Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part One


I have asked the question, "What is the monster of the twenty-first century?" Now here it is five weeks and eight parts of an article later and I still haven't proposed an answer. I hope to get to one soon. Before proceeding, I should offer a survey of monsters.

Fritz Leiber called it "the era of cottage and castle." That era stretched unbroken from the early Middle Ages into the Age of Reason and the Industrial Revolution. The monsters of those many centuries were supernatural in origin and in character: vampire, werewolf, ghost, demon, and so on. (1) I suppose that in an Age of Reason, any culture would become more self-conscious. That's what happened when men and women of the mid-eighteenth century looked back upon their history with some nostalgia. The result was a Gothic revival. (They even created artificial "ruins" to go with their interests.) It probably wasn't the first retro movement in history. After all, the Renaissance was a revival of Classical learning. But Gothicism is still with us and still a powerful cultural force. You won't meet many true Renaissance men in your lifetime, but chances are you have seen a member of the Goth subculture some time in the recent past. Or maybe you are part of that subculture.

So the Gothic revival of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reconnected us to stories of ghosts, demons, vampires, and werewolves. Curiously, it also gave us a science-fictional monster, one of the earliest of its type: Frankenstein's monster. In Mary Shelley's Gothic romance of 1818, the monster is one of the undead, but he is reanimated not by a supernatural force but by purely natural--that is, scientific, or what passed for scientific--galvanism. In America, Edgar Allan Poe followed Mary Shelley's example, marrying the settings, trappings, and themes of Gothic romance to nascent science fiction. "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (1845), in which the title character is kept alive after his death through the power of mesmerism, is an example. Other writers of the nineteenth century followed suit. Their monsters--Varney the Vampire, Carmilla, Wagner the Were-Wolf, Spring-Heeled Jack--were in the Gothic tradition, sometimes with a little science thrown in.

At the end of the nineteenth century, in Bram Stoker's Dracula, the vampire--like the psychopathic killer before him--moved to the city. In Dracula's case, it was from rural Ruritanian Europe to the bustling metropolis of London, where he could so easily go about his business. Not many people today remember Varney or Carmilla, but the whole world knows of Dracula. He and his vampiric kin have been with us continuously since 1897, when Dracula first appeared in print. Two other monsters arrived in that same decade. (2) Also in 1897, space aliens, in the form of H.G. Wells' Martian invaders, arrived on Earth and in our imaginations. They have never left us, either. Half a decade before, Antoon Cornelis Oudemans published The Great Sea Serpent (1892), a scientific study of the phenomenon. Bernard Heuvelmans, the father of twentieth century cryptozoology, considered that book to be the first work in its field.

I have already written about two real-life monsters, the psychopathic killer and the totalitarian. If Jack the Ripper was the model for the psychopathic killer, then he predates the previously described monsters by only a few years, having done his work in 1888. The origin of the twentieth century totalitarian monster is harder to pin down. Part psychopath, part devil, and part god, he has probably been around since the beginning of time. As for his first occurrence in literature, I can offer two examples, "The New Utopia" by Jerome K. Jerome (1891) and Pictures of the Socialistic Future by Eugen Richter (1891). I haven't read either of those stories, but I don't believe the totalitarian monster was personified in either one of them. Maybe the example of the real-world totalitarian was necessary before he could cross over into literature. If anyone can propose the first totalitarian in literature, I would like to hear about it.

That leaves a few other types of monsters that I haven't talked about yet. Fitz-James O'Brien wrote about the invisible monster in "What Was It? A Mystery" (1859). Guy de Maupassant's story "The Horla" (1887) and Ambrose Bierce's story "The Damned Thing" (1893) are more well known. They also conveniently fall within the last decade or so of the nineteenth century, as does "The Invisible Man" by H.G. Wells (1897). The machine-monster has its origins in real-life automata of ancient times. If you were drawing a Venn diagram of machine-monsters, Frankenstein's monster might fall partially within your circle. The android would also, of course. The French writer Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, in L'Ève future (1886), was responsible for the first usage of that word as we understand it, that is, a robot in human form. Ambrose Bierce turned the game-playing automaton into a monster in "Moxon's Master" (1893). The word robot itself comes from the play R.U.R by Karel Čapek (1920). The computer-monster is just a later variation on the same type.

I don't know when the concept of the interdimensional being or monster came about, but ghosts, demons, and other supernatural monsters would have served that purpose in olden times. Cryptids, space aliens, and invisible monsters fill the bill today. The degenerate human is a kind of monster as well. I'm not sure you can point to his first appearance, although The Time Machine (1895) or The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), both by H.G. Wells (1896), are good candidates. My list isn't complete, but I'll close this part one with another type, the soulless monster, which can take various forms. For example, does Frankenstein's monster possess a soul? Does a vampire? More to my point, does the machine-monster have a soul? Or the space alien of the pod-person type? Or what about the monster du jour, the zombie?

To be continued . . .

(1) Once the Age of Exploration began, there would have been born a new kind of monster and one of the first monsters of science: the previously unknown creature out of terra icognita. Today we would call that creature a cryptid.
(2) The decade in which our current popular culture can be said to have begun.

Copyright 2014, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

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

The Totalitarian Monster Concluded

"The worst tyrants are those that establish themselves in our own breasts."
--Reverend William Ellery Channing (1830)

In 1940, you could have scared your children with images of Hitler, Mussolini, or Tojo. A decade later, a picture of Stalin would have done the trick. Those men and their followers were effective monsters before mid-century. Thankfully they are all gone now, most done in by war and violence.

If there is one lesson the aspiring totalitarian should have learned from World War II and wars since, it is this: brute force will be met with greater force by people of courage and conviction. There are still old-fashioned totalitarians in the world, but they are old, like Castro, or small, like Assad, or even comical, in a murderous sort of way, like the latest dictator of North Korea. Each exists along the fringes of humanity. That's one reason why they have survived. They have been surpassed by a different kind of totalitarianism however. It is more subtle than before, creeping stealthily among the shadows of our society, or more accurately perhaps in the shadows of our own hearts and minds, for totalitarians have learned that the most effective and efficient way to impose totalitarianism upon people is for them to impose it upon themselves and each other. Put another way, if all people have a totalitarian impulse, and all people have some measure of political, social, and economic power, then all people can become totalitarians. We had a taste of that in The Lives of Others, a German movie from 2006 that showed what it was like to live in a society in which everyone spied on everyone else. Still, external force was necessary to sustain that society. In the end, it proved unsustainable. What was lacking was the desire among the people to establish a tyrant in their own breasts, to throw open the gates and invite the tyrant in. 

Karl Marx was a crackpot in a long line of nineteenth century crackpots. He may have aspired to be like Charles Darwin, to explain human history using an overarching theory in the same way that Darwin used an overarching theory to explain natural history. Instead, Marx was more like Madame Blavatsky, claiming as he did that he had uncovered the secret history of the earth. (1) The difference is that Theosophy is harmless and has few followers, while Marxism became like a new religion and led to the murder of millions. (2, 3) There are still true believers in the world, but they have adopted more peaceful means to stifle dissent, control thought, and enslave their fellow human beings. Critical theory and political correctness are examples of that. There are now millions of people who have taken totalitarian ideas to their breasts, perhaps without even knowing that they have done such a thing. Hitler and Stalin would be both proud and envious.

In the nineteenth century, the psychopathic killer evolved into a city dweller. Like monsters of old, he still lives on the fringes of society, beyond the firelight, but only figuratively, for he is now inside the gates. Having learned to pass as one of us, the psychopath can now live among us while yet preying upon us. However, he is still weak because he is still an outcast. The idea that animates him is still repugnant to us. Perhaps most importantly, he doesn't have any and cannot recruit any followers. If the totalitarian is a monster, then he is unlike the monsters of old and equally unlike the lone psychopath, for he lives not only among us, but rules over us, and he has recruits and followers. In addition, he has made his animating idea attractive to the masses, despite the fact that it means their enslavement. The totalitarian is scary in himself. The face of Hitler is the face of a monster. What is scarier still is that great masses of men and women would follow a psychopathic god, that they would revere him, that they would enslave themselves and other people to him, that they would die for him. The totalitarian, made possible in part by mass movements of the nineteenth century, gave rise to another kind of mass movement for the twentieth century and today: mass monstrousness, shared among all the people. (4)

To be continued . . .

(1) Hitler made a similar claim: "The race question not only furnishes the key to world history, but also to human culture as a whole." Quoted in The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler by Robert G.L. Waite (Signet, 1978), p. 98.
(2) If you can trace the descent of Theosophy through the Shaver Mystery to flying saucers and Scientology, then maybe Theosophy wasn't so harmless after all--not that we should hold anyone but L. Ron Hubbard and his acolytes responsible for their own impulse to control totally the lives of their followers.
(3) Marx believed that history is a science and that extrapolations could be made for the future, essentially predicting the future. That future of course failed to materialize. The idea reminds me of Isaac Asimov's psychohistory, from the Foundation series. I can't say what connection, if any, there was between Asimov's and Marx's ideas, but Asimov came of age in the 1930s among a group of science fiction fans who were Utopian, socialistic, or even communistic in inclination. Asimov was also an atheist. He may have been the only contributor to Weird Tales to have been born under Bolshevism, although he would not have had any memory of it.
(4) I'm taking the long way around, but I'm getting somewhere with all this. Just remember that part about masses of monstrous people.

A cartoon by Cy Hungerford of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, an example of the scary dictator. Lewis is of course John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers. Hungerford had a talent for deflating self-serious men by making them ridiculous.

Text and captions copyright 2014, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

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

More on the Totalitarian Monster

It seems to me that there are three conditions necessary for the rise of totalitarianism: mass movements, a removal of all restraints, especially any belief in God or the soul, and most importantly, an animating idea. The nineteenth century provided those conditions. The twentieth put them into action. The result was a period of extraordinary violence and destruction, especially in the period from 1917, when the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, to the 1970s, when Mao died and the Soviet Union went into rapid decline.

The totalitarians of the twentieth century did all the things monsters do. They threatened and terrified us. They invaded our homes, like Grendel breaking into Heorot. They waged war against us, like the forces of Sauron waged war against elf, human, and Hobbit. Totalitarians murdered, maimed, mutilated, imprisoned, starved, tortured, and even ate us. They gassed us, shot us, drowned us, burned us, and cooked us in ovens. They collected our teeth, hair, glasses, and artificial limbs like trophies, piling them in middens the way a monster piles bones at his doorstep. A great deal of the violence and destruction of the twentieth century came at the hands of four men: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Their politics are irrelevant, for when you are lined up in front of a ditch, you don't ask whether the bullet fired into your brain comes from a fascist or communist, a leftist or reactionary. The effect is the same.

Chester Gould, the creator of Dick Tracy, was famous for his villains: Pruneface, Flattop, The Mole, Little Face, The Brow, Influence, etc. Each is uglier than the next and for good reason: Gould made them physically ugly to express the ugliness of their souls. Dick Tracy made its debut in 1931 when everyone knew the mugs and monikers of Depression-era gangsters. Most of those criminals were shot or imprisoned by 1940. By then, there was another rogue's gallery to take their place, for like the villains in Dick Tracy and like the monsters of nightmare and folklore, totalitarians were ugly as their souls were ugly: Hitler, with his flatulence, halitosis, and unspeakable sexual perversion, moreover, with his array of psychoses, neuroses, and profound personality problems, all of which led to mass murder and Götterdämmerung; rat-faced Goebbels, among whose many crimes were the murders of his own children; jowly, corpulent, arrogant, self-important Goering; bulging-eyed, neurotic, murderous Himmler. Communists were not much different. Mao never in his life brushed his teeth. He consumed young women like some people eat potato chips and had millions starved and murdered for the sake of his system. Stalin, building the cult of his own personality, maintained a manikin-like public face, almost like his mummified mentor, Lenin. And like Lenin, totalitarians were preserved as if they might survive their own deaths, like the god-kings of ancient Egypt; or as if they should remain objects of veneration, like relict saints; or as if they--like the monstrous undead--might one day return from the grave. Thankfully, their brand of totalitarianism is in retreat. But the totalitarian impulse remains.

To be continued . . . 

Copyright 2014, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, May 19, 2014

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

The Totalitarian Monster

"The Dreams of Albert Moreland," a short story by Fritz Leiber, Jr., written in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft, opens with the narrator's remembering the autumn of 1939, "not as the beginning of the Second World War, but as the period in which Albert Moreland dreamed the dream." Albert Moreland is a chess player, and in his dreams of that tragic season, he plays a nightly game against an unseen foe. His foe's key piece is one Moreland calls "the archer." The narrator, Moreland's friend, writes:
He [Moreland] described it as representing a kind of intermediate, warped life form which had achieved more than human intellectual power without losing--but rather gaining--in brute cruelty and malignity. . . .
Later, when the narrator himself sees a representation of the piece, he remarks on its "expression of bestial, supernatural malevolence." In his reaction to the physical appearance of "the archer," Albert Moreland revisits Leiber's thesis about the monsters of the past vs. the monsters of the present:
"God knows how my mind ever cooked up such a hideous entity," he finished, with a grin. "Five hundred years ago I'd have said the Devil put it there."
The significance of Moreland's nightly struggle is not lost on him or his friend. The narrator writes:
He [Moreland again] had traced a frightening relationship between the progress of the game and of the War, and had begun to believe that the ultimate issue of the War--though not necessarily the victory of either side--hung on the outcome of the game.
The game and the story play out to ambiguous endings, but then both take place at the outset of a war, the outcome of which was then entirely in doubt and cause for fear and extreme anxiety. (1, 2)

Leiber's story is set in New York City. Elsewhere in that city, at the same time and with the same non-fictional events as a backdrop, another author was at work. Sitting in a dive on Fifty-second Street, the British poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973) penned "September 1, 1939," which has since become one of his most famous. Some lines from that poem:

Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright 
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can 
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god . . . .

Linz was the boyhood home of Adolf Hitler. The phrase "huge imago" is supposed to be Jungian in origin and may refer either to Hitler's own father, or something greater, perhaps the German nation or the history of the German people. Robert G.L. Waite used the next phrase in the title of his book The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler (1977), called by Publishers Weekly "a powerful dissection" and described by James McGregor Burns as "gripping, immensely revealing and ultimately horrifying." It is, in short, the biography of a totalitarian monster, represented less powerfully and in fictional form--specifically because it is fictional--in Fritz Leiber's cruel and malignant "archer" and the unseen hand behind it. Significantly, Auden saw that the totalitarian (in the person of Adolf Hitler) is a kind of apotheosis of the psychopath.

It has become a cliché to call Hitler a monster, but calling a word or an idea a cliché is not the same as saying it is inaccurate or false. Hitler and the parade of totalitarian dictators that made the twentieth century their own were in fact monsters, and--being human--the only true monsters known to us. The totalitarian, as Leiber suggested, was a new kind of monster for the twentieth century. Although the threat of a certain kind of totalitarianism has receded, the totalitarian monster is still with us and is a candidate for the monster of the twenty-first century. I'll write more about that next time.

To be continued . . .

(1) The outcome, which would have been so seriously in doubt in 1939, was more certain when "The Dreams of Albert Moreland" was published in The Acolyte in Spring 1945Robert Avrett and E. Hoffman Price, who with Leiber contributed to Weird Tales, also had works published in that issue of The Acolyte. Thomas G.L. Cockcroft, indexer of weird fiction and weird verse, also contributed, in his case, a drawing.
(2) The name Moreland (more land) may or may not be ironic for a story of the Second World War.

Copyright 2014, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, May 12, 2014

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

Monsters Out of the Nineteenth Century

The murderous psychopath has probably been around for as long as there have been people. A way of explaining him is another matter. Before the development of psychology and its promotion to a kind of science, the psychopath was explained as like a supernatural force. It would be silly now to say that Ted Bundy was a vampire or that Jeffrey Dahmer was a werewolf. But because the psychopath can now be explained as a material phenomenon, he has survived Fritz Leiber's "era of cottage and castle" and into the age of science.

It seems to me that the survival of the psychopathic killer as a monster for the modern age was made possible by mass developments of the nineteenth century. In fact, the psychopath has thrived because of mass developments, not least of which is mass disconnectedness of one person to another. There is another monster that has always been with us but was made fully possible only with mass developments of the nineteenth century. That monster, whose face we recognize from the history of the murderous twentieth century, is the totalitarian.

The totalitarian impulse may very well arise from human nature. If that's true, then the totalitarian has always been and will always be with us. However, the totalitarianism of the twentieth century--exemplified in communism and nazism--may not have been possible before the nineteenth. The success of the psychopath, preying as he does upon urban populations, was not wholly possible before those populations reached critical mass during the late 1800s. And of course the existence of the psychopath would not have been tolerated before the explanation for his activities became materialistic or scientific. No one would have tried to understand him or sympathize with him. No one would have blamed his parents or, worse yet, society for his crimes. He would simply have been strung up or burned by an outraged populace. Likewise, the totalitarian, prior to the nineteenth century, would have been largely frustrated in his goal of overthrowing the world and remaking it in the image of his own private Utopia. (1) But with the mass movements of the nineteenth century, moreover, with the perceived triumph of science over faith, the doors to a totalitarian society were thrown open. Karl Marx (1818-1883), "a thorough-going materialist," went beyond Hegel, who "saw the universe as essentially spiritual." (2) Darwin (1809-1882) did away with special creation in favor of random mutation and a directionless process of natural selection. As the century turned, one to the next, Freud (1856-1939) laid the groundwork for a scientific--and ultimately, for some, materialist--interpretation of the human psyche. The fourth great revolutionary of the nineteenth century and the only one trained in the physical sciences, was, in strong contrast to the others, virtually unknown in his time, as well as a man of faith, in fact a man of the cloth. This was Gregor Mendel (1822-1884). (3)

The point of all this is that if the totalitarian was a monster of the twentieth century and is a candidate for the monster of the twenty-first, he would first have been made possible by developments of the nineteenth. Those developments were mass developments involving industrialization, mechanization, and urbanization, as well as mass education, mass media, and so on. Mass developments are not enough, however. In order for the totalitarian to succeed, he must have a philosophy or ideology to support him and his efforts. Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and men like them provided that philosophy. Also, the individual must be blotted out. He can have no special place in the eyes of God or his fellow men. Mass society has made that possible. More significantly, twin developments in philosophy and science have separated the individual from God and from his family, church, and tribe. He has been reduced to a cipher, submerged as an undifferentiable and easily expendable nobody among the masses, easy prey for the totalitarian and his supreme State, the means by which the totalitarian exercises his monstrousness upon his fellow human beings.

* * *

I would like to quote once more from Lenin by Michael Morgan (1971). Actually, this is a quote from a quote, one from Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (1862), in which the protagonist, Bazarov, goes with two young serfs to a marsh in search of frogs:
"For what do you want frogs, barin?" asked one of the lads. 
"To make them useful," replied Bazarov. . . . "You see, I like to open them, and then to observe what their insides are doing. You and I are frogs too, except that we walk upon our hind legs. Thus the operation helps me to understand what is taking place in ourselves." 
"And what good will that do you?" 
"This. That if you should fall sick, and I should have to treat you, I might avoid some mistakes." 
"Then you are a doctor?" 
"I am." (4)
Bazarov is in fact a medical student. He is also a nihilist--in the nineteenth century Russian sense of the word. I'm not sure what the connection is between nihilism and communism, but Lenin's biographer, Michael Morgan poses the question and allows the nihilists to answer:
How to rectify the social body? That was the problem. By revolution and science was the nihilist answer. (5)
Morgan continues a few pages later:
Marx always claimed that Marxist socialism was scientific: that it was based on a scientific diagnosis of the facts of life. . . . Correct diagnosis was vital, and just as the Christian doctors had been of great importance to the church in the early centuries of its history, so were Marx and his fellow "doctors" to the workers' international. (6)
It may or may not be symbolic for Bazarov to be a doctor, one who diagnoses problems--and presumably makes prescriptions for their treatment. In any case, when I read that passage, it makes me think of two things. First, it puts me in mind of the reduction of the human to the mere animal ("You and I are frogs too"), which can and should be made available for use by the one who does the reducing. We see that at work in our own society of today. More than that, I hear the voice of the psychopath--"You see, I like to open them, and then to observe what their insides are doing"--for cutting people to pieces is what the psychopath does, all, I sense, to find out what makes us human, in contrast to his own inhumanity. (7) These developments--revolution, nihilism, socialism, materialism, scientism, psychopathy, keen interests in medicine, philosophy, and genetics--ultimately totalitarianism--all came together in one of the most fearsome and horrifying monsters of the twentieth century, Doctor Josef Mengele, the Nazi "Angel of Death."

(1) The perpetrators of the French Revolution in its later stages gave it a shot, and although they failed, as all leftist revolutionaries do in the end, they provided a template for totalitarian revolutions to come.
(2) The quotes are from Lenin by Michael Morgan (1971), p. 20. Both Marx and Hegel believed in the idea of historical "progress." That idea survives today and remains one of the most effective pieces of propaganda for those who wish to subjugate and enslave their fellows.
(3) Although he studied medicine and science, Charles Darwin was more properly a natural philosopher or natural historian. Freud, too, studied medicine, as well as philosophy and zoology, and graduated the university as a medical doctor. Marx was trained in law, though, like Freud, he enjoyed literature and philosophy. Gregor Mendel was a physicist, astronomer, meteorologist, and natural historian. His work alone among the four is scientific, meaning, it is observable, measurable, repeatable, and verifiable. Nazis, in their way, liked genetics. Communists did not, believing as they did that all human problems are caused by an imperfect society. Leftists of today have come around to genetics because it allows them to continue to excuse the individual from responsibility and accountability for his own actions. Nevertheless, leftists also still cling to Lysenkoism in a general sense, using science, pseudoscience, and people's faith in science and scientists for political purposes.
(4) From Lenin, p. 12.
(5) p. 13.
(6) p. 22.
(7) If that murderous desire to see what makes us tick is what animates the psychopathic killer, then I think it safe to say that he, too, is a materialist.

Copyright 2014, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Weird Tales #362 Now Available

Marvin Kaye, current editor of Weird Tales, calls his charge "the magazine that never dies." It's fitting, then, that the theme of the latest issue is "The Undead." Featuring stories by Elizabeth Bear, Ramsey CampbellRon Goulart, and Brian Lumley, and with an exclusive interview with Joyce Carol Oates, Weird Tales #362 (Spring 2014) is now available at the Weird Tales website, here. The front cover of the magazine will get plenty of exposure, but the back cover, a tribute to Richard Matheson (1926-2013) by Jeff Wong, is also worth a look.

Text copyright 2014, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, May 5, 2014

Tellers of Weird Tales on the Weird Tales Website

Douglas Draa, online editor of Weird Tales magazine, asked me some time ago to be a guest blogger on the magazine's website. I have written a series of articles called "They Should Have Been in Weird Tales," all based on the recollections of founder and publisher Jacob Clark Henneberger. Here are the links:

Next is Ben Hecht, and once the series is complete, I will post it here at Tellers of Weird Tales.

Copyright 2014, 2023 Terence E. Hanley