Unleashing the Monster Within

Teika Marija Smits seeks the dark within us all, in this latest instalment in our month-long horror spotlight.

One reason, I suspect, that it can be difficult to define exactly what is and isn’t of the horror genre, is the fact that everyone finds different things frightening. Some people are scared of spiders, some aren’t. To one person, a porcelain doll may simply be an old-fashioned toy; to another person it might be a creepy-looking golem. However, moving into firmer horror territory, I doubt that your average reader or cinema-goer would be unmoved by the idea of a serial killer come to hunt them down, or an alien or two from outer space bent on laying eggs inside their body, or a gigantic shark ripping them limb from limb. Yet these “classic” monsters, being external to ourselves, can potentially bring out the very best within us; spur us into action and send us hurtling along the archetypal narrative journey of the hero.

So although I find these kinds of monsters frightening, I can’t help but trust that the protagonist will somehow find the monster’s Achilles’ heel and, ultimately, overcome their adversary. It’s when the monster is internal – when it comes from within – that I become truly scared.

Not that long ago, I ran a workshop entitled, ‘Unleashing the Monster Within’. When I came to composing the slide entitled ‘Into the Shadows’, in which I listed a number of urges/traits that we aren’t proud of (such as envy, greed, anger, conceit, tendency to addictive behaviour…), I felt myself squirming with discomfort, fear.

You see, I was going to be asking something difficult of the attendees: I would be asking them to go through the list to see if they related to it; suggesting that they took one urge or trait of their own that they disliked and then use it as a basis for a dark story. I never press attendees to share their thoughts unless they want to, but I always share something of my own psychological explorations so that they can hopefully learn something of use from them.

So as I tentatively explored the shadows within my own psyche, I couldn’t help but feel anxious as to what I would uncover. In fact, I felt like I wanted to run away. But how do you escape from yourself? And that’s why I find the monster within so frightening… because you can never, ever, run away from them. You can only either bury them deep (for them to resurface in some manner in the future) or do battle with them.

As I explained in the workshop, although discomforting, this kind of exploration of one’s own shadows can be beneficial; it can lead us to new knowledge about how we can become the best version of ourselves, and it can provide us with huge amounts of material for writing dark fiction. I then gave an example of how something I’ve dredged out of my own psyche has informed one of my pieces of fiction – the story ‘Ghost Fish’ (in my upcoming Black Shuck Shadows collection, Waterlore).

In ‘Ghost Fish’, the protagonist is a harried mother of three who has a tendency to get angry quickly and who is envious of one particular mother. Okay, so I only have two children, but that tendency to snap, and to feel envy at someone who, apparently, has it all, is very much drawn from my own shadows. So it was equal parts excruciating and cathartic to write about this mother-of-three. Also, perversely, it was kind of fun to heap external pressure after external pressure onto her to see what would happen when she eventually cracked… (So it also happens to be a cautionary tale for myself!)

I guess that’s the beauty, and the power, of writing in the horror genre. It’s an exploration of the shadows and light within us all; it’s the sharing of that dreadful knowledge of what we might all be capable of if pushed too far. It’s the hope that we can transcend our own limitations; do battle with the monster without as well as the monster within.

Photo by Vitaliy Shevchenko on Unsplash

Meet the guest author

Teika Marija Smits is a UK-based writer and freelance editor. She writes poetry and fiction, and her speculative short stories have been published in IZ DigitalParsecReckoningShoreline of InfinityBest of British Science Fiction and Great British Horror 6. Her debut poetry pamphlet, Russian Doll, was published by Indigo Dreams Publishing in March 2021, and Umbilical, her first collection of short stories, was published by NewCon Press in August 2023. Waterlore, her micro short story collection, is due to be published by Black Shuck Books in November 2023. A fan of all things fae, she is delighted by the fact that Teika means fairy tale in Latvian. Teika is on Twitter/X @MarijaSmits, or visit her website.

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