On Monsters by Stephen Asma

Asma_MonstersAsma, Stephen T. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: If we be human, then need we monsters? In other words, is one of the defining characteristics of humanity the creation of monsters and the monstrous? After all, monsters have always been around. They lurk in our literature, religions, myths, imaginations, landscapes, histories, and (gasp) even in ourselves! Asma takes an omnivorous approach to this topic, exploring the evolution of monsters in relation to science, philosophy, art, literature, psychology, even popular culture. Asma also takes a long hard look at the evolution and mutation of heroes — those summoned to face and defeat what the rest of us fear.

Critique: Why should men and babies worry about witches? Who was the greater monster-slayer: Charles Darwin or Alexander the Great? Why are we more afraid of female monsters?

With innovative provocation, this book invites readers into the world’s most frightening realms to confront the most wondrous yet horrific aspects of human nature: the creating and killing of monsters.

According to Asma, “Each era expresses different fascinations with monsters” but regardless of time, culture, or technology, key features of what makes a monster are consistent. And its these consistencies that wind up communicating a lot about how humans see the world, each other, their desires, their fears, their enemies, and their heroes.

This is a terrific read for writers who deal in horror, the Gothic, paranormal, fantasy, maybe even political thrillers — any genre wherein monsters are made. And it should not be overlooked by anyone noticing the recent trend in Hollywood to create conflicted, sympathetic villains competing against dark and seedy heroes (or antiheroes). Think Iron Man, The Lizard, Bill the Butcher, Walter White, Batman, and Sherlock Holmes. Lately, the line between good and bad is a murky one to draw. And Asma’s research goes a long way helping us understand not just THAT this is happening, but WHY. Why we doubt who’s good, who’s bad, and who needs done away with. The word “monster” stems from Latin monstrum, rooted in monere, to warn. Monstrum can also be found in demonstration, which originally meant “proof that something is true.” So then, monsters are warnings and, perhaps, they are also flares of truth.

Ignore your aversion to footnotes, citations, and source quotes. Asma is a good storyteller and precise researcher with a mind like a lantern able to lead you ever deeper into the dark.

Edit Like Jack the Ripper

Jack o’ lanterns are assembling on stoops and driveways like plump neighbors gossiping, grinning, sneering, and gawking at the neighborhood goings’on. Spiders of all sizes, hairiness, and sparkliness lurk over every window and doorway. Bats, ghouls, mummies, Frankenstein monsters, vampires, and witches form monstrous lawn menageries.

That can only mean…IT’S OCTOBER!!!

Time to indulge in our fanciful fears! Rather than tremble under the blankets when something goes bump in the night, it’s time to sit up and shout BOO!

It’s enough to make any Gothic writer giddy and drunk! So yeah, maybe it was seeing all those cobwebs spread like fungus on front porches… Or, maybe it was the muddy, chemical odor of the wart make-up kit I bought at the store… Whatever it was, I couldn’t read (or write) anything without the macabre sneaking in.

Thus infected, I noticed something leaching its way across two different books by two very different, yet talented writers. Something unpleasant. Something almost sinister.

asaro_veiledwebThe first affected book was Catherine Asaro’s The Veiled Web (1999). Despite its… ehem… mature publication date, I nabbed this book for my own research. I’ve been working on a Gothic cyberfantasy and needed to see how the internet influenced my predecessors.

In The Veiled Web, Lucia del Mar is a world-famous ballerina with an obsession for the internet. She tangles up with a brilliant, sexy tech-mogul who’s virtual reality web browser could revolutionize the evolution of mankind. Then again, it could destroy everyone and everything in its path!

berry_amaranthEThe second book soured by my heightened Hallow’s sensibilities was Julie Berry’s The Amaranth Enchantment (2009). This book is miles away from cyberfantasy, but came highly recommended for Lucinda, its plucky female protagonist (a whole other topic for a future post, I promise).

So what was it that prohibited my enjoyment of two books in such quick succession? I can tell you that had nothing to do with the very similar names of the main characters.

Rest assured, it was not that these authors lacked talent. Indeed, Asaro and Berry are not slouches in the land of literature. Asaro has published hard sci-fi, scientific articles, and she’s had a lot of short stories included in a lot of anthologies. She’s won a few HOMer awards, and snagged more than one Nebula. Likewise, Berry’s books receive multi-starred reviews from Kirkus, and The Hornbook. Her YA novel, All the Truth That’s in Me, was a 2013 Hornbook Fanfare title, Boston Globe Best Read. It was also nominated for a YALSA Best YA Fiction award.

No, the problem resided in a bad habit that many writers exhibit from time to time, and one that I commit often enough I might have overlooked it…had it not been for all those Jacks shining their lanterns on the issue! What leached through both books was what I call anatomical choreography. Whether its a rough draft or a polished revision, many writer’s litter good writing with action described via body parts.

Her feet danced across the room. His eyes darted to the phone. Her hands groped for the ladder. 

Lucia’s body and it’s many parts are all over every page in The Veiled Web. Similarly, in The Amaranth Enchantment, Lucinda’s body crops up, too. Here are several examples:

“Aunt’s mouth opened and shut…” (7)

“I heard the unmistakable stamp of Aunt’s feet in the hall below…” (36)

“I shoved my hip against my bedside table crate to put it back into place…” (36)

“My hands mopped the kitchen floor…” (38)

“I arched my back and let Papa’s strong arms carry me…” (55)

“I reached out a hand grasping at darkness…” (59)

“He reached a long arm over to snatch back his chicken…” (111)

These are all a random assemblage of instances. They seem to arise sporadically, but in truth, the novel averages about 5 body parts per page. Multiply that by 336 pages and what you get is a ton of anatomical shrapnel! Eyes, knees, hands, feet, toes, arms, legs — all scattered about.


Image from M.Lever.

(I could only obtain Asaro’s book on CD and, therefore, could not as easily apply similar scientific metrics; however, after 15+ hours of listening, I can say that the mention of body parts started knelling in my ears.)

Yeah, so what, you wonder. Unless your Dr. Frankenstein, there should be nothing wrong with a few body parts hanging around. Especially when they’re doing what they were went to do. Hands grab. Eyes glance. Feet dance. 

To which, I say: Yes! So why waste narrative time telling the reader what she already knows?! There’s no point. If a character trudges, marches, or skips… it had better be on her feet. Of course, if she’s doing any of that on her hands, then I REALLY want to know!

Besides stating the obvious, ascribing action to the body parts (rather than the person) takes the onus of action away from the character. The examples above make it seem as if Aunt and Lucinda have no say in their physiology. They do nothing, but their eyes, hands, knees, etc do everything — autonomous little zombie bits.

You could remove the body part from any one of those examples above and still have a perfectly good description of action. In many instances you have to rework the verb, but I would argue that’s ultimately a good thing. Good verbs make the writing clear. They open the floodgates of action and clamp the trapdoor down on passivity.

Aunt gawked… I scrubbed the floor… He snatched at his chicken.

Gawked. Scrubbed. Snatched. All good, clean, upstanding verbs. Sure, they aren’t fancy, but they are clear. And so long as clarity hovers on the writer’s radar, she can get a little more audacious. Aunt mackereled… I knuckled* the floors with a scrub brush… He gibboned for his chicken…

Dynamic verbs are tinder in a dank forest of exposition. Use them well, and you’ll spark some really hot reading.

So take out your drafts, hunt down those body parts, and like Jack the Ripper, slice them out! Terrorize the bodily neighborhoods of your novel. Lurk behind the paragraphs. Find your victims and let the slaughter begin!


“Jack the Ripper 3D” by svogthos.

*Verbing a body part is a great way to surprise the reader and push your action imagery to a whole new level! 

A super-genius writer would save herself hours of time by simply never permitting unnecessary bodily bits into the writing in the first place. Ahh, wouldn’t that be nice? Just to sit down and sling nothing but perfect prose with sweet and sassy verbs!

No doubt, many years of writing could lead to just that utopia. But in case it doesn’t, might I suggest an exercise?

I postulate that body parts zombie-stalk into our writing because we sit still when we write. We are physically stationary and from that position it is easy to forget what part does what task. Thus we constantly remind ourselves, and have our hands grab, eyes look, or legs walk.

To prevent the “invasion of the body actors,” try verbing yourself. Move around! Reach desperately for something. Walk in a hurry, like you’re missing your own birthday party. Slouch, crouch, grovel. Jump, stride, glide. Get your body and brain talking to each other. Get them in sync! Do this before writing. And for best results in a coffee shop, do this while writing!