Monsters: you know, those big, hairy and scaly things with the claws and teeth and the overwhelming desire to do nasty bad things to you? But then there’s Harry Connolly. No, he’s not a monster (I mean, as far as we know), but he has definite ideas about monsters, and what they should be – and what they don’t have to be. Explains himself, and how his thoughts on the subject inform his latest novel, Game of Cages.
In The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carroll nobly attempts to define the monster. To paraphrase him (in a way that would certainly make him cringe): a monster is a threatening and impure creature that violates the natural order as it’s defined by contemporary science.
“Threatening” is pretty straightforward. “Impure,” though, is more complicated. Monsters can be mixtures of things that do not belong together: man and wolf, living and dead, animal and machine. They can be incomplete: a living hand, a bodiless ghost. They also be magnified in size, like a giant shark, or in number, like a swarm of rats.
(And so on. It’s an interesting book with much to quibble over. I think of it often when I’m planning a new novel.)
And while I don’t write horror (my agent says so), I do write thrillers about extra-dimensional beings who make incursions into our world to feed and reproduce. That means I need a monster for each book–maybe more than one–and being me, I wanted them to be original.
Now for a short but important digression: One thing that bothers me about modern monsters in fiction (aside from seeing the same ones over and over) is the reliance on creative choices designed to work in movies. I’m talking mainly about huge claws and teeth, usually accompanied by animal growls.
There’s a good reason for this–the sight of a gigantic jaw full of long, sharp teeth (another example of magnification) evokes a powerful subconscious fear response. Unfortunately, filmmakers have been one-up each other for decades, finally creating monsters that verge on the ridiculous.
But fiction isn’t an image medium, so why do so many books try to copy movie monsters?
Once again, I was defining myself by what I didn’t want to do.
I decided to make the monster beautiful rather than ugly, and to have it inspire love instead of fear. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (inspiration to so much modern contemporary fantasy) had already shown that frenzied, irrational love could be scary as hell in “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” the episode where Xander Harris casts the love spell. But in this case, I wanted to replace romantic love with the love between human and pet.
And here I must tread carefully. Our good host has (I’ve learned not to say owned) several pets and one recently passed away. I offered my sincere condolences, but to be honest, the love between a human and a pet is mysterious to me. I grew up surrounded by pets–dogs, cats, snakes, fish, hamsters, guinea pigs–but once I moved out on my own I realized that, whatever feeling people get by sharing their homes with an animal, I don’t share it.
Intellectually, I know the feeling exists. Emotionally, I don’t understand it and maybe never will. That’s not meant to be a criticism, implied or otherwise; it’s simply an acknowledgement of one of the ways I’m different from most people.
And that’s the idea behind Game of Cages: a creature that could force you to love it so much you’d sacrifice everything for it. You’d give up your job, your friends, your life, your children just to be near it and care for it. Instead of magnifying its size, or its teeth and claws, I magnified the emotional connections it created until they became irrational and destructive.