There’s something comforting about the monsters of category horror. Vampires, werewolves, zombies and ghouls - we’ve seen them all so many times that they’re familiar. We know how they act; we know how they work. (Doubt it? Just say the word “sparkle” to a serious fan of vampire fiction and see how they react. Odds are good you’ll get an enraged “Vampires aren’t LIKE that!”) They’re shorthand to a certain set of storytelling conventions and rules, and once you see the first bared fang you know exactly what the ground rules are. The world, in short, is defined by its monsters, and by the same token, defines them.
Crypto-fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t play by those rules. It deals with the stuff that lives at the edge of possibility, at the place where proven fact and folklore get together to have drinks and fool around in the back seat, and where neither one precisely holds sway. It’s the fiction about the critters that just might be, that don’t fit into any rule set and don’t bring one with them. It’s about a universe with uncertain edges, and when it’s done right, that’s deeply unsettling.
And the things that live in those uncertain spaces? The ones that make the border shift and move? They’re pretty unsettling, too.
Which brings me to this month’s stories. Neither is “traditional” cryptofiction, in that they’re not about intrepid explorers going off into the woods and getting kidnapped by sasquatches. Instead, they take the idea of crypto-fiction - the hidden monster, lurking on the edge of civilization - and use it to explore something a bit more complicated than just “is it real?”
The first one, “Waking the Taniwha”, by Dan Rabarts, looks backwards. Borrowing liberally from steampunk, it looks to the Maori tales of dwellers in deep places, creatures that can be either monsters or protectors. Malevolent or benign, however, they are beasts of great power, and should never be awakened lightly. But when men make their own monsters, it may be time to risk venturing into those liminal spaces, regardless of the cost.
The second, “Beached”, takes place in the throes of ecological apocalypse. The protagonist, a skin-changer, is not the only cryptid in the story, but the story is hers. In the intersection of the hidden and the human, what happens when the boundaries shift? That’s what author Nicole Feldringer is asking, and the answers her creature arrives at may surprise you.
So go on. Take a step outside the usual. Walk away from the “safe” monsters, and see what you find.
You'll be glad you did.