Monsters and our lack of them.

.matthew.

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Another thread got me thinking about ancient myths and how my favourites often featured monsters, which led me down the rabbit hole of what it means to be monstrous.

I’m struggling to find monsters in modern fiction that I’d define as such. You have your vampires and werewolves, but they seem more like comic book villains compared to the unique creatures of myth, the true monsters who instead of hiding in the shadows, preyed on towns and villages and were feared by all. These creatures could not be defeated by mere force, and always required a hero to rise, an odyssey to be embarked on, or a great sacrifice to be made.

Urban fantasy often has nods to these entities but even then, the power of the magic users or the sheer number of different creatures in those worlds make the monsters far less of a threat, and in my view, almost dismiss them as monstrous altogether. When you consider the technology and military capability of the real world, our strength now would easily be enough to put down Medusa or the Minotaur. It makes me wonder if there is a place in the modern world for monsters at all.

So, in this spirit I ask for your favourite monsters, and pose the question as to why modern fantasy shies away from them in favour of quantity over quality.
 

CupofJoe

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That reminds me of the BtVS episode, The Judge. The Big Bad [aka The Judge] makes a comment along the lines that no weapon forged by man can kill him... and then Buffy fires up an RPG. Cue Judge in constructor set sized pieces...
Things move on. the monsters of myth and legend came from a time when safety was as far as the firelight reached in the dark. They weren't meant for C21.
Maybe we need to think up new things/creatures that can have the same personal effect on us... Or don't have the same physical presence. How about a creature that acts like a corporation. Has the power and reach of Apple or Alphabet but not in a physical form. What if it wrote all Google's to hide's its existence but to favour its aims.
 

tinkerdan

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I think that these myths these monster are described so horribly that they couldn't be missed; however the underlying reason is that their horrid nature is used to bring to mind their acts. The reason for this is that it helps people recognize the horrible deeds so that they can better recognize those deeds when they are perpetrated by something, someone that looks as normal as everyone else.
There have always been monsters amongst us. Our best way to keep them in check is to demonstrate their action. In the past we relied heavily on using the actions of some frightening creature of imagination to highlight the acts. These days we have enough monsters from our headlines to fill that role.
 

Extollager

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Hmmm, monsters. Here are some thoughts....

1.Etymologically, the word suggests a divine portent or warning. "Monster" shares a root with "monition" (a warning) and even "Monitor" (one who warns). "Monster" often suggests something huge, savage, misshapen, like the chimera.

An instance that may get at the combination of warning, portent, and hideousness, could be the account that circulated in colonial New England about the prophetess Ann Hutchinson. It was said that she gave birth to a horrible spawn, and this was a judgment upon her.

2.Monsters are monstrous because they violate our experience of nature. If you stop and think about it, for people living in most parts of the world, nature has been something beautiful. It may have its harsh and even deadly aspects, but hardly any or no simply ugly ones. Nearly any bird, mammal, reptile, flower, tree, etc. is pleasing to the eye. One might be afraid of it because it behaves in an alarming way or because one has learned it is dangerous. But almost no living thing is simply ugly. Even the "ugly" ones, like toads, may possess a humorous charm. Of course, if they are diseased, or dead and decaying, they may be ugly enough. But as walkers in natural areas know, one doesn't usually see a lot of dead animals. They get cleaned up by foragers, bacteria, etc. Perhaps one is more likely to see dead animals in urban environments where there are fewer animals around to clean up dead ones. To find ugly living things, one has to look for them: certain insects, spiders, &c. may appear ugly. But outside fantasy, these creatures are small, even tiny.

So a monster is a "prodigy," something very exceptional, to cite another association of the word.

3.There've been monsters in popular movies over the past 45 years or so, but they have often been conceived of not simply as monstrous but as disgusting. The Greeks didn't need to make the chimera slimy. Similarly, the recent monsters are associated with blood, dismemberment, and so on. While some people find that cool, many don't want to be shown such scenes. To reach the audience that does, movie makers may become imitative and competitive in going for the gross. To the extent that that happens, monsters become inhabitants of a niche market.

4.Yet mythological monsters had a wider appeal. They were features of tales of marvels, for which there has been, I suppose, a near-universal appeal. So I would say that monsters in the traditional sense need to be considered in the context of the wonder-tale. It, in turn, I suspect relates to the experience of nature.

“I have seen landscapes...which, under a particular light, made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge. Nature has that in her which compels us to invent giants: and only giants will do.” -- C. S. Lewis
 
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Star-child

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Maybe the reality of alien creatures in SF has made monsters in a fantasy world seem pointless - there is nothing in a fantasy that can't be defeated. SF matches monsters up against the limitations of real human ingenuity, so there is more perceived jeopardy. So the troll or kraken have given way to the Thing and Alien and the Body Snatchers - creatures that don't just stomp on Greeks but invade human biology with their violent reproductive systems. The sciency monster is just far more disturbing and visceral than the fantasy magic creature existing in a magical world.
 

tegeus-Cromis

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Lovecraft doesn't count?

BTW, @Extollager , "monster" is also etymologically related to the French word "montrer," to show, which used to be spelled "monstrer." A monster was precisely that which you show, you point at -- same as, in English, a freak.
 

Extollager

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Lovecraft doesn't count?

BTW, @Extollager , "monster" is also etymologically related to the French word "montrer," to show, which used to be spelled "monstrer." A monster was precisely that which you show, you point at -- same as, in English, a freak.
Hence, I take it, “demonstrate,” etc.
 

Bick

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Maybe the reality of alien creatures in SF has made monsters in a fantasy world seem pointless - there is nothing in a fantasy that can't be defeated. SF matches monsters up against the limitations of real human ingenuity, so there is more perceived jeopardy. So the troll or kraken have given way to the Thing and Alien and the Body Snatchers - creatures that don't just stomp on Greeks but invade human biology with their violent reproductive systems. The sciency monster is just far more disturbing and visceral than the fantasy magic creature existing in a magical world.
Newt: My mommy always said there were no monsters - no real ones - but there are.
Ripley: Yes, there are, aren't there.
 

.matthew.

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I think Alien is a fantastic example of a monster, though far more in the horror genre than sci-fi or fantasy. Horror seems to be the only place where you can find them these days, and I find myself wanting some monster slaying fantasy... or at least monster adjacent "Ye can't go there traveller, thems the Hydra's lands."
 

Ray Zdybrow

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The monstrance, a device used in the Catholic Church to display the host, always used to make me think of an alien ruler off Doctor Who - "All hail the Monstrance!"
 

Star-child

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I think Alien is a fantastic example of a monster, though far more in the horror genre than sci-fi or fantasy. Horror seems to be the only place where you can find them these days, and I find myself wanting some monster slaying fantasy... or at least monster adjacent "Ye can't go there traveller, thems the Hydra's lands."
I think there's a difference between fantasy/horror supernatural monsters and those that leverage the realism of biology. So Alien may be horror, but it is grounded in our reality. The same reality as Ebola, lampreys and zombie ants.
 

Toby Frost

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I think a lot of it depends on what monsters are for in a story. In myths, they had a lot of roles, and were sometimes just there to be picturesque, but often were a guardian or watchdog to be overcome in order to complete a quest. In medieval bestiaries, creatures were often included to teach a Biblical lesson. More modern monsters are like hordes bad people - zombies work as a metaphor for most bad things, and Tolkien's orcs function like bad, crude men that it's morally ok to kill, rather like Germans in an old war film. Which brings us onto the depressing point that humans make the worst, and best villains.

(I'm pretty sure that a French writer once said that the monsters of Science Fiction were humans at their worst. Sartre maybe?)

William Gibson created a couple of excellent monsters in the Sprawl trilogy: the billionaire Virek, who appears as a healthy-looking hologram but is actually a cancerous blob trying to achieve immortality, and the decadent clone 3Jane and her almost-android bodyguard Hideo. They fit the setting: they're vastly wealthy and allowed to develop their monsterish characteristics unchecked, and are almost inhuman behind a facade of polished normality and sophistication.
 

.matthew.

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Yes, people make good villains, but maybe I'm just looking for a simpler beast.
 

Ashley R

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Monsters speak to the current fears of society: Dracula as a metaphor for syphilis.

So new monsters would reflect the current zeitgeist. Perhaps consumerism or disease reimagined for the 21st Century to make new monsters?
 

Toby Frost

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Would zombies could for both of those? Although zombies are a bit tired these days.
 

KGeo777

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This is a bit rambling but...
I think Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson before him hit the nerve of alien horror--a Nature beyond human comprehension which suggested not only alien anatomy but alien intelligence which could only be regarded as evil because it had no desire to connect with human life. Satan at least is part of the God plan, while a Lovecraftian monster is completely outside of religion and traditional nature. And humanity is helpless against it. There's no missile to defeat the Old Ones.

From my classical education period I recall the Greeks considered two things really unattractive, thick lips and an upturned nose. Some illustrations of monsters in their art have those characteristics.

Whales and sharks were regarded as monsters--although the book Jaws does not present the shark as a senseless monster like the movie--and the sequel novel Jaws 2 is very sympathetic to the shark.

Interesting thing between the Alien and Predator--the alien remains a dangerous monster (I haven't seen the more recent films though). The predator however became something other than a monster almost immediately. From Predator 2 (this might have been due to politics-they could not kill the Danny Glover character, and there was no way to get him out of the spaceship-so the only thing left was that he was spared due to some predator hunter nobility--which reached complete absurdity in the A v P comics and first AvP film. The scene with a predator and the woman running down a corridor together to fight aliens. LOL. Far cry form the predator in the first film laughing as the wrist bomb counts down.

Not to mention, in the AvP universe, the predators were responsible for breeding the aliens for hunting so who was the greater monster? Sigourney Weaver said if she had to choose between aliens or predators, she preferred the aliens win!
I think it would have been better if the predators encountered the aliens for the first time, not as the comic and movies suggested.

I don't think Hollywood has much interest in exploring the cool scariness of monsters right now
But even back in the 1930s, King Kong went from scary monster to sympathetic monster by the end of the movie.
Godzilla became a hero.
The Universal horror films--the monsters were the stars and usually sympathetic. You aren't supposed to be happy that the Wolf Man is killed.
In the Hammer Dracula films, although Dracula is clearly evil, his death scenes were usually done in a way that showed his anguish (although I never sympathized with him).
If monsters stick around long enough, they get invited into the house for tea and biscuits.
 

Karn's Return

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Another thread got me thinking about ancient myths and how my favourites often featured monsters, which led me down the rabbit hole of what it means to be monstrous.

I’m struggling to find monsters in modern fiction that I’d define as such. You have your vampires and werewolves, but they seem more like comic book villains compared to the unique creatures of myth, the true monsters who instead of hiding in the shadows, preyed on towns and villages and were feared by all. These creatures could not be defeated by mere force, and always required a hero to rise, an odyssey to be embarked on, or a great sacrifice to be made.

Urban fantasy often has nods to these entities but even then, the power of the magic users or the sheer number of different creatures in those worlds make the monsters far less of a threat, and in my view, almost dismiss them as monstrous altogether. When you consider the technology and military capability of the real world, our strength now would easily be enough to put down Medusa or the Minotaur. It makes me wonder if there is a place in the modern world for monsters at all.

So, in this spirit I ask for your favourite monsters, and pose the question as to why modern fantasy shies away from them in favour of quantity over quality.


Sadly, it's because the idea of traveling being life threatening isn't really relatable anymore, I think. We can go across the world safely upon jets in a matter of hours, whereas in the past, before the rise of modern airports and such, long distance travelers were putting their lives in the hands of all sorts of threats, such as bandits, injury, disease, weather, etc.


My favorite "monsters", so to speak, are dragons and branching out a bit with the undead. (As in, incorporeal undead like wraiths, specters, and various other spirit monsters.) Zombies and vampires have not only all been far overdone at this point, they've been corrupted from mythology. (Mythology in general has been greatly corrupted, I'm afraid. I blame Hollywood for that.)


Sadly, epic, long journey quest fantasy in a foreign world of magic, wonder, and monsters seems to be dead and buried, it seems to me. Everyone these days wants more crap like ASoIaF or Harry Potter, World War Z, stuff like that.* I would like to imagine JRR Tolkein would be spinning in his grave if he knew what became of the fantasy genre today.



*To note, these are my simple opinions on these matters, you may have different views, and that is fine.
 

.matthew.

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*To note, these are my simple opinions on these matters, you may have different views, and that is fine.
This is what I was trying to get at

Sadly, it's because the idea of traveling being life threatening isn't really relatable anymore, I think. We can go across the world safely upon jets in a matter of hours, whereas in the past, before the rise of modern airports and such, long distance travelers were putting their lives in the hands of all sorts of threats, such as bandits, injury, disease, weather, etc.
I'd like to read some world building with true monsters again, which considering fantasy books are often set in these sorts of times is surprisingly harder to find than I'd imagine. I suppose even in fantasy our perception of danger is influenced by the real world.
 

Toby Frost

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The thing is, nobody believes in supernatural monsters anymore, except perhaps those religious people who believe in the Devil in a literal way and people who believe in the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, alien abductions and so on. Even in films like Alien and The Thing, nobody believes in these creatures until they meet them. On the other hand, there was no reason for a medieval person not to believe that, somewhere or other, there were sea monsters and dragons. So that widespread level of belief in the daily occurrence of the supernatural (often with a flip side of divine intervention) doesn't really exist now, and hence folklore-type monsters can't really survive.
 
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