Writing Excuses 12.31: What Makes a Good Monster, with Courtney Alameda
Key Points: The best monsters subvert the status quo and remind us that we are not the top of the food chain. Frightening means posing a threat to the protagonist or that culture. Some monsters are people, too. Subverting expectations. Monsters also reflect or represent other aspects of the stories. But beware of parallelism that turns into too on-the-nose, or pushing the subversion beyond fear into comedy. Building a monster? Start with folklore from all over. Look at the role of the monster in the story, themes, and symbolism. Think about fears, and what frightens you, and then spin that into a monster. Make the protagonist super-competent, but let the monster be powerful in ways that leave the protagonist incapable of responding. Look for the patterns that cross cultures, the fears that are universal (Yungian!). Then make them your monster. And shiver a bit.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 31.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses. What Makes a Good Monster, with Courtney Alameda.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Susan] ’cause you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Susan] I’m Susan.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And we’re joined by special guest Courtney Alameda. Courtney, tell us about yourself.
[Courtney] Hi, folks. My name is Courtney Alameda. I am a horror and speculative fiction writer from Ogden, Utah. My most recent project was Shutter, which was nominated for a Bram Stoker award, which I’m still super psyched about…
[Courtney] Obviously. I also have two novels coming up next year in 2018. The first one is Pitch Dark, which is a science fiction and horror mashup, and another novel with the lovely Valynne Maetani, who I believe has also been featured in… At least in book form on this show. Of Ink and Ashes fame. Our novel is called Seven Deadly Shadows and will be out from HarperTeen in fall of 2018. I’ve been pitching it as a mashup between a Kurosawa Seven Samurai and Japanese Grim Reaper Death Dogs. I’m very excited for it.
[Dan] I can’t wait for that book to come out.
[Howard] Gonna be a lot of… Oh. So. You pitched this topic to us, Courtney. What makes a good monster?
[Courtney] In my humble opinion, monsters are the best when they subvert the status quo and when they remind us that we are not on the top of the food chain. All good monsters, whether you’re talking about monsters from horror projects or science fiction or fantasy, all manage to do that in some way. I think of… My favorite monster, of course, is the xenomorph, because, based on Giger’s work, which is based on Lovecraft’s… So I always go back to the Alien. I think that it’s one of the best. Because it really dialed into that theme of we are not at the top of the food chain. It’s invulnerable. It’s almost impossible to kill. It just ravages that crew in deep space. It was really fantastically well done. So I think the crux, if you’re creating monsters for whatever genre, you need to remember that that monster will only be frightening if it somehow poses a threat to your protagonist or to that culture.
[Mary] What I love about this definition is that it’s something that can apply to people as well as…
[Mary] That was very specific. I am brilliant today. Not that smart.
[Dan] But it didn’t cover everything. So…
[Mary] You do it, Dan. Go, Dan.
[Howard] People and furniture and…
[Mary] You can have a monster furniture, I think.
[Mary] A piano that falls on you. That type of thing.
[Howard] What’s the name of the chest in Dungeons & Dragons? That isn’t a treasure chest.
[Dan] Oh. Yeah. It’s a monster that looks…
[Howard] The mimic. I played a video game, Borderlands videogame in which I did not know that they had put mimics in the game. The first chest I hit that all of a sudden turned into a monster, I screamed.
[Howard] I screamed, I… Well. I screamed like I scream.
[Dan] Which is awesome. Now, Courtney mentioned the xenomorph. What I really love about them, because you talk about subverting kind of what we expect. One of the great things about the xenomorph is that it presents a very terrifying rape threat to men. That’s not something that men often worry about. Yet that entire series is about men being raped and impregnated. Which is something that’s really kind of creepy and subversive because it’s so unnatural.
[Susan] Do you think it’s something that you recognize just from the beginning or were you just… Did that just creep up on you? Upon further reflection?
[Dan] Yeah. Absolutely. It’s not something that I got immediately. But then after someone pointed it out later, I’m like, “Oh, yeah.”
[Howard] Can’t un-see that.
[Susan] That’s why I [inaudible]
[Dan] That’s absolutely what happened to that guy.
[Courtney] You can’t un-see that once you see it.
[Howard] Coming back to the xenomorph one more time, when you look at Giger’s original illustrations, much of what’s going into that is the sort of line work that you would see in industry. That you would see in machines, that you would see in plumbing, that you would see in the things that we create. That we are the master of. Now you are seeing these as part of something that we had nothing to do with, and will eat us. That was part of what made it so alien for me.
[Mary] I was just… As you were talking… I do not watch horror because I… It sticks in my brain and I scare easy. But one of the things I was thinking about was Hannibal Lecter, in terms of subverting. Because he’s this… He’s a monster. But he so soft-spoken, and cultured, and that makes him creepier.
[Dan] He has, for my money, the greatest monster introduction… The greatest character introduction in any movie, where we spend 15 minutes talking about how dangerous he is. Don’t approach him. Don’t give him anything. Don’t tell him about yourself. While the conversation is happening, we are going down stairs and through security doors and gates and end up in this awful dungeon. We finally see him. He’s standing there, perfectly still, perfectly clean, perfectly calm, in a well-lit room. It’s not what we expected. It’s terrifying.
[Courtney] Right. That’s exactly true.
[Howard] Let’s… So we’ve talked about Hannibal, we’ve talked about the xenomorph. Are there other monsters that, for you, subvert these tropes in ways that surprise you… That subvert the status in ways that surprise you and horrify you?
[Courtney] Oh, that’s a good question. Actually, in here, I think, I want to talk about the Pale Man from Guillermo del Toro. How many people have seen Pan’s Labyrinth?
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Courtney] It’s phenomenal. I think why the Pale Man works so well is he doesn’t just subvert the zombie trope. But he pulls from ancient Japanese tradition, he’s actually based on a monster called the Te-no-me that has hands… Or sorry, eyes on his hands. What del Toro did so well… There is the fact that the Pale Man represents and is a metaphor for everything else that happening in the film, for all of the Capitan’s just monstrous acts and all of his debasement of the people in the film and the people that follow him. It’s just done so well and I love… That’s what I love. From monsters. Not just the monsters that subvert my expectations, but also the monsters that become representative of other aspects of the projects.
[Howard] Reflecting other angles of the story.
[Courtney] Right. That is what is really important to me as a writer. I want to see those monsters reflecting other themes or other aspects of the projects and bring everything full circle. It’s great to have a frightening monster. That’s a great thing. I really want that out of the projects that I choose to spend my time on. But I really want those monsters to be deeper than that and to represent ideas in the film. So with the Pale Man, you see him and he has eyes in his hands and no eyes in his head. When we first see him, he’s sitting at this luxurious feast. There’s a huge spread in front of him. But you see him with his hands on the table and he’s sitting still. He’s not eating anything. His body is flaccid and his skin hangs off his bones in these almost drapes. His skin is almost draped on his frame. You know at one point that he has been satiated. He has been a much larger creature than he now is. It isn’t until our protagonist, little Ofelia, picks a piece of fruit off his table and takes something away from him that he turns on her and tries to kill her. The same thing is happening in the movie. It isn’t until Ofelia, our protagonist, tries to save her mother from the Capitan that the Capitan also turns on her. So I just think that’s brilliant, when authors can make those parallels between their monsters and what’s actually happening in their projects. That’s when things really shine and really work well.
[Mary] Now, I’m going to use that as an example, to highlight something that is a danger. Which is that frequently someone gets very excited about the idea of parallelism and comes too close to it. So if, for instance, the Capitan had turned on Ofelia when she took a grape from his table, and someone’s like, “Oh, look at the parallelism.” That’s the kind of thing that you have to be cautious about.
[Howard] Too on the nose.
[Mary] Too on the nose. Similarly, I think also that when you’re looking at the subversion of the… That you can potentially take that too far and make a monster that is no longer frightening, but actually comical.
[Courtney] Right. Right. I mean, that’s an excellent point.
[Howard] Let’s break for a moment for a book of the week. Courtney, I think you’ve got one for us.
[Courtney] Great. I’m going to talk about my book Shutter. It was out in 2015, and again, was nominated for a Bram Stoker award, and I will continue to say that probably for the rest of my life.
[Courtney] That’s all I’ve ever wanted. It is actually based on the van Helsing legacy, and is set in San Francisco, and is about a direct descendent of the van Helsing line. They have continued to slay monsters into the 21st century with all their 21st-century tech. It’s about Micheline Helsing, who is a tetrachromat, which means she can see the auras of the undead in a color spectrum based on how much life energy is left in their bodies, and goes after a ghost in a hospital one night, intending to exorcise it with her camera as she does, and fails miserably. Doesn’t just fail, but fails miserably, and ends up cursed. She has seven days to exorcise this ghost, otherwise the ghost will take her life.
[Howard] For those of you not benefiting from the video feed, I’m looking at the cover and I like it.
[Courtney] Thank you.
[Mary] Very pretty, and that… By very pretty, I mean, slightly terrifying.
[Howard] So, how do we go about creating these monsters? What’s in your toolbox when you sit down to craft a monster? What are the prosaic, what are the poetic, what are the plot-ish that you used to make this work?
[Courtney] The first thing I think that is critical is a knowledge of folklore. That can come from any culture. I personally, obviously I’ve mentioned Japanese folklore on a number of occasions. I think Japanese folklore is incredible. They have an incredibly diverse bestiary and it’s just really extensive and amazing. They have hundreds of creatures and different kinds of ghosts, and it’s stunning. But I study folklore from all over the world, from Africa and from Europe, and just am fascinated by how we build monsters and how we express our fears with monsters as well, both culturally and in fiction. So I’ve always started there. I like my monsters… Again, going back to the whole del Toro thing, I like my monsters to have meaning. So I always look at the monster’s role in a book. So in Shutter, the book’s theme is all about vengeance and how we deal with the people who have wronged us. So all the monsters are tied back to that theme. There’s scorpion monsters, and of course, scorpions were symbolic of revenge in Greek mythology. The ghost itself is tied directly to Japanese onryo which I’m sure you’ve seen in like The Ring or those types of films, in which a vengeful ghost comes back and starts to wreak havoc. So I always start with that rule and that function that a monster has in a novel. Pitch Dark, my novel that’s coming out next February, is very much about… How do I put this?
[Courtney] The monsters themselves were kind of intended… This is going to sound comical, but kind of intended to be like a comments section in a…
[Dan] No, that’s perfect.
[Mary] No, that’s… I’m terrified.
[Courtney] An angry comments section. So what these monsters are able to do is use sound, they use shrieks and screams and the pressure of sound to break bones, crack skulls, burst organs in your body. It was meant to take those voices that… We often say, “Oh those… Sticks and stones can’t hurt you.” And turn that into a physical force. Because as I’m sure… As many of you were affected by the events of last year, it had an impact. As an artist, I started to respond to that, and I saw my monsters also starting to respond to that.
[Howard] As a former audio engineer, I know very well that words can hurt you.
[Howard] If I’ve got a big enough amplifier.
[Dan] I love the idea of the comments section. It made me immediately think actually of Kylo Ren from the Star Wars movies. Because, who are we afraid of right now? We’re afraid of young white men who can’t control their emotions. I mean, that’s really what Kylo Ren is. For me, that’s how I start with a monster. What am I afraid of? What kinds of things frighten me? Digging deeper than just, well, I’m afraid of being eaten by a wolf. I’m afraid of being alone in the dark and incapacitated such that something can eat me. Think of those things. I’m afraid of being abandoned. I’m afraid of… All of these kind of very primal things. Then, how can I spin that up into a monster?
[Howard] One of the tools that I have employed has less to do with the monster and more to do with the protagonist. I totally got this from Mary. I want my protagonist to be super competent, and I want their super competence to have absolutely no bearing on… No effect on the monster. They can be good at all kinds of things, but that doesn’t bug the monster. The monster is powerful in other ways. The reason that works for me in terms of subversion is that I get to see somebody who really should be at the top of the food chain, they’re at the top of their game, and it just doesn’t matter. The monster has a different rule set.
[Mary] The monster targets their weakness. So one thing that I also wanted to bring out that you were talking about when you were talking about expressing your fear, and looking at monsters in other cultures. I want to make sure that the listeners understand what you’re talking about is not cultural appropriation. You’re looking at patterns of the ways monsters develop in other cultures, and the consistent things that frighten people from culture to culture.
[Susan] That they’re universal. That even if it’s a bizarre monster that you’ve never seen with eyes in its hands, that you can kind of get what that is. Or like the spider monster in so many different cultures. Very Yungian in that we can all be afraid of them.
[Howard] I was… Yungian is definitely the right word there. There are things that have scared us for all of how many tens of thousands of years of human history. Tap that.
[Courtney] I’m glad you brought that up. Actually. Because it isn’t just stealing monsters from other cultures or appropriating them. Like, the Pale Man. If you look at the Pale Man, it’s very different in its conception and its appearance from the Japanese te-no-me, but you can definitely see the patterns there. The Japanese are not the only culture that have put the eyes of a creature elsewhere. I know there’s an African monster that I can’t remember the name of at the moment that actually puts the eyes in the feet. There are other Japanese monsters that have eyes elsewhere that we may not… It might not be appropriate to mention where those eyes are right now…
[Courtney] But it is… Like, it’s true. If you start to look at cultures, you start to see the patterns in the monsters, because there are things we fear. Speaking of eyes, I once asked my husband what the most terrifying monster he had ever seen was. He was like hands down, in a second, he said, “Neil Gaiman’s Corinthian.” It is a monster with mouths instead of eyes. He can breathe and speak and eat through the eye… Or through the mouths in his eyes. It’s terrifying. It’s absolutely terrifying.
[Howard] Well, on that note, we should probably wrap this up. Because we don’t want to leave our listeners just terrified all night. Susan, can you give us a writing prompt?
[Susan] Yeah. It’s funny, because Courtney actually mentioned the writing prompt that I was thinking about. Which is that Neil Gaiman’s American Gods kind of envisioned like an American monster… I’m sorry, American Gods, like what using all of the different mythologies and kind of coming to America and kind of creating a uniquely American God. So I would like you to write about a uniquely American monster. Whether or not he has orange hair and [inaudible]
[Susan] I’ll leave up to you.
[Courtney] Really great. I mean, really great.
[Howard] I love it.
[Howard] Fair listener, you are out of excuses. Now go write.