Hal Duncan’s Favorite Monster

As part of our Favorite Monsters feature that we ran for our “12 Days of Monsters” last month, we polled various writers to see who their favorite monsters were and why. One of those writers was Hal Duncan. His debut Vellum was published in 2005, garnering nominations for the Crawford, Locus, BFS and World Fantasy Award, and winning the Gaylactic Spectrum, Kurd Lasswitz and Tähtivaeltaja. He’s since published the sequel Ink, the novella “Escape from Hell!”, various short stories, and a poetry collection, Songs for the Devil and Death. His latest release is the chapbook, “The A‑Z of the Fantastic City,” available from Small Beer Press.

The following is an extension of the piece Duncan wrote for the Favorite Monsters feature, an in-depth analysis of Frankenstein’s Monster as a being forced to embody the “Wrongness” imposed upon it by those who find it monstrous. We’re publishing this essay as a companion piece to the first installment of S.J. Chambers’s monthly column, “Wandering Spirits: Traveling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” - The Editors


I have to go with a classic, Frankenstein’s monster, because Shelley’s creature doesn’t just exemplify monstrosity, it interrogates it. What makes it visually monstrous is not a matter of cheap gimmickry. Shelley doesn’t just snatch features from the animal world that naturally freak us out — mandibles, pincers, horns, tentacles, slime, so on — doesn’t just push buttons to disturb us with undercurrents of sex and power a la Stoker. I think it’s an awesome move to have the monster explicitly created from components that are all beautiful and right in and of themselves; they just don’t fit together *proportionally*. It founds monstrosity on almost a pure abstraction of Order Transgressed. Which cuts to the core of it for me.

I should say here that I reckon monstrosity is something one can nail down in quite precise lit-crit terms (comparable to Delany’s rooting of the fantastic in a “could not happen” subjunctivity level) as that which “must not be”; and with the utmost monstrum that means it invokes both the boulomaic “must not” of emotional judgement and the deontic “must not” of ethical judgement. What makes Shelley’s monster special for me is that it’s a brilliant critique of the conflation of these two, a study of how pure aesthetics leads to emotional revulsion which becomes ethical condemnation. It’s asymmetry, imbalance, disruption of pattern, deviance from normativity — that’s what makes the creature something people look at and recoil from, with an abhorrence so visceral they can’t overcome it. And it’s really this and only this rejection of the creature as Other that, in damning it to a dehumanised existence bereft of empathy from others, leads to its reciprocal rejection of empathy *for* others. It’s demonisation in all senses of the term. The poor bastard is only accepting the role imposed on it.

It may be a queer perspective thing, but I have way more time for such an approach than for any story simply conjuring a monstrum to be dreaded for its Wrongness. It’s all very well for Stoker’s Dracula, say, to tap into our fear and disgust, make a more compelling monster, but I can’t help but see how his work uses the rhetoric and imagery of anti-semitism, how creating his monster relies on exploiting a human tendency to abjection that I find far more monstrous than any bloodsucker. Or to take another example, Simmons’s Kali is a more powerful monster to me — or actually, and maybe more interestingly, Simmons’s *Calcutta* is a more powerful monster, I should say — but what makes The Song of Kali most compelling is exactly what I find *deeply* dubious vis-a-vis what it says as regards race and culture.

But as I see it, Shelley’s creature is deconstructing that process of abjection over a century before either concept — deconstruction or abjection — was even articulated. It stands for every abject, every individual with some marker of deviance that renders them Other, non-normative, abnormal, aberrant and therefore abhorrent. It exposes this perennial folly wherein the emotional “must not” slides all too easily over into the ethical “must not,” and disgust at some transgression of a perceived “Natural Order” becomes moralistic vilification on grounds of pure prejudice.

I think Shelley peels back the layers wonderfully. I’ve always read the nested narrative structure as deliberate reminder of subjectivity, of unreliability, ironising Victor’s protestations that we should not be taken in by the creature’s sneaky self-justifications, its facility with argument. Like inarguable conspiracy theory thinking that takes a denial of intrigue as an example of intrigue, this is the inarguable illogic of abjection, in which simply mounting an ethical defense is a demonstration of one’s wickedness. As I recall, the monster’s linguistic facility is explicitly equated with the subtlety of the serpent in Eden; the better he argues, Frankenstein insists, the more he is to be distrusted. Which is a classic aspect of the unreason of pure prejudice. Once you’re a hate figure, to simply stand up for yourself is to have a pernicious “agenda”; you’re clearly out to corrode values, convert the innocent, erode the fabric of society with your Wrongness, whether it be miscegenation, homosexuality or whatever. To my mind, we’re meant to see through Victor’s self-delusion here, see through the monstrosity he’s projected on it, to the real horror in the tragedy: that it’s doomed by the effects of the gaze to become the monster it’s seen as. And that’s what puts Shelley’s monster up there, for me, with some of the greatest figures in literature, even if I find monsters more horrific.

2 replies to “Hal Duncan’s Favorite Monster

  1. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 4/24/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  2. If one considers that the monster is only a figment of Victor’s fevered imagination (as Victor may only be a figment of Walton’s) then the structure of the work is really five parts from one mind (Walton’s); Walton1: Victor1: Creature: Victor2: Walton2. The work then has a structure similar to Dante’s descent into hell with the center of the work, the narrative of the Creature, the deepest part and the most murky & unreliable. I would not it discount Mary Shelley’s attempt to do this rather than writing the work in a pure linear fashion she creates something like a descent into hell that then spreads its narrative poison to the rest of the world. And that is an event far more monstrous than the mere creation of an artificial man.