Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
In Writing Monsters, Philip Athans offers a number of definitions, his own and those of others, to suggest that the concept is fluid and open, at least to some extent, to individual writers' interpretation:
A monster is something alive and uniquely strange that we instinctively fear.—Alan Dean Foster
[A monster is] inhuman, it's animate, and it wants to destroy you. Many monsters are supernatural or [act] outside the norms of nature in some way, but that's not always necessary.—Richard Baker
A monster is something that is frightening because it is inhuman . . . . It may be incomprehensible.—Martin J. Dougherty
A monster is a species that is neither a part of the civilization of sentient people [n]or among the ranks of mundane flora and fauna,” and a monster is “scary.”—Philip Athans
Later, Athans, who often exemplifies the concept by reference to such animals as slugs, sharks, and lobsters describes them as as-yet-undiscovered animals.
He also suggests that the effect of monsters can be heightened by relating them to fears or phobias common, if not universal, to human beings, such as arachnophobia (fear of spiders), social phobia (fear of a hostile audience), pteromerhanophobia (fear of flying), agoraphobia (fear of the inability to escape), claustrophobia (the fear of enclosed spaces), acrophobia (the fear of heights), emetophobia (the fear of vomit or of vomiting), carcinophobia (the fear of cancer), astraphobia (the fear of thunder and lightning), and taphophobia (the fear of being burned alive).
Athans points out that readers know only as much about a story's monster or monsters as the author allows, and , as long as the writer is consistent with how the monster's characteristics, abilities, and behavior, readers will accept its existence within the story. It is best not to divulge too much information about the monster, he suggests, as readers will tend to “fill in the blanks” with their own ideas about the monster.
Typically, monsters, have a number of qualities, Athans says, among which are that they are frightening, mysterious, violent, predatory, amoral or immoral, uncontrollable, unpredictable, and terrifying in their appearance. Monsters usually isolate their prey, often defy humans' attempts to use technology against them, undergo some type of physical transformation, do not think like people (if they think at all), may be more intelligent than the average person, and are purposeful (they perform a task). Most monsters have otherworldly origins; they may come from outer space or hell. Others result from scientific experiments gone awry or from such natural processes as mutations of diseased states. They may come from underground, underwater, or other remote places.
Monsters may also be metaphorical. They can represent “ideas, feelings, dangers,” states of existence, the effects of bullying or greed, or any number of other real behaviors, conditions, or situations. Although Athans doesn't discuss Buffy the Vampire Slayer in this context, fans of the show are likely to know that its creator frequently made the series' monsters the metaphorical reflections of real-world problems. In the episode “Beer Bad,” for example Buffy Summers adopts the crude, almost animal-level behavior of a woman after she drinks enchanted beer. Her state of drunkenness is a metaphor for her uncivilized conduct. Likewise, in “Out of Sight,Out of Mind,” a high school student who is ignored by her peers actually becomes invisible, her invisibility a metaphor for her being neglected and unheeded. In the same way, Athans says, Godzilla is a metaphor for the atomic bomb. He is born of a test involving an underwater nuclear detonation, and he terrifies Japanese cities with his devastating radioactive breath.
Monsters introduce and sustain conflict throughout the story, but they also help characterize the human characters, showing them as tenacious, loyal, trustworthy, and as having the capacities to forgive and to join forces against a common threat. At the same time, they may exhibit self-centeredness, a capacity for exploitation, and vindictiveness.
It is important, Athans says, to provide monsters with an offense, a defense, and a “utility.” By “utility,” he means a signature behavior, such as the Blair Witch's “marking her territory [with bizarre] “stick figures” or vampires' needing to be invited into one's home.
With monsters, size is not important, as long as the monsters are frightening and have monstrous qualities and abilities.
Monsters must have a weakness or two so the human characters can kill or otherwise neutralize it. For example, vampires suck blood, can “live” for centuries, are extraordinarily strong, can turn into bats and fly, have hypnotic power, and can even levitate, but they can't abide crucifixes, sunlight, mirrors, or holy water; they have to be invited into one's home; and they can killed by being drowned or decapitated or by having a wooden stake driven through their hearts. When a monster is familiar to readers, writers must “tweak the trope,” Athans observes. An example he doesn't offer makes the point: Stephen King makes a crucifix's effect on his vampires depend on the faith of the character who wields it.
Athans suggests horror writers use the first-person or the limited third-person point of view.
Descriptions of the monster should involve as many of the five sense as possible. Readers respond best to horror stories that have visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory appeal. Only near the end of the story should the monster be fully revealed; until then, writers should rely on the other senses, providing only snapshots, instead of more detailed, glimpses of the monster so that it remains mysterious and terrifying. What a monster looks like, smells like, and feels like are often interrelated, Athans points out: “a slimy monster” is apt to “be shiny, to be heard slithering along, and to leave a trail of slime,” signs that warn people “not to touch the slimy thing.”
Use short sentences to increase pace and to suggest terror and hyperventilation, he suggests, and long sentences to reflect a character's breathlessness.
Athans also has a tip concerning the omnipresent cell phone. Isolate characters, and then banish their phones. They could have dead batteries, succumb to poor reception, get broken, or be left behind on purpose.
On Amazon, Writing Monsters has generated eighteen review. The lowest, two stars, found it a good basic guide for beginning writers, but not the manual the reviewer was seeking; he wanted a book that would guide him through the process of creating bigger (and badder?) monsters, rather than one that walks him through the process for creating them to :”exist at all.” The review is more about the reviewer's interests, unfortunately, than it is about the book that Athans actually wrote.
A middle-of the road, three-star, review found the book to generic, “a victim of its own wide-spectrum approach” that ended up being more about “how to write speculative fiction” than a “specialized work” concerned with monster-making. Perhaps this reviewer wanted less context and more hands-on material.
A five-star review reads:
Enjoyed this immensely. Great insights into the subject of monsters in fiction, their roles, suggestions on monster design, how to handle strengths vs. weaknesses, etc. I dislike zombies as monster du jure [sic] but I benefitted [sic] from the observations offered by the author who visualizes zombies as a force-of-nature, like Godzilla, with the real conflict of a zombie story between the people involved. Monsters, of course, figure into horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Notwithstanding frequent references to science fiction monsters, I believe science fiction requires some more in-depth examination of creature creation than this book can provide, [sic] however useful it may be, especially when aliens are involved. That's just a whole separate topic.. [sic] But an excellent book, [sic] I can't recommend it enough.
How would I rate Writing Monsters? It's an interesting, well-written book that offers food for thought in the creation and deployment of monsters. Perhaps a few writing exercises, at the end of each chapter, would have improved the work, but, overall, the author provides much for monster-makers to consider, the approach is easy to understand, and the book supplies solid tips. The final chapter reprints a short story, “The Unnamed,” by H. P. Lovecraft, whom Athans admires. Athans annotates the story, but his annotations do not zero in on the techniques of horror that Lovecraft uses in any detailed or comprehensive manner. This is an example of the overall criticism I have of the book: it offers a lot, but it lacks focus and detail, so it is more a survey than an analysis of monster-making. It deserves a place on one's bookshelf, as a basic guide or a series of reminders, which, unless we're Stephen King, we can all use from time to time.