By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Literature is full of monsters whose names and appearance have passed into general circulation: we all recognise Frankenstein (even if, as pedants will be quick to point out, Hollywood has made us confuse the ‘monster’ with his creator), Dracula, and the Minotaur, among many others.
But what are the best stories about monsters, whether short tales from myth, epic poems, modern short stories, or long novels? Whether they’re from the realm of modern fantasy fiction or ancient mythology, the following ten monsters are all iconic in their own way, and deserve their place on this list, we reckon. So, without more ado, let’s open the pages of this online bestiary and discover ten of the greatest monster stories ever written.
1. Homer, Odyssey.
Homer’s epic poem was first set down almost three thousand years ago, but it remains one of the most influential monster-heavy stories in Western literature.
Here, we encounter the Cyclops Polyphemus – a one-eyed giant on the island of Sicily – as well as the pair of monsters, Scylla and Charybdis: respectively, a vicious monster with six dog heads and a powerful whirlpool that can suck ships below the surface of the sea. Thanks to his cunning, wily Odysseus manages to outwit the monsters he encounters, or avoid becoming their lunch, but his victories usually come at a terrible cost.
2. Anonymous, ‘Beauty and the Beast’.
Iona and Peter Opie, in their The Classic Fairy Tales, call ‘Beauty and the Beast’ the most symbolic fairy tale after Cinderella, and ‘the most intellectually satisfying’. It’s also one of the oldest: we can trace the archetypal versions of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ back some 4,000 years, making it over 1,000 years older than Homer. If that doesn’t make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck a little, what will it take?
In the version most familiar to readers, the titular Beast – who is extremely ugly – tells a merchant that he will eat one of the merchant’s daughters in retaliation for a crime the merchant committed.
But when the Beast meets ‘Beauty’, the man’s beautiful daughter, he takes a shine to her – and she, gradually, warms to him. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 telling of the fairy tale helped to popularise it, but the germ of the story is much older.
3. Anonymous, ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff’.
The tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff is well-known throughout the world, but what is less well-known is that the story has its origins, not in French or German or Danish literature, like many other fairy tales that are well-known to English-speaking readers, but in Scandinavian literature – which explains the centrality of the troll, a goblin-like creature commonly found in northern European folklore. The story is about three young billy goats trying to cross a bridge which is guarded by a fearsome troll.
4. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
Shelley’s 1818 novel has been called the first science-fiction novel and is certainly a new take on the Gothic horror genre, which by the early nineteenth century was so well-established that it was being parodied by Jane Austen (in her Northanger Abbey). ‘Frankenstein’ is, of course, the name of the student (not a doctor) who creates the monster, rather than the monster himself (although ‘creature’ is the term that’s preferred over ‘monster’).
Created from various human corpses and brought to life, the unnamed creature is shunned by his creator and turns violent and resentful as a result of this mistreatment. Shelley’s novel is one of the first examples of a ‘monster’ being treated in a sympathetic way: see later entries on this list for more recent examples.
5. Bram Stoker, Dracula.
Alongside Frankenstein, this 1897 novel by the Irish author and theatre impresario Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker is probably the best-known ‘monster’ novel of the nineteenth century. The vampire novel was well-established by the 1890s, but Dracula took it to new heights – with Stoker’s vampire being cultured, educated, and alluring, possessing a seductive charm. Of course, it is this charm which makes him so dangerous …
6. Kenneth Grahame, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’.
Grahame is best-remembered now for writing The Wind in the Willows (1908), but he also wrote other novels and stories, including other works for children. This 1898 short story is his best-known shorter work, and is also written for children. Like Borges’ story below, it broke new ground in treating the monster in a sympathetic light: in this case, a dragon who is well-read and loves poetry. It is also a new take on the famous myth of St George and the Dragon.
7. Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The House of Asterion’.
The tale of the Minotaur – the creature that was a man with the head of a bull – is well-known. The Minotaur was kept in the Labyrinth on the Greek island of Crete. The Greek hero Theseus famously slew the Minotaur, and was able to find his way back out of the Labyrinth thanks to a ball of thread that Ariadne had provided him with.
But in this very short 1947 story by the modern master of the form, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) narrates the story from the Minotaur’s point of view, withholding his true identity until the final few sentences.
Is the Minotaur, the offspring of a lust-filled queen and a ferocious bull, a victim rather than a villain? He has been shut away from society and isolated from the rest of the populace, and his only hope of escape now lies with the redeemer he expects to arrive and deliver him from his existence …
8. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.
The Balrog is a tall, fearsome being with fiery whip-like tentacles. A Balrog carries Gandalf down into the depths in the Mines of Moria in Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel (often wrongly labelled a ‘trilogy’, it’s actually one novel divided by Tolkien into six, rather than three, books). The prospect of being caught up in a creature’s tentacles is bad enough, but when those tentacles seem to be made of pure fire, the thought is even more terror-inducing.
9. Angela Carter, ‘The Lady of the House of Love’.
One of the stories from Carter’s 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber, this tale inverts the genders of the Dracula story and focuses on a female vampire in Romania, who lures young men to her mansion in order to feast upon them. Set just prior to the outbreak of the First World War, the story focuses on the latest young man to encounter the ‘lady of the house of love’ – but will he be devoured by her?
10. John Gardner, Grendel.
Grendel is actually only one of three monsters found in the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, but he is undoubtedly the most famous (the other two monsters are Grendel’s mother and a dragon which – spoiler alert – succeeds in vanquishing the hero).
In a classic fantasy novella from 1971, John Gardner told Grendel’s side of things, making a far more sympathetic character out of the monster than we find in the original poem. It’s hard to describe what Grendel actually is, since the original poem doesn’t describe his features in clear detail. However, he’s usually assumed to be some sort of giant.