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Modern Monsters: Books that Explore What Really Scares Us

A recommended reading list by the author of Morse Code for Romantics.

Book Cover Morse Code for Romantics\

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Humans have always been fascinated by monsters and ghosts. We hunt for cryptids and search for evidence of the paranormal. With delicious dread, we seek out experiences that terrify us, visiting haunted houses or places said to be inhabited by mysterious creatures. We say “you’ll be sorry when I’m gone” in a moment of anger, but those words only mean something because we believe in ghosts, in the possibility of haunting—or being haunted by—someone departed from our lives. Monsters, ghosts, and otherworldly creatures symbolize our fears and desires, which are so often intertwined and ambiguous. They embody longings that can be overpowering or devastating, and they represent the shadow side of ourselves—the side we try to keep hidden from the world.

These themes became prominent in my own writing, and soon I had enough stories to explore them in my debut collection, Morse Code For Romantics. In my book, characters live double lives and even become obsessed with cryptids and supernatural phenomena. But most of all, they fear the possibility of becoming more monstrous version of themselves—and the possibility that the monster could be their true self after all. The recommended reading list below compiles a list of books that explore the multifaceted nature of the modern monster, and consider what really scares us.


Book Cover The Most Precious Substance on Earth

In The Most Precious Substance on Earth, by Shashi Bhat, what haunts Nina are the disturbingly ordinary people from her past—an authority figure who exploits his position, a quiet, isolated bandmate whose pain Nina realizes too late, and a best friend who disappears from her high school and her life. These presences flicker through Nina's adult life long after the people themselves have physically departed. Though Nina tries to repress her traumatic memories, she comes to learn that they are always there, like a lake monster hiding beneath the surface, only to emerge unexpectedly and upset a once peaceful existence.


Book Cover Watching the Devil Dance

Watching the Devil Dance, by Will Toffan, is a disturbing true crime account of a man who walked out of his house one Saturday evening in 1966 and committed a series of violent attacks, seemingly at random, around the neighbourhood. After psychiatric evaluation and a trial in Windsor, the perpetrator was sent to the Oak Ridge rehabilitation centre where, under the direction of the facility’s director of social therapy, inmates were subjected to sleep deprivation, hallucinogen-laced food, and dubious therapy sessions. This book reminds us that not only can monsters hide in plain sight, but sometimes the things we do in good faith not only fail to help, but cause greater damage.


Book Cover Love is a Place

The poems in Love Is A Place But You Cannot Live There, by Jade Wallace, follow a pair of ghost hunters through the haunted landscape of southern Ontario. As they travel through abandoned tourist towns, cemeteries, empty beaches and lonely motels, they begin to acknowledge the impermanent nature of their own relationship. These poems, luminous with melancholy, are full of discomfiting details—phantom footprints, a lapidary ocean, mist that evokes supernatural beings—illuminating the empty, loveless margins of a glittering metropolis.


Book Cover Fontainebleau

Fontainebleau, by Madeline Sonik, is named for the city it depicts; a foreboding place located on the shores of the Detroit River. The 17 stories appear at first to be set in unremarkable locations—a field on the periphery of a subdivision, a park where people go to toboggan, a dime store downtown—but something sinister and dangerous waits at the edges. Crop circles appear in corn fields, people disappear, and a police officer becomes obsessed with both solving a murder and the mother of the victim. The characters are misfits, predators and criminals, dreaming of violence and escape, and often, in the end, victims of their own monstrous desires and obsessions.


Book Cover Seeing Red

Dennis Cooley’s Seeing Red portrays Dracula, one of fiction’s most famous vampires, not as a horror movie monster but a tragic, romantic figure who is charismatic but ultimately, inescapably, inhuman. In this collection of poetry, Dracula speaks of his fame, the fear he causes, and his centuries of loneliness. He argues that the monstrous things he does are only done out of love and need, and that he simply acts according to the expectations of others.


Book Cover Say This

Say This, by Elise Levine, consists of two novellas that combine to tell the story of Eva, a woman plagued by memories of her violent, incarcerated cousin, and the devastated family of her cousin’s victim. Eva’s own victimhood at her cousin’s hands looms large, and Eva alternately struggles to remember details of her trauma while at the same time trying desperately to forget. Think of me and miss me run like a refrain through her recollections, and it is often unclear whose words these are—Eva’s, or her cousin’s. This book explores how trauma can affect identity and memory.


Book Cover How to Make Friends With a Ghost

How To Make Friends with a Ghost, by Rebecca Green, is a picture book that depicts the sweet side of haunting. The book follows a girl who embarks on a lifelong friendship with a ghost.  This charming story is accompanied by coloured pencil and gouache illustrations, strange recipes, and excerpts from a paranormal how-to guide. It suggests that to believe in the existence of ghosts is to have faith in a love without earthly limitations, and to enjoy the comfort of an old friend waiting in the afterlife. This story complicates our modern definition of monster, suggesting that what we might initially deem frightening could actually be a source of comfort and love.


Book Cover Bite Me

“Love itself is an all-consuming affair,” Joe Rosenblatt writes in Bite Me!, a book of poems populated by monsters and beasts characterized by vicious hunger. In these poems, nature itself is monstrous, yet the creatures like “Monster Boy” and “Birdman” are sympathetic characters suffering very human problems. This collection suggests that we exist in a terrifying and unpredictable world, and that we rely on monsters and the supernatural to understand lives marked by both sublimity and dread.


Book Cover Morse Code for Romantics\

Learn more about Morse Code for Romantics:

Wretched, reckless and haunted by the past, the men and women in Anne Baldo's Morse Code for Romantics try to restart their sputtering hearts, seeking to turn their pain into pearls through connection, understanding and hope.

In Anne Baldo’s Morse Code for Romantics, patterns of life emerge—and break—in relationships both requited and otherwise. A restaurateur orchestrates a devious punishment for his wife’s lover. A desperate mother searches for her missing daughter, a modern-day Persephone who was lured away by a sinister boyfriend. An islander falls under the spell of a visiting researcher, whose insidious smiles and natural sangfroid mirror the serpent-like sea monster he hunts.

These wistful, darkly surreal stories, set in Southern Ontario, suggest that maternal instinct is not just a chemical lie but something bloody and painful; that one person’s clouds can rain on generations; and that true loneliness can be as clear as code written on a face, and as ominous as a dark, monstrous shape lurking beneath the surface.


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