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Friday Freewrite: Monsters in Literature

05/08/2011

Whew, sorry for the hiatus! Rest assured that I’ve been devouring book after book to deliver you some tasty reviews for your end-of-summer enjoyment. (And really, it’s already nearing the end of summer? Weird…)

One book in particular made me stop and recall an assignment I had in my English 1100 class at Lakeland (if you’re going there, take it with Dr. Soto-Schwartz — you will love her or hate her, but if you open your mind you will definitely learn something), about exploring the concept of the “monster” in literature. Certainly we encounter creatures universally recognized as monsters — Moby Dick, Voldemort and the dementors of Azkaban, the Big Bad Wolf — but what about the ones who look like us? After all, even Tom Riddle was an attractive and charismatic boy before the rending of his soul played out across his physique.

Those are the interesting monsters, seemingly normal human beings who carry dark and twisted secrets beneath the surface: fetishes of violent eroticism, control and slow, torturous destruction mark them as different, other. Some instinctively shy away from those stories, afraid to look below the surface…fear of the unknown, or even of seeing one’s own dark side mirrored in a fictional character who suddenly becomes all too real. Since our universe thrives on balance there are also those who find themselves drawn to those stories — those for whom a simple fairy tale is not enough, those who need to face the darkness with a clear and steady gaze, to deconstruct it and thereby understand it.

Alice Sebold, for one, is not shy about forcing the reader to confront the monster: in Lucky, her rapist; in The Lovely Bones, a seemingly harmless recluse who builds a trap to murder an unsuspecting girl; and in The Almost Moon, a daughter who kills her mother. (Note: I have only read The Lovely Bones and cannot critique the other two more fully in this respect; however, any basic synopsis of the two will support my assertion here.) Part of the draw of this type of story, unlike the crime drama that leads to the perpetrator’s apprehension, is that it scours the depths of the evil or deranged mind, insisting by its very existence that we not turn away from the uncomfortable or downright terrifying parts of literature…or of life.

I didn’t fully appreciate this assignment when I had to do it. We read stories like Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”, and then we had to write a paper about a “monster” in a book or short story outside of the assigned reading. Of course I wrote the paper, but in my naive attempt to step back into the light I focused on my favorite Wicked Witch, Elphaba — not truly a monster, though she is believed to be by some. I wrote about how she was misunderstood, about the secret guilt she carried around with her and how she was not so much a “monster” as an example of “no good deed goes unpunished.” I think I was more prepared at 14 and 15 to confront the bogeyman than I was at 18.

Now, though, I’m read to step back into the darkness, to stare down the monsters and understand them, to accept them without trying to rehabilitate them. My latest read, Brandi Lynn Ryder’s debut novel In Malice, Quite Close, is another chilling masterpiece that puts the reader face-to-face with the deepest, darkest parts of the human soul. A review is pending for publication on Luxury Reading, after which of course I will share it with you, but for the first time in awhile I feel like a review may not be enough.

Because of that, I am going to rewrite my original college assignment; this time, though, I will take it seriously and I will not embark on a crusade to find redemption where there is none. This can technically be considered my introduction, and I am excited to share the finished product with you. In the meantime, just remember: the most disturbing monsters aren’t the ones we can imagine, but the ones who walk among us every day.

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2 comments

  1. Of course I am looking forward to reading your thoughts, since I address this topic regularly in my Science/Horror Fiction class. In fact last year we addressed the ideas of society’s “true” monsters when we discussed the novel and film Let the RIght One In (both excellent, by the way). School-aged bullies who are mean simply for meanness’ sake are much more horrifying than vampires who MUST feed on others in order to survive. Richard Matheson raised a similar point in the original story, I Am Legend.


    • That’s a great reference, and because you know me you know that I have a tab open looking for Let the Right One In already. I agree with your point about “monsters” who are merely performing a survival function, rather than relishing their infliction of horror in any way.

      Another interesting concept to me, which is becoming even more evident as I continue outlining In Malice, Quite Close, is that sometimes the monster’s supposed victim is actually complicit in committing monstrosities — not merely accepting circumstances or falling victim to Stockholm Syndrome, but actually embracing the darkness to achieve one’s own ends or to escape from a greater threat, either real or perceived. It’s somewhat different from the question of “Who’s the real monster here?” as brought up in I Am Legend, but I think both extensions of the concept are essential to a more complete understanding of it.

      I’m jealous, by the way, of your Science/Horror Fiction class. It isn’t fair that I had to wait until college to have access to specialized courses. You should have them read Usher’s Passing by Robert McCammon — it’s not an easy book to find, but it’s definitely worth the discussions it would prompt!



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