Since humans tell stories, we tell monsters. The Bible spawned the Devil and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first true epic in English, “Beowulf”, is the story of the monstrous Grendel, his mother and a fateful dragon. What different cultures and societies over time have defined as monstrous offers an anthropological and philosophical perspective on what they both fear and desire. From mindless zombies to all-knowing gods, literary monsters mirror and distort humanity.
As Halloween and the traditional seasonal acceptance of monstrous approaches, here are five novels featuring monsters that have served as effective mirrors for human nature.
Note: The monsters on this list are deliberately inhuman, as the term “monster” applied to human or humanoid subjects becomes much trickier and more subjective.
The creature-Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
As the first true science fiction novel, Frankenstein was one of the first works to sympathetically approach monstrosity from the perspective of the inhuman itself. The creature receives a very bad reputation for what is essentially an ugly baby forced into the world, seeking acceptance and understanding in the wake of abandonment. It’s all of us; we are all the Creature. Such a portrayal of the monstrous raises questions about humanity, how we define it, and whether that definition means anything. Over time, the creature’s portrayal evolved from an intelligent, sensitive creature in search of happiness to a mindless piece of electrocuted green meat, erasing all shades of Mary Shelley and utterly disrespecting our boy. If anyone was a freak here, it was Victor Frankenstein, deadbeat dad and deranged college student with a god complex. Justice for the creature.
Wood-Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015)
Uprooted features a monster without a physical body. Instead, it’s the corrupted wood that plagues protagonist Agnieszka and her community, poisoning the minds and bodies of anyone who ventures too close. The victims of the Wood lose their grip on reality, their bodies calcifying into wood. Forests are time-worn settings of fantasy and horror, often linked to the ‘uncivilized’ unknown and, in Christian contexts, to paganism and the devil. This is not the case in Uprooted; Novik’s Wood is simply misunderstood. It was once home to an ancient race of forest dwellers who, when they encountered the fire and axes of humanity, transformed themselves into trees in a misguided effort to preserve themselves. Ever since that massacre, the spirit of the Queen of the Woods has been seeking revenge on the remaining humans nearby. Although not as overt in its political message as ring shout (2020), Uprooted offers a highly folksy look at imperialism and environmental devastation. Novik’s language is lush and vital, weaving an ecological fantasy out of green and gold phrases. Its wood teems with life and pain, both heartbreaking and terrifying.
The Ku Klux—ring shout by P. Djèlí Clark (2020)
In a barely fantastic year 1915, the famous white supremacist film A birth of a nation casts a curse on the United States. As a result, the Ku Klux Klan has transformed into multi-mouthed, quadrupedal carnivorous demons posing as average white Americans – and the “Ku Klux” are on the rise, especially in Georgia, the homeland of our intrepid heroine Maryse. Clark’s Ku Klux are an exercise in the grotesque, body-horror at its most ghastly – their whipping tongues ridged with teeth, their many gaping maws. Part of what makes the Ku Klux so effective is their physical foundation, reflecting the real and tangible violence the Klan has inflicted on black Americans for generations. Describing the Klan as literally monstrous and physically grotesque, Clark exposes how the process of dehumanization causes the oppressor to lose their own humanity. ring shout is a great short story that blends the fantastical with the historical to create a portrait of America that’s both familiar and uniquely gruesome. Elements of Gullah Root Magic and Resilient Community offer a form of resistance and power to our heroes, bringing ring shout beyond the realm of mere allegory to become a fully fleshed out story of black history and southern American folk lore.
The beasts of the resurrection—Harrow the Ninth (The Locked Tomb #2) by Tamsyn Muir (2021)
I will force-feed Tamsyn Muir every list of hobby books i can. In a world of necromancy, body horror, split consciences, and pathetic immortals, it’s safe to say that the monstrous appears in many forms within. The Locked Tomb series, some more human than others. But the Resurrection Beasts take the cake in terms of conceptual greatness. The vengeful ghosts of nine dead planets, the resurrection beasts come to kill God. And they are terrible beyond description. (Literally. None of the characters can describe the Beasts except to say that their presence invokes vomiting, bedwetting-induced terror, and madness.) Muir takes the universal concept of a lost soul to the greatest scale. large: the soul of a dead planet – encompassing all the life that once inhabited it – would be too huge and gloomy to comprehend.
Newts—The war with the newts by Karel Capek (1936)
Humanity discovers that they can harness the labor of a dexterous species of Newt for more efficient pearl diving. Over time, these newts evolve into a highly intelligent and physically capable species, and humans become increasingly dependent on the work of newts. Thus engenders the Newt-Human conflicts, ultimately resulting in proletarian revolution and all-out class war. When the newts claim dominance, it’s clear they’ll seek to wipe out humanity, sparing a few for labor. They will eventually divide among themselves and self-destruct, making the same mistakes as their human overlords. Set in 1930s Czechoslovakia, Čapek’s satirical novel offers a scathing critique of capitalism, unethical labor practices, militarism and imperialism. As always, Monstrous provides a warped funhouse mirror to humanity, examining how we hurt ourselves and the world around us to devastating effect. Yet a good monster story always conveys the nuance of human pain and destruction – within every Warlord Newt there was once a gentle pearl diver.