Tuesday, July 17, 2012


One of my podcasts in the queue today was a round table panel thing about Monsters. It had a lot of silly things to say, as well as a number of insightful things. Because a lot of the people had an academic background, there was a fair bit of talk about monsters as "discursive" and "performative" and etymological analysis of the word monster. And then there was also China Mieville, who pointed out that the thing about monsters is that Jeffrey Dahmer is a monster, but so is Grover from Sesame Street. He also brought Pokemon into the discussion, which I think was something that it needed. The banality and domestication of monsters vs the actual scariness of the imagined monster was a pretty cool aspect of the whole thing.

There was certainly a lot of trying to shoehorn all the monsters into one big category, which I think is a false construct we get by applying the same words to a number of overlapping constructs.

They also asked people their favorite monsters. Zombies came up more than I expected. I so often hear people say they're tired of zombies. China picked Wells' Beast Men from the Island of Doctor Moreau, which I think is a lovely choice.

Mine is mermaids.

Really that whole genus of female monsters who live in water and lure you to drown; La Llorona was the monster we used to scare each other with at camp when I was a kid, and I've never stopped being fond of her. Lorelei, Rusalka, Nixies, Sirens, etc. They're generally pretty straight up cautionary monsters- the message is don't go near water, or you might get drowned. The whole lot of them are murderers, they're mostly cannibals, and historically there's a big running theme about how they don't have any souls.

I'm fascinated by the ocean in general. I'm a licensed diver and a strong swimmer, but it's hard not to be conscious of the fact that without special equipment, you've got only a few minutes, maximum, that you can live under water. The life there looks alien and bizarre, even close to the surface, and the closest ocean to me is so famously silty and opaque that we have a problem with people stepping on sting rays in water that barely comes to their waist.

So mermaids are the denizens of a place that is dangerous on a vastly fundamental level, strange, unknown, hostile, alien. They look superficially like us and they know our language. They lure us out where no matter how strong we are, we are weak and helpless as infants. They're a wonderful overlap of the frozen, crushing depths without light or air, the cold-blooded, boneless living fossils we call sharks, and smiling strangers offering candy if we'll just come into their van. They seem nice, but they mean you ill. They're not like us.

My other favorites are Wendigo, who are humans who have broken a taboo, gone too far, succumbed to a temptation too profane, and now can no longer be human at all.

What are your favorite monsters?

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