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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Rachel Gillig! She is the author of One Dark Window, which is described as “a dark, lushly gothic fantasy about a maiden who must unleash the monster within to save her kingdom.” It’s coming out just in time for spooky season—on October 18!—but until then, you can find her on Twitter or Instagram.

Cover of One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig

Maidens, Monsters, and the Lines that Blur Between Them

The monster/maiden dynamic is a familiar one. It wears many faces. It lives in all genres, particularly fantasy, dispersing itself throughout the subgenres. It’s been a favorite trope of mine since I watched Beauty and the Beast at the ripe age of five. But this blog won’t be about romance or tension between the monster and maiden. Rather, I’d like to reflect on, in writing my own monster/maiden book, the built-in constraints of the maiden, and how the foil of the monster can help undo them.

Part of why the monster/maiden dynamic is so successful is because it comes with integrated conflict—light against dark. The maiden and the monster are natural foils. Her virtue and beauty stand in contrast to the monster’s atrocities—physical or moral. Over the span of the story, it is often the maiden’s virtue that wins the day. Her goodness erodes the monster’s darkness.

Don’t get me wrong—I love these stories to my core. But in the world of fantasy, where a reader can escape so thoroughly into a book, I wanted to experience a different kind of maiden. One whose contribution is not merely to redeem others. A maiden who does not deliver the monster, but becomes one herself.

My maiden character, Elspeth, is the first-person narrator of One Dark Window, my upcoming gothic fantasy novel. But my monster was the first character I created. He is called the Nightmare, and he is the amalgamation of two inspirations. The first is the yew tree from A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, and the second is his namesake, the creature in the 1781 painting The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli. Both of these monsters are captivating, terrifying entities. They are not necessarily villains, but neither are they “good.” For me, they stir feelings of wonder and dread. They keep their own rules. Without the constraints of morality or beauty, they have enviable power.

It is that kind of power—monstrous, without constraint—that I wanted for my maiden character, Elspeth. Because, deep within the maiden/monster trope, maidens are far more constrained than their counterparts. While the monster is released from the expectation of goodness, the maiden is tethered by morality. She must be good. Or beautiful. If she has righteous anger, she must swallow it, or find a way to let it out that does not make her any less lovely or loveable. She’s allowed a flaw or two, but she often shoulders the beauty and morality of the story. Above all else, the maiden must remain an unflagging contradiction to the dark, uninhibited freedom of the monster.

As someone who writes layered, flawed women, I have a strong impulse to correct this—or simply erase all the expectations foisted on the maiden. But I did not do that in One Dark Window—I tried to explore them. Because women do have expectations put on them. Elspeth does indeed conform to the rules and expectations foisted upon her. She’s cautious, and takes care to hide her magic, her power—to present herself as nonthreatening. She swallows her rage. She keeps secrets out of fear that, if others knew who she truly was, they’d perceive her as monstrous and unworthy of love.

For me, this is the crux of the issue. The maiden is lovely not merely out of virtue, but out of fear. Because, in an unsafe world, the desire to be loved and be loveable—to be accepted without judgment—is a safety mechanism. Remove it, and the world is a dangerous place.

But I cannot stop myself from wondering—what would happen if the maiden no longer needed to be loved or loveable to be safe? Who would she be? Would we even call her a maiden anymore? She needs to find safety in her own inner power. And when she does not know what inner power without rules of constraints feels like, she needs a someone—or something—to show her.

A monster. A creature of wonder and dread that has never had to be lovely. A monster, who exists beyond restrictions forged from fear. A monster who, just like the yew tree from A Monster Calls, helps the maiden break things.

This is why I love the fantasy genre. It’s escapism, but with roots that touch reality. Because we’ve all been the maiden at one point—had expectations foisted on us, constricting rules that wear the guise of safety. We’ve all felt righteous anger and searched for our power and wanted to break things. Books give us a safe way to escape into these ideas. And escapism is more than slipping into the beautiful world or magic system or romance of a fantasy novel. Sometimes, escapism is a maiden’s fury, and the catharsis of watching her undo all her constraints and unleash a vengeful, horrible, monster.

I’ll leave you with a quote by Margaret Atwood I think about all the time. One that could so easily be about maidens who decide to become monsters. “The desire to be loved is the last illusion. Give it up, and you will be free.”

Photo of Rachel Gillig Rachel Gillig was born and raised on the California coast. She is a writer and a teacher, with a B.A. in Literary Theory and Criticism from UC Davis. If she is not ensconced in blankets dreaming up her next novel, Rachel is in her garden or walking with her husband, son, and their poodle, Wally.