Monsters. We all love them. Humanity has made a growth industry out of the nasties through books, cinema, TV, comic books, video games, toys. Hell, humanity itself is packed full of monsters, but I’m not here to talk about ethics and broken moral compasses, I’m here to talk about the things with claws, fangs, fur and scales. More specifically, I’m here as a writer to talk about my biggest influences when creating monsters for my books. It would be a little naive to narrow my influences down to only two, seeing as how the breadth of great and inspirational mad-minded monster makers are out there tinkering away, but I have done just that, because I’m trying to keep this focused and succinct, people.
Writing is a very visual medium, and so when it comes time for me to create blood-drinkers and gut-rippers, I most often find myself thinking about the chillingly grotesque creations of Clive Barker and Guillermo del Toro, two creatives whose creatures tread the borders of morbid fairytale realms and sheer pants-shitting nightmares. Both of these visionaries are keenly adept at imagining iconic beings whether they’re uniquely distorted humanoids, or completely alien horrors.
The Cenobites are perhaps the definitive Barker creations, invading the cultural zeitgeist far and wide, even being spoofed on Rick & Morty (pouring one out for Mousetrap Nipples), but I’ve always preferred the broader expanse of beasts found in his novel Cabal, lurking underground in the hellish fever dream sanctuary of Meridian. That book had a big impact on me, as did the movie adaptation, Nightbreed (although honestly, I’m not a fan of the movie, but the creature designs are top tier). Also, Cabal, and Nightbreed, not only had some excellently bizarre monsters, they also had one of my all-time favourite slashers in Button Face.
When I was creating the cradle eaters (humanoid sculptures with souls of feral stillborn on leashes) and bodybags (floating leathery sacks piloted by rotting mummies hungry for the flesh and souls of unfortunate mercenaries) for Hourglass, I was certainly trying to channel some of that fucked-up Barker dark fantasy, aiming purely for an adult readership. And when it came to the bigger, bolder, and I suppose, more cinematic creations such as the Eye of Charon and the Hangman for The Ferryman’s Toll, I was leaning into what I imagined might sit well alongside del Toro’s Hellboy adaptations, that being villains who could tread the line between phantasmagorical horror and high-octane spectacle.
Of course, sometimes creating monsters isn’t as easy as trying to conjure up some hell-spawned denizen which might fit snugly alongside your favourite creator’s bestiary. And so if you ever find yourself stuck in a rut, it can help to look to Mother Nature (She. Is. Twisted!), or thinking about particular animals and how they have adapted to their environment through generations of evolution; not that you need to rationalise the realism of your fictional boogeymen mind, it can just be fun to see some of the mortifying physical traits some animals have developed to kill their prey! It can get the creative juices flowing. For instance, I looked to some of the dark matriarch’s poisonous brood to find initial inspiration for the monsters in my novels Fable (a coming of age revenge fantasy) and Heathens (another Barker-induced monster show), and then took them off the beaten path to completely supernatural extremes. And let’s not forget, a pencil and paper are always handy too. Even if you’re not a particularly strong artist, just switching off and letting your hand run away with the pencil can lead you to scribbling something that sets the ball rolling.
Vampires, werewolves, zombies, these are all iconic monsters, and for damn good reasons, as they’ve all been used to incredible effect on many occasions across the smorgasbord of mediums, but I prefer to see them used very sparingly, with the onus being on writers/directors/artists to create something a bit more novel. It isn’t always easy, but when it works it can lead to some fresh new disfigured faces guaranteed to haunt your dreams, and maybe even your waking thoughts. And for me, Barker and del Toro remain a pair of grisly touchstones, inspiring me to humbly try and match horrors and oddities with.
Creating monsters can be fun, and we’re all sickos who love the foul things, whether openly or secretly. Who inspires you?
Daniel James is an author of speculative (and sometimes dark and weird) fiction from Liverpool, England.
He is the recipient of two Kirkus Star reviews for his character-driven, action-packed urban fantasy novels Hourglass and The Ferryman’s Toll. Hourglass was also voted one of their Best 100 Indie novels of 2021.