Monsters and Mayhem

In the swampland of darkest Denmark, a demon stirs. Its baleful eyes glow with malevolent light; its heart set on evil intent.

The monster storms the great mead hall, Heorot, ripping the door from its hinges. It tears one unfortunate limb from limb, devouring him ‘in huge mouthfuls, greedily gulping. In no time he has eaten him all, even the hands and feet.’

This demon stands impervious to ordinary swords. Only might — and a true heart — can defeat it. And only one man possesses such strength. Beowulf, the great hero of the Geats. A great fight ensues, and this monstrous demon is unable to shake his enemy’s grasp

The monster, Grendel, is the main antagonist in the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Written around the turn of the first millennium, it is one of the oldest surviving long-form poems. It tells the tale of Beowulf’s battles against Grendel, Grendel’ vengeful mother, and then, finally, a fearsome dragon.

A History Full of Monsters
 Consider the Mesopotamian demon, Pazuzu (who shows up, somewhat implausibly, in the ‘Exorcist’ novels). Or the ‘part-man, part-bull’ Minotaur of Greek mythology. We’ve noted Grendel, above. And then there are the demons of ancient Christian tradition or Yōkai of Japanese folklore.

Humankind has told stories forever, and monsters feature throughout. But why?

The monsters of speculative fiction

To answer this let’s explore ‘speculative fiction’ — that ambiguous umbrella term for a raft of various genres. Perhaps more than anywhere else, speculative fiction concerns itself with our battle against ‘the other.’

Monsters and fantasy
 Winter is coming…
This Stark warning (see what I did there?), from George RR Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’ books / TV series, advises perpetual vigilance against the White Walkers. These fabled beings possess dread power: superhuman strength, the ability to freeze anything they touch, and — in the case of their king at least — the ability to reanimate the dead.

From Tolkien’s ogres and trolls — inexplicably cockney beasts they were too — to the ‘Hermit Elephants’ of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, the fantasy genre is a fertile breeding ground for monsters and mayhem. Perhaps this is why it is so popular. What would fantasy be without the fantastical?

The monsters of Science Fiction
Science fiction, too, often concerns itself with monsters. In 1980, H.R. Giger received an Academy Award for ‘Best Achievement for Visual Effects’ for his work on Alien (directed by Ridley Scott). This nightmarish creature, lighting quick and with concentrated acid for blood, picked off the crew of the USCSS Nostromo one-by-one.

The parallels between the Giger’s Alien and Grendel seem clear. Monstrously strong. Hell-bent on carnage. In fact, ‘The Queen’ alien from James Cameron’s militaristic sequel Aliens is sometimes compared to Grendel’s mother. The legacy of this epic poem has been far reaching.

Not all monsters have claws
 The Arthur C. Clarke novel, 2001, features a monster of an entirely different kind. HAL 9000, an impeccably mannered Artificial Intelligence, pilots the spaceship ‘Discovery One’ on its secret mission to Jupiter. This super-intelligent being, unable to reconcile the conflict in its operational parameters — relay information accurately, but withhold the true purpose of the mission from the crew — malfunctions, with horrific results.

Orders are received to disconnect HAL, and the protagonists, Dave and Frank, attempt to do so. Unfortunately, Hal has other ideas (“and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen,”) and murders most of the crew in cold blood.

An appeal to pathos
 The sole survivor, Dave, manages to shut down the machine. In Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking film (the novel and the film were developed concurrently) this scene elicits an enormous amount of sympathy for the monster, despite its recent ‘poor decision making.’

No need for claws or talons here. The monstrosity of HAL is found in the cold-bloodedness of its actions. As humankind’s relationship with nature gives way to a fixation with technology, our anxieties have evolved accordingly. The Matrix, The Terminator, Metropolis, Westworld, The Stepford Wives — all feature monsters that tap into this fear.

The Monsters of Roc.. er Horror!

Of all the speculative genres, horror and monsters go together like blood and guts (or puzzle boxes and Cenobites).

Let’s take in a classic. First published in 1818, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’ tells the tale of a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, and the monster he creates. Shelley describes the creature as 8-foot-tall, hideously ugly, but sensitive and emotional. Driven to despair by loneliness and rejection, Frankenstein’s monster kills Victor’s brother, best friend, and bride (which seems a bit of an overreaction to me!)

Frankenstein’s monster, via Boris Karloff’s iconic 1930s portrayal, is now a firm fixture of popular culture. The monsters of horror often transcend the genre, becoming universally recognizable.

Vampires; werewolves; scary clowns (see last week’s post on Speculative Fiction for more on Steven King’s ‘Pennywise’); zombies; remorseless, invincible serial killers; and terrifying, Japanese ghosts — these supernatural beings inflict terror on the unsuspecting, the brave, the immoral, or the downright stupid.

Not all monsters have claws (Part 2)
Horror is not all about the supernatural. In modern-day Florence, the secretive and scholarly ‘Doctor Fell’ is enjoying life. He holds the recently vacated position of museum curator; a position made available by the suspicious disappearance of the previous incumbent. Welcome to the cultured, mannered, and utterly deranged life of Hannibal Lecter — the star attraction of Thomas Harris’s novels (and their various film / TV adaptations).

As with HAL 9000, the monstrosity of Dr. Lecter is derived from his lack of sympathy for his victims. He is a cold-blooded killer who murders for revenge, for convenience, and to punish impoliteness. A brilliant mathematician, a polyglot, and a cordon bleu cook, the contrast between Lector’s charm and poeticism with his calculating malevolence is endlessly entertaining. There is nothing supernatural about his brilliant mind or extraordinary strength, but he could be described as superhuman.

Monsters and the Psyche

The monsters of fiction are a diverse bunch, sharing only a capacity to cause mortal harm. But why write about monsters at all? At times like these, it pays to consult everybody’s favorite psychologist-cum-mystic, Carl Jung. Consider this quote:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.

And this one:

In reality, the acceptance of the shadow-side of human nature verges on the impossible. Consider for a moment what it means to grant the right of existence to what is unreasonable, senseless, and evil!

Jung, in that non-user friendly way of his, describes the human difficulty with accepting the darker elements of our psyche. Each of us carries within ‘the primitive and inferior man with his desires and emotions,’ which gives rise to a capacity for horror. This shadow an archetypal facet of our shared memory and experience; it exists beyond rational understanding.

Fractured reflections of our ‘self’
 Perhaps the monsters we envisage reflect our times — demons, werewolves, malfunctioning computers — because they express of our submerged capacity for evil deeds. Stories allow us to explore those aspects of the self that are otherwise difficult to confront.

The Banality of Evil
 Humans are capable of great kindness of course. There is a shared compassion and empathy that transcends language and culture. But, in the wrong circumstances, many are capable of great cruelty; perhaps even a ruthless disregard for life itself.

The famous Stanford Experiment, although not without its criticism, showed the moral vulnerabilities inherent to the average human being. As sci-fi author, Larry Niven likes to say, ‘society is only three meals away from anarchy.’

A Guide to the Night

There are many stories set in a post-apocalyptic world, and many of them are quite terrifying. For instance, in David Mitchell’s excellent ‘The Bone Clocks,’ as the world enters a resource-poor, civilisation-threatening period, the callous monstrosity of man’s desire to survive becomes unpleasantly clear.

If Jung is right, and we cannot easily accept our shadow self, then literature gives us a place to pick apart this side of our collective psyche.

It’s like play-fighting between lion cubs. Fun, yes, but also preparation for serious business. By testing our fears, our reactions, and our limits — perhaps we’re preparing for the day when our shadow-selves can be contained no longer.

Given the events of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road,’ let’s hope that Mitchell and co are wide of the mark in their doom-laden predictions!

A request

Thoughts? Questions? Criticisms? Recommendations? If you have anything to add, please submit your comment below. It’d be great to hear from you.

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Originally published at on October 12, 2016.