9 Books About Monstrous Transformations

Leticia Urieta, author of "Las Criaturas," recommends stories about channeling anger and unruliness in the face of oppression

The Head of Medusa by Peter Paul Rubens, “Der schöne Schein” exhibition of replicas of well-known artwork in the Gasometer in Oberhausen

I have always been drawn to the uncanny, to the strange that doesn’t feel strange, to the stories that can frighten us at the same time that they reveal the brutal truths of our realities. As Lydia Dietz says in Beetlejuice when asked why she can see the spirits of the dead, “Live people ignore the strange and unusual. I myself am strange and unusual.” 

Stories that are considered strange or surreal, where fantastic, magical or even horrific things happen to disrupt accepted realities, often feel strange because they force people to experience the very real strangeness of everyday violences. These stories can be doorways to imagine both what is possible and how the effects of trauma, violence, displacement, and illness change the most vulnerable people. Speculative storytelling is expansive, incorporating horror, science fiction, and surrealism to help readers confront what we are most unwilling to see and highlighting how systemic oppression breaks open and creates new realities.

My first book, Las Criaturas, began for me in 2016 while I was supposed to be writing a novel towards my thesis in my second year of my MFA program. During that time of stilted writing, I would leave my novel manuscript to write stories, poems and strange little hybrid works and zines. These stories and poems were moments of catharsis and reactions to the racist rhetoric of the Trump presidential campaign, the microaggressions that I experienced from people in my program and navigating the beginnings of a chronic headache condition that was unlocked by the stress of my life. My body felt out of my control, and I began to look to other writers who were exploring characters becoming unruly creatures in the face of trauma and change. 

These are stories and words that I come back to again and again, to read, to learn from and to teach in my own workshops and programs to help others unlock and recognize the beautiful strange inside themselves and their own work. 

Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology by Jess Zimmerman 

In Women and Other Monsters, Zimmerman seamlessly blends cultural critique of the Greek myths that have shaped Western cultural consciousness with personal reflections on the times in her life that she has been made to feel “monstrous.” In each chapter, Zimmerman delves into different female Greek monsters who are considered grotesque, ravenous, fearsome and altogether meant to be punished by the heroes of Greek myth, most of whom are men. She discusses these stories in the context of what these monstrous traits historically have to say about how women are socialized, and connects to the journeys she has undergone over the course of her life to embrace these traits. Rather than allowing monstrousness to become patriarchal limitations, Zimmerman invites us to consider how letting ourselves be more monstrous means allowing ourselves to be free. 

Women Who Run with Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

This book can be described as memoir, storytelling aid, poetic missives and academic study of the archetypes and stories that depict the wild and monstrous feminine. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés incorporates traditional stories and archetypes across cultures to illustrate how women have strayed from their instinctual inner guides through the continuation of oppressive systems and why we need to embrace these archetypes to remember what makes us strong and unruly.

The author, who is a Jungian psychologist, as well as scholar and poet, uses these archetypes from a psychological perspective to remind women and femme peoples that our innate wisdom should not be silenced. The text has endured since its publication over thirty years ago and continues to be a touch point for scholars and poets alike. 

The Low Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado, illustrated by Dani 

Machado’s collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a big influence on my work, but I wanted to highlight one of Machado’s newer works for how it continues to explore the violence against women, especially women of color. In a small mining town, two young women, best friends, are navigating the next steps in their lives while also trying to solve the mystery of mass memory loss among the other women in their town after rampant sexual violence perpetuated by the men of the town. This beautifully illustrated graphic novel depicts the physical transformation caused by unresolved trauma and how survivors of violence can become the most potent allies. 

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder 

In this debut novel, Rachel Yoder depicts the extreme physical and mental exhaustion of motherhood as well as the loss of personhood and identity experienced by the main character. The book depicts the mother’s transformation into Nightbitch, a hybrid version of herself that becomes more and more doglike as she embraces her rage at how her labor as a parent is treated and taps into her instincts as mother in her dog state. I read this book as voraciously as the mother consumes red meat and it made me feel connected to the disparities of how parenthood and feminine labor are valued in our society. 

Itzá by Rios de la Luz

I have loved Rios de la Luz’s short stories and zines for some time, and her novel, Itza, is no exception. In Itza, the narrator tells the intergenerational relationship of water brujas in her family from her great grandmother to her mother, and how their relationships shape the way that she moves through the world and navigates racism and the way that her young body is treated and sexualized. When she sexually assaulted by a parent figure, she struggles with her relationship with her body and with her mother as trust is lost. Rios de la Luz writes with a tender fierceness and shows that healing from trauma is a process of returning to one’s truest self. 

Eat the Mouth That Feeds You by Carribean Fragoza 

In her collection, Eat the Mouth That Feeds You, Fragoza writes about Mexican and Chicana women who are navigating intergenerational relationships, abuse, and the way that the body changes and ages over time. Several of the stories address the violences done to women and femme peoples bodies and the labor that is often taken for granted in families. These characters give and give of themselves until their body becomes something entirely different, transforming into rock, dissolving away, or even becoming a living saint. It is a collection of unique narrative voices, but also feels very cohesive, showing how love, bitterness, rage and freedom can exist in one person’s experience. 

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Sometimes you read a book that challenges and changes what you imagine is possible in your own writing, and Freshwater is one of those books. In this debut novel from Akwaeke Emezi, the main character Ada is born as a gateway between earthly and spirit realms. From childhood, she becomes a volatile and strange child that her parents struggle to understand. As she grows older, Ada attempts to control the inhuman parts of herself, but when she goes to college in the United States and experiences a traumatic and violent event, her psyche and sense of self fractures and the Ogbanje—spirit gods of Igbo origin—take over to protect her, forming multiple selves. Ada’s becoming is sometimes violent and painful, but depicts the indefinable nature of being inhabited by gods who defy categories of gender and psychological diagnoses. The poetic descriptions of Ada’s experiences and the different voices that burst forth from Ada’s body are vicious, bloody and beautiful.

Wound from the Mouth of a Wound by torrin a. greathouse

This collection of poetry is a devastating and beautiful depiction of disability and trauma as they intersect with gendered bodies. Greathouse is a poet that weaves devastatingly compelling images with forms that evoke the stories that a trans disabled body holds. Their poems depict the effects of sexual violence, abuse, medical trauma when a disabled person’s body is treated as an object that is both hyper visible and disposable. In some poems, greathouse invokes the voices of the body, allowing the blood and the skin to peak, while other poems reflect on the body through the story of Medusa and the violences done to her. As someone who writes frequently about the body, this book continues to be a touchpoint for me and can help anyone who wants to explore the ferocious and tender creature that is their bodies. 

Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Stories of Horror, edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto  

This collection of very short horror stories is a wonderfully unsettling read that will definitely inspire you to write your own creepy flash fiction stories. Each story explores a different idea of what scares people across cultures and experiences, utilizing tropes and traditional stories that readers might be familiar with, including ghost and monster stories. The book is organized by parts of the body such as head, heart and limbs, and some of the most frightening stories, like “Fingers” by Rachel Heng, in which a village is threatened by an unseen creature pulling children into the ground, and “#MotherMayem” by Jei D. Marcade, in which a viral challenge depicts the mutilated body as a rite of passage, reach into our deepest fears of what is lurking beyond our reach, or what we might lose should we venture too close to the edge.

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