Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 2 April 2015. Tagged: Theme.

Monsters have always stalked the hinterlands of the imagination, emblems of fear and symbols of guilt. They commonly take their aspects and roles from the supernatural imagination (see Supernatural Creatures); but the scientific imagination has produced many monsters of its own. The recruitment to the Horror story of monsters spawned by Nature was pioneered by H G Wells's classic alien-Invasion story The War of the Worlds (1897) and by William Hope Hodgson's sea stories. Sf monsters are often familiar but repulsive creatures made monstrous by increasing their size (see Great and Small), and Alien monsters are often created by chimerical redeployment of the nastier features of earthly creatures; deliberate attempts at interbreeding between Aliens and humans (see Exogamy), as in Fred Saberhagen's The White Bull (1988), can generate monsters or Supermen, sometimes, ambivalently, both in the same birth. The fossil record has increased this vocabulary of ideas considerably: see the entries for Dinosaurs (which lists many relevant dinosaur films with entries in this encyclopedia) and, possibly synonymous, the Loch Ness Monster. Other monsters arise as Mutants or as the accidental products of human scientific endeavour: the archetypal monster of this kind stars in Mary Shelley's Gothic-SF classic Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831). The actual scientific discipline of teratology (the study of monsters) has made little impact on sf, although its elaboration in the gruesome murder mystery The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck (1934) by Alexander Laing brings that novel close to the sf borderline, and the same might be said of Whitley Strieber's horror-detective novel The Wolfen (1978). Russell M Griffin's The Blind Men and the Elephant (1982) borrows heavily from the well known "Elephant Man" case.

Many of the standard figures of fear have made their way from Mythology or elsewhere into sf via more-or-less ingenious processes of rationalization. The invisible monster proved easy to adapt (see Invisibility): one was featured in the first issue of Amazing in George Allan England's "The Thing from – 'Outside'" (April 1923 Science and Invention). The Gorgon became the sexual predator of C L Moore's "Shambleau" (November 1933 Weird Tales). Werewolves are rationalized in Darker Than You Think (December 1940 Unknown; exp 1948) by Jack Williamson and "There Shall Be No Darkness" (April 1950 Thrilling Wonder) by James Blish. "Who Goes There?" (August 1938 Astounding) by John W Campbell Jr, writing as Don A Stuart, takes the idea of the menacing Shapeshifter to its limit. Sf Vampires are featured in numerous stories, including "Asylum" (May 1942 Astounding) by A E van Vogt – whose The Voyage of the Space Beagle (stories July 1939-August 1943 Astounding, May 1950 Other Worlds; fixup 1950; vt Mission: Interplanetary 1952) features a whole repertoire of monsters – I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson, The Space Vampires (1976) by Colin Wilson, The Vampire Tapestry (fixup 1980) by Suzy McKee Charnas and The Empire of Fear (1988) by Brian M Stableford. The entire retinue of mythological monsters is recreated by Computer in Nightworld (1979) and The Vampires of Nightworld (1981) by David F Bischoff. Other kinds of quasivampiric Parasitism are featured in Eric Frank Russell's Sinister Barrier (March 1939 Unknown; 1943; rev 1948), van Vogt's "Discord in Scarlet" (December 1939 Astounding) and Robert A Heinlein's The Puppet Masters (September-November 1951 Galaxy; 1951; text restored 1990).

Monsters have always been very popular in the movies, and until the 1960s sf Cinema was dominated by Monster Movies of every possible kind. The first of many versions of Frankenstein was made in 1910, but the legend was created anew in 1931 when Boris Karloff took the role of the monster. Shortly afterwards a new legend was born in the story of King Kong (1933), in which fear was modified by sympathy: the pragmatically necessary destruction of monster by mankind was thereafter able to take on a dimension of tragedy, and the monsters could be pitied in their monstrousness. Japanese monster movies, pioneered by Gojira (1954), have frequently converted charismatic monsters into heroes. Another significant cinematic innovation was the monster liberated from the scientist's id in Forbidden Planet (1956). Later twentieth-century advances in special-effects technology permitted a resurgence of scary Monster Movies, the most notable sf examples being Alien (1979) and its sequels, and various films directed by David Cronenberg, while Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) grafts a traditional monstrous propensity – Shapeshifting – onto a technological construct.

Genre SF, of course, made abundant melodramatic use of monsters Illustration played a considerable part in building sf's monster mythology – Alien horrors were a particularly rich source of lurid cover pictures, and the Bug-Eyed Monster, or BEM (whose archetype appeared on the cover of Astounding May 1931, illustrating Charles W Diffin's "Dark Moon"), quickly became a Cliché. One such is spectacularly featured, with calculated nostalgia, in Heart of the Comet (1986) by David Brin and Gregory Benford, but the genus became virtually extinct in the 1940s. After World War Two, monsters became much less evident as staples of sf, although new ground continued to be broken by such novels as The Day of the Triffids (6 January-3 February 1951 Collier's Weekly; as "Revolt of the Triffids"; 1951; rev 1951; orig version vt Revolt of the Triffids 1952) by John Wyndham, which features lethal ambulatory plants, and The Clone (1965) by Theodore L Thomas and Kate Wilhelm, in which a constantly growing amorphous creature absorbs any flesh with which it comes into contact. In many stories a Robot filled what was in every respect the role of a monster. Sympathy for alien beings became sufficiently pronounced that stories began to be written which analysed the sad predicament of the monster. The shock of monstrous self-discovery had earlier been the theme of such stark parables of alienation as "The Outsider" (April 1926 Weird Tales) by H P Lovecraft and The Metamorphosis (1915 chap; trans 1937) by Franz Kafka, but many sf stories of the 1960s and 1970s were prepared to take the initial situation of monstrousness for granted and analyse its implications, especially the psychological ones. This is particularly common in the work of Robert Silverberg, as in Thorns (1967), The Man in the Maze (1968) and "Caliban" (in Infinity 3, anth 1972, ed Robert Hoskins), and crops up often in the work of Damon Knight, as in "The Country of the Kind" (February 1956 F&SF), Beyond the Barrier (1963) and Mind Switch (1965; vt The Other Foot). A parallel work from outside the genre is John (Champlin) Gardner's Grendel (1971), which retells the Beowulf legend from the monster's viewpoint. Humans sometimes become monsters in alien contexts, as in A E van Vogt's significantly titled "The Monster" (August 1948 Astounding), Robert Sheckley's "All the Things You Are" (July 1956 Galaxy) and C J Cherryh's Cuckoo's Egg (1985).

The advent of Genetic Engineering has lent a new lease of life to the sf monster story, reflected in such works as Stephen Gallagher's Chimera (1982), Dean R Koontz's Watchers (1987) and Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park (1990). Frankensteinian Scientists embarking on teratological experiments in biotechnology have become common on the fringes of the genre where sf overlaps with thrillers and horror stories, but even here a certain sympathy for the plight of the monstrous creations is commonplace, reflecting the disreputability into which the idea that ugliness may be equated with evil has, thankfully, fallen. [BS]

see also: Gods and Demons; Resident Evil.

previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies