Monday, July 15, 2019

Guest Post: A Passion for Monsters By Lee Murray

A Passion for Monsters

By Lee Murray

From amorphic blob to prehistoric beasts and rampaging apes, and even the humble rat, the creature feature has become a staple of horror fiction. Just a quick look at recent films provides us with a good snapshot: there was last year’s Rampage, this year’s new Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and creature stories based on reality like Crawl, and the 47 Metres Down sequel. Whether on the screen or on the page, our interest in monsters is strongly ingrained. But where did it start? Why so much interest? Into the Mist author Lee Murray asks some of her creature-feature writer friends for their insights. 

First up is Australian Alan Baxter, co-author of Primordial, and Overlord as well as weird monster fiction like Hidden City. Always fascinated by monsters, Baxter boils our interest in monsters down to its most primal level:

“I’m a fan of creature features because the human fear of being eaten is probably one of the very oldest. It puts us at our most vulnerable.” 

Adrian J Smith writes Nicholas Sansbury Smith’s bestselling Extinction Cycle monster series, his books—Rule of ThreeThe Fourth Phase, and The Five Pillars—all set in New Zealand, a country better known for fat flightless parrots and shy little geckoes than monsters. Like Baxter, Smith also points to fear and human vulnerability as being a key attraction:

“Creature-monster fiction appeals to me because it quite often triggers that primal fear inside. The what ifs? The realisation that we might not be the apex species.”

And it seems Smith’s passion to chase that ‘what if’ emerged at an early age: 

“From the moment I read ‘Day of the Triffids’ at age 12, I knew I wanted to write weird creature fiction. To explore the human psyche. Our reactions and responses to catastrophic events. I just had to. I was obsessed.”

Fans will be pleased to learn that Smith’s obsession means there’ll be more Kiwi monster fiction coming from him soon. Fellow New Zealander Paul Mannering, who has a story in award-winning creature anthology Hellhole: An Anthology of Subterranean Terror, and who writes horror adventures for Severed Press (Hell’s Teeth, The Trench, and Eat), also discovered monster fiction at an early age. For Mannering, coming from the farm, a fascination for all things monstrous seemed ‘perfectly normal’:

“I read Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ way too young. Before I was 10 years old. The simple idea of a man become ‘monster’ was mind-blowing. I went on to read ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, and ‘War of the Worlds’ within a week of my 10th birthday (Yay ‒ books as gifts!). I also grew up with a marine biologist father, and on a farm. So physical monstrosity and body horror was something that I found myself immersed in from a young age, and it all seemed perfectly normal.

This is when I started my love of monster horror. It has continued ever since, and I find the idea of physical transformation and the thrill of discovery in a setting of the natural world to be as exciting as exploring new places and meeting new people (or things).”

Until recently, writing creature feature fiction was something writer and screenwriter Rena Mason described as being outside her comfort zone, but in May of this year she proved her talent for the genre, winning her third Bram Stoker Award for her story The Devil’s Throat, a spine-chilling tale of mutant sea cucumbers, which also appears in Hellhole: An Anthology of Subterranean Terror. Mason says she too leaned towards monsters from an early age: 

“Very early on in my childhood, the first movie I ever saw was ‘Godzilla’, my favorite show was ‘Ultraman’, and my favorite first book was ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ in which I was disappointed that the monsters didn’t eat Max.”

“I was disappointed that the monsters didn’t eat Max!” chimes in F. Paul Wilson, the bestselling author of the Repairman Jack horror-thriller series, getting right into the swing of this conversation. Wilson and his collaborator, multi-award-winning author Tom Monteleone, have lately turned their hands to corrupting our young people to monsters with their much-loved Nocturnia Chronicles, a series in which two adventuresome kids—Emma and Ryan—discover a parallel world that is the source of all our most well-known monsters, and humans are either slaves or food or both! Wilson suggests that some people are born with a penchant for monsters, at least he was, and that all that’s required to trigger a life-long love of creature feature fiction is a little inspiration…

“I’ve long believed we come out of the womb primed for certain things and I came out primed for beasties. I still remember the moment I opened the Sept. 7, 1953 issue of Life and saw my first T. Rex. I was transfixed, electrified.  All the other dinosaurs in the issue had been merely big lizards, but this…this thing with its glinty red eye was a monster. I was in love.”

Provided by the author

In fact, dinosaurs feature highly amongst the inspiration for today’s best monster-thriller writers. Tim Waggoner, another Bram Stoker winner, and author of chompy horror adventures like Blood Island and Teeth of the Sea, was also inspired by the prehistoric from an early age: 

“I fell in love with dinosaurs as a kid, too. My father would read me nonfiction books about them, and I was able to recognize their names before I could read by memorizing the shape of the words. I was fascinated by the idea that these creatures were real and that they had lived in the same place I lived now, only a long time ago. We might even occupy the same space, just at different times! That made them seem like ghosts ‒ and seeing their skeletons displayed made them seem even more like ghosts!”

All of Matt Betts’ books involve monsters in some form or another, but the only one of his titles that gets his dad’s full respect is his mega-monster horror thriller The Shadow Beneath the Waves, which Monster Dear Monster podcast described as ‘a slow-burning mixture equal parts Pacific Rim and Congo’. I wonder if Betts’ dad played a role in kindling his monstrously overactive imagination:

“The first movie I remember in a theater was Star Wars. There were plenty of fascinating creatures in that to terrify and intrigue me. What was that garbage monster, and did we have one in our trash? The first movie I remember in a drive-in. Jaws. I don’t think I need to explain what that did to my young, impressionable mind, but I will add that we had a pool in our backyard. Swimming was interesting for a few years after that!”

Perhaps what really intrigues us most is the possibility that these monsters might one day exist. A long-time scuba diver, Rena Mason’s observations of the seabed over time have convinced her that environmental pressures caused by human activity are creating changes in our fauna, a concern which, as a product of her upbringing, was already deep-set in Mason’s psyche:

I think that growing up in an Asian household/culture, there’s always been a strong focus (mainly from Japanese TV and films) on mutant animals, insects, lizards, etc. post-Hiroshima, so this affected what I viewed growing up and enjoyed into adulthood. That same thought of ‘disrespecting the planet will come back to get us’ holds true today, if not more so, in my opinion.”

But another Hellhole contributor, JH Moncrieff, author of Monsters in Our Wake and Return to Datylov Pass, believes they’re already here…

“I don’t think we’ve discovered everything there is to discover yet, and the sightings of so-called “monsters”—really just creatures we haven’t identified yet—have occurred all over the world, for hundreds of years. I like writing about creatures because I like to keep an open mind. You never know—the truth just could be out there.” 

Contributor sites:

Alan Baxter

Adrian J Smith

Paul Mannering

Rena Mason

F Paul Wilson

Tim Waggoner

Matt Betts

JH Moncrieff

Headshot of Lee Murray

Lee Murray is a double Bram Stoker Award-nominee and multi-award-winning writer and editor (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows). The author of the Taine McKenna military horror series, and several novels for children, she is co-author of the Path of Ra supernatural crime-noir series (with Dan Rabarts), and the editor of ten anthologies of dark fiction. Lee lives with her family in New Zealand where she conjures up stories from her office overlooking a cow paddock. Read more at tweets @leemurraywriter

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