13 Literary Monsters Who Weren't All That Bad

by Charlotte Ahlin
Walt Disney Pictures

Pennywise. Dracula. The Gruffalo. Literature is full of monsters. From the terrifying creatures of Ancient Greece to the indescribable horrors of H.P. Lovecraft to the sexy vampires of our modern age, human beings have always been fascinated by the idea of the monstrous. Most of our Halloween staples have their roots in the literary world, some of them going back thousands of years. But are monsters really that terrible? There have got to be a few misunderstood good eggs in the bunch, right? Here are thirteen literary monsters who aren't all that bad. A few of them might even be the secret, ugly hero of their own story.

In my expert opinion, the literary monster can be broken down into three rough categories. There are your Nasty Beasties, who are mostly scary, mindless animals who just want to eat people. Then you've got your Nasty Dudes, who are basically just murderers who have a few extra powers. And then you've got your Sexy, Tortured Souls, who don't really want to be monsters. Maybe they were born into it, or cursed, or bitten by a Nasty Beastie, but they're some of the most fascinating characters in the literary world... and they're not always as bad as they seem:

Frankenstein's Monster

It's common knowledge at this point that Frankenstein isn't the monster... but actually, I'm here to tell you that Frankenstein is the monster. Dr. Frankenstein is a grade A jack ass who creates a giant corpse baby and then immediately abandons it. His "monster" is actually sweet (once he gains control of his unwieldy corpse body), and just wants his dad to love him. He's compassionate. He learns French. He grows beyond the dumb monster who's afraid of fire, while Victor Frankenstein continues to shirk his responsibilities and mess around with science.

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Grendel is the man-eating creature from Beowulf, and he's a pretty classic monster archetype: big, ugly, dumb, and bloodthirsty. But... he's still kind of sympathetic? Grendel is a descendant of the biblical Cain, and therefore cursed and shunned by "good" men. The only reason he attacks humans is that their singing confuses and frightens him. And after poor Grendel bites the dust, his mom steps up to avenge her son's death, making her a pretty sympathetic monster too.

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Medusa's story has been told countless times throughout literature: she's that chick with snakes for hair, who turns men to stone with a glance. But how she got that way is pretty awful: Medusa was a normal, beautiful young priestess in service to Athena. Poseidon thought she was hot, and sexually assaulted her. Athena was enraged that Medusa had "broken her vow of chastity," so she transformed Medusa into a hideous Gorgon as punishment. about blaming the victim, jeez.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

The Disney movie makes it pretty darn obvious that Quasi is a good dude who just happens to be hunchbacked, and not at all a monster. But in the original novel, it's a little more subtle. Since literary Quasimodo is deaf, he has trouble communicating his good intentions to others, and most people treat him as a hideous monster, or use his naivete to manipulate him. He commits acts of violence at the instruction of others, before learning to mistrust his garbage "dad" Frollo. And no, in the book the gargoyles don't talk.

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The Mummy

There are multiple literary mummies, but Bram Stoker's mummy from The Jewel of Seven Stars is probably the most famous. The resurrected mummy in question is Queen Tera, and you'd better believe that she straight up murders a bunch of British men as revenge for colonial imperialism, for pillaging Egypt, and for subjugating women (this ending was so controversial that Stoker changed it in later versions). You get 'em, Tera.

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The Hound of the Baskervilles

OK, so maybe the Hound doesn't really fall into the "complex, tortured soul" mold of monster... but c'mon, it's a dog. It attacked people because it was trained to. The doggo was also painted with phosphorus to made it look creepy, which surely wasn't good for the doggo.

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The Red Death

The Masque of the Red Death is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. In the story, the titular Red Death is a plague ravaging the countryside. Prince Prospero decides that, rather than use his money to fund medical relief programs, he's going to hole up in his house and have a crazy orgy while all the common-folk die. The personification of the Red Death finds him, though, and murders that privileged jerk. So the Red Death isn't exactly a good guy, but... at least he's not classist?

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The Three Witches

The Weird Sisters from Macbeth are your classic medieval witches: they have a cauldron, they're gender non-conforming, and they mess with everyone's lives. But if you read closely... the witches don't actually do anything bad. They don't tell Macbeth to murder anyone. They just tell him that he will be king. It's not their fault that he takes their career predictions as tacit endorsement for murder.

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The Giant Squid

The Giant Squid is the monster that everyone remembers in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. But really... that's not a malicious squid. That's just a very large squid. Honestly, Captain Nemo, you're the one trespassing in the squid's territory, so it's hard not to come down on the squid's side with this one.

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There are many werewolf novels out there, but almost all of them have one thing in common: dude doesn't want to turn into a werewolf. Well OK... most modern werewolf novels have the whole "lycanthropy as a disease" trope, with the werewolf as an individual with a tortured soul. Most older werewolf books, like the classic The Werewolf of Paris, are less forgiving of the wolf (in that one, the werewolf hooks up with his mom). Either way, though, turning into a homicidal wolf is usually not the werewolf's intention, making him or her a morally complicated monster.

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The Black Cat

Much like the doggo of the Baskervilles, Poe's black kitty cat is just an ordinary animal who gets an unfair rap. In the Poe short story The Black Cat there is a terrifying, ghostly black cat with a patch of fur in the shape of the gallows... but the cat is only haunting this dude because dude drunkenly gouged the cat's eye out and then killed it. Animal abusers deserve to be haunted by demon cats, so it's OK.

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Caliban is a character from Shakespeare's The Tempest, and it's... a little unclear what his deal is. Some characters in the play describe him as a literal fish monster, but modern interpretations frequently see Caliban as a normal man whose island has been rudely colonized by this annoying Italian duke. Whether he's a swamp thing or a human being, though, he only wants to take down the wizard Prospero because Prospero has made him a slave on his own island.

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Varney the Vampire

Before there was Dracula or any of his sexy vampire descendants, there was the confusing Victorian serial called Varney the Vampire. It introduced most of the major vampire tropes we know today, even though the authors seemed... not quite sure if they wanted Varney to be an actual vampire, or just a guy who acts like a vampire. The plot is not very consistent. But, by the end of the series, Varney is clearly a tragic figure, cursed with vampirism, who keeps trying to cure his vampire ways until he finally throws himself into Mount Vesuvius.

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