“THERE you are.” Chalice’s happy chirp greeted me as I stepped inside and scuffed off those cheap uncomfortable sandals. The living room lights glowed dim through incense clouds. Outside, the windows cast warm illumination through remnants of evening mist. Clearly, Chalice was entertaining in the temple… which meant I wasn’t getting much sleep that night.
“Rachel?” Oh crap. Luke. Chalice’s on-again-off-again “sacred soulmate” or whatever he was supposed to be that week. The scent of nag champa swirled in the entranceway as I shucked my backpack and retreated toward the kitchen. “Hi, Chalice,” I called, avoiding their love-nest. Maybe I could curl up on her massage table in the other room again until after Luke left.
I heard the hardwood floor creak as I opened the refrigerator and reached for some orange juice. When I looked up, Chalice was belting her robe closed. Luke, as usual, hadn’t bothered with one. He stood there with forced casuality, his proud cock gleaming in a mess of bronze fur. “God, Luke,” I muttered, looking away. “Don’t they wear clothes on the planet you come from?”
“Clothes are a lie,” he intoned, “meant to cut us off from our animal natures.” Sometimes I loathed the Bay Area. Walking clichés seem to breed from thin air in San Francisco, spontaneously manifesting from raw pomposity.
“After the day I’ve had,” I told them, “I could deal with less nature and more lies…”
– From Dream Along the Edge, featured in the limited-edition collection Under an Enchanted Skyline
As of today, December 29, 2014, the special urban-fantasy collection Under an Enchanted Skyline is available for a bit less than 48 more hours. Eight novella-length stories for .99, but only until tomorrow night, through the following outlets.
Last week, I posted an excerpt from a Q&A with my fellow authors from this collection. My original answer to one of those questions, though, was far longer than what was given in that Q&A. Here’s the original “extended-play” response, which goes into more detail about my thoughts on monsters, urban fantasy, and Dream Along the Edge. Enjoy!
While not every urban fantasy story features monsters, there are a lot of them in the genre. How has the use of monsters changed over the years, and what makes your monsters – if you use them – unique?
Well, the word “monster” comes from the Latin root monēre, which refers to portents, warnings, and revelations. And so, I look at monsters as symbolic creatures that alert us to things about our human condition by revealing things we might not care to look at otherwise. Vampires, beast-people, aliens, the fae – they all speak to the darker and more hidden elements of the human experience. And in doing so, they fascinate us too.
“Fascinate,” of course, also comes from a significant Latin root – in this case, fascināre, “to cast a spell on.” That word’s root, fascinum, refers to a phallic charm reputed to inspire evil deeds. The point of this little digression is simple: monsters exert a mystic and often sexual allure upon us because they reveal the shadows of who we are.
I suspect that the literary use of monsters shifts depending upon how openly the artists and audiences involved are willing to embrace that seductive shadow revelation. Many folktales for children simply use the brute force of monsters as a reflection of the natural perils of a “small world,” although even then many of those monsters have an uncanny sexual aspect to them. The Big Bad Wolf is an obvious example, combining the primal terror of being eaten alive with the sensual rapture of sexual predation and the mysteries of those sounds grown-ups make in the dark.
Later, as both the storytellers and their audiences reach more complicated “maturity,” those monsters begin to achieve the moral and sexual complexities of the adult realm. Even then, however, figures like Count Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, King Kong, and Baronne d’Aulnoy’s Beast cast oversized reflections on the walls of our imaginations. Their baroque brutishness lets us take them in as something “other,” which offers us a certain degree of license to enjoy them as “escapist fantasies” rather than to regard them as reflections of ourselves.
And yet, that dark familiarity persists, especially when we dress it up in the more “adult” garb of Anne Rice’s vampires or Angela Carter’s wolves. Polidori gives us the satire of Lord Byron; Melville sublimates obsession into a titanic white whale. Then, the critics tell us, we’re allowed to consider those monsters to be literary symbols, not childish fictions. Their uncanny allure becomes respectable when it’s just a “symbol,” not a monster.
And… well, seriously, fuck that noise.
Monsters are monsters, and we love monsters because they both seduce and repulse us. That tension makes them exquisite imagination-fodder, especially when they seem so very, very human.
Besides, they’re really fucking cool.
Urban fantasy is all about casting seductive fantasies across the edges of our “realistic” world, with its crimes and ambiguities and coffee shops and electric guitars. Hell, I suspect that most people – certainly most urban-fantasy fans – feel like our world is already surreal. Adding elves and vampires paradoxically helps that world make more sense than it currently does. I mean, doesn’t a bloodthirsty Unseelie lord seem more plausible than Rush Limbaugh or Gamergate?
That’s even truer with paranormal romance and erotica, where monstrous seduction becomes explicit. The hunger to be both predator and prey casts the literally transgressive spell of “stepping across” both worlds, making the heroine (and, by extension, the audience) a beauty and a beast in the grasp of bestial beauty. This genre tears off all respectability and revels in being “trash” because it frees us to be passionate fiends running through the shadows of desire while making no fucking apologies for doing so.
Urban fantasy – erotic and otherwise – provides a natural habitat for “monsters,” both in the traditional sense of supernatural beasties, and in the symbolic sense of our dark reflections. And now, in large part thanks to the commercial and artistic successes of the last 20 years, even adults are socially “allowed” to think so. In a media landscape shaped by Twilight, True Blood, Dexter, and the Lord of the Rings saga, monsters are no longer our dirty little secrets.
As for my story Dream Along the Edge, I don’t really see the shapeshifting dolphin Heaven as a monster. Sure, the character of Heaven draws from the classical Greek legends of dolphin-pirates and the Celtic selkie, as well as from the archetypal mermaid figure made male. But although he’s ostensibly “supernatural” – and thus a “monster” in the conventional view of non-human entities as monsters – Heaven is an innately loyal (if lusty) family man. His mysterious transformation marks him as part of the sublime Unknown reaching outside of scientific explanations and existing, literally, as part of a dream. Beyond that element, though, he’s just a guy whose animal beauty cloaks his intense decency.
By the same token, Heaven is reflected in Rachel Cooper, our lovely heroine, who aspires to become a mermaid and in several senses succeeds at doing so. Rachel, really, is the invader in Heaven’s world, and so she could be seen as the monster, entering a realm where she supposedly doesn’t belong and where her presence upsets the natural order of things. In many paranormal romances, the human gets drawn into the monster’s world (typically by the monster himself) and finds her own world transformed. In Dream Along the Edge, Rachel is the intruder, the changeling, the outsider who disrupts Heaven’s family and his assumptions about who he is. And so, Rachel could be seen as the monster in this story, providing antagonism in a previously ordered world.
And then there’s Luke, the most obviously antagonistic character and the one who insists on messing shit up for everybody else. Although he possesses no paranormal abilities beyond his extraordinary capacity for being an annoying creepy fuck, Luke is more “monstrous” than anybody else. He is the true agent of disruption and chaos, the demi-malevolent predator who forces other characters to take action in opposing him. And because Luke (and to a lesser degree, Rachel’s roommate Chalice) imposes himself on realms that would be peaceful otherwise, he could be seen as the true monster of the tale. I certainly see him that way myself.
In Dream Along the Edge, I avert monstrous clichés while adhering to monstrous traditions. The paranormal romance/ erotica genre hinges on the tension between the recognizably human who also happens to seem Other, and the recognizably Other who also happens to seem human. By playing with the meaning of the term monster, I hope to have created a tale where familiar traditions slide into less-familiar waters, bringing about the proverbial sea-change without peeing in a very deep yet crowded pool.
(Whispers of a Mermaid (c) Photo by Todd Essick Photography)