In recent years certain horror monsters such as zombies and vampires have become so familiar that they’ve lost a lot of their impact. So where do we go from here? Fantasy author Desirina Boskovich points to the nameless creature from It Follows as an example of a fresh and original monster.
“I think it’s one of the best horror movies I’ve seen,” Boskovich says in Episode 229 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It’s really creepy and unsettling.”
Fiction editors John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen are also fond of more distinctive monsters. In their recent horror anthology What the #@&% Is That?, the characters are confronted by some truly bizarre creatures. A cover painting by Mike Mignola, which features some sort of tentacled broccoli monster, sets the tone for the book.
“I never actually had a chance to ask him what it was,” Cohen says. “But I do think it’s very appropriate to the cover, because you look at it and you say, ‘What the hell is that?’”
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley agrees that our relationship to monsters changes dramatically as they become more and more familiar.
“There does seem to be kind of a life cycle of horror monsters,” he says, “where it starts out and you don’t know how they work, and it’s scary. And then there are a couple of movies or whatever, and now you do know how they work, and there’s this familiar affection for them, and recognition. And then the story starts being told from their point of view, and now it’s sympathetic. And then you start having sex with them.”
But horror author John Langan says that any monster can be made scary again with the right approach.
“I think you could take the most cliched, the most hackneyed monster, whatever it is,” he says, “and I don’t know if that would be a vampire at this point, because they certainly seem to have been done to death. But you could take that and you could, I think, make that as frightening to a reader as ever, if it’s a vividly realized world and a vividly realized set of characters.”
Listen to our complete interview with Desirina Boskovich, Douglas Cohen, John Joseph Adams, and John Langan in Episode 229 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
John Joseph Adams on Seanan McGuire:
“Seanan McGuire’s story is called ‘#connollyhouse #weshouldntbehere,’ and as you might guess from that it’s a story told in tweets. It’s about this ghost-hunting team—they’re kind of like a reality show where they go visit a haunted house—and the story is told on their Twitter feed as they’re going on one of these expeditions. … Obviously telling the story in a series of tweets can kind of feel like a gimmick, but then again the whole concept of this anthology is kind of a gimmick. But in Seanan’s case, and in the anthology as a whole, we managed to make it transcend the gimmickry of the idea. So although Seanan started in that place, she really took it to somewhere else that made it all worthwhile and turned it into a real story.”
“About five years ago Laird and I were at a reading in Providence, and Brian Evenson was teaching at Brown at the time, and so he came to the reading, and afterwards we all went out to dinner. … Laird said [to him], ‘So I understand you wrote a story about me?’ And Brian suddenly got really nervous, because Laird was just completely deadpan, and Brian said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I did. Gee, I hope that was OK?’ And Laird very deliberately put his cutlery down and turned to him and said, ‘Well actually Brian, actually it wasn’t.’ And Evenson went just ghost white, and then Laird laughed and said, ‘No it was fine, it was a great story.’ But he said to me afterwards, he said, ‘This calls for a response.’ So all I can say is that Brian wrote a book called Immobility, and any resemblance between the character in Laird’s story ‘Mobility’ and Brian Evenson is completely specious, and Brian should not be contacting his lawyers anytime soon.”
Douglas Cohen on monsters in fantasy & science fiction:
“I also thought of a few [examples] that qualify as horrific moments where it wasn’t really horror, like in A Clash of Kings when Melisandre gives birth to the shadow baby, the whole time I’m reading that I’m just saying, ‘What the bleeping bleep? What the bleeping bleep?’ … So sometimes these ‘What the bleep?’ moments can find their way into an epic fantasy—or I always thought of the Shrike in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos as a ‘What the bleep?’ kind of creature. It seems like something out of an Edgar Allan Poe nightmare. It’s this eight-foot creature of spikes and chrome, it has these abilities, but you don’t really know what it is for a very long time, and you don’t know what its agenda is.”
Desirina Boskovich on The Ruins:
“These young college students go to visit these ruins, I think somewhere maybe in rural Mexico, and then they get trapped on this hill where there’s this malicious vine, which I guess is probably some sort of alien creature. … The vine does obey rules, because it can only get people who are on this hill with it, but then once they’ve fallen into that trap of those rules, you kind of know how it’s going to end. But I just found that so scary and so suspenseful, just reading and reading and dreading what was going to happen. In part it works because the characters aren’t very likable, so you kind of just enjoy seeing the bad stuff happen to them.”