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The Greatest Literary Monsters of All Time

It’s Hallowe’en! Are you as excited as we are? As you might have been able to tell from our month of blog posts, we’re pretty excited. One of the best things about Hallowe’en is the monsters, so here’s our countdown of the ten greatest monsters in classic fiction.

10. Grendel/Grendel’s Mother

The grand-dad of the European horror tradition, Grendel is the huge monster at the heart of Beowulf, which we talk about in A Short History of Fantasy Fiction in 9 Books. Heroic Beowulf boasts of how he will destroy Grendel, who raids the local mead-hall every night and eats people, but when he faces the creature, he tears off its arm and it runs away to die in a cave. Beowulf tracks the creature to its cave, only to discover that an even greater terror lurks within – Grendel’s mother, a powerful warrior who seeks revenge for the death of her son.

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Grendel and his mother might be old news in horror fiction, but they still have the capacity to creep us out. Grendel, a juggernaut of a monster, is so powerful that it surprises even Beowulf, and his mother has been depicted in many different ways over the years, as a serpent, a god-like matriarch or a shape-shifting seductress, but she always represents a power that is more cunning, and charismatic, than her son. Check out a verse translation in the BOOK ZONE at 829.3 and Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Grendel’s mother in Robert Zemeckis’ CGI adaptation from 2007 (DVD LOBBY 791.43).

9. The Other Mother

By far the most recent of our monsters, but no less scary, is the Other Mother from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. When Coraline runs away into a magical version of her world, she encounters versions of her parents, friends, and her eccentric neighbours who have black buttons for eyes and are all just a little bit wrong. At first, it seems like a delightful place where she can eat her favourite foods whenever she wants and she never argues with her parents, but she slowly starts to realise that the Other Mother wants to keep her there forever, like all the other children she’s collected over the years. That’s when the horror really starts.

The Other Mother is frightening because of how friendly she seems at first – you want to keep coming back to her world of rat circuses, animated toys and wondrous gardens, but there’s always an eerie presence that leaves something in the back of your mind screaming “Get out of there!” Of course, none of that compares to her final form…but I’ll let you find that out for yourself! Keep the lights on to read Neil Gaiman’s original novel (QUICK READS 823.91) or watch the excellent stop-motion animated film adaptation made by Henry Selick (DVD LOBBY 791.433), who also directed Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Teri Hatcher voices the Other Mother and doesn’t disappoint!

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Our literary monsters inspire plenty of costumes every Hallowe’en!

8. Morlocks

A controversial choice for a horror-themed list, the Morlocks come from H.G. Wells’ 1895 science-fiction novel The Time Machine. A brilliant inventor creates a machine to travel forward in time, but discovers a future in which a childlike people called the Eloi are attacked every night by the horrifying Morlocks, who live underground and emerge at night. It’s a classic reworking of the Grendel idea, but in The Time Machine, humanity has split into passive surface-dwellers and violent underground-dwellers. The Morlocks are, on some level, our worst selves.

Though he wrote science fiction, Wells proved himself entirely capable of terrifying his readers. The Martian Tripods from War of the Worlds destroy everything in their path with single-minded fury, only defeated by luck, and the Morlocks have all the hallmarks of a classic monster: grey-white skin, ape-like physique and glowing red eyes. Plus a really bad attitude. The idea of being trapped down in the dark with things like that…well, I guess you’ll have to read the book and find out!

7. Pennywise the Clown

Why are so many people scared of clowns? They’re most often seen in a fun comedy context or at a funfair, but the exaggerated makeup and slightly dark comedy routines make them a potentially frightening experience for young children. And then there’s the fact that since the 1980’s, people have seen the TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s novel It (BOOK ZONE 823.91), starring Tim Curry as a murderous avatar of fear who sometimes appears as a clown, and remembered it for the rest of their lives. Pennywise the Clown is so much more than just a clown – it’s an ancient evil that can transform into whatever scares you most. It torments a group of childhood friends who then return as adults to defeat it again.

Pennywise is terrifying not because it’s a clown but because it plays into our terror of monsters in storm drains stealing children, and because its grotesque appearance (brought to life wonderfully by Tim Curry) is like a grim parody of light-hearted childhood fun. It can appear anywhere, be anything, and with a film adaptation coming up in 2017, we can expect to be terrified by It all over again.

6. The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow

He might technically be a ghost or a prank, but the Headless Horseman really deserves his own entry. Not only is he awesomely creepy, a vengeful spirit who rides by night with a flaming pumpkin for a head, but he also has a fantastic look – who doesn’t like a well-dressed monster? First featured in Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman chases a schoolteacher called Ichabod Crane and the reader is left uncertain as to whether Ichabod survived or was carried off by the spirit. Or whether the whole thing was a practical joke that went too far!

 

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The Headless Horseman is a perfect rural American monster because it embodies anxieties about the isolation of settlements, the cultural melting-pot of colonial America and the tradition of creepy urban legends that continues to this day. Tim Burton’s 1999 film adaptation, Sleepy Hollow (DVD LOBBY 791.43), fleshes out the story and Christopher Walken is surely the best casting for the Headless Horseman ever. Well worth checking out for a glorious Gothic story! Find a graphic novel version in QUICK READS at 741.5973.

5. Mr Edward Hyde

Edward Hyde is a uniquely urban monster. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (BOOK ZONE 823.8), mild-mannered surgeon Dr Henry Jekyll experiments with chemicals and finds a formula that allows his inner monster to come out in the shape of Mr Hyde. However, the consequences of Mr Hyde’s actions are becoming more difficult for Dr Jekyll to avoid, and the monster is becoming less and less willing to go back in the bottle.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a fantastic tale of the chaos our unchecked impulses can wreak when we give them permission. Dr Jekyll is the perfect Victorian gentleman – polite, professional and repressed. However, Mr Hyde is our fear that lurking underneath society’s morals, there’s a beast waiting to get out. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde have influenced lots of modern stories, especially superheroes: Harvey Dent/Two-Face, one of Batman’s villains, and the Incredible Hulk have their roots in Dr Jekyll’s little experiment. Watch the classic 1931 film adaptation in the BOOK ZONE at 823.8 and read about Mr Hyde teaming up with other Victorian literary heroes to fight crime in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (BOOK ZONE 741.5942).

4. Werewolves

A monster that is often seen in both horror and paranormal romance, werewolves have been part of mythology and folklore for most of human history. Our fascination with humans who can become ravening beasts is not confined to Twilight, Shiver and Harry Potter: Marie de France, a famous writer of chivalric Romances, added Bisclavret (the Breton word for ‘werewolf’) to her ‘Lais’ – it’s the tale of a baron in Brittany who is secretly a werewolf, and is an early example of the idea of a sympathetic werewolf who doesn’t want to hurt people but is feared by society.

Both Colin Wilson and Stephen King have compared Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to a werewolf story, but while Edward Hyde is an urban predator who brings chaos for his own pleasure, werewolves are often depicted as beings of the wild who hunt for survival. However, the drama of the sympathetic human who nevertheless becomes a monstrous, uncontrolled creature remains irresistible to many writers and we see werewolves in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, Teen Wolf and many other series.

Check out Maggie Steifvater’s Shiver series or Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series for dreamy werewolves who fall in love with humans, or for the more traditional style of werewolf, watch our Universal collection of classic werewolf films: The Wolf Man, Werewolf of London, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and She Wolf of London (DVD LOBBY 791.43).

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The Wolf Man

3. Frankenstein’s Monster

A character you will no doubt see everywhere this Hallowe’en, Frankenstein’s Monster is instantly recognisable, with his green skin, flattened head and the bolts through his neck, but did you know that the look of the Monster we think of today was almost entirely created by makeup designer Jack P. Pierce for Boris Karloff’s now legendary performance as the monster in James Whale’s Universal Studios adaptation in 1931? The monster from Mary Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein was articulate and intelligent, someone who only resents the scarred and horrifying appearance he’s been left with by Dr Frankenstein’s reanimation procedure when other people reject him. His anger in the novel comes from the cruelty of a creator who brings him to life out of hubris, rejects him and then refuses to take responsibility for his actions. Karloff’s shambling performance terrified audiences, but Frankenstein’s Monster now has split histories: one, the classic monster (seen in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Penny Dreadful) and the tragic, incoherent Universal monster.

Since then, the story of Frankenstein and his creation has inspired other writers and film-makers to portray the sympathetic monstrosity who is rejected by society – most notably, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. We compared the original novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and the ‘faithful’ film adaptation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, last year for Hallowe’en, and check out the Universal films with our Frankenstein collection for an electrifying time!

2. Ghosts

What do you think of first when you think of horror fiction? Ghost stories, haunted houses and vengeful spirits. Ghosts are such a broad category that it feels a little unnecessary to put them on our list, but they certainly deserve it. We’ve already talked about the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow, who may or may not be a ghost, but there are some amazing ghosts in classic fiction, and we couldn’t make a list like this and leave them out.

Lots of ghost story writers deliberately make it uncertain whether the ghosts are real or the narrator is just imagining them, like Edgar Allan Poe’s The Telltale Heart (BOOK ZONE 823.91). However, his most flamboyant creation is the Red Death from The Masque of the Red Death, less a ghost and more an avatar of death, plague and the dangers of aristocratic hedonism as it stalks the halls of Prince Prospero’s castle. We’re inclined to believe the narrator of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (BOOK ZONE 823.91) thinks she sees two creepy late employees influencing the children in her care, but can we trust her judgement given her state of mind? Peter Quint and Miss Jessel manage to be menacing without rattling chains and ghostly noises – the fact that they look as real as anyone makes them all the more intimidating. The Woman in Black from Susan Hill’s novel of the same name (BOOK ZONE 823.91) is tragic and terrifying, partly because she is always there, always in the background. It’s something the film adaptation really brought across, even though the jump scares sometimes undermined the creeping atmosphere. Read our list of favourite ghost stories for when the nights get longer and the days get colder.

Of course, Shakespeare had some wonderfully spooky tales of haunted castles and vengeful ghosts – the plot of Hamlet is started by the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and Banquo’s ghost is frightening enough to even make hardy warrior Macbeth flinch (BOOK ZONE 822.33). For a different take on the ghost story, try The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (BOOK ZONE 823.92), narrated by the ghost of a murdered girl who watches her family mourn her and the net close on her killer.

1. Vampires

It’s a cliché, I know, but nothing keeps a good vampire down. They are everywhere in our fiction and film, from hideous monsters that consume and destroy to ennui-filled matinee idols with ageless faces and world-weary hearts. They exist in science fiction and post apocalypse, in artsy films like Only Lovers Left Alive and The Hunger, in Marvel comics and in web series (this excellent modern adaptation of Carmilla is a great example).

We’ve talked about Dracula before more than once, personally one of my favourite vampires (find him in the BOOK ZONE at 823.91), as well as Darren Shan’s Vampire’s Assistant series (QUICK READS 823.91). Books like Twilight, The Vampire Diaries and Night World (QUICK READS 823.91) kick-started our modern fascination with teen vampire romance, but years before, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (NORFOLK HOUSE 823.91)and TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (DVD LOBBY 791.456) made vampires sexy again (check out our post on Paranormal Romance for more recommendations). Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (NORFOLK HOUSE 823.91) turned them into a voracious plague that wiped out humanity and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (BOOK ZONE 823.91) examined the idea of a rural vampire community. In My Swordhand Is Singing (QUICK READS 823.91), Marcus Sedgwick takes us back to Eastern Europe in the 17th Century for some of the original vampire folklore that inspired our modern ideas and Night Watch (based on a series of books by Sergei Lukyanenko) is all about the people who police the secret world of vampires and werewolves, a grungy urban version of classic monster myths (DVD LOBBY 791.43). We even have a manga featuring the undead called Vampire Knight, about a young woman tasked with protecting vampires at a boarding school (QUICK READS 741.5952).

It seems that no matter how many times you stake them, vampires just won’t die, making them a worthy entry on our list of literary monsters.

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Happy Hallowe’en, everyone!

References:

diveofficer (2008) Headless Horseman – 011:365. [photograph] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/diveofficer/ (Accessed: 31st October 2016).

Marshall, H. E. (1908) An illustration of the ogre Grendel from Beowulf. [illustration] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grendel (Accessed: 31st October 2016).

Percival, T. and Percival, D. (2011) Headless horseman. [photograph] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tedpercival/ (Accessed: 31st October 2016).

Steampunk Family the von Hedwigs (2010) Coraline, other mother, other dad, button eyes family at MARSCON. [photograph] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/von_hedwig/ (Accessed: 31st October 2016).

Trilobitepictures (2013) Witch’s Dungeon Classic Movie Museum. Dr. Wilfred Glendon, The Werewolf of London. [photograph] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witch%27s_Dungeon_Classic_Movie_Museum (Accessed: 31st October 2016).

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