Building Monsters All Day Long

When I was a kid, perhaps unsurprisingly I was addicted to books about the paranormal. Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown series? Conquered by third grade. If it had a monster on the cover, I was so there. If the title had any variation of the word “ghost” in it, chances are I read it under the covers by flashlight. Even if it was one of those cheesy “DIY magic” books, I read it. My elementary school had one – one! – book in its library about the occult, and by the time I left the only names on its little checkout card were mine and my best friend’s, alternating in two week intervals (since that was the longest time you could keep a book). Let’s not focus on how dated it makes my story to have an elementary school library with an honest-to-goodness occult book that hadn’t been burned by fundamentalist parents; let’s talk creatures.

One of the things I learned back then was that I was fascinated by monsters. I mean, I think all kids are, but I think I was fascinated on a slightly different level. I mean, they scared me, sure, but I also wanted to understand why monsters worked the way they did. For example, lots of kids thought vampires were cool – and this in their pre-sparkle days – but I wanted to know why they drank blood. What did it do for them? How did they live on it? What did it have to do with sleeping in coffins or turning into bats? And if biting you made you a vampire, why wasn’t the world overrun with bloodsuckers? I got frustrated because I read so many books that I started to realize a lot of them said basically the same thing, sometimes almost word for word. Finding a new book that actually had some new information in it became a major win for me, something that would keep me happy for days or even weeks, sorting new facts into my mental file.

Eventually I started reading books that talked about the actual superstition and folklore that these creatures came from. I think one of my teachers sent me in that direction out of concern for my unusual reading habits, figuring that it might dispel some of the allure if I learned the “truth” behind the creature stories I was so addicted to reading. (Normally I don’t ascribe such motives to my teachers, but she was, shall we say, thoroughly committed to normalcy.) If that was her plan, though, I’m afraid it only made things worse. Reading about the historical legends surrounding vampires, for instance, just opened up a whole new toolkit of fun facts about them, a lot of stuff the fictional vampires either changed or ignored. Plus, every culture that had vampire stories had variations on the legend that were pretty fascinating on their own.

When I got a little older, I discovered White Wolf Games’ World of Darkness roleplaying series, and the game changed again (pardon the pun). Here was a vision of supernatural creatures hiding in the shadows of the modern world, a concept I’d seen explored once or twice in books that I’d liked as a kid (the term “urban fantasy” wouldn’t find me for a few more years), but done on a grand scale and in a super-cool modern style.Vampires weren’t staggering corpses – they were smooth predators. Werewolves weren’t solitary slavering monsters – they were noble champions of a dying world. Wizards weren’t guys in pointy hats with a thing for long white beards – they were ordinary people who realized one day that their beliefs could actually bend reality. And so on. It was another revelation, another way to look at how monsters might interact with the world, and I jumped in headfirst.

Years later still, I’m still soaking up everything I can find about monsters. I’m a hopeless sucker for any TV show about the paranormal – except psychic mediums, because I have Houdini’s contempt for predators of human misery – and my wife delights in dropping the occasional book about monsters in my lap if it looks like it might have some neat new tidbits in it. My friends bring back books of local legends when they travel, knowing the regional stuff is a treat. I design monsters too, from time to time – it’s what I consider one of the biggest perks of being a sci-fi/horror writer. There’s an art to a well-designed creature that absolutely fascinates me, and while I’m no master, I’m an enthusiastic practitioner. There are so many elements to balance: origins, motives, capabilities, ecology, weaknesses, etc.

Sometimes I stop and wonder what normal people do with their time.

I hope it’s as fun as making monsters.

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One response

  1. Danicia

    I grok. I love reading/hearing about the folklore & history on /how/ a monster came about. Monster does X. But WHY does monster do X? Why does monster live X and not Y? All questions many couldn’t or did not want to answer.

    I’m a huge fan of finding the stories that make up a culture.

    October 22, 2011 at 5:22 pm

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