Scaring Us is Not Enough

I recently read Stephen Asma’s ON MONSTERS: AN UNNATURAL HISTORY OF OUR WORST FEARS. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it. Asma’s book not only provides a history of monsters, but discusses the reasons we need monsters; the role monsters play in society. While ON MONSTERS only covers monsters in western cultures, the concepts can be applied well beyond.

A few points stood out for me. I read ON MONSTERS while researching for the next book series I am planning, THE DRAGON WITHIN. We make something monstrous for a purpose. We create monsters to teach lessons. We create monsters to simplify real dangers. Think about Grimm’s Fairy Tales. We create monsters to create community. During war we vilify the enemy by turning them into monsters, dehumanizing them. It is easier for soldiers to kill a monster than another human.

How does this relate to literature? We write monsters not only to scare our readers, but to elicit  emotions. A good book, whether horror, science fiction, fantasy, thriller, romance, or literary should make us afraid. We should be afraid that the restless spirit will possess the child, the spaceship will blow up, the Orcs will slaughter the townsfolk, the world will be destroyed by nuclear war, the boy won’t get the girl, or the heroine will die alone. What causes our fear may be different, but in everything we read, fear is a key emotion that keeps us reading. But it isn’t  enough that a book evoke fear, it must make us care. We must care about the child, the people on the spaceship, the townsfolk, the world, the boy and girl, and the heroine. Fear without caring will not keep us reading. Caring without fear will not keep us reading. A good book balances the two emotions.