Academic Abominations (Or: Poor Papers from College) #2: “The Modern Monster”

The Modern Monster: Examining the Monstrous and the Unknown in Modern Literature

Screenshot from Patchwork Girl, via the Electronic Literature Organization

Monsters, ghosts, zombies, aliens – humanity has long had an obsession with the fierce creatures of the night that haunt our imaginations. Ever since the first humans stumbled through dark nights of the wilderness we have continued to dream up new abominations to occupy the emptiness of the black, and our age of enlightenment is no exception. While the Dark Ages were filled with Demons, Devils, and Witches, the Enlightenment (or rather, the Romantic age that followed) birthed new monsters – those made by man and the powers of science. In this modern age of uncertainties the monster is filling an important role as the embodiment of generational fear, but it is also beginning to shift to a new role as a progressive tool for cultural introspection.

Horror stories, as we know them today, can be traced back to the original “Gothic” story Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Published in 1764, the story fused the “medieval notions of the supernatural and the realism of the contemporary novel. Above all, he aimed to create an atmosphere of terror, a world in which the totally unexpected could happen.” (Klinger xvii) It became an instant success and would inspire other macabre stories such as Clara Reeve’s The Champion of Virtue (1778), and Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk (1796), but while these stories focused on the evils of the supernatural and spiritual, drawing upon creatures from religion, myth, and folklore, it was Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein that really epitomized the modern monster. Victor Frankenstein’s Creature was not a demon or a ghost, or the result of a curse or spell, it was willingly made through the science of man – it was not his unnaturalness that made him fearsome, it was that he was too natural. Shelley’s masterpiece “was more a reverie on moral responsibility than a forecast of science gone wrong,” but nonetheless it has become “the ultimate horror tale, a stern warning about the arrogance of humankind.” (Klinger xx) Frankenstein has permanently been ingrained in contemporary culture, primarily through the 1931 film adaptation, as well as numerous other adaptations, sequels, parodies, and spin-offs. But in her unique hypertext adaptation Patchwork Girl, Shelley Jackson inverts the tale of Frankenstein by creating a story that is itself a patchwork of multiple stories, perspectives, and genres – creating a new Creature and a new Mary Shelley and a new Humanity for a new age.

In Frankenstein, The Creature is portrayed as an incomplete being: physically, he has all the parts of a Human; he educates himself to a level on par with Victor himself; and yet, he carries an otherness – a raging awareness that he is not what he should be. Any sympathy he elicits from Victor, Captain Walton, or the reader, is only a result of his monstrousness, not his humanity. In Patchwork Girl, Shelley Jackson throws away the concept of the Human in its entirety – revealing to the reader a world populated by monsters. In her essay “Stitch Bitch-the Patchwork Girl”, Jackson herself muses: “The body is a patchwork, though the stitches might not show. It’s run by committee, a loose aggregate of entities we can’t really call human, but which have what look like lives of a sort … thinking is conducted by entities we don’t know.” That is, the human is not built of recognizable bits of human-ness, but of material and systems as foreign as the limbs of Victor’s Creature(s). The very structure of Patchwork Girl reveals this monstrousness: Shelley Jackson’s creation is not a “book,” though it is built of text, characters, plot, and pages of a sort it does not carry the precise qualities that make up a book. Yet, this subversion throws the very concept of book-ness off balance. Just as “five hundred years of print have made the conventions of the book transparent to us,” (Hayles) 200,000 years of human existence have made the conventions of humanity transparent to us. Patchwork Girl calls forth the individual pieces and patches that build up every “human,” and thereby replaces the human with the monstrous. The unknown self overcomes the generic human blueprint – humans do not know themselves, humanity does not exist, only monstrosity.

Patchwork Girl’s hypertextual format; combination of autobiography, history, and classic fiction; as well as its ability to blur the lines between the surface of humanity and the subconscious nature of monstrosity paints a new portrait of the human monster. But for all its strengths, it doesn’t seem to do as good a job at uncovering the potential monsters of this Information Age. Shelley’s use of the hypertext format does merge the informational streams of the computer program and the story’s narrative, but it never goes so far as to break beyond the information of individuals. Where Patchwork Girl looks at the monstrousness of so-called humanity by digitizing the book into a new format, Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts dives into the monstrous nature of information itself. Like Patchwork Girl, The Raw Shark Texts subverts the traditional formats of books. As Sanderson explains: “For each chapter in The Raw Shark Texts there is, or will be, and un-chapter, a negative… the negatives are not deleted scenes, they are very much a part of the novel but they are all splintered from it some way.” These negatives have been found online, and in different editions of the novel itself. While Jackson’s work was splintered and fragmented, it was still self-contained in one form – water droplets in a lake. Raw Shark Texts, instead, exists as a stream of information: it moves different places; it forks and reconnects, always flowing forward through the plot. The existence of the negatives brings the world of the novel into reality – including the monstrous Ludovician.

The information-devouring Ludovician is a very modern monster, one that is at home in a world of computers, theoretical physics, and information theory. Where Patchwork Girl shows the monster through uncertainty of identity and embodiment, Raw Shark Texts has a monster that instead feeds on identity – stripping away the self from the victim and integrating it into its own body: “the complete fusion of form and content.” (Hayles 119) At the same time, the personality of Mycroft Ward presents a second monster – the homogenization of identity, whereby the one embodies the all: “the ominous form of a posthuman ‘thing’ that needs only to find a way to render the standardizing process more efficient in order to expand without limit… a giant database hidden from sight and protected from any possible attack.” (Hayles 118) This monstrous duo becomes a fear of the semi-known: that the uncontrolled growth and consumption of information in the world may change us, and that such information may not be benevolent. Consider the story-in-a-story of Tekisui and the Shotai-Mu, in which a merchant gives the warrior Isamu a scroll, unknowing that “one of the characters written on the scroll was bad… and the [rain]water had woken the bad character up”(279). The character causes Isamu to grow sick – suffering from Alzheimer-like symptoms like delusions and lapses in memory, eventually driving him unconscious. Much like the zombies of Bennet Sims’ A Questionable Shape, this bad information may be identified “as the personification of mental handicap or humanity at the brink of losing its humanity… maybe the [monster] is and…aspect of us, those not completely awake moments, which creep into our daily lives and, in some situations, take over them.” (Chancey) The existence of the Ludovician and Mycroft Ward speak to the modern fear of “intelligent environments in which most of the traffic goes between machines rather than between machines and humans.” (Hayles 131) The Raw Shark Texts is a parable that warns of the dangers of separating humanity and narrative from information, leaving behind malignant databases, wikis, and monsters.

These modern beasts: the Patchwork Girl, The Ludovician, Mycroft Ward, and even the original Creature of Frankenstein, all appear as “progressive” monsters. They encourage personal and cultural introspection, a reexamination of the qualities of humanity, and the – not altogether benevolent – possibilities that the future holds. Nonetheless, the forces of fear and uncertainty can be just as malevolent as the fictional monsters they inspire, especially in times of change and social unrest. These regressive fears are just as present in the literary world as their more benevolent cousins, most notably in the works of weird fiction author Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

Today, Lovecraft exists as an influential, yet under-recognized; figure in the genres of supernatural horror and science fiction. Like his precursor Mary Shelley he pioneered the creation of new horror, blending atmosphere and realism to reflect the existential uncertainties of the modern age. Like Shelley Jackson, he disregarded the concept of humanity as an absolute, turning it to nothing but a stitch on a grand, incomprehensible, cosmic tapestry. And, like The Raw Shark Texts, his work features monsters birthed from mankind’s obsession with knowledge (as well as an interest in unusual sea life). “Painfully acute, Howard Phillips Lovecraft flourished in the two decades between world wars and wrote of his disquiet at what he saw as the most likely future, with the species overwhelmed by its own exponentially accumulating knowledge of itself and of the vast and alien universe about it.” (Moore xiv) Yet, for all his remarkable foresight into the uncertainty of the human race “the fears that generated Lovecraft’s stories and opinions were precisely those of the white, middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant-descended males who were most threatened by the shifting power relationships and values of the modern world.” (xiii) While Mary Shelly, Shelly Jackson, and Steven Hall’s stories examine the uncertainty and monstrosity of the world with the intention of opening progressive thought through criticism and deconstruction, Lovecraft’s works all carry an air of xenophobic conservatism that completely rejects modern age in its entirety: “his words do not display casual racism, merely reflecting the racist society in which he lived… although the times changed… Lovecraft remained static and unbending. Worst of all, his beliefs may be seen as essential to several of his stories.” (Klinger lxvi-lxvii) Lovecraft, for all his genius as a writer and the inventor of numerous original monsters, is really a warning about the dangers of taking monsters – and the fears they represent – for granted.

The strength of the literary monster in modern literature is its ability to embody the scientific, social, and moral uncertainty of an age. These monsters give face to faceless fears of today; they produce encounters with the unknowable and the speculative. They bring together the fears of the present, the insecurity of the future, and the knowledge of the past to question the nature of humanity. As Joe Whiteford, leader of the monster-themed folk band Harley Poe said, “horror is a study of humanity’s fear of death and the unknown. It can be cathartic, just like Christianity, or any religion for that matter. Religion is a way for mankind to deal with the fear and inevitability of death. That’s ultimately what horror is…” In many ways horror has become a religion for the modern age, with monsters taking the stage as new contemporary Gods. But, like any religion, horror contains the potential to be abused by zealots such as the intolerant (yet nonetheless eloquent and original) Lovecraft. The religion of the monster opens up and rearranges the preconceptions of humanity, it explores the unmapped regions between the mind and the body; it balances a fine line between progressive transhuman philosophy and a conservative suspicion of the future. Monsters are the now; they are the pieces of the present stitched into one form, born to haunt us, for better or for worse.

Works Cited

Chancey, Emily. “Re: probe 3: p-zombies and the psychotic Other.” Vassar Moodle, 1 Oct.  2014. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.

“Harley Poe.” Chain Smoking Records. Chain Smoking Records, n.d. Web. 13 Dec.         2014.

Hayles, Katherine. “Flickering Connectivities in Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.”      Postmodern Culture: vol. 1 (1990): n. pag. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

Hayles, Katherine. “Material Entanglements.” Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1       (2011): pp. 115-133. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

Jackson, Shelley. “Stitch Bitch: the patchwork girl. “ MIT, 14 Nov. 1997. Web.           11 Dec. 2014.

Klinger, Henry S. Forward. The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. H.P. Lovecraft.  2014.  1st ed. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014. xv-lxvii. Print.

Moore, Allan. Introduction. The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. H.P. Lovecraft. 2014.            1sr ed. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014. Xi-xiv. Print.

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