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

 

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