I was kind of excited to see that there is a reading list in both the 5th edition Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide. So, suppose you wanted to compile a reading list for a monsters manual. Inspirational reading for new monsters, stories with cool or interesting uses of monsters, and maybe sources for some of the established D&D monsters*. What should go in? Here’s a start. Suggestions welcome. The following books are all pretty good, and worth checking out.
Arrowsmith, Nancy, and George Moorse. The field guide to little people. An encyclopedia style guide, with somewhat creepy illustrations.
Barber, Ruchard. A companion to world mythology. A dictionary of mythology, with short entries and a ton of small illustrations. The illustrations generally try to mimic the style of the culture each entry is from, so that the Greek gods are illustrated in a Grecian style, and so on.
Barlowe, Wanye Douglas. Barlowe’s guide to extraterrestials and Barlowe’s guide to fantasy. Great color illustrations of characters and creatures from science fiction and fantasy novels, with a short summary that usually does not give away any spoilers. Each has a fold-out chart of all the subjects for size comparison, which is pretty cool.
Borges, J. The book of imaginary beings. Borges describes creatures from literature and fable, intermixed with some he’s made up, and others he re-imagined. If you liked Zak Smith’s re-imagining of the Fiend Folio and Monster Manuals**, you’ll also like this, I think. There is a really great illustrated edition, which I’d go with over the all-text edition.
Briggs, Katharine. The encyclopedia of fairies. Arranged like an encyclopedia with entries on topics and places, but this actually includes a lot of excerpts from folklore and entire stories, often in the local dialect or archaic English, this is probably more for scholars than general readers, despite the cover and marketing. But it’s worth perusing.
Cohen, Daniel. The encyclopedia of monsters. I read a lot of Cohen’s books as a kid, and this encyclopedia is a great introduction to his credulous style of writing about all manner of fantastic and cryptozoological creatures. Does he really believe in this stuff? Maybe. But he is careful to stick to his sources and makes no effort to hide some of the goofier aspects of these legends. This is one of the only books in this list I don’t actually own, but I am on the lookout for it when I go to library book sales.
Davidson, Avram. Adventures in unhistory. This a collection of essays looking at possible historical bases of various legends. Davidson’s incredible erudition and sharp humor make it a great read. He doesn’t talk a lot about monsters, but there are so many ideas here you will certainly find something useful. (I’m still on the hunt for a copy of this too, as the copy I read was a library loan).
D’Aularies, Ingrid and Edgar P. D’Aularies’ book of Trolls. The D’Aulaires really got me hooked on mythology as a kid and the book of trolls collects some Norwegian troll stories while also giving a sort of treatise on the habits and types of trolls.
Douglas, Adam. The beast within. A book on werewolves and lycanthropy, this one also includes some great material on the “Plinian races” and other near-humans from legend.
Lang, Andrew (ed.). The blue fairy book. (And The yellow fairy book, etc. — all of his Fairy books). Collected folklore and fairytales from all over the world, pretty much every page is a delight.
Petersen, Sandy. S. Petersen’s field guide to the creatures of the dreamlands. I tried to keep gaming books out of the list, and this is on the border but does not actually have any stats and has some great artwork. Bonus: you don’t have to plow through HPL’s often ponderous efforts to mimic Dunsany to find out about the incredible creatures he invented for the Dreamlands cycle.
Rossi, Matthew. Things that never were. One part research, one part wild speculation, this is kind of like the popular “Hite Report” that used to appear in the Pyramid Magazine, but for general readers rather than DMs. A lot of fun.
Sedgwick, Paulita. Mythological creatures. Another dictionary-style children’s book, notable for cool illustrations and engaging writing.
As far as recommending fiction, that’s another post, or series of posts, or honestly a project that really screams for crowdsourcing. But I’d add one book that probably isn’t shelved with the sci-fi and fantasy in your bookstore or library:
Eco, Umberto. Baudolino! A hiliarious riff on medieval travelogues and legends, the sections detailing the Plinian races and other wonders of the East is pure gold.
*A pretty good effort at this last topic was made by Aardy R. DeVarque here. Looking at the sources there for various monsters reminded me that striges in D&D probably were inspired by the Strix of Greek mythology, and perhaps their cave-dwelling (and indirectly their bat-like wings) come from Thomas Burnett Swann’s The day of the minotaur. Wouldn’t it be cool to produce an “annotated” AD&D Monster Manual with sources made explicit? And yeah for “cool” most people will read “intolerably nerdy,” but that’s how I think. Actually once I finish up some other projects already in the hopper, maybe a grand compilation of sources for AD&D monsters, spells, and magic items would be fun.
**No link, not sure how his site will be affected by the changes in Blogger, but you can Google it.