Friday, April 25, 2014

What Is the Monster of the Twenty-First Century?-Part One


"We begin by denying all the old haunts and superstitions. Why shouldn't we? They belong to the era of cottage and castle. They can't take root in the new environment."

"The supernatural beings of a modern city? Sure, they'd be different from the ghosts of yesterday. Each culture creates its own ghosts."

--from "The Hound" by Fritz Leiber (Weird Tales, Nov. 1942)

A year and a half ago, I wrote about the problem of the weird tale, namely: How does an essentially Medieval genre remain relevant in a modern age? Consciously or not, Fritz Leiber, Jr., attempted a solution to that problem, especially in his stories "Smoke Ghost" (1941), "The Hound" (1942), and "The Dreams of Albert Moreland" (1945). (1) Leiber's solution was to recognize that, one, there will always be monsters, and, two, that the people of every age create monsters to suit their age, or, as one of the characters in "The Hound" says, "Each culture creates its own ghosts." To that end, Leiber created monsters for the early twentieth-century city--not the vampire, werewolf, witch, or ghost of the Middle Ages, but a sooty, smokey, black rag of a rooftop urban ghost; a slavering, pursuing hound, symbolic of the alienation, isolation, and horror of city life; and a powerful and terrifying chessplayer, representing a uniquely modern monster, the totalitarian dictator.

So Fritz Leiber, Jr., created monsters for his time. Those monsters represented some of the forces--science, reason, urbanization, mechanization, industrialization--that helped bring about the end of the Medieval world and the monsters that haunted it. But in writing about Fritz Leiber and the problem of the weird tale, I overlooked something that deserves some scrutiny, for the world in which he and his monsters lived is now long gone. We no longer live in the era of the industrial city, just as we no longer live in the "the era of cottage and castle." Just as the werewolf and vampire of the Middle Ages is ill-suited to the twentieth century, so too are the monsters of the modern age ill-suited to our own time. So if the monsters of the twentieth century are as antiquated as the monsters of the Middle Ages--if "[t]hey can't take root in the new environment"--what will our monsters be? In other words, what is the monster of the twenty-first century?

To be continued . . .

(1) The quotes at the heading of this article and many more like them suggest that Leiber's attempts to solve the problem of the weird tale were in fact conscious.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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