Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Here be monsters

In the wake of the hysteria surrounding vampires and the never-ending obsession with zombies in popular culture, and to a lesser extent werewolves, I've been rather fascinated by the other monsters that I feel have been somewhat ignored. While the rest of the world tries to decide whether it prefers blood-sucking, lycanthropy or good old fashioned flesh-eating, I've been sat here championing the cause of mummies. Look at the all-powerful Imhotep when he's been fully revived at the end of The Mummy. Who would you rather have, a sparkly disco vamp with possessiveness issues, a moody werewolf who has a worse time of the month than you, a shambling rotting corpse who is truly more interested in your brains than your beauty, or an immortal sorceror from Ancient Egypt? Ooh toughie. (N.B. I feel compelled to exempt Carrie Clevenger's Xan Marcelles and Sam Adamson's Northern Vampire from my comments, as they're both ace)

I actually wrote a mummy story a while ago. True, No Flash is more of a vehicle for my pent-up rage regarding tourists and the fancy cameras they don't even know how to work, but it still stars a mummy. Naturally my fascination with ghosts and spectres knows no bounds, particularly due to my fondness for a particularly dashing Cavalier known as Fowlis Westerby, but I'm not averse to writing corpse brides either. A few weeks ago I decided to resurrect the skeleton from the B-Movie Monster graveyard, while changelings got in on the act soon after. I finally dipped my toe in the waters of science fiction with Evolution, and I think it was at this point that I suddenly realised what I was doing. I was exploring the idea of monsters.

Humans have had monsters for thousands of years. True, those of the cavemen were probably not as imaginative as the Minotaur or the Hydra, but they would be monsters nonetheless. Classical mythology is rife with monster stories, and when you think about it, Lucifer has provided an entire religion with a boogeyman for centuries. We have monsters to justify our fears, but also to create a sense of control. Abandoned buildings can be unsafe, particularly at night, so what better way to keep people out than to install a wandering ghoul who will eat your soul if you venture inside? And how many children have been told that a monster (usually of their parents invention) will get them if they don't do what they're told?

Monsters make excellent metaphors, too. Vampires are often made to stand in for the dangers of illicit passion, while zombies represent the power and threat of the mindless mass. An entire sub-genre grew up around the fear of Communism in 1950s Hollywood, with the best example by far being the 1954 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. No one watching the film can possibly forget what sector of society the Pod People are intended to represent. It says a lot about the engulfing fear of the time that later versions feel neutered and sterile by comparison - indeed, the fear has not been successfully transposed onto another enemy.

In a lot of ways, monsters represent a particular facet of Sigmund Freud's theory of the uncanny. Freud talks about many principles which engender uncanny feelings in a person, but the one relevant to monsters is that of the so-called "return of the repressed". Rather, a person forces their fears, guilt and doubts into their unconscious through repeated acts of repression, but rather than staying there, these feelings return to plague the person. In many ways it is a form of paranoia, in that the person projects these feelings into the space around them (see Robert Wise's The Haunting for a masterclass in this) but in the case of the monster film or story, these feelings take corporeal form in the shape of the monster that plagues them. I took that incredibly literally in Calling All Skeletons, when the past actions of an aspiring politician come back to bite him in the ass, but writers and artists have been dealing with this for years. Some call it karma - I call it uncanny.

Over to you. What kinds of monsters do you enjoy writing, or reading about? And more importantly...why?

18 comments:

Jen Brubacher said...

This is terrific. I'd considered vampires as lust and zombies as a mindless mass but I hadn't thought to put that to other monsters. I admit I haven't seen Body Snatchers so I had to look up what it might mean, but I want to see it now.

Monsters I like best? Those who think they're doing the right thing. Not sure what movie monster that would translate as, but to me they're terrifying and great to write.

Movie monster that scared me most? Pennywise, or other clowns. Clowns. *shudder* They represent a lie.

Coda Napeland said...

What about the shambling, undead, indiscriminate killers of promiscuous teenagers? I guess they serve as a deterrent to sex, drugs and underage drinking. LOL

Love the article, Icy!

Jason Coggins said...

Ghouls! Bring back ghouls I say ... the last time I think this forgotten class of cannibalistic beasties were given a mainstream outing was in the 80's movie: Creepshow. I think our familiarity with the Big Three Creature Features has defanged them of their "uncanny". We need a new era of monster and I reckon Mummies are to be the new Zombies any day now ... with you leading the charge of course.

Heath said...

Nice essay, very insightful. And I agree re mummies, I've always found them compelling "monsters". Problem is, there aren't many great mummy stories, aside from the first in the Universal series and the first in the Hammer series, I'm hard pressed to think of many.I'm going to go read No Flash now.

Rebecca Clare Smith said...

Fantastic post, Icy. I remember being told that vampires were supposed to be about rape more than just illicit passion. It wouldn't surprise me if that was how it started, anyway. Personally, my very favourite monster is humanity and the decisions they make, but that trips into nearly all of the paranormal being categories (with the exception of zombies in most cases). It's the fight between the beast and the human conscience (or the id and the ego to go back to Freud). That said, I do have a penchant for necromancers. Raising the dead and talking to ghosts? Can't get enough of it.

And as far as projecting fears onto objects goes, when I was much much younger I used to be terrified of my bookcase, but only when the lights went out. I had the weirdest idea that it was going to eat me. Perhaps that was a sign that I was always going to be devoured by books. ;)

afullnessinbrevity said...

Cool essay post, Icy. I've never been one to read monster stories and hadn't made the associations with psychoanalysis and Freud, so I've learned something new. Many thanks.
Is this a part of your PhD research/thinking?
Adam B @revhappiness

John Wiswell said...

I considerably prefer vampires as metaphor for night itself. All our fears and hesitations, rational and irrational, and many desires. They've been slutted up in recent decades, largely with dreadful results. I finally forced myself to write a vampire short story just to see if I could make biters I wanted to read about anymore. Mine were pretty horrific.

My current novel is almost exclusively about monsters and creatures. A cyclops, dwarf giant, homunculus, manticore, succubae, imps, ghouls, faeries and will-o-the-wisps (as kitchen staff), centaurs and giant spiders. Few are mere metaphor, though thy do tend to possess many human traits. Bias of their author, no doubt. I chose most of them because they fit the world I was building, and because they weren't being used so much in what I was reading. But I can't help having a few foil us - for our 'inhumanity,' or our habit of getting arbitrarily stuck in unhappiness. Mostly the fun was putting them all together and getting real characters to emerge out of the batter.

Mari said...

I agree wholeheartedly with you that monsters are culturally important. They are, as you said repressed fears and subconscious issues not dealt with, and they show up rather frequently in my dreams (and nightmares). I have vampires, werewolves, something that could look like a werewolf but is not, unseen monsters that try to break in my house and when they succeed I wake up, and even zombies, especially when I myself became an undead. (;P)

As to my writing, your post reflects my feelings perfectly. See my good-hearted trolls, for instance. I am, however, particularly fond of the good old werewolves, but I'm still cooking their stories in my brain. They'll show up in my novel (when I get back to it, that is) and there's a flash I'm working on that is featuring a pretty nasty one. Said WIP will feature many other monsters we don't usually see in modern fiction. (no cyclops though, so far, Mr. Ogre :P)

Icy Sedgwick said...

Jen - I think you'll REALLY like the 1950s Body Snatchers. It's by far the best version. And clowns are just wrong.

Coda - Yep, the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees were paraded around to punish the "bad" youngsters, while the virtuous good girls escaped their clutches and went on to save the day.

Jason - I've actually got an idea for a novel that involves ghouls but it's finding the time to write it...

Heath - Mummies have the added attraction of being Egyptian, so they're otherworldly through their association with the culture, yet somehow rooted in the world in a way that vampires aren't. Plus they're badass.

Rebecca - I think when Stoker wrote Dracula, the concern was about unbridled sensuality in young women, and what might happen if it wasn't checked, but it's all still the same - vampires = naughty nookie! (There's a tagline Twilight should use)

Adam - This is just scratching the surface of my PhD research. I'm mostly concerned with the uncanny and the haunted space but if I can get some monsters in there, then I will!

John - Monsters as characters in and of themselves is totally fine though - look at Monsters, Inc.! (Love that film) If they fit your world, use them. And more things need to have homunculi in them beyond Hellboy.

Mari - I don't think cultures can actually operate WITHOUT monsters. They're as integral to society as heroes and villains.

Laura Eno said...

Ah, mummies...I've been thinking about them lately. Great insights here, Icy!
I love monsters but I'm afraid mine usually turn into ghoulish humor.

Tony Noland said...

I like aliens, particularly when their capabilities and motivations are unknown. I love the tension of trying to figure out why they're doing whatever it is they are up to. Other than "eat us all".

Rosie Lane said...

I love monsters in fiction, very muchly, especially when the monster is sympathetic while still being a monster (as opposed to, you know, sparkly and stuff). I remember crying as a teenage reader when I found out why the monster in The Watchers by Dean Koontz was tearing out people's eyes.

I've written shorts about sirens that get in trouble for practicing after hours and teenage banshees that have to pass their scream exam before starting work. The current big scary book project that's about to go out to query is about a gorgon who's decided that the world owes her more than life in a cave waiting for a granite jawed hero to come and cut her head off. She puts on dark glasses and a headscarf and moves into a small town. It all goes well until she falls in love...

Icy Sedgwick said...

Laura - There's always plenty of room for humour!

Tony - Ooh good one, I forgot aliens.

Rosie - I did a short about Medusa once. It's always difficult to date when you turn men to stone.

Nerine Dorman said...

Mmm, indirectly mummies were responsible for the creation of my Inkarna. Vampires are fine. They can be killed and they don't come back. But what if your enemy isn't just a powerful magician, but keeps reincarnating unless you have the secret for destroying all his immortal souls?

Chris said...

I like BIG monsters. Like Godzilla, King Kong, etc. The kind that makes cities break out the military, all that stuff.

Carrie said...

Hi Icy, thanks for the name-drop, and I appear to be late to the party. I love two monsters: ghosts and mummies. Anne Rice did an interesting yet traditional mummy in Ramses the Damned, which I enjoyed greatly.
And then there's the excellently fun Mummy movies. Sigh, Brandon Fraser.

nobody said...

"Over to you. What kinds of monsters do you enjoy writing, or reading about? And more importantly...why?"

I prefer fictional monsters I can relate to. That means I want them charming and good, but they have a bad side to their enemies. To have the ability to Do Very Bad Things... satisfies my revenge oriented nature born by pain.

It expresses the paradox for me... it is a type of curse to have. One has a type of curse to have anger issues from bad things having happened to them.

Emma Newman said...

I'm with you on the Mummy (as in film) thing. I do have a soft spot for love through different incarnations, but I rarely admit to it. Great post. I wonder if these monsters have anything to do with the idea of Shadow in the Jungian sense of the word. I may have to go and re-read his stuff on that...

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