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From monsters under the bed to monsters on the big screen, critics have long argued that monsters reflect society’s fears. But monsters are fun too. Marked by their non-humanity, monsters are perfect candidates for the horror genre as they allow readers to explore fear in a safe environment.
Whether you’re dealing with a sexy monster (think Twilight or True Blood) or a terrifying monster, the fact is that people love their monsters. Why?
Well, there are many theories, but some of the most popular ones revolve around Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s ideas in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, where he talks about monsters as the embodiment of society’s deepest fears. According to Cohen, we keep creating monsters (on screen, in literature) to explore our fears. They will never die because we keep bringing them back. Fellow rioter Jessica Yang wrote about the cultural meaning of monsters in her essay on monsters in fiction.
Here is an example. Do you remember that zombies used to be slow, brain-hungry creatures? Then something happened (some have argued that something was 9/11) and they all quickly became frightening in different ways. Cohen talked about it: society recreating monsters to think through its fears.
Then there is this interesting phenomenon where vampires went from very coarse and half decomposed to, well, hot. I’m not the only one to point to Anne Rice’s interview with a vampire as the beginning of this development. Lyndsie Manusos talks about this phenomenon in her post on romance and monsters.
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Whatever monster you fancy, here are some books to get your pulse racing. You may and may not work your way through some of these cultural fears, but these books will be both engaging and entertaining in equal measure.
Horror books about monsters
The Living Dead by George A. Romero and Daniel Kraus
In 1968, George A. Romero wrote and directed what is probably the most influential zombie film of all time: The Night of the Living Dead. Ten years later he delivered Dawn of the Dead, followed by other zombie films in the following years. And didn’t you know, he was working on a zombie epic when he died in 2017. This is the book that Daniel Kraus faithfully completed at the invitation of Romero’s heirs. If that’s not enough description for you, I’ll say the following: The Living Dead is an updated zombie epic for the contemporary moment as envisioned by the man who gave us the modern zombie. You should read.
Certain dark things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Vampires + Aztec mythology + an unlikely love story = certain dark things. This captivating novel about warring vampire clans was originally published in 2016 and is finally available again! With her accustomed skillful genre navigation and her flair for romance, Moreno-Garcia somehow brings together a large cast of very different characters in a heartbreaking thriller that cannot be put out of hand. (And if you like this one, you’ll likely like your dark fairy tale Gods of Jade and Shadow for its exploration of Mexican folklore. Also, you know, Mexico in the jazz age, a stubborn Mayan god, and another unexpected love affair. How can you go wrong with this recipe?)
The changeling by Victor LaValle
“If monsters are your subject, writing like an angel helps.” So wrote Jennifer Sr. in her NYT review of The Changeling. And it’s true – LaValle’s writing is as beautiful as it is appalling in this tale of parental love and a fairytale bait-and-switch. Apollo Kagawa is a deeply in love new father who can’t get enough of his baby. He brazenly posts floods of images of his new child on social media and lives happily in his fatherhood until things go horribly, horribly wrong. The characters in this novel feel like real people, and the dangers of the otherworldly horrors lurking in Apollo’s corner of New York City are terrifyingly close. If you recently had a child yourself this may not be the book for you right now, but otherwise it is exciting read.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
Did you know that Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Colson Whitehead wrote a zombie novel a few years ago? That’s right: Zone One follows Mark Spitz over three fateful days as he works to rid Manhattan of his remaining zombies. Because, you know, pandemics. (Which reminds me that you might want to ponder if reading a pandemic book while we’re in the middle of our own pandemic sounds like something you’d want to do.) It’s a pageturner with a cliffhanger ending, that makes you think about where the lines are between humans and so-called monsters. And also the collapse of society and such.
Seven Deadly Shadows by Courtney Alameda and Valynne E. Maetani
Maybe you feel like reading a YA book. Try this out for size: a battle between a demon king and a 17 year old girl where the fate of humanity is at stake. A retelling of the seven samurai. Already addicted? This should be you – Seven Deadly Shadows is the terrifying story of Kira Fujikawa, an unpopular high school student who Yokai gets to see. This turns out to be a good thing as she will need her help in saving all of humanity when the Demon King Shuten-doji comes to destroy the world in a couple of weeks. What’s a little world saving when you’re the teenage victim of bullying? It’s surprising read, but given who wrote it, it’s not surprisingly good either.
Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline
Ever heard of Rougarou? Empire of Wild is a monster story about this werewolf-like creature. In an interview with CBC Radio, Dimaline talked about how this Métis monster can differ from one community to another, but explains that the Rougarou she grew up with is “a big black dog who also somehow looks like a man” , has a seductive quality about it and is what those who break the rules of the community can become. And for a masterful storyteller like Dimaline, writing a horror novel about a rougarou means bringing amazing joy to readers. The story begins with Joan’s relentless search for her husband, who has been missing for almost a year. They had an argument, he went to clear his head, and he never came back. This is the beginning of a complex and terrifying book about love, betrayal, and fellowship.
Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda (translated by Polly Barton)
Ghost stories, anyone? NPR has hailed Aoko Matsuda’s collection of short stories as “creepy, original, and defiantly feminist,” calling it the “perfect Halloween reading.” It’s horror that prompts readers to think about what is really terrible and who is actually a monster. For example, are the ghosts the monsters or are the circumstances that made them ghostly? In their thoughtfulness, Matsuda’s stories give up some of the heartbeat pumping effects that attract many horror fans, but these stories are scary and satisfying nonetheless.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
If you are looking for a good vampire story, Grady Hendrix’s book is an unexpected and interesting one. It starts with the protagonist Patricia Campbell and her book club. These southern suburban women may be unlikely candidates for a horror novel, but before you know it, the sleepy suburbs have turned into a vampire hunting ground. Not only that, it’s a racially charged hunting ground where young black children have been targeted by the vampires and Patricia needs the help of her book club to keep things from going too far.
Almost Everything by Stephen Graham Jones (Seriously)
I can’t even make up my mind where to start with Stephen Graham Jones’ work. I mean, the guy is productive and almost all of his lyrics are teeming with monsters. Do you want a zombie novel? You really can’t go wrong with Gospel of Z or the more comedic Zombie Bake-Off. Want a good old fashioned werewolf story (with Jones’ signature evil spin, of course)? Read mixed race. Looking for a different kind of monster? The terrifying, heartbreaking climax of The Only Good Indians – where the awkwardly named but utterly terrifying Elk Head Woman chases a teenage girl through the frozen Midwestern landscape – won’t disappoint. That guy. He just gives and gives. His cabinet of inventive horrors may take years of your life, but it will be years that sink you into his bloody worlds of stories. (And if you want a horror novel that will make waves but is a little less monstrous, check the shelves of your local bookstore for its latest novel, My Heart Is A Chainsaw.)
If you still need more monsters to please yourself as the nights grow longer and autumn approaches, here are some more lists to help you along the way:
100 must-read books about monsters
Where can I get your monster fix for strange things?
Celebrate Women in Horror Month with 41 black women writers
10 perfectly scary supernatural books for Halloween