From Kaiju laying waste to cinematic cities in Pacific Rim, to Sulley and Mike Wazowski discovering the secret to scaring kids witless in Monsters University, we are currently swept up in a cavalcade of monsters on film, and yet reluctant to embrace them in books.
Interestingly, many of our movie monsters came from books. Vampires, werewolves and mummies from the black and white era of film all were inspired by literature. These were critical in forming the genre back then – fear of the unknown, of bodily change, of the uncanny – but it was a genre that quickly gave way to our more modern view of the movie monster: enormous, abhorrent, and destructive. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The big monsters – Kaiju, King Kong, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park – are our spectacle. And cinema thrives on spectacle. These hark back to the origins of the word ‘monster’, where something is both unnatural and yet an omen or a sign. The monster here is something to behold. We don’t watch monster movies to be afraid anymore, not in the sense of a typical horror film; the only thing we are afraid of is the destruction and enormity. We run, and scream, but ultimately we want to see the monster. Every monster movie builds up to this moment, the unveiling of the monstrous form.
It’s a wholly different experience to the fear of the early monsters, and one that rests heavily on cinema as a visual medium.
Turning to the monsters that appear in books they almost always do seem consigned to the horror genre. Cthulhu, Pennywise, Count Dracula, Edward Hyde – they all work to terrify us, rather than have us behold them. The others – Shelob, balrogs, three-headed dogs – are only spectacular yet incidental events in a much larger story.
So, can we have a monster genre in books? Can we have monsters that are the goal of the story and not just an obstacle in the way of our hero on his quest?
There are a few cases where this does happen. Where the monsters in books are as gloriously horrific, colossal or unnatural as those we encounter in the movies.
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Almost the quintessential monster book, and one that covers all aspects of the character-type. Gruesome, inhuman, supremely powerful and cruel, the titular Monster is also the most rational and reflective character in the text. Shelley shows us that our fear and hatred of the monstrous often makes it worse, when it probably just wants a friend.
Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton
Yeah, yeah the film is amazing to watch, but by god the book was great. Similar to Frankenstein in that the monsters are there as warnings of our own pursuits, it’s a modern cautionary tale where we (hopefully) learn not to get too close to the monsters, lest they get close to us.
The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
A collection of short stories, Carter plays with old tales like Beauty and the Beast and Red Hiding Hood to bring the reader in to the company of strangely familiar monsters. The stories use our knowledge of fairy tales to bring us closer to the monstrous figures in young women’s lives.
Grendel – John Gardner
Similar to The Bloody Chamber, Gardner takes the Beowulf mythology and reworks it from the monster’s perspective. Grendel is lost and confused and uncertain of the world he inhabits – there are echoes of this in Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf animation – and he drifts off into existential wanderings while being attacked by Danish warriors. A true monster story, you can’t help but feel sorry for the poor guy.
This post first appeared on the Momentum blog.