How to Make a Monster

Just about every kind of writing involves at least a little bit of world building. For some writers it may just be creating your characters and the places where they live and work in a story that is otherwise wholly naturalistic and set in the really real world, but pretty much all of us here at Clockpunk Studios–and many of our clients as well–work primarily in speculative fiction fields, where world building takes on a much greater importance. Sometimes that means fleshing out whole worlds filled with magic and strange beasts, or imagined futures on the far reaches of space, and other times it just means making a monster. Since it’s Halloween, we’re going to focus on that last kind.

Fiction and film are filled with monsters, from the aliens of science fiction to the dragons and orcs of fantasy to the vampires and werewolves of horror fiction, and countless others besides. But what is it that makes a monster really resonate, that gives it a life beyond the page? Why are some monsters still with us decades or even centuries after they were first written? Is it any one thing, or something that varies from monster to monster? Is a monster simply a chimera of observed traits from humans and animals, jumbled together into some new shape? Or is it most effective when it acts as a metaphor for something larger than itself?

Let’s take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Certainly not the first monster in history, but maybe the image that is most readily conjured to mind when we think of the word. But the image that we see when we picture Frankenstein’s monster is probably not anything from Shelley’s novel at all, but rather some variation on Boris Karloff in that green-hued Jack Pierce makeup from the old Universal Frankenstein films. And after all, Karloff’s monster was pretty different than the one who populated Shelley’s novel. So which one is the real Frankenstein’s monster? Maybe they both are.

After all, Frankenstein and his creature have entered our collective imagination and brought a suitably thematic spark of animating lightning to all sorts of variations on the theme throughout the ages, and in some ways, all of those iterations of the story are a part of what makes up our idea of just who and what Frankenstein is. Most recently, Word Horde released a new hardcover anthology, Eternal Frankenstein, containing sixteen new takes on maybe the most famous monster of all time, including my story “Baron von Werewolf Presents: Frankenstein Against the Phantom Planet.”

To change scope and tone considerably, let’s take a look at Lovecraft’s draconic octopus god Cthulhua figure so ubiquitous today that his unspeakable visage haunts coffee mugs and action figures and has even shown up on South Park. Pretty impressive for something that, as Lovecraft himself wrote, “cannot be described–there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order.” From that to fuzzy slippers.

So how did we get such a consistent and shared image of a thing that cannot be described and–unlike Frankenstein’s monster–hadn’t been immortalized on celluloid until 2005? Once again, at least a part of the answer comes from repetition. While Lovecraft didn’t have many cinematic adaptations early on, his generosity when it came to letting others play in what came to be called his Mythos meant that other writers took their own swings at his stories and his creatures, which helped to cement them in the public consciousness.

Even more modern monsters like the xenomorphs of the Aliens franchise–who are prevented, thanks to copyright law, from being outright replicated in other media–have managed to find their way, not merely into a whole plethora of licensed fare, but also into countless copyright-skirting imitations in film and fiction, from movies like Creature (1985) and Split Second (1992) to other, less-brazen “homages.”

Maybe the measure of a monster comes not from any one particular iteration on it, but from the theme and variation of its repetitions and deviations throughout the years. Whether its another in a long, long line of stories about vampires, werewolves, or zombies, or a modification of the monster that you imagined under your bed or at the foot of the basement stairs when you were a kid. After all, the best monsters work as metaphors for lots of different things, depending on the needs of the writer and the inclinations of the reader. So however you go about making a monster, make the one that works for you, and chances are it’ll be haunting someone else’s darkened closet soon enough!

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