Choose Your Monster

October 22, 2009

Monster composite

I’m not the biggest fan of “rules” when it comes to horror fiction. After all, most of the classic stories throughout horror history tended to flaunt the established “rules” of the time, pushing into new territories and evolving the genre. They dared to break the rules and that’s why they were remembered. One of the phrases that gets thrown around these days is “Resist the Usual”, and I’m all for that.

However, I am a proponent of “guidelines” and plain old good advice… and here’s some I definitely believe in…


I was reading a novel the other day by a well known horror author (whose name shall remain anonymous). The novel started out well, with an enthralling and creepy scenario involving re-animated zombies. I was hooked, and I settled down for a engrossing evening of reading.

Then the author introduced a witch with the power to disintegrate people with magical fire.

“Okay,” I thought, “I can live with this. Perhaps the witchcraft is the cause of the zombies, my belief elastic can stretch that far. No worries…”

Then the author introduced psychic dreams.

“Okaaay,” I thought – adding an extra couple of a’s to the ‘okay’ for emphasis – “perhaps the witchcraft that caused the zombies can also cause psychic premonitions.”

My belief elastic was starting to strain a little.

Then the author introduced ghosts…

Then strange dinosaur monsters…

And finally vampires.

My belief elastic snapped. My involvement in the story fell to zero. I speed-read the end of the novel without really giving a damn about anything else that happened… no matter how action packed or well written it was.

I once read a “how to” book on horror writing by William F. Nolan (of ‘Logan’s Run’ and ‘Burnt Offerings’ fame) and he gave the advice to limit your stories to one, or at most two, different forms of antagonist.

In other words, you might just get away with a plot about the ghosts of aliens (Stephen King’s ‘The Tommyknockers’), and you might just get away with a plot about werewolves fighting vampires (the Underworld movies), but it’s unlikely you’ll get away with a plot about the ghosts of aliens fighting werewolves, vampires and serial killers.

I have no idea why this is so, perhaps readers are only willing to suspend disbelief up to a certain point, but I do believe the best horror fiction has a tendency to stick to just one type of monster.



2 Responses to “Choose Your Monster”

  1. Justin said

    Here is a scenario in which multiple monsters are acceptable:

    Monster A is very, very big and bad and scary. He has the power to utterly obliterate our dear heroes and they are not sure how the will manage to kill him. Then Monster B comes along and utterly obliterates Monster A w/out breaking a sweat. Now the heroes are in even deeper, pants-crappier, trouble because Monster B makes Monster A look like a Japanese schoolgirl (not the gundam suit kind, the skinny weak kind).

    • Craig said

      Really good point Justin, and actually something I think I’ll explore in a future post. The technique probably has an ‘official’ name but I like to call it “Whedoning the odds”, because I first encountered it (used effectively at least) in Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 2. The Scooby Gang fights the demon, Balthazar, who is pretty dang tough and when they finally kill him, just before he dies, he says “You think you’ve won? When he rises, you’ll wish I’d killed you all…”

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