making monsters meaningful, part 2

Previously, I had discussed what it is about monsters that (when done correctly), they frighten us.  And though you and I could sit here for hours and name numerous monsters from film, literature, myths, and legends, there are really only two types.

Only two?  Stephen King, in his under-appreciated treatise Danse Macabre, listed four archetypes: the Vampire, the Ghost, the Thing Without a Name (exemplified by Frankenstein), and the Werewolf (best represented, King asserts, by The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).  And surely there could be more than four, couldn’t there?

I insist there are but two, and I credit Professor Verlyn Flieger and her comments on Beowulf. Yes, that ancient poem they made you read back in high school, the one you might have found boring, incomprehensible, or both.




In Beowulf, Flieger said, there were two types of monsters: the man-like (Grendel–a descendant of Cain–and his mother), and the alien (the dragon).

“Man-like monsters,” as one can tell by the name, look like people…but not quite.  And it’s the disconnect that makes them scary.  Man-like monsters are your vampires, ghosts, zombies, werewolves, homicidal-but-indestructible slashers, etc.



“Aliens” need not be from outer space, but they are the obviously inhuman: the creatures that have nothing in common with mankind, and thus inspire fear and revulsion.  Aliens are your deadly (and often giant) insects, killer sharks, and Lovecraftian horrors from beyond time and space.



(“What about those that are both?” you might ask.  “Like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or ‘Brundlefly?'”  I maintain that those are man-like monsters, albeit less recognizable as such.)




As I’m plotting out and drafting my next novel, a modern-fantasy/horror piece called In Lonely Lands, I’m populating it with both types of monsters: those somewhat close to human, and those that definitely are not.  Next time out, I’ll tell you about some movie monsters that scared me growing up…and still do.


Kenton Kilgore is forging a new direction in young adult science-fiction and fantasy.  He is the author of Dragontamer’s Daughters, based on Navajo culture and belief. 

Kenton also wrote Lost Dogs, the story of a German Shepherd and a Beagle-mix who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles have just begun. With Patrick Eibel, he created Our Wild Place, a children’s book about the joy to be found in exploring Nature.  

Follow Kenton on Facebook for daily posts on sci-fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction. 

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