(Excerpt from my new novel-in-progress, All’s Fair on All Fours. Told in the voice of Newt, with indebtedness to Stephen Asma’s On Monsters)
Let this be a warning.
It began ages ago in the un-navigable coils of time, before the written word and the linear logics of history, when ourstory was told in the mutable oral style around the campfires fending off the horrible night and all the beasts that hunted our feeble species. When, in the land known of old as Scythia, between the Black Sea and the Eurasian steppes, between the Causasus Mountains where Prometheus was bound and the Carpathian range where Vlad Tepes drank blood, there once wandered Neolithic tribes of Proto-Indo-Europeans, the first men to step from the Stone to the Bronze.
But then something unimaginable went wrong. One season around the region of what is now the city of Odessa in the Ukraine, the Black Sea rose up in a great deluge covering the land, killing all life back to desert wastelands. And from those chaotic depths rose something else, something unthinkable from which the nomads fled, fleeing through the centuries down the Fertile Crescent, along the Arab Sea to the Indus River Valley; west around the Mediterranean to the Celtic, to the Dead Sea and Red Sea and the Nile; east over the Caspian Sea toward the Yellow River; and north up the Volga to the Baltic and Barents ice. And wherever the proto-men fled, they brought with them stories of the flood and warnings of what the flood had cast up to confound human eyes and hearts and strangle them in the night with its coils.
For the sea gave birth to monsters – the oncoming storm god, with a dragon’s head and limbs whipping like coils of intestines across a hundred leagues, called Typhon by the Greeks, Set by the Egyptians, Apu by the Sumerians, Vritra by the Aryans, Humbaba by the Babylonians, Jormungand by the Norse, Leviathan by the Israelites. Or it was his consort, the maiden with the dragon’s tail, the first goddess and she-viper who held the tablets of destiny in her scaly womb, called Enchidne, Chrybdis, Api, Tiamat, Lilitu, Cthulhu. Or perhaps there was only one: a great conjoined hermaphroditic serpentine writhing – the unnamable ouroboros, the chthonic dweller surrounding the secret parts of Earth – the mother of horrors who gave birth to Cerberus, the Hydra, the Chimerae, the Sphynx, the Nemean Lion, Fenrir, the Needlehogg, Kraken, trolls, sirens, djinnis and afrits, asuras, Rakshasa, nagas, giants, basilisks, gorgons, cenocephali and other animal-headed hybrids, cyclopi, hyppogriffs, wyrms, Pazuzu, rocs, the wyverns, Grendel, and all manner of slitherers, crawlers, colossals, hybrids, possessors, and parasites – in short, every monster to haunt the nightmares of men in every age and every land in which humanity sought safe purchase.
And wherever the proto-men fled and conquered and settled to farm the land, they told their stories, demonizing the local wildlife and inhabitants with the names of the Storm and Dragon to justify the rise of their ruling warrior classes, the rise of their city states and patrilineal religions, the stories shifting now from awe and worship of the Goddess to sheer hatred and terror – with new heroes and new humanized gods to beat back and tame the matrilineal chaos of the pre-historic world, to carve up the body of the horrifying abyss and construct from her bones and blood the order of civilization. In their rage all the monsters were slain, and the heroes raised a glass in Valhalla. They thought they were so brave.
And yet the dragon maid lived on, in the desert wastes and steppes above the Black Sea, occasionally devouring livestock and babies. When Heracles rounded Geryon’s cattle across the steppes, she cast the hero into a drugged sleep and stole the herd, offering to return them only for his seed, from which she gave birth to fierce Scyth and the Scythian people who worshipped the original seven gods – but her most of all – in their cannabis-fueled cannibal sacrifices. In 320 BCE, Alexander the Conqueror chased the Persian king Darius across the Caucasus range only to be set upon by the Scythian steppe-riders, who he beat back, only to discover a land teeming with monstrosities – not just the cannibal nomads and the Amazons – the true Black Sea Amazons who bested Theseus – but also the Arimaspeans – giant one-eyed men who fought against the hyppogriffs – winged horses with sharp beaks and claws, the original nightmares carved upon the earliest Scythian tombs and pottery – so that Alexander, who had boasted of killing many a monster on his conquests, cried out, ‘In this region everything is horrible, more than can be believed!’ And he erected a towering gate so that no other man might enter by mistake – or the monsters escape until the ends of time.
But one day a fox digging beneath the walls found a way out, and, amazed, the monsters followed. Soon travelers spotted them and marked their maps, ‘here be dragons,’ bringing tales back from the ends of the earth of beings beyond the outward bound of knowledge and civilization, narratives embellished only the way men can embellish them, exaggerating what they saw and projecting bravado and audacity to cover their vulnerability and thwartedness in the face of the unknown. Historians studied bones that could only have belonged to the griffs and one-eyed men – or creatures no less horrific, what we now call mastodons and protoceratops as if that makes them less monstrous – while the first scientists debated over children born with tails, with two heads or none, disbelieving only the outlandish literary conventions of the odes in which monsters were sung, but abandoning themselves to the improbable yet empirical fact that the natural world contained things more terrifying than were imaginable in their philosophies.
And the question each man asked was what do these monsters mean? Monstrum, from the Latin monere: to warn. Each uncertain creature was a portent of natural or political ruin, was, literally, demonstrative of the limits of human knowledge and power, their liminal and hybridic forms shattering the fragile categories of the nascent scientia through which the scholar-heroes still tried, desperately, to order the chaotic world that had been cast up from the abyss. They thought they were so brave; Alexander’s tutor Aristotle claiming that monsters have no purpose, are accidents of flawed matter, mistakes of perception and memory – mere myths to be expunged by the light of reason – while monstrous desires assailed men from the inside, greed and warfare bringing the Socratic ideals of justice and social harmony to their knees. That primordial terror had laid her raging brood inside men’s hearts where no logic could pursue.
And so Alexander’s empire crumbled, Darius’s empire crumbled, Caesar’s empire crumbled, Cyrus’s empire crumbled, Constantine’s empire crumbled; reason fled screaming from the black night of ignorance and superstition and the world was cast into the Dark Ages where myths and monsters struggled with God for the souls of men.
The stories shifted now from the meaning of monsters to their necessity in the divine plan: if the Creator was all powerful and good then why did he create foul evils to plague the nightmares of men? Monstrous deformations could be the result of working with flawed matter, but if He created matter, then God must have wanted monsters. In the Bible, great beasts like Leviathan and Behemoth came to represent God’s frightening strength and unknowable sublimity, while also standing as the threatening force from outside His Kingdom, Satan’s army, a threat for men to overcome in their crusades of righteousness – Saint George slaying the dragon just as the Crusaders chased the infidel nations of Gog and Magog back through Alexander’s Gates. Monsters like the pagan giants of old and the Nephalim – the malformed children of women raped by angels – symbolized hubris and the Fall, their corruption a cautionary tale, their category-crossing hybridity a warning against the impure – whole books were written on how to avoid the connection between sin and heredity, filth and evil: monsters and foreigners were the barbaric result of unholy pagan sexual orgies, only fit to be slain in total warfare, their earth salted, for ‘if ye commit abominable acts than ye shall birth abominations.’
The battlefield became the soul; the triumph was belonging to the human fold. Like a ghost in the machine or ship’s captain navigating through the monstrous straits of Charybdis and Scylla, the soul was an active force, the agency or reason necessary to steer ourselves toward immortal life in the hereafter. If, like the dog-headed Saint Christopher, a creature displayed rationality and choice, then despite their appearance they were a human being, with the same potential as the rest of us for redemption, immortality, and legal and moral culpability. If, like the last great pagan monster slayer Beowulf, they acted from thoughtless pride and rage, then despite their human faces men would become monsters themselves, their souls stared into by the abyss, only fit to fall and die. In the Christian charity paradigm, monsters were no longer evil but merely misunderstood, needing not the sword but a hug (not that the Crusaders practiced what Christ preached).
The warnings waned, the portents waned, morality waned; the soul fled screaming as the cold light of reason vanquished the horrible night of the Middle Ages. God was no longer king, but science, laying its hierarchical grid over the still-teeming chaos of nature while rejecting the supernatural explanations. Monsters became mechanized – no longer the result of God’s glory or wrath; they were now born to man due to inconsistent or corrupt seed, injured or narrowed wombs, heredity or accidental illness, or overactive imaginations manifesting in the flesh. There were no longer real monsters but merely confusions, illusions, and the occasional freak of nature. Tales of ghosts and demons that once frightened audiences into paroxysms of uncritical belief now only produced the stale laughter of entertainment, the suspension of wonder.
And yet men still wondered at what monsters could portend. The 18th Century anatomist John Hunter, on whom Victor Frankenstein was based, cut up and reassembled malformed babies to discover that monsters vary according to their own developmental laws. Due to cell division during mitosis, for instance, there could only be two-, rather than three-headed mutations. This new science was called teratology by Isidore Saint-Hilaire, from the Greek word for monster and marvels, teratos; and was the starting point for Darwin’s work on evolution – though even Empedocles, one of the pre-Socratic philosophers – the earliest proto-scientists – in 450 BCE, wondered, could monsters be the branching point of new species? Studying cases of lycanthropy and tail-hybridity before his finches on the Galapagos led to Darwin’s discovery of man’s descent from animals and the adaptive processes of natural selection. Chuck eventually concluded that embryological mutants could not reproduce, stating: ‘What has been in the blood will remain in the blood.’ Lethal in most cases, monsters were not the cause of, but vestigial proof demonstrating species evolution. Monsters warned of us.
The stories shifted once again. With growing scientific ‘proof’ that cryptozoological anomalies never truly walked the earth, and that deformation showed only our connection to the chains of nature – we were of the created not the Creator – atheists heralded monsters as another proof against God’s existence. The battleground shifted and the real monsters continued to lurk in the hearts and minds and perceptions of men, just where the dragon laid them – wherever the primeval fear of the hostile unknown produced horrere – the bristling of the short hairs. Psychology was born to fight the horror – joining the ancient ranks of art and literature and other productions of the human imagination: Freud’s uncanny dissonance when the familiar becomes strange or the strange familiar, Lovecraft’s cosmic dread of what waits ravenously outside all knowledge to drive us mad, Heidegger’s nervous angst at the indefinite uncontrollable threats that thrust us into existential quandaries, Kant’s sublime inadequacy of the imagination in the face of sheer awesome or awful magnitude, Todorov’s fantastic hesitation and attempt to explain inexplicable events in any rational way except the supernatural, Jung’s active collective archetypal imagination.
In the dark night of the instinctual subconscious reality could still become a sinister primeval world of ill-will and death, lit only by glimmers of knowledge and safety and love. We had to be ready at any moment to defend ourselves from what beasts our brains still told us were about to pounce from the horrible night right in our own living rooms.
There had always been and still were ananke, necessary and more powerful forces than us in the world – the weather, seasons, parents, the influence of planets and politics – and monsters still retained their force as symbols of our powerless frustration at what we couldn’t control, at Fate. Slaying them was an attempt to reclaim our infantile longing for dominance over the universe. We thought we were so brave, projecting the unconquerable fears in our hearts onto everything around us, from stray animals to neighbors to entire nations. Myth was and continued to be the magical means of resolving these internal contradictions – narratives that have power to collectively change the way we think and act. The new myths of mass media continued to relieve our instinctual tensions and teach us how to interact with the world and other people. And yet people increasingly suspended their wonder and flat out disbelieved in the reality of the gods and supernatural forces – monster stories became mere entertainments. We no longer warmed to the warnings.
And so the danger of the dragon lived on, repressed in our chests and ignored in our stories until some could not bare or bury it anymore and broke out into rage and appalling, inhuman crime.
We became the monsters; able to bite off strangers’ faces and rip their chests open with our bare hands, able to march billions into ovens and gas chambers, anyone who chose to abnegate their human responsibility through lashing out or calculated planning, without or with rational motives for violence or vengeance, rage and cold hatred contending like powerful viruses in the blood. The psychopathological logic – the repressed rage, the acting out of taboo fantasies, the desire to annihilate or instill total order, the us vs. them white vs. black human vs. inhuman carving of the world into enmity, the will to seek too great power that cannot be controlled, the choice of the easy path of ends over means. Psychopathological symptoms – deceitfulness, egocentricity, grandiosity, impulsivity, manipulation, lack of conscience, and, most important, lack of empathy – for monsters cannot feel what others feel, or else how could they do such monstrous things? The causes – replication of childhood abuse, genetic heritage, repressed trauma, changes in brain biology, high-stress urban environments, the pace and general madness of the modern world. But most of all, as the ancient Stoics were aware of, the abnegation of responsibility and just not owning up to what is in your power to control – your actions, reactions, perceptions, and projections toward all the unknowns that leap out at you from the dark forests of life.
The legal definition of murder proper entails the malice to take away another’s life without provocation, which requires a malignant heart. Monstrous crimes are not construed from situation and circumstance but from inherent character flaws and the chronic decision to do harm again and again and again. Monsters are an act of choice.
And so that old Scythian horror lives on, in the malignant heart where our fears of the unknown crouch terrified, waiting for one and all of us to lash at out at her – in which case we lash out at ourselves and each other, the perfect weapon. And it is here with a fence around the malignant heart that the proto-men established the charter of civilization – long before all law codes – when they fled from the flooded cannibal wastes above the Black Sea screaming of monsters and that we’d better learn to farm than fish. And she roars and writhes her draconian coils through the night each time men rape or murder; lynch their neighbors over skin-color or sexual choices; habitually lie, cheat, and steal; torture in physical or psychological form; demonize or dehumanize the other; commit war and genocide and the capitalization of vital services; create unnecessary clashes of civilization over ideological grudges; vampirically horde or like zombies endlessly consume; technologically fetishize our experiences and mutilate the earth we live on; shift the blame from ourselves or relativize the moral center away from goodwill toward all men for our own sake; and, like the titanic corpses of old, cry out, we are too big to fall, ho, ho, ho!
No! Let this be a warning that Alexander’s Gates were not erected to keep the monster zone outside the known world but to keep us in. For in all the stories through which we map what is inhuman in ourselves onto the hideous forms we use to hide our own atrocities and potentials for such, the greatest fear is that we never wanted to heed the portents and warning signs in the coils of her intestinal limbs – that while we parade our monsters through the streets, collect them like trading cards, give them puppy dog eyes and starring roles, we can pretend that we don’t have a choice in how we act, or that by choosing irresponsibly we can be led to the promise of ever greater rewards, however perilous to attain. But though we may not always like it, we always have a right choice.
And writhing coils of wrong ones.
For be warned as well that there are still those who willingly worship the old horror, through new and more hideous forms of ritual than munching on the odd flesh-brisquette, horrors so abstracted from the flesh that they no longer feel as flesh feels and no longer want what flesh wants, and would make monsters of us all, exposing and expressing the dragon’s curse in our blood – where it lurks in our very DNA – so that they might escape their own responsibilities and atrocious crimes, saying, look around, there are no monsters here because we’re all monsters, humans are just horrible is all, even the best of us. Now give us a hug and a couple bucks while we slip our coils around your throat!
Doesn’t it just make your blood run cold?