Truth and Monsters

Good news: Monsters are back.

There’s a new book out now by historian Leo Braudy tracing modern storytelling’s affair with monsters of all stripes, and a new movie titled simply, A Monster Calls. FX has ordered an eighth and ninth season of American Horror Story, which embraces the whole monster community. At the movies, we seem to finally be parting company with a long cycle of sexy vampires and hipster zombies, and turning to artisanal micro-brew monsters like M. Night Shyamalan’s new villain, a serial killer with no less than 23 personalities.

Why now? Why not now? The novelist Pat Conroy, whose literary fiction about dysfunctional families was based heavily on his own, used to say he wrote to name his demons, which helped wrangle them into submission.

And you don’t have to look for those kind of monsters, chances are they will come looking for you.

Helpfully, Leo Braudy’s new book lays out a guide to the four major monster types:

  • Monsters From Nature — Like volcanic eruptions and typhoons, killers can spring with no warning from the environment we live in and depend on to survive.
  • Monsters of Technology — Where we exaggerate the worry that we’ll create something — be it a computer or a child — that will rise up and kills us.
  • Monsters of the Past — Sure, you think you escaped. But then that tree root just shoots up out of nowhere and flings you to the ground.
  • The Monster Within — You rip off the killer’s mask, and your own face stares back at you.

It’s a little like one of those build-your-own-teddy-bear workshops: First, choose your type. Pick whatever spooks you the most — because the best horror stories scare the pants off their authors before anyone else. Also?

You’re not done after you’ve decided between fangs or razor-claws. As Chuck Wendig says, “Don’t just dump a bucket of blood on our head and expect us to slurp it up.” You still need plot, description, and three-dimensional characters, and that’s especially true for the monster.

According to Gotham’s resident Monster Whisperer, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writing teacher J.S. Breukelaar,we must resist the temptation to over-describe. As with any effective description, you should select only the most crucial grisly details, and let the reader’s inner monster do the rest.

Last, remember why we write monster stories in the first place—not only to name our demons, but to plunge a stake into them. By all means, leave your reader with a cold sweat— but don’t forget to leave them something that can’t die, something true.

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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