Friday, January 22, 2010

Literary Monsters

Monsters are hardly something new to novels, science fiction or otherwise. Long before monsters became the alpha male, leading men in paranormal romances or the tortured anti-heroes in urban fantasy, the monsters were just that – monsters. They were monstrous beings or creatures who plagued humans, fed upon them or destroyed them no matter what their "intentions" were. Simply put, the monsters were exactly that – monsters.

From Grendal to Mr. Hyde, monsters pepper our fiction with danger, intrigue and passion. They preyed on humans, slaying them or taking them prisoner. You could argue that these monsters represented the nameless, faceless evils of the world: pestilence, poverty, punishment and more. These allegorical monsters gave storytellers a target to point their finger at and say “This is the cause of your fear – this is what goes bump in the night – this is what you must survive or slay in order to go on.”



Victorian Monsters

Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker contributed to the shifting tide of the monster in literary fiction. These men portrayed the evil that exists within the individual – in some cases like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, very literally and in others, they used fantastic creatures to represent the passions of powerful greed and lust. Sherlock Holmes confronted many criminals and even a fair share of monsters in his time, but most of those were human in origin while Bram Stoker gave his villain a supernatural origin and a charming demeanor – adding insult to injury as it were.

So what caused the shifting perception of literary monsters? When did man become the greater villain over the monster? While I can point to no one single factor, you could argue that a broadening worldview coming late in the Victorian age gave rise to fear of strange people rather than monsters. Science and medicine continued to be developing fields and the idea of monsters waiting at the edge of the world or even the concept that the world was flat were a distant memory. The ever-expanding world, the changing political landscape and even a change in condition with the industrial revolution all added their own measure of spice to the pot.

Initially, I wanted to point to Jack the Ripper as a catalyst, but The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde published in 1886 while the first Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Study in Scarlet published in 1887. Jack the Ripper’s killing spree did not begin until 1888. Is it just strange coincidence or simply a world where news coverage of events, growing literacy among the populace and better record keeping account for both the monstrous actions of real and fictional characters?

Modern Monsters

In our modern age, we are more than well aware of how retched man can be. One need only look at our bloody, tortured history to study that legacy. The 20th century gave us great villains like Hitler, Stalin, the Unabomber, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson and more. These were all men whose actions are so heinous and inhuman that history regards them as monsters. If monsters look like people, like you and me, then perhaps those that are different – who look like monsters are not so bad?

Thus how can the vampire, the werewolf, the demon and the creatures that go bump in the night not get the benefit of the doubt? The vampire drinks blood, but does that make him or her evil? Do vegetarians regard carnivores as evil? Werewolves are men and women who become wolves? Does that make them monsters? Or are they simply creatures compelled by primal urges? How do you measure a monster? By what he is or what he does?

Modern society has taught us that the argument of nature versus nurture is not as simple as one might believe. If a werewolf saves lives because he has the strength and the stamina, then his actions make him a hero – so what if he howls at the moon? The vampire who refrains from drinking human blood or only drinks from willing donors without compelling them is only a man or woman surviving rather than pillaging what they need.

Literary monsters can be found everywhere in modern fiction, but the trail of human tears that led to their rehabilitation is an interesting journey. Just look at Patricia Briggs’ Iron Kissed for a great example of how a simple human can wreak havoc.

What literary monsters do you love?

Don’t miss Heather’s guest blog over at Book Lover’s Inc today as she discusses What Books Mean to Me


1 comment:

  1. Heather, great article! Awesome, awesome, awesome points. :-) I especially love your comment about Hitler and Stalin and the monsters among us who are *simply* human(and now I'm hoping *even more* than ever that publicity sends you a 13 to Life ARC...;-). I'm so glad I saw this--nicely done!

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