Some dictionary definitions of “monster” include: (1) one abnormal, unnatural, or hideous in appearance or (2) one that inspires hate or horror because of cruelty, wickedness, depravity, etc., (3) a fabulous creature compounded of parts from various animals, as a centaur, dragon, hippogriff, etc. Readers of my books will likely have noticed that I don’t have many, if any, alien monsters running around. There are a few dangerous creatures here and there, such as the stun lizards of Naclos in the Recluce series or the sandwolves or dustcats in the Corean Chronicles, but they’re not monsters. They’re just dangerous predators. I’ve also written about a few alien species, but they’re alien, with different motives, and not monsters, at least not in the traditional fantasy or literary sense.

Yet, lately, particularly in the last ten, perhaps fifteen years, we’ve had an explosion in F&SF monsters – werewolves, vampires, evil creatures from faerie, zombies, truly malevolent ghosts, and I’ve found myself asking why on two fronts. Why are so many authors and readers fascinated and enthralled by all these monsters, and why am I totally uninterested in reading about most of them? I’ve certainly sampled the current offerings, and I remain largely unthrilled and unenthralled.

Part of the reason these monsters are so popular with so many readers is that they show a direct danger and an obvious power, and in most cases they’re bested by a largely standard human being, or one close enough that readers can identify with him or her. I think that gives many readers a sense of meaning and power that’s seemingly missing in our complex culture where it so often seems that no one can get much of anything constructive done – especially in the last few years when so many of those who make the most money can’t even be considered to be doing anything constructive.

For me, at least personally, that poses a bit of a problem, because most of the real monsters I’ve encountered or even read about haven’t been alien – they’ve been monstrous human beings, usually very successful at rationalizing their actions in some way or another… or in justifying them by placing some sort of blame on other people because life hasn’t gone the way they wanted. But then, that kind of monstrosity doesn’t sell millions of books or make blockbuster movies. Even so, my “monsters” are likely to remain the human kind. For me, they’re much more interesting… and, hopefully, for my readers.

9 thoughts on “Monsters”

  1. eamancz says:

    Yes, this. I do not read most monster novels – the only exceptions are Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s St. Germain novels and Gail Carriger’s books. I enjoy Carriger’s work because she is funny. Yarbro’s books make the point you are making above – it is not her vampires who are the monsters, but the people around them driven by greed and lust for power. Yes, she has had vampires who were villains, but the reasons for their villainy lies in their human motives, not in their vampire natures.

  2. Elena says:

    I don’t enjoy most of the vampire/zombie novels I’ve seen out there, but there are some, and the thing for me that makes them enjoyable is that the “monsters” aren’t the villains by default because they’re different/monsters. I like the attempts to fit in (more or less) with the current human society, and sometimes the figuring out how things are going to work now the monsters are in the open, i.e. the Patricia Briggs Mercy Thompson series.

    It’s a different set of tensions I think.

  3. Ryan Jackson says:

    I’d actually argue that most good Fantasy still relies on the human evil. Even if it maybe doesn’t seem that way or it takes a bit to get there.

    Obviously your books. Even when we have a “monster” who’s different from humans, they’re still human (thinking the Efrans, Ifreeti specifically)

    But looking through the other books on my shelf it’s always humans.

    Wheel of Time? Sure, we have a Satan figure and the Trollocs. But the trollocs are genetic experiments made by a man and in the end the Satan figure is less a being and more a personification of evil. It’s human choice, human action and human decisions that drive everything.

    Sanderson’s works have people that are basically gods, but every last one of them is a human who ended up with that level of power thrust on them. The deities we see in the Mistborn trilogy are all very human. One clever, one insane and another who’s almost regretful of what he is.

    Martin is clearly all about humanity. Zombie Lords and Dragons or not, the main focus is the politics of the human characters.

    I do see the increase of other things, but find those don’t stand up very well.

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    Some (like Meyer) did a good job of showing that (some few) stereotypical “monsters” might choose, with difficulty, not to behave monstrously; others (the shape shifters) might not be monsters at all.

    The problem is that their popularity contributed to a resurgence in a variety of other monster stories, not all of which were so clear about the underlying possibility of virtue, while still cashing in on the romance or unrestrained characteristics of such creatures.

    To severely paraphrase, mangle, and generalize something C.S. Lewis once wrote: whether or not the supernatural exists, there are (at least) two dangerous opposites: a denial that we might be influenced by things we don’t believe in, or a fascination with the rather negative aspects of fantasy or the supernatural. We’re influenced by quite mundane things we’re not even aware of all the time, and even without Faustian deals, too much interest in monsters of any sort, especially if violence or mistreatment of others is a significant feature, could also be a bad influence.

    But isn’t this part of a larger trend? Hasn’t there been a similar increase in fascination with antiheroes, and stories that are gritty not just for realism, but because sex and violence sells, and desensitization requires ever-more to have an impact? Or even (purportedly) outside the realm of fiction, why do people watch Jerry Springer, if not for a freak show that they can feel superior to?

  5. Wayne Kernochan says:

    Naïve question: why not take the Dorian Grey approach? A universe/society in which monstrous behavior shows up physically, progressively. If one has to do bad things for a greater good, what kind of price in repulsiveness does one pay? If there is a limit to wrongdoing before one’s body collapses, how do wrongdoers skirt that line and ally with others of their kind? If only some (“magic-users”) have this characteristic, how do they interact with those who are more deceptive, not showing their bad behavior on the surface, but not having the power aspects of the magic either?

    Just wondering …

  6. Josh Camden says:

    We have to be able to identify with the “monster,” otherwise it’s just a predator. The easiest way to identify with a creature is to make it human or part human, thus the common “human monster” however that is not the only way to allow the reader to identify with the monster.

    My preference for “monsters” however falls under the sudden betrayal category. Betrayal can only occur where there is trust. When a character is doing the trusting that is one thing, but when the reader trusts the monster, the sudden betrayal and horror is Awesome.

    1. Josh Camden says:

      This “sudden betrayal” frequently plays out in the zombie and vampire movies, where the person you have trusted the entire book suddenly becomes a Zombie/Vampire/Werewolf. It also occurs in traditional, mystery detective novels; the real villain turns out to be the detective’s friend, etc. It is particularly great when the Villain/Monster doesn’t just make faces at the main character, but actually harms them in a deep and meaningful way before being defeated.

  7. Wine Guy says:

    Monsters as metaphor: it is easier for adolescents/preadolescents to understand monsters acting evilly than it is for them to understand humans acting in such a way… or maybe I’m reading too much into things.

  8. D Archerd says:

    I’m just as puzzled as many as to why the recent upsurge in vampire/zombie/monster themes are so popular now, except to note that these things come and go just like any fad. Those of us of a certain age will recall the classic sci-fi bug-eyed-monsters (BEM’s) that featured in much of the pulp fiction of the 30’s and 40’s, and of course all the science-gone-bad monsters in the post-atomic age sci-fi movies and literature in the 50’s (Them, Godzilla, etc.). I’m sure the fact that bookstores now carry a separate section for “paranormal teen romance” says something about our society; I’m just not sure what, other than it’s another fad we’ll look back on and shake our heads about twenty years from now. I just appreciate that separation, because otherwise the vampire and zombie books tend to be lumped into the sci-fi/fantasy section which forces me to read book jackets carefully before making a selection.

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