WindyCon: Monsters and the Supernatural

This was the first of a couple of related panels I’m on this weekend. The two panels have a slightly different emphasis, though.

Here’s the first, Friday at 5:00 — “The Meaning of Monsters” — Monsters have always walked among us, but the kinds of things that scare us have changed over time. Let’s talk abut what the popularity of monsters says about the societies that produce them.”

Also on this panel: Tanya Huff (I trust you’ve all tried her wonderful Valor series, right?), Neil Litherland, who’s mostly written shorter work on the horror end of genre fiction, and Bill Fawcett, and author and book packager.

The basic consensus on this topic: societies create monsters that are metaphors for their greatest fears, particularly for uncontrollable natural phenomena and (I would say) for bad luck (eg, witches). Monsters are also created to assert control over those fears. You can defeat, banish, or kill a witch, which must be less frightening than acknowledging that nothing will prevent your cows or children from sometimes sickening or dying because they were just unlucky.

Tanya Huff made an interesting comment about the earliest vampires, which, before they became blood-drinkers, were monsters that slipped into your house and consumed all the food. In other words, metaphors for a fear of starvation. I do wonder about the etiology that led from that starting point through the demonic corpse-possessing monsters through to the sexy modern vampires. On what basis — names? — do we assert a relationship between the very earliest food-devouring monsters and the later true vampires? I also note that early vampires were sometimes specifically child-killers.

Bill Fawcett suggested that monsters are often the re-envisioned gods of an older society, so that Roman monsters (say) contributed to the images of “dark druidism.” Interesting thought. One could imagine that progress from gods to monsters very easily. In fact, that might be an interesting element to work into the worldbuilding in a novel.

Tanya Huff made an entertaining comment about monsters when she said that our idea of monsters may be created via an ages-long game of “telephone” — so that ordinary animals get transmuted into the wildest kinds of impossible beasts. I like the idea. Plus, it sounds plausible to me!

I think everyone agrees that the nature of the age determines the nature of society’s monsters. Naturally the religion-infused Middle Ages feared demons. Of course many horror tropes now have to do with technology run amok, while demons are more likely to be sexified in paranormal romances. Personally, I have trouble with a lot of “science-based” horror or thrillers because the science is just so bad. Give me a supernatural demon any day.

I also suspect that we fear ordinary people who look like anyone but are actually monsters. Hence, say, the sudden surge in clown hysteria. Someone — Neil Litehrland, I think — also commented that he expects to see a lot more undetectable monsters that can pass as human.

Next, the Saturday morning panel:

The Next Wave of Supernaturals — “We’re sooooo over vampires. Zombies are well and truly dead. And we’re even getting tired of mermaids. What’s the next big thing in supernatural fiction?”

Walt Boyes and Tom Trumpinski joined me on this panel, during which we discussed what it means to be “supernatural” and where the limits of the term might lie.

Tom suggested that grimdark is on the way out, which I believe I’ve heard elsewhere as well. Could be. He also said that he thinks time travel is up right now, which could be true; I don’t really care for time travel all that much so I don’t pay that much attention to it. Of course one could approach time travel as a supernatural phenomenon, a magical phenomenon, or a “science fiction” type of magical phenomenon.

Walt said that fairy tales aren’t slowing down a bit, which also seems plausible since one certainly sees a lot of those. That trend would appeal to me personally, of course.

Now, I personally see a distinction between supernatural and other kinds of magic, thus: to be truly supernatural, the fantasy elements should be drawing on currently relevant theological elements. Angels, demons, like that. A commenter from the audience pointed out that all mythological elements, by definition, draw upon older religions. In my opinion, while this is true, it doesn’t matter. Basing your story on Norse mythology or whatever is going to feel like “normal” fantasy and not like a supernatural element to modern-day readers, who will respond to currently relevant religious elements far differently than to long-gone religious elements. Of course the emotional resonance supernatural elements will have depends on the reader. Whether a writer bases their worldbuilding on, say, Hinduism or Christianity, Indian readers would surely have a different reading experience than most American readers.

Tom also pointed out that supernatural overlaps with horror (he’s more familiar with the horror end of the spectrum). If you’re interested in what’s popular with horror readers and authors right now, he suggested checking out a site called Creepy Pasta . . . I don’t know why that name was chosen . . . which is supposed to feel like scary tales told ’round a campfire.

I also asked: what would we actually most *like* to see riding a trend upward. For me, it’d be dragons — not really a supernatural creature, but hey, neither are the mermaids mentioned in the panel description! I know dragons have never been “out,” but I’m not likely to ever get tired of them!

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2 thoughts on “WindyCon: Monsters and the Supernatural”

  1. No one suggested one of my favorite ideas for monster origin: fossils? What else would some of those bones come from?

    I think we can be sure that some ‘monsters’ are indeed from traveler’s tales, as in unicorns being garbled rhinos, cameleopards giraffes, etc. And I know I’ve run across the old gods become monsters idea somewhere, but long enough ago that it isn’t retrievable.

    If grimdark is on its way out I’ll be delighted.

  2. I’m sure … almost sure … that someone did mention fossils. Because as you say, hello, obvious dragon bones.

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