The best monsters are not ‘other’, or ‘different’, or ‘damaged’, but those that exploit our fears and our own flaws. The creatures that make us think of death, loss, drastic unasked for change, loss of control, irreparable damage.
Both science fiction and horror address these things, often using the monster as a way in. Science fiction monsters are based in a form of reality. They could almost be true, given circumstances. Horror monsters are dark, unflinching, nightmarish, unthinking, immoral, terrifying.
These things can be stronger if drawn together.
Classic horror monsters include Joe R Lansdale’s Folding Man from “The Folding Man” short story; Jeffrey Ford’s Daddy Long Legs in the Evening from the story of the same name, and of course Stephen King’s Pennywise. All three of these creations tap into our deepest fears, and explore what it is to be changed by them.
Classic SF monsters for me include the aliens in HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, those bloody sandworms in Frank Herbert’s Dune, Peter Watts’ evolved vampire in Blindsight and Simon Kress, the utterly awful ‘animal lover’ in George R R Martin’s “Sandkings” novella.
Monsters are particularly important in both sf and horror, genres in which we investigate human behaviour and motivations, look at why people do the things they do, and try to imagine what will happen if they keep doing them. Fears are there to be explored and exploited: In Jeffrey Ford’s story, where a young boy is taken over by a monster, Ford looks at the terror of losing control, being made to do things that fill us with grief and guilt. The best of these stories draw us in so that we almost understand what it’s like to be monstrous. Grimdark Magazine’s anthology Evil is a Matter of Perspective has just this as a theme: all the stories are from the point of view of so-called evil, in the hope of understanding why bad things happen.
Almost every story I’ve written has a monster. I sure can’t seem to write a story that isn’t full of monstrous behaviour. I’m just going to talk about the literal monsters here, not the human ones. About how using elements of science and research helped me make the horror stronger.
In “Working for the God of the Love of Money”, my story about a god who survives on the greed of others and protects himself with armour made from stolen coins, I looked at the science of melting metals and at the history of the metals in coins. Silver has a melting point of 961 celcius, whereas copper melts at 1085 celcius. Given our Australian dollar coins are 92 percent copper, this helped develop the nature of my heat-loving monster.
“His Lipstick Minx” is futuristic, set on an imagined oil drilling rig. The minxes are tiny women, monsters in their own way, but so are the workers who keep them as pets. I researched this by reading online forums, where rig workers talked about their traumas and their daily routines in the same matter of fact way. It helped me step into this awful possible future in a more natural way, and make my monsters believable in context.
“Dead Sea Fruit” is science-fictional in that it looks at the worst case scenario of eating disorders. It imagines a man whose kiss makes everything you eat taste of ash, and young girls seek him out, wanting never to eat again. Research for this story took me to some very dark places. I looked at long term affects of poor diet, and at causes of a lack of appetite. I wanted that element of it to ring true.
“In the Drawback” was inspired by way the tide draws back before a tsunami, and is set in a post-climate change world. While I don’t explore that part of it, I do provide a monster in the form of a giant, drowned with his mouth sewn shut.
“The Coral Gatherer” is about a lonely woman who builds a lover out of coral. I was fascinated to learn that coral can be used for bone grafts, because the make-up of the two things is similar.
For “Winter Sweet, Winter Grieve”, my story in a recent issue of Grimdark Magazine, I wanted to capture the feel of a fairy tale gone bad. So this giant living underground, collecting the bones of his victims is more fantasy than science fiction, but that merging of two genres can work as well, I think.
In the end, Horror shouldn’t ever be limited by constraining concepts of what it is. If it makes you feel bad, then it’s horror, whether it’s set on a spaceship or a haunted house. It’s important to allow elements of all genres to creep in if they need to, and I mean romance as well, and certainly crime. Stories should be layered so that we’re not telling them in a shallow way, but looking beneath the surface to find the rocks and murk and maybe even treasure below.