Columns > Published on October 31st, 2018

Ranking 20 Literary Monsters

Here, I present to you, a ranking of literary monsters.

They’re ranked from worst to best. So if you want to find the best monsters, skip to the end. If you want to start with the worst, you’re in the right spot, and you’ll get to hear all about why the Jabberwock sucks.

You'll notice some are specific monsters, some are a type. That's because I figured nobody wants to read about 15 different vampires. Or dozens of zombies ("Zombie who is partially decayed, zombie missing one arm and part of a face, zombie on fire..."). 

As with any ranking of this type, it’s important to be as objective as possible. That’s why I took into account scariness, killing aptitude, coolness, legacy, and several other factors which I balanced, calculated, and then threw out the goddamn window in favor of just deciding as I went. Perhaps the haphazard creation of this list makes ME one of literature’s greatest monsters? Only time will tell, but I’m still convinced that I’m a better monster than the Jabberwock. I really hate that guy. 

20. The Jabberwock

Shit’s for nerds. No, really. The only reason I put this “monster” on the list is to stick it to the type of literary nerd who would want to hear about this thing. I can picture him now. Crying poverty while sleeving his arms in tattoos. The kind of person for whom the word “affectation” was created. Supposedly the poem “Jabberwocky” was written as satire meant for pretentious poems and critics. And, as is usually the case, the people being satirized didn’t recognize themselves in the lines.

Hard pass, worst literary monster.

19. Old-Timey, Literary Ghosts

I’m not a fan. I don’t just seems like it’s always some Victorian-era thing, never a dude who worked at Best Buy and is now ghosting around. I don’t get why I’m supposed to believe that only people who traveled in carriages and used cocaine as medicine became ghosts. Also, how scary is a ghost in an era when you’d probably die before you were 30 anyway? I’d be more scared of tonsillitis. Or being buried alive. That seemed to happen WAY more often than it should have.Turn Of The Screw types. These ghosts slam doors, open drawers, and mostly just hang out, looking sinister. They’re really more annoying than deadly.

18. Giants

Giants should be terrifying, but they always blow it when the pressure's on. Goliath is the prime example, and his legend created the entire “David versus Goliath” concept, a way of saying that the person who should clearly win in a conflict will be defeated by the underdog. See also: Jack And The Beanstalk. See also: Polyphemus from The Odyssey.

17. Giant Squid

Guys, I don’t mean to be insulting to your dope 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea tattoos and your Lovecraft-themed cocktail menus, but a giant squid ain’t that scary. Sure, if I was in the ocean and up against one, by all means, I’m crapping myself. But when a fella lives in Colorado and has found the solution to be as simple as “Don’t live near the water,” it’s a pretty easy monster to ignore. I'm more afraid of a squid showing up on my plate than I am of a squid showing up as a villain. 

16. Dementors

They’re super gross, like rotted corpses, and they force you to re-live your worst memory. I already lived through the mistake of getting gasoline on my hands and touching my scrotum ONCE. That’s more than enough.

However, they sure seem to be bested by a bunch of schoolkids pretty often. How many times do you have to be outwitted by children before you’re de-mentor-moted?

15. Haunted/Evil Objects

Mirrors, shoes, rocking chairs, Stephen King’s laundry folding machine, whatever. The haunted object is mostly ineffective, although it depends a little on the object. Horror movies sure have gotten a lot of mileage out of the haunted garbage disposal.

The problem with haunted objects is they don’t have enough agency to do you in. They’re easily thwarted. If you find yourself pursued by a haunted object, simply take 3 big steps in a direction away from the object.

14. Haunted Dolls

I’ll also throw in ventriloquist dummies, puppets, Demonic Toys, what have you. For some reason, it seems like haunted dolls appear in books for kids more than for adults. Goosebumps, Coraline. But there is a lesser-known Annabelle horror novel from the late 80’s, which is book schlock horror at its best. 

Yes, it’s bizarre to sleep in a room with a weird doll sitting up in a rocking chair, staring you down. But that creepiness goes out the window when you’re reading about someone else doing it.

Imagine your best friend saying they stayed at an AirBNB with a creepy doll in a chair. Your friend didn’t sleep all night. They could swear they heard the doll walking around. Does this story send a chill down your spine, or are you laughing your ass off? I may just be a terrible friend, but I would find this story hilarious. 

13. Grendel

Beowulf's Grendel seemed pretty badass, but when you get down to it, he killed a bunch of drunken dudes in the dark. Plus, it turns out his mom is way more badass. Sort of like a Friday the 13th situation.

12. Demons

For every story where some dude sells his soul for a Ferrari, how many are we NOT seeing where some guy is like, “Waitaminute. If you’re a demon, and you can give me a sports car...that means heaven and hell are real! No way, dude! I’m not only keeping my soul, I’m going to start hitting up church, big time! Thanks for helping me avoid the biggest mistake of my life!” I suspect there are a lot of these stories floating around. Demons just have good PR people (Gideons).

On one hand, some demons are super spooky. Like The Judge in Blood Meridian.

On the other hand, they sometimes wear lil’ shorts and boots and talk in rhyme.

11. Scary Clowns

Pennywise is the creepy clown most of us think of, but there are others, including the fellas in Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.

The issue I have with the scary literary clown is that he’s never as scary as the real-life scary clown, John Wayne Gacy, aka Pogo. He looks horrific. His paintings are terrifying. And he’s real. The minds working in fiction are aces, but sometimes you have to admit you’ve been bested by reality.

10. Witches

Witch narratives can be pretty cool. As monsters go, they've got a great, underutilized power set. Flight, curses, potions, feline familiars. They also seem like they'd be able to identify eye of newt as being the genuine article, whereas I'd never know the difference between a quality newt eye and a cheap, toad eye knockoff. The downside, I'm a lot more scared of the dunking and being burned and pressed with stones, the things that were used to torture a confession out of a supposed witch, than I am of the witches themselves. 

9. Animals Gone Berserk

This depends quite a bit on the animal in question. A dog that’s killing people? Sure. A shark? Absolutely. But when we start having swarms of crabs and slugs, things go downhill pretty quickly. A crab holding a knife? C'mon. 

8. Aliens

Somewhere along the line it seems like we lost our fear of aliens. We forgot Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game, Day Of The Triffids (those of us who paid attention to Triffids in the first place). I blame Star Trek. Star Trek makes it seem like aliens are rational, humanoid-ish creatures who have culture different from our own, but are mostly like us. What happened to buzzing by Earth and turning some cows inside-out? What happened to the aliens that kidnapped people, strapped them to a table and got down to probin’ for absolutely no discernible purpose?

I can’t say I LOVE the idea of being beamed into a ship and having a probe crammed in my butt. But once you’ve had a colonoscopy, it’s really not a big deal. At least the aliens don’t make you drink that gallon of laxative. And they don’t generally bill you after.

I guess aliens have learned all there is to know about the human butt.

7. Medusa

Going old school here, but Perseus needed A LOT of help to defeat Medusa. He was equipped with a shield, sword, golden sandals, and a helm, all of which were previously owned by gods. Even after she’s decapitated, Medusa's head is a powerful weapon. Plus, any Castlevania player knows the terror of those damn Medusa heads sine-waving their way across the screen.

6. Evil Kids

The evil kid is a classic. Gage from Pet Sematary, Holland and Niles from The Other, Children who are of the Corn persuasion. Something about kids is just creepy. Even parents seem to agree, nothing worse than a little kid with a bowl cut, a deliberate way of speaking, and a big-ass knife. It’s hard to say whether it’s creepier when it’s your kid or just “some kid,” but I’ll come down on a side and say that when it’s some kid you don’t know, it’s way worse. You can’t take away his phone until he decides to stop being a creep.

5. Vampires

Seriously, you have ALL DAY to kill a vampire. Try waking up before 1 PM and I think you’ve got a pretty good shot.

This includes your Draculas, your Lestats, your Carmillas. Your Edwards from Twilight. Your Blades. It’s a big umbrella with a lot of different vampires underneath it. They’re probably under that umbrella because they’re staying out of the sun. 

I don’t know why vampires are awesome, but they totally are. Face it, if they weren’t awesome, we’d have been done with them long ago. They’ve been done to death, then un-death, then death again, and they keep coming back.

The one drawback of the modern vampire, they always have to come up with some reason that you wouldn’t want to be a vampire. “Oh, it’s terrible. You have superpowers and live forever. That’s something I would NEVER want you to be cursed with!”

Although vampires are often a metaphor for something else (virginity, leukemia, etc.) I haven’t heard anyone say that vampires are a metaphor for human inability to get our shit together. Seriously, you have ALL DAY to kill a vampire. Try waking up before 1 PM and I think you’ve got a pretty good shot.

4. Local Legends

My favorite is the Headless Horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

What I like about the headless horseman is that he knows what he does well, and he stays in his lane. He’s not trying to take over the world or some such nonsense. He’s got Sleepy Hollow, and he’s good with that. He’s an unambitious, workman-like monster, and I respect that.

Also, he’s got that animal-like quality in that he can’t be reasoned with. Reason happens in the head area, where he’s pretty deficient.

Of course, a hallmark of the local legend is that they’re often just that: legends. Even Headless himself is probably just a ruse to scare off a professor type so the cool jock, who even has the cool jock name “Bones,” can secure his place in a lady’s heart.

Local legends are the mom and pop version of sell-out, big box monsters.

3. Mr. Hyde

Without Mr. Hyde we’d have no Fight Club, no Incredible Hulk. The fear of the monster inside feeds on our biggest insecurities, and The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde is all about whether or not Hyde can be stopped once his leash is loosened the tiniest bit. 

2. Zombies

Zombies make great utility monsters, which is why they’ve been done so much. They have flexible rules like whether or not they eat flesh, transmit disease, run or shuffle. They’re fun to drop into any number of scenarios.

The other thing that makes zombies great is that they’re equal-opportunity killers who are weirdly neither good nor evil. They’re more like a force, like gravity. Gravity will kill your ass if you jump out of a plane, just like a zombie will kill you if you go into that building, ignoring the paint on the doors that specifically advised you not to. A zombie doesn’t kill you because it’s bad. It

The zombie would be a near-perfect horror monster, but there are three strikes against it.

One, the zombies that can think (your iZombie types). A zombie that can think isn’t a zombie. It’s a cannibal.

Two, zombies from Italian horror films have made their mark. Sorry, friends, but those movies, though usually containing some great visuals, NEVER make sense.

Three, I think we’ve heard the story about the real terror coming from...OURSELVES! enough times, eh?

That said, solid monster.

1. Frankenstein

This is the monster, of course, not the doctor. That’s what I’m calling him. What can I say? I’m an instigator.

Let's start with the fact that he's big and scary looking, and for good reason. Dr. Frankenstein gathered parts from larger folks for the simple reason that he figured it would be easier to work on a larger body. It'd be less delicate. This was great thinking until it turned out that the doctor was building a monster he’d have to try and kill down the road. I’ve always liked that there’s a reason for him to be big and strong beyond that making him scarier. Why is Michael Myers so big and strong? I dunno. Jason? I dunno. But Frankenstein, his size exists for a reason. 

The other oft-discounted factor is that by the end of the book, Frankenstein was not only big and strong, he was pretty cunning as well. And MEGA pissed off.

Frankenstein, as a monster, touches on taboos and things we’re still scared of today. Medicine, grave robbing, and the creation of life. Pretty badass for a book that's 200 years old.

Which ones did I miss? Which ones am I wrong about? Sound off below. Just don't defend the Jabberwock. Don't be that guy. 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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