The best stories told by monsters

The Books I Picked & Why

Frankenstein

By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Book cover of Frankenstein

Why this book?

If someone else at the Villa Diodati had come up with the idea of Frankenstein, I believe the Creature would have been a two-dimensional foil, good only for a quick scare in that “year with no summer.” Not much better than Frankenstein himself, who had the hubris to create but not the courage to nurture. Abandoned by his progenitor, rejected by society, Shelley’s Creature is a battered soul in stitched skins. He is capable of wonder at the natural world and desperate to give and have kindness. There are so many descriptions of him looking through windows or through chinks in walls. In someone else’s hands, we would have only seen the terrifying face pressed against the glass, we would not have seen his view on the lives gathered around a table, that would never have a place for him.


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Grendel

By John Gardner

Book cover of Grendel

Why this book?

“And so begins the twelfth year of my idiotic war.” Gardner packs a lot into this slim beautiful volume about a monster’s quest for the point of it all. Grendel’s consciousness starts evolving the moment he realizes that he is a thing apart from the rollicking Danes and the Geatish hero, Beowulf. But what? He tries to discover a purpose to his otherness. (“My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it,” is the rather unhelpful advice of the all-knowing dragon.) Poignant, funny, brutal, and poetic, this was my first introduction to stories told by a monster and remains the gold standard.


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The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break

By Steven Sherrill

Book cover of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break

Why this book?

Five thousand years after leaving the labyrinth, the Minotaur has traded in a diet of virgins for a job as a cook at a North Carolina joint called Grub’s Rib, a casually cannibalistic reference that gives a sense of Sherrill’s dark humor. His life is punctuated by problems that are both conventional (he lives in a trailer park and pines for one of Grub’s waitresses) and un- (his horns are awkward in the tight confines of kitchen and trailer, his tongue makes speech difficult, his penmanship is disastrous). What makes the Minotaur so appealing is that unlike the mortals around him who really have no excuse for cynicism, “M” clings desperately to possibility. “Even in the most tedious unending life there comes, occasionally, hope. One simply has to wait and be ready.”


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Wide Sargasso Sea

By Jean Rhys

Book cover of Wide Sargasso Sea

Why this book?

Technically Bertha Mason is not a monster, but in Jane Eyre, she is called not only “monster” but “goblin,” “vampyre,” and “clothed hyena.” Jean Rhys, who knew a thing or two about not belonging, explores the deterioration of the Jamaican-born, Creole beauty, Antoinette Cosway, into Bertha Mason, Thornfield Hall’s notorious “madwoman in the attic.” It is a harrowing story of hypocrisy and the dismantling of a passionate, intelligent woman for the sin of not being quite “us.”


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A Monster Calls

By Patrick Ness, Siobhan Dowd, Jim Kay

Book cover of A Monster Calls

Why this book?

Monsters can be stand-ins for something external that must be fought—social injustice, racism, fate—but Ness’s yew tree monster is a stand-in for something internal that must be accepted. This monster is beautifully ambiguous, sometimes appearing as the shadow left by loss. Sometimes it seems to be 13-year-old Conor’s hyperactive neurons firing off dream stories to help him deal with his mother’s premature death. Or maybe it is an ancient, primal force, giving Conor permission for the destructive expression of pain. Not that it really matters in the end. I’ve seen this called a middle-grade book, I suppose because of the main character’s age. It’s really a book for anyone who has known grief.


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