It may be a rather useless way to predict the future or pre-determine character personality - but for the writer, the astrological signs of the Zodiac a rich vein of narrative ideas, character archetypes and story principles. Particularly for writers of horror, supernatural and weird fiction. Illustrator Damon Hellandbrand has reimagined every sign of the Zodiac as a monster and the imagery he has constructed from the core elements of the star signs themselves, give us a great starting point to think about what makes a monster compelling?
Good monsters are not arbitrary, they embody scary Ideas, more than simply scary appearances. As a simple test, show these 12 images to your friends and ask them which one they would be most scared of in the dark - which one terrifies them the most? I’ll wager the responses will be not be uniform, but differ widely between people. What is most scary to one person is not the same as to another. The important question is why? What is it about a particular image that makes the fear it generates personal?
Certainly you can’t design a story monster that is all fears to everyone, but you can design a monster that is the sum of all fears to the protagonist of a story, a character through which the audience aligns and fears as they do. In these zodiac illustrations each monster holds a specific kind of archetypal terror that has been amplified.
Leo is the man-beast who threatens to devour you, animalistically and savagely with claws and teeth. Eaten by an animal is one of the longest standing fears humankind has ever harboured. An obvious survival trait for stone age peoples. But claws and teeth also represent a kind of savagery which is the opposite of ‘civilisation’ and that bestial nature instills a particular kind of fear - an animal within us all - one that is perhaps only barely contained. Damon Hilldandbrand as not given his drawings these qualities randomly, each is drawn from the archetypal fears the Zodiac signs embody and express.
Astrologers would suggest that being born under such a sign dictates your personality and future but for those of us who aren’t intellectually retarded the signs of the Zodiac are much more useful as tool for understanding the human condition as narrative metaphor and allegory, manifestations of distinct and personal fears - the beast within, judgement, inversion, transgression, gluttony, wrath, hate, hunter and hunted, subjugation, redemption. Good monster design is about tapping into the fearful (and very human) idea the monster represents, not just the grotesque of what it looks like.
This thinking was front and centre for me in articulating the ‘monsters’ of The Transgressions Cycle. I was looking for a specificity of fearful depiction, something which would rattle the protagonist in a personal way, and also that which would rattle me as the writer (because if it doesn’t scare me it won’t scare anyone else!)
In book 1, The Mothers, the ‘monster’ is a nest of soulless children who live between the walls. In book 2, The Scrimshaw Marionette, the monster is the ghost ensconced in a macabre marionette doll, carved form whale bone, that can puppeteer the living into the sea. In book 3, The Reparation, it’s the spirit of a dead girl who walks backwards through the cemetery. In all three, it was not the way the monster looked so much as the way it moved, that was the hook in my imagination and the impetus to tell the story. I wanted to find particular forms of motion that were ‘uncanny’ in the truest sense - normal, yet not normal - movement that resembled the human, but which are clearly inhuman. The merging of an image and a movement creates a cognitive dissonance between seeing something that is seemingly normal, yet the way it moves betrays it’s abnormality.
In The Mothers the soulless children look like young children, but move like insects. Moreover, they move in the ‘non-places’, the spaces between spaces where humans are not meant to go. This is a direct connection to Freud’s ideas of the ‘Unheimliche’ where he looks at spaces within the home - basements and attics - as ‘ uncanny’, being in the house but not really ‘of the house’. In The Scrimshaw Marionette the puppet ghost forces people to walk, but walk as if their limbs are on strings - jerky, staccato, twitching motion that lacks all the fluidity of being human.
And in The Reparation, the spirit in the cemetery appears serene, her legs walk forward her body moves backwards wherever she goes, drifting over the cemetery ground in an inversion of the ‘real’. She is a lure, pulling people backwards into the past.
As with Damon Hellandbrand’s imagery of the zodiac, I was looking to find not just an arbitrary idea of ‘scary’, but something that spoke to deeper fears we harbour - the breaking of parental bonds, the loss of control over our own bodies, the fear of the past holding and dragging us back to mistakes we cant fix.
Without metaphor, high-concept genre writing is empty. The words a writer puts down are the generators of imagery, and that the more clarity, specificity and thought a writer can put into that imagery, the more profound the experience becomes. With such a long history of writers creating monsters, it can sometimes feel hard to find a fresh perspective, a unique idea, but the more particular you can be about the image and it’s idea, the easer a fresh monsters will come.