I received a lot of messages about my recent talk at Malaprops in Asheville, NC. I had planned to talk about love and monsters, worked a week on the talk, writing it all out. On the day of, I decided the folks out at the bookstore coffee shop on a Friday night would probably not want to hear a lecture. It just sounded too professorial to me. I scrapped it, did a reading, talked off the top of my head and answered a ton of great questions from a small but highly enthusiastic audience. The went out to The Thirsty Monk.
Anyway, I still had this whole talk I had put together. So, I decided I would throw it out to you here, especially for those of you interested in how I would explore the topic in depth.
Also, cast a vote for Monsters in America in the Rondo Awards. Its up for best book and I’d appreciate your vote. Anyway, love and monsters…
You know I Love the Bride of Frankenstein. You also can probably guess I think it’s the perfect film for a monstrous Valentines Day (with a side of the original My Bloody Valentine).
Of course, I think its good for any day of the year. There are a million reasons why I love Bride so much. James Whale, the openly gay director whose story novelist Christopher Bram tells in Gods and Monsters, brought a campy, mid-century gay sensibility to the film that accounts for its utterly off-kilter humor. There are little people in jars and barely disguised sexual innuendo, so much so that you can’t even call it innuendo.
Not surprisingly, there’s a pleasantly subversive homoerotic subtext to the story. It’s in part a story about procreation…the story of Dr. Pretorius (played by Ernest Thesiger who, along with being an extraordinarily talented actor, was what was called in the 1930s a “female impersonator”) and Dr. Frankenstein’s relationship. They are two men seeking to procreate, to create “a new world of Gods and Monsters.”
Very kinky stuff, circa 1935. Men are the generative force in this film and Pretorius interrupts (with all the diverse meaning that go along with this) the wedding night of Victor and Elizabeth and gets Victor out to his workshop of black magic and weird science. Coitus interruptus leads to Monstrum creatio.
Of course, everybody talks about the gay sensibility in the Bride of Frankenstein. Often forgotten is the Bride herself. She is my favorite monster in part for the reason everybody likes her…she looks like a masterful piece of art deco design.
But a lot more is happening here. Her only real scene in the film has her coming to life in what can only be described as a wedding gown that looks like a shroud or maybe a shroud that looks like a wedding gown. She is, after all, first and foremost, “The Bride.”
She’s also the new Eve, born from body parts much like the original Eve in the biblical text. Her Maker(s) fashion her as helpmate to her monstrous Adam. Here’s where the biblical analogy breaks down, or I should say, where the Bride forces it to break down. She screams when her fate is presented to her, a scream that feels more like Johnny Rotten’s 70’s than James Whale’s 30’s. Her scream, literally, brings the house down. She refuses the Makers intentions.
Maybe I’ve made a mistake here? Maybe love and monsters don’t really go together. Maybe love as it’s currently constructed (especially by florists and card companies on Valentine’s Day) doesn’t match up with the monster’s subversive power that would make you eat your greeting card and then would eat you.
Certain strains of the classical tradition would agree. For the Platonic tradition, and to a lesser degree Aristotle, love reaches beyond itself to seek perfection. We love the Form of the Beautiful in the other and literally go out beyond the parameters of the self in our obsession with that Form. When we fall in love, part of what happens to us is that we are reaching toward out telos, our true end.
And yet, for Aristotle, the monster (and he was pretty interested in monsters because of his fascination with the natural world and where things fit into it) is by definition a thing that has not reached its telos. It has been malformed and misshapen in some way. Monsters can’t reach out toward the beautiful as they themselves are like misshapen pottery. Love and Monsters…it can’t happen.
But move over Aristotle, here comes Bill and Eric from True Blood, chiseled six-packs, interesting accents, literally dripping with the promise of sex that is very, very wrong and very, very awesome. Abs like that, who cares if they haven’t reached their telos?
Maybe the vampire is a special case when it comes to love and monsters? Maybe they are a monster we have shaped for this purpose? We have to consider the possibility that the vamp is no monster in the classical sense, that they actually are really naughty Forms of the Beautiful. Maybe they are loved because they are pop culture representations of an imagined telos, a life perpetual and perpetually full of the enjoyment of the senses…an eternity to enjoy fleshly delights in bodies that remain uncorrupt. This is a strange dream of the Beautiful but not so different from certain theological dreams of eternity.
It was not always so of course. In eastern European folklore, vampires are no sex symbols. They are more like the creatures of Steve Niles 30 Days of Night, creatures of pure blood and death, a ferocious combination of avian and serpent and jungle cat.
Bram Stoker changed all of that, forever. His Dracula became the perfect monster for the new Freudian paradigm…a bloodthirsty Id making every man and woman in a mile radius tell their Superego to take a hike.
When Jonathan Harker meets the Brides of Dracula, he certainly drops his Victorian fastidiousness. And by the way, so does Stoker when he describes it
“the fair girl went down on her knees and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness that was both thrilling and repulsive and as she arched her neck she fairly licked her lips like some animal. I could feel the soft shivering touch of her lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there.”
(Is it just me or is it warm in here?)
Bela Lugosi, a real live sex symbol in opera clothes, would ensure that sex would be integral to the narrative of the 20th and 21st century vampire. Anne Rice gave us the brooding and tormented vampire, setting the stage for Angel, Spike and Bill—Monsters loved and in love.
Putting vampires and their erotic appeal aside for a moment, can the monstrous offer any other knowledge of human love? Are they only either sex machines or machines bent on our destruction…either delight or dismembering?
But maybe those of us a little too obsessed with the pop culture of the moment are too jaded by the gaggle of romantic vampires to notice just how interesting this all is. What we are really talking about are narratives where we resist our cultural tendencies to define the parameters of the normal. Perhaps we are slowly giving up a 2,500 year addiction to defining the parameters of the normal. Maybe, at last,we are up for reimagining the human.
In Monsters in America, I spend some time with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not going back over the “Buffy as feminist” discussion but rather exploring the idea of loving the monster-indeed not just romantically but with philia…the love of friendship, companionship and mutual help. In Buffy we have the creation of a monster-human community…its not just the thrill of sex, it’s the thrill of befriending the Other.
But what can you possibly say about our other monster of the moment, our monster du jour, the zombie. They certainly aren’t sexy.
But they do register our fascination with the body. The zombie is, above all, gross-in appearance, in behavior and in appetites. In a certain sense, they are the ultimate nightmare of the dieting culture—unable to stop eating while their bodies decay, rot and become repulsive.
But leaving the hungry and bloodsucking undead behind, I come back to Frankenstein and his runaway Bride.
There is a terrible sadness about the Monster, one really even more poignant in Shelly’s novel and an undercurrent in Bride of Frankenstein. The creature is alone and seeks the companionship of human beings, who run in terror. He seeks a Bride (and in both the novel and the film finds no fulfillment) and at last seeks some kind of reunion with his creator.
We have become so used to hearing and seeing Frankenstein used as the ultimate symbol for science run amok and associated posthuman terrors that we forget this element. This is a novel about the tragic sense of life, the monster as a metaphor for the emptiness of the universe we all must face at last.
When Shelley’s novel first appeared, a critic in The Quarterly Review rather strikingly said of it, “The creature has the good sense to detest his creator for imposing on him such a horrifying burden as conscious existence.” The love that dare not speaks it name here is a cold love for a desolate and uncaring universe, a love that finds expression not in the erotic but in what Freud understood as the sublimation of some of our most terrifying urges, our death drives. “We belong dead,” announces the Monster at the end of Bride of Frankenstein.
So, love and monsters is clearly a more complicated topic than I can explore here. As I say in Monsters in America, I take my Monsters seriously. Their meanings run down to the roots of who we are and what we love.