Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Literate Monster; Part 1: Ancient History

MONSTER! Isn't just about film or tv shows that feature creatures... first and foremost it should to be the written word. No chicken and the egg argument here. Films a can be such an easy fix, a quick cerebral shot of visual stimuli.  Sitting down and reading a good book (or a bad book for that matter, will tend to engage me on a wholly different level  as much as the thought-provoking ones do) is hardcore monster-loving. Growing up as I did, with a home full of weird shit (I kid you not) getting hooked on all things rooted in the supernatural was not an option. My mother, bless her current state of insanity, read to us as kids and filled my noggin with tales of Oz (from the original large hardcover editions), Blue and Green and yellow and Purple fairies, Hercules and The Greek Gods, Madeleine L'Engle, Wind in the Willows, Uncle Wiggly, Raggedy Anne and Andy, and all the creatures that came with those stories. Mom was also good at letting us watch any monster movies or TV shows that came on, just as long as we did our homework and played outside with the other kids from time to time. Early memories of family get-togethers crowded around the small TV set to watch “Dark Shadows” during the week and monster movies on the weekends are still the most vivid parts of my childhood.

There have always been movies, and there have always been books.
Monsters have always been with me where ever I look.
The Screaming Skull and The Outer Limits furor,
The spectral unease of cinematic horror.
But the thing under the bed
Was always there after I read
High strangeness with Bradbury, Lovecraft, and dread.

Okay, dumb one-off improvisational bit of poetry there. Just popped into my head as I jotted the first sprawling two paragraphs on my iBook G4. But it was added to make a point that, as benign as they may be, Monsters have always been a very important part of my life. And this was true no matter how much I was terrified of them. You would think growing up down the street from Oberlin's graveyard would have steeled me for such encounters. Nope. was scared  shitless of ghoulies and ghosties, and there are times in my adulthood where I still get the willies when I'm out and about, at night... in the graveyard (or my creepy basement). Never seen a ghost or anything I would call supernatural; so why am I obsessed with the monsters and their seemingly important aspect of my well being? To my way of thinking, such improbable entities are essential for me to keep this waffer thin grasp on what I consider sanity.

Series of 1970s hardback books available by subscription.
Monsters in all their variety forms and manifestations are my religion. Seemingly the only one that I can relate to. They are my faith. I have faith that there maybe some such critters out there... be they mummies shuffling after folks, piecemeal Frankenstein monsters forever looking for solace in their sole existence, giant kaiju stomping cities, or Naag and demons from Hindu mythology that attempt to co-exist with humanity. These are all my wants and desires. To see these things. To experience them. All forms both literately and cinematic.

Most of what I have written about in my magazines and on this blog has been movie oriented. Which is not a bad thing. The visual element of accepting monsters into my life has been there since I was a toddler. I have posted a few entries about books that influenced me, one about “The Monster Times”and another about Vernon Grant's “A Monster Is Loose In Tokyo”. Both made me what I am today. Recently, though, I have had the pleasure of purchasing a few tomes of knowledge that I have found immensely entertaining.

Let me share one with you.

I was in the middle of authoring another installment about the Indian/West Bengali Nag “Snake Goddesses” movies when I happened to dump coffee all over the VCD and DVDs. In the past I would have immediately cursed my bad luck and stomped around my office bellowing and getting all shades of pissed off. Instead, I shrugged my shoulders, cleaned up the mess and set the soaked VCD and DVD sleeves aside to dry. They're just movies. Now had I done that with one of my new books, that would have sucked. Especially David D. Gilmore's “Monsters, Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and all Manner of Imaginary Terrors”.

I had only recently discovered Gilmore's 2003 tome, published by University of Pennsylvania Press, whilst researching an article on Indian horror films. The review I read so intrigued me that I had to order it (thank you, Upon pouring through this wonderfully breezy yet scholarly work I am glad that I had only begun to write something very similar earlier this year. Gilmore successfully put my take on the idea and importance of monsters in culture to bed with a glass of water and a pat on the head. It's that good.

Apparently a huge fan of the cinematic approach to monsters, Gilmore delves far deeper into mankind's psyche than mere fiction. With a delight I can totally relate to, he gleefully discusses the dark places of the human psyche as well many of the historical “facts” of a variety of monsters. As a reader I was lead through ten chapters of information-laden but thoroughly entertaining chapters covering all aspects of monsterdom the world over. In particular, chapters “The Ritual Monster” and “Our Monsters, Ourselves” struck me as being both very personal for the author as well as the reader (me).

My only regret is the sparsity of plates illustrating the book. If Gilmore ever thought of expanding this work, it would make an enthralling coffee table edition.

Not my photo: my copy of this essential kids book no long has its dust jacket.
As an endnote, may I suggest a few other books that fall into this Monsters as Myths and Monsters as Entities. Early in my life as a tot, I was fascinated with sea, and especially the Jacques Cousteau/Rod Serling TV specials were my fantasy fodder as a kid in the 60s.  I KNEW sea serpents where down THERE in the ocean. Sure, cinema and TV gave me Godzilla, The Creature, Gorgo, and the rest of the gang.  But it was books that helped fill my imaginative void …. and scare the crap out of me at the same time.

When I was five my mother bought me Lois and Louis Darling''s “The Sea Serpents Around Us”.  A children's book that covered the life and times of sea and lake (and loch) monsters that I knew where out there. The book, written and illustrated by the Darlings, filled me with wonder and dread.

I also read copious editions of Famous Monster of Filmland, Castle of Frankenstein, and just about any other magazine I could get my hands on. Luckily we Paxton's are a literary lot and always had stacks of books and magazines piled everywhere. TV wasn't always encouraged, even tho movies have always been a big deal in our family, we had to find other way to entertain ourselves when the "idiot box" was showing non-monstrous material.  I grew up in the 1960's and 70's:  prehistoric days of before the video tape boom, cable TV (at least in Oberlin) and our town only had one movie house. The public library did have 8mm movies we could borrow … which we did A LOT … but as kids we had to make due with what was on the tube and what we read in magazines and books. Comics were fine for us and I devoured Charlton ghost titles, as well as Marvel's Frankenstein series (well, the Mike Ploog classics) and the reprints of early creature features in series like  “Where Monsters Dwell”. 

In fourth grade I stumbled across the 1959 book of famous ghost and goblin tales called “The Thing At The Foot Of The Bed and Other Scary Tales”. I bought it at a “discarded” book sale at the local library. Already unnerved by the prospect of seeing a ghost by watching films such as THE SCREAMING SKULL, THE HAUNTING, TURN OF THE SCREW, and even Bert I. Gordon's TORMENTED, I was introduced to additional  imagined terrors from being able to see a ghost by “peering at them from between a dog's ears”. The book is long out of print and was originally a collection of tales from various sources such as “The California Folklore Quarterly”, Stith Thompson's “Motif Index of Folk Literature”, and so forth.

By the time I was in Junior High School I had acquired a “real job” of delivering newspapers and had money to buy more books and magazines. I was very eager to read fictional and as well as account of “real” monsters. Oberlin had a wonderful college bookstore, and as a mail order junkie (John Smith Catalog, Littleton Stamp and Coin Approvals, and others), I also ordered discounted books by the bulk thru the post (currently Edward R. Hamilton offers such a service), and was part of the Science Fiction Book Club. I loaded up on Bradbury, Lovecraft, Burrough's Mars series, the Jim Wynorski edited “They Came From Outer Space”, and more. Fiction was fairly easy to obtain.

I wanted the “fact” stuff. The hard stuff. Monster porn.

The scary books on monsters was harder to come by cheaply, at least at a paper boys “salary”.

Still, I did have my sources of discounted hardback books thru the mail. We Paxtons love our catalogs.  In the 70's I indulged myself with editions of Montague Summers “The Werewolf” as well as the appallingly gruesome “The Book of Werewolves” by the 19th Century author Sabine Baring-Gould, the fascinating “The Mystery and Lore of Monsters” by C.J.S. Thompson, Jeffrey Burton Russell treaties on The Devil; Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity”, “The Supernatural” by Douglas Hill and Pat Williams, and even pulpier material like Robert and Frances Guenette's “The Mysterious Monsters”, and Roy P. Mackal's “The Monster of Loch Ness”.

Oh, I bought a good deal more, but lost a few boxes of books in two dreadful floods the past ten years. Nevertheless, you get the idea of what I was searching for. I wanted to know what monsters were. I had never seen one, but I wanted to. I dearly desired the chill, no the THRILL of seeing something not the norm. I even subscribed to a book service called "Out Of This World" which was my first exposure to the writing of Charles Forte. Wow, there was some guy like me. And he wrote about the unexplained. Not monsters per say, but the unusual, the unexplained or unusual aspects of our world. Monsters were hinted at in Forte's world.

As fiction was never far from my shelves and I read all the pulpy novelizations of the DR. WHO series. Loved those Brit monsters. Other horrors were read in vital collections such as “The Monster Book of Monsters” edited by Michael O'Shaughnessy. Collecting the Pan or Arrow horror anthologies that were published annually was also a treat.

As the 80s progressed I entered the “zine” scene with my magazines “Video Voice”, “Naked! Screaming! Terror!” and, of course, “Monster!” and in the 90s with “Monster! International”. The advent of the internet exposed me to even more monster films and TV shows. As readers of this blog knows I buy A LOT of unknown creature features from the world over. Anything with the slight chance of being something I've never seen or experienced holds a spell over me. It could be a crap from from West Bengali, but if there's a monster in it I AM THERE!

Which brings me back to David D. Gilmore's book “Monsters”. Reading it pretty much confirmed what I have always suspected, monsters are an essential aspect of human development. Some saw my fascination for things creature-filled as alarming (after my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Ebihara, saw me drawing nothing but monsters, she apparently was very adamant that my parents take me to a therapist). Little did folks know that was normal. Hell, most of my family was into the supernatural in one form or another. My sister Kathryn.... she was obsessed with mice. That I just couldn't wrap my head around.

In conclusion, all I have to say is: Monsters have always been an important element in my life,and without their presence I would never have turned into the man I am now.

Be that for good or not-so-good.

The Devil, Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity; Jeffery Burton Russell, Cornwell Univeristy Press, 1977, 277 pages.

The Mystery and Lore of Monsters; C.J.S. Thompson, The Bell Publishing Company, 1973, 255 pages.

The Monster Book of Monsters, Michael O'Shaughnessy, Bonanza Books, 1988, 352 pages.

The Monsters of Loch Ness, Roy P. Mackal, The Swallow Press, 1976, 401 pages.

The Supernatural, Douglas Hill and Pat Williams, Hawthorn Books, 1965, 351 pages.

The Book of Werewolves, The Classic Work On This Dreadful Subject, Sabine Baring-Gould, Causway Books, 1973, 266 pages.

The Werewolf, Montague Summers, The Bell Publishing Company, 1975, 307 pages.

They Came From Outer Space, Jim Wynorski, editor, Double Day & Company, 1980, 363 pages.

Supernatural Horror in Literature, H.P. Lovecraft, Dover Publications, Inc., 1973, 112 pages.

The Thing At The Foot of the Bed and Other Scary Tales, Maria Leach, The World Publishing Company, 1959, 124 pages (? my edition is missing some of last pages).

Monsters, Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and all manner of Imaginary Terrors, David D. Gilemore, Univeristy of Pennsylvania Press, 2003, 210 pages.

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