Monsters & Metaphors: The Heart of Horror Writing

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
(Spoiler Warning)

The year was 2000. With the release of Jingle Dancer (Morrow), I had a toehold as a new author of realistic contemporary Native American fiction for young readers.

I loved telling stories with Indian heroes, and I’ve continued to write them, along with realistic fiction more broadly. But speculative fiction was calling to me.

The working title of one of my works in progress was “Brad, The Impaler,” a funny, spooky fantasy for young adults.

Back then, paranormal themes were wildly under-published for teens. But as a YA reader, I’d read Stephen King and Dean Koontz and, yes, V.C. Andrews. I’d devoured what horror comics I could find. I adored “Tales from the Crypt” on the small screen, “Lost Boys” on the big screen, and, later, organized my life around “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.”

I could perceive the vacuum in the market, and most importantly, I had a passion for it. I also understood and appreciated the layers of story and meaning that lurked beneath the fur and fangs. I considered it an honor to have the opportunity to write the kind of book that I loved to read as a teen.

Because, from the start, I was interested in including vampire mythology, I began by examining what had come before, going back to the classics and then the oral stories from around the world that had preceded them. I wanted to nod thoughtfully to the master authors and offer a fresh twist on the tradition—one that would justify my revisiting it and make a real contribution to the conversation of books over time.

I became fascinated by Dracula—the quintessential “vampire” novel by Irish author Bram Stoker. Published in 1897, it’s never been out of print.

Living in Austin, I was fascinated that Bram had crafted a Texan, Quincey P. Morris, as one of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing’s original vampire hunters and, in his namesake, nodded to the future of his fictional world.

That became the future I ultimately decided to build on, introducing a many-times-great-niece, the namesake of Bram’s gallant Texan.

What utterly captured me was the relevance of Bram’s themes to present day. Granted, I don’t write to a theme but rather begin with characters and a vague plot idea or central question. Still, along the way, I’ve kept his touchstone topics at the back of my mind and let my heroes (and villains) lead me.

Like any author, I was also influenced by my own predispositions—to the extent that I often didn’t notice it except in retrospect. With that in mind, let’s discuss…


In studying Dracula, it caught my eye that the count could take the form of a wolf, and I decided it would be interesting to write a murder mystery in which the central question was whether the murderer was a vampire in wolf form or a werewolf. That brought shape-shifters into my world.

French edition

Bram’s “dark other” was the Eastern European—cast as the demonic undead. Mine was those shape-changers who served as stand-ins for the immigrant or the “other” among us, mirroring real-life prejudices that persist to present day.

In my fictional world, shape-shifters are naturally born—not magical, not monstrous. They descend from a strand closely related to homo sapiens in the story of evolution.

They tend to live in hiding, passing for human, or in restricted communities. They face serious discrimination in the job market, with regard to medical care and in the criminal justice system. In nations around the world, it’s not clear whether they’re considered citizens with the varying rights and protections that guarantees.

These dynamics are explored with regard to the integrated murder mysteries and, say, how carefully Kieren Morales’s inter-species family must guard the secret of its mixed heritage to survive and prosper in a human-dominated world.


So, how did I handle otherness? Diversity—defined broadly—is well integrated into the series.

Polish edition

The most obvious manifestation is that the stories are set in a multi-creature verse that features two kinds of vampires, two kinds of angels, a myriad of shifters (wereopossum anyone?), ghosts, demons, faerie, pesky humans, and more.

Of the four protagonists to date, one is Mexican-Irish American (and the son of an Irish immigrant, who’s also a major character) and another is Asian-Scottish American. Reoccurring main fantastical characters include a black angel, a Japanese-American werecat, and a gay vampire. Meanwhile, the human cast members also reflect a range of real-life cultural communities with regard to race, religion, ethnicity, orientation, socio-economics and more.

While the stories are staged in the southwestern, Midwestern, and northeastern U.S., it’s made clear that there’s an international backdrop and my French vampires are among fan favorites. Along these lines, the Wolf pack in Blessed includes folks who hail from and speak languages that originated from around the globe.

That said, these choices rose naturally. I consistently write diverse casts, no matter whether “difference” or “insider/outsider” themes are specifically relevant to the story and its preceding literary tradition or not.

However, pushing back against the standard use of black as the color of evil, it’s clearly and repeatedly articulated in the texts that blue and black are the colors of heaven. That choice was made with thought and purpose.


After deciding to include werewolves in my world, I began researching shape-shifters in the body of literature and stories from around the world. What I found was that it was often the predator who most challenged humans with regard to food and territory that was cast in the role of the monster and, consequently, hunted to (near) extinction. Consider the wolf in Europe, the big cats of Asia.

That didn’t seem especially eco-friendly, so again, I made the decision that my shifters would be people (not monsters) who could simply do more than homo sapiens. They could take animal form. Enter canis dirus sapiens, werewolves who could trace their heritage to an Ice Age ancestor.

If there were Wolves, I reasoned, why wouldn’t there be other kinds of shifters? And so there are. I’m especially fond of the werearmadillo Travis from Tantalize and the werebear Brenek from Eternal.

The Role of Faith

For Bram, a central question was the role of Christianity/Catholicism, which makes sense for someone of his time and place. For that matter, if you look at modern monster stories, it’s usually these religious traditions that are specifically framed as humanity’s only hope against the demonic.

In nodding to Bram, it made sense that I would integrate this question into my world and cast. Kieren Morales is a Catholic. So is Father Ramos, the priest who aids the guardian angel Zachary. However, it’s also made clear that non-Christian religious symbols likewise have power to repel supernatural evil, and heroic characters include not only Christians but folks of other faiths (or none) as well. For example, the mentor character (and high school English teacher) Mrs. Levy is Jewish.

Gender & Assault

U.S. edition

Stoker’s character Mina Harker is a modern woman of her time. She’s the one who organizes the information, comforts the men after her own best friend is killed and can work that newfangled device, the typewriter. Mina helps Dr. Van Helsing track the count, drawing on a psychic link. However, as she’s been reinvented by storytellers over the generations, Mina has become weaker over time, eventually finding the monster nearly irresistible even as his predation creeps ever closer to home. 

In Tantalize, Quincie is emotionally vulnerable due to the murder of chef Vaggio, who’s like a grandfather to her, and the fact that her best friend Kieren is both the prime suspect in the murder and about to leave her forever to join a Wolf pack.

She’s flattered by the attentions of Brad, who’s older and more sophisticated. He introduces her to wine, which is spiked with his cursed blood, and later also with some unspecific drug that alters her emotional responses, makes her unstable, and ultimately renders her unconscious.

When she recovers her senses, Quincie discovers that she’s been drugged, kidnapped, locked in a basement, and that Brad has repeatedly bitten her in a scenario she would’ve found objectionable, if she’d been in full control of senses. This date-rape construct is perhaps the most transparent metaphor in the series. It’s also so often part-and-parcel of vampire-mythology stories (without being framed as a negative experience) that many of us don’t question it.

Once I realized that this was where my story was going, I made an effort to address that traditional romanticization and deal with what had happened (or at least its aftermath) in a victim/survivor-empowering way. When I returned to the character Quincie in Blessed, I wrote her with an awareness of what she’d been through and how she would begin to come to terms with it.

Because of the role of angels in the story, I also looked at date rape through the lens of religion.

Big picture, Blessed isn’t a classic survivor story. It’s more of an occasionally humorous, occasionally romantic and touching rescue-the-boy, kill-the-monster, save-the-world story.

I was careful not to make the execution heavy-handed, instead letting Quincie define herself and her path on her own terms. But ultimately, the novel asks: Does God blame survivors of sexual assault (viewed metaphorically through the vampire’s non-consensual bite)? Does having been victimized make someone the same kind of monster as her attacker? Is she to blame for what’s happened to her? Should she be punished? And, ultimately, does God bless such victims or are they damned?

YA Readers

Newly repackaged U.K. edition.

Back in 2000, I didn’t know how these themes would rise up in the super arc over the first prose four books. I’d started with a mythological tradition that led me to the characters Quincie Morris and Kieren Morales (who was called “Killian” back then). From there, those heroes and their antagonist, Brad, took over, and to a large extent, I’ve been pounding the keyboard, just praying I can keep up, ever since.

But in any story–especially those about good versus evil–there’s a moral center and worldview that typically springs from the author’s sensibility whether we realize it at the time or not.

Upon reflection, I’ve learned a lot about myself in writing this ongoing series, and certainly, a number of other grown-ups have chimed in with their own insights about the books over the years.

For example, I’ve been asked countless times if my feminist slant was a response to the upswing in YA paranormal romance novels. The answer is: No, it pre-dated that trend by some years (and, by the way, many of those books do feature strong, smart and/or otherwise fascinating girls).

Were the shifters initially inspired by American Indian Nations? Perhaps without my even realizing it at the time? I’ve chewed on that. But no, they were a nod to immigrant groups, though of course Native people have been historically (and too often still today are) cast as the “dark” other and targeted by bigotry. So I can see why the conversation would go there.

However, if YA readers want to make those connections themselves, they’re not wrong. On a case by case basis, their reading experiences trump my process and intentions (or lack thereof). They should–and do–bring to the books whatever they carry with them and take away what they will.

I’m occasionally asked about those teen readers. Assuming these more serious themes are integrated into the character journeys and world building, assuming that they may be gleaned via metaphor, do YA readers get these layers of meaning?

U.K. edition

During this, my fifth year of serving as the series’ ambassador in the world, I’d say yes and no. It depends completely on the individual reader. For some, the Tantalize series is a straight-up Gothic fantasy with some humor and strong elements of suspense and romance. They don’t absorb or long for more, and that’s absolutely fine. Story comes first, last, and always.

Certain young readers do notice subtle choices. Only a handful have mentioned to me that blue and black are specified as the colors of heaven, but it’s probably not a coincidence that all of them were African-American/Canadian.

They also notice omissions. One girl wrote to ask me why my main characters included gay men but no women or girls, and I was happy to be able to tell her that she could look for a lesbian teen character in Diabolical (Candlewick, Jan. 2012). (She was even more excited when I said the girl would be a shapeshifter and a hero.)

The letters I’ll always remember most, though, have come from girls in crisis. To date, several (nine) have written me about relationships that they found analogous to the dynamic between Quincie and Brad—relationships that involved stalking or manipulation. In more than one case, the teen mentioned physical abuse. A couple made it clear that my books had inspired them to reconsider their choices.

One girl wrote once to say she was furious at Quincie’s decision to stand alone at the end of Tantalize. If a boy wanted you, she reasoned, no matter how horrible he might be, that was still better than being alone. Later, she emailed me again—this time to apologize for her angry words, to inform me that a boyfriend hadn’t been treating her well (so I’d hit a nerve), and to assure me that they were no longer together.

I’ve also heard from more than one date-rape survivor, who said that reading Blessed had been a healing experience.

Monsters & Metaphors

Because Quincie loves olives, so do I.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m heartened (and, in some cases, relieved) that my books spoke to these young readers on a personal level. But these girls were the heroes of their own lives.

I told deeply felt, hopefully fun and intriguing stories. They decided what challenged or resonated with them and moved forward from there.

I mention their reactions because there’s a huge tendency to underestimate teens and how intensely they take in a story. Or at least some stories. And in fairness, I’ve heard from teens whose sophistication as readers outpaces that of many adults, including some who consider themselves well read.

I’m a writer of both realistic and fantastical fiction. Perhaps that makes me especially appreciative of the fact that the two aren’t so different. Both mirror our so-called real world, one straight on and another at a slant.

It’s 2011. Eternal was a New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller. Last spring, Blessed was released by Candlewick in the U.S. as well as by Walker Australia and New Zealand. It will be out from Walker (U.K) in October. Candlewick is also poised to publish my first graphic novel, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, illustrated by the brilliant Ming Doyle, and set in Austin, Texas, where I make my home.

Occasionally, I’ll be walking down the sidewalk and catch a glimpse of fang. Austin is gloriously weird that way. No wonder I find the borders between reality and fantasy so intriguingly blurry.

So be careful out there, dear readers, and carry a big book—if only for self-defense.

Cynsational Notes

This is the first in a week-long series of posts, celebrating the release of Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (Candlewick, 2011) after which we’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Teens are now invited to vote for YALSA’s Teens Top Ten List! Vote here, and see the annotated list. Note: Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2011) is among the 25 titles nominated for YALSA’s Teens’ Top Ten!

Shop Sanguini’s.

5 thoughts on “Monsters & Metaphors: The Heart of Horror Writing

  1. I write for younger kids, not YA, but read YA for pleasure! I so enjoyed this ten year journey of inspiration, evolution and influence. Thank you.

    I work with teens and very few of them even make it to the school library at all these days, as they carry their Macs with them and all research is googled! However, as their counselor, they do hang out quite a bit in my office, so having stocked up on a bunch of great YA (including a couple from the Tantalize series) while in the US this summer, I plan on having a few "left" on my desk, just in case!

  2. Thanks, Joanna! I so appreciate your being a YA reader and advocate, especially since the library isn't the heart of your school.

    And my thanks to Lindsey, too! I'll also be highlighting my GN illustrator, Ming Doyle, and giving away some spooky fun goodies!

  3. Writing for teens, especially on the issues you speak to, is really a special responsibility – at least I feel it, when I'm writing it. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts and process!

Comments are closed.