I love monsters. I’ve always loved monsters. I know for a fact there are plenty of ‘mature’ adults out there – those who have severed the ties with their childhood selves – who would shake their heads condescendingly at such an admission. I used to be slightly embarrassed to admit the shelves of my study, in which I write my horror stories, were lined with all manner of spooky memorabilia, but I’ve now reached an age where other people’s opinions of my likes and dislikes don’t bother me in the slightest. Monsters make me happy, and if anyone thinks that’s silly and childish, then that’s their loss, as far as I’m concerned.
There is a serious element to monsters, of course. Psychologists would tell you they’re embodiments of our primal fears, which is an interpretation I’ll happily go along with. I’d be lying, though, if I claimed that that was their main appeal. You see, for me, monsters are not simply symbolic of humanity’s dark side. They are also glorious gateways to the imagination.
What I personally love about monsters – what I’ve always loved about monsters – is that they’re something you’ve never seen before. They’re new, unique, products of a writer’s, or an artist’s, or a designer’s imagination. They don’t exist in the real world; they’re a fresh configuration of the physical. For that reason I find them both visually and mentally exciting. They provide stimulation for the eyes and the mind.
But coming back to that point about primal fears for a moment, monsters are, of course, designed to be scary, at least for the most part, and are often portrayed as threatening, as a danger to life and limb. Their purpose is generally to get the blood rushing, the adrenaline flowing. But really effective monsters don’t only frighten us; they also inspire wonder and awe. They suggest there is something beyond the humdrum, the ordinary. They make the world – and sometimes the universe – a bigger, more mysterious place. A numinous place, full of secrets. Of potential.
In my journey through life I’ve encountered hundreds, possibly thousands, of monsters – in books and comics, in films and TV shows – but some have made more of an impression upon me than others. When it comes to my ‘favourites’, if you can call them that, it isn’t always their size, or the way they look, that has caused them to burrow deep into my psyche and lodge there like shrapnel. Often it’s simply that they happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The five monsters I’ve chosen below are the ones that have made the greatest impression upon me. They’ve done so primarily (though not entirely) because they appeared at particular moments in my life – moments when I was at my most… I guess ‘susceptible’ is the word that springs to mind. Or even simply ‘open’.
Between the ages of five and nine I lived in Hong Kong, and it was there, in the magazine section of a supermarket called Dairy Lane, that I saw my first ever copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland.
As a kid the magazine terrified me – that iconic logo, the leering, monstrous faces that appeared, one each month, on the covers – but whenever I could I would pick up Famous Monsters and tentatively leaf through it. At that age, I recall, I was always terrified at the prospect of what I might see, of what unspeakable horror I might unwittingly subject myself to, with each fearful turn of the page. I’m pretty sure it was in the pages of this hallowed magazine that I first encountered the shadow-drenched picture below.
To my impressionable six-year-old self this picture was terrifying. With his bared teeth and glaring eyes, it seemed to me that Lon Chaney’s Wolfman was the very epitome of savagery and madness. Lit from below, the shadows made it appear as though the Wolfman also possessed small pig-like tusks on either side of his nose, with which I imagined he would tear and rend his victims. In fact, for years I was convinced that he did possess such appendages – to the extent that when I finally saw the film, in my early to mid-teens, I remember being puzzled as to why he didn’t.
Because of the insane rage encapsulated within that face, the Wolfman, for several years, seemed to me the ultimate monster, one I felt sure would become an unstoppable force when unleashed. Although Frankenstein (which, like many kids, I thought was the name of the monster rather than the scientist), Dracula and the Mummy also scared me, in some ways they seemed to me ‘lesser’ monsters. I felt sure that if it ever came to a fight between the lot of them, the sheer bestial fury of the Wolfman would see him emerge the victor every time.
CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON
A triumph of design, the Creature, to my childhood self, was both hideous and utterly beautiful. Today I own a model of the Creature, which sits proudly on a shelf in my study, and even almost half a century later my opinion of him is still much the same.
His plated, dimpled flesh; his wide mouth and cold, fish-like eyes; the rows of gills sweeping back from the sides of his head, which curiously have always reminded me of mutton-chop whiskers; his overlarge webbed hands and feet, tipped with hooked claws… it’s all so breathtakingly beautiful. He’s scary and alien, and you imagine his flesh to be slick, ice-cold and repellant, but at the same time he has a dignity and grace and poise that I find awe-inspiring, even noble.
Terrifying. Simply terrifying.
I was maybe twelve when I first saw Hammer’s The Reptile, and over four decades later it remains my favourite Hammer movie. For me, this film is the very definition of the word ‘eerie’. The blighted village, the isolated cottage on the moors, the haunting music drifting across the stark landscape at night, the troubled and austere local doctor, harbouring a terrible secret… all these elements combine to create a truly unsettling viewing experience that is far more than the sum of its parts.
Like another of my Hammer favourites, The Devil Rides Out, this movie seemed, to my adolescent self, to weave a corrupt and deadly spell so powerful that it was capable of curling out from the screen like poisonous mist to infect the viewer. I remember being appalled at the idea of a monster whose bite could turn a man’s flesh black as coal, and cause him to die, writhing in convulsions and choking up white froth.
And when that creature was finally revealed about two-thirds of the way into the movie… my God! Its lidless, bulging eyes, its long curved fangs, the sheer serpentine litheness of it – this to me was the very epitome of a nightmare made manifest. To my impressionable self the Reptile seemed both utterly ruthless and utterly lethal, a creature whose venom promised the most awful, the most painful death imaginable.
I couldn’t compile this list without mentioning a Doctor Who monster, now, could I?
Doctor Who may well be the single biggest influence on my career. It was certainly the first – and probably second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth – piece of fiction that frightened me. My first memory of the show was seeing the massive, savage Yeti laying siege to Det Sen monastery in the story The Abominable Snowmen in 1967 when I was four. I remembered being terrified – almost traumatised – on numerous occasions during the following decade, not least by the Ice Warriors, the Cybermen, the seaweed monster in Fury From the Deep, the Autons and the injured Silurian in the barn in one of Jon Pertwee’s early Third Doctor adventures.
The Cybermen and the Autons I found particularly troubling. For years I was haunted by the idea that creatures with blank faces could commit such atrocities. Even as a very young child I remember finding the juxtaposition between emotionlessness and murder deeply, deeply disturbing.
And of course, I can’t talk about Doctor Who without mentioning the Daleks. It goes without saying that the mental meanies from Skaro are one of the greatest monster designs of all time, whose appearance, even today, can inspire fear and awe. My favourite Doctor Who monster, though, is one that first appeared in 1975 during Tom Baker’s second season as the Fourth Doctor, and who didn’t reappear until the show’s fiftieth anniversary special The Day of the Doctor in 2013.
The story Terror of the Zygons was the perfect platform for introducing the titular creatures. Taking place in an isolated village surrounded by moorland and within spitting distance of a lonely stretch of seashore (a location which shares many similarities to the one in which The Reptile takes place, in fact), Terror of the Zygons is a doom-laden tale, underpinned by an eerily evocative music score – incredibly creepy fare for a family audience on a Saturday teatime. By the time the first Zygon is revealed in its full glory at the end of episode one, the tension is as palpable as the thick, soupy fog that envelops Tulloch Moor. I still recall the utter shock I felt when, at the touch of a gnarled, suckered hand on her shoulder, the Doctor’s companion Sarah Jane Smith spins round to encounter the thing looming over her. As viewers we initially catch only a glimpse of it – its bulbous, suckered head, the sheer malice on its puckered, twisted features – before the electronic screech preceding the closing theme music kicks in, and the swirling vortex of the end titles leaves us with nothing but a nightmarish impression to carry in our minds until next week’s episode.
In my opinion, the Zygon design – its shape, its colour, its texture – is a work of genius. Like evil, angry fetuses covered in octopus-like suckers, the Zygons possess a body-horror element that is rarely seen in Doctor Who. Add to that their sibilant, hissing voices and their oozing, organic technology, and you’ve pretty much got yourself the ideal monster package.
On a panel at a British Fantasy Convention in the late 1980s, the panelists were asked to sum up, in one word, what they thought horror fiction should be. I can’t remember what the other panelists said, but I remember Clive Barker’s answer. He said that he thought horror fiction should be “confrontational”.
Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, the six volumes of which were published between 1984 and 1985, were a massive influence on me. Having graduated in 1984, I spent the next few years in a draughty bedsit in Leeds, feverishly writing horror stories and sending them out to magazines and anthologies. When I wasn’t writing I was reading, and although I’d grown up reading Stephen King, James Herbert and the Pan and Fontana Books of Horror and Ghost stories, I recall this period as a time of true epiphany for me. In the mid 80s, thanks to Stephen King’s non-fiction book Danse Macabre, I discovered genre writers I’d never encountered before, among them Ramsey Campbell, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Anne Rivers Siddons, Fritz Leiber, Shirley Jackson and Peter Straub. From those writers I went on to discover Charles L. Grant, Dennis Etchison, John Farris and others. It was also around this time, 1985 or 1986, when I found the first slim volume of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood in a second-hand bookshop in Huddersfield. Never having heard of him before, I picked the book up purely because of the cover quote from my new favourite writer Ramsey Campbell, who described Barker as ‘the most important new horror writer since Peter Straub.’
The stories in that first volume of The Books of Blood – and in the following five volumes, which I subsequently bought and devoured – blew my mind. It’s hard to describe the impact of them today, but at the time they seemed to expand horror fiction to way beyond the boundaries it had previously imposed on itself. It really seemed to me that, thanks to Clive Barker, there were now no limits as far as horror fiction was concerned. And although Clive became known in his early days for the gut-clenching extremism of some of his imagery – an approach that would go on to lay the groundwork for the so-called Splatterpunk movement of the late 80s – it was clear from reading his work that in terms of his imagination alone, from which flowed a seemingly never-ending stream of decadent, dangerous, audacious, perverse and transformative ideas, he was a true visionary.
All of these qualities were encapsulated in Clive’s creation of the Cenobites, demonic doyens of pain and suffering, which first appeared in his novella The Hellbound Heart, and were then brought to startling life in the movie Hellraiser.
Chief among the Cenobites, of course, was Pinhead, and almost immediately he became an iconic screen monster – and deservedly so.
Brilliantly portrayed by Doug Bradley, Pinhead’s striking, fetishistic appearance and sonorous delivery, accompanied invariably by the clinking of chains and the howling of an unearthly wind, is like a living embodiment not only of Barker’s vision, but of late 80s/early 90s horror fiction. It was a boom period for the genre, when anything seemed possible – especially for a young writer like myself, whose first novel rode the crest of the horror wave and catapulted me to instant, dizzying success.
Within a few short years I went from reading Clive Barker’s work in my chilly bedsit to sitting beside him at literary events, signing books until our hands cramped up. Whenever I see Pinhead now – and I have a model of him perched imperiously on a pile of books on the corner of my desk – I’m reminded of those heady days.
Days when there were no limits, and horror was king.