I’ve read a lot of books, and watched a lot of films, about monsters. In so far as “monster attacks group of people” is a genre, it’s one of my preferred genres. I have thrilled to tales of liopleurodons, Humboldt squid, sabre-tooth tigers and titanoboas. I have watched, due to the prominence of sharks as the antagonist, countless films with a two word title in which the second word is “shark” (or, to be fair, “sharks”). The first word of the title allows more variation, including “snow“, “swamp“, “Jurassic“, and “raging“. I’ve even had the privilege of enjoying a whole bunch of works which just jammed two words together to create the title, like Sharknado, Sharktopus, and Piranhaconda.
I mention these works to establish that I know what I’m talking about here, rather than as recommendations. I’m not recommending them because, in all this time of monster books and films, a common element has come clear: most of these works are absolutely terrible. Sturgeon’s Revelation states that 90% of everything is awful, but I believe monster stories to be a special case; I think the percentage for this specific genre might be closer to 98%.
For some reason, authors seem to feel that they can get away with more poorly-written books than in other genres. This might be attributable to the fact that a higher proportion of monster books seem to be self-published than in other genres, so there’s no one to enforce editing and proofreading. I don’t think that’s entirely it, as there are many traditionally published monster books that are terrible, and several well-designed self-published ones. In general, it just seems that monster books are where authors dump all their plot holes and inconsistent characterisation – it’s not a genre that is taken that seriously, or regarded very highly.
Now, this doesn’t particularly bother me. I like monster stories enough that despite (and occasionally because of) their terribleness, I still enjoy them. I will struggle through countless clumsy coincidences and grammatical errors to read about a deranged businessman being devoured by ptero-wasps. However, I’m aware that not everyone is as forgiving of, or as engaged in, the genre as I am.
I thought I’d use this post, after trashing the genre as a whole, to recommend an author who not only writes monsters books, but does so well. One of the few authors who manages to write a coherent plot in coherent English that’s also about a shark killing people.
Steve Alten’s “Meg” series is one of the stand-outs of the monster genre. The books are based around the idea that Carcharodon Megalodon, an ancestor of today’s great white shark, survived into the modern era; when one of these antediluvian murder machines comes into contact with humans, it’s up to a tortured marine biologist to stop the carnage.
If you’re going to read one series about prehistoric sharks attacking screaming people, this would be the one to pick. Here, in no particular order, are the three main reasons that you should, if you have even the slightest interest in monster books, read this series.
1. It’s suspenseful
This first reason is a short one, but quite important. Too many monster books are ruined by flat prose or inappropriate weight being given to certain scenes – three chapters of backstory for a minor character, but only two lines for the first gory kill. Monster books aren’t works of deathless prose, but they do have to be exciting.
The Meg books are exciting. There’s tension, and danger, and deep enough characters that you care (or applaud) when they die. The prose is visceral, the narrative is fast-paced, and the atmosphere is tense and well-constructed throughout.
2. It’s plausible
I’m not saying here that I believe that Carcharodon Megalodon still roams the seas. Obviously, Steve Alten has taken the necessary liberties with reality to make the story work. But, reading Meg, you get the impression that the ocean and the fanged things in it are something that the author knows a lot about, that he has done his research and tried to make it as realistic as possible.
The books are stuffed with detail – about the setting, about the wildlife, about the practicalities of everything that goes on. Once you accept the basic premise, you rarely have to struggle with suspension of disbelief – it all hangs together well, with few gaps or noticeable glossing over inconsistencies. One thing that ruins books for me is when I can see the wires – when it’s obvious that the author hasn’t done any research and is hoping you won’t notice hand-waving or clumsy patches over ignorance. That’s not a problem here. If anything, the author sometimes gives too much background detail, but that’s a minor flaw that comes bundled with a massive positive.
3. It scales up
One of the biggest problems with series is how to keep the reader’s interest from book to book. Once your robo-crab has destroyed the Golden Gate bridge, how do you raise the stakes effectively? You can’t make the situation less serious, but you also can’t ramp up the scale of the problem too far. It starts to get ridiculous. All of a sudden, you’ve gone from tight, pacey narratives to voodoo sharks and Jason Voorhees in space.
Over the series, Alten manages this well. The stakes are raised from book to book, but never too far. Each novel’s conflict is more serious than the one before, but still confined to a manageable size. The settings change, the situation changes, but each book remains true to the core concept of “prehistoric monster on the loose”, while still ramping up the tension. It’s never boring, but it never jumps the shark. It should be noted, though, that, in this series, people do frequently jump sharks.
No one reads books about giant sharks looking for great literature. Monster books are for the cheap thrills, for pulpy, blood-soaked fun. They’re the big, dumb, explosion-filled action films of the book world, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Steve Alten’s “Meg” books are a huge step up in quality and polish compared to the majority of the genre. If you want a series that will be entertaining and action-packed, filled with all of the prehistoric shark violence you could wish for, this is the series to go for.
The long-awaited fifth book came out very recently, so there has never been a better time to start reading them.
Buy the first one here.