**Friends, here’s a short essay that was previously published on the Richard Hugo House website. It was a promotional item for my RHH class, Writing the Monster. I’m reposting here now that it’s unavailable elsewhere.**
The Monster From Beyond Our World (of Literary Merit)
I’ve loved monsters since I was a small child. I had a vicious-looking plastic T-Rex as a bath toy instead of a rubber ducky. I quickly graduated to a preoccupation with vampires and werewolves. I thought dragons were real, albeit extinct, until I was quite old. I knew about Dracula before learning about Jesus (I was raised Jewish), and I dressed as a vampire for Halloween at least two years in a row, perhaps three, before deciding to be a mummy at age 9. My mother used to refer to me as “one of the Addams family children.” This phase never wore off.
For children (not to mention adults), monsters are important to play and learning. They allow for the exploration of power and desire, deeply seated Freudian Id stuff. Monsters get to do whatever they want. Who will stop them? But someone almost always stops them; in contemporary American childhood, all stories are expected to have happy endings, especially when the monsters turn out to be misunderstood and benevolent.
Monsters also present a great opportunity for imagination. They are unpredictable in many ways, not just behavior; they have abilities–powers–that we can only guess at until it’s too late. They change shape. They fly. They hypnotize, turn invisible, and walk through walls. This interplay between fear, power, and imagination is intoxicating at any age.
As I grew into adolescence and young adulthood, monsters continued to represent power and possibility, but with a new twist: they’re outsiders. The ultimate Other. No one in Western literature is as isolated and dejected as Frankenstein’s monster, except perhaps for Quasimodo or Dracula. Young Werther has nothing on Frankenstein’s monster, who is so miserably anonymous that he doesn’t even have a name. Call me melodramatic, but as an angsty, hormonal, and closeted queer teenager, these characters seemed like fitting proxies for my lot in life.
Because monsters are so dear to me (and many others), I’m offended outright when monster stories are labelled as “genre fiction,” which is a backhanded euphemism for “something other than real literature.” This is not only inherently prejudiced (the educated class taking it upon itself to define “real literature”), it’s just plain false. Frankenstein is, for all of its awkwardness, a goddamn masterpiece on the topic of hubris, social justice, and the question of humanity. Are the ghost stories The Turn of the Screw and Beloved considered “genre fiction?” Is Beowulf or Dante’s Inferno?
Stephen King’s Carrie is a classic gothic tale of religious fanaticism and community bullying. Anne Rice’s monster fiction is sumptuous, historically rich, and all too human. And the Martians and Morlocks of H. G. Wells are wildly subversive and clever piss-takes on British culture.
What’s the only difference between realistic literature and literature that contains monsters? Simple. It’s not quality, intellect, or emotional depth. The difference is that supernatural and science fiction literature blast open the boundaries of realism and sprint gleefully into the uncharted territory of asking, “What if?”
This, dear reader, is more difficult to do than acknowledged. I want to help you learn how to write about the monsters, be they fantastical or all too human, without or within. Hopefully, you can help me too. Teaching, like all arts, works both ways.
Evan J. Peterson