Earlier this year Joanne Vigor-Mungovin announced she had found the unmarked grave of a significant historical figure in the City of London Cemetery. This man was born in 1862 in Leicester, and spent his early life in a workhouse, then as a door-to-door salesman, then as homeless. As a young man he was feted by music-hall showmen and became a performer of sorts, and finally contributed to medical research before his early death, aged 27, in 1890. His remains were divided between science and the earth; the Royal London Hospital kept his skeleton, while the soft tissue went into the ground.
By all reports, he was an acutely sensitive man: devout, intelligent and shy. Surely no monster. A man who inspired numerous books, plays, a film, music, poetry. A compelling figure, seemingly divided between overgrown flesh and tender spirit. Vigor-Mungovin’s research was assiduous: the City of London’s records, though flawed, could only mean she had found the burial place of Joseph Merrick. The city now plans to mark the grave, and negotiations are underway for a statue of him to be displayed in his home town. Commissioned sculptor Sean Hedges-Quinn is yet to decide whether Merrick ought to be shown ‘wearing his famous hood’.
What exactly is a monster, and how do we see them?
Charlie Fox’s debut collection of essays, This Young Monster, is fascinated with the monster as a cultural provocateur, someone whose confronting appearance provokes a strange frisson, where aversion blurs into thrill. Fox’s horde of monsters are a diverse, uncategorisable bunch. One essay, ‘I just adore extremes!’, is a giddy study of performance artist Leigh Bowery, whose shock-and-awe bodily transformations meant he could appear—in nightclubs, catwalks or on daytime television—as ‘a deranged jester’, ‘Godzilla, a big glittery cake, [a] mysterious heroine covered in fur … or something in between a doll and a man’. Another essay takes us into the overwhelmingly driven life and career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a German filmmaker who made more than 40 transgressive and hallucinatory films between 1965 and 1982, when he died of an overdose of cocaine and barbiturates.
This Young Monster is centrifugal and recursive, thrown again and again into the arms of cultural outsiders—Rimbaud, Diane Arbus, Cameron Jamie, Larry Clark and many other artists of provocative, crepuscular beauty. Fox’s essays riff on figures of confrontation and fright, where the order of the straight world is upturned, or at least mocked. ‘Monsters cause trouble,’ Fox writes. ‘They disturb definitions, they discombobulate what we think we mean. All of which is brave and wild, not to mention something like art’s task.’
To say this is a book of ‘essays’, though, feels way too settled and formal. Fox makes himself permeable, exposing himself to his subjects so that monsters penetrate the writing, possessing it. One chapter is an intimate fan letter written to ‘the beast’, but titled, somewhat cryptically, ‘Self-portrait as a werewolf’. It is heightened, performative writing, erudite and ecstatic; sentences tumble forward with a momentum that is both drunken and controlled, wise and wise-cracking. In this book, monsters, and the trouble they bring, are seductive, overwhelming.
Wrecking those boundaries is a thrill. Transformation, which is the monster’s whole game, simultaneously altering their bodies and changing the surrounding culture like radioactive fallout, is a mode of catharsis, along with a strategy for abjuring a body that feels way too vulnerable or out of control.
It’s not surprising, then, to find that puberty—the scene of profound psychic and bodily transformation—plays a recurring role. Fox is drawn to Larry Clark’s photography, particularly from the 1980s, where ‘homoerotic action is everywhere, but never offered to you in any comprehensibly fruity form … Clark enjoys shooting boys like that for the sheer jolt, the don’t-give-a-fuck excitement of it all … tracking desire’s woozy lacunae’. But this preoccupation with wasted, transitional boyhood grew in the shadows of a very particular political era—Ronald Reagan’s economic brutality, the moral majority’s hysteria over heavy metal, daytime television freak-shows on Satanism and drug-taking. Fox reminds us that when there appears to be no hope or no escape, monsters of all kinds proliferate.
Where the boys of This Young Monster appear as wasted jailbait or lost delinquents, the girls have sharper teeth and tongues. The essay ‘Transformer’ is written in the voice of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, but present day and grown up: an everlasting enfant terrible, enthralled with the unsettling performative art of Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman and Alex Bag. The girl-become-young-woman here embodies the threat and menace of physical change, brought on not only by hormones and mind-altering drugs, but by the realisation that the world itself is unruly and unsafe. Alice and her artistic heroines refuse to try to find a stable sense of self, preferring to make themselves monstrous.
Throughout, Fox has a curious insistence on the destabilising power of the visual. The book is archly interspersed with disconcerting images—anonymous Halloween photographs, conjoined twins Daisy and Violet from the 1932 film Freaks, witches dancing outside the Chicago Federal Building in 1969, drug-taking teenagers, Dracula, and Alex from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Increasingly I began to wonder what images give us, and what they take away.
In the revealingly titled chapter on Diane Arbus, ‘Untitled (Freak)’, Fox writes that her subjects—‘giants’, ‘midgets’ and ‘freaks’—engage in a kind of ‘staring contest’ with her. While he’s right to highlight the sense of surprising pathos and wonder in these images, the book seems preoccupied with only one side of that contest. I was haunted, too, by Arbus’s pronouncement that ‘freaks [are] like someone in a fairy tale who stops and demands you answer a riddle’. I thought of Mia, a woman with dwarfism interviewed for Lee Kofman’s recent book Imperfect, whose public life is regularly punctuated by strangers staring and pointing, taking photographs of her, asking if they can pick her up, or throwing bottles at her from passing cars. Where does our myth-fuelled intense interest in visible otherness lead us? Is it always productive?
This Young Monster revels in the ambiguous pleasure of shock and its reverberations. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that Joseph Merrick makes only a brief appearance, as an exemplar of how ‘seeing what can happen to the body stimulates a hideous internal squelch—we come face to face with the instability of our own flesh—but these sensations are frequently coupled with feelings of glee’. Merrick’s body is described as ‘encrusted with tumors that distorted his figure and obscured much of his face’. There was much about his person that was distorted and obscured, though it is difficult to know how much to attribute to the overgrowth of tissue or bone, and how much to attribute to his treatment as a spectacle.
In the final chapter, ‘For Arthur and the Other Mutts’, Fox asks a question that haunts the entire book—‘What’s it like inside a monster’s head?’ But the answer never arrives. The book returns, compulsively, to an idea of monstrosity as something created and creative, a mask to inhabit. Masks, by definition, can be removed.
While I agree with Fox that monsters ‘disturb definitions’, some can disturb who we expect them to be. They may refuse our questions, retreat into a private and mundane life, or turn our curiosity against us. As Robin M. Eames writes, ‘my body is not my body / but a metaphor in someone else’s mouth’.1
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Fox’s epigrammatic quote in the opening chapter, ‘a monster is a fear assuming a form’, reminds me of poetry. Poetry isn’t frightening, but it does take strange and unsettling forms. Free verse was only the beginning of an endless proliferation of formal mutations, freaks of literature.
Online poetry journal Cordite recently published its 91st issue, edited by Nathan Curnow and titled ‘Monster’. He knows that any bestiary has to include the very real monsters who maraud through our world. Curnow begins the issue’s editorial with Darth Vader and W.S. Merwin’s ‘Leviathan’, then finds that he just can’t keep ‘banging on’. Why?
Because we’re living through daily events that seem impossible to understand—horrific news of massacres and domestic violence, the scapegoating and vilification of entire communities by politicians and online trolls. I’m writing this from Ballarat, in the days after Cardinal George Pell, once the third-highest-ranking Catholic in the world, was found guilty of child sex abuse. My city lives with the trauma caused by these perpetrators, and with the cover-up that went on for so long.
There are several poems here wrestling with the garbled language and bullying persona of Donald Trump. Julie Chevalier has him gleefully gifting cufflinks made of human teeth, Dael Allison hears ‘a metal heart dragging on gravel’, and Christopher Patton translates a presidential tweet into Rorschach concrete poems using a home office scanner.
In an entirely different register, though no less chilling in its evocation of male violence, is Kirstyn McDermott’s ‘Eurydice: a triptych’. Eurydice Dixon, a young comedian walking home through Princes Park, Carlton, is murdered. A deluge of flowers and notes are laid at the site. The monstrous cycle of policing women’s behaviour continues. McDermott’s angry and urgent elegy ends by channelling W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’:
I don’t know what to do anymore
with this dense and sour rage
one day I will send it slouching forth
on its urgent wrathful path
not once looking back
at you at me at any of us
and then they will see
all of them
what a rough beast it is we have wrought
In this Monster issue, there are plenty of the expected fictional characters, but voiced in uncannily familiar accents. Eric Paul Shaffer’s ‘Aurora: Childhood Models of Movie Monsters’ is a suite of five-line micro-portraits, gothic and clever—Dracula, Quasimodo, Dr Jekyll, the werewolf that says, ‘I am my own dog.’ P.S. Cottier’s ‘The creature runs through the Arctic ice, pursued by Dr Frankenstein’ viscerally embodies the fictional monster—‘My flesh spreads away from itself, / as if it too finds the latticework / of my woven skin disgusting.’ As I read these first-person poems, I find myself identifying with them. They seem a kind of reverse ventriloquism—I open my mouth and the monster speaks.
Cordite’s Monster is itself a Frankensteinian creation, each poem a repurposed organ or limb. They give various forms to our numerous fears, but collectively they also seem to suggest that poetry itself is a kind of protest. In Rose Peoples’ ‘Tricoteuse’, the very act of making patterns, while it may not stop atrocity, unsettles the perpetrators. The poem portrays the knitting woman beside the guillotine, sounding out ‘the faint / click-clack of the needles … a hard-won art, / the need to form perfect stitches / in any condition … They call us monsters, / which is to say, / they fear / the hands that remain steady / in the face of violence.’
It is hard to say in advance what a monster is, what form one might take. And they are not always purely in the eye of the beholder. While writing this, I read that in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Indigenous rangers of the Dhimurru, Anindilyakwa and Nanum Wungthim nations have been collecting tonnes of rubbish from shorelines. Plastic bags, thongs, cigarette lighters, plastic-bottle shards with bite marks from curious fish. Critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtles are trapped in ghost nets. Each year there’s more rubbish, more chemical poison in the food chain. Grace Heathcote, a conservationist working with the rangers, describes the pile of collected debris as ‘monstrous’,2 and who would argue?
Frightening, abnormal monsters are invariably the product of too much growth. Monstrum, the Latin root for monster, comes from monere, meaning ‘to warn’ or ‘to advise’. The birth of a monster was an omen from the gods. It is no coincidence that monere is the same root word for money, that artificial growth hormone that makes its own monsters.
Andy Jackson’s most recent collection, Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold (Hunter Publishers), consists of portrait poems of other people with Marfan Syndrome. He lives in Castlemaine, Dja Dja Wurrung country.