Blog – Posted on Friday, Jun 07
40+ Stupendous Sea Monsters (in Stories You’ll Want to Dive Into)
Spine-chilling, stupendous, and sometimes even seductive, sea monsters have haunted literature’s depths since the days of Homer’s wine-dark sea. This post will introduce them — and show you the books you'll want to dive into for their stories.
For your reading ease, we’ve divided our highly scientific taxonomy of sea monsters into eight categories: the scaly, the squishy, the sharky, the shelled, the shape-shifting, the sacrosanct, the (maybe surprisingly) sexy, and finally, the (miscellaneously) scary.
The Scaly 🐉 🦕
When the Aethopian Queen Cassiopeia ticks off the Poseidon, her daughter Andromeda pays the price. The vengeful god of the oceans dispatches the serpentine Cetus to attack the kingdom, and the poor princess is tied to a rock near the sea in an attempt to appease it. Luckily for her, the demigod Perseus is there to save the day — and to give us one of Greek mythology’s greatest episodes of monster vs. man
Dive into: You can find a jazzed up, modern retelling of the Perseus myth — Cetus battle and all — in Geraldine McCaughrean’s novel, unsurprisingly titled Perseus.
Another monster from the ancient world, the Hydra was a many-headed water serpent slain by the demigod Hercules. Killing it was no easy feat — as soon as he cut off one head, two more would sprout in its place. And if that’s not enough, each head could fight back with poisonous breath, at least according to the poet Hesiod. No wonder Hercules had to tag in his nephew for help.
Dive into: In H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror works, Mother Hydra and her mate, Father Dagon, rule over the Deep Ones: slimy ocean-dwellers with croaking voices. They’re hideous enough to make a person faint, and capable of interbreeding with humans. Their matriarch Hydra first appears in the novella, “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” narrated by a student who discovers something fishy beneath the sleepy facade of a small New England town.
Also known as the Midgard Serpent, this enormous sea snake from Norse myth is long enough to encircle the whole world and grab its tail in its mouth. Son of the immortal trickster Loki and the giantess Angrboda, the Jörmungandr is the arch-nemesis of none other than the thunder-god, Thor. We should all take heed when its tail finally slips from its mouth: that’s the signal for the start of Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods — and the end of the world as we know it.
Dive into: For a faithful take on Thor’s adventures — including his tangles with the Midgard Serpent — check out Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, a compendium of modern retellings based on the medieval sources. In the hands of this master fantasist, the age-old tales come to life with the swagger of Marvel comics.
Sanskrit for “sea dragon” or “water monster,” the Makara looks different depending on who you ask. But there’s a visual formula for depicting this hybrid creature: you stick the front half of a land animal — maybe a deer or an elephant — to the back half of a scaled aquatic creature, like a fish or crocodile. The traditional guardian of thresholds, Makara feature prominently in Hindu and Buddhist temples as a decorative motif
Dive into: Kristen Ringman’s novel Makara takes an unconventional approach to the titular creature: its protagonist, Fionnuala, is a Deaf woman who happens to be half-seal. (Which more closely connects her to the Selkie myths discussed below.) Still, Makara is steeped in Indian culture, and was inspired by Ringman's own experiences with hybridity, as the daughter of a Deaf mother and a Hearing father.
These ocean-dwelling reptiles have long gone extinct — they roamed the seas during the age of the dinosaurs, crunching on fish, sharks, and even each with their dagger-like teeth. The great extinction took out several subtypes of pliosaur, from the relatively small, 15-foot-long Macroplata to an enormous specimen unearthed i2009, whose skull alone measured 6 foot 5. All of them resemble nothing so much as alligators with flippers — and terrifyingly powerful jaws.
Dive into: Author Max Hawthorne, known as the prince of paleo-fiction, tackles this ancient underwater predator in Kronos Rising. After he takes up police work to cope with his grief, new widower— and one-time Olympics hopeful— Jake Braddock stumbles across a string of deaths and disappearance at sea. He investigates with the help of marine biologist Amara Takagi. But can the duo’s combined brains and brawn match up to the prehistoric terror waiting beneath the waves?
This towering, reptilian sea monster does have a soft spot — but that doesn’t stop him from being any less destructive. You see, the rhedosaurus is the last of its kind. Wailing from loneliness, the rhedosaurus hears a foghorn in the distance that seems to mimic its own cries — and it mistakes the lighthouse for a potential mate. When the lighthouse operators finally turn it off, the grieving rhedosaurus is driven to attack.
Dive into: The rhedosaurus makes his debut in science fiction great Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Fog Horn.” Published in his 1951 collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun, it became the basis for the classic monster flick, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
The Squishy 🦑🐋
7. Giant Squid
A real-life creature that most of us will never (fortunately) encounter, the giant squid can grow to monstrous proportions in its deep-sea home — up to 43 feet long. Its scientific name, Architeuthis, means “arch-squid,” and it’s truly the king of the cephalopods.
Dive into: You’ll catch sight of the relatively friendly, lake-dwelling version in virtually any Harry Potter book, but for a more menacing specimen, turn to a classic adventure novel: Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. If you prefer your monster served up with a contemporary twist, check out China Miéville’s urban fantasy novel Kraken, which — contrary to its title — depicts a doomsday cult obsessed with the very much real Architeuthis.
Speaking of the kraken, the giant squid’s mythical cousin emerges out of the Norse sagas, in which it savages the vessels sailing the Scandinavian waters. Though typically depicted as a ship-sized cephalopod, early sources disagree on what the kraken actually looked like — it may have been more crab-like, or even something like a whale.
Dive into: In Jack Vance’s adventure sci-fi novel The Blue World, they appear as semi-intelligent, squid-like creatures called kragen. Forced to share a world covered entirely in water, they strike up a detente with humankind. If you prefer fantasy to science fiction, try Terry Brooks’ The Wishsong of Shannara. The third book in his Sword of Shannara series, it gives us a giant kraken summoned with dark magic as a weapon of war.
A Caribbean sea monster, the Lusca is variously described as a giant octopus or an octopus-shark. Either way, it’s supposed to be huge — up to 200 feet long. Excited cryptozoologists swore they had one on their hands when an unidentified mass of tissue, or globster, washed ashore on the Florida coast in 1896. Known as the St. Augustine Monster, this mysterious blob turned out to be blubber tissue from a whale — but the Lusca lives on in rumor and myth.
Dive into: Bahamian writer Patricia Glinton-Meicholas offers a modern treatment of Caribbean sea-stories in Lusca and Other Fantastic Tales. A scholar and documentarian as well as a storyteller, she brings the legends to life with rigor and verve.
A tentacled twist on the mermaid, the cecaelia is half woman and half octopus or squid — think Ursula the Sea Witch from the Little Mermaid.
Dive into: In Jolie Jaquinta’s fantasy novel, Red Queen, a reluctant ruler deals with the vicious infighting and magic-induced policy headaches she inherited from her overambitious predecessor. The book is full of magical creatures, marine and otherwise — including a prim-and-proper cecaelia who serves as bailiff in a mermish court.
11. Moby Dick
This giant white sperm male is arguably literature’s most celebrated sea monster. Supposedly the largest-ever member of his species, he terrifies sailors with his intelligence as well as his size, using brutal surprise tactics to splinter up their boats — and bite off their limbs. Creator Herman Melville based him on a real sperm whale active in the Pacific during his lifetime, Mocha Dick. Unlike the vicious Moby, this whale seemed to have a heart — and died for it: Mocha Dick was killed in 1838 while trying to help a female whose calf had been taken by whalers.
Dive into: Herman Melville’s 1851 classic Moby-Dick is the champagne of sea monster tales. Besides serving as the noble ancestor to a whole family line of B-movies, it’s also given us one of English lit’s most iconic opening lines: “Call me Ishmael.”
12. … and Zombie Moby Dick
With his larger-than-life size and vicious intelligence, Moby Dick was frightening enough — and Captain Ahab had the scars to prove it. The only way to make him scarier? Make him undead! At least it explains why the harpoon hits keep not taking….
Dive into: J.D. Livingstone’s Zomby Dick, or The Undead Whale is an irreverent romp very much in the vein of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: take a literary classic and add a B-movie twist. In this zombified retelling of Melville’s classic, Captain Ahab is still half-mad with obsession over the great white whale, but Ishmael’s motivations change: he’s onboard to escape the memories of his one-man war against the undead, who killed his wife and child.
13. Lady Wednesday
This whale-like creature appears in Garth Nix’s young adult fantasy series, The Keys to the Kingdom. Asthmatic tween Arthur Penhaligon has been named heir to the House, a sprawling building that also happens to be the center of the universe. Unfortunately for him, the House is under the care of seven villainous trustees called the Morrow Days, each afflicted by one of the deadly sins. Whalish Lady Wednesday’s vice is gluttony. But there’s more to her than pure villainy, as Arthur soon finds.
Dive into: The gluttonous lady of the House appears in Drowned Wednesday, the third book of the series.
The Sharky 🦈
This nearly 60-foot-long prehistoric shark went extinct eons ago, but it’s massive, powerful jaws continue to haunt natural history museums — and literary minds. Cryptozoologists periodically float rumors that the Meg, as it’s affectionately called, is still out there, hiding in the darkness deep beneath the waves.
Dive into: The Meg is the center of a science-fiction horror series by Steve Alten. The books date back from the 90’s, but their first installment — Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror — got the big-screen treatment only in 2018. The novels star paleontologist Jonas Taylor, who begins the series on a secret, Navy-affiliated mission in the Mariana trench. When a Megalodon kills the rest of his crew, he’s lucky enough to escape — but unlucky enough to be dismissed as a lunatic for sounding the warning that the beast is alive.
Okay, so that’s not actually his name. But no real great white shark is as monstrous as the man-eating specimen that appears in the celebrated Steven Spielberg film. Real-life great whites prefer not to prey on humans: we’re too bony for their tastes, and their palates are trained on fatty seals. But the unusually large one in Jaws has no compunctions about attacking innocent swimmers — and he’s got teeth strong enough to bite into metal, let alone flesh.
Dive into: Spielberg’s thriller — widely considered one of the greatest monster flicks of all time — was based on a 1974 novel by Peter Benchley. The book’s plotting is more intricate than the movie’s, and it describes the great white shark in spine-chilling detail to make up for the lack of cinematography.
16. The Terrible Dogfish
Bigger than a five-story building, with three rows of teeth, this sea creature is known as the Attila of fish and fishermen — a conqueror destroying everything in its path. Of course, he’s really just an unusually large dogfish: a slender, rough-skinned type of shark. But that’s scary enough, isn’t it? Fortunately for those who encounter it, the Terrible Dogfish isn’t invincible — he actually suffers from asthma!
Dive into: The Attila of fish and fishermen shows up in The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, the 19th century Italian children’s book about a certain puppet boy and his beloved papa.
17. The Master Shark
His proper name is ed'Rashtekeresket t'k Gh'shestaesteh, but you can just call him Ed. The lord of all great whites has a more complex personality than his cousin from Jaws: though cold and threatening — he is called the Pale Slayer — he’s also got a wry wit and a touching capacity for friendship.
Dive into: Ed appears in the Young Wizards series by YA fantasy writer Diane Duane. Across 11 installments — beginning with So You Want to be a Wizard — these books trace the adventures of teen magic-users Nita and Kit, who explore a dangerous, enchanted version of New York City as they attempt to prevent the destruction of the universe. Ed’s debut comes in Deep Wizardry, the second book in the series, which lets the teens mingle with all kinds of sea creatures, from dolphins to wizarding whales.
The Shelled 🦀🐢
That name might sound innocuous, but these giant, oceanic killers are anything but. Essentially huge (and hugely vicious) crabs, the Clickers crawl their way out of the depths to dismember everything in their path. Their arrival is presaged by the clicking of their powerful claws — a sure warning that death at hand.
Dive into: Clickers by J.F. Gonzales is 280 pages of grisly, pulpy fun. Inspired by the bloody monsters of classic B-horror films, it’s unflinchingly graphic prose isn’t for the squeamish. Clickers transports the reader to a charming beachside resort town — a dream vacation spot that’s suddenly overrun by killer crabs. But something even scarier seems to be driving them from the water….
These 4-foot long scorpion-lobster hybrids belong to the tradition of the killer crustacean. Though venomous — and capable of snapping a man’s fingers off with their claws — they can also serve as a seafood meal in a pinch.
Dive into: Lobstrosities appear in The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s ambitious dark fantasy series that also incorporates elements of Western and — of course — horror. Inspired by classical high fantasy like Lord of the Rings, it’s full of dashing characters who act like knights of the Round Table in the Wild West. The lobstrosities appear primarily in the series’ second book, The Drawing of the Three.
Known as the “living island,” the gigantic aspidochelone was a favorite subject of medieval illustrators. If you’re a history buff, you might have seen them in illuminated manuscripts, where they tend to show up as ship-sized fish swimming under actual ships, making them pitch and toss their panicking mariners overboard. The aspidochelone may be trout-like and scaled in pictures, but they were often compared to literal islands — wearing turtle-shells covered with rocks, trees, and sand dunes to lure unsuspecting sailors onto their backs. Because of their deceptive appearance, they stand in allegorically for Satan, the ultimate deceiver.
Dive into: In The Empire of the Stars — the second installment in Alison Bard’s epic fantasy trilogy — sorceress Ailia finds herself stranded on an aspidochelone’s back. Shelled like a tortoise, with the tail of a whale, the fairly placid “island-creature” is covered in sheltering moss.
These genetically engineered, turtle-like sea monsters are naval weapons, painstakingly trained to rescue ships — or attack them. Bonded with the military officers who train them, they serve up an aquatic version of the dragons partnering the likes of Daenerys Targaryen or the Pern riders in other fantasy novels.
Dive into: These fascinating creatures are baked into the worldbuilding in Emily Skrutskie’s The Abyss Surrounds Us, a YA science fiction novel with a queer, Chinese-American female lead. The daughter of decorated military trainers, Cassandra “Cas” Leung sees her own promising career in that same field get off to a catastrophic start — her assigned monster is killed, and she’s kidnapped by a pirate who orders her to raise a new Reckoner pup.
The Shape-shifting ❓↔️
A hybrid creature out of Inuit myth, the Akhlut prowls the tundra in the form of a wolf — but also haunts the icy waters as an orca. This shape-shifting whalewolf’s metamorphic abilities are triggered by hunger: it can hunt on both land and sea.
Dive into: The Akhlut — like the orca it was based on — is a saltwater creature. But you can find a fantastical, freshwater take on it in Maxim, a high fantasy novel by Jennifer Gambacorta. Though politically green, newly crowned Queen Skylar has strength, grit, and lightning-quick reflexes from her days as a beast master — qualities that come in handy when she comes face-to-face with an Akhlut.
Scottish folklore presents Selkies as shapeshifters moving between the forms of seal and woman. A typical tale about them goes something like this: a man steals a selkie’s seal-skin and refuse to give it back until she marries him. But no matter how many years have passed, his seal-wife continues to long for the sea. One day, she finds her skin again and leaves for the water, regretfully leaving her children with their human father.
Dive into: Mercedes Lackey’s novel, Home from the Sea — the seventh book in her Elemental Masters series — features a Welsh woman named Mari who must marry a male Selkie. If you’d prefer a fresh take on the folktales from the perspective of the selkie’s abandoned child, check out Sofia Samatar’s acclaimed — and rather meta — short story, “Selkie Stories Are for Losers.”
24. The Luidaeg
A sea witch from San Francisco, the Luidaeg looks like a woman just out of her teens, acne scars and all. But she’s actually the ancient daughter of the Faerie King Oberon and his first consort, Maeve — and her true form is something you don’t want to see. Given to the ocean by her grieving father when they lost her mother, the Luidaeg spends her time smoking pot down by the wharf. But all that doesn’t mean her magic isn’t unfathomably powerful.
Dive into: The Luidaeg surfaces in Rosemary and Rue, the first installment in Seanan McGuire’s urban fantasy October Daye series. In a universe where the hidden realm of Faerie runs parallel to our own world, October “Toby” Day has no desire to mix the magic with the mundane — as a fae-human hybrid, she’s sick of her immortal relatives discriminating against her. But when someone murders one of the Luidaeg’s powerful sisters, Toby is forced to set her grocery store apron aside to track the killer down.
According to mythographers like the Latin poet Ovid, Scyllashe was originally a beautiful woman. But when she fell in love with the same man as the enchantress Circe, Circe poisoned the sea pool where Scylla liked to bathe, transforming her into a hideous monster. She escaped and took refuge under a large rock across a narrow strait from Charybdis, forcing sailors like Odysseus to wrack their brains for a way to avoid them both.
Dive into: Scylla is one of many ocean-affiliated obstacles to stump the long-suffering Odysseus on his long journey home. If you’d like to delve into the Odyssey, we recommend Robert F. Fitzgerald’s classic, readable translation, or Emily Wilson’s elegant and emotionally stirring new take — the first-ever Odyssey translation produced by a woman! For expansions of Scylla’s story in particular, try Ovid’s Metamorphoses, rendered into Oxford-approved English by A.D. Melville.
The Sacrosanct 🌊⛪
This terrifying, tentacled denizen of the depths cemented H.P. Lovecraft’s reputation as the dark god of cosmic horror. With an octopus-like head crawling with feelers and a grotesque body that parodies the human form, Cthulhu isn’t the sort of sea monster to crunch up ships in his jaws. His M.O. is subtler and more terrifying: he wends his way into human minds to drive them slowly insane. Cthulhu’s ghastly powers have netted him a cult of worshippers who kill in his name.
Dive into: Lovecraft’s collection, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, sets up the creature’s sprawling system of lore, called the Cthulhu Mythos.
Named after the Mesopotamian god of fish and fishing, Dagon is another sinister Lovecraft creation. Known as “Father Dagon” to the cultists who worship him, he’s the lord of the Deep Ones, whom he rules alongside his consort, Mother Hydra.
Dive into: The patriarch of the Deep Ones makes his first appearance in Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. His title story is narrated by a morphine-addicted marine vet tortured by his memories of World War I. After catching a glimpse of Dagon, the former marine knows no peace: he’s terrified that ancient hordes from under the water will crawl onto land to wage war on mankind.
28. The Drowned God
“What’s dead may never die,” as the Drowned God’s worshippers say. He Who Dwells Beneath the Waves is G.R.R. Martin’s warlike take on Poseidon — or maybe an underwater version of Odin, the berserker-god of the Nords. Either way, the favored deity of the Iron Islands is a patron of piracy, siege, and rape, whose worshippers are drowned and resuscitated as part of their baptismal rite.
Dive into: The theology of the Drowned God is laid out in A Feast for Crows, the fourth installment in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.
The Sexy 🧜♀️
The original sirens lured Greek sailors to death with their beautiful voices, getting the mesmerized listeners to smash their ships on rocky shores. They were originally represented as bird-women, with human faces, feathers, and claws. Of course the design got sexier over time, until sirens became beautiful winged women — Victoria’s Secret Angels for the pre-Platonic set. Eventually, they became fish-tailed, making them particularly wicked and seductive mermaids.
Dive into: Mira Grant’s fantasy duology Drowning Deep features mermaids, but they’re definitely more siren than Ariel. The first book, Rolling in the Deep, deals with a film crew commissioned to slap together a prime-time documentary on mermaids. They set off on a cruise ship not expecting to find very much. But then the mermaids show up, and they’re not exactly friendly.
These Slavic sirens are the tortured spirits of women who died by drowning — some committed suicide due to an unhappy marriage, and others were murdered to get rid of an inconvenient pregnancy. Either way, these rusalki haunt the waterways where they met their deaths, luring young men with their unearthly beauty only to drown them. But they may not have been so malevolent originally — the original rusalki were likely fertility spirits who nourished the fields, bringing life instead of death by water.
Dive into: Speculative fiction writer Poul Anderson gives us a rusalka character in The Merman’s Children, an underwater fantasy that brings the merfolk of Danish folklore to life. You can also find one in C.J. Cherryh’s novel, Rusalka. Set in medieval Russia, it features Eveshka, a teenage drowning victim who continues to look for her father after death — despite being cursed to haunt the waters as a rusalka.
31. The Lust Lizard
A reptile who stands 100 feet tall, this dep sea-dweller is driven ashore by environmental degradation. He wreaks havoc when his pheromones inspire uncontrollable lust in the nearby humans. Steve, as he’s called, is a complicated creature, with a thing for fuel tank trucks and steel guitar. And sure, he sometimes eats people — but with his help, they’re finally coming out of their shells.
Dive into: Steve appears in The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, fantasy humorist Christopher Moore’s hilarious send-up of small-town life. The libidinous lizard isn’t the only problem plaguing the normally respectable residents of Pine Cove, California: the town psychiatrist has also decided to swap out everyone’s meds with placebos.
32. Larry the Fish-man
Unlike his ship-destroying kin, this monster’s more a lover than a fighter. Well actually, he’s both, having killed the scientists who were studying — and torturing — him at an Institute for Oceanographic Research. Larry escapes and winds up in bed with Dorothy, an unhappy suburban housewife with a recent miscarriage and a cheating husband. It’s really just a story of girl meets fish.
Dive into: Larry and Dorothy fall in love in Mrs. Caliban, a novella by the Anglo-American writer Rachel Ingalls. It’s an older, literary cousin to Guillermo del Toro’s multi-Oscar-winning blockbuster, The Shape of Water. Fellow novelists John Updike and Daniel Handler — perhaps better known as Lemony Snicket — are both big fans of this wry and quirkily touching little book.
The (Miscellaneously) Scary ⛵😱
These amphibious bogeymen hail from Yorkshire and Lancashire in English folklore. They’re traditionally associated with murky, fresh waters, like bogs, but writers have placed them in saltwater too. A warning to English children not to stray too close to the shore: grindylows are said to seize and drown curious tots foolish enough to approach their marshy homes.
Dive into: In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the Boy Who Lives has to deal with the traditional, freshwater variety. For a more adventurous, marine take on grindylows, try China Miéville’s quirky fantasy novel, The Scar, which depicts them as a bloodthirsty race capable of planning a full-scale invasion. It’s the second of a series set in New Crobuzon, a London-like, steampunk city.
A watery bogeyman from Inuit myth, the green-skinned, long-clawed Qalupalik lures children who disobey their parents. In a way, she sounds like a nightmarish nanny — constantly humming and equipped with an amautik, a traditional Inuit baby carrier she uses to trap the youngsters she kidnaps.
Dive into: Inuit children’s author Elisha Kilabuk covers this creature in his picture book, The Qalupalik, illustrated by comic industry alum Joy Ang. Told by a master storyteller, the tale is charming and age-appropriate — but Ang’s undeniably creepy illustrations add a little bit of terror.
The other half of epic poetry’s most famous sea monster duo, Charybdis often plays second fiddle to her partner in crime. Sometimes considered the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia — water and land — she lives across a narrow strait from Scylla. Charybdis’ M.O. involves swallowing and vomiting water to create enormous whirlpools. In later versions of her story, she often becomes a whirlpool herself.
Dive into: Check out the entry on Scylla for our recommended translations of Homer’s Odyssey. For a contemporary twist on Greek myth that includes both monsters, take a look at The Sea of Monsters, the second book in Rick Riordan’s wildly popular YA fantasy series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians.
With her twin tails and long, tangled hair, this sea-woman sounds a lot like the iconic Starbucks mermaid. But there are a handful of twists: she’s got the face of a gargoyle, her saliva can heal, and she’s sworn vengeance on all of humankind. Kidnapped by agents of the Sun King, Louis XIV, in an alternate history version of France, she’s forced to live in a fountain on the grounds of Versailles, and the immortality-obsessed monarch has plans to eat her.
Dive into: Sherzad appears in Vonda McIntyre’s speculative fiction novel, The Moon and the Sun, which beat out A Game of Thrones to win the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1997. The novel stars Marie-Josèphe de la Croix, a lady-in-waiting to the Sun King with scientific interests and a keen mathematical mind — the only person at court who can make sense of Sherzad’s beautiful singing as speech. In telling the story of the two women — one from the land and one from the sea — McIntyre deftly combines history, romance, and early modern science with shades of magical realism.
37. The Devonshire Fang-Beast
This monster is, predictably enough, a fanged creature who hangs out around the Devonshire coast, attacking holiday-makers and heartbroken maidens. It lives in a version of Regency England where a mysterious happening called “The Alteration,” well, altered the seas — making them seethe with murderous monsters of all kinds. But even with the shores awash in horrors, the gentlefolk of the imperiled island kingdom continue to behave with decorum.
Dive into: In Ben H. Winters’ monster-mashed parody of Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibilities and Sea Monsters, the Devonshire Fang-Beast is one of many creatures to threaten the elegant, marriageable Dashwood sisters. Of course, not all sea creatures are so bad — that Colonel Dashwood is, despite his tentacled face, really quite the gentleman.
This Finnish sea monster is so terrifying the surviving myths don’t even leave us with any concrete descriptions, just a series of (increasingly ominous) names: the one who lives on the brink, the thousand-headed, the thousand-horned, the ox of Death. It’s sometimes also acknowledged as a war-god or a bringer of disease.
Dive into: The Iku-Turso makes several cameos in the Kalevela, the national epic of Finland — one of noted mythology nerd J.R.R. Tolkien’s inspirations for the Silmarillion. Poet and translator Keith Bosley’s version is the best available in English today.
39. The Leviathan
This sea monster from the Hebrew Bible allegorically represents the enemy state of Babylon. English interpreters of the Book of Job described it as so huge it looked like several creatures joined together. This observation inspired the 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes to name his treatise on the state Leviathan — because what is a state if not a joining of distinct entities?
Dive into: Not to be confused with the Hobbes classic (which you can also check out if elaborate explanatory metaphors are your thing), Jared Sandman’s horror novel Leviathan centers on two expeditions going after a mysterious new predator in the Caribbean. One is crewed by marine biologists trying to get to the murky bottom of its brutal attacks. The other has the backing of a grieving, eccentric billionaire convinced that the creature they seek is the biblical Leviathan.
40. Ghost Ship
These phantom vessels manage to navigate the waters with no one aboard — no one living, that is. The most famous legendary ghost ship was the Flying Dutchman. Cursed to sail forever with only wraiths aboard, the sight of it was considered a sign of doom for living crews.
Dive into: You’ll encounter a ghost ship called Nuestra Señora de Lagrimas — Our Lady of Tears — manned by undead sailors in On Stranger Tides, a historical fantasy novel by Tim Powers. An action-packed yarn about pirates searching for the Fountain of Youth, it became the basis for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
41. The Graveyard of the Atlantic
Sometimes the monster is the sea itself. Or at least, a perilous stretch of it where ships seems to disappear. This term generally refers to a particularly treacherous stretch of ocean off the shores of the Carolina. But horror writer Tim Curran turns it into a terrifying alternate dimension where the waters roil with unfathomable horrors — think Bermuda Triangle with shades of Stephen King’s The Mist.
Dive into: Tim Curran’s chilling novel Dead Sea gives us Lovecraftian horror crossed with a survivor-at-sea tale, the likes of Robinson Crusoe or Life of Pi. The crew of an old freighter gets trapped in the so-called Graveyard of the Atlantic, a nightmare-realm where time stands still and the air is choked by a dense, sentient fog. Who knows what greater horrors lurk behind it?
Love magical creatures and want some turf with your surf? Check out this post for an all-terrain round-up of fantastic beasts.