I Heart Monsters

As I have dipped my quill dain­ti­ly into the hor­ror inkwell once or

twice, it behooves me to spread my intense­ly lim­it­ed knowl­edge to the Inter­net-addict­ed mass­es. So for the month of Octo­ber I’ll be post­ing a whole mess of stuff about the genre. Most­ly just stuff I like, because I’m lazy that way.

The debut instal­ment: “I Heart Mon­sters,” a Last Word edi­to­r­i­al orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the pages of Quill & Quire, Novem­ber 2012 issue.

I dear­ly love mon­sters. But I’m not so good with hor­ror films. Such is the bifur­cat­ed nature of my exis­tence.

As a child, although I devoured Stephen King by the truck­load, I would wuss out at the mer­est hint of cin­e­mat­ic ter­ror. Rather than watch a giant shark munch on Robert Shaw, I’d sit on the stairs and let my sis­ters describe what hap­pened.

But I was a movie buff, and so one night, alone in my parent’s base­ment, I steeled up my courage and tuned in at mid­night to watch a grainy copy of Night of the Liv­ing Dead on tele­vi­sion. By the end cred­its, when poor

Duane Jones emerged from hours of night­mar­ish ter­ror only to be killed by one of his own, I had pret­ty much soiled myself.

I was hooked. No oth­er fic­tion­al monster—film, paper­bound, or otherwise—has ever affect­ed me on such a vis­cer­al lev­el. There’s some­thing des­per­ate­ly pri­mal about the dead ris­ing from the grave to feast, a qual­i­ty notice­ably absent from oth­er “mon­sters” hang­ing around the mul­ti­plex late­ly. In an age where every super­nat­ur­al ser­i­al killer wields a wicked way with wit, were­wolves have shirt aller­gies, and mopey sham­pires twin­kle about in the sun­light, the rot­ting flesh of the zom­bie is a breath of fresh air.

Ooh, we’re scary were­wolves! Grrr! Grrrrraww what’s the point? Some­one get me a shirt! Poly-cot­ton blend if pos­si­ble.

I knew I want­ed to write some­thing with a zom­bie as cen­tral char­ac­ter, some­thing as far away from the teeni­fi­ca­tion of my youth­ful ter­rors as pos­si­ble. There can be no romance in rot, I thought; lit­tle pas­sion in putre­fac­tion, few delights in decom­po­si­tion. I want­ed the mon­ster back; I want­ed gore, vio­lence, grit, screams, and the inges­tion of limbs. I want­ed my admit­ted­ly skewed sense of humour to mar­i­nate the meat of the plot, but leav­en it with sud­den spurts of blood and frag­ments of bone, ampli­fy­ing the scares like a Coen broth­ers film.

How­ev­er, a first-per­son account of a ghoul revealed a blem­ish in their per­fec­tion; as pro­tag­o­nist, your arche­typ­al ani­mat­ed cadav­er is unac­cept­ably tedious. Turns out, mon­sters lack­ing moti­va­tions make for won­der­ful vil­lains but are ter­ri­ble in lead­ing roles. Zom­bies dis­gust, hor­ri­fy, and act as metaphor for all man­ner of sub­text, but ask one to hold its own in a con­ver­sa­tion? You’re bet­ter off teach­ing a giant ape how to make snow angels. So by neces­si­ty, I was forced to tweak the mythos more than a lit­tle, although I was pos­i­tive I could main­tain the grind­house aura of my favourite fright flicks.

See? Now THIS is a grid­house zom­bie. (From Lucio Fulci’s glo­ri­ous­ly gory (gorious?)ZOMBIE [1979])

Let’s be hon­est: every author uses artis­tic license. I’m no lit­er­ary fun­da­men­tal­ist, demand­ing adher­ence to the canon. I can­not stand that clas­sic vam­pires are invis­i­ble to mir­rors; I can buy a super­nat­ur­al aller­gy to reli­gious sym­bols, but abstract trans­paren­cy nev­er sat right with me. Dit­to the require­ment of sil­ver bul­lets for were­wolf slay­ing, and defeat­ing barmy com­put­ers with log­i­cal para­dox­es.

Accord­ing­ly, I began with what I per­ceived as the essentials—putrid corpses sham­bling about as if they owned the place—and worked from there, graft­ing per­son­al­i­ty over­top the moul­der­ing meat. Allow­ing my crea­ture the plea­sure of a name helped; it’s less dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate mon­ster from man when the monster’s name is Shel­don. Shel­don must def­i­nite­ly be a card-car­ry­ing mem­ber of the unwill­ing­ly res­ur­rect­ed, I knew, yearn­ing for human lunch­ables, and he must strug­gle to cope with the aggra­va­tion of decay. Beyond that, I felt I could add some intel­li­gence, even a soul, if you will, and explore how far I could push a nether­world beast into the world.

I relo­cat­ed Shel­don from bone­yard to the realm of the ordi­nary Cana­di­an; the per­son who works for a liv­ing, pays his tax­es, feeds his cat, and cares for his ail­ing moth­er. The sto­ry would allow for gore galore—zombies with­out car­nage are like Scors­ese gang­ster epics edit­ed for tele­vi­sion; kind of okay, but you miss the obscenities—but lay­er­ing it would be the tra­vails of a man infect­ed with an ail­ment with no cure and hor­rif­ic side-effects.

Zom­bie with a soul! And rhythm! (from FIDO [2006])

Until I rec­og­nized, unex­pect­ed­ly, that what I had on my hands was not a mon­ster sto­ry at all. As I fol­lowed Shel­don from the morgue to his house to places beyond, the struc­ture of my planned crea­ture fea­ture sce­nario erod­ed away. No sur­vivors hid in cel­lars; no blood-soaked bat­tles waged through the pages; no post-apoc­a­lyp­tic waste­land beck­oned (although Toron­to came close). There was only a lone­ly fel­low, deal­ing with a less-than-win­ning hand in life’s rigged pok­er game. And despite all my efforts to the con­trary, despite my insis­tence that I wouldn’t fall into the same trap as so many oth­ers, the “mon­ster” in my mon­ster ceased to be.

I know there will be read­ers as sim­i­lar­ly dis­mis­sive of a moral­ly con­flict­ed ghoul as I am of shim­mer­ing vamps (it always comes back to that, doesn’t it?). They will harp that inner con­flict has no place in our mon­sters. To which I reply, why not? I now believe that under­stand­ing a mon­ster does not take away from hor­ror; rather, it adds to it. Allow­ing for a mod­icum of empa­thy accen­tu­ates the hor­ror by giv­ing us an idea of how we might react under the same cir­cum­stances, a prospect far scari­er and more emo­tion­al­ly sat­is­fy­ing.

After all, how do you know you wouldn’t eat a hobo if zomb­i­fi­ca­tion took hold?

How do you know you wouldn’t like it?