[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Slake-moth, Uruk-hai, or vampire, the mark of great SFF authors is often their ability to describe monsters and horrors. They say that children are desensitized to violence, but I submit that many SFF readers have become desensitized to monsters. I have read about many SFF monsters before bed, but was never once afraid of the dark until I read Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road.
The premise of The Road is simple: The world as we know it has ended. An anonymous man and his son are trying to escape winter. Other people are still alive. Those people are monsters.
Reading The Road before bed was a mistake. How come?
It may be because its horror is so unexpected. Unlike McCarthy, many authors use horror simply to propel the plot. Take, for example, Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES books, which are among the most thrilling YA SFF works ever written. Collins’ hero, Katniss, is heroic in part because she is a monster slayer.
Consider the “muttations” that appear at the climax of The Hunger Games:
The green eyes glowering at me are unlike any dog or wolf, any canine I’ve ever seen. They are unmistakably human. And that revelation has barely registered when I notice the collar with the number 1 inlaid with jewels and the whole horrible thing hits me. The blonde hair, the green eyes, the number… it’s Glimmer.
A shriek escapes my lips and I’m having trouble holding the arrow in place.
Collins’ muttations are abominations made in part from the genes of children that Katniss has killed. It’s pretty gruesome, if you think about it. Fortunately, Katniss takes the time to be horrified on our behalf. She goes on to reflect how disturbed she feels so that we don’t have to.
Instead, our job is to keep reading until Katniss is once more full of righteous, brutally violent fury in defense of her partner. Collins is a very talented author, but for me, this imagery is little more than the cost of doing business and these monsters are little more than target practice. The muttations are nightmarish, but they will never give me nightmares. Call me desensitized, but I will remember Katniss firing her bow much longer than I will recall the muttations.
And perhaps it’s just as well that I’ll remember the righteous heroism of Katniss rather than the monstrous obstacles that she faces. After all, Collins is writing for a young adult audience.
Still, I hope her work will suffice to illustrate how different it felt to read The Road.
Although I first read The Road over three years ago, I have found it difficult to forget the horror of what McCarthy describes. McCarthy’s imagery without confessional introspection is horrific, an approach that McCarthy takes right from the start of The Road:
A creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
This image has haunted me for three years. To be honest, I wish it was the only one, but the man and his son continue on their journey.
In McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world, people have begun to feed on each other. Still, the man and his son are sometimes forced to find shelter, and McCarthy has no need for his hero to reflect on the horrifying reality of what is kept in the cellar of one house:
He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, males and females, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.
Jesus, he whispered.
Many authors would take the time to outline in detail how their protagonist feels as if to offer the reader a guide to experiencing and overcoming horror. McCarthy resists this tendency, leaving his readers to cope as best they can.
What McCarthy describes is perhaps the most monstrous depiction of humanity that I have ever read, and I found that the impact was overwhelming. Every time the man and son encountered human beings, I had to flip ahead to see whether they survived.
The best thing about good monsters is finding a way to defeat them and most of us who read SFF – a rather optimistic genre when it comes to monster slaying – enjoy watching our heroes overcome overwhelming odds to do so. But if you’ve begun to feel that SFF’s fantastic monsters are a little flat, consider reading this bleak post-apocalyptic tale.
But be careful: when the man tells his son that “You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget,” he might well be describing McCarthy’s The Road.