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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
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Monday, 2 November 2015

When Monsters Are Friends: The New World of Romance (Part 2)

Hello hello!

Before we go any further, please be aware that I WILL be talking about abuse, mental health issues, and physical health issues in the context of metaphor and real life. Brace yourselves. This is a trigger warning of the most sincere kind; for here be monsters.

Monsters are everywhere. I knew this when I was a little girl, and I was firmly convinced of it--shadows moved at night. Edging my foot over the side of the bed would be a step too far, enough to alert the crawling, creeping horrors lurking in the darkness of my room. Seething shapes with claws and red eyes and teeth waited in the back of my mind, torturing a vivid imagination. Sometimes they looked like raptors from Jurassic Park--cheesy now, but terrifying to my childhood self. The shark from Jaws looks quite fake now, laughably so, but back then, its churning maw and darkly thrashing fins kept me shaking in my flippers when I ventured into the deep end of the pool.

The monsters didn't go away as I got older--or, they did, but just became rarer. Side effects of an over-active imagination, I knew, but it didn't make them less scary. Stringy-haired young girls in white gowns, their long black hair draping over broken, distorted limbs, crawled through my nightmares. Long-clawed shadows made me watch the windows tensely, well into my late teens--just in case something was moving out there. Something that wasn't the neighbour's dog or a wandering coyote.

In university, a visualization exercise involving a misshapen, enormous, leather-winged beast had my heart racing even as I walked the corridors in full daylight. My partner introduced me to Lovecraft, and I shuddered over descriptions of cannibalism and nameless wraiths and vile magicians. And at some point, in the middle of it all, Twilight happened.

"Sparkly Vampires"

Everyone across the internet--and off of it, in fact--seems to understand what is meant by "sparkly vampires". And while those vampires are technically much closer to mythical portrayals of fey, the concept of effete, weak, sulky, ridiculous creatures was still cemented firmly in public imagination. Say the phrase "sparkly vampires" and people will know that you're referring not only to soppy portrayals of the legendary sanguinarian revenants, but to crappy, overly romanticized monsters in general.

Except...there's a merit to softening and humanizing our monsters. By making the vampires "nice", Meyer made them accessible, relateable. The way she did it--and especially her prose--bear some critique, but the yearning, angry isolation, and discontent within a world of privilege that Edward and the other vamps express--those clearly spoke to people around the world. The vamps may live on animal blood, but their supernatural abilities and other traits make them "different"--and all those differences are for the sole purpose of predation. Even love cannot make a monster cease to exist, or fix its true nature. And yet, love persisted, even though both Bella and Edward knew it was a bad, unhealthy idea. This is what spoke to so many people, something true that even purple prose and sighing, dull, sullen teenagers could not conceal: sometimes, love is bad for you, and sometimes, one loves "not too wisely, but too well". We abandon sense and logic and doing utterly horrible things in the name of that insanity-inducing hormonal cocktail of emotion.

"Why be nice? They're monsters!" 

Going back to the sparkly monsters and complaints about wussy shifters, it's worth looking at why people express cognitive dissonance at the idea of a less violent monster. Surely, the point of a monster is to be a villain, antagonist, or threat. Monsters, by their nature, cannot be wholly good. But Not being wholly good does not actually require being wholly evil. And that moral ambiguity allows people to insert themselves in the monster's shoes. Sex without consequences, without the need for reproduction? For a lot of people, especially those from Christian backgrounds, the idea of such a "sin" is seductive and tainted. And a high, consequence-free sex drive is just the beginning.

It allows us to deal with negative or shadow traits within ourselves and other people without rejecting or denying their nature. People can do good or bad things, and not simply be accepted or rejected based on arbitrary ideas of 'good' and 'evil'--human nature and human actions are complex; in addition to all the niggling little moral arguments, there's also the simple fact that 'good' people do bad things. Winston Churchill tested mustard gas on innocent people in Kurdish villages; Mahatma Gandhi was misogynistic and racist; Hitler was a vegetarian who was kind to, and loved, animals. Unfortunately, even the worst and best people that humanity has to offer have a mix of traits which represent complexity--on a micro scale, this means that people we love, care about, and who try to do the right thing most of the time can abuse us, commit acts of assault on others, or make individually harmful stupid choices.

It also allows us to own the harmful elements in ourselves, while both externalizing and accepting them as necessary.Another case--someone may have a physical or mental illness that makes it hard for them not to harm others, such as people who have developmental difficulties or who cannot control their muscles at times. If an epileptic nephew punches you in the face during a seizure, is it his fault? Or--if a lover screams at you while xe is having a bipolar episode, is it their fault? In the second case, the answer may be more than a simple 'yes' or 'no', but one argument does not cause for dissolution of a relationship make.

Wait, so how does this relate to monsters again? 

In a way, werewolves and shifters are like people with mental illnesses--yes, those illnesses can hobble us. Like a wolf, being confined to one's home for three days, avoiding others for fear of hurting them, having to undertake rituals to control the issue, people with these illnesses and problems can feel controlled by them. But they can also be a source of identity and wholeness.

In Gestalt theory, "wholeness" is the end result; achieving it can take a variety of paths. Similarly,  Jung's famous shadow-self theories have importance. We cannot accept ourselves as we are, nor can we improve our lives, if we ignore reality and our limitations. A werewolf is disabled by bloodlust and transformation for three days out of the month--or more, depending on the mythos. A vampire must cope with physical and dietary limits as well as emotional and mental limits. Just as people with disabilities sometimes or often develop strengths to compensate for or as a result of their experiences, both magical and more realistic limitations on life leave their mark.

Obviously, this does *not* ring true for everyone with a disability, or other life issues such as addictions, or even for every "normal" (whatever that means) person struggling with a dark side. But for some of us, it does, and having realistic monsters has real value.

And finally...

When I curled up in the throes of depression this weekend, doubled over and crying in despair, the problem was mostly a lack of meds to balance out some neurochemical issues. My hair fell down around my face, and I crawled on hands and knees to a safer, darker space. I was wearing torn clothes--a ragged layered skirt and raveling cotton shirt, unsuccessfully tea-died and denuded of sleeves long ago. But in my head, it seemed like a good idea to just lie there, die, and haunt the closet until some university kid came to rent the place.  I looked like a ghost, and felt like one, and in that moment, I knew what it was to really be one of the monsters.

And it was okay--not just because I chose to fight those feelings, but because they were mine. Eventually, my partner came in, offered me a hand, and helped me climb out of the pile of blankets I'd been crouching in. We visited his family. I tried a higher dose of meds, which worked. But for a while, in the 3 a.m. darkness, I let myself feel what needed to be felt. And then I came back.

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Leave your comments, rebuttals, and vehement agreements below. Don't miss any of the phuquerie--get on the mailing list. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

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