Scandalous Monsters

1.  Monsters are, of course, ridiculous.  The exception is the monster that scares you.  That’s terrifying.  That’s a nightmare.

2.  “One of these days,” I said, “I’d love to do an anthology of monster stories.  I even have the title:  Creature!  With an exclamation point.  It would cover the last three decades of monster fiction; from where King stops in Danse Macabre.”  I laughed.  “One of these days.”

“I really think you should do it,” Paul said.

“Nah,” I said.  “You should.  In fact, go ahead, it’s yours.  If you want, I’ll help.”

“Why don’t you do it, and I’ll help?”

“You should do it.”

“It’s your idea.”

“I’m giving it to you.  It’s fine.”

“We should do it.  I’ll do all the work.”

Like Fred and Ginger, people, or Bogey and the French guy at the end of Casablanca.

3.  Ask my students:  I’m a big fan not just of definitions, but of etymology.  Go to the online Oxford Dictionaries, and you’ll find that the word monster derives from “late Middle English: from Old French monstre, from Latin monstrum ‘portent or monster’, from monere ‘warn’” (Oxford).  The monster is a sign, a warning.  Of what, right?  Check Umberto Eco’s On Ugliness and you’ll learn that the monster historically was taken as a sign of the divine, an instance of God or the gods intervening in the world, exercising their prerogative to mold creation as they saw fit.  The arbitrary nature of such a thing fundamentally goes against Modernity-writ-large’s trend towards systemization, predictability, towards a universe in which even the gods obey the laws of science.  It’s not merely that we discover that the world works in ways we hadn’t understood; traumatic as that might be, there’s the possibility of adjusting to those new ways, of adapting.  With the appearance of the monster, we realize that the world is to some degree permanently beyond our understanding.

4.  Does the monster always have to be a single creature in order to remain a (true) monster?  If you move to a group of a particular monster, then you have a species, which is to say, something that’s susceptible to taxonomy, to being systematized and thus understood as a type.  Dracula is a vampire, defined and thus bound by certain rules which allow us to comprehend and respond to him.  Frankenstein’s monster, on the other hand, is his own thing.  (Though what would have happened had he succeeded in forcing Victor to create his mate?  Would he have moved from monster to progenitor of a new line of beings?)  There have been successive Godzillas, but never, as far as I know, two alive in the same film.  (Think King Kong, the Rhedosaurus, Ymir, the original Alien, the Thing.  Think the Beast in the fairy tale, in the Disney musical, for God’s sake.)  Is the true monster always singular, and is that why the response to its threat is usually some kind of magic weapon, something equally singular (so to speak)?

(I know, I know:  what is a vampire if not a monster?  How are you using this word, Langan?  Maybe I should replace it with “The Thing Without a Name,” Stephen King’s term for the fourth card in his tarot set of horror archetypes.  [The vampire, the werewolf, and the ghost constitute the others—go read Danse Macabre if you want to know more.]  Except, most of these things have a name—to some degree, they’re indistinguishable from their name.  So I guess I’m going to stick with monster, but I hear your concerns.)

5.  In the background, Godzilla’s Revenge (1969—Japanese title Godzilla, Minilla, Gabara:  All Monsters on Parade [thanks, Wikipedia!]) is playing on the TV.  Minilla is not doing very well against Gabara, whose roar is a kind of barking laugh.  “Remember this summer,” I’m saying to my younger son, “when we had our Ray Harryhausen fest.”

“Uh-huh,” he says.

“We watched—what?  The Black Scorpion—well, that was Willis O’ Brien.  So was King Kong and Son of Kong.  Harryhausen was Jason and the ArgonautsThe Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.”

“That one with the dinosaurs,” David says.  “The weird one, with the cowboys.”

The Valley of Gwangi.”

“Yeah, that was weird.”

“And 20 Million Miles to Earth.  With the monster from Venus, that attacks Rome.”

“How did they kill that one?” David asks.

“I think they shot it off the top of the Coliseum or something.  Kind of like King Kong.”

“Yeah.”

On the TV, Godzilla is treating Gabara to a blast of his atomic breath.  “I love these movies,” I say to David.  “When I was your age, these were my favorite films.”  I pause, momentarily unsure of my assertion.  We’ve been on a Star Wars kick, lately, and I’ve been reminded of what a profound part of my childhood those movies were.  No, it’s true.  “Yeah, I loved these movies more than any others,” I say.  It is among the most honest things I’ve said to my son.

6.  Although it’s become a, if not the, go-to piece for discussing subjects such as monsters (and horror narratives in general), Freud’s 1919 essay, “Das Unheimlich,” is not really that useful.  A good part of the reason for this is his staking his theory of how the supernatural functions in literature to the German word “unheimlich,” which everyone translates “uncanny” but which really means “unhomely.”  I submit that there’s a broad gulf between those two words.  The German encourages Freud to develop a model of supernatural literature in which something we used to know but then rejected comes back to us, trailing our old affection behind it.  It’s another version of the return of the repressed.

Focus on the English term, though, and you find yourself heading in different directions.  The online Oxford Dictionaries lists related definitions of the “un” prefix:  when “added to adjectives, participles, and their derivatives,” it may either “(denote) the absence of a quality or state,” mean “not,” or indicate “the reverse of” what it precedes, “(usually with an implication of approval or disapproval, or with another special connotation)” (Oxford).  As for canny, it hails from Northern England and Scotland, where its original derivation from the infinitive “to can,” or to know (think “to ken”), is present in its meaning “having or showing shrewdness and good judgment, especially in money or business matters” and, somewhat more obscurely, in its sense of “pleasant; nice” (Oxford).  To be canny is not just to know the world, but to know how to move through it effectively.  Put the Oxford definitions together, and you have that which does not fit our ways of knowing, that which does not move through the world smoothly, a sticking point, not just a stone in our passway, but a boulder.  The monster is not that which we used to know and/or love and have grown estranged from; it’s the recalcitrance of the world, the obdurateness of existence, that skunk in Lowell’s poem that will not scare.

7.  Monsters are full of energy.  The second time Victor Frankenstein sees the monster he abandoned shortly after its awakening, it is racing across a glacier towards him.  In fact, it pursues him relentlessly, and at the end of the narrative, after his death, it’s off running, again.  (Suck it, Branagh adaptation.)  Whatever you throw at Godzilla, which is to say, pretty much the entire modern military arsenal (including, in Eric Powell’s recent comic, the nuclear weapon we always knew they’d have to try against the Big G, eventually), as well as a number of science fictional devices, he keeps coming.  So does Mama Gorgo, right through the heart of London.  Barker’s Rawhead Rex tears up the English countryside.  These are creatures of excess, bursting with so much vitality it’s really no trouble believing they’ll be back for any number of subsequent adventures.  It’s much harder to accept that they might die and remain dead, might cease their movement.

8.  It’s a critical commonplace to read the monster as the Other, especially if we’re in possession of some biographical information about the monster’s creator that allows us to transform monster into metaphor, to read the beast as symptom of a psychopathology.  It’s also been commonplace for certain horror writers to declare themselves less interested in made up monsters than the human monster (you know who you are).  They’re flip sides of the same coin, the monster as mirror/the mirror as monster.  What about the monster that can’t be bought with such a coin?  What about the thing that is neither the Other or the Self, but Other?  The thing that menaces the Fellowship of the Ring at the entrance to the Mines of Moria—what about that?

9.  The epigraph to my next collection, Technicolor and Other Revelations, due out from Hippocampus Press later this year, is from King’s Salem’s Lot:  “Understand death?  Sure.  That was when the monsters got you.”  Amen, brother, amen.  (There are a lot of monsters in the book’s stories.)

10.  The sadness, the outright pathos, of some monsters.  The fierce joy of others.  The ambivalence that attaches to them.  Frankenstein’s monster, murdering Elizabeth as revenge for Frankenstein’s refusal to finish creating his companion.  King Kong, raging against the biplanes that shot him off the top of the Empire State.  The xenomorph toy my parents bought for my younger brother—it must have been Christmas of 1979.  It stood about two feet high.  At the rear of its long head, there was a lever you could squeeze that caused its jaws to part and its second jaws to extend.  The top of its head was covered with a tinted plastic shield that could be removed in order to saturate the glow in the dark stickers set along its length.  Replace the shield, turn out the lights, and you would see the faint, green glow seeming to come from someplace deep inside the toy.  What were my parents thinking, buying that thing for my brother, who would have been seven?  I used to lie in the top bunk of our bunk bed, watching the toy where my brother had left it on the floor, next to the closet, or on his desk.  It was by far the worst, the most frightening figure either of us had.  I could not stop looking at it.

A few years ago, my mother found the toy in her basement.  She wiped the dust off it, put it in the bag, and brought it over for my younger son.  He loves it.

For Fiona

John Langan’s second collection, Technicolor and Other Revelations, is forthcoming from Hippocampus Press. He is the author of a novel, House of Windows (Night Shade 2009), and collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (Prime 2008). His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and in anthologies including Ghosts by Gaslight (Harper Collins 2011), Blood and Other Cravings (Tor 2011), and Supernatural Noir (Dark Horse 2011). With Paul Tremblay, he has co-edited Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters (Prime 2011). He lives in upstate New York with his wife, son, and that xenomorph toy.

2 replies to “Scandalous Monsters

  1. Pingback: Other Things: The 12 Days of Monsters Celebration Comes to an End | Ann and Jeff VanderMeer | Weird Fiction Review

  2. I think that each paragraph with its own little mini topic. If the topic is about to changes, immediately press Enter/Return and start a new paragraph. It’s exactly like an essay.