Classically, a mystery novel will follow a basic structure: there is a murder, which disrupts the community; the detective, a moral agent, appears; the detective finds the murderer, who is then punished; and the original and virtuous status quo is restored. In a sense, then, mysteries demonstrate for their readers the nature of a moral universe.
Monster stories often work in a similar fashion. That is, a monster appears, disrupting the community; humans (moral agents) battle the monster; the monster is defeated; the community is restored to its original (moral) state. Like the mystery novel, in other words, the monster story exists to show us what a right, or moral, world should look like, as well as what should be done when we find ourselves in a disordered, immoral, abnormal world. For this formula to work, however, our zero world—the community before the monster—has to be a moral world. If the zero world is corrupt, or filled with its own sort of monsters, returning to it will not feel like a victory. Quite the opposite.
In the introduction to this anthology, Screams from the Dark, Ellen Datlow makes a nod toward this classic structure, but also argues that monster stories exist as warnings, as well as to show us that which we are afraid we might in fact become, or even already be—so we can compare ourselves against that image, and feel reassured … or, I suppose, dismayed, if it turns out we are the monster.
In Datlow’s anthology, a number of the stories seem at first to fit the classic form—that is, we have monsters invading communities, and moral agents fighting the monsters, killing them, and returning the community to its normal/moral state. The first story in the anthology, for instance, “You Have What I Need,” by Ian Rogers, concerns an inner-city ER that is invaded by vampires; the STAR (Supernatural Threat Assessment and Response) team shows up and kills the vampires; the community returns to its status quo.
Even in this story, however, there are hints that not all is well with the zero world. Our main character, Tamsin, is a nurse in the ER of what they call “Chicago Hopeless.” When a victim of a vampire bite, Rosalie, shows up for treatment, Tasmin and her colleagues are astonished that anyone bitten by a vampire would voluntarily come in for treatment. Doesn’t she know that, if she has been infected, the STAR team will stake her? For those of us who lived through the past decade, this reaction seems accurate. A world in which someone puts the welfare of the community over their own life is, indeed, not our zero world. Here in America, for instance, we’re told we have a “right” not to wear masks, or get vaccinated. Sure, that means more people will die or end up disabled, but that’s a small price (for someone other than us) to pay.
In Rogers’s story, we have other hints about the state of the story’s zero world: the patient Tamsin is stitching up as the story opens has been sliced open by his wife because she found out about his adultery, which he thinks is hilarious; Rosalie tells Tasmin that she thought at first that the vampire was just going to rob or rape her, which is apparently what usually happens to people in this city; the STAR team sprays bullets around without regard for any non-vampires that might be in the line of fire, and this is seen by Tamsin as the correct response.
Rogers does end his story with the (non-vampire) Rosalie returning to the hospital to practice small acts of kindness, which is at least a gesture toward the idea of a moral universe; but with many of the stories in this anthology, no such gestures occur. In Brian Hodge’s “The Atrocity Exhibitionists,” for example, the narrator of the story, Dana, is the personal assistant to a rock star, Logan, who feeds on the fame he gains from self-harming and then posting images of his bleeding, bruised, or abused body on Instagram. As the story progresses, Logan grows more and more self-destructive, drawing more and more approval from the online world. Others on social media, equally self-destructive, chase similar waves of approval and fame. The sole character who challenges Logan’s behavior, a young educated woman with pink hair, is demonstrated to be a shallow, carping fraud, and is piled on by an online mob. At the story’s end, Logan is sliding deeper into destructive behavior, with Dana’s help and the online mob’s voracious approval. There’s no moral universe in this story: everyone is a monster.
Similarly, in Joyce Carol Oates’s story “‘The Father of Modern Gynecology’: J. Marion Syms, M.D. (1813-1883)” it is the zero world that is monstrous. James Marion Sims was a historical figure, and like Oates’s Syms he became a successful gynecologist by experimenting on enslaved women, girls, and their infants, often in horrific ways. In Oates’s story, Syms sees himself as a force for good: through his work, he “saves” at least some of his patients, making it possible for their owners to get more work out of them. Often revolted by the disgusting nature of his work (women’s bodies, especially black women’s bodies, sicken him), he nevertheless does his heroic duty. Though based on historical truth, this is undoubtably a horror story—the passages where Syms is treating twelve-year-old children, raped by their owners, whose malnourished bodies cannot give birth to the infants they have been forced to bear, are particularly horrific—but the world itself is the monster here, and Syms a complicit participant.
Other stories lean hard into the world-as-monster. In Joe Lansdale’s “Sweet Potato,” for instance, the monster is an old woman who lives next door to the hero, and delights in luring birds into her yard so she can kill them. When the hero finds her dead one day, he buries her in his sweet potato garden, and she becomes a giant sweet potato, which he harvests and devours—and then she inhabits him from within, and he becomes the bird-murdering old lady. This story is filled with delicious (pun intended) imagery and writing, but instead of returning us to a moral status quo, we are left, as in Oates’s story, with the conviction that the zero world itself is evil.
Many of these world-as-monster stories are wonderfully written. Particular standouts include Carole Johnstone’s “The Last Drop,” based like Oates’s story on a historical figure, in which an impoverished young woman murders her neighbor; A. C. Wise’s “Crick Crack Rattle Tap,” about a single mother and her newborn and an old family story; Kaaron Warren’s “The Smell of Waiting,” in which a child who can cure death at a horrific cost to herself becomes a victim of her community—which, like Omelas, uses her suffering to create a paradise for themselves. And I especially like Caitlín R. Keirnan’s “The Strandling,” in which the monstrous world is our zero world—a world in which the ocean is filled with plastic and with poison from toxic spills, and in which our loved ones die slowly and painfully, and in which we are left all alone in the dark. In “The Strandling,” the narrator and her wife have rented a seaside cabin, where they are living while the wife dies of cancer; the cabin is cheap, due to a recent chemical spill, and the beach is covered with plastic trash. One morning, the narrator finds a dead monster washed up on the beach—a strange, slick, black creature with pseudoarms and a human-like face and skull. The monster is covered with what might be parasites, or might be something else. For the rest of the story, the narrator and her wife circle around what this monster was, where it came from, what its appearance means, as slowly it becomes clear to the reader that the monster is, or at least stands for, death, which is coming for the wife, and for us all. This is a beautifully written, beautifully structured story, and despite its grim nature it contains tiny fragments of hope, ribbons of possibility that the world and we its inhabitants might not be evil after all.
A few stories in the anthology do seem more like traditional monster stories—ones in which human agents defeat the monster and return us to the moral status quo. One, however—“Beautiful Dreamer,” by Jeffrey Ford—only manages this by veering close to parody. The moral universe of this story is Trump country, where neighbor looks out for neighbor, even if the neighbors are “lefties” who have moved to Ohio from New Jersey, and who don’t hunt or own guns. Ford has his narrator note that the monster and its origin (it escaped from the lab of a company called Ballet Corp) sound like a story straight out of QAnon, and from that point on the story swerves backs and forth across the parody line, with the narrator’s wife turning out to be a crack shot, and the monster looking like a hot naked babe with long blonde hair. Heaps of gore and severed heads pile up wherever the monster has been. The monster also makes its victims hallucinate while its killing them, so that at the end—and this is the end—we are not at all sure what is happening: whether in fact the hero (Trump country, in this case) has killed the monster, or whether the main character is simply hallucinating the victory while actually being devoured.
The final story in the anthology, in contrast, John Langan’s “Bloedzuiger,” is a traditional monster story. Here, we have a moral universe: a small town in upstate New York where neighbors get together for cookouts and potlucks, and where from time to time a monster comes to call, only to be defeated by the heroism of the town’s people. Much of the story concerns one particular monster, the bloedzuiger, who lives in rivers and streams, and sometimes comes up to bite the heads off people—especially children—and eat their organs and slurp up their blood. Doris, a young child partially orphaned by the Vietnam war, is sent to live in the town, and accidentally catches the bloedzuiger while ice fishing with her grandfather. She escapes, but the grandfather is killed, and Doris and her grandmother must kill the bloedzuiger before it can massacre the entire town. Through the heroism of the grandmother, they succeed; the moral order is restored. But the story ends with the understanding that other monsters, even other bloedzuigers, remain to threaten the world.
I’ll admit this last story is my favorite in the anthology. I’m a sucker for classical forms, I suppose. But almost all these stories are worth reading, and will be a particular delight to those who love body horror, descriptions of gore … and the dark.