Unearthly Creatures

Monsters, I have to admit, are a favorite topic of mine. As a little kid I preferred my plastic dinosaurs and one-eyed Cyclops-monster to playing with dolls–in my opinion monsters were way more cool.

Monsters are creatures that evoke fear and terror—for many of us they hold a dark appeal.  Defined as “animals of strange or terrifying shape”, they lurk in dangerous and inaccessible places, at the fringes of our world; they turn up in our worst nightmares. Ancient maps often marked uncharted waters with pictures of sea serpents and/or the warning: “Here There Be Monsters” to signify the unknown.

Children are terrified of monsters, yet paradoxically they want to read about and think about things that scare them.  When I was small the things that frightened me were vampire movies, fairy tale creatures and the invisible monsters under my bed.  These were things I fed off and when I became an adult I was still fascinated by ghoulish creatures.

Monsters abound in fantasy, some benign (Suzanne Collins’ Overlander series, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are) But most monsters are terrifying, because they represent our deepest, darkest fears: the creatures in Rowling’s Harry Potter or the Nicholas Flamel books by Michael Scott, James Dashner’s ‘grievers’ in The Maze Runner, Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch.  Adult-fantasy monsters include HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, the monster Grendel from Beowulf, the orcs in Lord of the Rings.

JRR Tolkien noted that his orcs owed a good deal to “the goblin tradition”, writing how the goblin idea blended with a more modern concept: that of the evil inherent in human beings.  One of my worst fears growing up was the fear of familiar people being overtaken by some mysterious force, and turning creepy or even dangerous, from within – like what happens in Invasion of The Body Snatchers, or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.

In my books I’ve written about plague wolves, genetically-engineered creatures called skraeks, and giant scorpions.  Yet sometimes in literature the scariest monsters are not fully described (The zombies in Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands & Teeth,  & the botched experiments called misshapens in my book The Owl Keeper). These monsters are frightening because they’re shaped by the reader’s imagination.  If you describe a monster in great detail, there’s a limit to how far you can go– you want your readers to tap into their darkest fears and nightmares.

Stephen King, one of the great masters of horror, writes: “When we turn to the creepy movie or the crawly book, we are not wearing our ‘Every-thing works out for the best’ hats.  We’re waiting to be told what we so often suspect—that everything is falling apart… ”  It’s this ‘dark days are coming’ scenario which is so popular in fiction at the moment: heroes and heroines pitted in impossible situations against an all-powerful monster.

We grow into adults and deal with our anxieties & phobias the best we can.  But somewhere deep inside us we still hold on to those fears we had as children.  In reading about a heroine or hero who confronts the monster, we find a way to conquer our own fears.  And so, I hope you’ll still get those goose-bumps up and down your arms and that the hairs will continue to rise on the back of your neck, when you read a horrific book and are dumbstruck with horror.  I know you enjoy scary stories & I can assure you that you’re not alone…there are lots of us out there.