Worldbuilding: Giving Monsters a Modern Twist, Part 2

If I were going to create a monster, I’d dig for train tracks.

That probably gave you an urban image. Or an Old West one. Nope. The tracks I’m thinking of were in the Northeast, long-abandoned, over-spanned by a cracked concrete highway bridge about… oh, forty or fifty feet higher, I think. High enough for vertigo. High enough that jumping, or being pushed over the railing by the draft from a semi truck, would kill you. There weren’t many of those trucks, it didn’t get heavy traffic, but one when you’re small and in the middle of the bridge, was quite enough.

Picture gripping concrete, feeling the air pressure sway you on your feet. On the one side the rumbling roar of the fast-departing semi; on the other, empty air, hovering over rust-red tracks that lead off perpendicular into endless woods. Where do they go? Who knows. The only maps you’ve seen mark roads and some buildings, not the tracks. Ask the locals, you’ll get a shrug. Newcomers have no idea; old-timers only say no one uses them anymore.

Walk off the old bridge, away from the road, the broken-down antique store on one side, the raspberry-briared slope belonging to an old house on the other. The woods rise around you as you stumble and pick your way down to the old rails; tall, and too thin, the way none of the nearby forests are thin. Probably it was logged a few decades back. No one talks about that, either.

The woods and the rails and the overpass swallow any noises that might reach beyond them. A bad place to get in trouble, if anyone else came there and didn’t like you.

(No one else comes there. That you know of. Aren’t you lucky?)

Small weeds grow around and through the tracks; dandelions here, a tuft of grass there. Nothing tall. Nothing like tree seedlings. They keep their distance.

(Only years later, watching highway shoulders mowed, grass and weeds cut short so you can find wrecked cars, will that strike you as odd.)

Nobody knows you’re there. Nobody goes down there; why walk down to the tracks and back when the road goes over? Just to avoid a little noise?

(But there’s never enough room to feel safe from passing cars. And the trucks never slow.)

The hush of the tracks is a lure, disappearing into uncharted woods. Not so hard to imagine it deliberate. Meant to hook the odd. The quiet. The ones who won’t be missed.

Were I to craft a monster here, I would weave it of leaves and pale gray branches; long, reaching fingers of rusting steel, and a stride that staggers like highway roar vibrating down the rails. It would be born of loss and forgetfulness, dread and the bone-deep ache of climbing and descending and climbing again. It would breathe like the wind wet with November rain, heavy and chilling you to the bone. It would rise, and stalk-

And there would be nothing left but a dropped mitten.

Or maybe, just maybe, a cold and limping form, leaving twisted steel behind with a knot of yarn and yew and gill-over-the-ground tangled in fallen leaves. A silent form, stubbornly climbing back to the road, lips sealed.

(No one goes down there. You didn’t go down there, did you?)

Who knows if the rails will rest quiet this time. No one talks about it.

Maybe you’ll come back next time, and throw down more yew. From the bridge.

22 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Giving Monsters a Modern Twist, Part 2

  1. Then imagine the monster hunter.
    They heard stories of people disappearing in the area, and someone asked them to look around.
    The problem is that most people who walk through are unharmed, so what makes these different?
    Would they look at the train tracks and think, “obviously the person left the road and climbed down to the tracks to risk twisting an ankle”?

    So another character hook, Search and Rescue.
    Instead of the lone city-slicker PI stumbling around like an idiot, getting lost in the woods, it’s a team of trained people with dogs, and some of them are savvy enough to carry more exotic equipment.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Now that, I’d read in a heart beat.

      Maybe your monster is something that can’t be killed, not for long. Or perhaps not for long enough. Long enough to get out of sight, out of range, or even just long enough to lose it’s interest.

      Someone who is brave enough, or just unwise enough, to try and yank people out of the teeth of a trap- the last time they are lucky. They come back out, them and the person they grabbed.

      But the rescuer comes out… odd. Somehow. Not quite intact, but you can’t really point out how they are off.

      That oddness protects them, the next time they go in, after yet another who wandered too far. But it also costs.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Another option type group:
    Ghosthunters.
    You know the type– all that nice, expensive machinery that being highly sensitive is finicky, good excuse to not have phones or radios, and not infrequently they’ve got a reluctant member (sometimes in all but name) who thinks this is a Really Bad Idea, and gets some traction with the members who remember not all ghosts are friendly.

    If you don’t want to put them on scene, “Miraculous Medals” are mass produced– and mass blessed, when JPII was still alive he personally blessed baskets full of them, explicitly to be given away, especially to those who are not religious and needed a hand. As he’s now Saint JPII, that arguably makes them second class relics if a saint.

    There’s also the kitchen sink folks who maybe got scared, but not enough to quit, and now pack everything they’ve heard might be useful, possibly including yew, definitely including enough religious emblems to clank.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Urban version of a similar idea…

    Every city with a lot of freeways has that one humongous knot of an interchange between two major freeways… with lots off/on ramps to the streets below. It’s easy place to take the wrong one (especially if you aren’t familiar with the area). Take the ramp to the East instead of the West… not know that in order to get of at *that* exit means you need to be in *this* lane because the lane markers don’t give enough room to get over fast enough… and of course, traffic screws up how easy it is to change lanes in time to get *anywhere* in rush hour.

    Now have one exit/interchange ramp that isn’t there all the time. Maybe it only shows up in rush hour when logic suggests the streets are faster than the freeway. Maybe it only shows up when it rains… and the thing living under it wants to stay dry. Maybe it only shows up when the GPS says it should be there. Either way… every time it shows up… cars go down it. Usually it’s personal vehicles. But sometimes it’s the big semi-trucks carrying loads of food and hardware supplies… None of the vehicles are never found again… or show up in the vehicles registries online…

    The freeway interchange is also a crossroads… on steroids. All the different decisions to be made to go left/right/north/south… And a lot of freeway interchanges are raised up above the ground in urban areas. Some even are over low buildings and parking lots or streets… and given the kinds of beings that like gathering at crossroads in folklore… heh… The noise from the freeway up above would make it a great place to not be overheard at least! Hm… maybe the motel squished under is is where the drivers of the vehicles that go missing… with a pre-paid phone next to them and no cars (or what was in them) in the parking lot right under the intersection…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interchanges definitely confuse GPS.
      I once had my GPS say “Turn Left now” as I was driving on an overpass…

      Now I’m imagining some troll with a laptop, sending out a signal to spoof the drivers.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah, there’s another reason to reject self-driving cars. I’d trust a drunk over a GPS signal behind the wheel. The drunk, at least, can be counted on to be unpredictable. The GPS signal typically works. Until it doesn’t.

        Add in the uptick in malicious hacks of major corporations and governments…

        But having some sort of Urban Fantasy critter that specializes in that stuff? Nightmares galore.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. This reminds me of one of Zenna Henderson’s shorts, “Three-Cornered and Secure”. A guy’s driving along, and takes the new cloverleaf exit… and winds up in the past along with half of his car, a caveman, and a future human (who, now that I think of it, came from a culture that was basically predicting just a couple steps farther into modern-barbarism than RL has currently reached). It turns out, in that story, that something about the shape of the cloverleaf interchange makes time rather weak, so stuff can slip through occasionally (much to the annoyance of the “angels” tasked with putting stuff back in place, and sealing the weakspot).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. On the subject of monsters, when reading through your Urban Legends, stories I was intrigued by your tulpa/tsukumogami form for Airwolf. In your notes you mentioned the “ship spirits of Europe,” but I can’t find any name for them when I type that into a search engine. Nor can I find an equivalent for tsukumogami (unless its the Roman genius, which isn’t quite what I’m looking for). Do you happen to know the name of those “ship spirits” and/or some other Western or African equivalents to tulpas/tsukumogami?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You might try looking up “ghost ship” or “phantom ship” as well.

      That is a more common variant where sailors would see phantom ships in the fog that weren’t actually there when they went looking for them. The ships were thought to be crewed by a phantom crew as well. Oftentimes, they were thought to be the “ghosts” of ships that had disappeared on the sea. Which… suggests that a “normal” ship had a spirit itself that was staying around after the ship “died”!

      The most famous example of a “ghost ship” is the Flying Dutchman.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Hmm, good point. I hadn’t considered that, since *everyone* talks/writes about ghost ships so often, but you’re right. That’s a really good place to start, and I’ll set to checking that out.

        “Oftentimes, they were thought to be the ‘ghosts’ of ships that had disappeared on the sea. Which…suggests that a ‘normal’ ship had a spirit itself that was staying around after the ship ‘died’!”

        You know, I’ve always been fascinated by how ships and even cars, trains, planes, etc. seem to – to have a life of their own, almost. It’s not for nothing that we have tales of ghost ships and vengeful cars (Christine). There really is… something about machines that allows them to pick up or develop a – a personality. I just wish we had a word like tsukumogani to describe it!

        Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll dive right in! 😉

        Liked by 3 people

      2. It is amazing how humans can give the things they make personalities. Everyone knows that a car is well… a car. But everyone also knows that *this* car is different from *that* car, even if they share the same make, model, year, etc. Kind like how everyone knows what a person is… and yet every person is an individual too. Start putting human ideas with the idiosyncrasies of machines and… well… you get machines with personalities of their own pretty easily.

        One of the (better) terms from Japanese folklore that is really similar to that idea is that of a “tsukumogami” or “100 Year Spirit”. Where an object that is around for a hundred years comes alive and self-aware. You’d probably need to tweak the time-scale for modern objects, but… similar enough idea.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Other day, I saw a blog link to an article about a family that kept a car for ninety nine years. Refurbished it, and donated it with the original tools to a museum, and it is now 100. Thought about mentioning 100 year spirits there, and did not.

        Liked by 3 people

    2. One Piece has a Klaubauterman show up. I’m not sure what’s Canon and what’s fanon in that Fandom anymore, mind. Nevermind how true it is to the original myths.. But in there, at least, a ship that’s doomed might have it’s spirit show up.

      Except. Define ‘Doomed. Then watch the ship spirit knock back it’s keg o’ rum, roll up it’s misty sleeves, and riddle the enemy with cannon fire, with malice afore and afterthought.

      They are rather less than nice to those threatening their own.

      Here’s one, I love it to death!
      https://archiveofourown.org/works/22801303

      Liked by 2 people

  5. This really reminds me of some of the Magnus Archive episodes on the Fear of Loneliness. Those were the ones that most got to me, but the classification of the Great Fears were very interesting to say the least, very inspirational.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I liked that show until it developed a Romantic Plot Tumor… and then realized I really didn’t like many of the actual characters involved.

      The world-building and concepts were interesting though… if you’re into Eldritch Horror…

      Like

  6. Okay, seriously, you need to read ‘Sparrow Hill Road’ and it’s sequel ‘The Girl in the green silk gown’ by Seanan McGuire, because this is exactly the kind of stuff it’s about.
    SHR is a bunch of ghost stories… told from the pov of a ghost. Specifically, the Phantom Hitchhiker. Or at least the psychopomp who’s become the basis for a shitload of those stories.

    Like

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