One thing I love about studying monsters is that stories have quite literally always contained them. There is arguably something universal, or near-universal, about imagining these unique, often antagonistic beings and situating them among their non-monstrous counterparts. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, is the first story we know of that was written down instead of transmitted orally. Etched first in a language called Akkadian (and then in other languages), on stones that have become faded and smooth so that some parts of the story are now indecipherable, the tale of Gilgamesh (technically a poem) tells us about a warrior, Gilgamesh, and the difficulty he experiences when losing his friend Enkidu and facing the reality of his own mortality – a difficulty that at some point in our lives, we’ve probably all been able to understand. After all, the thought of dying is scary.
On Gilgamesh’s initial journey with his bestie, Enkidu, one of his goals is to slay the forest monster Humbaba – a task that is framed in different lights, depending on which version of the story you read. I find it fascinating that both the monster and the monster hunter exist in the world’s earliest written story, and this complicated binary persists through the ages, up to both early and contemporary horror films. It is interesting, I think, to consider what we can learn from monsters, monster hunters, and the relationship between the two beings. Various monster theorists take up the subject of the monster and the monster hunter, but the topic is not central to most Monster Theory. To be honest, it’s not a relationship that’s proven central to my work so far – part of the reason why I want to give it some attention tonight. I argue in this piece that the role between the monster and the monster hunter is rarely simple, and that we have much to learn from their relationship, and how it transforms through space and time.
I didn’t grow up fat.
I was a hefty baby—a 9-pounder, to be precise—and at different points in
my childhood, a chubbier, sometimes stockier kid, but never fat, per se, and for the first half of
my 20’s, I was 5’3” and 125 lbs, give or take – a frame that we offhandedly
consider average in our society, but that is actually well below the average female
frame. And while I’ve heard that it’s
fairly “normal” to be a size 16-18, four years after gaining most of my weight,
my emergence into a larger body is still a sometimes strange, uncomfortable, jarring
experience, and I’ve only recently started to identify as “fat.” Once I realized that I officially qualified
(it’s kind of like realizing you’re an alcoholic, which I discovered so many years
ago—suddenly, you just know), I wasn’t too
hesitant to call myself what I felt I was, on twitter, and now on my blog. It can be intimidating to try to appropriate,
to try to re-claim a term that’s been used for years to oppress larger women and
shame overweight people, but it’s also liberating to say “this is me—not the
whole of who I am, but part of how I identify, nevertheless.”
There are probably a lot of reasons why Wicked was my favorite book to read with my students during my Reading the Monster course. This assertion may be surprising, on the one
hand, because Wicked doesn’t fall
under the traditional “horror” umbrella like many other texts on the syllabus. And, as is obvious from reading this blog,
I’m an avid fan and proponent of what might be called, more specifically,
“art-horror”—the creation of fictional horrific events, morphed into cinematic
and literary experiences. Conversely,
there’s so much imagination, and so much problematization (a la fiction) packed
into Wicked, that Gregory Maguire’s book
provides plenty of fodder for speculation, discussion, and debate, even as it
delights, challenges, and entertains—all on a fairly consistent basis. What’s
more—and this may be a far from ancillary point—I taught Wicked after my dreaded comprehensive examination was (more or
less) over, so I had more time to put toward lesson planning and making the
text particularly engaging to students.
The emerging result, for me, was a stronger interest in a text that I
already enjoyed, but that I didn’t fully appreciate until reading a second time.
W. Scott Poole quotes Judith Halberstam, who calls the monster a “meaning machine.” This observation seems to suggest that the monster is always overdetermined – that the monstrous body in a particular work can mean a variety of things in any given time and place. Poole agrees with Halberstam when he argues: “The subject of monsters contains too much meaning” and goes on to observe that “the very messiness of the monster makes it a perfect entry into understanding the messiness of American history” (xv). In Monster Theory, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen lays out the seven theses of the monster, and his first theses is that “the monster body is a cultural body” (4). Cohen also believes that we can read the monster, but the monster’s meaning always has a basis in the culture that surrounds it. While Poole asserts that monsters are indisputably real—created by material circumstances and producing material consequences – Calafell, who bases her readings heavily on Poole and Cohen, find the monster a useful metaphor for describing problematic identity relations in the United States; she seems to embrace both a metaphorical reading of the monster and the contention that monsters can be very real, at times.
On Christmas morning my parents and I packed the car and headed to Ohio to visit family. While many travelers are likely to bring a book with them on such a trip, I tend to be reading many books at once, and I always have trouble discerning what texts future Kalie will be in the mood to peruse, so I brought a bag of books, just to read in my hotel room post-Christmas day festivities. We got back to the hotel a little before midnight, and while my plan had been to sit down and read, it occurred to me that maybe I’d like to ramble on just a little bit about what I’m reading right now, instead of picking up a book ASAP. As such, I emptied the contents of my bag of indecision on the spare bed in the hotel room, and I snapped a picture of the books I’m going to discuss. Since my focal areas are horror, monstrosity, and madness, the books predominantly fall under those subject areas, with considerable variation under that broader umbrella.
Anthony Perkins is Norman Bates. Point blank. There are no two ways about it. Except, of course, when he isn’t Norman Bates. And what an unusual experience it is to envision someone else fulfilling the role, especially since it’s been years since I’ve seen the Gus Van Sant remake. The beauty of the comprehensive exam is that I can select the books I put on my lists (based on a unifying theme), and I was really excited to add Robert Bloch’s Psycho. Of course, I’ve seen the original movie many-a times, but I’ve never read the text, and like any horror fan, I was immediately interested in how the novel would compare with the film. I decided, then, to do what I did with The Shining. In “Let’s Not Overlook Anything” I blogged about the Shining in small increments and spent a considerable amount of blog space discussing one or two scenes. I decided I would do the same with the text Psycho – blog a little bit about each section as I read it. So this is my “insanely long series,” my observations about Bloch’s Psycho. And my first observation is that Bloch’s Norman Bates is fascinating.
Tonight, I laughed at my imminent comp exam as I nestled in a couch corner and picked up a book of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories. Had I structured my exam differently, it’s quite possible these stories would have made the exam cut, but as it stands they’re only extra, unrelated reading that’s taking away from the time I’ve been devoting reading The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction (which, by the way, is incredibly interesting in and of itself, but a harder piece about which to write a post). My sister bought me Edith Wharton’s ghost stories last year for Christmas, but it’s taken me an entire year to write about one for my blog. This evening I sat down to a rather chilling tale called The Lady’s Maid’s Bell, and I decided I’d write a bit about it. According to the text’s introduction, this is Wharton’s most ambiguous ghost story, and after reading it, I think I can surmise why. Since it’s hard to write about a story in much detail without giving away the ending, this analysis will contain spoilers. If I were a better, or perhaps a more careful writer, I would be able to produce analysis without spoilers. But as it stands, I think I’ll have to say a fair deal about the story to analyze it.
Of Shakespeare’s sister that Virginia Woolf imagines in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf speculates: “Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly but was careful to hide them or set fire to them.” For some scholars of women’s literature, it’s fairly common to assume that there was a vendetta against the combination of women and work in Anglo-American history, and that stifling the ability to work– often forbidding, particularly, artistic expression – resulted in concomitant madness for oppressed women. It’s a common trope, although there were some significant historical exceptions to the rule. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’ve heard that Jane Austen had to hide her manuscript whenever a guest entered her room. And one must wonder, as VW did, what happened to the likely expansive throng of brilliant, would-be productive women who weren’t given a voice prior to, say, the Romantic or Victorian eras – or later. As an unrelated heads up, there will be spoilers throughout this piece!
I read Stephen King’s Misery earlier this summer for my comprehensive exams. Then, I let the book rest for a while and didn’t do much with it. It juxtaposes fascinatingly with the film, which depicts an Annie Wilkes who’s incredibly true to King’s story, courtesy of the monumentally talented Kathy Bates. And, like the film, it explores concepts like female madness, and madness depicted as monstrosity, but in more depth than the film does. Wilkes is at least a somewhat complex character who King—and his protagonist, Paul Sheldon—come close to virtually humanizing at times, despite her atrocious actions. But the fact remains: Annie Wilkes is a madwoman, and she’s depicted as a monstrous madwoman. I thought I’d use this post to look at more of Annie’s personality, and what the madwoman—and the monster woman—is, if we take Annie as an example of both. So, let’s do this. Continue reading “Objects of Abjection: The Mad Monster in Stephen King’s Misery”→
I can’t say I read many books about the writing process these days. To be sure, I have no vendetta against them – especially not when they’re written by accomplished authors. I remember, years ago, reading Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, in which she talks about taking life, and taking writing, step by step, the way her brother had to take a science project “bird by bird” when he stayed up to do it at the last minute. And in my early 20’s, I was obsessed with Mary Pipher’s Writing to Change the World. Pipher is the author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, and along with formulating the renowned theory that our society is taking something away from its girls during the transition from childhood to adulthood, she also sought to give people advice on how to write – especially on how to write in a way that would change things, that would make a difference. That was a fair undertaking, because Reviving Ophelia had made waves, and its theory still has resonance today, years later. Continue reading “Reading About Writing: Stephen King’s “On Writing””→