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 Terence E. Hanley


  1. < "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." >

    Hi. I'm teaching this semester a course on reading popular fiction, monsters and super-protagonists. I think the idea you are looking for is that of the nineteenth century superman (ubermensch). Thanks for your posts.

    1. Dear Roderigo,

      It's interesting that you would propose the Übermensch as the first totalitarian, for I have just encountered the idea of its opposite, the Untermensch, in a book called Barbarossa by Alan Clark. I took note of that term because it involves a topic that I will bring up shortly in my series of articles on the monster of the twenty-first century, namely, the need to dehumanize the victims of one's own monstrousness. The idea of the Übermensch implies a need for an Untermensch, for what is over without under?

      Philosophy is not my strong suit, but I have read up a little on the idea of the Übermensch since you proposed him as the first totalitarian. First, I will note that the idea comes from Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra, published in 1883-1885 and translated into English in 1896. Those dates fit pretty well with my developing idea that the historical and cultural events of the twentieth century had their immediate origins in the last decade or so of the nineteenth. Second, the idea of the Übermensch was adapted by the Nazis, who were of course totalitarian. That's not to say Nietzsche was some kind of proto-nazi, or even that he advocated the totalitarian horrors of the twentieth century. I think that his Übermensch is not a totalitarian, but that--in rising above the rest of humanity--he could easily become one.

      The case for the Übermensch as the first totalitarian is strengthened by his juxtaposition with the "last man" in Nietzsche's work. Not that I would rely overmuch on Wikipedia, but in reading its entry on "The Last Man," I could see immediately Nietzsche's prophetic power, for the last man is the man of today: materially comfortable, secure, apathetic, lacking in passion, vision, and vigor, and incapable of greatness. If the monster of any given age embodies the spirit of that age, then the monster of the twenty-first century must be tied to the man of the current century as a species of last man. That gets to where I was going with this series of articles before I had heard from you.

      Thank you for writing and thank you for a sound proposal for the first totalitarian in literature. Now I would ask, not just you but everyone: Who was the first totalitarian in fiction? People of the fin de siècle are known for having cast their gaze into the future. So, did any novelist, poet, or writer of short stories before 1917 anticipate the rise of the totalitarian monster in the mold of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, or Mussolini? Did anyone foresee the horrors of the coming century?

      Terence Hanley

  2. Hey, Terrence,
    First of all, thanks for your long comment. Even though you say philosphy is not your cup of tea (coffee?) I would like to mention this article by Andrew Sharpe "Foucault's Monsters, the Abnormal Individual and the Challenge of English Law". I've been Reading this these days for my classes and maybe you'll find an interesting view on monsters in it. As for the totalitarian monsters, I have to say that there is a very long list of references on the topic, I'll mention the review by Peter Drucker “Superstate and Superman” available at < >. Concerning authors of ficcion: consider Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman”, Jack London’s “The Iron Heel” (and there are many others, I’m just in a hush in here and have to leave to classes). Oh, I didn’t have the opportunity to take a look at it yet, but maybe Leo Berg’s “Superman in Modern Literature” will bring you some hints. Thanks again and keep posting.

    1. Dear Roderigo,

      Thank you for the list of sources. It's a good place to start on this topic of the totalitarian monster. Unfortunately my reading is limited. I haven't even read The Iron Heel by Jack London (1908), an early work on the topic.

      Sharpe's work is a little academic, but in breezing through it, I found some interesting ideas.

      "Superstate and Superman" is worth a look. The online version I found seems to be in error from the original, so beware.

      Superman in Modern Literature (1915) is available online. It looks to be highly readable for a hundred-year-old scholarly work by a German writer. Here's a good quote from that work:

      The individual begins to be conscious of himself, and rallies his strength for a struggle against the Moloch State, which, as a monster of militarism, capitalism, utilitarianism and socialism, becomes ever more terrible, more cruel, and more brutal, so that finally individualism, finding itself fettered completely, must have recourse to what, politically speaking, is called crime, and to anarchy. (pp. 14-15)

      One might differ with the details. For example, we're finding that even the democratic State is capable of monstrousness. (For an example, you can follow our current practice to the Moloch of Biblical times. That is as much as I will say on that topic.) The point is that even before nazism, fascism, and Leninism, the State was recognized as a monster.

      So, it seems to me that somewhere along the line, the Superman--who was not a monster in his inception--came to control the monstrous State. In real life, that would have been in 1917 when the Bolsheviks under Lenin came to power in Russia. Writers of fiction should have anticipated that development. There should have been a fictional totalitarian before there was a real totalitarian. (When I say totalitarian, I mean an individual--a single person--representing the State or controlling the State.) Again, my reading is limited, but I wonder if The Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky, from 1879-1880, can be seen as the first totalitarian in fiction. I don't want to propose it because I haven't read it.

      As an aside, when I said that philosophy is not my strong suit, I didn't mean that I am not interested in philosophy, only that I'm not well read in philosophy and I don't know the terms and concepts very well.

      Thanks again.

      Terence Hanley

  3. Sorry for my spelling mistakes on the previous post, and I forgot to say that Sharpe's article is available online at < > and elsewhere too, it is reallyeasy to find if you get interested.
    All the best.

  4. Hey, Terence,
    Thanks for the news. Where did you find Berg's book online? Would you point me to that? You know your passage "So, it seems to me that somewhere along the line, the Superman--who was not a monster in his inception--came to control the monstrous State" reminded me of the first fanzine superman story by Siegel & Shuster in 1933 "The Reign of Superman" in which he is in fact a monster (some of my students say he still is). I understand that in your passage I mentioned your reference is to Ubermensch, not to the superhero, but some people say (references abound) that the two are in some way connected. You can find that story on line for sure. Best.

    1. Dear Roderigo,

      Here is the link to The Superman in Modern Literature by Leo Berg (1915 or 1916):

      It is on the website of Hathi Trust Digital Library. It looks like a very interesting book. Unfortunately, not being a member, I can't download it.

      Yes, I knew there was a connection between the first Superman story and the original idea of the Übermensch. Not bad for a Cleveland teenager, although Jerry Siegel, the author, is supposed to have been influenced by Philip Wylie's novel Gladiator (1930).

      Happy reading.

      Terence Hanley