From Our Staff | October 30, 2008
List of the Week: "Literary Monsters"
We asked the captain what course of action he proposed to take toward a beast so large, terrifying, and unpredictable. He hesitated to answer, and then said judiciously: “I think I shall praise it.”
–Robert Hass, epigram to Praise
Some of our oldest surviving narratives are tales of monsters. Tiamat, Leviathan, Polyphemus,Grendel: monsters feature again and again in texts recorded in the moments that civilizations transition from oral to literary culture. And it is fitting that monsters are there, helping to usher in literature as we know it. The word monster derives ultimately (after a sojourn through Old French) from a Latin verb meaning “to warn, to portend.” Monsters are signs. They are signifiers. They point out our anxieties and our desires. That is, they do what great literature does.
As a Halloween treat, then, we offer our own favorite literary and cinematic monsters, human and inhuman, who continue to linger at the fringes of our dreams (in no particular order).
1. Thomas Ripley
[amazonify]0393066339[/amazonify]I have a fondness for crooked souls: Humbert, Humbert, Heathcliff, Gilbert Osmond, Iago. But my favorite literary monster is Thomas Ripley, a small-time con artist and bisexual serial killer from Patricia Highsmith’s series of psychological thrillers. His seductive crimes ignite the reader’s imagination as he gives expression to our darkest fantasies. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom befriends and then kills Dickie, a spoiled, wealthy American living in Italy. Assuming his identity and his lifestyle, Tom outsmarts the Italian police at every turn while manipulating Dickie’s father who wants his son found and returned to the bosom of the family. The plot is a delightful cat and mouse game, with Tom more predator than prey. When a writer has a magic touch, she can make us care for and be on the side of a selfish, sociopathic killer. How does she do it? Read it and see. –Kris Somerville
2. Count Orlok
[amazonify]B000VUQ4HW[/amazonify]Cinematic vampires enjoy true eternity, preserved in celluloid. But the granddaddy of them all has to be Nosferatu. Max Schreck’s ratlike, cringing portrayal of Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau’s Dracula adaptation is the stuff nightmares are made of. With oily body language and glittering eyes, Schreck made himself appear utterly inhuman. Many modern viewers find silent films otherworldly and disturbing to begin with, but Nosferatu’s eerie, German Expressionist cinematography is specifically designed to psychologically unsettle audiences. 86 years on, this vampire’s embrace is still dreadfully effective. —J. Bowers
3. The Hound of the Baskervilles
[amazonify]0451528018[/amazonify]When the topic of this blog was announced during TMR’s weekly editorial meeting, my mind leapt instantly to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, the novella I’d just finished reading for a British literature course I’m currently enrolled in . The literary monster that comes to mind is, of course, the horrifying hellhound of the title, a creature that haunts the Baskerville line starting with Sir Hugo and ending with Sir Henry. Reading about Holmes and Watson’s investigation on the moor sent my mind into overdrive; I imagined the otherworldly beast with flames dripping from its fangs and eyes flashing red. However, I found that the hound was truly most terrifying in my imagination. For this course, which is about adaptation of literature for film, we watched the 2002 Masterpiece Theatre production of the novella, and the obviously computer-animated hound of this version was more laughable than frightening. As the CGI hound pursued Sir Henry on the moor, my classmates and I were overcome by fits of giggles rather than temors of terror. I suppose that goes to show you that sometimes, the scariest part of literary monsters is that they’re only as scary as we imagine them to be–once they are reimagined by others or depicted on the screen, the fear that comes with turning pages is somewhat diminished or entirely eliminated. –Brittany Barr
[amazonify]0140268863[/amazonify]A good old-fashioned literary monster of note is Scylla, most known for her appearance in Homer’s Odyssey. Through no fault of her own, only through her disinterest in a certain scaly sea god, and through the jealousies of an angry witch, she was transformed into a hideous beast. She entered a pool of water to bathe, a normal everyday activity, and emerged with a belt of angry puppy dog heads around her waist. She became another one of those misunderstood monsters that can’t help the way they are. It’s not her fault that her belt barks and eats passing sailors! She lies waiting along a channel with her buddy, Charybdis, catching wandering sailors as they go by, and all because of someone else’s unrequited love. –Nicole Walsh
The best literary monsters are the ones whose monstrosity is a miasma that creeps over you and lingers after the reading experience is long over. That’s because they’re more real than some of the classic “monster” figures. Dr. Frankenstein’s creature isn’t so scary. Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are. Ill-defined motives, the shadowy inclination toward doing harm, are particularly frightening to me personally. Read Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart, for instance. Is Eddie a monster? Is Anna? Both of them wreak harm on Portia, the young protagonist, and both are aware of it. Are they monsters? Yes-and no. They’re scary in part because their intent to do damage seems unfocused-a byproduct of their having adopted a certain lifestyle. What wouldn’t they do if it served their purposes? One is never quite sure.
[amazonify]0374515360[/amazonify]A more obvious monster but one whose impact lingers after the story ends is Flannery O’Connor’s mass-murder from “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The Misfit combines some of the overt monstrosity of a comic-book villain with the ambiguous motives of a realistic villain of psychological fiction. In the course of the story he slaughters an entire family-an innocent family that’s en route to a vacation spot. Of course, they’re not exactly a family of saints: the grandmother is vain and manipulative, the parents bland and dull and the children obnoxious. Still, do they need to be shot in cold blood? The Misfit’s stated motive is that they’ve recognized him as the criminal whose escape is being publicized by the media. But in the course of hearing the grandmother’s urgent plea for her life, tells her that he’s turned to evil because he was wrongly imprisoned, allegedly for the murder of his father. In response to the grandmother’s admonition to him to pray for Jesus’ help, he replies, “I don’t want no hep,” and a minute later tells her that, having rejected the option of goodness, he’s settled instead on evil: “. . . it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can-by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness. . . .”
Random acts of senseless violence are the Misfit’s brand of monstrosity, and I find it a little too real for comfort. –Evelyn Somers
[amazonify]0393978893[/amazonify]As I was overhearing you talk about literary monsters, I thought of one particularly complex, yet dastardly villain who seems to be driven to this point by love. Wuthering Heights is already remarkable in the fact that it has absolutely no redeemable characters in it whatsoever. Heathcliff, however, is the worst. He forces his stepbrother’s son to live in slavery. He declares everyone around him to be mentally incompetent to be in his presence. He drives the love of his life, Catherine into madness and eventual death. He also manipulates Edgar Linton every step of the way, so that he can help Catherine to cheat on her husband. He takes advantage of the stupidity of Isabella Linton so that he can produce an heir that will help him to acquire Thrushcross Grange. He also hates and abuses his son Linton Heathcliff at any chance that he can get, because the son is just as foolish as his mother. Heathcliff does all of these horrible atrocities while maintaining a sense of normalcy, as if everyone around him should just expect to be mistreated and devoid of any real human affection. I think what makes Heathcliff the most terrifying of villains is that he does all of this evil in the most mysterious and calculated ways and there is no basis or justification for his actions. Based on the facts of these abuses and the fact that he brings about tragedy and despair to everyone that he is around, there is no worse human being and no one who live with more misery in the world than Heathcliff. –Nick Woodbury
7. Boo Radley
[amazonify]0061120081[/amazonify]I have a fondness for the underdog, the downtrodden and misunderstood. That’s why my nominated monster turns out to be no monster at all. Boo Radley, the character in Lee Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird, was a recluse and mentally challenged man in 1930s Alabama. Scout and other kids in town thought Boo came out at night to eat cats and squirrels. Of course, we all know the ending to this classic: Boo saves the kids from revenge-minded Bob Ewell, the real monster of the narrative. –Richard Sowienski
8. Frankenstein’s Monster
[amazonify]0393964582[/amazonify]This monster, often simply refered to by its masters name, has shown up over and over in literature ever since Mary Shelly first revealed it to us. Dr. Frankenstein attempts to create a living human out of the pieces of the recently deceased, but fails in the end, instead unleashing a semi-human creature upon the world. Frankenstein is horrified over his creation and refuses to help it by making a second female one to be its companion, leading to a horrible series of attacks on his family and friends and a pursuit of the creature to the furthest reaches of the Earth. The critique of man’s obsession with himself and fear of anything too closely resembling him is timeless, as is this monster. –Nick Quijas
9. Miss Havisham
[amazonify]0393960692[/amazonify]Freshman year of high school, we were assigned to read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Ten years later, the mad and vengeful Miss Havisham still haunts me. I close my eyes, and there she is – a withered specter, wasting away in her yellowed wedding dress, wearing only one shoe, surrounded by the darkness and decay of a rotting mansion and a rank garden, overgrown with twisted weeds. Every clock in the house is stopped at twenty minutes to nine – the precise moment when she is jilted on her wedding day. And the wedding cake, now a festering pile of mold, cobwebs, and mice, still remains.
Miss Havisham is not a believable character. Dickens makes no pretensions to such a reality. Rather, he presents a surreal, drug-induced hallucination of excess and absurdity. Miss Havisham, the perpetual bride, who raises Estella to torment men and “break their hearts.” Fueled by an obsessive vengeance and cruelty, Miss Havisham destroys lives, not through violence, but like any great monster, through manipulation and emotional sabotage. –Eric Thomas
10. The Great Old Ones
[amazonify]1931082723[/amazonify]H.P. Lovecraft’s status as an American literary icon still feels tenuous, despite his recent induction into the Library of America. But he does deserve credit for one major contribution to literary horror: the Cthulhu mythos. Lovecraft created in his tales a new mythology of ancient, godlike entities, creatures whose names are as unpronounceable as their motives are incomprehensible: Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath, Nyarlathotep. These names surface in story after story in locked tomes and moldering manuscripts, tying them to Gothic tropes of the occult. But these are thoroughly modern monsters: creatures who come not from hell or mystical underworlds, but from dimensions outside of space and time. As often as not they are blind forces of nature, gargantuan, chaotic masses of flesh and energy, with minds completely inaccessible to human kind — if they have minds at all. They are truly deities for an age of nuclear weapons and quantum mechanics. Lovecraft’s monsters don’t symbolize any particular aspects of human nature. They signify the complete rejection of human nature. It is hardly surprising that many authors and filmmakers have continued to adapt and expand on Lovecraft’s monstrous pantheon of tentacled abominations and formless horrors. –Patrick Lane
Next week: From literature’s greatest monsters to its most memorable politicians…
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