In my wonderful writers’ workshop last week someone said something very smart to me. He is a dark, bestubbled and sinister writer of gritty crime fiction, so of course we all call him Flower.
FLOWER: You really do like having monsters in the family, don’t you?
And I do. So I thought I’d babble about that.
I am talking about the grotesques, the green or grey or yellow-as-in-Frankenstein’s-monster skinned, something looking and feeling very different from a human. What are we supposed to do with those monsters?
In Shelley’s Frankenstein the answer was pretty simple. Humans couldn’t look upon the monsters without hate and fear, so the monsters had to go. Not only did the monster die, but any human who’d had significant contact with the monster had probably had it as well. It all started with the myth of the gorgon – nobody could look upon the monster’s face and live.
Recent books, however, suggest a very different way of dealing with Frankenstein’s monster…
First I will summarise these books, going as light as I can on spoilers, so people know what I’m talking about and also know whether I recommend them or not. Then I will babble about why monsters and monster/human relationships are so interesting and how they can work, and it will become clear that the book I really need to read is a self-help book nobody has written: Women Who Love Monsters Who Eat Women.
I will recommend anything by Margaret Mahy because she is a genius. Books like the Changeover and the Tricksters are among the very few kids’ fantasies I ever caught as a kid, and are probably a large part of the reason why I write what I write. She’s like Diana Wynne Jones – improbably, fantastically brilliant to such a degree that when I don’t like something she’s written I decide that it’s probably my own fault.
That said, I did really like Maddigan’s Fantasia. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world, not directly post-apocalyptic but in a time called the ‘Remaking’ following long Dark Ages after the catastrophe that destroyed most people and all geography, and focusing on a travelling circus called (you guessed it) Maddigan’s Fantasia. As in every Mahy book, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface – the importance of written words, human perception, the issue of whether we can or should bring back the dead, the paradox of time travel. To concentrate on the monsters, though: Garland Maddigan, heroine of the book and heiress to the Fantasia, encounters three children who claim to be time-travellers sent to make sure that power does not fall to the inhuman Nennog who rules their future world. Very good, typical quest story, and Garland can’t help noticing that the eldest of the three, Timon, is a golden-haired dead ringer for a fairytale prince.
This being a Mahy book, things are never that simple. The quest object isn’t an object at all, and Timon slowly turns into a scaly monster – partly because of the influence of the Nennog, but partly because of something within himself. Nobody besides Timon is ever this affected by the Nennog, not even the Evil Minions. He’s related to the Nennog, tipped to be his heir – there’s something in this fairytale prince’s blood that has the potential for monstrosity. Even when Timon is fully a monster, he’s very much his own monster, with his own agenda. And the heroine has to respond to him in a very different way than she would with a human, but also in a very different way than she would with an enemy…
I will read anything by Holly Black because Valiant gave me one of those moments when you feel as if the world is a tipped-up snow globe – you’re all alone under a secure dome, with quiet and glitter falling. Everyone else in the world is nonexistent and therefore ignored for the duration. Valiant would really fit into this monster discussion, too, but I will leave it because a) I fear I cannot discuss hot trolls with any sort of equilibrium and b) Ironside is new, excellent, and focuses on something quite different than the other books – a familial rather than romantic relationship with the monster. (Speaking of romance in Ironside – hot gay romance! I just mention this, in case it is of interest to anyone reading this livejournal. Hot gay romance in this book. Just putting it out there.)
Set in modern times with faeries living in secret in New Jersey and New York, our heroine is the monster of the tale. Kaye does have a romantic relationship, but it’s with another faery. The problem with Kaye’s monstrosity is that she’s a changeling, a black-eyed green-skinned alien being, living in a human family without their knowledge. It’s a brilliant reversal of adoption – how do you tell someone you’re not their child? – with added guilt and the alienation factor of adoption times about four billion. Kaye’s feelings about being a cuckoo in the nest were beautifully done. The most moving scene of the book, for me, was when Kaye told and showed her mother what she really was. And her mother reacted – well, the way she did.
I wouldn’t recommend everything by Clare Dunkle, but I might recommend this with some reservations. Set in (possibly, it’s not all that clear) Victorian times, a proper young lady called Kate has been sent to live with her elderly guardian by Hallow Hill, a place where young women have been disappearing for years. This turns out to be because goblins (who don’t breed all that well themselves and have to marry out sometimes) are snatching the women. And Marak, king of the goblins, chooses Kate for his bride.
Kate and Marak get married half-way through the book, and if Ironside is adoption times a billion this is cross-cultural marriage with a vengeance. Though Kate does end up offering herself to Marak for the price of her sister’s safety, traditional goblin courtship is obviously – in human terms – kidnap and rape. This is underlined in the harshest terms by the story of Marak’s first wife, who went insane during the marriage ceremony, faced with her grey-skinned groom. Marak was kind to his crazy wife according to the other goblins, but speaks of her with chilling contempt – ‘the fool’s mother had gone mad, and she was always waiting her turn.’ Yet Marak’s other choice is to risk not leaving an heir and dooming his own people.
The dilemma’s extremely interesting, and the chemistry between Kate and Marak is fantastic – great dialogue, funny but with a crackle of tension running through it – but the book kept taking the easy way out, and kept summarising things that I thought needed to be gone into in much greater depth. I liked the book but I did want more monstrous lovin’. Does that make me a deviant?
So – all right, the stage is set. The monster is at your window asking to be let in. The fairytale prince has just grown scales and is tied to a post like an animal, but he’s saved your life twice and he says he feels all the better for seeing you. Your daughter just dropped her mask to show her real, green face and what happened to the human child you must have had? The goblin king wants you to be his bride. What do you do next?
Well, at first all three books agree with Frankenstein. The monster is something to be very, very wary of indeed. Obviously the unfamiliar faces of the monsters are shocking and at first repulsive, so forget attraction: the alien beings of these books just do not have the Mysterious Sexual Allure that is used to facilitate human/nonhuman relationships in many books.
Also, these monsters do not have the Human Feelings on tap that most fictional monsters do: the ‘oh I hate myself, oh if I were only human again’ shtick – mostly because these monsters were never human, aside from Timon: and even he has always had this monstrous relative. In his first appearance in Maddigan’s Fantasia golden-haired fairytale Timon scares his little brother badly by saying ‘they’ll drip blood and leave echoes of people laughing.’ Hollow Kingdom’s Marak shows up in the book ready to kidnap Kate and take her down to the underworld like Pluto taking Persephone. The first time we see Kaye in Ironside, she admits that she doesn’t really know what human girls are like because she simply isn’t one and accuses herself of stealing another girl’s mother. The monster in these books is not sanitised: is not made human. There is real danger in opening that window.
So how do people write the monster as alien and shocking without sending the message: keep the window barred, go down to the storm cellar, never grant entry? If the monster is alien, how do we make it sympathetic without making it human? Well – there is one common theme of these books, and that is monstrous honesty. Humans lie all the time: everybody knows this. In Ironside faeries are incapable of lying – they can and do try to trick you, but none of them can tell lies. Kaye has to use her human friend Corny to tell direct lies to her mother. Marak points out the ridiculousness of civilised, social lying to Kate and her sister Emily on their first meeting. Timon does try to lie, to appear human, by wrapping his scaly hand in bandages. What reveals his scaly hand and his monstrosity is a moment of grace – when he saves Garland from drowning.
This is a form of alienness, of difference, that does not condemn the monster. When a monster tells you he loves you, you can believe him.
This is of very little consequence if the monster doesn’t love you, or you don’t love him. How to love monsters? Well… you can’t. Any more than you can love all humans: the point is that monsters (much like humans) come as individuals. Garland would be crazy to trust the Nennog, who is an Evil Overlord, or one of the robot men who pursue her. Kaye’s mother Ellen would be torn apart by most of the faerie court. Kate, in contrast, can trust most of the goblin court, but their loyalty to her is their loyalty to the King’s Wife – the magical door will not open for her, the magical snake will paralyse her if she tries to kill herself. The only one who grants her freedom is Marak, once she has shown she loves him and in order to prove he loves her.
Opening the window to a monster is an act of trust, then, and trust is achieved by knowing someone as an individual. That’s the answer: you can hardly be expected to look at a green/grey/sharp-toothed face and think ‘Oh, hey, they might be cool!’ Humans don’t work like that. But humans do know about individuals: we all know about learning to know and trust someone. That steady, simple process in these books is shown as trumping the recoil of fear every time.
Kaye tells her mother she is not human. Timon’s bandages come off. Marak puts his hood down. And the recoil of fear happens every time, very naturally. Ellen asks where the hell her human daughter went if she’s been replaced by a changeling and says ‘I don’t understand what you are.’ Garland tells Timon that she’ll kill him before she lets him hurt anyone. Kate goes running to her guardians and asks for help because a monster is after her. All according to the Frankenstein manual. Humans run, and the monster turns on them.
Only here’s a change. The monsters don’t turn on them. The human stops running. Kate goes to Marak and asks for his help to save her sister, and Marak helps her. Kaye goes and finds her mother’s biological human daughter and returns her, and Ellen’s reaction is to worry whether Kaye endangered herself getting the child back. She doesn’t understand what Kaye is, that remains true, but she says ‘You’re exactly who I think you are. You’re my girl.’ Similarly when Garland’s friend Boomer says ‘He’s awful. Leave him… He’s a monster and we don’t have to help monsters’ Garland responds with ‘We help Fantasia monsters.’ The monster has lived among them: the human knows this monster.
The Beauty and the Beast issue is always going to come up with the issue of monster/human relationships, and in Maddigan’s Fantasia Timon explicitly recalls it when chained to a post and addressing Garland. (Funnily enough, their relationship is far more overtly sexual when Timon is a scaly green monster than when he’s a fairytale prince. I don’t judge, Garland. I’ve got your back.) ‘I’m the Beast. You’re Beauty. It’s all a story, isn’t it?’ he asks. And Timon does indeed turn back into the fairytale prince, but it isn’t that simple. Obviously having the evil influence removed is a good thing, but changing back makes Timon scream with despair because at the moment he changes he’s holding onto Garland and she’s going to fall now that he’s simply human. His monstrous powers helped them all even while they made everyone nervous: his monstrous powers saved them all several times and is described as positive sometimes, such as when he gives off a strange light that plays at Garland’s feet ‘like an affectionate pet.’
With Marak and Kaye, there is no transformation possible. They are not human and never will be, and there is no need for them to be human. Near the end of The Hollow Kingdom Kate gives birth to Marak’s child, and has unconsciously influenced the child to have his father’s strange beige hair. ‘I thought you hated my hair’ Marak says to her: Kate answers ‘I do hate your hair. Oh, well. I suppose it made an impression.’ Near the end of Ironside Kaye and the human child whose place she took reach an uneasy alliance, both of them agreeing to teach the other about the world they grew up in, like people switched at birth into different cultures or the most drastic version imaginable of exchange students. At no point is the monstrous rejected or cast off. The monstrous is of value: the monster is a valuable and important individual.
I kind of wince as I say this. Because I don’t think love can solve everything. I think the fact that Love is Harry Potter’s Secret Weapon, for instance, is incredibly lame: show me an Evil Overlord and then give me a Magical Cattle Prod to defeat him, don’t tell me that the magical power of love will protect me. Love is not all you need. Sometimes you need cattle prods. But sometimes, in relationships rather than wars, dealing with someone very different but not quite an enemy, love is what you need.
In Jeanette Winterson’s Tanglewreck (another highly recommended fantasy) there is a scene where a human girl called Silver has to rescue her friend Gabriel from a black hole. (Gabriel, I might add, is not quite human: he is a large-eared, sensitive-eyed creature who lives underground and outside of time.) It’s a very, very tricky scene that could end up a big sentimental mess, but Winterson pulls it off because she’s a superstar: anyway, the long and short of it is that Silver throws a metaphysical rope to Gabriel that basically consists of the love and understanding between them, love which moves faster than light. Like I said, I think the scene would’ve been an absolute disaster in the hands of a less talented author, but I did like the idea of a rope between two people, made of love and understanding of each other as individuals. Such ropes could do a lot: could tie people together despite being very different, such ropes exist in the three books I’m talking about.
It’s a bit of a leap into the dark to open the window: to love the monster and hope the monster will love you back, but the other alternative – as spelled out in Frankenstein – is death: the death of human or monster, and often both. There’s been a progression in books – Annette Curtis Klause, for instance, had a human and a werewolf romantically involved in which the human was sickened and horrified by the reality of a werewolf, and he left and lived, but they were separated forever. The idea of monster and human coexisting was the only casualty, but it was a bittersweet ending. The possibility of human and inhuman interaction, of the exchange of love and other valuable things, was lost.
The next progression of monstrous literature lies in these books, where the leap is taken, where the rope is thrown and caught. Timon the monster leaped to save Garland not once but twice: Kaye’s mother called her back and knew her, not as her own kind, but as her own nonetheless.
Now, someone can either disagree with me violently, find me that book called Women Who Love Monsters Who Eat Women and enrol me in a self-help programme, or they can help me add to my stories of realistic monsters and their connections (or failure to connect) with humans. So far I’ve got:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones
Tithe by Holly Black
Valiant by Holly Black
Ironside by Holly Black
The Hollow Kingdom by Clare Dunkle
Close Kin by Clare Dunkle
In The Coils of the Snake by Clare Dunkle
Thirsty by M.T. Anderson
Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson
Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause
Maddigan’s Fantasia by Margaret Mahy.
The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw
The Hob’s Bargain by Patricia Briggs
Ecstasia and Primavera by Francesca Lia Block
Fire Rose by Mercedes Lackey
The Eagle and the Nightingale by Mercedes Lackey
Sunshine by Robin McKinley
The Darkangel Trilogy by Meredith Ann Pierce
The Woman Who Loved Reindeer by Meredith Ann Pierce
Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
Nightlife by Rob Thurman
Moonshine by Rob Thurman
Cloven Hooves by Megan Lindholm
Solstice Wood by Patricia McKillip
The Tower at Stony Wood by Patricia McKillip
The Lonely Sea Monster by Deanna Molinaru
The Great God Pan by Donna Jo Napoli
Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones
Owl in Love by Patrice Kindl
Little Sister by Kara Dalkey
The Heavenward Path by Kara Dalkey