May 18, 2017
To shed my mortal skin and assume the form of something fierce, defiant to time and anthropomorphic morality, has been a fantasy of mine since childhood. Envying the predatory animals and their supernatural counterparts, the creatures of the night, I would imagine myself mutating in the darkness, my flesh, like a pallid mushroom, taking nurturance from the luminous moonlight and damp soil enriched with the bones of long-dead beasts, carnivore cousins with dagger-sharp fangs and claws. My bones, enshrouded in their soft, ephemeral sack, poked and prodded, wanting to break free of their suffocating shelter and join with the spirits of those slumbering ancients. My teeth jutted, jabbing against the insides of my cheek, and I tasted my blood, sweet and sad, like a beloved lament, as the feral ancestors beckoned me into their dreams.
Inevitably, though, sleep or a distracting thought would intrude upon my secretly coveted fantasy, and I would find myself disappointingly unchanged, a mere human with blunted teeth and nearly non-existent claws. Eventually, my belief in a wish-fueled metamorphosis faded, shriveling in dismal daylight “reality” like a darkness-dwelling worm on sun-baked cement. The yearning to transcend, at least temporarily, my human form, however, never died.
Reading Emil Ferris’ My Favorite Thing is Monsters rouses those restlessly hibernating reveries of my youth. In Ferris’ graphic novel, the preadolescent narrator, Karen, like myself as a child, envisions otherworldly, uncanny beasts, the monsters of late-night horror films, as sources of creative escape. Ferris’s depiction of Karen’s monster fantasies and homoerotic stirrings while struggling with family tragedies, violence, and prejudice during the late1960s, though often grim, is nevertheless refreshingly perceptive and inspiring, infused with wit, a sense of childhood resilience and untarnished insight. As a monster-loving kid who grew up during the same time period as Ferris’ book, I identify very closely with the narrator’s imaginative responses to popular culture influences, gender stereotypes and her own homoerotic feelings.
As Karen attempts to come to grips with her impending puberty and the traditional feminine restrictions connected with it, she also becomes increasingly aware of her bisexual or lesbian urges. Her best friend, Missy, shares a fascination with supernatural creatures, and after the two girls watch the mildly suggestive Sapphic scenes in Dracula’s Daughter, Missy confides her love for Karen. Their love for each other, however, is thwarted by Missy’s mother, who, associating monsters with same-sex attraction, prevents Missy from seeing Karen and tries to get Missy to renounce her interest in horror movies. Throughout the novel Ferris draws subtle parallels between monsters and the feared, shunned aspects of society and ourselves, the people, impulses, and possibilities that frighten yet sometimes entice us.
Although, unlike Karen, I balked at confronting my feelings regarding sexuality, remaining basically closeted until later in life, I experienced a similar antipathy towards traditional gender roles and male/female relationships. I envied the so-called monsters, the vampires and werewolves that were free to assume various forms, shifting from skin to skin, defying most societal and sexual constraints. Vampires gracefully courted lovers (and potential victims) of both sexes, while lycanthropes, like their animal counterparts, the powerful, magnificent wolves, transcended human gender restrictions. Fiercely able to defend themselves and their loved ones, they had no fear of unwanted sexual assaults, a point Karen perceptively points out when, having escaped an attempted rape, she exclaims, “Being a human girl stinks compared to being a monster. When I’m a monster, I won’t have to keep my mouth shut. No, I’ll open my mouth and use my rows of sharp teeth to rip up guys” like her attacker.
In addition to envying their freedom from physical and social limitations, their power to fight attackers, I, like Karen, wished to possess these supernatural creatures’ immunity to disease and most forms of death. In Karen’s case, a growing awareness of death is intensified by her mother’s fatal illness. Karen yearns to be magically transformed into an immortal monster who can then give the gift of everlasting life to her mother and brother. Unfortunately, her wish cannot be granted, and she helplessly watches her mother die of breast cancer. Grief-stricken and angry that she could not save her mom, Karen has a dream in which she destroys the monsters who abandoned her in her time of need. As she lashes out in vengeance, however, she feels even more empty and alone without her beloved monsters. She begins to realize that the monsters she adores, draws, and writes about are her salvation; they are her imaginative affirmation of her own self-worth and uniqueness.
Ferris’ poignant description of Karen’s reaction to her mother’s terminal disease highlights the limitations as well as the power of fantasy. Although Karen’s monsters cannot do anything to help her mother, they, in a sense, enable Karen to creatively channel and express her feelings towards death.
These mesmerizing creatures of myth, vampires in particular, represent the ageless, disease-free immortality we as humans crave but cannot achieve. For myself, as well as for Karen, they promised a healing antidote to death’s devastation, a comforting fantasy as we grimly prepared for the inevitable metamorphosis puberty would bring and dreaded the even more terrifying transformation awaiting us towards the end of life.
As an adolescent, I had my first close encounter with human mortality when my grandmother’s sister (my great-aunt Dorothy), a frequent visitor, was diagnosed with cancer. At the time of Dorothy’s diagnosis I had recently entered puberty and also had become fascinated with vampires. A bitter family argument had temporarily eroded my grandmother’s relationship with Dorothy, but when we heard about Dorothy’s illness soon afterwards, my grandmother and her sister reconciled. Dorothy’s visits resumed, but although my family tried to assume a hopeful, optimistic demeanor, I found it almost impossible to suppress my sorrow, fear, and revulsion regarding the progressive deterioration Dorothy’s cancer and gruesome chemotherapy treatments had wrought. Emaciated, jaundiced, Dorothy was being transformed from the inside out, undergoing a monstrous metamorphosis that could not be stopped until she was dead. As I watched the cancer agonizingly consume Dorothy, I was horrified by the ways her body seemed to conspire against her, mounting its merciless insurrection. I began to fear my body and its deceptive, unreliable familiarity. It had already conspired against me with its pubertal swellings and leakings, but someday eventually it would perpetrate a much greater sabotage. My flesh was treacherous, not to be trusted. More than ever I longed to escape my physical female form. More than ever I yearned for my vampires and their healing transmutation. Although they could not grant me or my loved ones the transforming bite I desired, they invigorated me with their eternal, enigmatic allure.
Many years later my grandfather, who lived with my grandmother, my mother, and me, was also stricken by cancer. This time the cancer progressed more slowly, but the overall destination was the same. Month by month Grandpa become weaker, skinnier, his bones beginning to proclaim victory against their imprisoning flesh. A part of myself, the monster within, seemed to envy this emancipation from fleshly flux. The monster sickened my already-meager appetite and was delighted when my bones began to prevail. What others would term “anorexia” was merely a label lacking context. It, like the vampires and the other dark entities within my imagination, offered refuge. It was my way of escaping into a more permanent world of bone, a sanctuary of stillness, hard and unyielding as stone, as protective as the coffin of an undead revenant. The skeleton I had encountered in a nightmare when I was three years old, the one who wanted to cuddle with me in my bed, I realized, was merely a part of myself, a suppressed monster who wanted to be acknowledged. Only by recognizing it and the secrets it wished to share, using it as inspiration, could I begin to realize more of my creative potential.
Monsters take many forms. Although usually depicted as frightening and malevolent, they can also at times provide shelter from things more terrifying, such as death, disease, suffering, and other things that threaten one’s individuality, self-determination, integrity, creativity. As Ferris’ book powerfully demonstrates, they allow us to retreat into a regenerative inner darkness from which we can emerge, strengthened and revitalized.
Link to a review I wrote on Emil Ferris’ graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters: