The 10 Greatest Female Monsters In Literature, From Carmilla To The Woman In Black
'Tis the season for celebrating decorative gourds, sugar, changing seasons, and, of course, monsters. Wear all the punny Halloween costumes you like, but at the end of the day, Halloween is all about turning the ordinary into the monstrous. And many of our great, genre-defining monsters come from books: there's Dracula and Mr. Hyde, Cthulhu and Pennywise and the Invisible Man. There's Dr. Frankenstein's large adult son. Those guys are all great and scary and all... but literary monster-dom can feel like a bit of a boy's club. Where are all the fiendish ladies? Why can't that horrific, shambling mess of corpses be a girl? If you're looking for some extremely nasty women this October, then look no further: here are a few of the greatest female monsters that literature has to offer.
Some of the monsters we celebrate in October are genuinely terrifying (like Christopher Columbus), while others are simply misunderstood. Here you'll find hideously wicked witches and witches who choose wickedness as an act of political resistance. There are grotesque sea monsters and fierce lake monsters who just want to protect their kids. There are vampires who like girls and vampires who are actually genetically modified aliens (kind of) and at least one gorgon, so take your pick of lady monsters to look up to this spooky season:
Twenty-six years before Dracula arrived to give vampires their classic look (and their xenophobic accent), there was Carmilla from Carmilla, the suave and seductive lesbian vampire who wants to turn all your daughters into children of the night. She has unearthly beauty and the ability to turn into a giant cat. She sleeps in a coffin. She clearly represents all of 19th century England's anxieties about women (like that they'll go out at night and kiss each other). The only bad thing about Carmilla is that she gets staked in the end, instead of leading an army of gay vampires to take down Victorian high society.
2. The Grand High Witch of All The World
The Witches is, in classic Roald Dahl fashion, an existential nightmare of a children's book (in classic Roald Dahl fashion. The Grand High Witch in particular is just that perfect blend of terror and sexist witch tropes: she looks like a hot lady, but she's secretly old and ugly (oh no!), and she's determined to wipe out all children by turning them into mice (even though ladies are supposed to take care of children, not turn them into mice!). I mean, sure, I disagree with her political platform of "kill all children." But man does she have style.
3. Scylla and Charybdis
The Odyssey is full to the brim with lady monsters and goddesses and witches and whatnot. There's the enchantress Circe and the singing sirens and the clingy Calypso. But most dangerous of all was the six-headed rock monster, Scylla, and her sea monster counterpart, Charybdis. In reality these "monsters" were probably just a shoal of sharp rocks and a whirlpool, making it extremely dangerous for ships to pass between them. But in The Odyssey they are both beautiful women who have been transformed into hideous monsters as a punishment, and they spend their days eating sailors and wrecking entire ships. Excellent teamwork, ladies.
4. The Woman in Black
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill is already a truly chilling classic of the gothic ghost story genre. Our titular woman is dead, sure, but that's not going to stop her from seeking revenge on the living. When she was alive, the Woman in Black got pregnant without getting married first (the horror!), and basically spent the rest of her life being punished for it. She was, naturally, forced to give up her son, and then to watch him sink to his death in an English marsh. I'd take ghost revenge too, Woman in Black.
The last book of Octavia Butler's formidable career, Fledgling completely upends the traditional vampire myth. Here we have Shori, a genetically modified 53-year-old vampire trapped in the body of a child. But Shori isn't interested in wearing black leather and hanging out in European castles. Instead, she just wants to find out what makes her a vampire, and to have a consensual, chill, symbiotic blood-sucking relationship with her human of choice.
6. The Wicked Witch of the West
She's mean, she's (sometimes) green, and she's out to get her rightful footwear. The Wicked Witch of the West is arguably the most famous fictional witch ever created. Yes, a lot of our Wicked Witch imagery is thanks to the movie, but between The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and Wicked by Gregory Maguire, Elphaba has a pretty complex literary life. Depending on who you ask, she's either a classic evil witch with a bunch of flying monkeys or she's a green-skinned political renegade.
7. Grendel’s Mother
There are three monsters in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf: there's Grendel, who's some sort of a troll or a giant. There's a dragon, who shows up at the end to give the hero a big dramatic finish. And then in the middle there's... Grendel's mom. Beowulf slays Grendel, and then he has to fight his mom. In her underwater cave. And she is a stone cold bad ass. Scholars differ on whether she's a troll or a lake monster or a demon or what, but I can tell you for sure that she is one heck of an excellent monster mother, and probably the real hero of Beowulf. Don't mess with her beautiful troll son.
8. The Other Mother
In Neil Gaiman's deeply upsetting children's book, Coraline, young Coraline Jones goes through a strange door in her new apartment to find another, identical apartment, complete with an Other Mother. But this Other Mother has buttons for eyes. And she's totally fun and nice... until she isn't. There's something so viscerally freaky about a monster who looks like your mom but isn't your mom (and also she wants to sew buttons over your eyes, too). I like to imagine that she and the Grand High Witch vacation together and brainstorm new ways to destroy British children.
A lot of the lady monster out there are old (because old women are scary!) or sexy (because women who like sex are also scary!) or else they're mothers who don't act like mothers "should" act (the horror!). But Melanie from The Girl with All the Gifts is just a regular little girl who just so happens to also be a (spoiler alert) blood-thirsty zombie. But just because she craves human flesh, that doesn't mean she can't also like math and learning and hanging out with her teacher. Kind of like Matilda, only instead of telekinesis she just eats people.
There is, perhaps, no monster so rage-inducing as the gorgon Medusa. She wasn't always a monster with snakes for hair, you see. As with so many Ancient Greek monstrosities, she started out as a beautiful, normal woman, with beautiful, normal hair. According to Ovid, though, the god Poseidon found her so very beautiful that he assaulted her in Athena's temple. As punishment, Athena transformed Medusa into her monstrous shape, making her so ugly that the mere sight of her would turn onlookers to stone. So Medusa ran away and hid in a cave, until some asshat named Perseus murdered her for a bet. So. Yeah. Medusa is only a monster because she was punished for her own sexual assault. And even then, her monster powers didn't save her from being beheaded by some dude bro. Great. Cool. Glad so much has changed since Ancient Greece (just kidding, let's burn everything down).