Grab your cloaks. Sharpen your swords on their accompanying whetstones. Take the moonlit path down into the valley of the night, where monsters prowl.
Whether it be a video game, a TV show, a novel, a short story, or a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, monsters and their chosen homes have long been featured as destinations where hope either falters, stamped into a dying ember, or shines all the brighter, its edges sharpened in the enfolding darkness. Places of contrast and parallel, drenched in fear, stained by blood and briny tears, filled with nightmare, where we face the certainty of our own mortality, our greatest worries, or truest selves.
Yet we seek these places out, willingly.
It is a chance to explore those cracked facets. To stride into the night’s domain and challenge it, our thoughts and beliefs would-be fodder suspended in the jaws of dusk and dawn, the hours like rotten teeth pulled free, one by one.
What insanity drives a prey-born soul to step foot across that threshold? A question without a simple answer, for the journey taken to those dark places is inward as much as outward.
In the film Pan’s Labyrinth, the Faun warns, “You’re going to a very dangerous place, so be careful. The thing that slumbers there, it is not human.” Ofelia, the film’s protagonist, is set three tasks to prove herself the lost princess of a magical kingdom. She steps into the territory of monsters but faces problems she carries into each. As the toad inside the tree is killing its green heartwood, so too is Ofelia’s unborn brother killing her mother.
Kill the toad, save the tree.
Corridors veined in ancient rock. Scents of wet, rusting iron, the wither of leaves in the bitter cold, where winter’s death-grip holds. A castle surrounded by poisonous thorns. The deepest lake on the farthest shore. The rotten hole in brown diamond-cut bark. Territories where secrets have been long buried, past mistakes left to rot and fester, where sins pool deep enough to drown us. The spawn of our own twisted minds and bleeding hearts. Our summoning of anger and jealousy and animosity.
Spells broken. Curses lifted. Scars earned.
These are the stories I crave: “The Blanched Bones, the Tyrant Wind” by Karen Osborne, published in Fireside Magazine, follows the journey of a young maiden as she ascends a mountain to be eaten by the dragon who dwells there. “Queen of the Cloven Heart” by Hailey Piper, published in Dark Matter Magazine, where despite the vigil of the White Guard, the throne is claimed by something inhuman, then fed by the evil of men’s own hands. “The Witcher” by Andrzej Sapkowski, published in The Last Wish, accompanies Geralt of Rivia to Temeria to face a princess-turned-striga who emerges from her stone crypt night after night, full of rage and hunger, but who isn’t the true monster. “Father Frost,” an old fairy tale about a stepdaughter taken to a snow-laden forest and left at the roots of a tall fir tree, to succumb to winter’s bite.
These are tales of kings and queens, fairy tales, daughters, monster killers, but don’t let that be the limit.
Take me on a journey to your own monster lairs.
As I write this, I picture a dry creek bed in the woods near my childhood home. A place where I once found paw marks left in fresh snow, the indentations of claws perfectly captured, inspiring tales, season after season, of a lonely beast who roamed there. I imagined it lived in the cave about a mile’s hike down that creek, veiled by branches of ash and sweetgum and silver maples, the craggy stone tattooed by time and swan’s-neck moss.
My siblings and I built a fire pit inside that cave, gathered dead branches and lined the path up the slope. We talked about spending the night, but we never did. Years later, I still dream of what might live there.
I still hear quiet footsteps, stalking me.
And still I wonder, had I lit a fire and waited in that cave past nightfall, what monster would I face? Perhaps one I’ve created with my own words, its fur tangled with the fears I’ve spoken into an empty room, my own failings recollected that I cannot shed.
Monster lairs can be destinations in this mortal realm, or deep-rooted chambers whittled from our gnarled minds. A blossom forced open before the bloom, our souls displayed in unforgiving light, the outlines stark and time-worn and fragile.
And as we look into the face of our corrupted dreams, we might recognize parts of ourselves. Descending into a place of evil only to stare into glinting, knowing eyes.
It is for us to decide.
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Copyright © 2022 Anna Madden