One of the reasons I read fantasy is for the sense of awe—for that stop-breath feeling I get when Silchas Ruin rises up as a dragon in the Malazan Book of Fallen; when Aude explores the silent and wondrous world of the Grass King’s Palace in Kari Sperring’s The Grass King’s Concubine; when Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring gaze upon the heart of Lothlorien in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
But the flipside of awe is terror—because magic produces things that are dark and scary in addition to wonderful; and because, in any wonder, there is a sense of something largely beyond the familiar, something unknowable and not playing by the rules we’re used to; because spells and creatures that loom impossibly large and impossibly wondrous are also creatures that could destroy you, turn on you, or be twisted into something else. And there’s definitely plenty of terrifying creatures lurking in fantasy books!
Here are my five picks for creepiest monster.
Plague Demonspawns — Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear
There’s something I find really creepy about body horror: incubating something that will destroy you within your own body. Bear’s plague demons fit the bill, and more: they grow within a person’s lungs, slowly choking them to death; and then tear themselves messily free at the death of the host. Eeep.
Stiletto Wasps — Red Seas under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch
Insects have a creepiness all of their own–especially if they’re giant wasps with a dart that’s the size of a dagger, who attack in swarms and go more and more frenzied with the death of each one. You just know you don’t want to be close to any of these.
The Wood — Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Where to start? The Wood is the epitome of creepy: it distorts everything on its borders, generates creatures and crops that are pure poison, exudes a miasma that twists people into dangerous madmen–and has trees that slowly absorb people into their trunks and keep them alive in another reality, forever trying to escape the Wood. *shudder*
The Other Mother — Coraline by Neil Gaiman
I hesitated a lot over picking this one, because Neil Gaiman has a knack for really scary creepy monsters and there were several others that I could have named. In the end, though… there’s little scarier than a thing that look like a dream mother—attentive, cooking better food and seemingly more loving—except that it turns out she steals eyes, keeps around the ghost-children she’s killed, and plans to do the same to Coraline….
The Hunter — The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia McKillip
McKillip’s work has the lovely feel of retold fairytale (and gorgeous poetic language), and, like all good fairytales, it can get genuinely scary. The Hunter, the spell of mage Atrix Wolfe meant to halt a war, is the personification of death and decay and fear—moves as he pleases within Pelucir, is implacable, and all but impossible to destroy. You can definitely understand why Atrix Wolfe would want to stay away from this kind of creation!
Bonus points go to the tentacled monster in Spiral of Time, a Yoko Tsuno BD by Roger Leloup, but it’s a bande dessinée, and the monster also turns out to be an alien from another planet, so it was ineligible on several grounds. Still find it inexpressibly creepy though! Tell me your own picks in the comments.
Originally published August 2015.
Aliette de Bodard writes speculative fiction: she has won three Nebula Awards, an Ignyte Award, a Locus Award and four British Science Fiction Association Awards. Her most recent book is Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances (JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc., forthcoming June 28th, 20222), a fantasy of manners and murders set in an alternate 19th Century Vietnamese court. She lives in Paris.