The incomparable Southern writer Barry Hannah once told an interviewer, "Privately we are all monsters, if we'd only look at our obsessions." Hannah wrote some of the most monsterful fiction of the American 20th century ( Chaucer uses monsterful to mean extraordinary, wonderful; it's one of the most delectable words I've ever found). Hannah's fiction is famous for the violence and mayhem perpetuated by some truly monstrous characters, but Hannah knew that monsters dwell in each of us. Raging or dormant, they are there. The human animal began as a monster of his own, Australopithecus, on the African savanna six to seven million years ago: a diminutive brute, a beast hoping to survive among better beasts. This was what offended so many of the Victorian fainthearted about the singular Mr. Darwin: a reminder of the monster in us didn't mesh well with their proper, stodgy rhythms, with their wrong conception of themselves as angels not far from the polish of God.
The world of Barry Hannah is among the several starting points I can locate for my first novel, Busy Monsters. And not just because it's a world inhabited by human monsters, but because Hannah's ecstatic language is like no other in the American canon: He wields a wild syntax, an unholy word choice that never fails to smack the breath from you. Dylan Thomas, his first literary love, informs his erratic lyricism. (Hannah once wrote in an essay: "God, to be Welsh and drunk and start hollering out surrealism.") The sedition and chaos in his pages, the linguistic acrobatics, the poetics: In Hannah, language is wedded to his ontological vision, a vision that is, at its hub, Nietzschean. Nietzsche was sickened by the frailty of Christian morality and exalted an ecstatic spirit of existence, the Greek daimon, which is essentially what happens in Hannah's post-Christian cosmos: a world for which the Christian program fails woefully and then is rendered obsolete in the wake of heartwreck. Hannah's employment of language, in being post-Christian, turns pre-Christian: It turns Dionysian in celebration of daimon. And Dionysus, the rock and roll god of wine and dance, was capable of both the monstrous and monsterful.
My own Hannah-inspired chaos and wordplay in Busy Monsters is intimately connected to my Catholic upbringing, to the pageantry, ritual, and language love I encountered each Sunday at Mass and each afternoon during Latin study in school. The truth is, I was never a Cardinal Newman-worthy Catholic — even as a child I suspected that there was something terrifically bogus about it all — but I was awed by the mythology and superstition of Catholicism, the flames of hell they made you afraid of, and perhaps that was the beginning of my preoccupation with monsters. At six or seven years old, I became somehow convinced that Pan dwelled in our suburban New Jersey backyard, that he was leaving hoof prints in the dirt, playing his flute in the shadows, and eating from the pear tree that stood next to our garage. A bookish maternal uncle, delighted by my child's monster imagination, took me to the town's modest library to research Greek mythology and the pantheon of gods, and it was there that I discovered Homer in an illustrated copy of The Odyssey. Here was a language entirely different from the Gospels, a new meter for me to sing in. And the monsters were everywhere, from Cyclops to Sirens. The first-person protagonist of Busy Monsters is a fledgling memoirist who has named himself Charles Homar.
Charles loses his beloved fiancé, Gillian, when she joins an expedition to capture the monster of her dreams, a kraken, or giant squid. Man-stupid with grief, he embarks upon several expeditions with a host of shady characters in order to secure his own outsized monster and thus win back Gillian's affections. He hunts Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest, UFOs and space aliens outside Seattle, hypothesizes in Maine about the Loch Ness Monster, chases ghosts through a haunted hotel in Boston, and in New Jersey comes face to face with a beautiful beast of a humanoid, Richie Lombardo, a professional bodybuilder who keeps two Asiatic sex slaves, both of them ivy grads with a fondness for the Marquis de Sade. If one is to judge by the numerous programs and reality shows on cable TV, on channels such as Animal Planet and National Geographic, monster hunting is a mostly male obsession, as it was during our Paleolithic past. The adrenalized hazard of stalking mastodon and perhaps Gigantopithecus — the extinct giant, bipedal ape Bigfoot supposedly is — has never left the recesses of male memory. For a spell, Charlie is as imbecilic as all of those unemployable man-boys now on TV stomping after shadows and snapped twigs in the forest. But the real monsters confronting Charlie are of course those that Barry Hannah spoke of, the devils dancing a rumba inside every human heart.
In 1981, soon after tracking Pan and finding Homer, I discovered a children's novel called The Boy from the UFO, by Margaret Goff Clark. Every year my Catholic school held a week-long book fair sponsored by Scholastic Books: They set up a square of metal bookshelves in the school's lobby and packed it with colorful paperback covers. I looked forward to this fair the way hobos look forward to a food van; our school's library was an inept collection and I had already read its three Time Life books on Bigfoot, UFOs, and the Loch Ness Monster. I've never forgotten the cover on The Boy from the UFO — a child of 10 or 11 standing on his roof, in his pajamas, mesmerized by a giant lighted orb hovering just yards from him — and although I can no longer remember the narrative, I remember, intensely, how it made me feel: ecstatic with the possibility of extraordinary events, excited by mystery and surprise, energized by the unknown.
I felt the same when I first saw the famous Patterson footage of Bigfoot. Filmed by Roger Patterson in 1967 in Bluff Creek, California, the 50-second footage shows a female Sasquatch moving away from the camera with a decidedly non-human gait. And then: the creepy, gorilla-like turn of her head to glance at Patterson. Sitting crossed-legged on a pukey 1970s carpet, transfixed by this footage on our television, I felt a literal shiver move through me. That was no joker in a monkey getup, and it meant that monsters were real, that existence was magical, thrilling, an occultist's playground. It didn't occur to me as a kid that the name of the creek in which the footage had been shot, Bluff Creek, should have been a hint as to the truth-telling abilities of Roger Patterson. Still, educated experts with the best Apples ever devised haven't been able to prove conclusively that the film is a hoax, and so grown men with a child's inextinguishable wonder — they call themselves cryptozoologists — continue to pursue a North American ape-man. Half of me wants to applaud their sense of mystery and join their rowdy jaunt; the other half wants to help them study for the high school equivalency test.
The paranormal or supernatural or unexplained: It resides within our own psyches because our fears and wonders are ancient, because we need monsters to give shape, sound, and scent to our dark interiority, to the jungle we were born in epochs ago, the jungle that is still with us. We are indeed a monstrous tribe — look at what we did to one another at Antietam, at the Somme; look at the horrors we continue to inflict upon the animals, the earth — but we are monsterful, too, when the time is right. Our myths and religions are the stories we tell ourselves in order to live; our language is the fire we filched from the gods. These are immortal lines from Barry Hannah's story collection High Lonesome: "Lovers are the most hideously selfish aberrations in any given territory. They are not nice, and careless to the degree of blind metal-hided rhinoceroses run amok." Hannah knew: war and love — and literature — bring out the beasts in us
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William Giraldi's work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Georgia Review, the Believer, the Kenyon Review, and Poets & Writers. A senior editor at AGNI, he teaches in the Arts & Sciences Writing Program at Boston University.
Books mentioned in this post