How Andrew Pyper Built a New Monster in ‘The Only Child’ by Nick Cutter
There is a pretty common question amongst horror and thriller writers—writers of books built to unnerve or otherwise unsettle a reader. How do you build a workable monster? Of course, workable means different things to different people. You can’t scare everyone all the time, because everyone’s scared of different things. Jack’s afraid of spiders, while Jane gets freaked out by demons. Sharks terrify Hank, but Susie loves them. Enclosed spaces creep Tim out, while ghosts give Lori the willies. Now you may think, “Hey, let’s just combine all those fears into one nebulous ball of horror—say, a demon shark with eight hairy legs that lurks in tight tunnels . . . and is coincidentally a ghost, somehow.” Of course, that won’t work. Not that some artist hasn’t tried it at some desperate point in their career.
The idea of building a new monster is a monumental task facing us writers who are deeply invested in disturbing our readers. We’ve got a few choices. We can go with one of those ready-made, crowd-pleasing monsters created long ago by someone else. Something like Stoker’s vampire (some will argue he cobbled his Dracula together from old folklore tales, but most will agree that he entrenched the idea of the vampire into our mass consciousness) or zombies, or werewolves, or a gloss on Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster, or a Lovecraftian lurker from beyond the void. These are good choices! I’ve tried them. Most horror writers have. But no matter what new twist that writer puts on them, they are still monsters that existed before the writer settled down to his or her task.
The other choice is to try to come up with an entirely new monster. And that is so, so hard. I think of the analogy I’ve heard regarding aliens—in fiction, their depiction is often the same: the Grey Man. Some say we rely on that image because we have a hard time picturing an alien life form that doesn’t look at least a little like we do: two arms, two legs, eyes, a head. It’s not necessarily a paucity of our imagination. It’s just a certain myopia we have as humans. So it goes with trying to create a totally new monster. No matter how hard you try to make it completely novel, you may find it still bears passing resemblance to other monstrous creatures you’ve encountered before. It’s not exactly a vampire . . . but it kind of is. Or it’s not really a Lovecraftian horror . . . but you must concede it bears some passing resemblance to Lovecraft’s creations.
That is why, when a writer comes up with something wholly and utterly original, it’s wonderful. A real and magical feat.
And when I sat down to read Andrew Pyper’s new book, The Only Child, there it was. A new monster. Did that monster—let’s call him (it?) Michael, as that’s the name the author offers to us—have some resemblance to monsters past? Yes. But in a most unique and, in my reading of horror and thriller and suspense books, heretofore unseen way. A monster influenced by the great horrific characters. By Dracula, by Hyde, by Frankenstein’s monster. The way Pyper germinates the history of his monster, how he has Michael developing over hundreds of years and becoming what he (it) is by slow degrees . . . it’s a thrilling achievement.
I’ve often asked myself, “Can I come up with a completely new monster?” I’m still trying. But Andrew Pyper’s already done it in his newest, entirely wonderful book.
That’s not to say I’m the least bit shocked.
OK, well, maybe a little. Or maybe that’s just jealousy.