10 Terrifying Literary Monsters That Still Gave Us Nightmares

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November 4th, 2010

There are no shortage of monsters in famous literature. From ancient myths and legends to the vampires that dominate popular culture today, man has always been fascinated by that which repulses him and reminds him of the evil in the world and in himself. While some literary monsters are good for a quick scare or a gory detail, there are others who stick with you and are hard to forget long after you’ve put down the book. Whether you’re getting your degree in literature or just love to read, make sure you don’t miss these scary, horrible and compelling monsters in your stories.

  1. Grendel, Beowulf: While the language of this poem has put off many a high schooler and college student who has attempted to read it, those who stuck it out were rewarded with this gruesome and terrifying monster. In Grendel, we can recognize all of our own childhood fears of the monsters that lurk in the dark, waiting to eat us the second we fall asleep. And Grendel does just that, devouring the strongest warriors in the kingdom as they sleep, without anyone being able to put up much of a fight. That is until Beowulf shows up. Being the brawny and brave warrior that he is, he overpowers Grendel, ripping off his arm, tracking him to his underwater lair and killing him. Grendel may have been no match for Beowulf, but he’s a hard monster to forget for his stealth, raw strength and ferocity.
  2. Satan, Paradise Lost by John Milton: Satan is the ultimate literary monster. He is a trickster, the lord over all other monsters, and above all– evil incarnate. Of course, Milton’s Satan isn’t all bad. He lets us see the days of Satan before he was Satan, when he was a majestic and powerful angel taken down by his own hubris and pride. This downfall damns him to a life of darkness, misery and chaos, a fate to which he hopes to lure mankind, God’s favored creation, to share. While Satan may have once been a servant of God, Milton leaves him no redeeming qualities, showing his darkness, spitefulness and depravity. Because he can be anywhere, become anything and brings out the worst in the humans he tries to tempt he is one of the most dangerous and compelling of all literary monsters.
  3. Frankenstein’s Monster, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: The idea for this novel came to Shelley in a dream, inspired by talk of ghost stories. The story begins when Dr. Frankenstein creates a monstrous man, cobbled together through methods that are unclear but likely a bit unsavory, from whom he flees the moment it awakens. The creature, sad, frightened and confused is left to wander through the wilderness for someone, anyone who will help and care for him. Because of his repulsiveness, he is rejected and mistreated by all that meet him, turning him into a cold, bitter and hateful creature. Frankenstein’s monster is at once terrifying and pathetic, something to be pitied rather than hated, for his alienation is not something reserved exclusively for monsters – but something almost everyone has experienced at one point. His murderous rampages are scary, but far scarier is the human coldness and cruelty he brings out in those who surround him.
  4. Mr. Hyde, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: Mr. Hyde isn’t a monster in the strictly literal sense, but most is assuredly so in the figurative one. Mr. Hyde emerges when the ambitious Dr. Jekyll takes a strange potion he has concocted, turning his personality from kind and good into cruel and amoral. Dr. Jekyll is at once appalled by his horrific deeds and unable to resist succumbing to them, and after taking the potion several times starts to turn permanently into Mr. Hyde. The story explores the duality of human nature forcing readers to address some of their less than desirable characteristics and to really plumb the depths of their souls. Mr. Hyde is perhaps one of the most fascinating and scary literary monsters because he is the monster that lives in all of us.
  5. Count Dracula, Dracula by Bram Stoker: Based on the ancient tales of a cruel and murderous prince as well as European folklore, Count Dracula brings out ancient fears of not only what lies in wait in the dark, but what could be hiding in plain sight. Dracula takes on the guise of an aristocratic gentleman, albeit and eccentric one, but plays the part well enough to get the things he needs and find victims to feed upon. He appears harmless enough on the surface, but he is manipulative, evil and a master of black arts. He is at once human, animal, shadow and demon, inspiring age-old fears of just about everything under the moon and a plethora of reinterpretations and adaptations of the story. In the novel, Dracula is setting in motion a long contemplated plan for world domination, something that may have come to fruition in today’s vampire obsessed culture.
  6. Cthulu, "The Call of Cthulu" by H.P. Lovecraft: Cthulu is the creation of horror, fantasy and sci-fi author H.P. Lovecraft, appearing in a short story he wrote in 1926. Cthulu, an ancient mythological creature, is the embodiment of pure horror and fear. Not only is Cthulu hideous in appearance but there’s a lot of that hideousness to go around as the beast is enormous in size. It is often depicted with a tentacled face, rubbery skin, long claws and rudimentary wings. Despite being so nasty, Cthulu is described as being worshipped by several cults as a god of sorts partly because it can communicate telepathically with all other beings in the universe. Cthulu is infinitely powerful, indescribably ugly and is hard to forget whether you’ve read Lovecraft’s novels or not.
  7. Cyclops, The Odyssey by Homer: Part of a primordial race of giants, the cyclops is an ancient humanoid-monster, born of Uranus and Earth, who has a particularly cranky disposition. Some think the legends arose when ancient people found prehistoric elephant skeletons, mistaking them for those of one-eyed giants. Wherever they came from, they’re particularly nasty beasts who find human flesh to be a tasty treat when they can get it. The cyclops in the Odyssey, Polyphemus, is one of the most terrifying of all the mythical cyclopes. After capturing Odysseus and his men, he kills and eats a few of them each day. Hoping to escape that fate, Odysseus gets the monster drunk and blinds him with a red-hot poker. You might feel bad for a huge, lumbering, blind cyclops if it wasn’t so awful to begin with.
  8. Nazgul, Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: Once upon a time these creatures, also known as the ringwraiths, were human. They became so corrupted by Sauron’s power that they became wraiths able to only single-mindedly serve the interests of Sauron and the One Ring at the center of the epic novels. Tolkien calls the Nazgul, Sauron’s "most terrible servants" and terrible they are indeed. They are described as being pale, ghost-like figures that carry blades that can turn their victims into wraiths as well. Close contact with them, provided they’re not busy stabbing you with those swords, can cause unconsciousness and nightmares, a phenomenon the novels calls the "black breath." Led by a Witch-King, they are brutal hunters who will stop at nothing to reclaim the ring for their master, whether on horseback or astride the back of a huge, pterodactyl like creature. They are the stuff of nightmares and hard monsters to forget whether you’ve encountered them in the novels or the movie adaptations.
  9. It, It by Stephen King: Take all of the things you feared as a child and wrap them up into one horrifying monster and you’ve got this creation by author Stephen King. It, as the monster is called, can take on many forms but is most often in the guise of Pennywise the Clown as it helps him to lure in his preferred prey: young children. The group of friends at the center of the novel is terrified by the various incarnations of the monster throughout their childhood, watching it bubble up through drainpipes, call to them from the sewers and a variety of other thoroughly scary occurrences. It is only when they return to the small town the monster calls home as adults that they can finally confront and kill it, battling it out as it takes on the form of a huge and particularly gruesome spider. Of course, the horror doesn’t end there as they do not realize that It has procreated, leaving a host of other monsters for future generations to enjoy.
  10. Basilisk, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling: The legend of the basilisk hardly began with the work of J.K. Rowling, but she was perhaps the first to bring it to a wider and more modern audience. The basilisk existed in literature since ancient times and has been described in many different ways. Some have called it the king of serpents, able to cause death with a single glance. Others say it is a small snake, but with a bite so venomous it leaves a deadly trail in its wake, scorching the ground as it passes. Rowling’s description of the beast is no less frightening, but on a grander scale. The basilisk of the Harry Potter series is gigantic with saber-sized fangs, potent venom and that legendary deadly stare. The snake can be killed only by exposure to sunlight or poisoned with its own venom. Humans have feared and hated serpents since the dawn of time, and this epic beast only helps capitalize on those long held fears.

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