The beasts in I, Frankenstein, the heroes (mostly) in the 90s animated series, the living stone Constable Downspout from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. But this is actually a relatively new monster: an often-winged demonic-looking creature that is strongly associated with rock and tends to perch high on rooftops like a sedimentary Batman.
I think it’s especially noteworthy that all three of these works take place in city centers, and if they’re not outright urban fantasy, they’re close enough to it to wave hello.
That might be part of the reason behind the rise of gargoyles-as-monsters in the modern day– for the first time in history, we have a whole lot of buildings very close to one another that are extremely tall, (thanks to the invention of the modern elevator that made taller buildings practical).
The modern take on monstrous gargoyles dates back to the 1930s, with movies like Maker of Gargoyles and The Horn of Vapula (both from 1932).
Before then, European gargoyles were architectural details, meant to act as decorative rain spouts to keep water from damaging the mortar and masonry of the building (statues that weren’t water spouts were known as grotesques). They were often a chance for stonemasons to get creative, and so they’d often look like animals, people (often ridiculously exaggerated to make fun of them) or inside jokes.
One story about the “origin” of gargoyles is of the dragon La Gargouille that attacked the town of Rouen in 600 AD. It was defeated by a travelling priest, but when the creature’s head and neck didn’t burn to ash with the rest of the body, the locals nailed it to the church as a warning to other evil creatures. Other origin stories speak of Celts who harnessed the powers of animals they had hunted by hanging them on the outer walls of their towns to “attract luck and repel evil”.
Repelling evil is the common thread across much of the gargoyle folklore: all their grotesqueness is meant to frighten away evil, and protect the people inside (or, sometimes, to frighten the people inside into behaving themselves).
So what about writing gargoyles as monsters? Really, that’s up to you. You can draw from the stories that have been written in the last ninety years, or you can give your own spin on our old architectural guardians. But as you write, here’s some ideas to play with:
- What do they look like? Are they animalistic, draconic, humanoid, demonic?
- Are they natural creatures, or are they constructs brought to life by some kind of magic or technology?
- What is their relationship to stone? Are they made of stone, do they turn into it, do they simply resemble it, do they eat it?
- Are they protectors and guardians? Are they the remains of defeated enemies used as a warning to others?
- Why do they stay on the tops of buildings– do they fly, are they fast climbers, are they trapped there against their will? Did they get put up there so they’d fall to their deaths if they suddenly woke up?
- What do they eat? Pigeons? People? Rocks?
- If you’re dealing with modern fantasy, how would they be affected by things like light pollution, noise pollution, smog, acid rain, and other issues that would be a lot more prevalent in the 21st century than in the 6th century?
There’s a lot to think about, and a lot of room to play. So have at it, and have fun!