There are no limits when horror writers conceive their monsters. If it can be imagined, it can be conjured, and it is this creative freedom that has made them such a captivating element of the genre.
We are all familiar with the classic archetypes. Even children too young to have held a horror novel know a werewolf when they see one; the hair and teeth being the obvious indicators. But timeless as such characters may be, nothing is immune to the rigours of popular culture. Victor Frankenstein’s pet project has long since stolen his creator’s surname and is now less an emotionally tormented collage of corpses, and more a green-skinned blockhead with a bolt through his neck. Vampires have undergone similarly odd transformations in recent decades and – though revitalised in some divisive respects – have been utterly bled of mystery. And what is a monster worth without a little intrigue? Can it really play on our fears if we know all of its secrets?
No, is the simple answer.
H.P. Lovecraft believed that the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. Assuming the master of cosmic horror knew what he was talking about, then our monsters – and how we treat them – must continue to adapt and evolve lest they go the way of Count Dracula’s offshoots; tamed by familiarity and overexposure.
In my two novels, The Watchers and The Creeper, I took great care to keep my precious monsters mostly unseen and unknowable. More shadows, less light. Questions beget mystery. Mystery builds suspense, and therein lies the fear.
In creating the watchers themselves, I took a relatively well-known entity in Irish folklore and reimagined it as something new, altering its appearance, agency and behaviour, and yet still aligning it to the lore so as to provide a legitimate origin story. For let us not forget, even our monsters must come from somewhere. The most garden variety of demon still has its roots in the traditional depths of hell.
The titular Creeper wasn’t modelled on one folk tale in particular, rather it was an amalgamation of many. For this faux belief to fit the Irish model, I made the curse’s rules intentionally easy to memorise, as that was how these superstitions survived. And that formed the basis for my monster: a curse that is transferred by speaking of it to another.
The key aspect that both entities share in common is the mystery surrounding them. This becomes an underlying thread that tautens as their stories progress. The protagonists’ need to survive comes to rely on them making sense of the horror and devising some means to overcome it.
Without this unknown factor, monsters lose so much of what makes them memorable and effective. They are the curio that readers yearn to understand, and it is crucial that we continue to create new identities and revamp existing ones so that this fascination never wanes. Thus, their relevance as a literary device depends on the imaginations of our contemporary writers.
So, I urge all those with a dark heart and a love of horror to take care of our monsters. And we can do more than simply respect their secrets, we can gift them a terrifying collection of new ones.