I enjoy designing ‘em. Whether they’re monsters that are of vital relevance to the plot or ambient creatures vaguely mentioned in passing, I have a thing for them. This may be due to my background in biology, or my general love of animals, or simply because beasties are cool.
Monsters and such things primarily show up in three main branches of fiction: scifi, fantasy, and horror – all of which are genres I both read and write in, so it’s only natural that I end up designing a fair amount of them (often to levels of entirely unnecessary and likely-never-to-be-used detail).
Today, I’m going to talk about one of the examples from my own work and how I approached its design.
“Jaethal watched, horrified, as the land below the oncoming legions suddenly peeled itself open like an obscenely blossoming flower.
Limbs. Mouths. Indescribable appendages – sleek and swollen, small and gargantuan – erupted forth into the sky. Muscle and skin, shimmering as though coated with some vile oil, surged and expanded wildly as the planet itself seemed to vomit forth indescribable things.
Some were the size of humans, others that lurched forward dwarfed even his high-flying kin, larger than mountains. Some slid forward on millions of tiny legs, others on massive, bulbous limbs, yet others crept along the ground like slugs, leaving trails of oil behind them. As he watched, bile rising, they morphed and changed, wings and talons of red and pink flesh bursting from their sickening forms.”
Raven van Dijk
“Composed of Nows”
The Apocryphan is complicated thing to explain.
I conceptualised it/them over a decade ago, where originally they were essentially a race of creatures that I imagined in my head to be a combination of Lovecraft’s shoggoth and the Egyptian sphinx. They were roughly cat-like in structure, with a disturbingly human face (sans eyes), but covered with a shimmering, gelatinous skin that shifted and writhed, with eyes and additional appendages appearing and vanishing constantly.
This concept, while creepy and unsettling in its own right, was a little too… normal. It was weird, to be sure, but it was still familiar in a way. A cat-like body, a human-like head. Limbs. Eyes. Recognisable structures. I wanted to get away from all that, and so after much thinking and listening to creepy music, I ended up designing the things that became The Apocryphan.
For inspiration, I dove into microbiology and spent some time refamiliarising myself with bacterial growth and phagocytosis (the process by which a cell envelops a particle and puts it in a bubble. Technical, so I won’t go into further detail here, but if you’re curious this video is not a bad place to start). The visuals of what we see under a microscope, made exponentially larger, rendered in exposed flesh? Lovely, right?
Lore wise, they’re the first experiment with flesh of a primordial creator-entity. It’d gotten tired of just playing with plant-life, so it wanted to make animals but hadn’t quite worked out a lot of details yet. Like a child, said entity came up with the concept of flesh before having worked out bone, or structure, and applied it to the concept of microorganisms (which it had dabbled with earlier). Thus, The Apocryphan was created – a species of one-who-are-many, combining traits you might find in a slab of uncooked beef with bacteria drizzled in motor oil.
It’s become a creature of exposed muscle that divides and fuses, writhing and mewling, and in describing it, I work heavily with the more colourful adjectives. Descriptions like “a pulpy, undulating waves of flesh” and “the writhing, boiling carpet of glistening muscle fibres” are actually really fun to write for me, and with them I do my best to evoke that sense of disgust that comes from coming into contact with something truly alien, something that assaults our sense of what is “right” when we think of something alive.