Eating Things

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Agents of Destruction)

Monsters. They come in all shapes and sizes. Amorphous blobs, oversized insects, scaly reptiles, hairy beasts, underwater phantoms, undead humans, shape-shifting tricksters, killer robots, and hodge-podge creations. Some of them come straight at you, slow and meandering; some of them lurk behind you in the shadows, and still others fester right inside your mind.

Clearly there is a great variety in our literary depiction of monsters, yet there are a few things that remain consistent. Or at least mostly consistent. Each of the patterns I am about to mention surely have their exceptions, but they do hold as general rules.

  1. Monsters are mindless. It isn’t just that you never see a monster making a painting or working through a mathematical equation, it’s that they seem incapable of any sort of creative expression. They might be cunning, it is true, but never for the purpose of inventing something new or advancing their understanding.
  2. Monsters are evil. A villain can be sympathetic, but a monster cannot. To be a monster means that it serves no virtuous purpose. It is never engaged in an act of compassion or kindness, even to others of its own kind. A monster is commonly described as “menacing,” by which we mean it has evil and violent intent.
  3. Monsters want to destroy you. The two above principles combine into this one. We began by saying that monsters are mindless, but perhaps we should instead say that they possess a single-track mind: one of violence. They want to destroy and that is all. And it is that monomaniacal thirst for destruction that makes us identify them as evil.

Monsters are therefore the antithesis of ingenuity and creation. They are pure agents of destruction. They are often used as an archetype that stands opposite to the creativity of the hero, and most often are defeated by that creativity. Think of Jaws, where the titular shark is defeated by the ingenuity of the hero using a tank of compressed air as a bomb.

 

Grim Reapers)

Monsters are, of course, also associated with a specific form of destruction: death.

In the animal kingdom we have two states that define the endpoints of a creature’s life. There is the birth, which is an act of creation. Then there is the death, which is an act of destruction. We rejoice in the first, and assign to it feelings of love and peace. We agonize over the second, and assign to it feelings of hatred and fear.

Death can come peacefully, but inherent in all of us is a fear that it might not. There are few things that terrify us more than a savage end. A fear we not only share universally as a people, but with the entire animal kingdom. Every creature shows intense fear for its own demise. It is not a vain fear either, nature is full of those that seek to bring early and violent ends to every form of life. Nature is full of hunters. Which brings us to our next point: in the world of nature, death is almost always followed by eating.

 

Many Teeth)

Almost every monster we conceive of has some fascinating mode of ingesting others. In fact some of the most common characteristics among them are many pointy teeth and oversized mouths.

This act of a predator eating its prey is a true horror, but also a fascination. It couples something we dread with something we enjoy. Eating provides us our daily sustenance, after all. It is an experience we take sensual pleasure in. Psychologists have long been aware of the satisfaction of hand-to-mouth movements. To not eat would be to die.

Eating, then, is the nexus by which one entity’s death becomes the life-sustenance in another. Moments of contrast, such as this, are always the ones that grip our curiosities most strongly. It creates in us a strange mixture of feelings, one where we find pleasure in the very thing that horrifies us. We don’t want to watch…but we do want to.

 

The Loss of Self)

But what exactly gets eaten? Certainly the body in the simplest of cases, but our imagined monstrosities have become incredibly complex over the years. We have invented monsters to feast upon any component that we feel defines us. So the dementors swallow the soul, the zombies feast on the mind, and the one ring consumes the will. The soul, the mind, and the will; these are all things that we define our individuality by, and therefore things we fear having taken from us. Perhaps that part of us is destroyed, or perhaps it is assimilated against our will. In either case that core life force is taken from us and given to another.

Which leads to another interesting correlation between monsters and their preferred food. Many times the creature wishes to eat that which they are forever absent of, meaning they are an abyss that can never be filled. The dementor that sucks out the soul has no soul of its own. The zombies are defined by their own lack of any rational mind. The one ring is an inanimate object, and so has no personal will. Their sole function is to take what they cannot have, a ravenous hunger without end.

I tried to follow this pattern with my “void” monster in last week’s story Cael: Darkness and Light. Here the monster was a massive, undulating cloud, devoid of any specific form or definition. It crept forward and consumed all forms that it encountered indiscriminately, folding them forever into its nothingness.

Now I would like to that same idea again: create an entity that is devoid physical form and have it consume all other things that are better defined. This time, though, I am going to incorporate one final theme of monstrosity into it.

 

We Are Our Monsters)

A common interpretation of monsters is that they are our own worst parts, which if not kept in check will consume/ingest the good. Dr Jekyll gradually has all his kind qualities overtaken by the cruel Mr Hyde, and eloquent Larry Talbot transforms into the drooling werewolf.

In some ways this might be the loss of self that we fear most of all. And we feel it is not a quiet, peaceful loss either, one that can only occur by our worse nature violently taking the reins from our kinder spirits. Once that defeat occurs, all the goodness we once knew becomes fuel for the ravenous beast to grow on.

On Thursday I will present the first half of a story where damning character flaws create a conflict. Then, in the second half that conflict will give rise to a mindless entity that represents karma and reciprocal cause and effect. The actions of the main characters will lead to its perpetual increase to the literal point of bursting. Come back then to see how it turns out.

 

Mostly Familiar…Mostly

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So here we are with a new week and a new series! Today I thought I would talk about a pattern of storytelling that is so ubiquitous it can very easily be overlooked. The pattern goes like this: an author writes a story that takes place in a real-life setting. The world is populated them with life-like characters, and they all have real-life problems to deal with. Then, from that entirely ordinary foundation the world suddenly diverges into the fantastic!

From the Oracle’s prophecies in Oedipus to a simple, magical wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, to the superpower effects of radiation in Spider-Man, we love to take our plain and mundane world and inject a little magic into it. Think about how this pattern applies to Harry Potter, Stranger Things, The Matrix, Midnight Special, Cloverfield, Men in Black, Field of Dreams, Back to the Future, E.T., A Wrinkle in Time, Escape to Witch Mountain, Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, War of the Worlds, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan…I could go on for a while.

What is it about this formula that makes it so popular across all times and cultures of literature? Well, I can think of two elements.

 

To Explore)

First and foremost I believe that there is a thirst for fantasy and adventure baked into our very bones. Mankind was destined not only to live, but to thrive. We feel hunger and fatigue to ensure that our bodies will survive, but we also have wanderlust and fantasies to ensure that our spirits will, too.

Invention, exploration, creation…these are attributes inseparable from our history. We are where we are today only because of our unique ability to imagine a world different from our own. People conceived of steam power, printing presses, and sailing ships first as fantasies, and then they found ways to bring each of them to life.

But though every invention may have begun as a fantasy, it still had to somehow be grounded in reality, or else it could have never come to be. A great leap has to be launched into from the feet being firmly planted in the now. If you fantasize about the future world only in media res, with no thought for how you get to there from here, then it will never be anything real. To sail around the world you first must obtaining a ship.

How fitting, then, that all of the stories I listed above begin in the present, the familiar, the mundane, and then progress into the unknown. And where once Georges Méliès fantasized about everyday scientists building a rocket to go to the moon, now that that fantasy has become real it has been reimagined as a man being stranded on Mars in The Martian.

And that will ever be the pattern of things. People will never stop exploring, they will never cease to push further. Perhaps early man thought that if he only had a way to grow crops he and his family would be forever content. And then perhaps the medieval man thought all he needed was a way to light the streets at night. And then post-industrial era man simply wished for a way to fly through the sky.

The truth is it isn’t about having the food, the electricity, or the airplane, it is about taking what we have and making something more of it. As I said, it is baked into our bones. The inventors will continue to invent and the researchers continue to research. And as they do, the story-tellers will continue to weave tales of everyday people discovering new worlds.

 

To Find Truth)

The other reason why we love these stories is because they suggest that there are bigger truths out there than immediately meets the eye. Truths that most people are blind to, but once seen open up entire new worlds of possibilities. Mankind has a natural tendency to believe that there is something greater at play in our lives, whether it be God, Karma, nature, or something we do not even know the name of. Each of us hopes to be reached out to by that higher truth, and be taken from where we are now into a greater world.

So we seek out religion, civic office, or just being a nice person to those around us. We’re hoping to find a purpose, a calling, some great mystery that we were born to unravel. Skeptics may suggest that these are merely delusions of grandeur, but there is no denying that we come by these feelings naturally. They are in us, that is unavoidable, and we feel that there must be a reason for them. The author takes these feelings and paints them into a story.

Those stories tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern. First the main characters needs to be drawn into the fold, they need to pass through some sort of matrix or portal before they can witness the magic that they had previously been blind to. They are initiated into the truth, and then quickly discover their real self and purpose.

This new paradigm is not merely a side-venture for the hero, either. Where at first the magic was tucked away in a small corner where it could hardly be seen at all, eventually it will either overtake the natural world or else absorb the main character into its confines entirely. If the hero ever does go back to “ordinary life,” they will do so only as a permanently changed individual. The truth of that mystic world lives in them now, and will permeate through every moment hereafter.

Those that have felt called to something higher in real life will realize that these sorts of stories are not works of fiction at all. There may not be wizards or aliens or parallel worlds, but the themes behind them are as real as anything.

 

Perhaps these two reasons for why we tell stories that blend reality and fantasy are really just two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we explore to find truth, and perhaps we only find our true calling in exploration. In any case, these movements run deep within us and I suspect they always will. Never mind what summits we achieve, we will always find roots of the great unknown reaching through the familiar, calling us to follow.

On Thursday I’d like to expand to try my hand at a story that is set in a modern, realistic setting, but which bit-by-bit leads into the fantastic. And in this story I want to particularly focus on the sequential progression into greater and greater fantasy. I don’t want to start to tease the new world and then fully leap straight into it, I want it to bleed into our world more and more. Come on Thursday to see how it turns out.