The best books to understand monsters

Michael E. Heyes Author Of Margaret's Monsters: Women, Identity, and the Life of St. Margaret in Medieval England
By Michael E. Heyes

Who am I?

What could possibly captivate the mind more than monsters? As a kid, I eagerly consumed books from authors like R.L. Stine, Stephen King, and HP Lovecraft. I watched George Romero, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter, and played games like Dungeons and Dragons, Vampire: The Masquerade, and The Call of Cthulhu. When I discovered monster studies in my PhD years—a way to read monsters as cultural productions that tell us something about the people that create them—I was hooked. Ever since, I get to continue reading my favorite books, watching my favorite movies, and playing my favorite games. It’s just that now someone’s paying me to do it.


I wrote...

Margaret's Monsters: Women, Identity, and the Life of St. Margaret in Medieval England

By Michael E. Heyes,

Book cover of Margaret's Monsters: Women, Identity, and the Life of St. Margaret in Medieval England

What is my book about?

Margaret’s Monsters explores the monstrous features of the Life of one of the most popular saints in medieval England. Analyzing these monsters helps modern readers to understand what, at first, appears to be a paradox: that Margaret was both a patron saint to lifelong virgins and the patron saint of mothers in labor. I show that changes to the monsters of Margaret’s Life—the dragon that swallows her whole, the black demon who invades her prison cell, and Olibrius, a monster in human guise—allow authors to speak to specific audiences, to tailor Margaret’s message to small populations of people, and fundamentally change Margaret’s role as a saint. These changes allowed medieval women to make use of this remarkable saint to shape their sexuality and gender roles. 

The books I picked & why

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Monster Theory: Reading Culture

By Jeffrey Jerome Cohen,

Book cover of Monster Theory: Reading Culture

Why this book?

There aren’t many discussions in my field that don’t at least nod to, if not begin with, Cohen’s contribution, "Monster Culture". Cohen lays out a way to think about monsters as embodiments of culture that has been invaluable to their study, a way to “mine” monsters for the cultural “gold” from which they are made. While the field has expanded since Cohen, it should be the starting point for anyone seriously interested in monstrosity. There are also stand-out chapters on a variety of topics, from Frankenstein and Jurassic Park to Beowulf and the perception of medieval Muslim monstrosity. 

Monster Theory: Reading Culture

By Jeffrey Jerome Cohen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Monster Theory as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Monsters provide a key to understanding the culture that spawned them. So argues the essays in this wide-ranging collection that asks the question, what happens when critical theorists take the study of monsters seriously as a means of examining our culture? In viewing the monstrous body as metaphor for the cultural body, the contributors consider beasts, demons, freaks, and fiends as symbolic expressions of very real fears and desires, signs of cultural unease that pervade society and shape its collective behaviour. Through a sampling of monsters as a conceptual category, these essays argue that our fascination for the monstrous testifies…


The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous

By Asa Simon Mittman (editor), Peter J. Dendle (editor),

Book cover of The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous

Why this book?

Cohen is a necessary starting point, but the contributions to Monsters and the Monstrous really highlight how far monster studies came in the first couple of decades it was around. The contributions in this volume range farther than the Western world, touching on topics in Africa, the Caribbean, Japan, and a host of others. There is also additional theory to account for shifts in time and culture when thinking about the monstrous and contributions from powerhouses in the field like Debra Higgs Strickland, Debbie Felton, and Michael Dylan Foster. I have personally found Six and Thompson’s article “From Hideous to Hedonist” to be useful every time I teach my course on Religion and the Monstrous. 

The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous

By Asa Simon Mittman (editor), Peter J. Dendle (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The field of monster studies has grown significantly over the past few years and this companion provides a comprehensive guide to the study of monsters and the monstrous from historical, regional and thematic perspectives. The collection reflects the truly multi-disciplinary nature of monster studies, bringing in scholars from literature, art history, religious studies, history, classics, and cultural and media studies. The companion will offer scholars and graduate students the first comprehensive and authoritative review of this emergent field.


Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting

By W. Scott Poole,

Book cover of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting

Why this book?

Ok, you’ve read Cohen and Monsters and the Monstrous. This monster stuff is getting pretty good, and you might be able to feel around the edges a bit. How does it apply to contemporary America which “no longer believes in monsters?” This is where Poole’s book comes in. Poole walks through monstrosity in the US from Columbus’ first steps to just shy of 2020. All the juicy topics that Americans have used monsters for—sex, race, and politics—emerge in this monstrous tour de force of US history. This is one of the first books I recommend to my students.

Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting

By W. Scott Poole,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Monsters in America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Monsters arrived in 2011aand now they are back. Not only do they continue to live in our midst, but, as historian Scott Poole shows, these monsters are an important part of our pastaa hideous obsession America cannot seem to escape. Poole's central argument in Monsters in America is that monster tales intertwine with America's troubled history of racism, politics, class struggle, and gender inequality. The second edition of Monsters leads readers deeper into America's tangled past to show how monsters continue to haunt contemporary American ideology. By adding new discussions of the American West, Poole focuses intently on the Native…


Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural

By Victoria Nelson,

Book cover of Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural

Why this book?

Part theory, part media analysis, and all awesome, Nelson’s work traces the rise of the “Protestant Gothic” tradition in the United States and the way in which this dark and gloomy literary tradition came to inform most of the media we consume today. From zombies to vampires, HP Lovecraft to Guillermo del Toro, Nelson reveals the ways that the Protestant Gothic has shaped modern literature, television, and film into a space of religious imagining that we don’t even recognize.

Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural

By Victoria Nelson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gothicka as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Gothic, Romanticism's gritty older sibling, has flourished in myriad permutations since the eighteenth century. In Gothicka, Victoria Nelson identifies the revolutionary turn it has taken in the twenty-first. Today's Gothic has fashioned its monsters into heroes and its devils into angels. It is actively reviving supernaturalism in popular culture, not as an evil dimension divorced from ordinary human existence but as part of our daily lives.

To explain this millennial shift away from the traditionally dark Protestant post-Enlightenment Gothic, Nelson studies the complex arena of contemporary Gothic subgenres that take the form of novels, films, and graphic novels. She…


Religion and Its Monsters

By Timothy K. Beal,

Book cover of Religion and Its Monsters

Why this book?

Reader beware: hic sunt dracones (here, there are dragons). In his excellent book, Beal covers topics that many people will find controversial: the monstrosity of God and Christ, Dracula’s connection with Hebrew Bible, and the rise of monstrous identification. Throughout, Beal traces delicate historical threads to link topics across time that highlight both his understanding of biblical material and knowledge of modern film and literature. Sometimes the monsters that we ignore are the ones that dwell the closest to us….

Religion and Its Monsters

By Timothy K. Beal,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Religion and Its Monsters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Religion's great and powerful mystery fascinates us, but it also terrifies. So too the monsters that haunt the stories of the Judeo-Christian mythos and earlier traditions: Leviathan, Behemoth, dragons, and other beasts. In this unusual and provocative book, Timothy K. Beal writes about the monsters that lurk in our religious texts, and about how monsters and religion are deeply entwined. Horror and faith are inextricable. Ans as monsters are part of religious texts and traditions, so religion lurks in the modern horror genre, from its birth in Dante's Inferno to the contemporary spookiness of H.P. Lovecraft and the Hellraiser films.…


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