Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Two

A Taxonomy of Monsters

Before science and reason, monsters were supernatural in origin, or they came from mythology and folklore. The nineteenth century gave us two new categories of monsters, the scientific monster and the real-life monster. If you want to play scientist, here is the beginning of a taxonomic scheme:

  1. The Supernatural Monster--Devil, demon, ghost, vampire, werewolf, ghoul, incubus, succubus, etc.
  2. The Mythological and Folkloric Monster--Giant, cyclops, dragon, kraken, ogre, troll, etc.
  3. The Scientific Monster--Man-made monster (e.g., Frankenstein's monster), mutant, space alien, invisible monster, interdimensional monster, android, robot, cryptozoological monster or cryptid, degenerate human, etc.
  4. The Real-Life Monster, explained and/or justified by science or pseudoscience--Psychopathic killer, totalitarian.

It's worth noting that many of the nineteenth century monsters date from about 1885 to the end of the century, mostly from the 1890s. That period coincides with the origins of our current popular culture, including movies, radio, pulp magazines (hence paperback books), newspaper comics (hence comic books), and UFOs (in the early form of airships). Science fiction predates the 1890s, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that H.G. Wells, in his novels of the 1890s and early 1900s, fathered twentieth century science fiction. (1, 2) If that's the case, then a good deal of our genre fiction also comes from the 1890s. All of that may or may not be significant. More to the point, the stereotype of the fin de siècle is that it was a period of ennui, pessimism, and thoughts of degeneration and decadence, exemplars of which included Oscar Wilde and French poets such as Paul Verlaine. But the 1890s were also a period of hope, confidence, and optimism, especially in the United States. (3, 4)

So in the 1890s, there were those who looked behind them and saw their own times as decadent, while others looked forward to new worlds made possible by science and the idea of progress. (5) Those two poles--past and future--each has its own literature of the fantastic, and each type of fantasy has its own monsters. The fantasy of the past includes high fantasy, horror, and weird fiction. Its monsters are supernatural, mythological, and folkloric. (6) The fantasy of the future is science fiction. The monsters of science fiction are of course scientific. If you include dystopian fiction with science fiction, then the totalitarian may also be a monster of that genre. And if past and future are the poles, then maybe science fantasy or low fantasy is located at the equator (or perhaps no closer to one pole than 49° 51′ South, 128° 34′ West, the location of R'lyeh). Fantasy and science fiction also meet in stories like House of Dark Shadows (1970), in which vampirism is explained as a kind of blood-borne illness. In any case, a survey of monsters of the twentieth century swings between those two poles, past and future, fantasy and science fiction. There is reason to believe that we have swung pretty widely to one side. We'll have to take that into account if we're going to figure out a monster for the twenty-first century. (7) 

The two real-life monsters about which I have written so much also came out of the nineteenth century, but they seem to have been real before they were imaginary (unless the Übermensch can be considered a prototypical totalitarian). I still haven't found a fictional totalitarian from before the rise of real-life totalitarians beginning in 1917. George Orwell's 1984 (1948) is probably the most well known depiction of the totalitarian in fiction, but it came well after we had encountered real-life monsters of that type. Likewise, I haven't found the first fictional portrayal of the psychopathic killer, certainly not one that predates Jack the Ripper, who carved up five women in 1888. I'm almost certain the pyschopath would have shown up in thrillers or detective stories of the 1800s. The character Svengali, from George du Maurier's 1895 novel Trilby, might be a psychopath, but I'm not sure he's a killer, as I have not read that book. Regardless, I'm open to suggestions. In the meantime, it's on to the twentieth century.

To be continued . . .

Notes
(1) Those novels include: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), The First Men in the Moon (1901), The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904), In the Days of the Comet (1906), and The War in the Air (1908). Wells also wrote fantasy and Utopian novels.
(2) I have been looking for the first fictional totalitarian, for it seems to me that authors of fiction would have anticipated the career of the first real-life totalitarian. Rodrigo Borges de Faveri has proposed Nietzsche's Übermensch from Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885, translated 1896) as the first or prototypical totalitarian, but that work is visionary or philosophical rather than fictional. I have read only a synopsis of When the Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells, but Ostrog--whose very name is like that of a monster--may be a totalitarian. Can anyone comment?
(3) In Europe, there seems to have been more of an air of impending revolutionary change, hence the popularity of Utopian literature and revolutionary movements. Unfortunately, Utopianism and revolution too often result in oppression, murder, and totalitarianism, as the history of the twentieth century shows. In any case, I have a book called Looking Forward (1970), which reprints images from popular magazines of the turn of the century. The emphasis is on what life in the twentieth century would be like. Looking forward can hardly be called a decadent activity. The title echoes that of Edward Bellamy's classic Utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000–1887, published in 1888.
(4) In Also Sprach Zarathustra, Nietzsche described the Übermensch and perhaps more importantly predicted the arrival of the Last Man. I'll have more to say about that guy later.
(5) The World's Columbian Exposition--the Chicago World's Fair of 1893--commemorated the 400-year anniversary of the discovery of the original New World. Despite the fact that Frederick Jackson Turner lectured on the closing of the American frontier--a decidedly backward-looking thesis--the spirit of the Chicago World's Fair was forward-looking and progressive. Another spirit haunted the fair that year, for H.H. Holmes, America's first serial killer, was then on the loose in Chicago.
(6) Located at one extreme of fantasy fiction, weird fiction, it seems to me, is about decadence, be it personal, biological, cultural, or civilizational. Weird fiction as the fantastic, or at the very least outré, fiction of decadence is one possible definition of that term.
(7) I recently wrote about the question, Is science fiction dying? That question has some bearing on the monster of the twenty-first century as well. Hang in there.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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