The Big Book of Monsters

the deeply nerdy appeal of bestiaries

The Big Book of Monsters

I wrote last week about Home Safety Hotline, an analog horror game where you play a call centre operator dealing with supernatural home infestations. In the behind-the-scenes goodies you can view after the game is finished, creator Nick Lives explains his main source of inspiration: 'Since I started developing games, I've very much wanted to make a game about the pure joy I experienced flipping through a bestiary. Many games have featured in-game bestiaries, but rarely is it important to actually read through them in so much detail.'

Oh, dude. I'm so with you. I spent a worryingly large amount of my childhood flicking through bestiaries, with three in particular that I was obsessed with. And because I'm a soft marshmallow and I shouldn't be left alone with a debit card, I re-bought two of them just to write this post. So here they are: three excellent bestiaries (well, kind of) and why I think they are really cool. Enjoy.

Book #1 - Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Book of Monsters by Christopher Golden, Stephen R. Bissette, and Thomas E. Sniegoski

Let's get this out of the way: Joss Whedon is a bit of an arsehole, by all accounts, and I am very disappointed about it (despite it being kind of obvious in hindsight. That much snark can't exist in a human being without some underlying issues).

But like a lot of nerdy teens in the early noughties, I was caught up in the whirlwind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I actually dressed up as Buffy for my thirteenth birthday party. My friend Rachel was Faith. Her dad whittled stakes for us out of some old bits of wood he had in his shed which is, in hindsight, the most adorably Dad-ish thing. In no way am I going to show you a picture of teenage me, with my slightly too-large teeth, wearing a blonde wig. Also, it's stupid because I could have cosplayed as Willow with barely any effort.

I loved Buffy. For a few years there, it became my personality, only balanced out by the eventual presence of the Lord of the Rings movies. I could talk about this for days but I'll spare you the agony. My parents bought me the books (and there were a lot of them). And one of the most fascinating ones, to me, was The Book of Monsters:

I look back on this now with a bit of disappointment about the layout. I've probably been spoiled by the works of Ninty Media (shameless plug) and Lost In Cult and other publications but, you know. The Buffy book has a lot of walls of text.

But it's packed with monstrous lore and I have a lot of time for it. It also has glossy photographs of the cast (which I loved, obviously), a long-form essay about demons, ghosts, and zombies in folklore/popular culture, and an interesting section on Faith and the human monster.

No one smoulders quite like Rupert Giles.

Overall, it's a good read for Buffy fans, and now I want to rewatch the whole thing, which is impractical but quite a nice thought for the future.

Book #2 - The Official Pokemon Handbook by Maria S. Barbo

Do you ever sit and think: who actually am I without all this shit that I've loved since my childhood? What is my personality without all the games and books and films and stuff?

That's a daunting thought. Perhaps best not to unspool that particular thread.

Anyway. Before Buffy, my main thing was Pokemon, and when I tell you I read every single word of this book, I mean it. Every. Word. Who actually wants to know how much Jigglypuff weighs? I do. Or at least, I did.

Everything about Pokemon, once you dig into it, is so extra. I can imagine writing this book and making up facts for it: let's make Rhydon live in molten lava with rock-hard armor formed by the pressure of the surface of the earth! Let's make Vileplum's head so heavy it can barely exist without a lifetime of inconvenience! Let's make Parasect's mushroom so strong you can transform it into potions that can make every Pokemon in the world stronger! Every Pokemon in the world. What the fuck is this, it's nonsense. It's the kind of rapidly escalating kid logic that means you can't play a game of rock-paper-scissors without someone eventually bringing in 'nuclear bomb'.

I love this book with my whole heart. This copy belonged to someone called Caroline, which I know because she signed her Official Pokemon License on the inside cover with a red pen and very neat, joined-up handwriting. Caroline, wherever you are, I hope you still love Pokemon as much as I do and haven't moved on with your life like a well-adjusted person.

Nothing explains the core concepts of Pokemon as succinctly as this book. Both my kids have a newer version of this, and it's just not the same. This book captures the moment in which you, as a child, might not actually know about Pokemon and therefore need a little introduction about what they are, what Pokemon trainers do, and why forcing these little (or sometimes ridiculously massive) creatures into battle is a good thing, actually, because it makes them happy. Pokemon is so ingrained into the cultural zeitgeist that you can't really exist without at least knowing something about them. Back then it was new, and having a little book to catalogue all of these interesting creatures was the best thing ever.

I've started re-reading this book with my son at bedtime. Does he care about it as much as I do? Perhaps not, but he loves me, so we'll both pretend that he does.

Book #3 - The Final Fantasy IX Official Strategy Guide by Piggyback Interactive

This is so grubby. I'm sorry.

Now look, I'm really pushing the genre of 'bestiary' here, but stick with me. Both Chris and I have a copy of the Final Fantasy IX Official Strategy Guide and we brought them together when we got married which is sickening really, isn't it.

Anyway, I spent a lot of time with Final Fantasy VIII and IX as a teen, and the good thing about IX is that I got to use the strategy guide, which made things easier. I loved this thing. I loved the item directory, which I found genuinely useful, and the character descriptions. And I loved the chapter titled 'Monsters'.

I dipped in and out of this one lightly because I was still playing it. Each time it was like a little dare. Should I really open this page? What if I spoil something? Oh, I'll just have a quick look, and then I'll slam it closed again if I spot something spoilery. I was a sad sort of teenager. Anyway, the Monsters chapter offered me the bare minimum, basically the information I'd find in the game anyway: useful, but not particularly readable.

But someone out there - and I'd love to know who, exactly - sat there and compiled this list, painstakingly inserting each monster, down to the very last stat. As a teenager, I would sit there and look at them and sometimes doodle them when I was bored at school, and I don't know whether this person will ever see this or not, but I appreciate their efforts.

Until I sat there and actually flipped through this book, I don't think I really grasped how many monsters there actually are. There are dozens of them. Feather Circles, Land Worms, Maliris, and Whale Zombies. Easy to forget the level of creativity and love poured into every aspect of this game. No wonder it's one of my all-time favourites.

I'm trying not to spend too much money at the moment (despite the fact I just dropped £9 on World of Books for no particular reason other than nostalgia), but even if I wanted to, I don't know if I've played or watched anything that would require a bestiary of late. And even if I had, would I find a book for it? I'm not sure I would.

But bestiaries have been on my mind so much that I decided, this weekend, I would make one with the kids. It was one of those 'I must get these children off screens' ideas that actually clicked with them. We've been designing monsters, and my daughter has been sewing them into little plushies, and my son is now writing a story about them that he is determined will end up in Waterstones one day. So there we go. Something good came out of that £9 purchase and my stupid nostalgia, after all.