The Monster Genre

I had an illuminating experience recently, one that allowed me to see more clearly myself as a writer. A good friend of mine sent me a copy of his new book that contains a award-winning novella and its sequel. The book is Survivor by J. F. Gonzalez. So let me say right here: J. F. Gonzalez is ten times the writer I’ll ever be. None of this is meant as criticism of this fine horror author.

Survivor is a scary book. Which is good because it’s horror and if it wasn’t scary you’d feel ripped off. JFG scared me more times than I like to admit, and worse, I still have stray thoughts every so often about the book, so the fear is still there. Why? Because everything in Survivor is possible. It’s horror based on reality. It is possible to be kidnapped. More easily than we think. It is possible to have our loved ones tortured and mutilated for the pleasure of sick individuals. That’s a grim reality.

So, here’s where the illumination comes in. I had to compare my body of horror work against Mr. Gonzalez’s masterwork. I’ve never written anything that scary. I hope I never do. I’m a monster writer, not a horror writer. I have always been one. I’ll always be one. When I watched the old Kolchak: The Night Stalker reruns it was the monster I waited for. And now, if you read my stuff, I can only hope you are having the same fun and anticipation.

Could I construct a horror tale with the terrible realities of modern life? Perhaps. Would I? I think not. Perhaps this is a symptom of writers who pen both horror and fantasy– it’s all about the monsters. I can’t recommend Mr. Gonzalez’s novel enough to fans of The Silence of the Lambs. Or the novels of Michael Slade. Buy Survivor. Enjoy it with my blessing. But I need monsters. I don’t have what it takes to stare the stark reality in the eye. I need symbolism. I need a foil, a shill to represent all those terrible things. The vampire to represent disease. Frankenstein’s Adam to represents the new soul entering a harsh world. The werewolf who might be the child worrying about the changes in puberty or the adult as he slips into old age. Monsters can explore any theme or motif.

I must follow in the footsteps of the greatest monster maker. But who is the greatest? Bram Stoker? No, he only created one, Dracula. Edgar Allan Poe then? No, he wrote great stories but created very few monsters. Le Fanu? Blackwood? William Hope Hodgson? No, it’s H. G. Wells. But you’re saying, “Wells is that Science Fiction guy.” Yes, he was, but he was also the Monster Master.

H. G. Wells’ importance as a Science Fiction writer, as a Socialist and as a predictor of technological changes is well known. He was one of the first writers to make Science and scientists the central characters in stories. His Socialist beliefs underlie all his work. His political views provide his themes: the Eloi and Morlocks are the class struggle drawn in the extreme, the Invisible Man is killed by a group of common men working together to stop a mad scientist/overlord, even the terrible Martians fall to the smallest, least significant thing on the planet, microbes. It is well known that Wells predicted tank warfare, aerial bombing and bacteriological terrorism. That are all true– it’s there in his work – but so are the monsters.

Of the sixty-three stories and ten or so genre novels, seventy three works total, about a third of them have actual monsters, and many others contain humans who are not much less than horrible creatures such as madmen and anarchists. To further show Wells’ influence on monster making, you can look to Jan Stacy and Ryder Syvertsen’s The Great Book of Movie Monsters (Contemporary Books Inc, 1983). This tome contains two hundred and thirty five monster films from the early silent monsters to the first Alien film. Of those two hundred and thirty five, seventy-five (a third!) are directly or indirectly influenced by Wells. (Compare this to Jules Verne’s paltry twelve. With the exception of the Giant Squid and dinosaurs inside the Earth what monsters did Verne give the world?)

Wells was not only a monster-maker, but also a creative one. Take any pulp era superstar like Robert Bloch or Seabury Quinn and look at their prodigious output: a continuous stream of vampires, werewolves and such. Bloch was a monster writer too (and a good one—he did give us Norman Bates) but creating new and startling creatures was not his forte. Wells had the knack. He could take ordinary animals such as the ant, spider, chicken or even a flower and make them sinister and exciting. He did this using a number of ways.

1) Wells changes the behavior of an ordinary thing. The army ant is well known as a jungle creature that clears away vast areas then moves on. In “Empire of the Ants” they don’t leave. They stay and guard their territory with poisonous weapons. The spiders in “The Valley of the Spiders” are more like ants, working together in a cooperative manner. In “The Sea-Raiders”, cephalopods rise from the sea to become killer squids. “In the Avu Observatory” has a giant bat seems like a flying, killer shadow. “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” tells of a blood-sucking plant and is imitated by dozens of writers afterwards. Blind men seem grotesque and evil in “The Country of the Blind”. All these natural creatures deviate from their usual behavior and become dangerous monsters.

2) Wells changes the physical characteristics of an ordinary thing. In The Food of the Gods, an ordinary chicken becomes a menace when it is changed to the size of a house. There is nothing too frightening about a madman (serial killers aside) until he becomes invisible as in The Invisible Man. A lion or tiger might be a normal danger until Dr. Moreau turns them into men. In “The Plattner Story” a man is transported into a dimension outside our own, where he encounters strange creatures. The ordinary becomes monstrous as it mutates into something else, something evil.

3) Wells changes the landscape of our ordinary world. The War of the Worlds works so brilliantly because Wells takes a place familiar to his British readers, London, and changes it into a morbid, alien landscape, vaguely familiar but askew. In “The Time Machine” he shows our world transformed by time, first into the garden-world of the Eloi and later as the sun grows old into a beach for crab-like things. In “The Country of the Blind” he shows us an alternate reality in which sight is of no consequence. The world becomes grotesque when Wells tricks us into seeing the world in a new way.

“The Monster Genre” as I like to call it, has its supporters. To some, shows like Lost in Space, The Twilight Zone, or The Outer Limits are life’s blood. While others have derisively called them “Monster of the Week” shows. My reply: “Of course, what else could you possibly want?” (I mean, really, don’t you prefer the salt-sucker episode of Star Trek to those stupid Tribbles? Sorry, David.)

To some the Monster Genre is a lesser cousin to “pure horror”. This may be true—I would hate to guess. All I can say is a novel like Fear by L. Ron Hubbard (in which no monsters exist or appear) is of less interest to me than the worst sort of monster novel.

Forrest J. Ackerman of Famous Monsters of Filmland would no doubt agree with me (as might Carl Jung) that monsters solidify the excitement of the SF/F/H genres. The recent popularity of serial killer books and films after the mega-success of The Silence of the Lambs have bridged the monster genre to the Mystery/Police Procedural, in which the serial killer transcends the mere criminal to monster status. This shows how adaptable the Monster Genre is. The Weird Western and Supernatural Romance are just two new and popular sub-genres. Somehow the publishers never seem to realize that all they need to do is label their books “MONSTER”.