One way is to create a brand new word out of a collection of syllables you like. This is what a stereotypical high fantasy story contains, with everyone having long polysyllabic names filled with x’s and j’s. Sometimes the results are evocative, other times not.
At the other end of the scale, you could call the creatures by a name that already exists, such as declaring that everyone calls these 90ft rabbits ‘hares’. This means that the reader already knows the word and is familiar with its connotations; if there are a dozen weird races running around, all with strange names, the reader will never forget that the ‘hares’ are the giant rabbit ones. Then again, connotations aren’t always good, and may just clutter up the story; 90ft rabbits are less intimidating if they remind you of bad ‘hare’ puns every time they appear.
There are three threatening types of creatures in today’s story. The first are the toves, arm-length carapaced beasties. They crawl out of some higher dimension into a space station or spaceship and proceed to nest. They can eat almost anything, and when they find a secluded spot they begin to breed. These are fairly easy to kill, and cheshires (I’ll get to them in a moment) just gobble them up. But if their population exceeds a certain threshold, they weaken the fabric of reality around them sufficiently that a rath can appear.
Raths are much hardier. Their armor is thicker and their only weak point is at the back of the neck; a cheshire has to be lucky to face one of these things and live. But ultimately they can be dealt with. The problem comes if the raths start to breed and multiply until a bandersnatch can crawl into the physical realm. At that point you have to abandon ship or station immediately; there is nothing you can do against a bandersnatch.
As you can see, the creatures’ names from this story are being drawn from Lewis Carroll, and I think the names used are a neat idea. Their common source means the names all fit well with each other. (This is more of a problem than you might realise; to quote a Rinkworks article, Do you see nothing wrong with having two characters from the same small isolated village being named “Tim Umber” and “Belthusalanthalus al’Grinsok”?) Yet they also don’t have many connotations. Raths and toves and bandersnatches are not described in the poem at all*, and I can’t think of any other writers memorably using raths and toves, so I as a reader don’t have any connotations either. To me they’re the right level of blank slate on which to create a new fiendish breed of monster.
I associate bandersnatches with sentient trees, but that’s because I read Larry Niven in my formative years.
Anyway, the story is about Irizarry and his cheshire called Mongoose. This is neither a cat nor a mongoose, but a serpentine creature that can sense and fight raths and toves. Irizarry wears Mongoose draped around his neck, and their relationship reminds me of people who use snakes as service animals to warn them of imminent seizures. And as soon as they step onto Kadath station Mongoose begins tracing signs on Irizarry’s chest to warn that he smells the presence of toves.
Irizarry goes to investigate and finds in the recesses of the station an enormous colony of toves; enough that Mongoose detects there is not just one rath here, but several. Irizarry is terrified that a bandersnatch has already appeared and is determined to leave, but the station’s political officer convinces him to stay and use Mongoose to deal with the infestation.
As you might expect, what follows is a nicely claustrophobic adventure through alien-infested corridors. The progression of toves to raths to bandersnatches adds this systematic logic that really strengthens the world-building even though so little is actually explained, and it adds up to an effective environment of impending doom. I must confess I wasn’t too fond of the political officer (there was too much of a disconnect between how everyone else sees her and how she actually appears, and she’s mainly there for conversational exposition), but otherwise this is an enjoyable tale.
*Admittedly there’s a scene in Through the Looking Glass where Humpty Dumpty describes what the first verse of Jabberwocky means, and that reveals that a rath is “a sort of green pig” and toves are badger/lizard/corkscrew hybrids. But I’ve never imagined them as such, and the explanation left much less of a mark on me than the original poem. After all, it also says that ‘brillig’ means ‘about four o’clock in the afternoon’, which is far less dank and forboding than the ‘brillig’ I imagine in the poem.
Mongoose by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear
Availability: free online, print
Word count: 8,400
First published: Lovecraft Unbound, edited by Ellen Datlow, 2009, Dark Horse Books
Where to find it: It is online at Clarksworld magazine here
The Year’s Best SF and Fantasy 2010, edited by Rich Horton, 2010, Prime Books
New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, edited by Paula Guran, 2011, Prime Books
In Space No One Can Hear You Scream, edited by Hank Davis, 2013, Baen