Vampires and werewolves, werewolves and vampires… and zombies, of course. Zombies and werewolves and vampires (oh my!) are the Top Monsters of YA fiction.
Not that I mind the Big Three, you understand – even combined. Years ago, on late-night TV, I saw a black-and-white horror movie called ‘Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man’, in which the Wolf Man wakes up in an asylum – a sort of sanatorium for monsters, if you will – recovering from an operation performed by a kindly if nutty doctor who hopes to cure him. (It doesn’t work.) And there’s a scene where the hero, exploring caves under the headland on which perches the castle in which the mad doctor is doing his experiments, encounters the limp but unmistakeable figure of Bela Lugosi, bolt through his temples and all, lying unconscious in the tunnel. How to explain his presence?
“The Frankenstein Monster!” our hero exclaims without hesitation. “Must have been carried here by a mudslide!”
Thereby wonderfully suggesting a kind of underground transport system of mudslides for delivering monsters all over Transylvania.
It’s odd what’s been happening to fictional monsters. They used to be unequivocally bad. Even Mary Shelley’s original monster – though we do sometimes feel sorry for him – is presented as the dreadful and twisted result of man aping God the Creator – not a new Adam, but a cunning and unnatural fiend. Vampires once meant Dracula – an evil, undead thing preying on young girls. Of course, wolves never had a very good press, and werewolves were even worse: raving and ravening and representing the beast in man… Now look around. What are monsters doing in today’s fantasy literature? Where the heroine’s boyfriend would once have saved her in the very nick of time, vampires and werewolves have become the boyfriends. Vampires are remodelled as your beautiful, damned lover, who with superhuman restraint declines to harm you - the perfect, smouldering gentleman. A werewolf is your bit of rough. Full of animal energy and urges, he’d like to eat you up (so to speak), but he’s a good dog really… ‘I could hurt you, but I love you too much’ is the dubious but frisson-inducing message.
I don’t yet know of a fictional zombie boyfriend, although I think I’ve seen some of them in real life (they wander through shopping malls, hand-led by the girlfriend, dead-eyed). Doubtless this is because it would be difficult to make a zombie seem physically attractive – and in any case it would lead to terrible jokes about only wanting the girl for her brains.
Modern vampires and werewolves aren’t true monsters any more, they’re only the boy next door pretending to be mad, bad and dangerous to know. Which can be enjoyable, I don’t deny. But the old monsters of folklore were a way of objectifying and distancing the darker elements of humanity. In folklore dwarves and trolls are cunning; giants and ogres are violent and stupid; werewolves are bestial and dangerous; vampires are dead in an unsettling, infectious kind of way. The monsters of folklore are our opposites, utterly other: they embody all the evils we fear, death, or malice, grief or illness. Even when they come in semi-human form, there’ll be some telltale sign. Feet turned backwards. Snaky locks. Fishes’ tails. Fangs. A deadly pallor. An inability to bear daylight.
Cruelty has a Human Heart
And jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And secrecy the Human Dress.
So says William Blake, and he is right. It would be nice and neat if goodness came in a beautiful package and evil came in an ugly one. In some fantasies, that’s exactly how it works. Tolkien’s elves are graceful and beautiful: his orcs are grotesque and hideous. There are no bad elves; there are no good orcs: it’s very simple. Too simple, some say. Many a fairy-story knows better than this, reminding us that the ugly Beast may yet have a good heart; that you must keep your promise, and kiss the frog or the Loathly Lady. Though Gollum keeps us guessing, of course. And Tolkien gave us two very ordinary-looking heroes: Bilbo and Frodo, unlikely to be anyone’s lovers and in fact bachelors to the very end of the book.
There is no point at all in wishing Tolkien’s orcs and elves were more nuanced. With crafty, treacherous elves and gruff but noble orcs, it wouldn’t be ‘The Lord of the Rings’. The humans in the book – I include the hobbits and even the wizards – are quite varied. Think of envious Boromir, crafty Wormtongue, chilly Denethor: the book is about humans and their fate. The elves and ents and orcs are there as opposite ends of the spectrum, to emphasis and define the range of possibilities open to human beings between ultimate good and ultimate evil.
It’s people who do bad things. People, not monsters. The trolls in my stories aren’t the real villains, though we’d all like to think that real wickedness is something inhuman. In the first part of ‘West of the Moon’ the heroine’s father Ralf, a decent, kindly man, exclaims of two characters that ‘they aren’t men – they’re beasts!’ But the troll king sharply contradicts him: ‘No, they’re men. Your own sort!’ And Harald Silkenhair in the third part of the book looks every inch a hero – young, brave, handsome, charismatic, a real leader of men. He’s even gifted and cultured enough to make poetry. But he’s also cruel in word and deed, quarrelsome, violent and deadly. The old Icelandic sagas are full of people like him, people you wouldn’t want living next door.
While I was researching the Native American elements of my plot – the characters sail to Vinland, North America – my imagination was captured by the Mi’kmaq story of the jenu. The jenu is a human being who has run wild into the woods and transforms into a sort of solitary cannibal ice-giant. Yes, I thought, it’s the humanity of monsters that’s terrifying. And in ‘West of the Moon’, the beautiful Harald is just as much of a monster as the giant is. They have the same icy hearts.
Find out more about Kath's books at her official site and blog, and make sure you check out the next stop on the tour which will be at The Bookwitch tomorrow.
I wish you monsters!