On Monsters

Yesterday, I didn’t write a blog post. I’m trying to write one each day of at least 500 words, but my laptop is still being repaired and it’s difficult to write on the netbook. I think the laptop is going to be at the IT Help Center until next week. It needs a new monitor, and the part will be about $400, which means that I need to write and sell a story to pay for it. Well, at least it’s incentive. (So if you want a story from me and you pay at least $.05 a word, this is a good time to let me know!)

Today I wanted to announce that my essay “A Brief History of Monsters” just went online at Weird Fiction Review. It’s part of the magazine’s Twelve Days of Monsters, which is going to include some wonderful stories and essays.

I’m going to give you a preview of the essay, just the first few paragraphs, so you can decide whether you want to go over and read it. (Of course, I hope you will.) Here you go:

If you happened to be in New York City in the summer of 1842, you could see a rare and wonderful creature: a real mermaid. She had been caught by a naturalist named Dr. Griffin off the coast of the Feejee Islands. Dr. Griffin himself had been reluctant to display her, but his friend P.T. Barnum had persuaded him that the public should be allowed to see such a marvelous sight. He had offered the newspapers a woodcut of a beautiful woman with the tail of a fish, and they had printed it. He had also distributed copies of a pamphlet with her picture on it throughout the city. Anticipation ran high: the crowds to see the mermaid were enormous.

Those allowed into the exhibition hall were given a lecture by Dr. Griffin detailing how he had found the mermaid and explaining that since there were sea-horses and sea-lions, there must certainly be sea-humans as well. And they were shown the mermaid herself. I wonder how many of them realized that they were looking at a clever hoax: the dried head and torso of a monkey sewn onto the tail of a fish. A reporter from the Philadelphia Public Ledger who seems to have been fooled wrote,

“The monster is one of the greatest curiosities of the day. It was caught near the Feejee islands, and taken to Penambuco, where it was purchased by an English gentleman named Griffin, who is making a collection of rare and curious things for the British Museum, or some other cabinet of curiosities. This animal, fish, flesh or whatever it may be, is about three feet long, and the lower part of the body is a perfectly formed fish, but from the breast upwards this character is lost, and then approaches human form — or rather that of a monkey.” (1)

Dr. Griffin was as much of a fake as the mermaid herself. He was actually Levi Lyman, Barnum’s collaborator. Both men had conspired to fool the public. But the public seemed to enjoy being fooled. After the initial exhibition, the Feejee Mermaid was displayed at Barnum’s American Museum, where she significantly increased ticket sales. She remained a popular attraction, both in museums and on tour, until she was destroyed in a museum fire in the 1880s.

The Philadelphia Public Ledger reporter was right to call the Feejee Mermaid a “monster.” We often think of monsters as large, frightening creatures, such as Polyphemus from the Odyssey or Frankenstein’s monster. The Feejee mermaid was neither large nor frightening. But monsters come in all sizes, and some of them are attractive — at least initially. The vampire Carmilla is beautiful and seductive before she sucks your blood. What separates monsters from ordinary creatures is something more subtle, having to do with the way we perceive the world. As we grow up, we learn to place the phenomena around us into categories. Monsters are what do not fit into those categories. They are giants with one eye, assemblages of corpses, beautiful women who can turn into cats — or monkeys with the tail of a fish. Because they do not fit, monsters make us feel what Sigmund Freud has described as the unheimlich, which is usually translated as the uncanny, a sensation that can range from discomfort to outright fear. And yet, as the New Yorkers who paid to see the Feejee mermaid demonstrate, we are also fascinated by monsters. They inhabit the myths and legends of our earliest history as well as Hollywood blockbusters. There is a direct line of descent between Polyphemus and the Terminator.

To illustrate this excerpt, I thought I would use Head of Medusa by Peter Paul Rubens:

Medusa is a classic monster. What makes a monster, I think, is that it crosses the boundary between the fundamental categories of the self and other. Medusa, the beautiful woman with snakes for hair, is both like and unlike us. She is what does not fit into either category. Which gives me the idea for a story . . . (After all, I have to pay for my laptop monitor.)

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2 Responses to On Monsters

  1. Lynn says:

    Just read the whole essay.
    Fascinating.
    Lots to think on.

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