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Note 9: Monster horror
Creature Features FTW!
Welcome to the final installment of Notes from the Void for the month of October. This week, I’ll be wrapping up my horror tour with monster horror, so keep reading.
Before I get to that, I probably convinced an AI over at Google that I’m flirting with suicidality given my search queries this afternoon trying to unearth a movie quote that’s flitting on the edge of my brain. It involves someone with precognitive abilities telling another character that they can’t see the future any more. If they push beyond a certain point, all they encounter is darkness and emptiness, as if they’ve gone too far. (If you know what I may be trying to mentally grasp, post a link in the comments to help me put my mind at ease.)
I thought that would be a great clip to open up this newsletter, given that’s pretty much where my brain is at regarding the state of the world after next Tuesday’s election. One of two things will happen: we (as a nation) will either endorse the rancid corruption that is Trumpism, or we’ll send the man packing and start the process of putting our world back together again. When I try to think a week or two ahead of time, it’s pretty difficult. I know that I’ll be elated and satisfied should Biden win (not unlike how things felt the week after the Cubs broke their curse), and I don’t know what I’ll feel like should we be in line for another four years of elevating incompetence and ignorance as virtues. Might be a decent time to start taking Chinese language lessons, if the West decides that it no longer wants to lead in a constructive fashion.
In any case, that’s next week. I’ll be working the election again this year and I spent a good part of the last weekend taking an online course to replace the in-person instruction about how to run an election that happens each time before a contest. And I’ll readily admit that I’m very thankful that I’m not a school-aged child at the moment. A half-day of slideshows and videos as a stand-in for human instruction was more than enough for me!
Thar be dragons!
This week’s final October installment about horror will be focused on my favorite flavor of the horror genre: monster horror. I tend to have a rule when it comes to the horror that I enjoy – there must either be a supernatural angle to it, or it must feature monsters of some kind. I’m not a fan of horror missing those elements – I still haven’t seen any of the Saw films and will avoid anything Eli Roth is producing. I figure that we see enough human-generated depravity in the real world that I don’t need to turn the dial up to 11 with murder and torture porn.
When it comes to monster horror, my favorite kind is the one where the monster isn’t revealed until later in the film and largely acts outside the direct observation of the human characters and the reader/viewer. I like enough hints to indicate that we’re dealing with something outside our regular frame of reference, and the story is largely an exercise in trial and error as our characters go through a series of trials before discovering the solution to the dealing with the monster.
While cheesy and campy, one of the films that does this very well was the original Tremors film:
Until the scene above, our heroes don’t know what they’re dealing with. Is it a bunch of prehistoric snakes? How do they find and kill their prey? The rest of the film is a basic course in the scientific method where various approaches are hypothesized, tested, and evaluated until the small town figures out how to not get eaten.
John McTiernan’s Predator follows a similar formula:
It isn’t until we get to the point where Dutch goes one on one with his hunter that we finally see what he’s up against:
Where this kind of story really shines is when it sends you off in a false direction before bringing you back around to what the actual monster is. Ridley Scott’s Alien provided a nice head-fake with its “facehuggers”:
It’s not until we go through a good chest bursting scene and the alien matures a bit that we find out what the crew of the Nostromo is really dealing with:
This is an effective formula, but its success hinges on what I call the “Show me the Monster!” Moment, where the antagonist is fully revealed. The films mentioned above pull that off in spades, because they have compelling monsters. One film that failed in that aspect was M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.
Now, before I go into details, let me state that I found the first three-quarters of Signs to be utterly terrifying. I grew up in the Land of Enchantment, so stories about alien invasions and abductions are baked into my psyche much more thoroughly than any other form of mythic monsters.
Scenes like this had me on the edge of my seat and audibly yelping in the theater:
I had a barn growing up and Shyamalan put to film a scene that I had imagined countless times on moonless nights walking around outside.
Unfortunately, the film falls flat on its face as soon as we get to the monster reveal:
The reveal and creature design isn’t bad on its own, but Shyamalan’s deus ex machina that serves as The Twist in this film completely neuters whatever terror the aliens might have banked previously.
(And for crying out loud, what kind of alien race invades a world that’s primarily covered and saturated with caustic substances? It would be like humans planning to invade Planet Hydrochloric Acid.)
So, those are a few examples of the Man vs. Monster formula that’s a solid recipe for a midnight movie. What about Monster vs. Man, where the roles are switched? This is also a rich vein to tap, with one of the earliest examples being Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein:
Clive Barker explored this theme in Nightbreed where a subterranean colony of various ancient creatures are just seeking to be left alone (an inhuman intentional community, perhaps?), when humanity inevitably intrudes:
The best modern spokesman for the Monster Story is Guillermo del Toro and how he uses monsters to reflect the best and worst of humanity:
And speaking of the “monster romance” subgenre, I have to highlight my favorite independent filmmakers, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, and their film Spring:
So, given that the monster horror genre is a rich playground for storytelling, let’s get back to the reason for the season and discuss the one monster that I’ve encountered in literature and film that still gives me the willies. From H.P. Lovecraft’s 1933 tale The Dreams in the Witch House:
The dreams were wholly beyond the pale of sanity, and Gilman felt that they must be a result, jointly, of his studies in mathematics and in folklore. He had been thinking too much about the vague regions which his formulae told him must lie beyond the three dimensions we know, and about the possibility that old Keziah Mason—guided by some influence past all conjecture—had actually found the gate to those regions. The yellowed county records containing her testimony and that of her accusers were so damnably suggestive of things beyond human experience—and the descriptions of the darting little furry object which served as her familiar were so painfully realistic despite their incredible details.
That object—no larger than a good-sized rat and quaintly called by the townspeople “Brown Jenkin”—seemed to have been the fruit of a remarkable case of sympathetic herd-delusion, for in 1692 no less than eleven persons had testified to glimpsing it. There were recent rumours, too, with a baffling and disconcerting amount of agreement. Witnesses said it had long hair and the shape of a rat, but that its sharp-toothed, bearded face was evilly human while its paws were like tiny human hands. It took messages betwixt old Keziah and the devil, and was nursed on the witch’s blood—which it sucked like a vampire. Its voice was a kind of loathsome titter, and it could speak all languages. Of all the bizarre monstrosities in Gilman’s dreams, nothing filled him with greater panic and nausea than this blasphemous and diminutive hybrid, whose image flitted across his vision in a form a thousandfold more hateful than anything his waking mind had deduced from the ancient records and the modern whispers.
Chicago’s own Stuart Gordon had a solid cinematic take on the witch’s familiar:
While the witch Keziah Mason serves as the primary villain in that story, Brown Jenkin engages in plenty of mayhem himself, and thinking of that rodent with a human face still gives me chills just as cold as the first time I read that story. Throw shoggoths, nightgaunts, and anything else from Lovecraft’s beastiary at me - just keep Brown Jenkin far away!
As mentioned earlier, the upcoming election is the biggest local happening on the horizon, but we’re also putting a small Halloween community event within Fremont Place. We have plenty of kids who are just becoming old enough to start trick-or-treating, and a good number of the residents will be available and handing out treats in our courtyard. Hopefully the weather cooperate and we’ll have a good time.
In other news, I’ve started thinking ahead to the holiday season and what I want to do to prepare for it. Due to COVID, we’re staying put for Thanksgiving, and I’ll start shopping piecemeal for that day of cooking after Halloween and the election is over. Unfortunately, another casualty of the COVID pandemic is the annual Chicago Thanksgiving parade. I usually use it as a backdrop for my cooking on Thanksgiving morning. This year, it’s been cancelled outright, and it looks like I’ll be availing myself to whatever New York City ends up producing for that meal preparation. This is a major bummer, and I’m not happy about it. (I’m mad at COVID, not at the City for doing the smart thing and calling it off.)
I’m in the middle of a week with over 20 hours of meetings, and they’re eating me alive. I feel like I’m spending more time talking about the work that I’m trying to get done instead of knocking it out proper. Hopefully this week is an outlier, and we’ll get back to a saner schedule next week.
Interesting reads and watches
Apple, Google and a Deal That Controls the Internet (New York Times)
As Election Nears, Trump Makes a Final Push Against Climate Science (New York Times)
That’s all for me today, CMDRs. I hope you enjoyed this month’s digression into horror storytelling as much as I enjoyed putting it together. Rank punditry and random musings will resume with next week’s newsletter.
(Assuming that there is a next week…)