[10 October 2011]
If you love monster tales as much as I do, then you know that most of their narratives are written from the perspective of their victims and enemies. Think of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The ferocious Count is mostly a rumor, a shadow and a terror in the night whose history is slowly divulged to us through a series of journals, newspaper accounts, correspondence and even telegraphic communiqués. Part of the fun of reading Dracula is that it feels like you rifling an archive and piecing together the story.
Perhaps the reason that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a better, and simply more pleasurable, read is that she masterfully found ways to let us hear the monster’s experiences from the monster himself. Although the central conceit of the book is that we are hearing a second-hand version of Victor’s narrative, the Creature gets his voice heard. Moreover, you can make a good argument that it is Victor, Dr. Frankenstein, who is the true monster of the tale.
Christopher Golden titillates our desire to see the world through the monsters eyes in his new collection The Monster’s Corner. As the example of Shelley shows, this has been done plenty of times before (think the entire Anne Rice vampire mythos) but this is a more than welcome inclusion into the literature of sympathy for the devil.
Horror fans know well Golden’s previous work. He’s the author of The Myth Hunter and maybe best known as Mike Mignola’s co-author for the Baltimore novel. He also has shown himself a capable hunter/gatherer of the best horror writing out there in his previous zombie collection The New Dead. Somewhat disappointing here, he did not include any of his own original work and so all we get from Golden is a short introduction.
The idea of seeing a variety of monster tales through the eyes of the monster sometimes enables us to experience stories we know well in an entirely different, and indeed more terrifying, way. The best example of this is Sarah Pinborough’s absolutely chilling “The Screaming Room”. This is the story for you if you’ve ever wondered what its really like to have snakes for hair. We discover from Medusa’s experience that sometimes a monster doesn’t know it’s a monster or that’s its horrific deeds are brutal. We also learn, in a series of images that will stay with you longer than any other story in the book, that human flesh doesn’t turn to stone all at once. Think about what that means, on an isolated island, in the ruins of a place, with a monster who doesn’t know she’s a monster.
There’s even a bit of comedy here and there. This doesn’t always work with these stories but where it really does is in Gary A. Braunbeck’s “And Still you Wonder Why Our First Impulse is to Kill You”. This is a tribute to the trans-dimensional terrors of H. P. Lovecraft, various creatures of myth and to Braunbeck’s own off-kilter imagination. It’s presented as a manifesto penned by one of the Damaged Ones, those humans monsters have chosen to be their servants, or in this case scribes. It’s both deeply dark and totally hilarious with more in-jokes about monster literature and film than even the most devout horror nerd will likely be able to get.
A couple of the finest, and strangest, of the stories don’t exactly fit the template but I’m glad they’re here, anyway. Lauren Groff ‘s contribution “Rue” is a story of child snatching that has us guessing about who the monster really is. It’s a dark, but lyrical, narrative in which the monster is made a monster by the desperate need to establish human connection in a police state rife with informants and surveillance.
Jonathan Maberry explores the consciousness of “St. John”, a sort of monster made so by a combination of vicious brutalization and fanatical religious ecstasies. Maberry takes this character and plops him down in the middle of an apocalypse of viral infection in which uber-disease strains have ravaged the human race and caused an utter breakdown of the ties of society and sentiment. Nobody does apocalypse like Maberry and, as with much of his work, this becomes a story in which little signs of hope (all with the darkest of shadings) blossom on the ruined and wasted landscape.
Some of your monstrous favorites get newly imagined universes here, as well. Fan favorite Kevin J. Anderson had the best of these. His tale takes Frankenstein’s monster and allows him to survive into the ‘30s where he becomes a tailor in the Jewish quarter of Ingolstadt. Anderson deftly introduces the legend of the Golem as Nazi persecution of the community threatens the fragile peace that “Franck” has managed to make with the world. Other than Anderson’s rather brilliant idea to turn the Monster sewn from parts of corpses of the dead into a tailor, I especially liked how he knowingly blended the tradition of Universal Studios horror with elements of Shelley’s novel.
Another story in this collection well-worth highlighting is David Liss’ “The Awkward Age”. Liss takes an unpromising topic (middle aged male sexuality) and turns it into a lethal little tale of a teenage Lolita that’s not exactly a Lolita at all. In fact, as she makes clear to everyone who will listen, she’s a ghoul—not a goth, not a faux vampire or a Twilight fan but a straight up ghoul who consumes flesh… but also feeds on disillusion. Her rather empty-headed male target finds plenty of both in the story’s conclusion. It’s a pretty terrifying visit to the mind of the predatory monster and Liss draws us in to his bizarre tale of seduction and corpse eating.
Sadly, there are some low points. I’m afraid I couldn’t find much joy in Simon R. Greene’s “Jesus and Satan Go Jogging in the Desert”. The idea of hearing the Devil’s side of the story is a good one, so good that writers of the caliber of Mark Twain have explored the idea and managed some broad-gauge satire and philosophical insight from it. Greene’s story attempts humor, too, but mostly fails, degenerating into verbal slapstick and a cringe-inducing use of the story of the temptation in the wilderness. It never rises to the level of decent blasphemy and feels at moments like a lesson from a Sunday School teacher attempting to be hip (not the author’s intent, I’m sure). It’s saved a bit by a brief introduction of Lilith and some good Jesus/Mary Magdalene humor.
Loving monster tales means, in part, loving the monster, even desiring to understand them just a bit better. There are plenty of horror anthologies out there and plenty of good ones. But this one deserves your attention, both for the useful conceit it employs and for the high quality of the majority of the contributions. Get in the monsters’ corner and hear their side of the story.