The Big Idea: Harry Connolly
Posted on August 31, 2010 Posted by Kate Baker 12 Comments
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.
Game of Cages: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt from the novel.Visit Harry Connolly’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.
Thanks for mentioning the visual media’s encroachment into books. I’ve disliked that particular habit for years and blame writers for not questioning their assumptions before commiting to them.
It’s fine to write that way if you recognize your choices and make a conscious decision to use the tropes of movies and television… but I don’t think many are doing that.
Oh, and Child of Fire rocked. I am excitedly awaiting Game of Cages!
I’ve read Game of Cages. In many ways, it’s even better than Child of Fire. Highly recommended. Five stars, and all that jazz. Buy the book!
Sounds like my first girlfriend, just outa’ high school (hey, I was a geek and scared to death of women). Man, I went around the bend for her until finally I wised up and realized how unhealthy it was. Nothing like basic training in January as a way to heal a broken heart.
Tribbles did that didn’t they? From the original series of Star Trek. Though that was not love perhaps but the intensification of the “Awwww, that’s cute” response.
+1, gilmoure. Except I didn’t go military but obsessive about plants.
I’m not sure there IS any such trend, myself. Making bigger meaner scarier monsters has been around for… well, a long time. Love, or obsession disguised as love, as a destructive and manipulative force has been around at least as long (Helen of Troy certainly evokes this idea even if she isn’t specifically using it; other Greek myths touched on it more directly).
The use of a harmless or even wonderful-appearing creature as a monster has been around in literature and film for a long time, too. Consider, for instance, The Omen; the whole POINT of that film and its follow-ons was the use of a cute, harmless looking child as the ultimate evil, the monster of all monsters.
It’s certainly EASIER to do the scary monster with something that’s got claws, fangs, large size, and a hostile disposition, but is it really more common to do that today than it was 20, 40, 60, 100 years ago?
It may be that we’re more explicit, or that there are some more extreme images because we couldn’t DO such things in the past, but I’m not sure there’s any actual upswing. These kind of things go in cycles, I think. There’s a big swing to explicit and gory, and when that fades the pendulum goes to the subtle and understated, and when that gets boring it goes back to explicit fanged and gory again.
Vampires are a good example; the original concept (in Europe, anyway, other world locations had different ideas) was a bloated corpse that rose from the dead and fed upon the living, something monstrous and detestable. Then Stoker and others came along and made them more human, sometimes even potentially attractive — or with the power to attract and enthrall, though still monstrous (e.g., Christopher Lee’s Dracula, who could look charming and speak well, but actually had no apparent human sympathies at all).
This progressed for a while and then there were the more romantic vampires of fiction, culminating in Chelsea-Quinn Yarbro’s M. LeComte De Sanct-Germain, Fred Saberhagen’s Dracula Tape, and Frank Langella’s portrayal in the 1979 “Dracula”. And then the pendulum swung again, and vampires — while now still possessed of the ability to mess with your head — were more often revealed to be real monsters, even if they had some “romantic” or at least sexually attractive aspects. “Fright Night”, the “Lost Boys”, and even Buffy, where vampires were virtually all monstrous to the point that no one even TRIED to save them; you had to stuff a human soul back into a vampire to give them a chance at being a real person; “Van Helsing” finished the swing, with Dracula a more debonair but still monstrous and ultimately uncaring creature.
“Dark Shadows” straddled both sides of the fence, starting with Barnabas Collins being a mind-controlling obsessive monster and making him ultimately a vastly more sympathetic person than most other people in the cast.
And now “Twilight” seems to try to swing the pendulum the other way again.
Ooo, that’s something to look out for. I really like Child of Fire, and I loved the teaser you included at the end of that. Added to my watch list!
Count me in as another fan of “Child of Fire”… speaking of scary monsters! Very exciting to have “Game of Cages” at hand.
Thanks, everyone for the kind words.
Ryk, I think a better way to see fang-inflation is to look at werewolves, not vampires. We go from Larry Talbot to Dog Soldiers.
And I’m not saying there have never been clawless monsters in the past (I know you have kids–“This child must be possessed!” is something pretty much every parent has thought at some point) but it seems to me that they are becoming more pervasive. I didn’t do an analytical survey or anything. It’s just my impression.
Once again, thanks for the kind words. I hope you enjoy book 2.
I seem to recall a horror writer from Providence that had monsters from other dimensions that came to out speck of cosmic dust and generally behaved badly. He became rather famous for it! If that is the kind of horror you are writing, then you’re definetely an author, I will want to read. I ordered your novel just cause you mentioned Dog Soldiers, cause us low budget movie people got to stick together out here!
The real scary monsters are the ones that look like us on the outside; but, are something utterly horrific on the inside. And absolute love is a damned frightening concept. I look forward to the read!
And thanks to Our Lady with the Hammer of Civility and that John guy she lets hang around at her place and Kate for bringing us such great author commentary and insight.
I dunno. Werewolves I think are that way because, truth be told, the video depictions of them weren’t POSSIBLE 50 years ago and our sensibilities probably wouldn’t have permitted it. But if you asked someone even back then (without showing them, say, Lon Chaney in his cute doggie-like makeup) what a werewolf would look like, it would be something a lot nastier.
Heck, if you look at the original illustration in Prince Caspian (the Narnia Chronicles) you’ll see a meant-for-children version of a werewolf which isn’t very nice looking; if you then took that thing and scaled it into an adult version, you’d have something very much like the modern wolf-monsters.
(I of course have my own Great Werewolves and they’re VERY teethy and claw-y, but what makes them truly monstrous hasn’t much to do with what they look like; Virigar’s default human form looks like a young Robert Redford and he’s just as dangerous like that as he is in furry fangster form)
I really don’t think there’s a trend overall. There may be greater EXTREMES — due to the double transformation of “special effects and imagery have gotten vastly better” and “society accepts much more frightening images than they did” — but I’m still fairly convinced that the proportions of Obvious Monsters versus NotObvious haven’t changed all that much.
I’ll have to grab myself a copy of this new one and read it, though it sounds like you’re going darker before you lighten things up at all, which is making me worry.