Squishy Monsters for Boys: Antique Beasts in Modern Horror
Horror and Science Fiction share a lot of the same territory. Sometimes even the writers are confused as to which genre something fits in – a scenario made worse by the recent re-labeling trend in publishing meant to expand the reading market. But one of the most pronounced issues we share with Science Fiction is the forward trajectory of science that dates and debunks the many mythologies that were available to early writers in both genres.
One area of Horror that was unceremoniously affected were the subclass of monsters now lumped under the term “Lovecraftian” but which are more directly related to ancient mythologies of the Greeks and Romans. These are the monsters of the old Drive-Ins, the movies of the 1940’s and 50’s, the pulp magazines. These monsters are leviathans; creepy, gelatinous, scaly masses of drool and slime…the infamous squishy monsters of prepubescent boys They are classics, and they are being given the cold shoulder by most contemporary writers of Horror fiction. Is it because we think of them in antiquated terms? Has the continuing growth spurts in technology made us too erudite to grant them believability? Is their fictional intrusion upon our world just too trite and impossible? Or are we too afraid of them or afraid of what others would think if we write them?
For Horror writers, the monsters abruptly went from the spectral and gothic variety to Lovecraft and a movement toward use of the scientific and the concept of “scientism.” According to China Mieville in his introduction to The Modern Library Edition of At the Mountains of Madness, this embrace of the rise of technology resulted in the revolutionary “[embedding] of Horror in material reality” that would change the genre forever. This included a change in monster anatomy and folk history – specifically the temporary abandonment of “traditional monsters” like the Vampire and the Wolf Man (which had significant folk roots) to the creation of nightmarish creatures and a “literary proliferation of the tentacle – a limb type largely missing from western mythology” (Mieville xiv). This twentieth century re-conceptualizing of monsters had a strong foundation in what was happening in the world of technology, and blurred the lines between Horror and what was to become Science Fiction in a permanent way. While Horror revels in the dark moods enmeshed in superstition, it became necessary to move that lens into some version of the modern world or risk losing its audience the way fairy tales were depreciated by the fact of human advancements.
One has to argue that they had a good run; genre history is littered with the remains of their rampages. But what effect has the continuing growth of technology had on these monsters? Are we now too sophisticated for tentacles and scales? Are they just a fleeting memory on old movie posters – a collection of silly scares and impossible threats?
Technology has rendered many old scares impotent. We’ve convinced ourselves that there can be no monster in Loch Ness, that Zombies are just Voodoo misunderstood, that the only way a terrifying beast can magically “appear” on earth is if we in our technological greatness can make one (Jurassic Park) or it crashes here from Outer Space (Skyline, Monsters, Invasion, Cloverfield, etc.). We believe ourselves to be beyond those primitive fears that caused us to embrace fire and then electricity. We brazenly snicker at those we deem superstitious, but will not walk in an unlit field. We hide behind the illusion of our own technological prowess, reassuring ourselves that we cannot be scared by monsters seen in the likes of 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s fiction. We do it fully armed with the latest in weaponry and an atheistic fatalism. We do it believing that we can handle those scenarios with our collective genius, forgetting that at the core of things we are a skittish herd of humanity prone to mental flights of fancy. There are no such things as monsters or ghosts, and we are in control. It is almost as though we are afraid of creating new monsters based on the old because we don’t want to appear dated, and out of touch with the “realities” of technological illusions we find comforting.
Yet of all the monsters fondly remembered and fully embraced – these interim beasts that breached the watery gulf between mythic folklore and reality which were created by writers like Lovecraft – have continued to capture the imagination and perpetuate in both writing and art under cover of tribute. Memorial anthologies abound, and movie monsters tend to live in stills; monsters with tentacles and scales tend to roam the imagined earth. Does this mean that monsters made in the Lovecraftian tradition have as much of a future in Horror as Vampires and Zombies? Or are they somehow second-class unless they are written in tribute to authors of old?The answer would seem to be yes – there is a place of sorts – given the current resurrection of so many recent movies involving Greek Mythology. But it may also be true that these antique monsters may be permanently and forcibly relegated to the subgenres of Horror…a kind of basement storage area frequented by collectors of the macabre – a passionate and somewhat exclusive fandom who know their monster history. This may mean that such monsters surface only sporadically in tribute anthologies, or comics and graphic novels dedicated to their sustenance. Hollywood has – after all – traded them in for spindly aliens and sexy Vampires of late, if not for ghosts that are never seen and hand-held cameras that obscure storytelling and are christened with gloating words of praise like “innovative direction.” Only under cover of the ancient past do we unleash the Krakens.
But the amazing thing is the almost primordial connection of these antique monsters to Horror even in the face of technologically-inspired skepticism. These monsters have exhibited a curious and tenacious staying power which can only be attributed to their easy resonance with basic human fears. We call a lot of humanity monsters, a lot of human acts monstrous. Yet this is not what makes Horror horrific. It is the primitive connection that inspires the terror – that starts the panic in the deep recesses of the brain. In this area, monsters dominate and surpass their human counterparts. Humanity can be brought to justice and unspeakable acts contained. Monsters however, roam at will – tearing through the fabric of our sense of security and world order. They stalk us in mental and physical realms. They have roots as deep as our deepest fears. It’s why they emerged from the primordial ooze in the first place; and they have traction.
So why aren’t there more of these antique-style monsters emerging in modern fiction? Have we lost them to fancy and the world of collectibles?
Interestingly, it is the genre of Dark Fantasy that seems to be offering an island of salvation. Here Horror and Fantasy genres overlap, keeping each other afloat in the endangered monster department. Fairy tale characters rediscover their sinister origins, and monsters with one eye or thousands find a home. Fantasy artists in particular have embraced these monsters, tapping into the same dream-state that drove Lovecraft to write his nightmares down for the rest of us and spawn the New Age of Horror. This placement of our antique monsters into the Fantasy Genre indicates an important sea change of human nature: we will allow them if we can contain them in the “distant past.” But they must remain vanquished or exhibit a necessary vulnerability to us or our world... Strangely, it is no longer their world to inhabit.
Why this is provides an interesting commentary on human psychology. After all, Hollywood special effects can do anything…So why the shyness with creatures from the Lovecraftean soup? Hollywood does use them – disguised as space aliens, and occasionally as representatives of the demonic. But the average modern Horror film seems reluctant to pillage cities with tentacled monsters from the deep. Is it because grown-ups aren’t supposed to fear these kinds of monsters? Or that we simply aren’t supposed to admit it? We seem to want our monsters in carefully measured increments, emasculated by technology. It’s a lot like loving ghost stories – but only in daylight. We are avoiding a potent truth: monsters still scare, and it has less to do with special effects and more to do with what lies sleeping in leftover sections of our primitive human minds. This is why these monsters do better on the page than on the Big Screen.
The 2010 British release Monsters is a great example. Lobbed unceremoniously into the Science Fiction Genre, it could not be more about Horror. Its monsters are Lovecraftian immigrants from outer space, here to populate the earth with their kind, oblivious to humanity. They are perfectly executed by special effects, left to the imagination for most of the movie, ambiguous and sufficiently amorphous to whet the appetite for the tentacles and bio-luminesce that is eventually revealed. Yet the movie did not do particularly well. There is a distinct overtone emitting from Hollywood and movie audiences that we have somehow “outgrown” these types of monsters…That we want either messy romances or savage dining habits in our monsters, but no leviathans, no tentacles, no blobs.
I believe this is an incorrect assumption; we do not want vacant plots and vapid monsters. This means that writers and filmmakers have to dig a little deeper into monsterhood, making their presence relevant, not just coincidental in storylines. But I also believe that these monsters have greater dimension in our minds, and therefore in the world of written fiction. Not everything should be a movie. Why else has Hollywood ignored the works of Lovecraft? Because reinterpreting his monsters would be their undoing… They are what they are: soap bubbles with eyes, squid-faced gods, and bat-winged monstrosities. Maybe it is their semblance to our mental instabilities that make them hard to place outside of the page. Maybe it is our lack of backstory to provide them with a historical context. Maybe it is a prejudice against creatures with eyestalks. But they have been a part of human evolution from the time we slept in trees and feared being eaten alive. They have not left simply because we cannot or will not grant them conscious access.
This is where fiction and modern Horror come in. Times are hard in publishing. Yet times for Horror writers and pretty much any writers in general are historically hard. This is not an easy nor lucrative profession. But one of the biggest challenges to writers is finding new twists on old monsters. I say Lovecraft has been gone long enough. Let’s put our creative tentacles around these monstrosities from our primitive imaginations and find them a place in modern Horror. Let’s push some boundaries and scare some people. Let’s embrace some Fantasy artists and see what comes of the indiscretion. Those artists are out there right now – such as found on http://www.cgsociety.org/index.php/CGSHome/contactus, and http://www.webdesigncore.com/2010/05/28/21-scariest-examples-of-monster-digital-artworks/, creating phenomenal works on modern technological device – ironically using the same technology that vanquished the big monsters to the closets of antiquity in order to resurrect new, disturbing monsters of the mind. Let’s invite them into print. Maybe – just maybe – Lovecraft was onto something. Maybe whole pantheons of terror await, if only we will dig deep enough… I challenge you to scare something up. Something squishy and infallibly antique.