Monday 22 April 2024

Monsters with claws sunk into our psyche

Do monsters roam the Earth?

That’s quite a question to ask, I’m sure you’ll agree, and not something we can easily answer in a single blogpost. Which is why I intend to dedicate an entire book to it in the not-too-distant future. Allow me to elaborate: the main thrust of today’s column will concern the next publication in my TERROR TALES series, and yes, monsters will play a big part in that, but I
’ll outline it in more detail in a few paragraphs’ time.

Before then, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to chat a little bit about …

Upcoming publications

Unfortunately, I’m not in a position today where I can give too much information about anything. Considering I’ve been working full-tilt – to start with, I have three novels to write this year – there is little news so imminent that I’m able to put titles and dates to it.

For example, check out some of the questions I’m regularly asked online.

Q – Can you tell us when the next Heck novel will be out?

A – I’m afraid not. I can only say that it’s already written and under consideration by a publisher. But factors beyond my control mean that the wait must go on for now. (There is some Heck news, though, so keep reading).

Q – You’ve already announced that you’ve signed with Thomas & Mercer, Amazon’s publishing arm, to write two new stand-alone crime thrillers. Can you tell us anything about them yet?

A – There’s nothing more to add at present than you’ll have seen in my previous posts. Both those novels are exciting projects, but both are still being written, so even I am not entirely sure what their final form will be. Sorry about that.

Q – Is there any news on the proposed Lucy Clayburn TV adaptation?

A – No. In fact, this is probably the one definitive answer I’m able to give you today. Covid killed it, basically. Before the pandemic, we were apparently only a couple of months from being greenlit. Since the pandemic ended, I’ve heard nothing at all. We must assume that project is dead in the water.

Q – Will there be another book in the Wulfbury Chronicles.

A – Not as yet. What I am able to tell you on this front is that my third historical novel is now with Canelo, and in this one, we move a century forward into the era of the crusades. However, while it isn’t officially connected to the previous two books, there is some similarity among the names of the key characters, so we can safely assume that it’s a the same family.

Q – In God’s name, there must be something you can tell us?

A – Okay ... I can announce that a brand new Mark Heckenburg novella is due for publication later this year. Unfortunately, I’m unable to disclose any actual dates yet, or the name of the publisher or the title of the work. All I can say again is sorry, but modern publishers like to announce these things themselves, usually with a bit of fanfare. I can also add that a brand new horror novella of mine, though this one is actually quite lengthy – it doesn’t fall far short of being classified as an actual novel – will be published next year. As before, I can’t yet give you the title, the name of the publisher or the date of publication. 

However, one thing I can talk about in some detail, and I
’m very proud of this, is the upcoming publication of my short story, Jack-a-Lent, in the indefatigable Mark Morris’s latest horror anthology, ELEMENTAL FORCES. It's out on October 8 this year, from Flametree Press, and if you look at the line-up, you’ll perhaps understand why I am so honoured to be included.

Q – Any specific details about anything else?

A – Well, on the basis that I still owe you something …

Monsters … monsters … monsters

They’ve been with us since the dawn of human awareness. Terrifying, destructive beings, creatures that defy description, that are unknowable, uncontrollable, deadly. Ruthless annihilators of the natural order, which can only be stopped by the most heroic acts of human self-sacrifice.

In every society on Earth, in every religion and every mythology, there are references to monsters. Unspeakable abominations whose very existence is often inimical to the survival of mankind. But what exactly are monsters? How is it they have found such an unassailable place in our collective imagination? Are they entirely based on fantasy or is there some element of truth in these horrifying tales?

The forms that monsters have taken are myriad. 

Most people have heard of dragons and titans, of frost giants, of lustful, goat-legged satyrs, of the bull-headed minotaur, the zombies of the Caribbean, the vampires of Eastern Europe (check out Mr Lee, right, in Dracula, 1958). But in truth, the pantheon of malevolent beasts is so enormous, so positively encyclopaedic, that more horrific beings than I can count remain unknown to the vast majority of us.

How many readers of this column, for example, know what I mean when I mention the Fachen? The Tarasque? The Yateveo? The Tupilaq? The Lamia?

And believe me, that’s not even scratching the surface. I mean, there are so many questions to ask here. To start with, how is it that so many eyewitness reports of monsters come to us from the pages of history, and yet the beasts themselves are almost completely absent from the fossil record?

All kinds of explanations have been offered.

Monsters are metaphors for mankind’s misfortunes ...

The werewolf is a warning sign that Man, for all his veneer of civilisation, still possesses voracious appetites lurking just below the surface. The colossal sea monster, Leviathan (left, as painted by Katinka Thorondor), advised us that Man can never be dominant in the cosmos, that in the end only God will wield the ultimate power. Medusa, the youngest and most fearsome of the snake-haired gorgons, embodied the routine mistreatment of women by men, and indicated that even if they fought back justifiably, they would be demonised for ever more.  

Monsters are an attempt to understand the chaos of our world (that’s an important word today, ‘chaos’, look out for it later on) ...

Entities like Behemoth, J√∂rmungandr, Tiamat and Typhon were so vast and terrifying that they could only, in truth, be the personifications of cataclysmic Earth events (much how Godzilla was viewed in 20th century Japan). Even smaller beasts, like goblins and boggarts could be a frightening and damaging presence in the remote communities that believed in them because they caused breaches in an orderly world (souring milk, blighting crops) that everyday folk thought they understood and were appalled to learn they didn’t ...

Monsters are simply errors that our ancestors made when they misidentified natural creatures they’d never encountered before ... 

When ancient mammoth skulls were uncovered, the aperture to accommodate the trunk looked for all the world like an extra eye-socket, and if the encircling bone had rotted through, which meant the actual eye-sockets were also encompassed by the yawning gap, it was easy to assume that this was all that remained of a huge one-eyed monster, or cyclops (as immortalised by Ray Harryhausen in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, at the top of this column). Race memories of gigantopithecus, the largest ape that ever lived (12ft tall!!), and which died out 300,000 years ago, may well have provided the origin for stories about giants and ogres. The Vikings told tales of the kraken, an immense, many-armed sea horror that would drag down entire ships, and almost certainly were referring to the colossal squid.

But there is one very important thing to consider.

Our distant ancestors might not have been as well educated as we are today, but they weren’t stupid, otherwise they wouldn’t have survived, and they were quite adamant that many of these hellish beings that brought such trauma to their world were actually very real. 

Trolls (as depicted above by Einar Martinsen) did ambush lone travellers in the deep and frosty forests of old Scandinavia. 

Griffins did guard treasure hoards in the mountains of the Middle East and they would tear you to pieces if you tried to get your hands on any of it. 

Grendel, the infamous Walker in the Dark, did drive a Danish king called Hrothgar from his new hall in the swampy region of Lejre, slaughtering 30 of his warriors in the process. 

The bonze giant, Talos, did heat himself in a roaring fire until he was glowing red, so that he could embrace the wooden hulls of ships visiting his island and consume them with flames.

And these stories don’t just come to us from the distant past.

In 1959, the infamous Dyatlov Pass Incident saw nine student hikers brutally killed and mutilated in their snowbound camp in the Ural Mountains, an unsolved mass slaying, which some observers, with plenty evidence to support them, have attributed to the Alma, or Russian Yeti.

More recently, off the Devonshire coast in the 1970s, a group of scuba divers from the Salcombe Shark Angling Society were frightened out of the water by a terrifying sub-aquatic roar, though one witness later described it as being more like a repeated, monstrous bark, which is associated in local tradition with a ferocious sea serpent called Morgawr. Such a hold does this semi-mythical sea brute have on the imagination of Devon and Cornish folk that Peter Tremayne wrote a highly successful novel in 1982 called The Morgow Rises.

Many times in the last hundred years, climbers on Western Scotland’s remote Ben Macdui, the highest peak in the Cairngorm mountain range, have reported being pursued through the fog and snow by a towering figure known simply as the Big Grey Man. A giant in every sense, the unknown entity is not known to have attacked anyone, though at least one climber claimed to have taken shelter in a bothy, while the beast circled the isolated structure, and only failed to get at him because he’d barricaded the door.

You may be wondering what all this refers to, and whether I’ve just gone off on a monster tangent because I’ve lost the plot. Well, in actual fact, what I’m getting around to explaining is, first of all, there will not be a TERROR TALES anthology this year. I’m afraid that my nightmarishly packed schedule simply does not allow for it. However, Telos Publishing and myself are determined to make up for this, so, I’m also able to announce that, next year, we’ll be doing a bumper edition, in hardback as well as softback and ebook, called TERROR TALES OF CHAOS, which will be launched at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton (Oct 30 - Nov 2).

For once, it will not focus on any specific geographic region or particular period of history, but it will follow the same basic format as the other books in the series, new stories interspersed with snippets of scary non-fiction, and will be strongly influenced by both folklore and mythology. 

While the emphasis will be on chaos, it will not be on the realm called Chaos - i.e. that limitless ocean of nameless elemental forces said to lie between Heaven and Hell - but on its products, aka the many terrible forms it has taken in the eyes of mankind during its frequent visitations to Earth. 

The 17th century English poet, John Milton, took his cue from much more ancient wordsmiths by naming and describing some of the terrifying denizens of Chaos, unimaginable beings who were every bit as wild and destructive as the substance from which they were made. 

Individuals like Peor, Arioch (pictured left, as created by Useh) and Demogorgon were so ghastly that even the fallen angels lodged in Hell could not get past them. Perhaps it’s no surprise, therefore, that whenever the children of Chaos have made it into our world, they have done so in the form of unstoppable monsters.

And there you have it: TERROR TALES OF CHAOS will explore the many, many monsters that have terrorised us throughout our histories and mythologies. There’ll be none here that the writers have invented themselves, or which are the work of other writers like the Frankenstein creation or Mr Hyde. There’ll be lots of room for modern interpretation obviously, but essentially all will hail from the long-ago past, and will have come down to us in stories that our distant ancestors would have insisted are absolutely true.

And on the subject of the writers ... well, put it this way, we aren’t far into developing the book yet, but I am very, very happy with many of the names to come on board. Fans of the series will miss out this year, but in 2025 I can confidently predict that they are in for a real treat.  

Keep watching this space for further info.