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The true monsters of literature

When COVID-19 restrictions were removed and regional Victorians were allowed to leave their towns to travel, my family packed our bags and headed towards the sunshine. We rented a bnb near Robinvale.

As we drove along the gum-lined streets towards the isolated homestead where we would be staying, perched on the banks of the Murray River among the mighty gum trees, all I could think of was, “Out here, no one will hear us scream.”

Yes, In Cold Blood has seared an impression on my mind that is hard to shake.

Whenever I see a secluded farmhouse, my thoughts immediately turn to the family whose murder was at the centre of Truman Capote’s classic novel.

It is not the only time that reading has made me paranoid. Since reading Stephen King’s Cujo, all dogs have the potential to transform into that red eyed, rapid monster.

Give me a stormy day and I imagine the brooding, terrifying figure of Heathcliff storming towards me.

These monsters are the stuff of Halloween costumes and nightmares – murderers, rabid dogs and revenge-hungry neighbours.

However, sometimes the true monsters of literature are a little harder to spot, but just as haunting.

When I read Joseph Heller’s book, Something Happened, I couldn’t believe that anyone could be as nasty as the narrator, with his cruel thoughts laid bare on the page. But the more I read, the more I wonder about what lies beneath.

The strange thing about Lolita is how easy it is to empathise with the awful Humbert. He so convincingly justifies his predatory behaviour towards Lolita that the reader has to take a step back to see the monster that he really is.

In John Updike’s Run, Rabbit, Run, the handsome figure of Harry belies his awfulness, in particular towards his wife. Unsatisfied with his job and marriage, Harry lashes out, ultimately causing tragedy. When I first read this series years ago, I was shocked by Harry’s coldness, but also fascinated by his behaviour, in something akin to staring at a car crash. Perhaps it was a timely warning of who not to marry during a period not long before I met my husband (who is, fortunately, nothing like Harry).

It is difficult to tell just who is the monster in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, as so many characters are mean and unlikeable. The two friends, Lila and Lenu, are at times affectionate, and at other times incredibly nasty to each other, struggling to hide their envy and competitiveness. Often, their neighbours are just as cruel, whether in revelling in each other’s misfortune or scrounging any money that they can from each other. While there is warmth and heart in the novel, there is also a lot of malice.

Sometimes, children’s books can offer monsters that are hard to spot. In The Giving Tree, the boy is initially introduced as an innocent playmate for the tree at the centre of the story, before he takes everything it has and leaves it as a stump on which he can rest. This story has divided readers on whether it is a book about unconditional love or man taking advantage and stripping bare that which he needs. I swing between both interpretations, but it is hard to ignore the man’s blithe desecration of the tree.

Even the light and airy, but deceptively smart, books of Liane Moriarty have their ambiguous monsters. In Nine Perfect Strangers, there are a few to choose between. Is it Masha, the unhinged leader at the health retreat where the strangers meet, and who has her own tragedy behind her?

Is it the mother whose oversight might have played a role in her own child’s death? Or is it Ben, who seems to love his car far more than he loves his plastic surgery-obsessed girlfriend? By the end of the novel, those who seemed monstrous tend to have become human.

In literature, it is the sifting between good and evil, right and wrong, humanity and monstrosity, that is often where the intrigue lies. The villains of In Cold Blood might be obvious, but in real life, the distinction between the two can be far more ambiguous. And even when it comes to the murder of families in secluded farmhouses, Capote showed us that even these monsters are not always as they seem.

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