Friday, May 11, 2012

Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings, edited by B.J.Hollars

A few days ago, iconic monster creater Maurice Sendak died. In his children's book, “Where the Wild Things Are,” Sendak gave us Max, the naughty little boy who worked through his untenable anger by navigating a scary and monster-filled fantasy world. The monsters in Max's world “roared their terrible roars,” and “gnashed their terrible teeth,” but Max stared them down. The toothy, bug-eyed fantasy creatures mellowed when they realized Max wasn't cowed by their fright-inducing act. They crowned him king, and held a wild rumpus. But a life of wild partying can be tiring for even the most energetic kid. In the end, Max waves goodbye to his new monster friends, and returns to the comfort of home and his still-hot supper.

When my teenagers were young, I read them Sendak's book every night. When I got to the part of the story where the monsters try to scare Max, the kids and I acted out the monsters' lines – we roared our terrible roars, gnashed our terrible teeth and rolled our terrible eyes.

It has been over a decade since I last picked up a book about monsters, and this is curious. Because when I got to thinking about monsters, it became obvious that they're not just for children. The world is a scary place no matter how old you are, and our minds create monsters to deal with fear. It wasn't until I picked up “Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings,” that I realized how satisfying it could be to explore the subject of fear by reading fantasy.

Edited by B.J. Hollars, "Monsters" features the work of some of today's literati: Aimee Bender (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake), Matt Bell (How They Were Found) and Bonnie Jo Campbell (American Salvage). Some of my favorite stories, though – those that left me gazing at the horizon and pondering the universe – were penned by writers I'd never come across.

“Monsters” showcases creatures of every flavor: Frankenstein, Bigfoot, werewolves, zombies, and all manner of hybrid beasts. The stories I most connected with blurred boundaries and told of humans who revealed dark, monster-like emotions and monsters who showed soft, human-like characteristics. For instance, in “Daniel,” by Alissa Nutting, a baby boy grows up to become a fanged monster. His mother blames herself and traces the problem back to her ambivalence in her role as wife and mother. She remembers an eerie scene in which, while she nursed her newborn, she imagined her milky breasts as blood-filled wrists, draining. Creepy. Yet, as parents, who among us hasn't occasionally felt overwhelmed and drained?

“Bonsai Kitten” is another story that artfully blends human and monster. Randy is a character who narrates his own passage into monsterhood. The scenario sounds a lot like he was hospitalized for severe burns. He alludes that he became a monster (or burn victim – it's never really clear) because another boy “...drunk and bored, he bent time around me. He crossed the yellow line and split my life in two.” It reads like it was a horrific car accident, although that's left vague, too. The other boy died, and Randy,now a monster, ends up seeking revenge for his lost humanity by harming the dead boy's sister. It's the tragic intersection between human and monster that compels.

“Monsters” the first offering by Pressgang, Butler's new micropress, is impressive inside and out – and I'm not just saying that because I'm a Butler booster. The book's fanciful artwork echoes Sendak's. It's a pleasure to read – larger and wider than most paperbooks, bound so it opens flat and is printed with dark ink in a large, easy-to-read font. Until I sank my teeth into “Monsters” I hadn't thought about how tightly bound books are such a pain to prop open. Or how it takes so much energy to read the small, light printing of many books.

I thought I was done with monsters years ago. After all, my kids are now in high school. But I was wrong. “Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings” gave me a new lens through which to look at the world. You should try adding some monsters to your literary diet, too. Don't be afraid; it's a deeply pleasurable read.

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