Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review: "Monster, 1959" by David Maine

You know, I've never written a review before…

About a year ago, during winter break from university (I remember because my feet were freezing in my Converses), I was hanging out with some friends. We had dinner plans for one of those Chinese/Japanese/Generic Asian super-buffets, and one friend had not yet arrived. Thus, being 20-something-year-old ne’er-do-wells, we decided to hang out at an adjacent dollar store. While I was explaining the scientific inaccuracies of the little, plastic dinosaur toys those stores always sell, a friend interrupted me with a book from the next aisle over. In his hand, he held a copy of David Maine’s Monster, 1959.  I don’t remember what friend it was; maybe it was Phil, maybe it was Goober….

Anyway, where shall I begin with this review? A summary, probably. This short, 243-page novel follows a monster simply known as K., a forty foot tall, chimerical hominid. He lives on an undisclosed island on the Pacific where the natives revere him as a god. There is also a whole mess of monsters crawling around on this island: man-eating fish, giant serpents, dragon she-beasts, and mole men. Eventually, K. receives a sacrifice from the natives that is different, sporting porcelain skin, and blond hair (her name is Betty). Her husband (his name is Johnny) and a group of safari hunters chase K. down and steal back the girl. They eventually capture K., bring him to America, and put on a show!
Basically, Monster, 1959 is a pastiche of King Kong, with a plot and character roles very similar to the RKO film. Because of this, I’m not going to focus on the overall plot of the novel. It follows the King Kong formula, the only difference comes from the characters and their actions.
The novel functions a lot like John Gardner’s Grendel, with the protagonist being K. himself. A lot of the novel is told from his perspective, but the novel is ultimately third person-omniscient. Because of this, you see and know everything.

Seeing the world from K.’s perspective is the best part of the novel. K. is characterized as an animal that is only immediately aware of himself and his immediate surroundings. He is like an infant who has not developed object permanence. But, unlike a human infant, K. does not remember much, does not remember the young woman sacrificed to him, or the monster island home he was taken from. However, over the novel, he does change. He becomes some-what aware, he knows he wants Betty, he knows he wants to leave. However, he doesn't know the why or where to. K., visually, is a new and different monster; he has butterfly wings and antennae, an ape-like body with scaled arms, seven toes, and a bald-head  Overall, he’s just weird to think about, and that makes him a great monster.                 
The beginning of the novel starts out great, describing the world from K’s eyes. Here, Maine’s skill shows. Even when the human characters are introduced, Maine effectively replicates the cheesy dialogue one would expect from a 50’s B-Monster movie. The characters are fine up until halfway through the novel, when they get K. to the United States and the show starts.

The three main human characters mirror characters from King Kong. Betty functions as Ann Darrow, Johnny as Jack Driscoll, and Billy as Carl Denham. However, Maine’s parallels are the perverse shadows of King Kong’s cast. 

Betty is the least horrible character of the three. She is a caricature of women in the 1950s, showing how submissive they were expected to be in society. She is the most educated, though. She possesses a degree in biology, making her the scientist character these movies often have. However, she is underplayed as someone with knowledge in biology, only coming up a few times. This is probably underplayed because of 50s-woman-are-submissive mindset, which Betty does have. She believes she should throw herself into her husband and his own pursuits, leaving hers behind. That’s how she gets captured by K., and eventually gets caught up in Billy’s traveling K. show.

Johnny is the good, ol’ American boy, to the point where he’s throwing around racial slurs. He starts out as the rugged hero, trying to save his wife. After saving his wife and returning from the island, his life has become boring. Johnny eventually mutates into a perverse sex addict when he can’t replicate the rush he had on the island. He starts to become an exhibitionist, having sex with Betty (and eventually other women) in public places. He even does it in the cage K. is locked in! He's easily a caricature of America's hatred and risk taking behaviors from the 50's, and as an image of America now. He use to take all the risks, live, and be the most powerful. By the end of the novel, he's a crazed bulldog looking for the power he use to have. This is what ultimately does him in. 

Billy is no better. He literally makes prostitutes masturbate with stacks of his money, and he even has sex with his own money. I have a feeling Billy represents capitalism, seeing as he loves nothing but his money. In fact, now that I think about it, Billy’s story really isn’t finished. He just sort of runs to Mexico and isn’t given a resolution. At least, that’s how I think it goes for him. As you can tell, he’s not too terribly compelling as a character, but his actions are something you will remember.

Now, let’s talk about the meat of the novel, the actual written words. David Maine is a fantastic writer, spinning vivid paragraphs filled with literary, historical, and pop cultural references. These references are great, especially the literary and pop cultural ones. However, the historical references are a bit of a problem. The references are tools used to push the author’s opinion, an opinion on the United State’s past actions and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Maine also uses one of Winston Churchill’s quotes, describing how colonized people are not actually people (“The dog in the manger”). This message can be a bit overbearing, and it harms the quality of the novel.

While the message is overbearing at certain points in the novel, the last chapter delivers the message subtly. I don’t want to spoil it, so I will give as few details as possible. 100 years into the future, the natives of K.’s island are telling the story of Komo ko, the god of things living (K.) and Kama ka, the god of things dead. The head native tells the creation myth, the battle between Komo ko and Kama ka. The god of things dead eventually returns and takes Komo ko away. Kama Ka comes as a legion of fake humans, who had white, decaying skin. This final chapter leaves you to infer who Kama ka actually is, and it makes you consider the actions taken by characters in the novel. This last chapter and the few two segments of the novel are fantastic, really exemplifying Maine’s writing style.   

Maine’s style in this novel can also be self-referencing, disrupting the narrative so he/the narrator can add in a few words. I’m not exactly a fan of these disruptions as it ruins the chance for inference, but they are perfectly timed. Here’s an example; this paragraph shows up right after Billy and a few prostitutes have sex with money:

By now, you might be forgiven for wondering: Are there any normal people in this movie? It’s a fair question. To which the only possible answer would have to be: Are there are any normal people in the world? And if there were, would you be willing to pay good money to sit in the a dark room and watch them?

A splendid observation. It takes you out of the text, but also makes you consider life.
Billy should do what normal people do with's more sanitary.

All-in-all, Monster, 1959 is a post-modern, deconstructionist monster novel. That is what makes the novel good: it takes as look at the giant monster story itself. It takes the characters apart, spies into human nature. In the middle of this is K., our star, a monster that barely understands his own nature much less the little pests around him. However, main’s writing and he want to get a point across hampers the narrative and its impact. It’s like someone standing behind you, screaming “Did you get the message yet?!”    

David Maine’s Monster, 1959 gets a 6.5/10 from me. I recommend it if you want to read something that is a bit different from the normal monster fair.  

….and now that I think about it, it was Phil who showed me the novel. God damn it, Phil.

Buy Monster, 1959 here. Do it. It's a bargain book right now. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

What is "giant monster fiction?"

It seems like a pretty easy question to answer, doesn’t it? Giant monster fiction is a genre that has some type of giant something destroying a city or fighting another giant something or both…Well, not really. I wish it were that easy. Alas, it’s much more complex than that.
            Many would agree that the modern giant monster genre started in 1933, with the film King Kong. In the film, a giant ape is discovered on a prehistoric island and is brought to civilization. King Kong is now regarded as a great American classic. The giant monster genre would remain low key for over two decades. In 1953, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was released, featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen (the apprentice Willis O’Brien, the spfx wizard behind King Kong). This tale of a prehistoric reptile awakened by an atomic explosion would go on to inspire the 1954 Japanese film, Gojira. That Japanese film would come over to the U.S. as Godzilla, King of the Monsters. This seemingly set a trend. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, giant monster movies (often of the B-movie standard) ruled the cinemas. The Godzilla series grew popular at this time and spurned on a wave of Japanese giant monster films and TV series (Ultraman and Gamera are two popular examples). A Euro-Monster explosion also occurred, with films like Gorgo and Reptilicus. As the 20th century progressed, the giant monster genre slipped into obscurity, ultimately making it a niche genre.
            The modern giant monster genre has been around for almost 80 years, it has become a flowing type of genre. Within the greater idea of genre, giant monster fiction often fits under both science fiction and fantasy. While it started out as science fiction (with atom bombs and whatnot), it slowly oozed into the fantasy mega-genre with the 60s expansion. The Japanese giant monster genre was also important in the greater genre’s growth…
…I should probably get to the point, shouldn’t I?
            I want to define what a giant monster is and the different types of giant monster sub-genres. So, first, let us define the genre as a whole:
Giant Monster: a genre of fiction in which large, super-or-preternatural beings are central to the plot. The action of the narrative is usually instigated by the action or appearance of these beings.
We have a definition to go off now. Grand. Lets define a giant monster next.
            Giant monster: a large, super-or-preternatural being.
Now that was easy, wasn’t it? I’ve presented a rather liberal definition of “giant monster”. Why is that? I feel that that a giant monster is should not be confined to a limited lends. Giant monsters can be as simple as a giant gorilla (ala King Kong) or a three-headed, civilization destroying space dragon (ala King Ghidorah). The creative options are limitless!
Now, let’s look at the sub-genres of the giant monster genre:
The Western Sub genre – This subgenre comes from the Western culture (America and Europe). This sub-genre is mostly science based, but fantasy can be seen occasionally (the dragon and cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad). If fantasy elements are seen, they are usually from Western Mythology (Greco-Roman being a favorite). For the science-based monsters, gigantism in normal animals is the standard. The rhedosaurus from the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is just a giant -yet fictional-, predatory dinosaur. King Kong himself is giant gorilla. While these monsters are seemingly mundane, they can have fantastic powers. The Behemoth from The Giant Behemoth could emit deadly waves of radiation from its body.        
The Kaiju Sub-genre – This subgenre is comes from Japan and is probably the one most known by pop culture. Famous examples include Godzilla, Mothra, Gamera, and King Ghidorah. The Japanese Kaiju subgenre has a wider variety of monsters than its Western counterpart does. They can be as simple as the giant dinosaur (Anguirus) to the completely bizarre (Mukadendar from Ultraman). Kaiju have a love-hate relationship with science. On some days, a friendship exists between science and kaiju. On other days, science and kaiju are bitter enemies. Kaiju tend to use more fantasy elements than its Western counterpart does. They tend to use their own, indigenous mythos, but they do other culture’s myths as well. Kaiju also tend to has fantastic abilities: matter manipulation, photokinesis, and radioactive energy beams.
The Hero Kaiju Sub-sub-genre – There is a smaller genre within the Kaiju subgenre known as the Hero Kaiju. Popular examples include Ultraman and ZoneFighter. The stories in this sub-subgenre tend focus on a hero (usually an alien) that fights giant monsters. The hero tends to change size and battle giant monsters.
The Mechas and Robots Sub genre – This genre is similar to the Hero Kaiju. Instead of a alien fighting the giant monster, a giant robot (or mecha) is used. The mecha could also be the villain! A famous example of a monster-fighting-mech is MechaGodzilla from the Godzilla series. This genre isn’t inherently Western or Eastern as it can be seen in both cultures. While it is not inherently Eastern, it is rather popular in anime (Japanese animation). A related genre is called Super Sentai (known as Power Rangers in the US). In that genre, a team of superpower individuals fight off alien invaders, often with the aid of a giant robot. Popular examples of Mechas and Robots include Megas XLR and The Big O.   

            I think I’ve thoroughly described the three main subgenres in the giant monster fiction genre. Now, keep in mind: you do not have to confine yourself into one subgenre, or even the giant monster genre itself. Explore. If you’re an avid reader, you’d notice that very few texts often stick to one type of genre. The Batman series is both detective fiction and superhero fiction. Star Trek is space opera and speculative science fiction. Star Wars includes both science fiction and fantasy elements. Don’t confine yourself; that only leads to bad writing.