Posted by Lesley Conner on Apr 22, 2013 in Apex Publications Blog: Matters of SF, Fantasy, and Horror | 0 comments
I was doing research (the kind that I’m sure will land me on a government watch list somewhere) for the book I’m working on when I came across an antique book on demonology on sale for about $6000. (That’s cheap, actually – I’ve seen ultra-rare demonology books going for £7000, which I think is about $10,700). What intrigued me about this, other than sheer interest in antique books on demonology – call it a character flaw that makes me unpopular at polite society parties – is two-fold. First, we’ve been studying and writing about dark supernatural entities for centuries – exploring them, fearing them, fighting them, and even, at times, embracing them. Second, in a technological and (theoretically) enlightened age of science and reason, we still find those root studies fascinating enough to pay thousands for them.
It’s almost as if we believe the older something is, the closer a connection it has to the origins of all things supernatural, like maybe in simpler times, other entities existed much more openly, and so did the ability to experience and understand those entities. Before so much existed to distract or get in the way, before time and flawed thinking burned and wiped such arcane knowledge from the earth, maybe once the mysteries we look to unravel were nearly solved. Maybe the secret of death, and of whatever comes after, wasn’t so scary because more concrete evidence and substantial knowledge of worlds beyond this one existed. Maybe that evidence and knowledge were put down in books, meant to be passed from generation to generation to build upon. Like the Bible serves as a link to God and a time when people supposedly had a more tangible connection to Him, maybe these ancient texts serve as a link to times when doorways long shut had been flung open, and what walked between worlds did so freely among men.
Maybe there were answers to our questions, right there for the taking, and so much of what we worry about in the deepest, darkest part of night was unfounded, fixable, or avoidable.
It’s not so much a matter of whether those books, the Bible or the ancient texts on ghosts, monsters, and demons, actually report fact and speak unbending truth. I think the comfort and/or fascination people find in them is not necessarily inclusive of faith. Rather, I think we have a desire, maybe even the need, to solve puzzles, to create something from nothing, to understand what defies explanation. I don’t know whether we do that because we need to believe something greater exists beyond us and after us, once our short time on earth has ended, or because we take comfort in finding proof that there is nothing big and intimidating waiting for us and we can look forward to an eternal, oblivious rest.
Maybe we don’t always need something to believe in. Maybe sometimes, we just need something to wonder about, or something to try and prove. Or it’s possible that what we need to believe in is our ability to put all of our human experiences in perspective – even the ones outside of personal or societal norm.
H.P. Lovecraft, godfather of monster stories, once said, “It is man’s relation to the cosmos – the unknown – which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination.” I think Lovecraft’s sentiment is probably widely and warmly felt by those of us who write about alien gods and monsters, and maybe by those who read about them, too. As a vehicle for all that we don’t know (and so, therefore, fear) and may never know, for all that is terrifyingly out of our control, monster stories help us regain that semblance of significance against an infinite backdrop. They help us feel a sense of reclaimed dominance over our lives. Now, while knowledge often drove Lovecraft’s protagonists screaming over the edge and into the bottomless black chasm of horrible insanity, I’d venture that our information-at-a-touch lifestyles have long drilled into us that knowledge is power. Maybe it is. At least it gives us choices. Fight the gods and monsters, or worship them and hope to be favored enough to be eaten last.
I think we need fiction about gods and monsters. We need to explore it, contain it, expound upon it. We need vampires and werewolves to understand (and if necessary, accept) our base and animalistic impulses without losing our humanity. We need the boogeymen hiding in our closets and under our beds to shed light on, so that we can understand the dark that surrounds us, and the evil that our societal fringe does to us and our children under cover of night. We need giant, mutant animals to remind us that nature is precious, limited, and deserves our respect. We need ghosts so that we can believe our loved ones continue on, and that we will, too. We need vengeful spirits to believe the universe metes out its own justice, and that if we are wronged, the nature of balance will put things right. We need Hollowers, even, to put a true face on, to show that however flawed or weak we are, we can still rule our own destinies. We need fearsome, indescribable, tentacled elder things in order to remind us that as far as we have come from a rich and colorful past on this earth, there is still so much of the universe left to explore in the future. And we need devils, a symbol of ultimate evil, to remind us when we need it most that somewhere, there just may be an ultimate good pulling for us, both here, and in worlds beyond. In tapping into that ultimate good, we can triumph over that evil.
In other words, the existence of monsters in our fiction provides a wrong that we, vicariously, can experience being set right.
I’ve heard people say that supernatural horror – monster fiction in particular – is outdated and not scary to a sophisticated modern readership. I disagree. It’s my opinion that in times of crisis, when war and senseless violence seems to surround us daily, people embrace monster archetypes to restore order and control through controlled and distanced exploration. I think our gods and monsters will have a prominent place in horror literature so long as we have instinct and a connection to the basic fears of childhood. Where there is a need to make sense of the terrors and horrors we can’t understand, we will have gods and monsters. For as long as society finds it important to remember and remind others of human compassion, human decency, and human strength, we will have gods and monsters. When we need to forget about real human monsters we couldn’t predict or stop, we will have our gods and monsters.
And for as long as we have gods and monsters, we have the chance to show what makes us lovably, endearingly, movingly, and heroically human.
Mary SanGiovanni is the author of the HOLLOWER trilogy, THRALL, the forthcoming CHAOS, and the novellas FOR EMMY, POSSESSING AMY and the forthcoming THE FADING PLACE. Her short fiction has appeared in periodicals and anthologies for the last decade. She has a Masters degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, Pittsburgh. She is currently a member of The Authors Guild, The International Thriller Writers, and Penn Writers. She lives in New Jersey with her son and her cat.