Los Angeles Review of Books

WATCHING The X-Files growing up, I was always more of a “Monster-of-the-Week” fan: flukeman, the Bat Creature, even a Giovanni Ribsi who controls lightning. I wanted to know what made them monsters and what they were capable of. By combining Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” fervor with Scully’s “Science can explain everything” shrewdness, The X-Files allowed for a rational yet empathetic rendering of these so-called monsters. It did not reduce them to caricatures, nor did it shy away from asking necessary questions about their origins.

This same approach is how Peter Grandbois handles his two subjects: the Creature from the Black Lagoon in Wait Your Turn and the Fly in The Stability of Larger Systems. Listed as a “Double Monster Feature,” these two novellas make up Volume 1 in the Wordcraft Series of Fabulist Novellas.

Both the Creature and the Fly are classic monsters. But Grandbois’s pairing and treatment evoke a larger discussion of what actually makes something “monstrous.” Rather than regurgitating old tropes, his writing fully inhabits his two characters. He gives them an opportunity to tell their own stories. As a result, these two novellas become affecting case studies of what we claim not to understand (and therefore file under “monstrous”).

In one X-Files episode about a monster hiding in a mountain lake, Scully says, “On the old mariner maps, the cartographers would designate unexplored territories by simply writing ‘Here Be Monsters,’” to which Mulder responds, “I’ve seen the same thing on maps of New York City.” Wait Your Turn begins with a similar, contemporary warning: “His mother told him there’d be monsters.” This comes from a boy visiting a Universal Studios-like theme park, complete with a black lagoon. He meets the original Creature — disguised as an old fisherman — and the Creature takes him out on a boat into the lagoon. There, he begins to tell the boy his story:

You see, though I’ve always been green, breathed through gills, had webbed hands and feet with razor sharp claws, I haven’t always been a monster. And I didn’t live at the bottom of the lagoon either. I had a house in the hills outside Los Angeles, and I lived a leisurely experience, dipping in the pool whenever I felt myself drying out.

The Creature lands the part for The Creature of the Black Lagoon even though he wants “to be a real actor.” He marries his first co-star, Julia, and they have a (human) boy, Gill Jr. He soon struggles between the responsibilities of a good father/husband and the demands put on him by directors, fans, and other women. Grandbois fulfills and reverses our expectations: scales, yes, but an LA homestead, too. This combination of the familiar and the surprising puts the Creature in a position to make new light of everyday human concerns — the most terrifying being his own fear of failure.

In one of the novella’s most memorable moments, the Creature cannot stop Gill Jr.’s crying. None of his old solutions work. At his wit’s end, he looks down at his son for answers but fears what he might discover about the boy’s inherited “monstrousness.” As a last resort, he takes Gill Jr. for a drive. Soon, he finds himself parked at the same lake where he himself was abandoned as a child. There, afraid he has no other choice, he lowers the bawling Gill Jr. into the water:

I saw myself as if through his eyes, as if I were the boy being abandoned, left to find my way along the murky depths. I saw the look in my father’s face as he bid me goodbye. The fear that limned his mouth. Fear of what he might do had he kept me. I saw, too, the hatred that lurked in the lines beneath his eyes, self-hatred for the person he was, the person who was capable of committing such an act.

Often, the narrative cuts to the present time where the boy and the “fisherman” are talking. After explaining how he almost abandoned Gill Jr., the fisherman says, “I was afraid of the monster inside me. I was afraid I would hurt the child. But that’s not it at all. […] I was afraid the child would grow up […] and see me for who I am.” These cuts to the present allow the Creature to connect action with retrospection. In turn, Grandbois skillfully uses these cuts to change the monster’s experiences into evermore human ones. But in both the Creature and the author’s eyes, the monster is still a monster because he is afraid of not living up to his own expectations, which is a welcome twist on the genre.

The novella’s only noticeable misstep is that the Creature never really lives up to his monster status. This threatens to simplify him. Each time he describes what his primal instincts tell him to do, he successfully ignores them. He should, at least once, give in to his genetic core. Then we could see, in the aftermath, how he resolves the cognitive dissonance between his human mind and reptilian body.

For all that Wait’s protagonist may hold back, the work is still very accessible and a good opener for the double feature; moreover, this shortcoming can be forgiven because of what follows in The Stability of Larger Systems. The second novella provides a necessary anchor to the volume in the same way Death Proof grounded Tarantino’s Grindhouse in a more believable yet more psychologically jarring universe.

From its journal entry form to its narrator’s collage of evidences from science (Pauli Exclusion Principle, fly biology), art (Dickinson, Bartok), and mythology (Bellerophon, Beezlebub), Stability’s baroque style, multivalenced concepts, and nuanced language provide an updated evocation of a writer whose sole obsession was the investigation of fear: HP Lovecraft.

Set in Paris in 1957, Stability begins with an entry from Andre Delambre, a scientist in search of a way to transport matter on an atomic level. The entry describes how his wife Helene told him that morning, “You’re not the person you once were.” She says this before any lab accident, indicating a rift already existent between them. Grandbois’s move here gestures to the reader that, as in Wait Your Turn, the monster is not a purely physical manifestation. Delambre’s conflicted relationships and self-identity prove to be the greater challenges.

After Delambre tries transporting himself, he comes out of his disintegrator/re-integrator with the head and left arm of a fly. Behind a veil and coat, he hides his deformities from Helene and his young son Philippe. Helene wants to help him but keeps her distance. This soon changes:

The next week marked the most intimate time in our marriage. The black veil seemed to draw her to me. Stranger still, the veil seemed to liberate me. Though I was filled with angst over my situation, the veil also afforded me a rare calm.

Are these the thoughts of a monster? Or a man who is more in tune with himself than ever before? Either way, he is initially not afraid of the change.

Central to this piece’s success is its continued escalation of tension. Each time Andre comes to an equilibrium with his altered form, a new weight throws off the balance. Most notably, he begins to think more and more with the basic instincts of a fly. He finds difficulty in keeping track of his memory. He focuses only on the present. At one point, he wants to hurt his own wife. Delambre cannot bring himself to abandon his family, yet he cannot bring himself to be with them. The first time he asks Philippe about his appearance, he sees fear in his son’s eyes. But his son is not afraid of the physical appearance; he is afraid because his father is afraid:  

He smiled, and for a moment I thought I’d rid him of his pain. But then I saw the anxiety limning his mouth. The smile couldn’t conceal the gnawing doubt within. My own instability had ensnared him. We think we can control the effects of our actions. We assume we can still the ripples once we throw the rock in the pond. But we cannot stop them. I wondered in that moment what would happen if I left them. It would be for the best. They could forget about me. Maybe live a normal life. But memory entangles us just as strongly. I could never cease to exist for them, just as they could not for me.

This passage, like so many in Stability, contains both Mulder’s hope for the out-there truth and Scully’s practicality of accepting difficult consequences. For a character so intelligently self-aware, Delambre is most afraid and most monstrous when he imagines what he is capable of doing to his family once his self-control wanes. The same goes for the Creature. Yet Delambre, to the reader’s satisfaction for complexity, gives in to his darker, more violent instincts, whereas the Creature easily quashes them, avoiding complication at the risk of disappointing readers. But this disparity makes for a greater range, instead of the same one-note howl over and over again.

Lovecraft once said that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Wait Your Turn and The Stability of Larger Systems both tap into this ancient strength. Through his two protagonists, Grandbois makes a case for a newer, better understanding of monsters. He brings them from the far, unexplored edges of the map and sets them directly in front of you in order to show that the monster’s most frightening quality is his own fear. Without it, the monster is merely a troubled individual. By giving the Creature and the Fly actual voices behind the scaly skin and the black proboscis, Grandbois shows us that the truth is indeed out there, but it’s even farther, darker, and more complicated than we might have first imagined.

¤

Alexander Lumans is a writer and teacher based in Denver.

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