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Mind-bending Monsters in Literature

By Chelsea Bennett, Reference Department

It’s October, and what better time of year to pick out a book that will give you the creeps? Today we’re going to look at five works of fiction that feature terrifying creatures. (Sticklers may feel that some of these descriptions contain spoilers, but I’ve tried not to include any details that aren’t already well-known by horror buffs or pop culture aficionados.)

When it comes to monsters, what frightens me most is a sense of inevitability. A monster doesn’t have to be hideous or enormous to cause you to lose control: think the fatal allure of Dracula, or the overwhelming numbers of a zombie invasion. And what about a creature that can cause you to descend into madness, living — perhaps eternally — after having lost the essence of who you are?

“The Call of Cthulhu”

“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

“Cthulhu and the Ninth Wave,” by DeviantArt user “fantasio.”

One creature with such terrifying powers is Cthulhu, first introduced in horror writer H. P. Lovecraft‘s short story “The Call of Cthulhu.” Portrayed as an ancient, dead-but-waiting god, his giant form a strange combination of octopus, bat, and human, Cthulhu embodies a powerful evil. One look at him will drive anyone insane, simply because the human mind cannot comprehend such terror. Unsurprisingly, he is a favorite subject of death metal bands! And you poetry scholars might recognize that Lovecraft seems to have been inspired by Tennyson’s sonnet, “The Kraken.”

Lovecraft’s knack for capturing dread has inspired an entire genre known as “Lovecraftian horror,” described by Wikipedia as “a subgenre of horror fiction that emphasizes the cosmic horror of the unknown (and in some cases, unknowable) more than gore or other elements of shock.”

The Hound of the Baskervilles

“I sprang to my feet, my inert hand grasping my pistol, my mind paralyzed by the dreadful shape which had sprung out upon us from the shadows of the fog.”


“The Hound of the Baskervilles,” by Adam Burke.

Sherlockian scholars consider this Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s perfect novel. The tale has been adapted, riffed on, referenced, and parodied dozens of times, taking new forms in every kind of media, including comic books, plays, radio dramas, video games, and more.

How has this story stood the test of time? Sherlock Holmes is, of course, one of literature’s most fascinating characters. But the spectral hound is the real draw. Tied to local legend and a family curse spanning generations, it is an unearthly beast that glows in the dark, pursuing members of the Baskerville family across the moors until they drop dead from fright. But the hound leaves the dead bodies alone. Therefore, the beast doesn’t hunt for food, making its motives inscrutable, but undeniably evil.

Life on the moor is full of secrets and intrigue, both stimulating Sherlock Holmes’ mind and hampering his investigation. Holmes, a man of science, remains skeptical about the supernatural hound’s existence, but he can deny neither the enormous paw prints left in the sodden ground, nor the chilling howls heard in the night. Doyle perfectly paces this novel, increasing the suspense until the climactic moment: the terrifying appearance of the hound!

“The Birds”

“Then he saw them. The gulls. Out there, riding the seas. What he had thought at first to be the white caps of the waves were gulls. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands…”

Book cover for Pan Books edition of The Birds and Other Stories, artist uncredited.

You’re probably aware of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film The Birds, but did you know he based it on a short story by Daphne du Maurier? While not a “monster story,” this is one of my favorite works of suspense. For me, the premise is all the more terrifying for being within the realm of possibility, especially as we see a growing occurrence of natural disasters in real life.

In remote, rugged Cornwall, a wounded war veteran named Nat becomes increasingly aware of flocks of restless birds. The flocks increase in number, and the birds grow more violent and daring. At first, Nat attributes this behavior to the unusual weather, but takes the threat more seriously than do his neighbors. Soon, however, the entire country is under siege, and it’s no longer safe to go outdoors. The tension mounts beautifully, as the narrator gradually comes to understand the enormity of the event: the birds are inescapable, and this isn’t a fight he can fight alone.

What I love most about this short story, as opposed to the film version, is how it activates my imagination. (The same could be said for every good book, I suppose.) Visualizing the growing threat, the brutal attacks, and the despair of the survivors leaves me breathless and full of adrenaline.

Bird Box

“It’s better to face madness with a plan than to sit still and let it take you in pieces.”

Promo photo for Bird Box, from Harper Collins Canada.

For a more modern look at the toll horror takes on a human mind, we turn to Bird Box, Josh Malerman‘s debut novel. No one can say what the creatures in this story look like, because anyone who glimpses them is driven to immediate, deadly violence, culminating in suicide. The victims lose their minds, as well as their humanity, before losing their own lives. A mother and her young children have survived by covering the windows in their isolated house, and learning to navigate blindfolded when they go outside. Now, they are driven to leave their home behind, and they set out on a blindfolded quest to find other survivors. Who can they trust? And what is following them?

Be warned: this intense novel doesn’t shy away from the disturbing, graphic descriptions of the victims’ deaths.

IT

“Want a balloon?”

Tim Curry as Pennywise in ABC’s 1990 miniseries, IT. Owned by Warner Bros.; photographer unknown.

When you think “scary clown,” you probably picture Pennywise, the creature Tim Curry played in the 1990 TV adaptation of Stephen King‘s novel, It. The thought of a creepy guy in white makeup who wants to eat children is sufficiently scary for most people, but IT is more than that: the clown is only one of the forms IT takes.

Ancient, malevolent, and powerful, IT comes from an unknown dimension. It lies slumbering until atrocious acts of human violence awaken it (unfortunately, this happens fairly regularly). When it comes to earth to feed, IT can take the shape of anything it chooses, in order to lure its victims. Sometimes IT appears as a victim’s loved one; other times, IT appears as a victim’s worst fear. But, as with Cthulhu, if a person were to see IT’s true form, the absolute horror would so baffle his mind, that he would go insane.

In 2015, British costume company MorphCostumes voted Pennywise the scariest creature in literature. The clown trumped Dracula, The Lord of the Rings’ Nazgûl, and Harry Potter’s Dementors, among other classic horror standards, based on “appearance, powers, and evil intent.”

 

Did your favorite creature make my list? Leave a comment below! And if you’re looking for history on some of the most famous undead creatures, check out this blog post from last year, “How Monsters Are Born,” by reference librarian Sharon Reily.

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