Know Your Monsters

at-stakeEdward J. Ingebretsen is one of the most intelligent analysts of monsters about. That may seem like a small order, but it’s not—many people write about monsters, and Ingebretsen is one to whom attention is owed. At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Popular Culture is not an easy book to read. Narratively sophisticated, it takes on some issues we’d rather not have addressed. One of the great myths about monsters is that they’re all for fun. The current understanding of monsters gives the lie to that worn adage. Monsters tell us something extremely troubling about ourselves and we don’t like to have someone pointing it out. When hearing that some of the monsters considered are Jeffrey Dahmer and Susan Smith, the prospective reader might wrongly assume why. The monster may not be whom one expects. Indeed, Bill Clinton makes his way into the discussion, as do Andrew Cunanan, O. J. Simpson, and Matthew Shepard. Be not quick to judge, however; you must pay attention.

As most writers on monsters recognize, religion often fuels them. Without belief monsters have no power to scare. We’ve probably all seen horror films that underscore this point. If a creature is unbelievable it loses its ability to be frightening. The movie invariably ends up in the B category and is appropriated for laughs or for an example of how not to make a film. Ingebretsen knows that to understand monsters we must understand ourselves. We too often allow unspoken prejudices (which are sometimes nevertheless shouted aloud) to inform our opinions of what is deviant or evil. Just look to Washington and see if you can disagree. The more we tease these monsters apart, the less they conform to expectations.

As implicated by his title, a great deal is at stake in coming to grips with monsters. They aren’t just for childhood Saturday afternoons anymore. It may be that they are one of the healthiest means for dealing with the steady stream of fear flowing from the District of Columbia. Without our metaphors, we are lost. Those set on destroying monsters have no concept of just how terribly helpful they are. You can’t be sure who the beast is, they are so very protean. They will, however, get you through some dark nights. Not without scars, but wiser, if a touch more melancholy, in dawn’s cold light. Take monsters seriously. It’s the only way to survive them.

Made of Clay

golemInvestigating a new field, at least on an academic level, involves a little disorientation. Part of this derives from the fact that academics didn’t use to write about monsters. Another part of it, however, is that those who do such writing have been doing so while my attention was elsewhere. It’s not easy to learn dead languages reasonably well. I didn’t pay much mind to the golem, being as it is, a “modern” monster. Probably responding to early modern pogroms, the golem was considered a defender of persecuted Jews. He was, however, a mindless defender. Made of animated clay, the golem was brought to life by magic and could only be killed in the same kind. Maya Barzilai has written a masterful account of how this monster relates to war. Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters explores how modern golem stories (and there are many) tend to relate to situations of conflict.

I had read about the golem before, and had trouble locating many academic resources on the creature. Barzilai demonstrates how much there is to ponder. It seemed, prior to reading her book, that the golem was mostly obscure, but it turns out that many writers, artists, and filmmakers have appropriated the clay giant over the years. Those who trace the history of comic books suggest that Superman was originally a kind of golem figure. I hadn’t realized that the golem had his own short-lived comic book series. When a people are persecuted repeatedly, having a secret weapon may not seem a bad thing. But the golem is difficult to control. It rampages. It can kill the innocent. Barzilai raises the question of whether a people with an unstoppable weapon are ever justified in using violence.

That question hangs pregnantly over the present day. The rich white men that run this country feel that they’ve been oppressed. Not willing to admit that it’s morally reprehensible to treat women as objects (they’re “hosts,” we’re told), blacks as inferiors, or hispanics as illegal, they bluster away about family values that aren’t consistent with anything other than threatening those who are “different” into submission. And yes, the Jews are among those these white men scorn. I wonder where the golems have gone. It could be that, like those of us self-identified as pacifists, that those who know how to make golems simply can’t justify violence. Barzilai didn’t intend for this in her book, I’m sure. Still, each new era brings new perspectives to these monsters made of clay.

Come Forth

the_lazarus_effect_2015_film_posterHorror movies provide a strange consolation at times such as this. When evil has overtaken democracy, it’s almost like strategy, watching how fictional characters deal with things that are wrong, things that are too close to real life. The Lazarus Effect has been on my watch list since the last sane presidential administration, but need finally dictated that I watch it. The premise is clear from the title—Lazarus is universally known as the dead man who came back to life. A group of medical researchers at a university in California find a way, through direct stimulation of the brain, to bring dead animals back to life. The idea is that they will give surgeons more time to resuscitate critical patients if they can get the formula right so that it works on people. An evil corporation steals their discovery and they have just a few hours to replicate the experiment to prove they are the ones who perfected it. Predictably one of them (Zoe) dies and her fiancé brings her back to life. Mayhem ensues.

Those who’ve seen Pet Sematary will find many similar ideas covered here. Those who come back from the dead are somehow distorted versions of their former selves. Those who do the resurrecting end up dead at the hands of the modern-day Lazaruses. There’s not much unexpected here except that Zoe, a Catholic, ends up in Hell. There’s quite a bit of talk about religion versus science—what really happens when you die. Zoe, despite being a practicing Catholic, has never been forgiven for her childhood sin of setting a fire that killed some neighbors in the apartment building. Religion and horror sharing the screen is something fairly common, but it is seldom as forthright as it is here.

Resurrection—necessarily a religious concept—is a frightening prospect. Horror films have shown many times that this is a miracle that just shouldn’t happen. At least not on this plane. (Those who’ve watched Re-animator know how bad the consequences could be.) Scientists, generally unbelievers in the cinematic world, just can’t accept either an afterlife or death. Using technology to challenge a godless fate, they inevitably end up losing. So it is in The Lazarus Effect. Some biblical scholars have suggested John’s rendition of the story is a kind of biblical horror tale. I mean, Lazarus had been dead four days in the warm climes of the Holy Land. His resurrection seems to have ended up well, however. Then again, there is an inherent difference between science and religion. Neither one, however, is now really in charge.

Animal Ways

nightofanimalsNoah’s Ark has a way of showing up in many literary forms. Familiar to many from Genesis, it actually predates the Good Book by hundreds of years. On the backside, it keeps recurring in literature as diverse as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love, and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It also shows up in Bill Broun’s debut novel Night of the Animals. Set in a future that’s becoming present faster than Broun likely anticipated, the story revolves around an addict who hears animal voices. The story stubbornly refuses to let you get any grip on a slippery reality, so the reader’s left guessing even at the end. In the 2050s Britain is under a fascist regime that seeks to keep the wealthy happy and everyone else servile. (Keep reminding yourself this was written before 11/9.)

Cuthbert, the protagonist, believes the animals—most of which are extinct in the wild—are calling him to release them from the London zoo. As an addict his perception of reality is constantly in question. His sense of mission, however, is not. One of the stranger elements in the tale (and that’s saying something!) is the revival of Heaven’s Gate. This cult, instead of wiping itself out, has gone international. The approach of a comet sets the Neuters (as they’re called) on a mission to wipe out earth’s remaining animals. Many of them are in the London zoo, which brings Heaven’s Gate into direct conflict with Cuthbert, who is busy trying to release as many talking animals as possible. London literally becomes a zoo and Heaven’s Gate openly attempts a coup.

All of this sounds wild and fantasy-prone, but like 1984, fiction sometimes peers deeper into reality than science. Is it science fiction? It’s set in the future, but it’s difficult to say. What has all this to do with Noah’s Ark? The novel itself draws the parallel—the zoo that preserves the last of their kind is, by default, an ark. The Ark. Floating on a world-ocean of irrational turmoil where might (read wealth) makes right after all. Religious imagery interlards the story. Cuthbert becomes St. Cuthbert. His possible granddaughter (the reader is never sure) manifests as the Christ of the Otters. There’s even a kind of Second Coming. This is a novel that feels like altered reality. That illusion is given the lie when you close the book and turn on the news.

Hidden History

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History involves perspective. We sometimes forget that. I was alive when human beings first reached the moon, so maybe I’m a bit blasé about what a great technological accomplishment that was. Down here on earth we were still having trouble with the human rights thing—still are, incredibly. Working in my own silo I hadn’t heard of Hidden Figures and wouldn’t have gone to see it if my wife hadn’t suggested it. It’s hard to be reminded of the world into which I was born and how terribly backward it was. For all my conservative upbringing we were never racists. Of the two African American guys I remember attending my elementary school, I was proud to call both of them friends. I could see no reason not to think of them as friends. We lived in the same town and had the same basic needs. I had no idea the struggles they really faced.

Although offering social commentary, gently coating it with humor, Hidden Figures follows the story of three mathematicians who made America’s participation in the space race possible. Moreover, they were all women. African American women. Brilliant, but unequal under the law. I was glad for the darkened theater as I couldn’t keep my eyes dry thinking of the terrible backward step we’ve taken since November. This nation has never been fair to African Americans and police statistics bear that out. Given equal opportunity, I can’t help but think of what me might accomplish. How this nation could support a bigot for the highest office in the land I can’t compute. It sets the clock back before I was born. We wouldn’t be where we are not without shining examples of humanity like Barack Obama.

We are fighting for the future. Over the past few weeks every few days I’ve been attending marches, rallies, and political meetings. I’ve been signing petitions until my clicking finger is numb. I wish there were more that I could do. The blatant racist, sexist maneuvers by Mitch McConnell should stand out as a mark of shame on all who claim the name American. Silencing Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter by Coretta Scott King regarding Jeff Sessions. When our children’s children look back on this age they will rightly wonder how people who’ve been privileged all their lives could turn their backs on progress in the name of racial insecurity. And how Mr. McConnell could’ve had the appallingly bad taste to do so during Black History Month. History involves perspective.

Theoretically Speaking

lit-theory-vsiI’ve been brushing up on my literary theory. All writing tends to get classified as fact or fiction, and we don’t stop to think, generally, about what “literature” is. Those of us who write fiction and non know that a well-placed hyperbole might throw us from one camp into the other. Such is the power of rhetoric. So it was that I found myself reading Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Witty and insightful, Culler acknowledges the elephant in the room for many of us—theory, in a literary context, is often impenetrable. I’ve often wondered what one had to do to be considered a theorist, and this little book actually addresses that. Nobody has time to read all the theorists, though, and come up with their own creative things to say. Chose your poison.

The Bible, of course, is literature. That’s one reason I was reading Culler. I found one of his assertions immediately applicable: people in nineteenth-century England saw literature as a unifying principle. The British Empire encompassed the world, and to make diverse peoples a part of it, literature might be used, they thought, to do the trick. Culler suggests that it might have been a substitute for religion, which, he notes, was no longer holding society together. This gave me pause. Religion—at least official religion—began as social glue. The earliest recorded religions were state sponsored and served to cast the monarch in the role of the special appointee of the gods. There’s no arguing with that, right? Elaborate, expensive temples were erected. Financed by tax-payers’ dollars. This worked fine since priests declared the rule of the king as sanctioned by the gods. Nations warring against each other were thought of as rival gods fighting.

When science began to take the universe literally, religion lost its stickiness. How do you hold a society together when the gods no longer exist? You see, scientists didn’t think out the whole picture in advance. Scientists, like most academics, work in silos (that’s a metaphor). The discovery of a scientific truth can dissolve a social epoxy quite efficiently. Recognizing the slippage in the British Empire, theorists (I suppose that’s who noted such things) considered literature the great uniting force of a diverse people. We’re kind of facing that same dilemma today as literature is becoming, for many, as irrelevant as religion was a century-and-a-half ago. At the same time, people don’t understand science well enough to assess it for themselves. What are we supposed to do? Is there a theorist in the house?

An Anatomy of Lies

I had an email from Mike Pence. Mike Pence doesn’t know me from Adam, but if he met me he surely wouldn’t like me. His email tried to explain, in tottering logic, why he voted for Betsy DeVos. When I finished wiping the vomit from my mouth, I began to think about someone America needs again: Mark Twain. I’d just been reading about some of Twain’s classics and I recalled his famous quip (which he attributed to Disraeli): “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” We now live in an era so surreal that it requires a fourth kind of lie: alternative facts. Government communications are full of them. Not one word from the White House can be trusted with the common decency that you’d attribute to a Boy Scout innocently helping an elderly person across the street. One hand is held out for you to shake while the other is picking your pocket.

The volume of the lies has grown louder. I’m sorry Nigel Tufnel, but this amplifier goes up to twelve. Some time back I blogged about the overuse of superlatives. When everything’s the ultimate, nothing’s the ultimate. We need a new anatomy of lies to apply to our Addamsesque government. Since the only people who believe in Hell are the ones who elected Hell’s own party to the White House, you can’t even tell them where to go any more. There was a day when telling someone to go to Hell brought real consternation. These days all you have to do is buy a ticket to the District of Columbia. People listened to Mark Twain. Here was an educated southerner who told the truth, no matter how fictionalized. Truth no longer exists, and I should just get over it. Problem is, the country I was born in now only supports the rich and I can’t afford to live in a cardboard box.

We all know what a lie is. If we’re honest we’ll all admit to telling one once in a while. All humans do. Damned lies are those we used to condemn. The exegesis of the word “damned” these days is perhaps euphemistic for “good for government.” Statistics, as 99 percent of people know, are made up. Then come “alternative facts.” Even after being called out repeatedly for making things up, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, and now even Mike Pence, continue to rationalize their own reality.

Mr. Clemens, what do you call fabricated detritus so filthy that “lie” is hardly adequate to make an impact in its dense, brown verbiage? The kind of thing we might expect from an individual incapable of distinguishing truth from fantasy? Don’t take it personally, Mike, but I’ve assigned you to my SPAM list. You’ve just been made an alternative fact in my personal reality. How’d you even get my email address? Mark Twain may have been a pen name, but his fiction was fact. He was a man ahead of his time.

Image source: Qwertyxp2000, Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Qwertyxp2000, Wikimedia Commons