Earlier in the month, just before the 12 Days of Monsters started proper here at Weirdfictionreview.com, we contacted various writers to ask them something: who, or what, was their favorite monster, and why? The writers we contacted are themselves well acquainted with all sorts of things that go bump in the night, prominently featuring monsters and strange creatures in some of their stories.
We received responses from almost 50 of these writers, and the roll call of monsters is impressive. We have classics, such as Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula. We have awe-inspiring beasts from science fiction epics, such as the sand worm from Dune and the Shrike from Hyperion. We have creatures like Grendel, from the Beowulf saga. Of course, perennial Weird favorite Cthulhu makes an appearance, but so do some other interesting choices: a microbial infection, a character from the Moomin books, and… a few humans? Indeed.
So, we invite you to read what some of the best, most imaginative writers consider to be their favorite monsters, and then seek out their stories. Discover strange creatures you’ve yet to encounter, or even better some that you’ve already encountered, but perhaps left unconsidered. Rediscover old favorites, as I did when reading about the lonesome monster from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider.” And, at the end, when you’re done reading, let us know who your favorite monsters are.
There are tons of monsters from classic literature that I love – of course Grendel and Frankenstein’s monster come to mind immediately. But the monsters I’ve been thinking about again and again recently are the Sea Troll and his daughter from Caitlin Kiernan’s short story “The Sea Troll’s Daughter” (from the Anders/Strahan anthology Swords and Dark Magic).
Kiernan’s story calls all sorts of sword and sorcery assumptions about the monstrous into question. Yet it never slips into the tendentious, and never loses a whit of the wide eyed sensawunda and swashbucklery that are crucial to the genre. The monsters don’t reinscribe tired cliches, but neither do they become lifeless via deconstruction. It’s jealousy-inspiring feat of writerly prowess on Kiernan’s part, one well worth checking out.
All praise Shai-Hulud, the Great Maker, Grandfather of the Desert. Yeah, I love Dune. The Sandworms are one of my favorite elements in the series and my absolute favorite monster. The Sandworms are gods. Weapons. They’re the source of all economy and yet, they’re just worms. Okay, not just worms. Gigantic, annelid-shaped drug factories. Big effing worms with teeth strong as titanium and sharp and symbolic as a katana. They’re mighty, but they’re hunted down and ridden as horses, partially wild, partially tamed beasts. They’re an unstoppable force, but are very delicate under the surface. They’re a force of nature, but fragile as a race and under threat of extinction And their extinction (the extinction of a drug-providing god) means the collapse of all human civilization. Things get even better halfway through the series when Leto II, the God-Emperor of Dune, becomes a Sandworm himself. A god-monster in body and mind.
I’d have to go with the Lamia in John Keats’ poem, Lamia. What always got me about Lamia is the inevitability of her monstrousness. When she does a favor for Hermes, she bargains with the god and is granted a human form; as most humans do in such stories, she abruptly falls in love. briefly, she is simply a human and passes in the world, in love and beloved. On her wedding day, however, she is ousted as a monster and her beauty – and normalcy – melt away before her bridegroom, revealing her hideous serpentine nature. What power she gained through Hermes’ favor is gone, and she can no longer exist as a monster in the world: she screams in anguish and vanishes. (Her husband to be, so distraught by the turn of events, abruptly dies.) She is a most tragic monster.
Not to mention, the description of her is delightfully surreal. One of my most favorite of Keats’ descriptions.
She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv’d, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries -
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire
Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s tiar:
Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!
She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete:
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?
As Proserpine still weeps for her Sicilian air.
Her throat was serpent, but the words she spake
Came, as through bubbling honey, for Love’s sake,
And thus; while Hermes on his pinions lay,
Like a stoop’d falcon ere he takes his prey.
Goblins have gotten a pretty bad rap over the centuries. Sniveling, mean-spirited wretches, bowing to whatever power they most fear, they’ve pestered, tricked, and cajoled their way into the grimy underbellies of countless tales and legends. But I say that goblins are the great unsung worker-heroes of monsterdom. They’re as versatile as they are cunning, and the machines of villainy wouldn’t run without them.
When the spirit of mercantilism seized nineteenth century England, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” made salesmen of the goblins, imbuing them with the powers of the cagiest hawkers and advertisers. George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin had them haunting humankind’s nights, but to this reader the goblins look like revolutionaries forced to move underground, or like the operation of suppressed fears: “the king … had required observances of them they did not like, or had begun to treat them with more severity, in some way or other, and impose stricter laws.… Instead of going to some other country, they had all taken refuge in subterranean caverns.”
Later, when Tolkien needed big armies for his bad guys, he gave them goblins, and gave the goblins a new name. J. K. Rowling, with an eye to “Goblin Market,” maybe, set them up with bank jobs.
Whether they’re groveling before some greater evil, tempting good people with forbidden fruit, giving first level D&D characters a challenge they can stand up to, or snarling and clawing in some closet or corner, you can trust that a goblin is doing the everyday work of wickedness. Some say the Erlking is their lord and master, some say it’s David Bowie, and some would have us believe that the goblins work only for themselves. Whatever the case, if you need a thankless, dirty job done right, a goblin is your best bet.
My favourite monster is Chigurh from No Country For Old Men, because he looks human but he lacks any kind of recognisable humanity. And yet, he passes himself off as a kind of divine force, reliant on God’s hand to pick which side of the coin will fall and which will propel Chigurh into his next action. He is a new kind of gothic villain: a wanderer, a monster, a man with no ‘class’ of his own. He is that uncanny ‘other’ that fills us with dread, a quirky killing machine for a post-Terminator era who blames his victims for their murders. And he can’t be killed.
Frankenstein. Mary Shelley.
I’ve compared it to Shirley Jackson and We Have Always Lived In The Castle, in the past. The terrifying creature of the former and strange, shunned family of the latter. So we have the people in the village not only avoiding the family but then attacking where they live and in Frankenstein again the villagers do a similar thing…quite understandably with regard to Shelley’s monster. By the end of each of these novels I’m left with conflicting feelings about just who/what is/are the real perpetrators and what drove them to their crimes.
Kalessin the eldest dragon from Ursula Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, because he’s like great, sublime music with huge sharp pointy teeth. Also, the revelation in the later-writen Tehanu that he’s actually Segoy, the creator of the world, conjures a wonderful image of a dragon breathing planets into fiery existence.
Greek mythology is filled with so many appealing (and unappealing) actual monsters that my choice may seem like a stretch of the term, but since she’s often portrayed as the ultimate monstrous mother I believe it fits. And you’ve probably guessed just from that vague description – yes, I’m talking about the one, the only, Medea, famed assassin of everyone from her own brother, to her ex’s would-be bride and father-in-law, and, of course, most damningly, her own children. She’s also a witch, and I think the concerted effort to turn her into a symbol of the dangers inherent in such a powerful woman (especially spurned!) are telling. But if you actually look at the Medea story, even in her most evil incarnations, there are some interesting hints that perhaps her story wasn’t always meant to become so dark. And whichever way you fall, no one can question her inventiveness. I come down on the side that Medea has been made into a monster. So I prefer to focus less on the murderous slander of Euripides and more on the final scene of his famous play – Medea flying away in a chariot driven by dragons that belonged to her grandfather Helios. The ultimate crime-scene getaway.
Might as well ask what is my favorite cup of coffee. The answer is “yes”. Or “Next, please”
But what immediately popped to mind was, somewhat to my surprise, the Shrike from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. Why? Because within its fictional world it is utterly unstoppable, horridly fatal, arbitrarily and relentlessly random and inexplicable in its actions. Usually, one could shorthand those attributes as “force of nature”, but Simmons avoids that metaphorical cliche by making the Shrike the product of artifice, and by having his characters deliberately seek its presence. Most monsters subvert nature, but the Shrike supersedes it.
Alas, in subsequent books the Shrike is explained both to the characters and to the reader and thus loses its appeal to me. But in its first appearance, the Shrike is fascinating and desirable in its perfection, in a disturbing and thought-proking way.
I think my favorite monster is Robert Neville, from Richard Matheson’s classic novel I Am Legend. He wouldn’t be a monster to you and me — he’s a human being, the last human being, fighting to stay alive in a world made into vampires by a global pandemic. [Spoiler Alert] In literally the last paragraph of the novel, he comes to understand that they are the inheritors of the earth, they are the new normal, and he is their boogeyman, the remorseless monster who stalks their dreams and haunts their waking existence.
Many of the classic monsters — Frankenstein’s patchwork creation, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon (though maybe not Dracula) — contain some element that elicits sympathy. The Creature just wants people to leave him alone. The Wolfman didn’t ask to be turned into a monster, and is horrified at the eruptions of his own bestial nature. Frankenstein’s monster didn’t ask to be created at all. And Robert Neville is just fighting, as Eliot said, “rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.” His sense of isolation and loss is heartbreaking, and his great efforts to stay alive in the face of sheer futility are admirable and tragic. And yet he is a monster, not only despite those things, but because of them.
My favorite monster has 206 separate pieces and walks around inside my skin, but restricting myself to the monsters of literature, I would have to name Larry, Rachel Ingalls’s loving, mournful, occasionally ferocious amphibious biped from Mrs. Caliban.
The monster from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Mainly because it is never really explained in full detail. We get the encounter from the human side, but you never get a lot of detail about why it does what it does, other than some suppositions from the scientists. It’s truly an alien encounter, and it really makes the whole experience a wild one.
Hands down it’s the hairy man, the sinister, shape-changing New World Amazimu of the African-American folktale “Wiley and the Hairy Man;” particularly the version found in Jack Stokes and Robert Byrd’s retelling of the same name. The hairy man hits my monstrous sweet spot between the human and the bestial, being intelligent enough to attempt to talk children into accepting their doom, yet capable of transforming into obscenely hairy, human-featured facsimiles of animals like mules and opossums. That the hairy man “got” the young protagonist’s father prior to the events of the tale is further proof that the dude is bad news – stripping the parental safety net from a childhood boogieman is the best kind of dirty pool. Thwarted only by a combination of conjure tricks and natural wits, the hairy man of the southern swamps and hollows is top monster in my personal bestiary.
I grew up listening to and reading monster stories. Romanian fiction is teeming with supernatural beings, and the famous vampire Dracula, who comes from Transylvania, one of the Romanian provinces, is perhaps the most famous monster to be “made in Romania”, but it is not the only one. In 1877 (100 years before I was born), Ion Creanga – one of the classics of Romanian literature – published in the Convorbiri literare magazine a tale named “Povestea lui Harap Alb” – The Story of Harap Alb. What is most stunning about this tale is a wide array of monsters: Gerilă (from ger, “frost”, and the diminutive suffix -ilă), Setilă (from sete, “thirst”; also “Drink-All”), Păsări-Lăți-Lungilă (from pasăre, “bird”, a se lăţi, “to widen oneself” and a se lungi, “to lengthen oneself”), Flămânzilă (from flămând, “hungry”; translated as “Eat-All”), Ochilă (from ochi, “eye”), each of them with a special ability. Five monsters. Five lovely mutants who were figments of imagination born in 1877, a long time before X‑Men, the famous Marvel comics.
My favorite monster is Yag-Kosha from Robert E. Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant.” He was my first sympathetic monster, and for me is still the most effective of these tormented beings. He is alienated and he is an alien, the last scion of a god-like race. Once strong, once powerful, once hopeful, now shackled, blind, and despairing. Up until his appearance “Tower” is a rollicking adventure yarn, then Howard turns the story on its head with one of his most striking images: an emaciated man with the head of an elephant, chained to a throne. The story Yag-Kosha tells Conan of his fall from grace is the stuff of high tragedy.
What struck me is that Yag-Kosha is not abused because he is unhuman. The sorcerer Yara imprisons him so he can use his magic for evil. The very thing that is beautiful about the elephant god is stolen and perverted, a common narrative for oppressed people. Reading “Tower” was a pivotal moment for me in finding a story where the Other is treated with compassion. It was pivotal for Conan, a thief and murderer suddenly feeling sympathy. And it was a pivotal moment in the sword-and-sorcery genre.
After considerable deliberation and scouring of the bookshelves, I’ve settled on Lovecraft’s great Cthulhu. The creature from Alien might have that terrifying life-cycle, Frankenstein’s monster that broken humanity, but Cthulhu is an extraordinary creation. Hidden beneath the sea (with all its unconscious connotations), ready and waiting to burst once more into the sun and air, Lovecraft gives us a creature composed of fragments. We can never quite ascertain the truth; it’s a jig-saw puzzle that doesn’t quite add up. The sheer originality of the world that Lovecraft created — the cults, the alien history, the vertigo of the modernist moment — are inscribed on Cthulhu himself. Cthulhu’s existence means that our universe is altogether more unnerving that we imagine. Things are not all right.
My favorite monster, hands-down, is Medusa. Many feminist writers and scholars have explored her monstrousness, from experimental writer Hélène Cixous (particularly in her celebrated “Laugh of the Medusa”) to religious scholar Jane Harrison, Ellen D. Reeder, Barbara Walker, Page DuBois, and others. Medusa, in Greek mythology, was the mortal daughter of two incestuous but cthonically divine siblings, Phorcys and Ceto and reputed to be dazzling beautiful until she came to the goddess Athena’s attention. (Yeah, the same male-identified goddess who turned Arachne into a spider, because Arachne dared to speak well of her own work.) After Athena made her ugly, the very sight of her face turned any man who happened to look at her into stone. Women, interestingly, were immune to the Medusa Effect. Naturally a macho male hero (Perseus, who I recall finding generally detestable) eventually made his name by slaying her.
In The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (a huge tome I’ve had on my reference shelf for about 20 years now), Walker names the Medusa as an image of the vagina dentata. DuBois claimed the image as symbolizing women’s “subversive, self-sufficient sexuality,” and that reading is in line with Cixous’s:
They riveted us between two horrifying myths: between the Medusa and the abyss. That would be enough to see half the world laughing, except that it’s still going on. For the phallogocentric sublation is with us, and it’s militant, regenerating the old patterns, anchored in the dogma of castration. They haven’t changed a thing: they’ve theorized their desire for reality! Let the priests tremble, we’re going to show they our sexts!
Too bad for them, if they fall apart upon discovering that women aren’t men, or that the mother doesn’t have one. But isn’t this fear convenient for them? Wouldn’t the worst be, isn’t the worst, in truth, that women aren’t castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning? You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and laughing.…
We’ve been turned away from our bodies, shamefully taught to ignore them, to strike them with that stupid sexual modesty; we’ve been made victims of the old fool’s game: each one will love the other sex. I’ll give you your body and you’ll give me mine. But who are the men who give women the body that women blindly yield to them? Why so few texts? Because so few women have as yet won back their body. Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes and rhetorics, regulations and codes, they must submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate reverse-discourse, including the one that laughs at the very idea of pronouncing the word ‘silence’, the one that, aiming for the impossible, stops short before the word ‘impossible’ and writes it as ‘the end.’
Considering the ongoing, unending, and ever-more violent attempts by Republicans across the country, in most state legislatures as well as in the US Congress, to control women’s bodies, I’m feeling it’s time for me to more fully engage with this Medusa and her stories. I feel the stirring of a new writing project, deep in the most interior coils of my brain…
Monsters, well, there are so many…
The siren, because I wanted to be one; I wanted to be Ondine with scales, a tail and red hair. When I was six I nearly drowned because I was certain I had grown gills at last.
The Thing because I am still fearful of it; he is not my favorite, but my most despised. I despise the Thing because he taught me to fear the dark. Before the Thing the dark was my companion. It transformed the linoleum on the floor of my room into a wonderland. But after the Thing that same linoleum was a mortal danger all night long.
The Hindu gods with their many arms; I find them admirable. I once had a very convincing dream that there had been a race of men and women like them. Some of them a lovely shade of blue.
Yahweh, that most abominable of monsters, who was born of a freakish accident and has never forgiven Pistis Sophia , his mother, for that initial mishap. Yahweh, I despise.
The Serpent however – First Cause of common sense – I revere. I set an apple out for him nightly and a deep dish of fresh milk.
Favourite monsters, you say? I’m voting for Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, the narrator of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Like all the best monsters from Grendel onward, she’s an archetypal “other”, living apart from the world, feared and persecuted by the townsfolk. The depth and extent of her otherness, once it’s revealed through her deeply untrustworthy narration, amply confirms her true monsterhood; as with all the best monsters, we pity her almost as much as we fear her. Here’s the first paragraph:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
I have to go with a classic, Frankenstein’s monster, because Shelley’s creature doesn’t just exemplify monstrosity, it interrogates it. What makes it visually monstrous is not a matter of cheap gimmickry. Shelley doesn’t just snatch features from the animal world that naturally freak us out — mandibles, pincers, horns, tentacles, slime, so on — doesn’t just push buttons to disturb us with undercurrents of sex and power a la Stoker. I think it’s an awesome move to have the monster explicitly created from components that are all beautiful and right in and of themselves; they just don’t fit together *proportionally*. It founds monstrosity on almost a pure abstraction of Order Transgressed. Which cuts to the core of it for me.
I should say here that I reckon monstrosity is something one can nail down in quite precise lit-crit terms (comparable to Delany’s rooting of the fantastic in a “could not happen” subjunctivity level,) as that which “must not be”; and with the utmost monstrum that means it invokes both the boulomaic “must not” of emotional judgement and the deontic “must not” of ethical judgement. What makes Shelley’s monster special for me is that it’s a brilliant critique of the conflation of these two, a study of how pure aesthetics leads to emotional revulsion which becomes ethical condemnation. It’s asymmetry, imbalance, disruption of pattern, deviance from normativity — that’s what makes the creature something people look at and recoil from, with an abhorrence so visceral they can’t overcome it. And it’s really this and only this rejection of the creature as Other that, in damning it to a dehumanised existence bereft of empathy from others, leads to its reciprocal rejection of empathy *for* others. It’s demonisation in all senses of the term. The poor bastard is only accepting the role imposed on it.
In terms of classical monsters, I’m very fond of Grendel, both as he is in Beowulf and how he’s re-characterized by John Gardner in Grendel–I like how, when read together, they give very different facets of the same monster. Beowulf gives us a blunter Grendel, hardly characterized at all; in Grendel, he’s much more textured and complicated – not exactly sympathetic, but no longer so far outside the human realm. In terms of monsters by contemporary writers, one that comes very quickly to mind is China Miéville’s Mr. Motley, for his baroque grotesqueness. Remade into a polymorphous multifarious creature, I like his irreducible and weird excessiveness.
There are so many excellent literary monsters, but Edward Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest occupies a special place in my heart. Gorey’s tale, about a proper Victorian household tossed on its end by a peculiar unexpected guest who refuses to leave challenges both the family’s and the reader’s sense of respectability and proper etiquette — charmingly subversive. Gotta love the sanity shattering elder gods and world ending zombie apocalypses, but for my buck, the best monsters are the whimsical and sympathetic ones, the ones that remind you that it’s the little things in life which get you in the end.
My least favourite monsters are the sympathetic ones — to me a monster is best at being monstrously evil. As a kid, ‘The Haunting of Toby Jugg’ by Dennis Wheatley freaked me out. Its hero is an air force pilot bedridden by illness. The monster is a giant spider-thing that comes to his window each night, trying to find a way in. Its long legs slowly tap the corners of the casement, looking for weak spots — it’s not strong, but very determined. Oh, and of course, it’s not any old monster spider, it’s a Satanic Nazi monster spider! The book captures the feeling of disempowerment many felt during the war, when it seemed that evil might actually prevail.
And for modern monsters, the vampire from Let The Right One In wins, because evil’s most innocent face is its cruellest.
My favourite monster is Grendel from Beowulf. On first reading, Grendel seems pretty two-dimensional. For 15 years Grendel ravages Hrothgar’s hall because he is (ostensibly) an evil creature who can’t stand to see people revelling in each other’s company. The narrator describes him as a “descendant of Cain”, branding him as a jealous kin-killer who has no place in an honour- and kin-based world. But the more you read Beowulf, the more pathetic Grendel seems. He’s an outsider in a society built upon fraternity, family ties, warrior bands, community. A loser who lives in a dirty cave with no one but his mother for company. Not quite a man, but not quite a beast, he doesn’t even have the comfort of a stable identity. He’s deprived the warmth and protection of Hrothgar’s hearth because he is solitary and different in a culture that rewards conformity and subservience to one’s lord. Grendel serves no one but himself, which at first seems selfish, but is actually a product of his pitiful isolation. So as much as I revile him for being a mass murderer who spends his evenings killing Hrothgar’s thanes, I also can’t help but feel a bit sorry for him. Especially after Beowulf rips his arm off and leaves him to bleed out, all alone in the night.
I was always very fond of the jelly dinosaurs in Michael Moorcock’s novel Constant Fire, which get melted by the retro-rockets of a descending spaceship. Moorcock is pretty good at monsters. I still remember his monsters quite clearly even when I forget which books they feature in. A flying shark sticks in my mind quite strongly for some reason. But it’s the jelly dinosaurs that I intend to plump for. I can almost smell them in my mind’s nose as they melt into sticky pools…
Having said that, there’s a very intriguing monster in Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld. It’s not really a monster but it’s totally a monster at the same time and its name is TOTALITY. I suppose you might say it’s more of a god than a monster, the congealment of the spiritual force that drives the universe. The anti-hero of the novel, Cugel the Clever, manages to eat it without knowing what it actually is.
My favorite monsters are Mieville’s slake moths. I just want to see one so bad. You know that big scary moth in Ramsey Campbell’s “The Brood” story? Or Mothra? Or that bat-thing at the end of that Donald Wollheim “Mimic” story? Or Cloak from Marvel’s old Cloak & Dagger? Or Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon? Or — or a giant intelligent vampire manta ray that can fly in and out of dimensions and is telempathic and feeds off your dreams and has kaleidoscope wings like Kaa’s eyes, and, like a gremlin, is all cute and cuddly at first? That’s a slake moth. And I want to see one so, so bad. And not for the obvious reasons — its terrible beauty — and not because I have a death wish, but because the slake moth is such a perfect name. Such a fitting name, more evocative than ‘Bigfoot,’ so much easier to pronounce than ‘Cthulhu.’ I mean, there’s the contrast, there’s coupling a violent, desperate word like ‘slake’ (it makes you think Capricorn One, yes?) to a safe, dusty one like ‘moth,’ but the name just by itself is such a good fit, such a proper descriptor, that … it’s like that old Descartes argument about the proof of God: Existence is more perfect than not existing. God’s all perfect, so God must exist. That’s how I feel about the slake moth: the name for it compels it to be floating up there somewhere, coasting the thermals of this brane, riding our dreams, dipping down to force its long silky tongue down our willing throats, drink its fill. And, what really ups its status as a monster — monsters have to be bulletproof and they have to have an Achilles heel — is that I’m pretty sure the way to kill one, the way nobody’s figured out, is to tempt it down through your bedroom window one night while you’re dreaming specifically about it. When it tries to digest that particular nightmare, it’ll start a solipsistic little whirlpool in its center. It won’t explode or anything, but probably will just glide away one day, cradling its new ontological cancer deep inside, and finally, days later, find itself crawling under the skirt of somebody’s trailer home to die with dogs barking at it, too weak to even scatter them, a clutch of unborn eggs inside it. And with it go so many of our most vital dreams.
Within a doubt, that is Bluto from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth who manages to make the monstrous adorable. From literature, the one that jumps to mind is the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
In the 1960s, while at University, (I was around 18) I conducted a series of ‘Horror Orgies’ whereby I read aloud horror stories that were chosen in a then essentially exploratory way, eg: HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth horror anthologies … and the monster that truly came to life was the plant one living inside a skeleton: i.e. ‘It!’ by Theodore Sturgeon which I discover now was first published in 1940. This has remained my favourite monster for sentimental / nostalgic as well as still encroaching eschatological / scatological reasons…and this monster lives in my garden now.
My favourite monster (i.e. most horrifying) is the unnamed infection in Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fever Dream’. It’s an intelligent plague that not only keeps its host alive but also sufficiently ‘normal’ to become an efficient vector for transmission to other unsuspecting hosts. If that sounds like pure fiction, look up Toxoplasma gondii. Truly horrific monsters always have a real-life counterpart to make you wonder … could it really happen?
Above all, I imagine the real Charles: blind, deaf, powerless, and silently screaming for help inside his own walking, talking, stolen body for the rest of his life. That’s horror.
Spooky evil doubles. Both doppelgängers of people, and people turned into their own double through parasitic means — possession, pods from outer space, post-hypnotic suggestion, you name it. From a particular story? There are too many: yes, Stepford Wives, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Poe’s “William Wilson.” Ask some other guy who looks like me; maybe he’ll give you just one. Or maybe he’ll never stop listing them.
Mine has to be Dracula. He was the one that changed everything for me, introduced me to the world of supernatural literature and set me on the path to being whatever the hell I am now. And there’s just really something magical about a guy who climbs around the walls of his castle like a lizard, sleeps in a box of dirt, and can still set up complex real estate deals long distance.
The Horla! It’s invisible, drinks your glass of water when you’re not looking (what a prat!), and it drives you mad. It’s one of the scariest monsters in horror fiction. I feel sorry for Lovecraft’s protagonist in “The Outsider.” Is Shambleau a monster or an alien? If it’s a monster, I nominate it for sexiest monster.
When the alzabo rushed at the zoanthrops, its instinct commanded it to preserve its prey from others; when Becan did so, his instinct, I believe, was to preserve his wife and child. Both performed the same act, and they actually performed it in the same body. Did the higher and the lower instinct join hands at the back of reason? Or is there but one instinct standing behind all reason, so that reason sees a hand to either side?
I suspect this won’t be an original choice, but I’m going to go with the alzabo from Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun: a man-eating alien horror, four-legged, red-furred, hulking, its jaws “large enough to bite a man’s head as a man bites an apple,” there is “something more” than the eyes of a beast in the alzabo’s red orbs, “neither the intelligence of humankind nor the innocence of the brutes”: the alzabo is a monster that can speak and think — speak with the voices of its victims, yet with a “fearful wrongness”; think with the minds of its victims, so that a dead child’s loneliness and a dead man’s love for his family become the desire to have the survivors join them in being devoured.
And though Severian, our narrator, lists the alzabo among the handful of creatures that can truly be called evil, it is nonetheless also among the eidolons of Severian’s former enemies that choose to fight and die in defense of Severian’s mission of renewal — proof perhaps that it absorbs not only its victims’ minds and voices but their consciences as well: a monster horrifying, compelling, and sympathetic all at once.
In terms of the effect it had on me, my favorite monster came from the kind of pulp fiction I like to read and write. This story was a very weird piece of horror from a crime writer, with lots of psychological aspects, so it crossed my three favorite genres. Edward D. Hoch’s “The Faceless Thing” came to me in a cherished anthology, my friend Marvin Kaye’s Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural. The Faceless Thing was, in short (spoiler alert) a boogeyman who hurt a young boy very badly by eating his sister. The boy forgave him, a truly Christlike act after waiting seventy-odd years for revenge. He forgave the Faceless Thing because the boogeyman got old and hopeless and demented just like people did. And the boy, now an old man, understood. Like Gardner’s Grendel and so many other monster anti-heroes, the Faceless Thing broke my heart in the best possible way.
My favorite monster is a class of intangible psychic demons from Michael Gruber’s novel Tropic Of Night (I’ve just read it for the fifth time – fan geeks r us). Gruber’s novel, about African sorcery in Miami, suggests a kind of shamanistic psychology. We all think it’s just us in our heads, but Gruber says we host a kind of psychic ecology within our brains/spiritual selves. Ogga is his term for demons that feed off our despair, doubt, self-hate, cowardice. What I love about this idea is that it’s so damn useful. If you feel like your life’s going nowhere, no one will ever love you, you might as well just give up…it’s not you, it’s the ogga. Literally alien thoughts which you can dismiss or put away from you. Useful. A more traditional monster, that is, one who does terrible things in the physical world, is the book’s villain, a Black poet and playwright bitter with racism who goes to Africa and comes back a powerful witch who can control people’s minds by breathing on them. Amazing book.
After the terrifying Struwwelpeter of my German childhood from which I never entirely recovered, it was William Burroughs’ creatures that made the biggest impression on me, his centipedes and the Talking Asshole from Naked Lunch. In my late teens I lived for a time in the east village. It was a wonderfully surreal experience to stay up all night reading Naked Lunch and Nova Express with all their references to Manhattan landmarks, and then walk past the abandoned buildings of Alphabet City to watch the sun rise over the East River. No one does gross better than Burroughs; the asshole riff is both über-disgusting and hilarious, and no less so now than when it was written.
My favorite monster is Brown Jenkin, the familiar of Keziah Mason, from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House.” The book containing the story was one of the first ones I picked up after negotiations with the library finally yielded permission to go raid the adult sections, since I’d exhausted the children’s room, and it scared the piss out of me. I could not confess to my parents how much it had scared me, because I was afraid my permission would get revoked, and so Brown Jenkin continues to skitter through my dreams as a representative of the price one pays for devotion to the text.
I know I’m supposed to be thinking about monsters in novels, stories, but monsters come to me as images… movie Draculas (Nosferatu alone!) comix: Swamp Thing! And the monster I love the best is Boris Karloff, all hideous and misunderstood. I love to watch him lunging around in Frankenstein with that little girl, all loving and confused, and in The Bride of Frankenstein, when the bride he’s been waiting up for takes one look at him (Elsa Lanchester with her wavy, electric hair standing straight up and vibrating with shock) and goes, AAAGHHH. Poor guy! The French have a phrase for what Karloff is, and it isn’t just makeup: Beau laid. Beautiful-ugly. Which is what makes him the monster of monsters, at least for me.
Slim, who so casually steals Celia Sarton’s skin in [Theodore] Sturgeon’s “The Other Celia.”
My favorite monster is the Groke of the Moomin books by Tove Jansson. Among a plethora of strange and bizarre creatures, only the Groke is cast as truly monstrous — largely mute, and freezing the ground on which it sits. Groke’s appeal is largely in its mystery and it being misunderstood — or I assume so. Even the intractable Hattifatteners seem to have a dose of humanity in them. But the Groke is cut off from the rest so decisively — due to its inscrutability, sure; but is the Groke also a symbol for those we cannot relate to just because of the failure of our own imagination? I would like to think so, yes!
One culture’s deities become another culture’s monsters, over and over. Tiamat is my very favorite monster, and my favorite story of her is one I wrote myself, “Down in the Flood.” It leaves her on the cusp of monsterhood, explaining and foreshadowing her transition.
Tiamat was a watery, pre-Biblical entity, an oceanic creatrix. She represents the divine feminine force. In Babylonian myth she was slain by Marduk, a sword-wielding hero who served as the model for St. George and many other killers of dragons.
In my vision of her, Tiamat is a shapeshifter, a sea “monster” with a powerful tail who can grow wings at will, who can manifest as a beautiful giant clam or an enormous fish or a combination of all of the above. In “Down in the Flood” I write about her as a mother beset by mischievous children naughtily determined to end eternity by setting in motion the flow of time.
Our mothers are monsters in our eyes. We see them as powerful actors whose reasons are beyond us, warpers and weavers of our lives. To me, Tiamat is monster as mother, mother as monster, a sort of Ur-Erma Bombeck: humorous and humungous, aweful-with-an-“e,” ineffable and all-encompassing.
I suppose that not all monsters are stand-ins for some human extreme, but many are and Caliban, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, strikes me as being the most appropriate monster for the day, because he is the most human, and his character is most reflective of the monstrous character of humanity, vain, bedizened, and violent. Caliban would be, I think, quite at home in a place like Syria or Somalia. He would enjoy a genocide and, if he did not participate in it, that would be because he is diverted by some other pleasurable pastime. The aspect of the world that most terrifies me is that which confronts me in the mirror.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the caterpillar — er, slug — er, angel — er, whatever the hell that thing is in E. F. Benson’s “Negotium Perambulans”. Perhaps my lack of ability to pin it down is exactly *why* the creature has stuck with me for so long. True, the thing gets lumped in with the vampires most often these days, no doubt due to its life-draining tendencies, but I think that does it a great disservice. The sort of vampires I know don’t possess anywhere near the unsettling presense of that foul invertebrate. It’s more biblical than folkloric, and carries with it an inevitability lacked by those blood-sucking creatures of the night (both in their regular and sparkling manifestations). Maybe it’s the religious ramifications of the creature that intrigues me so. Could something so repugnant actually be working for Heaven? There is so much more to wonder about between those lines that Benson wrote. All of it unnerving, to say the least. Worst of all, I often find myself returning to the tale, my memory expunged of the creature’s effect on my psyche. With distance, I mistake the story for a simple Jamesian tale, and only when it’s too late, when the creature rears its fleshy, puckered face, do I realise my horrible error. Perhaps my forgetfullness is simply a defence mechanism, designed to keep that thing at bay. Perhaps it’s the only thing that keeps me from falling deeper into madness. And perhaps in that case it’s already too late.
My favorite monsters are the ooloi from Octavia Butler’s series of books, Lilith’s Brood. As intelligent aliens who want to help mankind (whether they’re actually helping is debatable), they’re not classical monsters, but Butler does an amazing job of evoking their alienness in a way that makes them seem genuinely other, both intriguing and unsettling. They embody both revulsion and fascination – not only in their stinging tentacles and alien physiology – but also in the way that the text draws out their interactions with the characters. Like characters in many of Octavia Butler’s books, the humans in Lilith’s Brood must incorporate the monstrous into themselves, destroying what they used to be in favor of an unknown future, and it’s this combination of xenophobia and xenophilia, of being terrified of what humanity is becoming and still, at the same time loving your increasingly alien children, that makes the ooloi such compelling “monsters.”
My current favorite is the minotaur character in the novel The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill. In Sherrill’s book this mythic figure, once capable of almost incomprehensible evil and mayhem, now lives in a trailer park on the edge of a town in Florida, working as a cook at a steakhouse called Grub’s Rib. What is so affecting about Sherrill’s portrayal is the ordinariness of the Minotaur’s problems, which – however familiar they might be to us – are nonetheless devastating. He has no friends, he cannot connect with others, and having a fulfilling relationship with a woman appears at first to be well beyond him. And yet he knows he is the Minotaur, this dramatic, essentially immortal thing. He is in a sense haunted by who he knows himself to be. The metaphor is a rather apt commentary on the human condition.
The demon (Pazuzu, perhaps, though it’s never explicitly stated) in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. One could interpret the possessed child as a reflection of the early 70s — young people protesting, taking drugs, seeming to turn against parents and society — or one might suggest she reminds us of mental illness, and how that can change the ones we love. A devout Catholic, the author no doubt intended a straightforward religious context. Though I’m not religious, the book remains my favorite horror novel, and I think the demon’s impact is as simple as watching something become its opposite, the yin of innocence become the yang of corruption. If our beloved child can become an embodiment of evil, then there is no safe thing in existence.
They are just black shapes with bright angular eyes, sinuously descending a wooded hillside below stark, massed storm-clouds. They are creatures of living darkness, with hunting eyes, eyes that glow. There is a strange unearthly beauty about them. But we would not like to know why they prowl, or what prey they seek. All too probably, these slinking quivers of sable, these smirking night-beasts, are already on the scent, are seeking for us in our dreams.
Sidney Sime, the illustrator of Lord Dunsany, made them, in his timeless, and subtly sinister picture, “Wild Beast Wood” (The Strand, October 1908). And the wood itself, all tilted and wind-torn, seems about to follow the creatures down the hillside.
I wouldn’t say it was my favourite in terms of being sympathetic, but the giant hog in the pit in Carnacki the Ghost-Finder is pretty horrific.
So, readers, let us know in the comments: who or what are your favorite monsters, and why?