Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Writing About Mythical Creatures

Ken H. asks about what research materials I use to write about various monsters, ghosts, demons, etc. that are taken from myth, legend and folklore.

It's something I've been interested in since before I could read.  I was born in the late 60s and as someone who was hitting elementary school in the early 70s I couldn't escape the incredible public interest in cryptozoological creatures such as Bigfoot, the yeti, and the Loch Ness Monster. There were books and tv shows about these creatures seemingly everywhere you looked, and I was just as fascinated as anyone else. I also benefitted from the final years of the monster boom, where classic monster movies dominated magazine covers, school supplies, toys and especially tv. I couldn't get enough of them either. All of this led me to comics where, Marvel in particular, was publishing comics using Dracula, werewolves, giant monsters and others. Simultaneously, I began to discover the monsters of myths and fairy tales. So, really all of this stuff is in my blood and has been so for a long, long time.

The benefit of this is that I have a really good mental catalogue of what's out there. To augment that though, I also have a pretty decent library of ghost stories, old horror novels, books on monster movies, strange artwork, both kinds of magic, and yes, lots of books about myths, legends, folk and fairy tales. When I moved a little over a year ago, my office went from one that was able to house five bookcases along one wall to one where I can only fit two. In my old office three of those bookcases were filled with  my books on mythology and fairy tales, now only one is, and the rest of those books are either scattered throughout the rest of the house or still boxed up.

There's nothing really outrageously rare, or unusual, in my collection. I think I have all of the Pantheon books of world mythology and folktales which I recommend. I also have all but a few of the Andrew Lang Fairy Books which are also a great start for anyone interested in this sort of thing. Whenever I'm traveling I tend to visit any used bookstores where I end up and will always check this section of their store. I'm finding less and less these days, but love when I come across something regional published by some small local press.

I have a number of encyclopedias of mythological characters and monsters. A lot of the more obscure monsters I've used in stories have come from these, but these books do have their faults. Definitions of the more obscure monsters are pretty brief, such as "Hungarian creature of legend said to ambush lone travellers on country roads." There's not a lot you can do with that, but if there's a germ in there that ties into something I'm working on I may use it anyway, and do what I always do, which is to make up the rest. When I'm doing this, I do try and make whatever I add true to the spirit of the region the creature comes from. I'll sometimes embellish it with details from similar creatures from other places, and will build upon it using the language and cadences of folk tales from the region. A good example is this is the story "The Serpent's Tale" which appeared in XOMBI #18. The entire African folktale that's related here is entirely made up, but feels genuine because I used storytelling techniques from other folk tales from the region from which it supposedly came.

One of the highest compliments I receive is when someone asks me where I found a particular folktale that I used in one of my stories and the truth is that I just made it up.

Some books that have either really shaped my interest, or I find useful in a broader sense are Passport to the Supernatural: An Occult Compendium from All Ages and Many Lands by Burnhardt Hurwood, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers and No Go, the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock by Marina Warner, Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth and Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia by Carol Page, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Vintage) by Bruno Bettelheim. Clicking on the links above or at the end of this post will take you directly to them. Clicking on the photos will enlarge them.



Ken H. said...

ACK! I'm sorry about the delay on this comment, but some how I missed the post in my blog feed until now. Thank you very much for taking the time to answer!

John Rozum said...

No problem, Ken. I'm just glad you saw it. I hope I answered your question to your satisfaction.

Ken H. said...

You definitely did! The links were another bonus and several of those have been added to my "to buy" list. So double thanks there!