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What Makes a Wandering Monster?

If you aren’t regularly getting your ear-holes tickled by Madness Heart Radio, you are missing out! Madness Heart Press is, after all, a multimedia affair. In addition to books, Madness Heart offers audiobooks and podcasts, including interviews with authors (including yours truly) and a new weekly podcast called Wandering Monster that I am proud to co-host with fellow Madness Heart madman John Baltisberger and Austin-based playwright and author Lemons Clemons. Wandering Monster is available on Apple Podcasts, I Heart Radio, Spotify, and wherever else fine podcasts are podded and cast. Every week, John, Lemons, and I discuss the coolest and dumbest monsters from gaming and pop culture and then pit them against each other to determine which would triumph in a fight. It’s silly, NSFW fun, and I hope you subscribe and leave us a rating to help others find our show.

There are a lot of questions about monsters that are fun to debate and discuss, many of which are related to taxonomies: what does or does not fit a particular category of monster and why or why not, and the question that underpins the whole affair: what, exactly, is a monster?

It’s a question that doesn’t have a single concrete answer because the concept of “monster” is a culturally and contextually relative one, as is our perception of and reaction to “monsters.” Take, for example, the specific monster sub-type “demon.” It has a negative connotation in many cultures and contexts – a thing to be hated and feared because in its corruption it seeks the destruction of humanity. In both Christianity and Dungeons and Dragons, demons are chaotic evil in their alignment. In Japan, on the other hand, “demon” often denotes a creature that is morally ambiguous or neutral, part of the spiritual ecosystem of animist traditions. At certain places and times in the West, esoteric traditions and high magick systems like Goetia involve the summoning of demons. To the skeptical eyes of 2019 this might seem like a niche phenomenon, but famed sorcerer Dr. John Dee was a trusted adviser to and magician for Queen Elizabeth I, and that dude definitely had a soft spot for demons.

In a previous post I bit into the concept of the beautiful grotesque by way of vampires. Surely, vampires are monsters – one of our most prevalent and beloved modern monster archetypes, in fact. And surely when we think “monster,” one of the first characterizations to spring to mind is that monsters are in some way grotesque: deformed, bestial, twisted, or otherwise visibly inhuman. But vampires from Bela Lugosi’s Dracula to our sparkly friend Edward Cullen have been portrayed as beautiful and desirable, a tension (some would even say contradiction) that underlies much of the vampire oeuvre.

Definitions from sources like Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary emphasize a a creature’s size or structure, and include words like “grotesque” and “frightening.” The OED goes a little deeper into the history of the concept, sketching out how antiquity saw monsters as animals composed of parts from disparate species, like the gryphon, sphinx, or centaur – a tradition that continues to this day, as any casual perusal of the Syfy original movies menu will demonstrate. In other cultural contexts (including the Old Testament) monsters might be marked by their extraordinary size.

A newer iteration of the monster wears a human shape as it hunts its terrified (and also human) prey. Some of these modern monsters are deformed or grotesque, like Freddy Krueger or Jason Vorhees. Others, like Hannibal Lecter, can be urbane and charming, their monstrousness more a function of what they do, how they think – who they are – rather than how they look – what they are. I’ll be expanding on this last point in the next post in this series. I’ll be taking a periodic and ongoing look at monsters writ large. In the meantime, if your taste runs toward the monstrous tune in to Wandering Monster and hear all manner of creatures get fleshed out, discussed, and pitted against one another in role playing combat. It’s a lot of fun to record with John and Lemons, and I think you’ll enjoy listening in. Make sure to subscribe and rate us to help others find our show, and watch for other audio content from Madness Heart Radio. If you’d like to support our efforts and earn access to bonus content, join our Madness Heart Patreon and help fund our little bestiary – and thank you!

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