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September 30, 2015

Monsters: Evolution


You’ve probably learned a lot about the evolution of humans in your biology class, but what about the evolution of fictional characters, more specifically, monsters?

Young adult author Phillip W. Simpson knows a thing or two about that --- not only did he study ancient history and archaeology in school, concentrating on the monsters of Ancient Greece, but the protagonist of his newest novel, MINOTAUR, encapsulates monsters’ shift in the human imagination.

How? Read below to find out!

That title got your attention. It got mine. Sounds like it could be a game. Possibly a movie.

Monsters have been around since the dawn of time, maybe in the very real sense but always haunting the darkest recesses of our overactive imaginations. The monsters were waiting for us as we swung down from the trees and started walking upright. They were there when we discovered fire and the use of tools and primitive weapons. Hey, they were probably the reason we discovered fire and invented weapons in the first place.

“Our fear of monsters in the night probably has its origins far back in the evolution of our primate ancestors, whose tribes were pruned by horrors whose shadows continue to elicit our monkey screams in dark theaters.” (Shepard, 1996, p. 29)

I’ve always been fascinated by monsters, an interest and love nurtured by countless books on myth and legend. Fueled by my passion, I completed an undergrad degree in ancient history and then a masters in archaeology. My focus was always ancient Greece and in particular, their monsters.

My latest YA historical novel, MINOTAUR, is a reimagining of the ancient myth. Did the Minotaur exist? If so, was he the monster that the myths insist he was?

The Minotaur was a product of his time. Many mythical creatures were once believed to have actually existed. The dragon, the unicorn and the griffin were all such creatures. Some people (myself included), even hold out the forlorn hope that they still do.

Many mythical creatures were based on eye-witness accounts. Early explorers came back from their adventures with tales of strange creatures. With no one to argue against them, many were taken at face value. The unicorn myth, for example, was started by a traveler returning with stories of the rhinoceros. Some were based on fossil evidence. Ancient miners discovered dinosaur bones, lending credence to the dragon myth.

Mythical creatures were almost always made up of two or more separate animals. If they weren’t, chances are they would be half animal, half man. This is because scholars at the time used the world around them to describe and invent the more fantastical elements. For example, the chimera was part lion, part goat and part snake. The Minotaur was half man, half bull while the centaur was half horse, half man.

Almost all mythical creatures were based on an animal or animals that exist today. Writers used none of this creative business of making up a completely different and foreign (well, to us) creature that bore no similarity whatsoever to anything else.

But, as the centuries marched on, so too did its monsters, transforming with the times. Monsters emerged with more human characteristics, both physically and mentally. In Mary Shelly’s FRANKENSTEIN, the creation of Victor Frankenstein has both human appearance (although hideous) and easily recognizable human emotions, seen in his desire for acceptance, companionship and love.

Bram Stoker’s DRACULA (you knew I was going to talk about him next, right?) was also recognizably human, albeit with supernaturally creepy abilities, such as drinking blood. Not that that’s an ability ---more like a trait --- but you get the idea.

Since then, there’s been a spate of humanesque monsters: zombies, ghosts, werewolves, demons. All have human appearance and/or emotions. Zombies are human and certainly maintain that appearance even when their only emotion is an urgent need for ‘brains’.

Humanesque monsters --- that’s where I was going with Minotaur. Monsters with these human criteria, traits etc. are much more interesting than the monsters of ancient Greece. The monsters of those times existed solely for the hero/heroine to destroy. Who cared about their perspective, what they thought or felt? Ancient monsters were only slightly further up the food chain than the animals they mimicked, deserving of no more respect. I’ve taken the Minotaur of ancient Greece and given him a makeover based on my own modern perspective.

I hope he appreciates what I’ve done for him. Or maybe not. Perhaps he would rather be remembered as he was rather than what I want him to be. Who knows? Only time will tell. It’s only been a few thousand years.

I’m sure he can wait a few more.

Phillip W. Simpson is the author of many novels, chapter books and other stories for children. His publishers include Macmillan, Penguin, Pearson, Cengage, Raintree and Oxford University Press.

He received both his undergraduate degree in Ancient History and Archaeology and his Masters (Hons) degree in Archaeology from the University of Auckland.

Before embarking on his writing career, he joined the army as an officer cadet, owned a comic shop and worked in recruitment in both the UK and Australia.

His first young adult novel, RAPTURE (Rapture Trilogy #1), was shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards for best Youth novel in 2012.

He is represented by Vicki Marsdon at Wordlink literary agency.

When not writing, he works as a school teacher.

Phillip lives and writes in Auckland, New Zealand with his wife Rose, their son, Jack and their two border terriers, Whiskey and Raffles. He loves fishing, reading, movies and football (soccer).