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Mirrored by Monsters

by Lauren Havens

*This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of RA News.*

Vampires, witches, and all other non-human creatures used to be considered the embodiment of evil -- or at least of something to be avoided. Nowadays, these “monsters” are just as likely to be protagonists as villains. After all, reality doesn’t describe good and evil in black and white terms, so why should fictional characters -- even monsters -- be so flat? Characters -- both good and bad -- who are written in such a way as to show their struggles, failings, and accomplishments allow readers to see themselves in those characters' thoughts and actions.

This type of story has become particularly prevalent in the science fiction and fantasy genres, as demonstrated in the Weather Warden series by Rachel Caine and in Stan Nicholls’ series Orcs: First Blood. There has been a shift from thinking of the not-human as monsters to instead thinking of them as simply different -- of having different talents (ex. telepathy) and challenges (ex. controlling magical abilities when angry) than human characters do. These creatures are now protagonists who struggle with issues just like humans. They have arguments with ex-boyfriends, try to find acceptance within their communities, and form friendships. These non-human characters are not flat personifications of evil; they are engaging characters that allow us to explore how we would feel and act in similar situations.

Even better for those who do not label themselves as horror fans, these sympathetic monsters are found in many other genres as well.

Science Fiction

The Passage by Justin Cronin
ISBN: 9780345528179

In this apocalyptic novel, a government-made virus has turned people into horrifying vampire creatures. These creatures were turned unwillingly into something grotesque, but they are not mindless or emotionless. Their bleak lives and struggles make them sympathetic. Their horrifying situation creates an emotional connection for readers.
 

Loch by Paul Zindel
ISBN: 9780786851508

Loch and his sister, Zaidee, accompany their father on a scientific expedition tracking monsters in a remote Vermont lake. They soon learn, however, that the creatures they encounter aren’t the only monsters in the world. Their father's boss, Mr. Cavenger, has plans to kill the lake creatures, plans that horrify Loch and Zaidee, especially after they befriend one of the creatures. Though these intelligent creatures do attack humans, they only do so when threatened, making them empathetic compared to the also-violent humans. This action-packed novel creates a suspenseful adventure and was selected a Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Readers by ALA. (Teen.)

Fantasy/Fiction

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
ISBN: 9780345459404

Non-human creatures used to be categorized as the bad guys, but not in Mieville’s world. Not only does the protagonist rely on help from non-humans such as a garuda (a half-bird, half-human creature) and a sentient robot, but he’s in a romantic relationship with an insectoid-like being. This thrilling adventure is gruesome and violent, filled with bad guys, love, mad scientists, flying monsters, and more.

Dead until Dark by Charlaine Harris
ISBN: 9780441016990

Sure, vampires can do the traditional thing of sucking your blood, or they can be really interesting boyfriends. This series explores how any creature, human or otherwise, has the potential for good and evil. Sookie Stackhouse, the protagonist, is able to read minds, something that has made her life both easier and more difficult in the small town. Fun, light-hearted reading. (Sookie Stackhouse Novels, 1)

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
ISBN: 9780060530945

The supernatural beings in this novel offer safety and peace while the human world is filled with danger. Nobody Owens lost his family when he was a baby. Raised by ghosts, he lives in a graveyard, but the man who murdered his family is still out there searching for him. (Teen.)
 

The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice
ISBN: 9780307742100

Reuben Golding is saved from violent home invaders by a werewolf, who infects him in the process. As Reuben begins his own journey as a werewolf, he gains heightened senses that let him help others, but his heroic acts are also accompanied by violence that draws unwanted attention. As a sympathetic monster similar to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, readers will form an emotional connection to Reuben as his life is changed forever in this thrilling novel.

Grendel by John Gardner
ISBN: 9780679723110

Gardner tells the story of Beowulf from the perspective of the monster Grendel. While he certainly isn’t perfect or a hero-in-disguise -- he sometimes does eat a person -- Grendel is a character with whom readers can identify and come to understand in ways that wasn’t possible from his portrayal in Beowulf.

 

Graphic Novels

Hellboy, Vol 1: Seed of Destruction by Michael Mignola
ISBN: 9781593070946

Not all heroes are dashing masked men. Hellboy, for example, is a very unlikely hero. He’s a demon who doesn’t always listen to authority (not a great surprise). In this first installment of the Hellboy series, he not only investigates a mystery involving a murder and missing corpse but discovers the secrets of his origin. Hellboy has plenty of attitude to keep readers laughing along the way.

Romance

Dark Prince by Christine Feehan
ISBN: 9780062019554

The Carpathians inhabit a steamy, magical world. They are an immortal race of humans with supernatural powers who need to feed on human blood in order to maintain those powers. They do not, however, harm humans in order to sate their cravings. These powers, their need for human blood, and their sleeping in the day and being awake at night make them easily confused by humans with vampires. The empathetic male characters are hindered from leading a truly free life as their survival depends on finding a human mate. If he doesn't find his mate, his animal instincts will consume him, turning him into a true vampire who kills humans and Carpathians alike without care for harm. The female protagonist in this novel, Raven Whitney, has a magical talent of her own, and when her romance is threatened by human forces, she’ll need her talents and her love to overcome the obstacles. (Carpathians, 1)

Marked by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast
ISBN: 9780312360269

As the first in the House of Night series, this novel introduces readers to 16 year-old Zoey Redbird and the House of Night, a school where she will train to become an adult vampire. She didn’t feel like she fit in as a human, but even in the vampire world, she feels out of place. While struggling with the physical and mental changes of being an adult and a vampire, she struggles to remain true to herself and what she believes in a world where magical misuse is going on behind closed doors. Be aware that there is steamy content and suggestive language. Teen. (House of Night, 1)

Horror

Bag of Bones by Stephen King
ISBN: 9780671024239

While Bag of Bones initially seems to be a straightforward ghost story, the situation is much more complex. Mike Noonan must confront danger and mystery from both human and supernatural sources in order to fix issues in his own life and those he’s unwittingly found himself in the middle of while visiting his summer home in Maine. A human villain attempts to drown him in order to get him out of the way of legal proceedings, and a ghost with a history of revenge attempts to harm those he’s come to care about.

The Secret Hour by Scott Westerfeld
ISBN: 9780060519537

Readers old enough to recall Buffy the Vampire Slayer may see similarities with The Secret Hour. After moving to a small town, 15 year-old Jessica Day discovers that she’s one of a select group of people born at midnight, Midnighters. This select group can move about at midnight, given a 25th hour when the rest of only have 24. They battle the slithers and other dark creatures that have suddenly become more aggressive with Jessica’s arrival in town, the creatures having sensed something special about Jessica’s powers and determined for her not to learn or be able to use her powers. Just as Jessica’s powers make her life more interesting, they also make it more dangerous as she battles slithers and tries to make it through high school. Teen. (Midnighters, 1)

Though many “horrifying” creatures were created and initially thrived in the horror genre, they’re now just as likely to show up in any genre. The complexities and depth that they display can spice up a plot, simply entertain us, or make us wonder how we would behave in those bizarre circumstances. While we may never get into a magical fight with a group of witches, we can relate to the desire to rise above an enemy’s level, the need to help a friend, or the wish to prove that goodness does still exist in the world.


Lauren Havens works at Durham Technical Community College and Durham County Library's North Carolina Collection. She is interested in better understanding how socioeconomic factors influence patrons' behavior in the library and online. In addition to her work as a librarian, she conducts online research for jury trials.