaim. It is seemingly instantaneous at last. Suddenly an influx of light filled my house, though the evening was at hand, and the clouds of winter still overhung it, and the eaves were dripping with sleety rain. I looked out the window, and lo! where yesterday was cold gray ice there lay the transparent pond already calm and full of hope as in a summer evening, reflecting a summer evening sky in its bosom, though none was visible overhead, as if it had intelligence with some remote horizon.

Consider the brooding danger of To Kill a Mockingbird without the backdrop of a long Southern summer. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights without the crystalising Icelandic cold. Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori without the Japanese fall of winter sakura blossoms. The English Patient without the hot, sandy North African war. A Tale of Two Cities without rainy London streets. The White Tiger without the steaming slums of Delhi. Love in a Time of Cholera without the tropical heat of the Caribbean coastline.

In fact climate does more than simply play a part in a single story: its manipulation in one work forms part of a dense cultural mesh through which all associated narratives are viewed. That is, the way authors and storytellers interact with seasons defines the social discourse of the places they write about and the cultures they inhabit.

As an Australian I am aware of a niggling responsibility to try and build on the sparse cultural mesh of our young, small and (let’s be honest) insecure narrative landscape.

When I was just a little book nerd reading my Richard Scarry and Beatrix Potter I would often find myself wondering where my parents hid those great piles of red leaves in which to jump (preferably with yellow galoshes). I would wait in my backyard hoping to spot a phantom squirrel nibbling an acorn. I would gaze out over green parks trying to imagine where all the spring bunny rabbits were hiding. I would search around our living room in hopes of finding a crackling fireplace, the one I was meant to curl up in front of while snow fell outside.

In short my imagination was genuinely confused by the disparity between the seasonal landscapes of my picture books and the reality that surrounded me.

DPSAnd thanks to narratives like The Groves of Academe, The Secret History, Wonder Boys and Dead Poets Society I find it easier to picture a school year beginning amidst chilly autumn leaves than in a hot, clapboard classroom under a sadly rotating ceiling fan. Apparently we are supposed to camp in immaculate pine forests in the summer instead of at the beach. And overseas vacations should be at the Caribbean or the South of France instead of Fiji.

This phenomenon of seasonal currency also translates directly into the invented worlds of speculative fiction, finding its way into a variety of speculative genres but most obviously into epic fantasy where Northern Hemispherical climates dictate the law of imagined geographies. Middle Earth is modeled on the seasonal terrain of Tolkien’s native England, as is Lewis’s Narnia. American landscape features throughout Jordan’s Wheel of Time and is particularly apparent in the Western flavor of King’s Dark Tower series.

In Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire narrative weather is a major player on a number of levels. It not only creates atmosphere, tone, obstacles, opportunities and cultures, it literally defines the identities of the warring families of Westeros and Essos, and thus the entire backbone of the series.

The_Wall

I’ve dreamed of the day when I would read (or write) an epic narrative where the climatic world was turned on its head. In my version of A Song of Ice and Fire the Wall would be in the south and Dorne would be in the north. The Iron Islands would be the Sandy Islands, and winter would never be coming.

In my world, pumpkins don’t grow at Halloween. Snow doesn’t fall on Christmas Eve. Beaches are never cold, windy places with wooden piers and taffy. Birds don’t fly south for the winter. Heading west means deserts, not prairies, and north the Equator, not the Arctic Circle. There is never a real reason light a wood fire, or rake leaves, or shovel the sidewalk. We steal mangos not blackberries, and bake pavlova instead of pie. Family picnics are BBQs at the beach, not sandwiches in green meadows.

This is the world I know. This should form the landscape of my imagination and therefore of my imagined worlds. It’s a strange thing to have to work against a preconceived cultural notion of tone and place because the culture, while dominant, is not your own. Yet it is part of my responsibility as an emerging creative voice, and a challenge I submit to all those in the same position: to add to this global lens in our own language and rhythm, and make our own experiences, and that of our Southern-land compatriots, a greater part of the world’s narrative imagery.

 

Elise Janes

Writing is Work (and other things you need to get over)

The-joy-of-writing-1

Let’s get down to it. If you want to be a writer chances are you’ve wanted to be a writer since you read your first book/poem/play (probably a book, not many infants learn their ABC’s with Samuel Beckett).

Actually, revise that. You’ve probably wanted to be a writer since you experienced your first really good story, you know, the moment when all the hairs on your arms stood up, and you forgot where you were and who was with you, and you got the feeling that there was a lot more to this grand old life than most people realised.

And chances are that this feeling never left you. In fact as you chose your subjects at school and went on to study medicine and then became a doctor and settled down and had kids and bought a house and took out the rubbish bins and made dinner at night, that feeling followed you everywhere. It never went away.

Most people will never write so much as a tweet in their whole lives and still manage to live an extremely satisfied existence. But that’s not you. And whether or not you come to it late in life after a long career in something else, or you wrote your first play when you were five and never stopped, there are some things that you will need to get over in order to make your writing dream a reality.

  1. Yourself

The first thing to die must be your own insecurities. Easier said than done. And this is something you will have to battle every day for the rest of your writing career, because unless you have the unshakeable ego of, say, Napoleon Bonaparte, those doubts will niggle you every waking moment.

The thing is if you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will. Don’t apologise for wanting to be a writer. Don’t apologise for thinking that you can be a writer. Don’t mumble when people ask you what you’re working on. If they don’t get it, who cares. You get it. That’s all that matters.

  1. Other people

Just to be clear, no one is going to fully understand your work except you. No one is going to care about your work like you do. When people ask how your weekend was and you say “So busy, I wrote 10 000 words, stayed up all night, so exhausted.” Not only will they mentally roll their eyes, they will immediately compare your sitting on your butt in front of a computer screen all weekend to the fact that they had to take their 8yo to three different birthday parties, their 5yo to soccer, have ten people over for dinner, walk the dog, mow the lawn, get root canal and paint the house.

They don’t give a shit and they probably never will. In fact many of them will resent you for having the courage to try and do something creative. Don’t look for encouragement in others, even in your close friends and family, because many of them will just not get it. And that’s the way it is.

  1. Time

Writing is one of the most time-consuming activities in the known universe. Even if you write 3 000 words a day (which takes most people about 5-6 hours), it will take you thirty days straight to write a 90 000 word manuscript. That’s if you literally do nothing else for a whole month. Add to that full-time work, family, weddings, funerals, sickness, appointments, birthday parties, holidays, and actually having a life (so maybe 1 hour of writing a day if you’re lucky) and it will take you around six to eight months. Add to that research, frequent slow periods, and some moments of despair/writer’s block/questioning the meaning of life, you’re looking at twelve months. Absolute minimum. For a first draft. Then comes the rewrite, editing, reworking, burning it in the backyard and starting all over again, blah blah bah.

The point is it requires serious dedication and deliberate effort to even get a first draft on paper. It will require you to stay home when everyone else is going out. You will have to miss birthdays, dinners, events, holidays, usually to the great offence of everyone around you. No one will understand because the deadline is self-directed, and people rarely respect a self-directed deadline. But if you want to write, you have to actually write. And that takes real time.

  1. Where you came from

Some people are born into artistic families. Most people aren’t. Some people are born into culturally fortunate locations where inspiration and opportunities and contacts abound. Most people aren’t. Some people get recognised in their formative years and get useful legs-up in the creative world. Most people aren’t. These are things you have little control over. But it doesn’t mean they have to stay that way.

If you need to move to a more conducive artistic environment, then do it. If you need to change who you hang around so you can get inspired, then do it. If you need to remodel so you have a useful writing space, then do it. If you need to change jobs, degrees or fields of study in order to get the input you need, then do it. Most people don’t. But you should.

  1. IMG_0512Conventions

The rules state that you have to go to school then go to uni then get a job so you have money to buy a car, get married, buy a house, have a family, go on family holidays, invest in superannuation and retire.

Thing is, you don’t.

Spending two years of your life writing a novel goes against all rational conventions. Do it anyway. You may have to delay other things in your life to get it done. Do it anyway. You may decide that you need to drop out of uni, postpone a life event, or turn down a great job to get done. Do it anyway.

Just don’t get to the end of your life never having tried.

  1. Work

Most writers will actually have to work for money for a long time before they are able to live off their writing. Some writers will never live off their writing. Work will always get in the way. You need to manage it. If you need to get a different job so that you have more time/energy/brain space to write, then do it.

Writing is work. It’s not a hobby. It’s not a fun idea to kill some time. It’s not a phase. It’s not a therapeutic exercise. It’s damn hard work and it’s no less worthy of respect than any other job.

  1. Expectations

If you write always worrying about what other people will think about this or that then you will never put a word on paper.

In order to be true to your genre, characters, story, whatever, you may need to write graphic sex scenes, violence, abuse, morally shocking behavior, drugs, mental and physical illnesses, gosh you may even have to use a four-letter word or two.

Yes, your granny might be offended. Or your colleagues/parents/friends/family. Know what? Too bad. Hey, everyone watches Game of Thrones. Even if they say they don’t.

  1. Security

There may come a time when you decide you need to spend a solid three months on your book. You may need to take unpaid leave. You may even need to quit your job. Again, no one else will understand or care. They will tell you that you’re crazy because a promotion is just around the corner, or that you’re leaving the team in the lurch, or that certain projects won’t happen if you’re not there. In the end, this is your life and your future, not theirs. Work out which one matters most.

  1. Genre

So when you decided to be a writer you thought you would be the next James Joyce. Then you started writing and you realised that all you wanted to write about was guns and car chases. Does that make you a second-rate writer? HELL. NO.

Write what you want to write. Don’t write to win the Booker prize or the Nobel prize or to be the next J.K. Rowling. There are plenty of authors out there who are writing from ambition and I can guarantee that deep down they know they’re not being honest with themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our most lauded literary minds will lie on their deathbeds wishing they had created the next James Bond instead of ten award-winning lyrical masterpieces.

  1. Other writers

The great thing about finally owning up to your dirty little secret is that you will start to find some like-minded people. You will find workshops, seminars, competitions, writing groups, writing centres, literary fetsivals. You will find beta readers and crit partners and people who just love sharing your work and talking about it. And then you will also find people who are just plain rude or ridiculously elitist or want nothing to do with anyone else because they are the ultimate lone wolf.

In the end, writing, like any creative pursuit, is a small and competitive field and some people are in it to win and don’t care about anything else. They will resent your success and then smugly rub their success in your face. They will use you for a profile boost and then clamber over you up the literary social ladder. So find the good ones and don’t let them go. The rest? Forget them.

  1. What you could have been

Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. People tell me I could have been a singer. I could have been a performer. I could have been a great music director. I could have been a great educator. I could have been a principal. I could have been an actress. I could have been an academic. That’s all great. But I have only one life. And I’m at least going to try to do what I really want to do.

And you should too.

 

Elise Janes