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Beneath the Surface

October 12th, 2012

by F. Wesley Schneider

Part of my job is to fill a world with terrible things. As one of the creators of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and the realms where its stories unfold, I commission and help supply an endless stream of horrors to a ravenous readership. To that end, I spend an unusual amount of time considering monsters, torture devices, traps, tragic ends, and other terrible things. Monsters are particularly inspiring, though. Each implies its own story simply by existing, stories that vary wildly based on all manner of possibilities, powers, and ghoulish agendas. My favorites are always the frightening ones, though—the masterminds, the overwhelmers, the sanity-breakers, the hero-killers. Many factors contribute to what makes a monster frightening—appearance, size, weapons, horrific means of reproduction—but a certain few have something else, something that makes them disturbing beyond bloody claws and kill counts. I’d call this sort of terrible je ne sais quoi “infamy.”

Mothman

Let me tell you about the faceless stalker. It’s a fleshy doppelganger that can make itself look like anyone by sculpting its own body like putty. It’s mean, it’s gross, and the variety of intrigues it might instigate creep readily to mind. But there’s not much else. It’s a fantasy monster, a thing for fantasy characters to be afraid of—not us.

But that’s not always the case.

Mothman

Mothman statue in Point Pleasant.

I could tell you about Mothman, but I probably don’t have to. Maybe you don’t know about what happened in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in the late 60s. Maybe you haven’t heard the stories, read the eyewitness accounts, or seen the film that starts with the shaky print reading “This story is based on events which occurred. . . .” This isn’t just some monster story, this is the subject of an investigation with confessions from people who are legitimately scared—and who make us wonder if we should be scared too.

That’s infamy. It’s the momentum that blurs the line between fiction and reality, that makes us wonder if there’s something we don’t know, a glimpse through the secrets to truths that aren’t as simple or safe as we’ve been led to believe.

Even though Mothman is a relatively recent example, monsters don’t need the trappings of modern investigation to become infamous. In fact, what often contributes most effectively is the absence of proof compounded by the haze of time and hearsay. In urban legends, folktales, and myths, such half-truths abound, with a story’s survival through generations implying value if not veracity. An arm-sprouting horse’s head that dangles from a haunted tree might seem ludicrous were I to read about it in a collection of stories, but as soon as it’s connected to the tales of Japan’s yokai it gains the support of centuries of cultural belief and believers. If the fears that spawned such a thing still echo through the centuries, its stories transitioning from the spoken word to the page, that suggests it possesses some cachet greater than what a single strange description implies.

Family tree of Basque mythology

Family tree of Basque mythology by Julie Vicario-Weber.

I regularly search out troves of such “real” monsters, either to inspire my writing or to find something I can give a modern interpretation. If you haven’t done the same, look up “Basque mythology,” “Orkney folklore,” or “yokai” some time. These are just the tips of considerable icebergs, rich with deities, monsters, heroes, and villains. These figures transcend fiction, being members of pantheons ingrained in the psyches of their creator cultures. Many are whimsical and fascinating, but among them are cultural fears given shape. This horde of half-remembered monstrosities, these things that terrified our ancestors and still lurk on the edges of memory, they’re still out there, as ominous, hungry, and worthy of fear now as in centuries past.

Conspiracies, mysteries, ancient secrets, buried truths—they all contribute to my sense of dread, my uneasiness that I’m only getting part of a story; the idea that there’s something more, something terrible, being hidden from me. In truth, there might be nothing, but answers are finite and they’re rarely as exciting or awful as all the possibilities a secret implies. Folklore and urban legends are full of secrets like that, they’re not complete stories, they’re open-ended—Mothman doesn’t go to jail after the bridge collapses, Bloody Mary isn’t consoled and put to rest, the dullahan doesn’t reattach his head. Many of these tales came into being for deliberate reasons, to explain the unexplainable or serve as warnings—sometimes as basic as “don’t go into the forest at night.” While the world that spawned such stories may have changed or disappeared entirely, nothing ends mythology. The pieces persist, the heroes slipping into obscurity, the monsters receding into shadows. They still remain, more real, more infamous, and more threatening than the safe things we invent to fear.

About the Guest Author

F. Wesley Schneider


F. Wesley Schneider

F. Wesley Schneider is the Editor-in-Chief of Paizo Publishing, co-creator of the Pathfinder campaign setting, and co-designer of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. He is the award-winning author of numerous RPG adventures and sourcebooks, including Rule of Fear, Book of the Damned Vol. 1: Princes of Darkness, Seven Days to the Grave, Artifacts & Legends, and the serial novella Guilty Blood. He lives just outside Seattle where he spends his nights and weekends writing stories about terrible things, designing new ways to kill heroes, and reading things that scare him.

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