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Grotesque: Monster Tales by Lee Murray review – a compelling collection of diverse, thought-provoking worlds

From ancient myths to Victorian serials to Hammer Horror: monster stories have had a lifespan almost as long as the weird, unearthly creatures that are their subject. And if monsters, as many readers and critics have discovered, embody moments of cultural upheaval, then it’s unsurprising that they continue to populate every culture of the world.

If there’s one thing that Lee Murray’s latest short story collection does well, it’s encapsulating that scope, that feeling of monstrous creatures lurking in the cracks of every culture and country since time immemorial. Grotesque: Monster Tales sees us encountering such creatures across the globe, from early modern France to present-day New Zealand. Each of its stories feature a different monster encounter, in a time and place vastly different from the last tale that was told.

From the first few stories, it’s clear that the horror is rarely just a product of the monsters alone. Stories such as “Hawaiki”, “Selfie”, and “Dead End Town” build upon the trauma of betrayal, loneliness, and abuse, to an extent that the real horror of these narratives lies more in the emotional pain of their characters than anything else. “Dead End Town” is particularly haunting, with protagonist Kayla suffering through many more terrors in her life than merely the supernatural variety. In this, and other stories like “Lifeblood”, this is paired with acute social commentary on vulnerability and exploitation, in relation to both individuals and collective populations. As a result, these particular stories have a sense of depth to their horror elements that strengthen the relatively simple concepts at their core.

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Other standouts include “Heart Music” and “Edward’s Journal.” “Heart Music”, though only two pages long, nevertheless provides a chilling and strangely heartfelt tale about a girl who retains her consciousness after death, and longs to be reunited with an old friend from beyond the grave. “Edward’s Journal”, an epistolary narrative evidently drawing on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, is less explicit, leaving the reader to wonder whether the mysterious, unseen threat was indeed a monster or simply the native Māori tribes defending themselves against invaders.

What’s evident in both Murray’s fiction and afterword is that all of her stories have unique sources of inspiration. It was particularly refreshing to see Māori folklore play such a significant role in these stories, being among the less-explored mythologies in the horror genre and fiction in general. The connections that many of these tales have to art, science, and historical events certainly fleshes them out and ensures they have more to offer when, as does sometimes happen, the fear doesn’t quite land.

For there are a number of these stories that, in spite of their monstrous subject matter, don’t quite feel like horror stories. “The New Breed”, “Maui’s Hook”, and “Into the Sky” in particular, with their fast-paced combat sequences and cinematic attention to detail, feel more like action-adventure tales. “Maui’s Hook” feels vaguely reminiscent of Godzilla, on a much smaller scale. This is hardly a deficiency in itself, but for any readers looking for atmospheric, slow-building horror it may miss the mark. Sometimes it’s hard to ignore the desire for these stories to slow down, to build more gradually to something scarier instead of unleashing their terrors all at once. “Hawaiki” starts slowly enough, until a monster encounter throws our heroes into an action scene, and increases the threat level so rapidly that it’s difficult to return to the previous level of suspense. “Grotesque” straddles this genre division with a little more deliberation, allowing the tension to build at a far more measured pace by weaving two narratives together and allowing the reader’s inference to construct most of the suspense.

Some stories end a little too soon, some last a little too long and exhaust any tension that may have remained by leaving them more open. The best, among them “Edward’s Journal” and “Heart Music” leave the reader with a final impression of uneasiness that goes some way to sustaining the collection overall.

What remains vivid all the way through is Murray’s passion for the stories she is telling. With its energetic prose, and engagement with broad cultural concepts, Grotesque: Monster Tales – while not always enigmatic enough for the avid horror fan – is a compelling collection that invites the reader to escape into its diverse, thought-provoking worlds before devouring them whole.

Grotesque: Monster Tales by Lee Murray is published by Things in the Well. 

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