Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

The H Word: Misunderstood Monsters

Misunderstood monsters—mindless evil or innocent creatures thrust into circumstances beyond their control? If we look at monster history, there are many monsters who harm, damage, or kill because they blood-lust and enjoy it, and because it feeds a hunger that can only be satisfied by the evil they perpetrate on others. But what about those monsters who, in their search for something else—whether it is love, acceptance, or fulfillment—hurt others in the process? What if these monsters feel sorrow, guilt, or remorse after having engaged in their evil deeds? What if their views of the world and how to behave are skewed by their interaction (or lack of interaction) with it? Should we empathize with these misunderstood beings? Or are they simply monsters?

Let’s take a look at some misunderstood monsters.

Frankenstein’s Monster

This creature, created from the body parts of deceased criminals, has no real identity. He’s an abomination—huge and ugly—and people fear him for good reason. He turns on those who have abandoned him. Aware of how he looks and how others react to him, it pains him. Even if Frankenstein’s monster thinks he has a chance at love and acceptance, it is quickly quashed. But this damaged creature keeps seeking love despite his failures. So, what is a monster to do? He tries harder to acquire the love he needs.

Wolf Man

Huge and covered in hair, this scary beast is violent. However, the question remains: is he evil? Sure the Wolf Man hurts others—a lot—but once he transforms back into human form, he feels remorse for what he has done. He doesn’t want to hurt others and desperately wishes he had the power to control his actions, resulting from his transformation into the beast during the full moon.

Quasimodo

Quasimodo is a character in Victor Hugo’s book The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The hunchback, whose name refers to his physical deformity, repulses others because of how he looks. People fear him and avoid him, never really knowing the man inside the damaged body. Although he doesn’t harm others, he is considered a monster by those who know about his existence. Quasimodo isolates himself out of necessity. All can agree he is simply misunderstood, or perhaps not understood at all, given that he has little to no contact with people.

King Kong

What is a monster ape to do? Ripped from his home, taken across the world, and forced to live a life in captivity and as a curiosity, King Kong has no choice but to react to the circumstances thrust upon him. When he believes a woman he cares for is in danger, he breaks free and saves her, ultimately climbing with her to the top of the Empire State Building, fighting the planes sent to attack him in order to protect her. Yes, he is a monster simply because humans deem him one, because he is gigantic and different. But his actions show that he is misunderstood, at least in terms of our definition of a monster. If he was truly a monster, would he have acted to save the life of a human? Would he have even cared?

Grendel

Depending on one’s perspective, Grendel is either an evil, bloodthirsty monster, incapable of rational thought, or a misunderstood monster that is able to think and feel. Grendel is said to be the descendent of Cain. According to the Bible, Cain is the son of Adam and Eve and the first person to commit murder. Because Grendel is a descendent from Cain, he is considered an outcast by God and an evil being as a result of his ancestor’s murderous ways.

In Beowulf, Grendel is not judged for what he is but for what others perceive him to be—a monster who attacks Heorot on a regular basis and slaughters and eats the Danes gathered there without reason or remorse. However, author John Gardner looks at Grendel from Grendel’s perspective in his book of the same name. Here, Grendel, once innocent and living in isolation from the outside world, is misunderstood when he is thrust into the presence of others. Grendel only wants to be accepted by society and to have fun with those around him, but the people of Heorot perceive him as a bloodthirsty monster. In retaliation, and because he feels angry and lonely, he raids Heorot each night, reinforcing the misunderstanding that initially brought him to harm others. Perhaps if Grendel wasn’t misunderstood in the first place, he wouldn’t have turned into a misunderstood monster.

Dracula

If your only means of survival is to feed on the blood of others, does that make you a monster? Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a vampire, capable of human thought, but lacking human empathy. His only concern is satisfying his needs. Attacking because he is expected to do so, and needs to do so, Dracula must continue this behavior to survive. In addition, he must protect himself or those who fear him will drive a stake through his heart. Despite his failings, Dracula wants to be accepted by society. He has aspirations just like everyone else does. So, if it isn’t his fault that he has to feed on blood, is he a monster or simply misunderstood?

• • • •

Each of these monsters is dangerous. They are strong and often unable to control their urges. They do what they must to survive, even if it means hurting others. Misunderstood for sure. Monsters—definitely. But if circumstances were different, if these monsters weren’t damaged psychologically or didn’t have needs deemed unacceptable by society, perhaps we wouldn’t be calling them monsters at all.

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Janice Gable Bashman

Janice Gable BashmanJanice Gable Bashman is the Bram Stoker nominated author (w/New York Times bestseller Jonathan Maberry) of  Wanted Undead or Alive (Citadel Press 2010) and Predator (YA thriller, Month9Books, coming October 2014). She is editor of The Big Thrill (International Thriller Writers’ magazine).  Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies and magazines. She has written for Novel & Short Story Writer’s MarketThe Writer,  Writer’s DigestWild River Review, and many other publications.  She is a speaker and workshop leader at writers’ conferences, including ThrillerFest, Backspace, Pennwriters, The Write Stuff, Stoker weekend, and others. She is an active member of the Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, and the International Thriller Writers, where she serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology.