In 1816 a cohort of England’s finest writers, who also happened to be great buddies, spent a summer holidaying in the countryside near Geneva in Switzerland. Little did they know that the leisurely cross-pollination of their immense creativity would bring forth some of the darkest and most extreme concepts of humanity the world had seen, spawning works that would go on to change the literary landscape forever.
The gang included Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John William Polidori, Claire Clairmont, and of course, Percy’s wife Mary. Rumour had it these friends would gather by the fire at night and compete with each other to invent the most psychologically chilling horror stories. Naturally it was Mary who outdid them all, and thus Frankenstein’s monster was born. Or rather, stitched together.
So in honour of the 200th anniversary of the conception of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel, we cast an eye over other literary terrors, both past and present, that have significantly impacted the way we enjoy our frights. Due to the abundance of such characters in ancient myth, this list will focus only on modern works and creatures of the author’s pure invention.
Beowulf (C8th-11th), Anonymous
Humans have always been fascinated by unnatural terrors, so it’s no surprise that the first recorded piece of English literature is a good old monster tale. A completely original creature that could only have taken form in Viking society, Grendel wreaks havoc on halls of mead-drinking Scandinavians, ripping arms from sockets and such. When he is confronted by our hero Beowulf and driven away, he retreats to his mother, of course, as any good monster should, who turns out to be even more grotesque and blood-thirsty than he. Is there a message here?
The Giant Squid
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), Jules Verne
Fast forward a few hundred years to the advent of the novel, and it’s no accident that the majority of truly original monsters were conceived in the 19th century, when writers were enamoured of the curiosities of the natural world and the enormous scientific advancements taking shape around them. New possibilities for exploration and discovery fed the invention of such fantastic animals as the giant squid who lurks in the depths of the ocean ready to drag submarines of men down to their watery graves.
Through the Looking Glass (1871), Lewis Carol
A master of exploring both the delightful and unsettling sides of imagination, Carol most delicately balances this dichotomy in Through the Looking Glass, the strange yet beautiful sequel to Alice in Wonderland. The Jabberwocky is the stuff of nightmares, terrible in its juxtaposition to Alice’s innocence but made far more terrifying through the use of evocative language and invented words that depict a creature we can never fully imagine.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1886), Robert Louis Stephenson
Along with technological and scientific advancements, the 19th century was also remarkable for opening up the world of psychology and psychoanalysis as a new way of understanding human nature. Many works written during this era examine the monster within; the duality of virtue and vice that exists in each of us. This analogy is given material form in the alternating identities of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the slow, terrible blurring of their moral and physical boundaries.
The Time Machine (1895), HG Wells
Wells takes the concept of morality a step further by examining the evolution and decay of society in this genre-bending novel, where future humans have devolved into two stunted castes, the Eloi, who live above ground, and the Morlocks who dwell beneath the earth and feed on their surface-dwelling brethren. The Morlocks have since been explored in other works as a highly advanced race of beings, demonstrating the cleverly ambiguous light in which Wells paints these future versions of humanity.
Dracula (1897), Bram Stoker
Advancing toward the turn of the century the supernatural begins to seep into monster literature alongside the prevailing interest in science, technology and morality. In Stoker’s insurmountable Dracula, scientists and doctors are still the most highly respected characters, but they are confronted by a horror that defies rational explanation, even as they attempt rational means to overcome it. And the ship of dead people that crashes into England’s shores is pretty damn creepy.
The Call of Cthulhu (1928), HP Lovecraft
Cosmic weird really takes the stage when Lovecraft comes on the scene in the early 20th century. Cthulhu is a monster-god, a Great Old One in Lovecraft’s pantheon of the Cthulhu Mythos. One of the first writers to take his monsters beyond the bounds of a single story and into a far-reaching universe of interconnected tales, his approach to writing horror would influence writers for decades to come, not only in the pure strangeness of his inventions but also in the scope of his imagination.
The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949), JRR Tolkien
Scope becomes the thing in the 20th century, and JRR Tolkien is one of the pioneers of epic fantasy, creating entire anthropologies, down to detailed cultures, languages and histories within his invented world. Beyond the orcs and the uruk-hai it’s in the big bads such as Sauron and the Nazgul where he succeeds so magnificently in depicting evil. The balrogs, though, take the cake as Middle Earth’s creature-feature for being virtually unstoppable, shrouded in fire and shadows, and living for thousands of years in the bowels of mountains.
It (1986), Stephen King
Moving past scientific experimentation, psychoanalytical dilemmas, and supernatural forces of evil, Stephen King can be credited with bringing monster writing into its modern form where everyday, relatable characters are pit against some kind of inexplicable physical and mental force. Iconic and enduringly terrifying, the balloon-toting cannibal clown (with the face of Tim Curry) is one of the most masterful creations of horror literature ever.
The White Walkers
A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present), George RR Martin
Rising above the current proliferation of vampires, zombies and werewolves, George RR Martin has managed to create a new breed of monster that is mysterious and terrifying while also strikingly contemporary. In his epic series winter seems to form the backdrop of the greatest threats against humanity, and he populates the icy vastness beyond The Wall with an army of skeletal, humanoid giants whose voices sound like cracking ice and whose victims turn into undead wights. We are yet to understand the details of their existence and their true motivation, but for now they make you think twice about a casual walk in the woods.