Making Monsters – Grab Bag

It’s very weird seeing so much Halloween stuff available here in Australia, particularly after I have spent the last couple of years being told by many of my Australian friends not to expect much in the way of costumes or celebrations down on the sunburned continent. On a rational level I recognize that it’s because American media output is ever-increasing and more and more kids are growing up with Halloween special episodes of our shows, and Halloween-themed horror movies, and things like that. The businesses here notice this, and they go “hey, we can make some cash off of the craze if we convince them to buy costumes and candy with orange wrappers instead of the usual colors, and we can probably jack the price up because everything in Australia is more expensive.”

But it kind of feels like the holiday followed me here, and that’s nice. I doubt I’ll even do anything this year – I’ve been busy as hell and haven’t even thrown a costume together, and the Halloween parties nearby look like they’re going to be incredibly crowded and focused more on gimmick cocktails than anything else – but it’s nice to know I’ll have the option next year and beyond. It also lets me stay connected with my American friends a little better when they’re posting about trick-or-treaters and I see some down here too, instead of feeling completely cut off.

Enough about my life right now, though. I’d like to talk about monsters some more. If you’ve been keeping up on my articles throughout the week you’ll probably notice a trend of what I look for in a well-written monster: I like them to be scary, I like them to have their own motivation and rules they adhere to (even if we, as the audience, don’t know) and I like them to have a cool aesthetic. The latter of these is purely subjective, I like camp and body horror and beauty stretched into the uncanny valley, while some people may prefer realistic gore and things showing off the banality of evil and the thin veil hiding monstrous things from us.

My approach to monsters is honestly very similar to how I view religions, mythologies and folklore: a window into how other people think. It makes sense because monsters are intimately tied to those stories. Sometimes they’re the wrath sent down to punish people for breaking rules, or they’re placed there to force people into breaking unjust rules and changing society. You can learn a lot about a culture or a people by seeing what they’re afraid of, how they approach that fear, how they handle it. Are the monsters something that can be fought and beaten? Or are they beings that need to be avoided at all costs because humans can’t beat them?

Pictish_Beast_Maiden_Stone.jpgAre they stand-ins for nature, for the raw and untamed, uncaring wilderness? Something like the Scottish Kelpie myths, a living warning that you stay the hell away from fast-moving rivers or you’ll be taken away and killed horribly by the waters? A combination of two normal, everyday things (horses, beautiful women) with a dash of the otherworldly to tie them together? Or, underneath the river motif, maybe a cultural reading of misogynistic views that women are tempters who will lead men to ruin and death? Both are probably true and both tell you a lot about the people who came up with these stories. They lived in a land with a lot of hostile, watery environments and wanted to warn people from getting too close to the rivers or lakes. They were fairly patriarchal or at least placed emphasis on chastity and fidelity, especially when you combine the Kelpie stories with other Highland (and if you go far enough back, Pictish – that picture is from the Maiden Stone carving and is widely thought to represent a kind of proto-Kelpie figure) tales about men being led astray by beautiful women who are not what they seem. Double so with monstrous, handsome men seducing maidens.

baku_traditional.pngAre the monsters more like the living nightmares of the Baku myths out of Japanese – and early, Chinese – folklore? Beings that seep into your head and eat you from the inside out if you aren’t a good person in the waking world, because being a good person is what attracts the Baku, a protector spirit who feasts on bad dreams and protects the virtuous in their slumber? Bakus are still monsters, but they’re friendly ones if you treat them with respect and honor, and that tells you as much about the people who thought them up and revered them as the Kelpies said about bewaring the rivers and the seductive strangers. A Baku is a monster you can befriend and one who will protect you from the kind of monsters you can’t reason with, the ones born out of all the bad things you’ve seen in your day to day life, the stuff that lodged itself in your brain to be summoned back up once you nod off.

Whenever I’m coming up with monsters for a story, I try to keep this in the back of my mind. In our world monsters are what we come up with to serve as cautionary tales, and I think that when you create a fantasy or horror setting where they actually do exist in the flesh, you need to incorporate some elements of that for them to ring true. For us, the Irish Clurichaun fairy is a warning not to act like a drunkard, because if you do and dishonor your household he will show up and spoil your wine. If I wanted to write a story about them, I’d probably add a backstory to the fairy and why it does what it does. Maybe they are men and women who once drank wine of the fairy world and feel driven to “protect” their old towns by tormenting anyone who they believe might go down the same path, until those victims give up drink entirely, even if the Clurichauns don’t recognize the horrible collateral damage they’re inflicting with their mischief. If I were to dip my toe into Latvian lore, I might bring up Lausks, a spectral lumberjack who tests the integrity of houses by smacking them with his axe and whose presence causes cheeks to turn blue. In our world a pretty obvious explanation for why wooden structures sometimes creek, groan and settle in the winter as the moisture trapped within expands or contracts to match the temperature. In a setting where he actually exists, though, you have to start asking why he feels the need to test random houses by hitting them, what his motivations are as a monster. You can still have houses settle and groan from natural means, but perhaps a whole cult has sprung up where people in those houses rush to pay him tribute or burn offerings on the stove even when he isn’t present because better safe than sorry. You could do a cool little backwoods cult out of that if he stays in a small area, and imagine a traveler stumbling into that situation and trying to get to the bottom of it.

Basically, what I’m getting at here is that fictional monsters are awesome and deserve our respect as readers and as writers, and shouldn’t be treated as disposable plot devices when you could make them into characters in their own right. If they’re too nebulous to be characters they should still represent something more than a scary being that kills its way down the cast of human characters to create tension.

 

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