I’ve been writing about my kaiju novel, my big giant monsters smashing Seoul, project.
Giant Monsters Sing Sad Songs isn’t about that though. The title is confusing, but it’s completely different. This is a collection of short stories.
It’s not especially about giant monsters. There’s a big giant Godzilla-style lizard in one, and there’s a bigfoot in the other, and that’s about it.
But what it’s really about is melancholy horror. Horror is often supposed to be cathartic. A monster comes along, and either you kill it, or it eats you, the end. It gets resolved one way or the other.
But does it. Do we always live happily ever after once the vampire is staked or the giant monster is bombed? What about living with the consequences? What about the aftermath, the survivors, the recovery. Injuries leave scars, and we have to learn to live with those scars.
So I was interested in the sadness and horror.
That’s what this collection is about. Let me run through the stories for you….
Fossils – What do you do with a giant fire breathing monster that can’t be killed? Well, get out of town. I had this idea for a kaiju wandering around an evacuated Tokyo. An entire city emptied out and silent, and just this solitary creature.
There are a lot of giant monsters out there in movies, Toho has an entire cinematic universe. But mainly, they’re one offs. Each monster is unique, its alone, it’s its own species.
That’s kind of poignant when you think of it. To be so powerful and so alone.
So that’s where I started.
I thought some more about that giant monster wandering through an empty Tokyo. It seemed to me that it wouldn’t quite be empty. There’d be some people there, just sharing the city, poets or madmen, fascinated, or on some mission. I wondered what that would be like.
It’s one of my favourite stories. J.D. Lees, who had written a couple of non-fiction Godzilla books and published a fanzine called G-Fan offered to publish it. Eventually it got published in an Australian anthology called Daijaju, which was, I’m told, an Australian best seller. It got some nice reviews.
Flirtin’ Out Back With the Sasquatch Kid – There’s a word – Neoteny. Ever hear of it. Basically, it’s the term for the retention of juvenile traits in adults, both physical and behavioural. It’s a feature of domestication for instance, where domesticated animals tend to have bigger eyes and rounder heads and retain playful or juvenile behaviour. With domesticated animals, its like we retard their maturity. An Ostrich has been called a neotenous chicken, it retained a whole lot of ‘chick’ features as it grew into a huge bird. It’s an evolutionary thing, neoteny means you retain some infantile trait, and it allows you to go off in a new direction.
Anyway, I read some place the notion that humans were just apes who didn’t mature. We didn’t grow hair all over, we kept our oversized heads and weak bodies, we retained our juvenile curousity and playfulness. A baby chimp and a baby human are pretty close, but the chimp matures, and we… we just kind of hang onto our baby features as we grow.
That’s a powerful idea, and so I thought: What would a human look like, if it didn’t didn’t retain juvenile characteristics. What would a human be, if we matured the way we were supposed to, the way apes did.
We’d be bigger, way bigger. Way stronger. Hairier. Longer lived. We’d be temperamentally different. We wouldn’t need all these accessories of civilisation and technology.
We’d be sasquatches.
Maybe this is what we’re really supposed to be, but something goes wrong in our development, some gene switches off at the wrong time, or the hormones don’t kick in, and we all end up being human, over and over and over again.
But suppose every now and then, one in ten or a hundred million, one in a billion, something goes right, and someone actually turns out like they were supposed to. They mature into a sasquatch.
Imagine that. Being the only grown up in a world full of children.
That’s the story. The other parts were drawn from nostalgia. Family road trips, those little tourist traps in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea if those are even things any more.
Never published anywhere, but I think its one of my favourites.
Skin – “At first, I thought I was going to be raped. As it turned out, it was much worse than that…”
I find that in many of my horror stories, there’s a subtext of sexual horror, of the terror of sexual violence and vulnerability. I don’t know that I saw that as I was writing, but now, in hindsight, it jumps out at me.
This is a subversion. The protagonist escapes a fate worse than death. She confronts the monster. She wins… But does it make a difference?
Killing Hot – My effort at southern gothic. This one came to me in a dream, literally fully formed. I dreamt it. Woke up in the middle of the night. Sat at the computer for a few hours, and when it was done, I went back to bed.
This was what it was like, literally. Just so pumped, I was wired into literally having ideas, and writing them, it was like my subconscious was working away. It was as if I’d trained for it. And maybe that’s what it was. You work at it – you do it a lot, ideas come easier or more naturally, you do it, and you just get good at it. At least I hope I got good at it.
It’s a short one, but a nice companion piece to Skin and Tell Me. They all have this undercurrent of fatalism – the monster, the victim, everyone’s trapped in the loop with no way out.
The Dead Quarter – this one started off so simply. I was looking at a D&D monster manual, the one with the higher level supernatural entities, and there were so many gods and devils and super-beasties, that I couldn’t see how it worked. It was a world that would implode immediately, all these cosmic beings would just throw down on each other, and poof! That’s it for the universe!
That was kind of the genesis of the story, the aftermath of the D&D world.
The other early idea was zombies. The zombie apocalypse, and the scene of some guy who managed to talk his way out of being eaten.
Everyone loved this story, but thought the ending sucked. Seriously, that was the feedback. I’d send it out to magazines and anthologies, they’d write back and go ‘loved the story, didn’t like the ending.’
Nobody could tell me what to do with the ending though.
Over the years, I kept changing the ending. Nothing worked. For twenty years, this story nagged at the back of my mind, it was like a sore tooth. Never quite done.
Finally, last year, I had my breakthrough. I knew exactly how to end it. I didn’t need a resolution. I didn’t need a climax. I needed a fulfillment. A Clark Ashton Smith sort of ending.
I don’t think I’ve ever had anything hanging around this long. But it works, and I’m really happy to have finally completed it, to finally get closure.
Regret’s Child – This was a ghost story. Ghost stories are never really about ghosts. They’re about hauntings. Ghost stories are always about the past coming back, they’re about memories that won’t stay quiet, regrets that linger.
What drove this story for me was opening image, the naked twelve year old girl bouncing into the room, both a ghost and so full of life. That and the character of Marietta, a living woman who was practically a ghost, a nurse who looked after the dying, and who had pared her life down to a knife edge minimum.
Tell Me – You never know what’s going to work. I have written stories that I thought were flat out brilliant. Hearbreaking works of pure genius. The world goes ‘meh.’ Then I write something that’s a throwaway bit, something barely more than a writing exercise, and suddenly, that’s the one that hits.
Tell Me was one of those. Just a little bit of fluff I threw off, an idea that I spun up quickly. And it sells the first time I send it out, to After Dark magazine out in California, it gets good reviews, it sells again, it gets an honourable mention in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror that year. Go figure.
It’s a story about a vampire and a vampire hunter, and about victims. Not much more to say.
Anomalous Phenomena and the Inevitability of Mass Murder as Contemplated on a Transit Bus – this may be my longest title. Possibly I was bitten by Samuel R. Delaney around this time. It’s a story about a conversation on a bus, not much more than that.
I liked the characters. I liked the ridiculousness of it. And I liked the idea, of this little old man, gnawing away at the roots of Yggdrasil, the world tree, and his quest to remake reality.
Life, Love and the Necronomicon – One of my great Lovecraftian Stories. The other is in Dawn of Cthulhu.
This was originally fifteen thousand words, I eventually boiled it down to ten thousand. This is pretty rare for me. I don’t usually do big rewrites or harsh edits. Normally, a story takes exactly the time it needs and that’s it. It might vary by a couple of hundred words in revision, but it’s usually pretty on the mark.
Lovecraft is an interesting writer. He couldn’t do dialogue to save his life. He has almost no female characters, and honestly, he’s not good at fleshing out characterisation. He’s justly hammered for prose so purple it goes into the ultraviolet. He was by all accounts a racist, and beyond that, a sad, kind of pathetic guy, who slowly starved to death, because he just wasn’t very well equipped to deal with the world.
But like it or not, his writing has an indefinable and inescapable power, and the ideas he played with, of an implacable alien universe without good or evil, a universe that was indifferent to us, is genuinely and uniquely powerful.
He had and has thousands of contemporaries, most of whom were better adjusted than he was. But I think he had something special.
What’s amazing is how his followers manage to miss the point. They clearly feel the power of what he does. It fires their imagination, but then, once they get into it, it’s all tentacles and cosmic hoo haw and cartoonish nonsense.
There’s a fellow named August Derleth, who was a huge fan. He founded Arkham House press, and quite possibly rescued Lovecraft’s work from obscurity. He even posthumously collaborated with Lovecraft, finishing up half written stories and abandoned projects and even fleshing out ideas. I’ve read Derleth, and I find myself wondering if he even read Lovecraft, he gets it so spectacularly wrong. What the hell?
Lovecraft’s stories were often structured as mysteries, the characters carefully assembling the clues and putting the pieces together into a terrible whole. The built up histories. His stories weren’t about the monster, but about the process of getting to the monster, realizing its there, understanding what it was. At heart, his stories are about entropy, about decay, about a universe too alien and too different to even be malign. It was about universe bigger than we could imagine, where everything we were was simply… irrelevant.
Tentacles just misses the point.
The inspiration for this story comes from a fellow named Robert Price. Price is a Lovecraft fan and a scholar of note himself, he was involved in the Jesus Project, which attempted to use principles of textual analysis to try and work out what Jesus actually did or didn’t say.
Now, Lovecraft and his friends had created a kind of shared universe of gods and monsters. It wasn’t a big deal, they’d just throw references in here and there as in-jokes or to kind of spice things up. One of these things was the book of pure evil, the Necronomicon, written by a mad arab named Abdul Alhazred. Various stories would include quotes from the mysterious book.
Anyway, Price did a short story, or perhaps an essay, where he used those same principles of textual analysis on the various quotations from the Necronomicon by Lovecraft and other writers, in order to deconstruct it and explain what it was really about, highlighting and resolving contradictions, examining context, twisting out new meanings.
It’s a wonderful piece of work and absolutely brilliant. I’m a sucker for smart people being smart. It was just an eye opener into a kind of analysis and insight I’d never suspected. I highly recommend it.
Anyway, Price’s story made an impression. So a decade or two later, when I had my own notion, I found myself remembering Price’s story, and using similar techniques to go off in a completely different direction.
My idea was simple – what if Abdul Alhazred was a real person? You don’t just stop there. You have to ask what world did he live in. The era of Alhazred was a time of transformation, when Islam was busy exploding outwards, conquering the world, having civil wars. It was a faith that came out of nowhere, and suddenly, it was an empire overnight. That has to be pretty weird.
Who was he in this rapidly changing world, and how does the Necronomicon read as the record of his progress through it.
And how does it connect to Lovecraft himself?
It’s a psychological horror story of a man going mad as he faces the contradictions of his existence, and that madness reaching out across the centuries to transform the life of a New England man. No tentacles at all. But I think it’s actually true to Lovecraft’s sensibilities.
So that’s the collection. Check it out.