AUGUST 31, 2019
WHAT COMES TO MIND when I say “monster”? Zombies? Vampires? Ghosts? What about Capelobo, Quibungo, or Mapinguari? Therein lies the problem according to Margrét Helgadóttir, editor of American Monsters Part I: familiar Western monsters suck all the air out of the room.
Helgadóttir is clear that her goal with American Monsters Part I, as well as the other books she has edited or co-edited for Fox Spirit Books of Monsters series (on African monsters, European monsters, Pacific Monsters, and Asian monsters), is to redress this colonization of the monstrous imagination by a handful of recurring familiar beasties through a kind of monstrous affirmative action that promotes diversity:
We strongly felt that the monsters of the world are watered down and overused in the popular media and that only a few of them dominate the scene — vampires, werewolves, ghouls, demons, zombies — all from Western popular culture. We wanted to give the monsters a renaissance as real and scary monsters, a comeback so to speak, and we wanted to bring all of the world’s glorious and terrifying creatures out in the open.
The result of this effort to extend monstrous representation in American Monsters Part I is a collection of 15 stories of monsters from Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Guatemala, told by 14 authors (two stories are included from author Paula Andrade) “who are either from, have lived in, or have another strong connection” to South and Central America. Of the 15 stories, five are translated from Spanish or Portuguese, four of them specifically for this collection. Two of the stories are told in comics form, and the book is peppered throughout with illustrations.
Before focusing on the stories, it’s worth mentioning that the Fox Spirit Books monster series’s inclusions are marketed as “coffee table” books about monsters. The books are an uncommon size — 8.5 inches square (which means they look nicer on your coffee table than on your bookshelf) — and the matte laminate cover has a silky feel. All the books in the series feature arresting sepia-tone cover art by Daniele Serra depicting different aspects of a post-apocalyptic landscape (one that bears little relation to anything included in American Monsters Part I other than perhaps the final story, “Lakuma”).
The 15 stories themselves fall into three general categories: familiar stories of human beings contending with monsters, equally familiar stories of human beings as the true monsters, and then original frameworks for thinking about monstrosity. The stories in this final category tend to be the most striking and poetic, and, curiously, least wed to any specific South American myth or legend.
Two of the most original takes are those bookending the collection, Liliana Colanzi’s “The Wave” and Teresa Mira de Echeverría’s “Lakuma” — Helgadóttir has cleverly organized the collection such that we start with a wave and end with a water spirit. Colanzi’s “The Wave” actually introduces two monsters as part of a poetic meditation on the persistence of the past into the present and the power of narrative to overlay meaning on experience. The first monster is The Wave itself, a metaphor for depression and existential angst; the second monster, introduced as a tale within a tale, consists of “desert guardians,” both anthropomorphic and lizard-like, that guide a young girl on a perilous journey. The tale of the guardians suggests one way to fend off The Wave of despair that accompanies the suspicion that life is meaningless.
Where Colanzi’s story lacks any direct connection to a particular South American monster, Echeverría’s “Lakuma” takes as its focus the Indigenous Argentine monster Lakuma — a Tierra del Fuego water spirit that drowns and eats people. In Echeverría’s imaginative “Lakuma,” however, the spirit summons an asteroid miner — a clone — back to a dead Earth in a post-apocalyptic future. Flooding them (the miner, Alan-a, is sexless) with memories of their Yámana ancestors, Lakuma facilitates liberation for both Alan-a and itself through reciprocal acts of dreaming.
Equally original and compelling are two very different stories, both by Paula Andrade, “La Perla del Plata” and “Almamula.” Told in comics form, “La Perla del Plata” is about a mysterious contamination of Buenos Aires by some kind of chemical or radiation that induces mutations in both humans and animals. But transformation, the story concludes, is what Buenos Aires has always done: “Because we all know that Buenos Aires doesn’t kill you. It changes you. Until it is hard to tell what is a monster and what is not. That’s the kind of creature this city is.” Like Colanzi’s “The Wave,” “La Perla del Plata” lacks a traditional monster. Instead, the city itself is a monster — one that transforms others into something different from what they once were.
In “Almamula,” Andrade does something entirely different as she inverts the misogyny of the Argentine legend of “a woman whose sexual promiscuity turns her into a chained mule that haunts men during the night.” In this story, an old woman — a virgin who has always been kept sequestered from the world — is haunted by the sound of a mule walking on her roof, precipitating the realization of all that she has missed.
Andrade’s “Almamula” provides a convenient segue to the second group of stories in American Monsters Part I: “monster versus monster” tales in which a folkloric monster is repurposed specifically as a response to contemporary circumstances. The most striking example of this is Sabrina Vourvoulias’s fascinating “Time’s Up, Cerotes,” which features a Guatemalan monster called La Siguanaba. La Siguanaba presents herself as an enticing woman with a face concealed by her hair. She lures men to her, and then reveals her face, which is either the face of a horse or a skull, depending on the legend. The sight of her face either kills her victims or drives them insane.
With connections to Andrade’s “Almamula,” Vourvoulias’s story fully appreciates the misogyny behind the legend at the heart of her story:
[La Siguanaba] is at once a cautionary tale for men who would break faith in their conventionally monogamous, church-sanctioned unions, and part of a continuum of stories that speak to men about the hidden animal nature of women. About how dangerous it is to freely associate with them. About how they will always an in every instance connive to sexually entrap men.
And then in a concise and compelling formulation that could apply to all the stories in the collection, Vourvoulias continues, “But no monster story ever stays static.”
Situating the story firmly in the contemporary context of #MeToo and #Timesup, Vourvoulias’s La Siguanaba can be summoned by abused women via social media. “Unhappy is the land that needs a monster to be its hero,” comments one of the characters in the story, but as instance after instance of abused women comes to light, our landscape is unhappy indeed. When the story’s protagonist learns that the woman she has been tracking has been tortured and murdered, she summons La Siguanaba for justice because she knows it won’t come otherwise. “Make it gruesome,” she says in this revenge fantasy. “Make it excruciating.”
Mariela Pappas’s “The Eyes of a Wolf” and Flavia Rizental’s “My Name is Iara” also turn monstrosity on its head by foregrounding men as the true monsters. Pappas’s tale is that of the lobisón — the werewolf — and the story literalizes the conceit of lycanthropy as a metaphor for a shameful secret by equating homosexuality with animality. It then undoes this opposition by showing us that the true animal in the story is not the boy discovering his sexuality, but the priest (suggested as repressing his own homosexuality) who would rather the boy he raised be dead than gay. In Rizental’s “My Name is Iara,” the victim of abuse is a cross-dressing man and the monster is a Caipora, a mischievous Portuguese forest spirit represented in this tale as a water creature. Narrated in the second person, this is a tale of transformation in which violence releases the monster within.
The stories in the third grouping, the “man versus monster” tales, mostly feel familiar, even though the monsters themselves may not be well known to those outside of South America (or even within it). In Santiago Santos’s “A Carpet Sewn with Skeletons,” for example, a kind of X-Files-ish paramilitary troupe tracks down troublesome nasties Western rationalist science dismisses as myth and superstition. The monster in question is referred to as a Caiotugi, which mangles and decapitates its victims. It is the author’s own invention, although it could just as well be an ogre.
The monster hunter theme is also present in Christopher Kastensmidt’s “A Parlous Battle,” in which a Dutchman and his African companion hunt monsters in the Amazon. Presumably set some time in the 18th or early 19th century, the story has its two heroes coming to the aid of a rain forest tribe plagued by a long-snouted, man-eating monster called a Kalobo — also a sort of ogre. Although initially greeted with suspicion and disdain by the Tunpinambá tribe, which welcomes neither their “religion” nor their “disease,” the two monster hunters in the end become honorary tribal members after they successfully dispatch their adversary.
Rather than monster hunting, Gustavo Bondoni’s “Vulnerable Populations” is a story of demonic possession told in the context of indigenous resistance to the Argentine government. A traitor to the movement named Paco becomes possessed by an evil spirit native to the land: “Full of hate, the spirit watched intently from the shadows […] Hatred for the invaders of its land — the new and the old — stirred the desire to make as much trouble for them all as possible.” Interestingly, the spirit is as much an enemy of the indigenous tribes as it is to the colonizers, and it is evicted from Paco through a Catholic exorcism.
Unlike the “monster versus monster” tales that wear their political affiliations on their sleeve as human beings emerge as the true monsters, the “man versus monster” tales tend to have some difficulty balancing narrative with political commentary, which sometimes feels a bit confused or tacked on. This is clearest in Kastensmidt’s “A Parlous Battle,” which curiously ends up as a kind of white savior narrative. In some cases, plotting could be tightened. For example, in “A Parlous Battle,” the two monster hunters are initially assisted by a demon; this is never explained and then is dropped entirely from the story. “A Carpet Sewn with Skeletons” likewise dangles before the reader an interesting thread concerning a lost civilization, but this too is dropped.
While there is some inconsistency in quality among the stories and the artwork in “Cerro Bravo,” one of the two stories done in comics form, is lackluster, my main regret about American Monsters Part I is the absence of fuller contextualization. In order to find out anything about the monsters mentioned, one counterintuitively has to turn to the biographies of the authors at the very end, where, following a brief biography of each author, a short account of the monster featured in their story is usually included. This, I think, could more usefully be included as a headnote to each story, as it is easy to overlook in its current location. And a fuller explanation of the background of the traditional monsters would make it much clearer to the reader what the monster is and how the author has either respected traditional representation or updated the creature to reflect a 21st-century context. Especially given the goal of the collection outlined by editor Helgadóttir at the start, it seems a missed opportunity not to teach readers more about the myths and legends that serve as the basis for the stories included in the volume.
That said, there are more hits than misses in American Monsters Part I, and if the stories inspire readers to learn more about the South and Central American monsters included in the tales, then they will not only have entertained but also served the overall purpose of expanding the range of monstrous representation in popular culture.