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Supernatural Creatures

Entry updated 11 December 2023. Tagged: Theme.

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This entry provides an overview of the treatment of supernatural beings in sf, some of the more important, interesting or simply popular subsets of such entities also being given separate entries: Gods and Demons, Golem, Poltergeists, Shapeshifters, Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies.

Just as it is common in sf to give empirical explanations of ancient myths and stories of the gods (see Gods and Demons; Mythology; Shaggy God Story) and to seek a rationale for Magic, so too, when sf deals with supernatural creatures, it commonly invokes quasiscientific rationalizations. Sometimes these involve racial memory of unusual but natural creatures, or they may involve Mutants (commonly) or abnormal Psychology (occasionally). The sf writer does not, however, wish to demythologize all that is strange to the point of rendering it utterly matter-of-fact. More commonly he or she hopes to retain the horror, or the wonder, while rendering it a believable phenomenon of the world we live in. Also, by making the condition of vampirism or lycanthropy, for example, a natural affliction, it is often possible to evoke pity for the Monster as well as its victims. Two stories illustrating this clearly are James Blish's "There Shall be No Darkness" (April 1950 Thrilling Wonder) and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954). The former is a Werewolf story which links lycanthropy with artistic talent, and allows the reader some empathy with the Shapeshifting killer; the latter tells of a plague which transforms its victims into Vampires, who besiege the one immune left in the city. In both a far-fetched rationale is given, Matheson being particularly ingenious in explaining the traditional stigmata of the vampire in terms of symptoms of an illness.

Stories of demonic possession, such as John Christopher's The Possessors (1965) and many others, are commonly rationalized in terms of Psi Powers or as a form of parasitism, usually by an Alien; several of these stories are discussed in Parasitism and Symbiosis. An electronic, remote-control form of possession is central to Frederik Pohl's A Plague of Pythons (1965; rev vt Demon in the Skull 1984). Familiars are often symbiotes also, as is the case with the sinister little creatures who accompany the "witches" in Fritz Leiber's Gather, Darkness! (May-July 1943 Astounding; 1950).

Many stories of supernatural creatures which appear in supposedly sf collections are in fact straight Fantasy; that is, the supernatural status of these beings is left unquestioned. Unknown magazine published quite a few stories of this kind, as did Weird Tales earlier and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction later. The latter published the John the Minstrel stories by Manly Wade Wellman (probably his best work), whose hero is faced with a variety of supernatural menaces, though occasionally some sf jargon is used to bring them down to earth a little. One of the best is "O Ugly Bird!" (December 1951 F&SF); they were collected in Who Fears the Devil? (coll 1963). Ray Bradbury's "Homecoming" (October 1946 Mademoiselle) is a touching story of the one "normal" in a jolly, clannish family of supernaturals. Many supernatural stories of the jokier kind can be found in Theodore Cogswell's The Wall Around the World (coll 1962) and Avram Davidson's Or All the Seas with Oysters (coll 1962); Davidson was editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for a period. A number of such stories are collected in Judith Merril's lively anthology Galaxy of Ghouls (anth 1955; vt Off the Beaten Orbit 1959), which contains Walter M Miller Jr's "The Triflin' Man" (January 1955 Fantastic Universe; vt "You Triflin' Skunk" in The View from the Stars, coll 1965), in which the demon lover turns out to be an Alien, a common explanation for supernatural manifestations.

Elves and fairies likewise often turn out to be aliens, as in Clifford D Simak's The Goblin Reservation (1968) and Poul Anderson's "The Queen of Air and Darkness" (April 1971 F&SF), or Neanderthal or atavistic survivals, as in several stories discussed under Mythology, John Blackburn's Children of the Night (1966) among them. Sometimes they merely live on colonized and then forgotten planets, as in Christopher Stasheff's Warlock series. A particularly unromantic treatment of fairies is Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book (graph 1994), written by Terry Jones and illustrated by Brian Froud, supposedly reproducing a commonplace book whose owner had literally squashed fairies between its pages. Santa Claus, employer of elves and often himself described as an elf, has been invoked as a mythic founder of New York (which see); infamously collides with sf tropes in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964; vt Santa Claus Defeats the Aliens); and is often jokily portrayed in sf settings on SF Magazine Christmas covers. Examples of the last include Ed Emshwiller's Santa with a Little Green Man on his knee for Galaxy (January 1957); the same artist's human Santa upstaged by a Robot version, again for Galaxy (December 1960); and Gahan Wilson's depiction with a jet pack for F&SF (January 1969). The creatures out of Greek legend – including some of an apparently supernatural variety such as fauns or satyrs – in Roger Zelazny's This Immortal (October-November 1965 F&SF as "... And Call Me Conrad"; exp 1966) are for the most part radiation-spawned Mutants in this Post-Holocaust world.

Unicorns and dragons remain popular, unicorns for some reason being usually allowed to remain mythic while dragons are often rationalized as Aliens or Dinosaurs, though sometimes they are conceived of in terms of myth-infused geology, their skeletons half bone half mountain, as in Lucius Shepard's Dragon Griaule sequence, or Ormeshadow (2019) by Priya Sharma (1971-    ). Examples of unicorns occur in Theodore Sturgeon's revisionist "The Silken-Swift" (November 1953 F&SF), Peter S Beagle's The Last Unicorn (1968), Harlan Ellison's "On the Downhill Side" (in Universe 2, anth 1972, ed Terry Carr) and Mark Geston's The Siege of Wonder (1976); there are many others. A Chess-playing unicorn features in Roger Zelazny's "Unicorn Variation" (April 1981 Asimov's); a highly unpleasant rethinking of the unicorn life cycle in terms of Cthulhu Mythos horror is central to Charles Stross's Equoid (24 September 2013; 2013 ebook), whose characters include H P Lovecraft. Examples of the less chthonic rationalized dragon appear notably in Anne McCaffrey's lengthy Dragonrider series and Jack Vance's The Dragon Masters (August 1962 Galaxy; 1963 dos) – in both cases having been developed from alien reptiloids by Genetic Engineering; in Avram Davidson's Rogue Dragon (1965); in Terry Pratchett's Strata (1981), where they prove to be artificial nuclear-powered constructs; and in Reign of Fire (2002). Centaurs are products of biological engineering in various works including Philip José Farmer's A Private Cosmos (1968; rev 1981) and Walter Jon Williams's Knight Moves (1985); their mythic origins are interestingly explored in Gregory Feeley's Kentauros (2010 chap). The titular Monster of the film The Cyclops (1957) proves to be a human transformed by radiation.

Supernatural creatures generally play a prominent role in romantic fantasy, often as symbolic of a wondrousness that may survive in odd, untouched corners of the world while dead in our rational, urbanized, modern civilization. They are, for example, to be found in forms both horrific and lovely in the various Lost Worlds of A Merritt, in practically every story written by Thomas Burnett Swann, and in Sword and Sorcery generally. Tanith Lee's "The Gorgon" (in Shadows 5, anth 1983, ed Charles L Grant), about Medusa, may be one of the finest, simplest, most touching of all supernatural-creature rationalizations. Alex Adams's White Horse (2012) features a Greek "Medusa" whose mutation by a DNA-tweaking plague comprises facial snakes or snakelike growths. The most famous quasi-Medusa in sf is the sexually compelling humanoid Alien, a psychic Vampire with snaky tendrils for hair, in C L Moore's "Shambleau" (November 1933 Weird Tales). The "Gorgon" woman warrior of Martin Sketchley's The Destiny Mask (2005) is a Cyborg who instead of hair has many snaky, mobile Blasters; the titular female African protagonist of Nnedi Okorafor Binti (2015 chap) receives a Medusa-like transformation of her hair as an alien "gift".

Ghosts in the traditional sense of surviving human souls are rather a special case, and are discussed in Eschatology. They are reconstructed in the flesh from a reading of human minds by the sentient planet Solaris (1961; trans 1970; new trans 2011 ebook) by Stanisław Lem; and along with Zombies have a very real existence in Robert Sheckley's amusing Immortality Delivered (October 1958-February 1959 Galaxy as "Time Killer"; 1958; exp vt Immortality, Inc. 1959). Sheckley often plays games with supernatural creatures; he brings nightmares, for example, to life in "Ghost V" (October 1954 Galaxy) (see Drugs), and the hero of "Protection" (April 1956 Galaxy) soon finds good reason to wish he had never accepted aid from a ghostly Alien from another Dimension. Perhaps the favourite sf rationalization of ghosts is as a kind of psychic recording of violence or high emotion that has somehow become impressed on matter – most usually the fabric of a building – and affects sufficiently sensitive minds (see psychometry under ESP). The venue of H G Wells's short "The Red Room" (March 1896 The Idler) proves to be haunted not by any sentience but by the raw emotion of fear. In the pioneering Upload story "Ghost" (May 1943 Astounding) by Henry Kuttner and C L Moore, the final despair of a suicidal depressive is impressed on a super-Computer which rebroadcasts the emotion. Nigel Kneale's television play "The Stone Tape" (1972) uses the building-as-recorder concept to considerable dramatic effect; J G Ballard offers an ingenious variation in "The Sound-Sweep" (February 1960 Science Fantasy); the title City's circular re-use of Time in Diana Wynne Jones's A Tale of Time City (1987) leads to visible though intangible replays of emotion-charged events from both past and future ("What was he doing?" [...] "Nobody knows. He hasn't done it yet."). Sf has also offered many rationalizations or partial rationalizations of Poltergeists (which see), often invoking Psi Powers.

Nigel Kneale's entire career in sf cinema and television was devoted to rationalizing the supernatural, most notably perhaps in the television serial Quatermass and the Pit (1958-1959), where racial memories of the Devil and the Wild Hunt turn out to have been transmitted by Martians; Arthur C Clarke offers a closely similar alien origin (involving a crossover between race memory and Precognition) for legends of horned demons in "Guardian Angel" (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries), the seed of Childhood's End (1953; rev 1990). Stories of this kind are not restricted to English-language sf, nor to genre sf. Stanisław Lem's Sledztwo (1959; trans as The Investigation 1974) is an interesting study of the extent to which the unknown may be susceptible to rational explanation, in a mystery where Scotland Yard is faced with the activities of a ghoul, whose status as either natural or supernatural is difficult to determine.

There is a kind of class distinction among the three most popular varieties of material supernatural creature to be found in Horror movies: Vampires are aristocratic, drinking only the most refined life essences, usually though not always blood. In the iconography of horror, the vampire stands for Sex. The Werewolf, who stands for instability, Shapeshifting, lack of self control, is middle-class and lives in a dog-eat-dog world, as portrayed to comic effect in Tom Holt's Barking (2007). The Zombie or ghoul, who shambles and rots (as, archetypally, in George Romero's sf movie The Night of the Living Dead [1968]), is working-class, inarticulate, dangerous, deprived, wishing only to feed on those who are better off; in the iconography of horror the zombie stands for the exploited worker. During the period of the Vietnam War the zombie, both in pure horror and in sf horror, was perhaps the most popular archetype, but since then vampires and werewolves have made a major comeback, though increasingly rarely in sf-rationalized form. Distantly related to the zombie is the Golem, made from clay rather than reanimated flesh – the Magic-powered precursor of the sf Robot.

Supernatural horror made other appearances of a more outré kind in the 1980s, three landmarks being Alfred Bester's Golem100 (1980) which marries sf, diabolism and depth psychology to produce its supernatural monster from the id; Judith Moffett's "The Hob" (May 1988 Asimov's), in which the hobs or brownies from myth turn out to be exiled Aliens, a story later incorporated into The Ragged World: A Novel of the Hefn on Earth (fixup 1991); and best of all, perhaps, Tim Powers's strange fable of the romantic poets, The Stress of Her Regard (1989), which memorably incarnates romantic longings and fears in the partly rationalized (as a silicon lifeform) figure of the Lamia. But the greatest resurgence of supernatural creatures in fiction falls into the partly overlapping categories of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], with scanty sf trappings or none at all.

Japanese yokai ["strange apparition"], a widely diverse class of folklore-based creatures and spirits with many possible shapes including no shape at all, have featured in Manga; in various Television series including Akuma-kun (1966-1967) and Undead Girl Murder Farce (2023); and in such films as Yokai Monsters: 100 Monsters (1968) and Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968). Charles Stross's Laundry Files sequence visits Japan and its yokai infestation problems in Escape from Yokai Land (2022 chap).

A number of relevant anthologies have been edited or coedited by Martin H Greenberg, such as 100 Creepy Little Creature Stories (anth 1994) with Stefan R Dziemianowicz: see the Checklist in the Greenberg entry for many more. [DRL/PN]

see also: Gothic SF; Religion.


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