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Monstrous Post on Monsters: First Sequence

Saturday, December 4th, 2010 | Posted by Mike Allen

Were I a monster good and proper, I wouldn’t bother with these words shimmering on your computer screen. I’d rather reach through the transparent pane and pluck your eyes right out of your gobsmacked head, and none too neatly either, and as I contentedly burst your eyeballs between my teeth I’d either savor your screams with equal relish, or simply ignore them.

J.R.R. Tolkien's iconic Balrog.

But alas, such an act is (for now) beyond my capacity, and so in lieu of a more hands-on experience I offer you a blog entry about monsters. Perhaps the first of several, depending on the whims of my Lady Cooney, Supreme Sorceress of the Black Gate.

Maybe it’s time for introductions. I’m Mike Allen, and you’ve heard about me here before, in entries on modern Cthulhu Mythos stories, Heavy Metal in Fantasy, the fantasy poetry journal Goblin Fruit, and Arab/Muslim fantasy fiction. Yup, these chaps are all the same Mike Allen. I’m grateful to John R. Fultz, Amal El-Mohtar and of course Miss Cooney for all this foreshadowing.

I have some experience with monsters, which I presume is why Miss Cooney asked me to write about this topic.

At the most recent World Fantasy Convention, aside from hanging out with the Black Gate crew, I participated in a panel called Beyond Modern Horror, that in a nutshell boiled down to what creators of horror do to scare and disturb the readers of today. And as you can imagine, monsters came up in the discussion.


I’ve had the pleasure, as editor of Clockwork Phoenix 2 of being the first publisher of Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer’s “each thing i show you is a piece of my death,” which went on to reappear in Apex Magazine and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year 2 and was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction.

At the center of that novelette lies a wonderfully horrible modern monster, referred to as Background Man, a creepy fellow wearing what at first appears to be a red necklace who manifests in electronic video clips, infecting them like a virus, appearing in file after file. And as you might guess, seeing him is bad news, and it’s worse when he sees you.

We talked about how Clive Barker reinvented horror in the 1980s with his Books of Blood, which included a number of lovely monsters, such as the pint-sized and comically vicious Yattering and the not-so-pint sized Rawhead Rex, who savors the high-pitched shriek that accompanies a gelding.

I made it a point to bring up one of my favorite new horror writers, Laird Barron, who has been building his own monstrous cosmology over the past decade, recasting the amphibious horrors of H.P. Lovecraft as things crawling and burrowing in the cracks in the earth. His collections The Imago Sequence and Occultation (the title story of which appeared in my first Clockwork Phoenix volume) imagine, too, that these long-limbed, wide-mouthed and psychologically predatory beasts will exploit weaknesses in relationships just as adroitly as they’ll consume flesh.

I even got to talk a bit about my own monster, a cheerful fellow named Lenahan, a.k.a. Mr. Buttons, who appears in my Nebula-nominated horror story “The Button Bin.” There’s a number of modern-day societal ills that come into play in that story, among them drug addiction, pedophilia and traps set by selective memory.

I tend to think that monsters serve much the same role in fantasy as they do in horror.

To my mind monsters represent layers and layers of fears, starting at the bottom with our deeply ingrained terrors of death and predation. With few natural predators to menace us, our imaginations invent new ones, and then invest them with additional powers based on the more sophisticated anxieties that twist our more highly evolved minds.

Grendel!

I imagine in days of yore the storytellers who conceived of Grendel and his lovely mother considered themselves to be inventing a contemporary horror, not a creature of legend. I mean, what could be worse than a giant cannibal that struck while you and all your mates are dozin’ it off in the mead hall?

Nonetheless, the pattern was set, and when modern authors create new legendary narratives based on fiction histories, monsters emerge as essential pieces of the warp and weft of adventure fantasy. One need look no further than the model for most commercial epic fantasies, Oxford don J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, to find monsters for the ages. The eerie Nazgûl. The Balrog, who brings the pain to Gandalf. Leggy Shelob, last child of Ungoliant.

A Myrddraal from Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series. Remind you of anything?

But now I have a confession to make. In my jaded adulthood, the monsters of adventure fantasy haven’t been bringing the chill for me the way they once did. Don’t get me wrong, I find Robert Jordan‘s eyeless Myrddraal plenty creepy, but aren’t they kind of like Nazgûl with more dialog? Or, consider a series that I adored (though many didn’t) when I was a teen, Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, with its Cavewights and Ur-viles that, though plenty vile, in hindsight to my mind still fit that Tolkien orc/troll mold.

(This in part is why I’m so looking forward to Saladin Ahmed‘s upcoming Crescent Moon Kingdoms trilogy — I had the pleasure of hearing him read excerpts at World Fantasy — that builds from a different cultural and mythological tradition than the European standard.)

So I want to end this entry with what you can take as a request, or a challenge. I can’t claim to have read every single work of fantasy out there now. I want to put together a Top Ten List, or maybe just a Top List, of the best heroic fantasy monsters chomping and dismembering today. I have my own ideas about what horrors belong there, but I’d love to hear yours. You can post here or shoot me an e-mail at mythicdelirium@gmail.com.

With Lady Cooney’s blessing, I’ll come back here in a month or so and take you on the terrifying guided tour.

25 Comments »

  1. Awesome post, Mike.

    Jeff VanderMeer gives good monster. I remember savouring the fear I was feeling while reading City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek. But it wasn’t a creature itself there so much as the threat of a creature. There’s a story in City where someone brings home what appears to be an empty cage. It’s not.

    I look forward to seeing what everyone else offers!

    Comment by Amal El-Mohtar - December 4, 2010 4:23 pm

  2. Mmmmn. Clive Barker.

    I’ve not read anything by him in YEARS! I think I started with Cabal. And then read one of the Books of Blood. I retain the impression of dreamy language and lots of violence and a weird romance of sorts.

    Perhaps I should revisit.

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - December 4, 2010 4:23 pm

  3. Thanks for the tip, Amal. I really need to read those ‘shroomy books.

    I have a fondness for the ghouls in Brian McNaughton’s Throne of Bones — I wonder how many people are familiar with that work?

    Comment by MikeAllen - December 4, 2010 4:35 pm

  4. Well, if you’re looking for suggestions…

    I doubt any High Fantasy monster collection would be complete without some of the many creatures populating R. Scott Bakker’s “Prince of Nothing” trilogy.

    Also, particularly tasty, are the Mosquito Women of China Miéville’s “The Scar”.

    Comment by peadarog - December 5, 2010 5:47 am

  5. […] Black Gate Tags: first, Monsters, Monstrous, Post, Sequence […]

    Pingback by thebookishowl.com » Blog Archive » Monstrous Post on Monsters: First Sequence - December 5, 2010 9:22 am

  6. Excellent, peadarog! Thanks.

    Comment by MikeAllen - December 5, 2010 12:45 pm

  7. Mike,

    An excellent post on my favorite topic.

    I enjoyed the ghouls in THRONE OF BONES as well… though I remember them as being oddly social, and perhaps less terrifying for that. We reprinted a tale from THRONE OF BONES in Black Gate 3 (“Ringard and Dendra”).

    I quite enjoyed the Rogue Blades anthology RAGE OF THE BEHEMOTH, which is packed full of great monsters. I especially liked Sean Stiennon’s giant crab-creature in “Black Water” and Jason Thummel’s elephantine-god in “Runner of the Hidden Ways.”

    Comment by John ONeill - December 5, 2010 3:20 pm

  8. I ought to have guessed Mr. O’Neill would have a pocketful of monsters to display.

    On Monday we’ll all have to re-post about this in different places and see if we can’t gather more folks to come play!

    Surely, among our vast acquaintance, we can summon up a top ten list?

    That said… Randall Flagg.

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - December 5, 2010 4:38 pm

  9. Although I’m not sure The Stand would be considered High Fantasy? Mmmn. But then, would Clive Barker? Genre clash!

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - December 5, 2010 4:39 pm

  10. Randall Flagg! Great pick.

    And if The Stand doesn’t qualify, then Flagg also appears in THE EYES OF THE DRAGON, which is certainly high fantasy.

    He’s also in THE DARK TOWER novels, and a bunch of other places. Guy is EVERYWHERE…

    Comment by John ONeill - December 5, 2010 7:07 pm

  11. I totally <3 Eyes of the Dragon!!!

    ...But in that one, Flagg is more a villain and less a monster? A MONSTROUS human, but more human than monster? Like Mike-Allen-monstrous-monster, that is. Erm...

    In The Stand, Flagg gets his monster-demon face on more than a few times. That scene where he's coming out of his raven shape and still has feathers in his hair? (*shudder*)

    It's been SO LONG since I read the first few Dark Tower novels that I've forgotten if he's anything but humanoid in 'em.

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - December 6, 2010 3:07 pm

  12. Perhaps not heroic fantasy but it’s got fairies.
    I think the ‘irrha’ in War Of The Flowers by Tad Williams is one of the scarier monsters I’ve ever come across.
    Absolutely (ok very nearly) unstoppable, will follow you anywhere to get at you, The feeling in the book that it could be behind you now, just reaching out….

    Comment by timgayler - December 6, 2010 4:53 pm

  13. Tim, that sounds like exactly what I’m looking for.

    Comment by MikeAllen - December 6, 2010 5:44 pm

  14. The Myrddraal pwn, as with the Nazgul, but try the Draghkar or the worms in the Blight to freak you out. The worms, especially. Slimy, gooey, lots of legs, and an insane amount of segments. Just… *shudder*.

    The shadow that Melissandre makes in A Clash of Kings (exactly how might be a spoiler?) is one of the most disturbing things I’ve read in the last few years.

    Comment by JesterJoker - December 6, 2010 8:28 pm

  15. I think Mab from The Dresden Files deserves an addition to this list. A force-of-nature protagonistic monster! She isn’t as blunt as some, but she’s a chilly, cold deeply patient monster.

    Comment by JesterJoker - December 6, 2010 8:33 pm

  16. One of my all-time favorites was the River from J. Gregory Keyes’ “The Waterborn.” A hundreds of miles long river, which also happens to be a god, devouring everything that runs into it. By the time it reached the sea, it was mutating fish and sucking people’s souls out with its power.

    Comment by WendigoMountain - December 9, 2010 1:18 pm

  17. Well, I don’t really have any favorite fantasy monsters that haven’t already been mentioned. I’m kind of a traditionalist that way (Beowulf, Tolkien, etc.)

    Buuut, if you’ll indulge a SF monster, my favorite is the Shrike, from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. I started reading it as a teenager, and the Shrike scared teh bejeezus out of me so badly I TOOK THE BOOK BACK TO THE STORE AND GOT MY MONEY BACK.

    I only picked it up again this summer on audiobook while traveling, and I must say that I enjoyed the novel very much this time around.

    Comment by csmaccath - December 9, 2010 1:57 pm

  18. the giant made of people in one of the stories in the Books of blood by Clive Barker
    the monster inside a model in Robert Bloch story The model
    Shub Niggurath, the black ram of the forests with a thousand ewes
    the sandworms in Dune

    Comment by francisco72 - December 11, 2010 1:38 pm

  19. >the sandworms in Dune

    Yes! Shai Hulud! How could I have forgotten him?

    “Bless the Maker and His water.
    Bless the coming and going of Him.
    May His passage cleanse the world.
    May He keep the world for His people.”

    Bi La Kaifa.

    Not that I’m a fan, or anything.

    I take it back. The Shrike is not my favorite. It’s my second-favorite.

    Comment by csmaccath - December 12, 2010 8:34 am

  20. […] When I first crawled to the surface to whisper of monsters in your ears — before pinching off those delectable auricles with my first layer of incisors — I said I’d be back in a month with a lowdown on the greatest monsters from the pages of heroic fantasy, maybe even with a Top 10. […]

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  21. […] previous installment of this monstrous undertaking about how all the mere morsels who responded to my first post in the the series did little to address my actual question — which was, who are the great monster […]

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