What Is a Monster?

This past weekend, I was on a series of three panels with Gail Carriger at Gaslight Gathering in San Diego where we discussed a spectrum of topics ranging from Gothic literature to monsters in steampunk. Gail is the author of the well loved Parasol Protectorate steampunk series. On one of the panels we were joined by Dru Pagliasotti, author of the novel Clockwork Heart. The other two panels were moderated by DeAnna Cameron, author of the novel The Girl on the Midway Stage. In addition to these panels, I gave a presentation on the paranormal as it was perceived during the Victorian Age. Below is a photo from the first panel session.


The overall experience proved to be a very in-depth discussion that started with our love of Gothic Literature and for many of us, how it got us started thinking about being writers and how the Gothics influenced almost all modern genre fiction from science fiction to horror to mystery to romance. We then moved on to a discussion of how monsters allow us to explore topics we might not otherwise get to explore in fiction. For example, werewolves allow us to explore the monster within. Vampires give us creatures who have a long-time outlook on humanity and can make observations that might seem trite coming from another creature. Of course mad scientists allow us to look at the morality of science itself.

What was perhaps the most interesting point of discussion for me came near the end of the three panels. One of the audience members asked us simply “What makes a monster?” The answer we came up with was that a monster must be corporeal, because monsters must have a physical, perhaps even visceral component. Monsters must be dangerous to humans in some way. In this sense, this allows for someone like Jack the Ripper, who is arguably a monster, though clearly in the form of a human. A monster is no longer monstrous when they are fully allied with humanity and pose no threat to the people they’re around.

One monster who seemed to show up in all the panels was Spring-heeled Jack, who I spoke about at length about a year and a half ago at The Scarlet Order Journal. It was even suggested that I should create a Spring-heeled Jack costume for a future steampunk event. I actually think such a costume would be a lot of fun to create, but it would be a challenge to figure out how to portray him. After all, he really was pretty monstrous in his earliest incarnation, attacking women with his metallic claws and breathing fire, which blinded a girl. Nevertheless, this is a challenge I’ll definitely consider.

Finally, despite Gaslight Gathering being a steampunk convention, it seemed my books which did the best in terms of sales were my Scarlet Order vampire novels, no doubt as a result of the theme. The vampires were pleased to get a chance to shine, though they do remind my readers that they will never, ever sparkle.

8 comments on “What Is a Monster?

  1. […] via What Is a Monster? — David Lee Summers’ Web Journal […]

  2. Interesting that Spring-Heeled Jack and Jack the Ripper both targeted women, at least initially. I wonder if the Victorians were especially scandalized by attacks on women, who it seems they considered highly delicate and vulnerable.

    • Sadly, hatred of women was nothing new in Victorian times and there are far too many creeps who hate women for being women even today. Spring-heeled Jack, at least initially, seems to have been a creep who thought scaring women was funny. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Victorian attitudes toward women did factor into his thought process.

      • Agreed, but I was thinking more of the public fascination with the two Jacks. If Spring-Heeled had only pestered the sentries, I wonder if his exploits would have caused such a sensation.

      • Good point and you might well be right, though Spring-heeled Jack’s costuming was so remarkable he’d probably have caused a stir among the Victorians just bouncing down the street. I gather it’s suspected that the original SHJ was known to his victims, or at least known in the neighborhood of the attacks, and that’s why he donned the costume.

  3. A very interesting flow of discussion!! Being from a different continent I had never heard of spring heeled jack, will surely read more on this ‘monster’. Its true that most of these events were caused and even sensationalised as it involved women……sadly many men then and even now consider women in a vulnerable degraded way.

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