The best monsters have something fresh and interesting to offer. In other words, they’re high in novelty. Novelty not only gives a monster that wow factor but also contributes directly to spookiness. Let’s look at five monsters that gave audiences something to remember.
Spoiler Notice: The City We Became and Nancy Drew
1. The Nemeton: Teen Wolf
Look, I’m a sucker for creepy magic plants. That’s something you’ll have to accept if this relationship is going to work. That’s just one reason I love the Nemeton from Teen Wolf, which is a giant stump somewhere in the woods. So it’s not just a strange plant, it’s the corpse of a strange plant, which is double creepy.
The Nemeton’s exact powers are left mysterious, which is useful from a plot perspective, but also helps to keep it novel. Once we know how something works, it loses some of its mystique. To keep it mysterious, one of the Nemeton’s powers is that it’s very difficult to find. Trying is likely to get you lost in the woods, or if you do find it, you’ll be confused and disoriented when you get there. This ensures that the heroes are never in a position to thoroughly investigate what the Nemeton can do.
In the show, this magic stump’s main purpose is to justify the continuing stream of supernatural enemies. The Nemeton’s power attracts other monsters, which is very important to the town’s punny name: Beacon Hills. But this stump also has serious foreshadowing power. You see, in many flashbacks, the Nemeton is a living tree. So who cut it down? Why? What were the consequences? There’s so much story waiting to be told!
Unfortunately, none of it is. Teen Wolf’s finale comes and goes without us ever learning more about how or why the Nemeton was cut down. Likewise, the show occasionally hints that the Nemeton might regrow, but that never comes to anything either. I don’t know if those storylines got lost in the shuffle or if the writers never planned to explore them in the first place, but it’s a lost opportunity either way.
Despite that, the Nemeton’s creepy mystique is top notch, and with a few tweaks to the plot, it could have been even better. There’s something both unassuming and awe inspiring about a huge tree stump deep in the woods. What has it seen? What secrets have its roots uncovered? Also, why does it keep attracting monsters to our town?
2. Sui-Riu: Temeraire
Dragons are a well loved classic in fantasy, and for good reason. They’re big and mean,* with great fangs and fiery breath. Plus, they can fly, so it’s no surprise that so many fantasy stories include them. The downside is that for most fantasy readers, dragons have lost their novelty. That doesn’t mean dragons are automatically boring, only that they won’t be interesting just because they’re dragons.
Fortunately, it only takes a little twist to make old ideas fresh again, and that’s what Naomi Novik does with the Sui-Riu in Blood of Tyrants, the penultimate novel of the Temeraire series. Most of Novik’s dragons are fairly conventional, but when our heroes visit Japan, they find an entirely new kind of beast.
First, the Sui-Riu can’t fly and are primarily aquatic, living in both salt and fresh waters. That’s already a nice touch since it takes a lot of suspending disbelief to accept that creatures the size of classic dragons can fly. But far more interesting is their special “breath.” Most dragons expel fire or acid, which they presumably generate internally. Sometimes it’s ice, which I guess means they have a Freon gland somewhere. In contrast, the Sui-Riu swallow vast quantities of water, then expel it under high pressure.
This is an effective weapon, as anyone who’s ever been sprayed by a fire hose can tell you, and it also feels more real. It’s easier to accept that a large creature could contract its innards to put water under pressure than it is to imagine some kind of fire-generating second stomach. There’s also a tangible difference with other draconic abilities: the Sui-Riu needs a source of water. If there’s no water around, then the ability doesn’t work.
As with just about every dragon in Temeraire, Novik makes sure there’s room to show us how the Sui-Riu’s abilities are used for societal benefit. Other than defense, the most obvious use is firefighting, since the Sui-Riu is basically a living fire truck. But we also see the water jets used for irrigation, and even for saving crops from unexpected cold snaps.
Here, the ability edges into more fantastic territory, as we learn that Sui-Riu can apparently heat their water jets up to boiling temperature. This makes the dragons far more potent in a fight, and it’s useful for thawing out frozen ground. It also requires a lot more suspension of disbelief, since it’s hard to imagine where the energy for boiling that much water would come from. Even so, sea serpents letting out jets of boiling water isn’t an image I’ll forget in a hurry.
3. R’lyeh: The City We Became
The City We Became’s main villain is The Woman in White, or White for short. Conceptually, she gets the job done.* She has a bevy of supernatural powers, lots of money, and control over NYC’s most racist assholes. One thing she isn’t, though, is strange and unknowable, no matter how many times the book tries to paint her that way. She’s far too invested in personally tormenting her enemies for that, making her more like a Greek god than Cthulhu.
That’s why I was so interested in the reveal that White is actually the avatar of R’lyeh, a malevolent, extra-dimensional city. Now that is a great opportunity for some unknowable cosmic horror. By definition, a city is a collective rather than an individual. It can’t have just one personality and one set of desires, as it is an amalgam of everyone living within it. That’s exactly the kind of built-in strangeness that a cosmic horror villain needs.
What’s more, R’lyeh isn’t even a human city. It comes from a reality completely unlike ours, which opens up all sorts of possibilities. In our world, cities run on concrete things like electricity and trade, but also much more abstract ideas like cultural exchange and artistic expression. What does R’lyeh run on? If it has a power source at all, is it something humans would even recognize? We could go even deeper by comparing the problems human cities suffer from to R’lyeh’s woes. I would love to see what the extra-dimensional equivalent of unsustainable rent increases looks like.
At the same time, R’lyeh can’t be so strange that it’s completely unrecognizable, since it’s still a city. The beings of R’lyeh’s home realm, whatever they’re like, came together and live in close proximity to each other. However inhuman they are, population density still makes sense to them in some way, which opens up great opportunities for R’lyeh to be uncanny as well as horrific.
Unfortunately, very little of this is present in the first book. White’s reveal doesn’t really change the conflict at hand, and it’s unlikely to mean much unless you’re up to date on your Lovecraft references. Still, there are sequels in the works, and it’ll be interesting to see if R’lyeh lives up to its potential.
4. Elves: Discworld
If there’s one thing I like more than creepy plants, it’s evil elves. If you’re going to have a fantasy species that’s like humans but better in every way, they should be the bad guys. And while a lot of authors have tried their hand at evil elves, I always come back to Sir Terry’s entry because it’s so well done.
We start with the basic premise of elves as beautiful predators. They’re like cats that can walk upright, use weapons, and cast magical glamours. Also, you are the prey animal that they enjoy batting around until it finally stops moving. This kind of behavior is adorable when your house cat is playing with their new toy, and terrifying when it’s a six-foot elf coming after you with arrows and a stone knife.
The combination of beauty and malice makes it very clear why humans keep inviting elves into their lives, and why it is always a terrible idea. Discworld elves make great villains not only because of their high threat level but also because being predatory means their goal can be nothing but chaos and destruction yet it won’t seem contrived. Their inhumanity even gives them a cosmic horror flavor, as it’s difficult to predict what their alien desires will drive them to do next.
I also really like how Pratchett handles the elves’ iron weakness. Instead of iron getting a damage bonus, it messes with elven senses. In Discworld, elves can detect electromagnetic fields, and this is their primary means of navigating the world. In particular, they use it to hone in on prey, as all living things use at least a little electricity to relay signals from the brain. Iron – especially magnetized iron – disrupts this sense and makes it difficult for elves to perceive the world around them. It can even send inexperienced elves into a panic. Twenty nine years after Pratchett’s elves made their big screen debut in Lords and Ladies, this is still the most interesting iron weakness I’ve seen.
A final point in the Discworld elves’ favor is that Pratchett doesn’t overuse them. Even the scariest villain loses most of their threat after being defeated, and that’s especially true for villains that depend on being mysterious or hard to understand. Once the heroes learn how the elves work, there’s little point in a second encounter. The one time Pratchett brings the elves back, it’s in the YA Tiffany Aching books, which works well. Tiffany is a capable witch, but she’s far less experienced than Discworld’s adult heroes, so elves are still a serious problem for her.
5. The Grimathorn: Nancy Drew
In the episode The Scourge of the Forgotten Rune, we open with protagonist Nick suffering a sudden attack of amnesia. Oddly, he seems to have done it to himself, using a device that can also restore his memories. But when the other characters return the missing memories, Nick remembers why he erased them in the first place: there’s a monster called the Grimathorn after him, and the only way to escape is by forgetting its name.
Oops, I probably shouldn’t have put that name in the article, as the Grimathorn may be coming after you now. I’m sure it’s fine. Anyway, it’s not long before the other heroes accidentally learn the name as well, and then they have to erase their own memories. This leaves the characters with nothing but their written notes to go on as they try to figure out what happened and how they can get their memories back without dying.
The result is something like a time loop episode, but without the actual time travel. The heroes read or watch the notes from their previous attempt, then try to devise another way to defeat the Grimathorn. When their latest idea fails, they erase their memories and try again. The episode avoids repetition by requiring them to try something new each time, and they can’t ask for help because that would endanger anyone they told.
This is an excellent example of designing a monster to facilitate your plot. The time loop episode is a classic of scifi, but it wouldn’t really fit with Nancy Drew’s urban fantasy setting. While Nancy and friends could always find a spell that reverses time, such powerful magic is usually beyond the show’s purview. This premise also assures that the heroes have plenty of agency, as erasing their memories is their idea, not something the monster forces on them.
Beyond the Grimathorn’s service to the plot, its visual design is also excellent. Deer skulls will always be creepy, along with elongated limbs and towering frames. It also helps that the monster is rarely in full view of the camera, thereby maintaining a degree of mystique even in broad daylight. This is an improvement over some of the show’s previous monsters, which have simply been too visible for too long and ended up looking a little cheesy.
One last bit of brilliance is how our heroes defeat the Grimathorn: by making it go viral. As the amnesia machine finally runs out of power, Nancy deduces that while a few people knowing the name puts them in danger, a bunch of people knowing it destroys the Grimathorn’s power. Not only does this fit with previously established clues, but it’s a nice contrast to the usual urban fantasy tropes of hiding knowledge away because the masses can’t handle it.
Also, you should share this article right away, otherwise there might not be enough people to keep a certain skull-faced monster from paying you a visit.
Monster design is a fun aspect of worldbuilding and a great place to exercise your creativity. Whether the creature is antagonistic or not, it will always benefit from being cool and different. If you’re designing something from scratch, think of how its different qualities will affect the plot. If you’re using a well-worn classic, look at what can be altered for your own fresh take. You’ll be spooking the audience in no time!
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