Top Ten Terrifying Literary Monsters
Literature is an amazing medium. It has the power to bring us joy, make us laugh—or fill us with terror. No movie gore and computer generated fiend can match the cold horror that arises from the grim images spun in our minds by a talented author. Here, we have gathered together the most chilling monsters from the great history of literature.
The Ten Who Were Taken
"Black Company" by Glen Cook
Imprisoned for centuries and then unleashed by the bungling of a foolish wizard, the Ten Who Were Taken stalk the pages of Glen Cook’s “Black Company” novels. Undead sorcerers filled with hate and cruelty, they exist only to serve the masters who Took them, the mighty Dominator and his wife, the Lady of Charm.
With the power to shatter armies, transcend death, and even bend time itself, the Ten are a nearly unstoppable force of evil. But as terrifying as they are as a whole, they are no less frightening when taken (no pun intended) individually. From the sadistic Limper, to the brutal Shapeshifter, to the mad and enigmatic Soulcatcher, each is a horror unto themselves.
“The Obsidian Chronicles” by Lawrence Watt-Evan
You’d be hard-pressed to find a fantasy author anywhere who hasn’t done a take on dragons at one time or another, and it’s not because they lack creativity. They are the embodiment of many things that fascinate and frighten us. Their size and raw power are awesome in the truest sense of the word, their reptilian nature gives them an alien and frightening quality, and they breath fire, an element that both intrigues and alarms us. It’s safe to say we will continue to see dragons populating our fantasy realms for many years to come.
Fantasy literature is filled with many terrifying dragons, but perhaps the most frightening hail from Lawrence Watt-Evans’ “Obsidian Chronicles” trilogy. These dragons slumber for years at a time, only to awaken to participate in orgies of violence against humankind, in which they slaughter the innocent to feast on their souls. Those infected with their venom eventually die in agony as new dragons are birthed from their bodies, they are virtually indestructible, and even if they could somehow be killed, the wild magic contained in their bodies would run amok and turn the land into a nightmare where the laws of reality no longer apply.
“The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells
When H.G. Wells’ nameless protagonist of “The Time Machine” arrives in the distant future, he thinks he has found a virtual garden paradise, populated by the good-hearted—if ineffectual—Eloi, humanity’s descendants. But he quickly learns there is a dark side to this future when he comes across another race of humanity’s children, the cannibalistic Morlocks.
Pallid and nearly blind in daylight, the Morlocks dwell underground and emerge at night to feed upon the helpless Eloi. But even more frightening than the monstrous Morlocks are the implications of their existence, the idea that the class system in our world became so rigidly unfair that the rich became useless and child-like and the poor become inhuman cannibals.
“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy by J.R.R Tolkien
As part of his plan to conquer Middle Earth, Sauron, the chief villain of “The Lord of the Rings,” created many rings that he gifted to the rulers of the various races. These rings granted great power to their wielders, but they also made them vulnerable to Sauron’s influence.
First to fall were the weak mortal men, and they became corrupted to the point where they lost their humanity and became the Nazgul, Ringwraiths bound wholly to the will of their master.
Dark creatures dwelling in the shadows, the Nazgul are frightening in and of themselves, but like many entries on this list, their true terror lies in what they represent, endless life as a slave to Sauron—a fate that could also befall Frodo Baggins, the trilogy’s protagonist and bearer of the One Ring.
“The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells
“Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance.”
H.G Wells earns his second entry on the list with the Martians, the squid-like villains of “The War of the Worlds.” Operating titanic machines capable of slaughtering human soldiers by the dozen, these alien monsters feed on human blood and are interested only in conquest.
However, much like the Morlocs, they are also a chilling commentary on where our future could be heading. They are a civilization that became so dependent on technology that they were little more than disembodied brains reliant on machines even to move around. They lost any compassion or decency they might have once had and became as cold and soulless as their machines.
"Dracula” by Bram Stoker
A Transylvanian lord and magician, the undead Count Dracula is the origin of the modern vampire—the charming, refined, yet menacing monster whose true nature is only revealed while on the hunt for human prey.
Dracula is another monster that plays to our basest fears. He is a predator who feeds upon human blood. He is a dead man given unholy life beyond the grave. He possesses overwhelming strength and is nearly impervious to harm. He is a trickster capable of walking among us and luring us into his wicked schemes.
Dracula’s terror is not limited to fiction, either, as it seems likely that he is at least partially inspired by stories of Vlad Dracula, the Impaler, a 15th century European tyrant with the nasty habit of impaling people—a method of execution that ensured a slow and agonizing death.
“Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling
Dementors are one of the darker magical creatures populating J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” novels. Ghostly and corpse-like, the dementors are beings of pure cruelty that feed on suffering. To even be near them is to lose all hope and become consumed by despair.
Worse still, the dementors have another power, the Dementor’s Kiss, which drains the soul from a victim, a fate said to be worse than death.
Dementors are sometimes used for good, acting as jailors for the more unsavory elements of magical society, but their loyalty only lasts until they find a patron who can offer them the opportunity to cause greater suffering.
They are also very difficult to defeat, with the only reliable method being a difficult spell to summon a patronus, a guardian spirit that will chase them off.
“Beowulf,” author unknown
One of the monsters featured in the centuries old Anglo-Saxon epic, “Beowulf,” Grendel, said to be a descendant of the Biblical Cain, is a monster whose intimidation comes from his mystery.
Beyond the fact that he is giant—and, perhaps, vaguely humanoid—little is said about Grendel’s appearance, and all we are left with are descriptions of his attacking and eating residents of a Scandinavian lord’s hall. But anyone familiar with the poem could tell you this does nothing to lessen his frightfulness. In fact, it allows him to take on whatever form most scares the reader.
In the end, the unknown is always more frightening than the known.
“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
Created and then rejected by the scientist Victor Frankenstein, the monster of “Frankenstein” (contrary to popular belief, Frankenstein was the name of the creator, not the monster) is the embodiment of mankind’s follies come back to haunt us. In his arrogance, Frankenstein sought to create life by piecing together corpses and using perverse science, but when he glimpses the brutish creature he has created, he recoils in horror and spurns it.
Without guidance, the monster seeks to make its own way in the world but is greeted by horror and revulsion by all it meets, and it swears vengeance upon humankind, and upon his creator, and begins a methodical series of murders targeting everyone Frankenstein cares about. In the end, Frankenstein is forced to live as his creation, alone and without comfort.
It’s a haunting and tragic tale, and its resonance in a world filled with not always pleasant side effects of scientific advance makes it all the more disturbing.
various stories by H.P. Lovecraft
Cthulhu could be said to be the sum of all things we find frightening. An alien from the stars, he is a being of darkness and madness dwelling deep beneath the ocean, both reptilian and octopus-like in appearance.
Though a horrifying monster in his own right, Cthulhu also has many frightening minions to call upon, from mad human cults, to aquatic Deep Ones, to fiendish and incomprehensible alien life forms.
Cthulhu is said to be asleep, but that is always accompanied by the ominous promise that he will one day return, and readers are left to imagine how horrible an event that could be, considering how terrifying just his minions are.
Interestingly, Cthulhu is a very popular figure in pop culture, being referenced by everything from South Park, to Metallica songs, to World of Warcraft. It just goes to show how interested we are in our own fears.