Thursday, May 30, 2019

Who’s the REAL Monster...?

Tomorrow’s my birthday. One of those big landmark/milestone birthdays. Which seems impossible because I don’t feel a day over 200 most of the time.

Anyway... to celebrate my final day as a young man, a couple of us are going to go see the new Godzilla movie tonight (I’ll be watching it at midnight when I become old), and that got me thinking about monsters. 

Monster stories are one of those sub-genres of horror I think get glossed over a lot. I’ve mentioned them in passing before, but it’s worth taking a closer look. Just because I have a monster in my story doesn’t automatically make it a monster story. And it’s my birthday so screw you all, we’re going to talk about monsters.

Horror is, simply put, the scary genre, so it’s not shocking to say that monster stories almost always involve some element of fear. It’s worth noting this fear should involve the characters and the audience. If only the audience is scared, this is more of a suspense situation.  If only the characters are scared... well, that could mean a lot of things.

The big thing that sets monster stories apart, I think, making them their own little sub-niche-genre, is that they’re about unstoppable things.  Go back to Frankenstein.  No matter what happens, the creature always breaks free, always survives. I’d tie this all the way back to the original novel, where even in the end the monster can’t be defeated—he just wanders away on his own terms to die. Except even in Shelly’s original book, we don’t know he dies. Even she left this window of “maybe he’s still out there.” Heck, go all the way back to Greek myths—we can cut off Medusa’s head and she’s still the most dangerous thing in a ten mile radius.

Because of this, a major element in pretty much every monster story is “getting the hell away from it.” Maybe it’s just the two of us running through the forest, trying to catch up with that bastard Wakko who left us behind (he’ll get his, don’t worry...). It might be a full scale evacuation of a city. There may be other elements, maybe even more dominant ones, but trying to get away is pretty much always going to be a big part of a monster story.

Another thing most good monster stories involve is a degree of self-reflection and sympathy. We’re scared by the monster but we also tend to feel a bit of pity for it. Every version of Frankenstein (well, okay, every good version) recognizes that the monster is horribly lonely, desperate to find any sort of companionship. The original Rodan has a complete gut-punch of an ending (I rewatched it recently and holy crap I did not register so much of it when I was a kid). Yeah, the monster in Super 8 is killing people, but it’s also been imprisoned and tortured by humans for the past twenty years or so.

This ties back to a common character trait I’ve mentioned one or ten times—relatability. We feel sympathy for monsters—even if it’s just for a few moments—because they reflect some basic truth about us, or humanity in general.  We all know what it’s like to be lonely. We’ve all lashed out. We’ve all growled at people and waved our arms and retreated up to the old windmill to fight off the villagers.

Anyway...

That leads to another point. Monsters tend to be characters in their own right. They aren’t nameless, unknown, unseen threats. They have personalities and motivations. They often have names. Like, actual, personal names, not just vague titles or pronouns. We all understand the difference between it and It, right...?

And one last thing. This one’s less of an absolute, but I think you’d find it to be a very common element. Comedy. Most of the best monster stories have some kind of comedy element. At the very least, they’re not dry and humorless. Partly because comedy is just unavoidable, and it naturally comes out at the most bizarre times.  But also because it lets us hang a lantern on the inherent absurdity of a lot of monster stories. Yeah, come on.  Be honest. I mean, seriously—how does a 350 foot tall lizard go unnoticed for so long? He’s five times bigger than a blue whale. Think how much it’d need to eat.

I mention all this because monsters are cool.  And because knowing my genre is important. All genres come with expectations, and the more often my genre story deviates from those expectations, the better the chances are it’s going to fall flat with my chosen audience.  If an anthology editor is looking for monster stories and I send in a piece of torture porn... that’s not going to work out well for me.  If I’ve led my agent to expect a monster story and instead I give him a fantasy romp with dragons, he’s probably going to start over from square one in a lot of ways. And if every movie in a franchise has been a slasher film and I suddenly decide to make a sci-fi monster movie...

Well, I’ve just made Jason X. Which isn’t a bad movie at all (I kinda love it), but it went against a lot of people’s expectations and stumbled hard because of that. It’s a monster movie in the middle of a slasher series.

Anyway, there’s some thoughts on monsters. Ponder them while you cheer on your favorite kaiju this weekend.

Speaking of this weekend—even though it’s my birthday, I’m helping out Jonathan Maberry by taking over the San Diego Writers Coffeehouse on Sunday.  So swing by Mysterious Galaxy between noon and three as we talk about writing, publishing, and all that.

And next time, maybe we’ll talk about worldbuilding a bit.

Until then... go write.

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