What do we even mean by the term “monster,” particularly when applying it to other human beings? At times, radical physical deformity has been the standard-bearer for what we’ve thought of the human. Fortunately, that has shifted lately as physical abnormalities have been either surgically fixed or at least seen through a more compassionate eye. Unfortunately, the category of the monstrous, the terrifyingly Other, has been used by all sorts of authoritarian regimes, philosophies, production systems, and religions as a way to mark various groups of human beings as being, well, not human beings.
And of course, there are those “real” monsters that have followed us out of forest and jungle, making a home in our imaginations and fictions. They’re always there, lurking in the shadows regardless of how any given society uses and abuses the concept of monstrosity. From what I can tell, though, the most popular use of this term these days (when not discussing genre movies or whatnot) is when it’s applied to people we consider monstrous for their behavior. Serial killers, religious fanatics, bigots, and mass-murdering dictators appear and even star in some of the following books. I do think it’s good to be wary of applying the term and its related ideas to even the most horrifically violent and depraved individuals.
When we think of Ted Bundy, Adolph Hitler, Andrew Jackson, Osama bin Laden, or any of the other bad actors in human history, we shouldn’t let our species off so easy by characterizing them as ultimately inhuman. Most everyone has at least some of the traits that dominated these people, and many of us are only a couple really bad days away from doing things other people would consider the acts of a monster. By the way, of all these lists, this is probably the most idiosyncratic, so don’t take this as anything like a definitive list of books that deal with this topic.
The Stranger Beside Me (1980)
Beginning in 1974, Seattle was rocked by a series of horrific killings of women, murders that caught the attention of Ann Rule. Rule had been involved in both law enforcement and crime writing, but those weren’t the only reasons she grew interested in the case. Descriptions of a suspicious man made by witnesses and women who had evaded being captured by him seemed to Rule suspiciously familiar. They looked, she thought, an awful lot like her friend Ted Bundy, a cheerful and seemingly empathetic man whom she had met while the two worked at a crisis hotline. And yeah, Bundy not only worked for a suicide hotline, he was apparently pretty good at talking desperate people down from their various ledges.
That’s the sort of strange thing you’ll learn reading Rule’s book about the man she only thought she knew. Nor does Rule confine her attention solely to this vicious serial killer. She provides capsule biographies about several of his victims, women it’s all too easy to lose sight of when considering such a strange creature as Bundy. Rule digs deep into Bundy’s past, as well as his behavior during and after his killing days, clearly hoping for some sort of an answer as to who or what this man was and what drove him to end the lives of at least dozens of human beings. There may be no answer possible here, but Rule gives us the story up close and personal.
Idols of Perversity (1986)
While there are acts and features of the world that seem to be universally loathed or feared, that category is a small one. What any given culture thinks of as “monstrous” tends to change over time and is shaped in many ways. By tracking that history of making something monstrous, we can often not only see how we came to adopt certain prejudices, but also potential ways of transcending them. This book is an almost epic history of how women in the 19th century were “monstracized” in European culture, how they were made the objects of fear, revulsion, and sadomasochistic desire.
The book isn’t a comprehensive history of misogyny, as it primarily focuses on a late nineteenth European version of it, but Dijkstra’s examination of the growth and spread of these grotesque ideas is intense and persuasive. He draws in a lot of art, fledgling science, psychology, and philosophy in order to illustrate how certain vicious, mournful, and ridiculous notions about women were reflected in the arts. If you accept Dijkstra’s analysis, I think the temptation might be to see all of these pieces as evil, but it brings up age-old questions of how one can separate the intent of a work of art from its final form. I, for one, think that understanding some of the twisted thinking that went into aspects of a given work can help defuse its negative potential, freeing up the work to be appreciated for the ways in which it transcends that thinking. Whatever you think, this is a fascinating read.
The History of Hell (1993)
Alice K. Turner
This beautifully illustrated book, written by Playboy‘s fiction editor, delves deep into that abyss from which so many monsters have emerged. Cultures around the world have had many different ideas of an underworld filled with terrifying creatures. Turner looks at several of these conceptions of Hell from before the Judeo-Christian-Islamic image we are familiar with was developed. When she moves on to the more familiar Hell, she shows how it was developed more by artists and theologians than actual quotes from the Tanakh, the Bible, or the Koran. She gives special attention to the poets Dante and John Milton, of course, as their fictions probably had more impact on our ideas of the Inferno than those three Scriptures combined.
The book is filled with entertaining images of demons, Satan, and their home drawn from all sorts of sources. This book is great for an ordinary reader and suffers from little-to-none of the academic jargon that can be so off-putting in surveys like this. I particularly enjoyed Turner’s examination of later literary takes on Hell, as she brings her history through the Gothic era and almost up to our own. A great gift for any diabolically-inclined people in your life.
No Go the Bogeyman (1998)
Why do we pretend like we’re going to eat babies and kids we find cute? Why do so many lullabies include lines about children dying? And what does all of this have to do with that dark figure we call the Boogeyman, lurking in closets and under beds and all-too-ready to pounce on us when we close our eyes at night? Art critic, historian, and novelist Marina Warner asks all these questions and more in No Go the Bogeyman. This is a lengthy examination of the stories and tropes surrounding that childhood monster, one that seeks out a deeper explanation for why it resonates with kids around the planet.
Warner borrows from Freudian and Jungian psychology in her analysis, but she blends it with a poetic appreciation for the myths and legends involved. She also looks at ways in which this material has been racialized and used to variously uphold or critique gender roles. This is another book filled with wonderful drawings and reproduced paintings, though it does use more analytical language than most of the other books on this list, so be prepared for some heady material. By the way, I’m not sure why she titled the book with this phrase… If anyone knows what its significance might be, please leave an explanatory comment!
Koba the Dread (2002)
Some monsters are all-too real, and some have such a reach that they can spread misery and death far beyond anything they could have accomplished on their own. Adolf Hitler has become the poster-child for this sort of mass killing and for good reason, with upwards of 8 million people slaughtered in the name of his diseased cause. Joseph Stalin is another such monster, having killed or caused to be killed more than 20 million, one who comes in for less of a public drubbing than Hitler.
Novelist and essayist Martin Amis, in this fascinating memoir-history hybrid, considers some of the reasons for the apparent asymmetry in how we view these dictators. He also examines a darker question, one that haunts him personally: how could so many American leftists have denied Stalin’s violence long past the point it was obvious this was no misinformation campaign run by devious capitalists? What made them hang onto a utopian experiment that had gone so clearly off the rails? Amis is not glib about the comparisons between fascist and communist atrocities: part of what makes the latter so sad, and weirdly so funny at times, when compared with the former is that the communist ideal was at heart a hopeful and even benevolent one, while the fascist dream was (and is) always demented. Amis’s book is filled with history about the purges, the Gulags, and anecdotes about Stalin’s personal idiosyncrasies. He doesn’t let close friends and relatives off the hook for their blindness to the horrors of the USSR, nor does he lean into the falsehood that the Bolshevik revolution was blameless until it was taken over by the man with the bushy moustache.
This isn’t a conservative screed against anything that smacks of socialism, which is something I appreciated about it, just a good hard look at a human monster and his victims. Some may say this book was fifty years too late, but in an age when one sees the hammer-and-sickle popping back up again as some symbol of benevolent revolution, a study like this is all too necessary.
Hollow Earth (2005)
This is easily the least disturbing book on this list, though when considered alongside the nascent “Flat Earth” movement, it does have some unfortunate relevance to our time. One of the kookier conspiracies out there has it that the Earth is hollow and filled with life, all fed by an interior sun floating at the center of the hollow or perhaps a lesser source of light and heat. In the 19th century, some theorists proposed an even wilder version of the story: we are in the hollow Earth, somehow failing to notice that our world is concave and not convex. Standish’s entertaining book takes us through these theories, as well as some of the cults that adhered to them at one point or another. We learn how some of those who believed we are trapped inside a sphere tried proving this to their contemporaries, or at least to their credulous fan-base.
Standish spends more space going through the literature of the hollow Earth idea, finding many nascent science fiction novels and utopian screeds that used this setting. Of course, these authors also populated their inside-out planet with monsters, from dinosaurs to imagined alien creatures. Alongside this historical and literary matter, Standish includes many illustrations, from scenes from the novels he considers to earnest attempts at imagining this underground world by its true believers.
On Monsters (2009)
Stephen T. Asma
Of the books on this list that consider monsters, this is by far the most comprehensive. Asma takes us on a journey from beasts supposedly encountered by Alexander the Great’s men to modern cyber-organic dreams of our future bodies. Everyone from disabled people who lived out their lives as circus freaks to vampires and werewolves makes an appearance here. I particularly respect Asma for trying on a variety of interpretive lenses in considering this beings, not getting too stuck in any one psychological, political, or evolutionary perspective but sampling from them all. This is another book with plenty of illustrations and while it explores some heady topics, I didn’t feel it got bogged down by that gnarled academic language that is a monstrosity of our own time.
Monsters in America (2011)
W. Scott Poole
In this book, W. Scott Poole looks at American history through the lens of the fictional monsters it spawned, particularly those featured in legends, novels, and eventually films. This isn’t literary or cinematic history as much as it is an attempt at grappling with the national subconscious. Poole argues (persuasively, for the most part) that everything from the genocide of the Native American nations to the fight for gay marriage has inspired many of America’s most popular monsters. Sometimes, this comes in the form of an imaginative recreation of the societal trauma concerned, a recreation that tries finding a new way to understand and cope with those traumas. With other works, Poole suggests that the fiction in question played a role in solidifying a marginalized group as a monstrous “Other.”
There were times in this book where I felt Poole wasn’t allowing for the possibility that a work might have several conflicting “meanings,” that in a sense it may be arguing for and against some way of being or acting at the same time. Most works of art are more complex than ideological statements are. But overall, the book stimulated a lot of good thinking on how our creative nightmares may reflect, deflect, exaggerate, or even diffuse societal tensions. This book leans towards the academic, but should still be readable by the public.
Much as in W. Scott Poole’s book, Colin Dickey here looks into America’s complex history, unearthing connections between our national traumas and stories of the supernatural. In Ghostland, though, the stories he considers are ones that are supposedly true, reports and legends of the paranormal, often stories that have persisted for decades or even centuries. He actually travels to many of these places, prisons, old mansions, graveyards, and more.
This definitely isn’t a book for believers in the paranormal: Dickey doesn’t really give room for those sorts of metaphysical possibilities. Instead, he shows how many of our national myths, from those swirling around the Winchester House to the Danvers State Hospital, are underwritten and shaped by true horrors in our past. This isn’t all doom and gloom, though, as Dickey has fun retelling the legends, delving into holes in the stories, and illuminating some parts of our history that aren’t bloody and shameful, just odd, amusing, or even touching.
Sons of Cain (2018)
What are serial killers? What could drive a human being to methodically and regularly murder other people? Did people like this exist in the past, or is serial killing a product of the modern era? These are just some of the questions Peter Vronksy asks in this big history of the phenomenon. He takes us back through the centuries, showing that although we didn’t have a single term that covered this form of human depravity until recently, it has very much always been with us, perhaps even playing a role in our evolution. Vronsky goes into statistics about killers, trying to give a larger picture of how, when, and (perhaps) why this happens. He doesn’t do much cultural history on the serial killer as a movie monster. Instead, he gives an exhaustive reckoning of the mental aberrations and social forces that have at least given shape to, if not created, this monstrous behavior.