One of the things kids always ask when I visit schools is “How do you come up with the ideas for your monsters?”
There are lots of answers to this, of course, as there are to any of those where-do-you-get-your-ideas questions, but as I’ve been working on Darwen III and devising new monsters in the process, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts on the subject today.
First, let me say that when I say monsters, I mean literal monsters, not bad people. Darwen is a middle grades fantasy adventure centring on a world on the other side of certain particular mirrors and the denizens of that world (scrobblers, gnashers, flittercrakes, shades and the Insidious Bleck, for instance) are the real deal: monsters that are designed to scare and unnerve.
But I also have a fairly specific sense of what monsters are and I’d like to refine the term a little for my purposes today, though I realize that this limits the category. For me, monsters have an unsettling quality that comes from their hybrid nature. I’m drawing here on an old use of the term ‘monster’ to mean a something which is odd, frightening or disturbing because it manifests a combination of elements one doesn’t see together in nature. Shakespeare’s cross-dressed Viola, for instance, calls herself a “poor monster” because she is neither male nor female (doubly so since the female speaker would have been a boy actor). Caliban in The Tempest is a monster because to Trinculo who finds him he is neither fish nor flesh. Frankenstein’s monster is so because it is built out of multiple bodies. In each case, monstrosity is about the combining of elements that shouldn’t go together, resulting in something palpably and troublingly unnatural.
In a sense, then, many of the familiar evils of fantasy literature are not monsters in the sense I’m using the term. Toklien’s orcs, for instance, are in a sense monstrous because they were originally a kind of twisted elf bred by Melkor, but we know them almost as a species or race, so that old sense of their monstrosity is largely lost. Vampires and zombies similarly have monstrous attributes, and they draw on what Freud calls “the uncanny” in that they look like people but aren’t (as are dolls, puppets, dummies etc.), though again that sense of aping humanity has dulled for modern readers because they are known quantities (even where the author has modified them for his/her purposes).
So for me, monsters are largely stand alones: creatures invented specifically to create surprise, fear and discomfort because the reader specifically doesn’t know what they are or might be able to do.
As I said, crucial to the idea of the monstrous is the sense of something wrong, something which disconcerts because it feels unnatural. Greek mythology is full of hybrid beasts which combine the features of different animals: the Chimaera, for instance, which had the head of fire-breathing lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a snake. Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld, was a giant three headed dog. Medusa and the other gorgons were winged women with snakes for hair whose gaze turned people to stone.
These are not just really great ideas that provide huge headaches for anyone who has to fight them, they are troubling in their unnaturalness. This is a great thing to shoot for because it means that the reader responds not just to the danger the monster poses but also has a visceral reaction to the monster itself (snakes for hair? That’s gold.)
The flipside of the unsettling aspect of a good monster, then, is its aura of cool, our management of something we—or others—might find just plain creepy. One of my favorite monsters in the Darwen books is the gnasher: an oversized brute of a man with long ape-like arms and no head. Across his chest is a shark’s mouth, and since he has no eyes he tastes the air with a long, snake-like tongue to find his way about. As well as combining a number of different creatures in unnatural ways, the gnasher generates a strong visceral response because it’s blindness makes it very tactile: it will want to touch you before it determines what to do with you. But the key is simpler: the gnasher is a monster because its mouth is in the wrong place.
(Incidentally, I thought the idea for the gnasher came simply from my impulse to combine different creatures, but I later remembered a line from Othello in which the general, recalling the strange places he has been, talks about “the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders.” It seems, not for the first time, that Shakespeare beat me to it.)
The trick to a good monster, I think, is the combination of credible threat and creep factor. I’m thinking, for instance, of Der Kindestod, the fairy take monster on Buffy that haunts the children’s ward of a hospital, invisible most of the time but, when you can see it, shows itself as an ugly and distorted old man with oversized teeth and blank eyes. It’s the eyes that really contribute to the creep factor because after the monster pins children down its eyes descend on long stalks, latching on and leeching out their life force. Again the credible threat is combined with a gut level revulsion which comes from the essential wrongness of the eyes.
One of my other favorite Buffy monsters were the Gentlemen in Hush, whose unsettling power comes from a combination of their stillness as they drift above the ground, their fixed, manic grins, and their overly polite gestures which, with their dark formal suits, sit nicely at odds with their murderous intentions. Again, what makes them so scary is their hybrid combination of disparate elements and characteristics.
I could go on, but let me leave it at that and ask for you to share your favorite monsters, and see if you can identify the source of what makes them work as monsters.