There are lists of famous monsters everywhere online these days. From Greek-myth bestiaries to the Appalachian wood-spirit legends, supernatural creatures and their genealogies are a hot pop-culture commodity. As far as English literary history goes, though, the list of monsters is smaller than you’d think. Almost universally they are humans gone wrong: Grendel, Caliban, Frankenstein’s creature (“Remember,” I tell my students, “Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster!”), Dracula, Mr. Hyde, the Nazgul.
Monsters are visual entities, of course, so many of the deepest impressions are left by movies. Who can forget the greatest mother-monster ever, the Alien?
Digital surround sound helps, too: Rattlesnake Jack in Rango would have been almost tame without that grating, metallic ratcheting noise whenever he moved.
Movie monsters aren’t always creepier than their book forebears, though. The Chamber of Secrets’ basilisk was much scarier in the book than the film. And despite all the made-up adjectives in Lewis Carroll’s poem, my nightmares about the Jabberwock were never vague. No matter how fast I ran, there it was with its eyes of flame, whiffling and burbling after me.
Perhaps my favorite monster of all time, though, is the Sarlacc in the Return of the Jedi. It seems passive, almost benign, when the barge first approaches. It’s a sand hole, that’s all.
Still, if the good guys can just avoid getting thrown in, if they can dangle, if they can hold on…
Then come the tentacles.