Today we welcome Erin Bow whose novel Plain Kate (which I loved) made our BEST OF 2010 list. Her second YA novel, Sorrow’s Knot was released this week and I can’t wait to read it. Since it’s Halloween, Erin’s here to talk about creepiness and to give away a copy of Sorrow’s Knot to one random commenter with a U.S. address.
Happy Halloween, fantasy readers and writers! Let’s talk about how to make monsters creepy.
There’s a curious thing I call the Sauron paradox, after the Dark Lord from THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Now, Sauron is powerful and should be terrifying. He has twisted into shape whole categories of malign creatures: orcs and goblins and fell beasts and trolls. He’s blighted half a continent. He’s (if you read the backstory) a rebel angel, a godling walking the earth: immortal, and would-be-invulnerable, except that he stored so much of his power outside himself in the titular Ring.
And yet, a paradox: Sauron is not scary. Within the book, characters are scared of him, and for good reason. But what of us readers? Is he a figure that will stalk your nightmares after you read the book? No. Will you, indeed, think of him at all? Quite possibly not. In the recent film, he’s personified as a red eye on top of a dark tower, and he’s, well… silly. Like an evil lighthouse. If the Teletubbies were evil, Sauron would be their evil lighthouse pinwheel god.
Here’s the thing I want to suggest: Sauron (and other monsters) are more creepy as they become more human.
Stick with me for a second, because I have a complicated analogy that might help. There’s an idea in robotics called “the uncanny valley.”
Say you’ve got a robot, and you want it to look human for some reason. A robot that’s, say, 90 per cent human-looking (however one measures that) is a robot doing a pretty good impersonation. People are likely to respond well to it. Ninety-one per cent: even better. Ninety-three: clever robot, clever you! But suddenly, somewhere in here, something goes wrong. You make your robot, say, 95 per cent human, and people no longer respond well to it. They find it, frankly, creepy.
Ninety-four per cent is a robot doing a good human impression. Ninety-five per cent is a human being gone terribly wrong. It’s a corpse walking. A zombie. A psychopath. We tag it as human because it looks human — but its responses fail to measure up. It’s the discord, the little-bit-wrongness, that gets us.
Freud called it the uncanny, the thing that is both known and alien, both uncomfortably strange and uncomfortably familiar.
It’s a matter of taste, of course, but the monsters that have always scared me are the uncanny ones. Dracula, looking human but climbing face-first down the wall. A werewolf at sunset. Zombies in the moment that they turn. And in the real world: the flash of shark-flatness in a human eye. These are truly the things of nightmares — the things of the waking world twisted and darkened. But just a little.
So the next time your monster isn’t quite making you shiver, and you’re tempted to turn it up, turn it down instead. Give it a flash of something familiar. Emphasize its most human quality, then depart from it. Forget Sauron, and channel Freud. Because that’s scary.
Erin Bow is the author of Plain Kate, which has a creepy rusalka in it, and the just-released Sorrow’s Knot, which has an undead monster made of clotted shadow, but with birch-white human hands.