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

 

Spec what now?

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Over the past few months, three friends I consider to be prolific readers have asked me, ‘Speculative fiction? What’s that?’ And I have to confess that with every asking my response has mutated by degrees from faint incredulity to scathing exasperation, made worse when they respond with a haughty sniff and a muttered, ‘Oh, you mean sci-fi,’ following it with the more dismissive, ‘But it’s not real literature, is it?’ and ‘Yeah, I don’t read that stuff.’ Because, yes, often it is and yes, they probably do. And while sci-fi is speculative, speculative fiction is not restricted to works of sci-fi.

The publishing industry is just that: an industry. A business that classifies and categorises and shelves its products like a pharmacy does its face creams. It’s all about marketing, hailing one book as literary fiction to appeal to the more (often self-professed) discerning reader, branding another as fantasy for lovers of genre. But why can’t a novel be both? And why do sci-fi and fantasy and horror engender disparagement from readers of mainstream ‘realist’ literature? Particularly when so many of those readers will have already read and admired and recommended books that fall into such genres (The Road and 1984, anyone?) Just as the shoehorning of books featuring young, school-aged protagonists into the YA category doesn’t deter adult readers, nor should labelling a particular book as sci-fi put off the more literary minded.

Beneath its wide awning, speculative fiction houses sci-fi, fantasy (high, urban, contemporary and soft), apocalyptic (pre- and post-), utopia, dystopia, cyber-punk, solar-punk, horror and paranormal. Supposing the impossible, it proposes the probable and, when both writing and vision are accomplished, it can open readers’ minds to some very disturbing questions. But it’s not always done well. A rash of vampiric and uber-lupine romances sparked by Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series has caused many agents and publishers to retrieve the welcome mats and nail crosses on their doors. Zombie apocalypse stories, too, are becoming dead in the water. Yet writers still persist, and Amazon et al are flooded with highly questionable speculative fiction, much of it self-published.

But when it is done well — when the probable becomes utterly believable and the horror settles uncomfortably and won’t be shifted; when a reader is transported from reality and their only regret is that they don’t have a one-way ticket; when the novel transcends genre and crosses over into the hallowed halls of literary fiction — the work can be extraordinary. Such novels don’t (usually) feature fantastical undead creatures; instead they delve deeper to reveal the monsters within us. They place ordinary people in re-imagined worlds and subject them to terrible trials, always posing the question, ‘what would you do?’

Historically, speculative fiction has provided the building blocks of civilisation. A grandiose claim, you say? Not so. What are ancient myths, legends and religious teachings, if not speculative? What is our enduring fascination with heroes and anti-heroes (both ordinary and super) if not speculative? What is mankind’s obsession with — and fear of — death, if not speculative? And the emergence of science through the ages has done little to dispel our interest. If anything it just prompts further speculation. No sooner do we break through one scientific barrier, than authors are imagining another.

Raymond Coulombe of Quantum Muse answered the question very simply: The classic answer is that [speculative fiction] is the fiction of what-if? Whether fantasy or sci-fi or any other speculative genre, the list of authors whose what-if fiction has propelled them to fame is long and illustrious: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen King, JK Rowling, Iain Banks, Cormac McCarthy, Neil Gaiman, HP Lovecraft, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Phillip K Dick, Douglas Adams, Stephen Donaldson … the list goes on. Even I-wouldn’t-touch-speculative-fiction-with-a-bargepole fans of literary classics will have heard of these authors, and many will have read them.

ursula-le-guinAt last week’s US National Book Awards, the great Ursula Le Guin, (whose work includes both sci-fi and fantasy and who is probably best known for A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness) was honoured with the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Instead of humbly accepting her award (as perhaps many were hoping), the 85 year old author began her speech thus:

“Thank you Neil [Gaiman], and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.”

Speculative fiction might not be to everyone’s taste, but to dismiss it as inferior smacks of arrogant ignorance. Perhaps more than any other genre, it embodies all that is human, exposes our flaws and lauds our triumphs. It holds out for a better world, for redemption of the human spirit, and for justice and freedom.

So if you’ve never read anything speculative, maybe it’s time you did.

Jane Abbott

This article was first published in November 2014 on Jane’s website, Big Bad Words.

What’s at stake?

lord_of_the_rings_book_cover_by_mrstingyjr-d5vwgctFrodo has to destroy the one ring. The father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road lives on only to keep his son alive. For Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose, it’s the importance of solving the series of murders that have engulfed the monastery.

Struggle is the core of every story. Struggle and conflict. Conflict with the way the world is and the way we want to world to be.

In an oft repeated quote from Gandhi, ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world.’

the-name-of-the-roseWelcome to the world of our protagonist. Whether they want to or not, our main character is thrust into a situation that demands their every effort to resolve.

Our protagonists are often unwilling, unwitting and unprepared. They make mistakes. They are flawed people after all, mirroring a flaw or two that maybe we recognise in ourselves or others we know. They will frustrate us, even disappoint at times but as long as they stay the course they will never let us down.

How well defined is your protagonist’s struggle? Are the stakes high enough to fuel your story through to the end?

9780307387899_p0_v3_s260x420Whether it be life or death, end-of-the-world or just two people repairing a damaged relationship, have you taken the time to really understand what’s at stake for your characters?

Each character will have their own agenda and here begins the possibilities for conflict and struggle. The writing journey will be about how you sometimes guide, sometimes drag kicking and screaming, and sometimes just stand back and let your characters work it out for themselves, so that resolution, be it good, bad or otherwise, is found.

Our characters must be agents for change because whatever is at stake it matters enough to them (and to you as the writer) to tell this story.

 

Ken Ward