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Otherness and Monsters in Speculative Fiction

The speculative fiction super-genre encompasses the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres and subgenres. These are genres that overlap constantly, therefore, it’s important to categorize them under the speculative fiction umbrella [01].

Monsters have been part of our myths and stories since we developed language and started telling stories around the campfire. In literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BC), Odyssey (c. 700 BC), and Beowulf (c. 1000) occupy a place of honor but the most popular classics are Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), The Time Machine (1895), and Dracula (1897).

For the French geographer Jean-François Staszak, otherness (characteristic of the other) is a kind of discourse by which a dominant group subjugates other groups of people by stigmatizing their differences. Othering is the creation of otherness that consists of the dichotomy between them and us [02]. Many speculative fiction stories explore our fear of the unknown through the concept of the monster – the ultimate representation of the other.

Othering in speculative fiction is usually done by an action that allows some sort of mutation, possession, or zombification. The dehumanization of a person through a grotesque metamorphosis, or corruption of the body, is evident in vampire, werewolf, and zombie stories, where the monstrification of the human is achieved by a single contaminated bite. In the book Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus (2012), the origins of monsters such as vampires, werewolves, and zombies are attributed to the infectious Rabies disease where the bite is the catalyst to the descent into madness and animalization of the human being [03].

Othering can be achieved in several ways and based on any kind of reasons, such as behavior, deformities, economic power, gender, language, politics, religion, skin color, etc. The Canadian scholars Aidan Diamond and Lauranne Poharec identified, in their text Introduction: Freaked and Othered Bodies in Comics (2017), four socio-historical categories of othering: the supernatural (the freak, the monster, the mad), the outcast (the homosexual, the racial other, the criminal), the medicalised other (the physically different and the disabled), and the post-human (the technologically enhanced person, or cyborg) [04].

Many supernatural and technological monsters have been used in speculative narratives such as aliens, cyborgs, demons, ghosts, kaiju, mythical creatures, mummies, mutants, robots, spliced animals, vampires, werewolves, and zombies. The monster can be an animal or plant with terrifying and menacing characteristics or a deviant unnatural person with amoral and deformed characteristics [05]. The American author Stephen King divides the monster figure into three archetypes: “the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Thing Without a Name”. He also acknowledges the ghost archetype but leaves it out due to its broadness [06].

For the American author Mark Rose, the paradigm of science fiction is the meeting of the human and the non-human, and he divides it into four categories: space, time, machine, and monster [07]. Due to overlapping characteristics between science fiction, fantasy, and horror, Rose’s paradigm can be applied to speculative fiction. The encounter between human and non-human is definitely a fundamental characteristic of the fantasy and horror genres as well.

In all genres, but more often in speculative fiction, one can find the symbolic images and narrative abbreviations of archetypes (and stereotypes). Archetypes are present in all stories, but the speculative fiction super-genre has a propensity to myth and dream-like narratives that make them fertile ground for these universal symbols.

The American author Christopher Vogler explained, in his book The Writer’s Journey (1992), several archetypes that have been adapted from myths, fairy tales, and dreams into cinema. These archetypes are recurring character types such as the questing hero, the herald, the wise old man/ woman, the threshold guardians, the shapeshifter, the shadowy antagonist, the trickster, and the allies [08]. The threshold guardians, the shapeshifter, and the shadowy antagonist usually have monstrous characteristics or are themselves monsters: they are the symbolic others that antagonize the hero.

The monster does not need the hero, but the hero needs the monster to justify his/ her existence, and “[w]hen the hero confronts the monster, he has as yet neither power nor knowledge. The monster is his secret father, who will invest him with a power and knowledge (…) that only the monster can give him” [09].

There are many types of heroes (willing, unwilling, loner, antihero, tragic hero, catalyst hero) and “[a]lthough usually portrayed as a positive figure, the Hero may also express dark or negative sides of the ego” [10]. When the monster is the hero the roles are inverted and it functions as a critical device. In the Australian animated film Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981) we have access to Grendel’s side of the story and we understand that the gentle monster is a victim at the hands of the monstrous humans [11].

In comics a few monstrous antiheroes have been created: the Hulk is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type character, Hellboy is a demon with a prophetic dire future, and the Swamp Thing is a plant that believes it is a Man. These monsters are the protagonists of their own stories and their actions are often heroic.

The most pervasive monstrous figure in the XXI century is the zombie after being repeatedly used in the XX century. This undead, mindless, homeless, ever-hungry, and ugly creature is the perfect metaphor for the contemporary alienation, anxiety, consumerism, and disenfranchisement in Western nations. They are the zeitgeist and they represent all the lacking qualities that make us human: loss of meaning, culture, self-preservation, intimacy, and the capacity to speak. They are not evil like vampires and demons; they just walk around and spread their contagious decrepitude. The zombie is a paradox, “it is human and non-human, living and not living, cultural and non-cultural, natural and supernatural”. These characteristics raise two important questions: “if the zombie is both alive and not alive, what now does it mean to be “alive”? And if it is both human and non-human, what then does it mean to be “human”?” [12].

In Portugal, like in any other country of the world, monsters are an intrinsic part of old legends and the old stories that were told to scare little children (and the grownups). In the book Bestiário Tradicional Português: As Criaturas Fantásticas do Imaginário Popular (2016), which I will translate as Traditional Portuguese Bestiary: The Fantastic Creatures of the Popular Imaginary, there are around forty typical Portuguese creatures that are a part of our collective memory [13]. Because I’m from the Azores archipelago I will only mention here the demoniacal figures called labregos. The word labregos has several definitions in the online dictionary Priberam: someone that lives in the countryside and lacks manners, a naïf or stupid person, a plow, and a werewolf or a devil. [14].

The stories about these creatures were told in the islands of Faial and Pico. These demons – labregos – came from the sea on February 2, and climbed through the creeks to go into the interior of the island where they lived a portion of the year. On that day people didn’t leave their homes at night and used garlic as a deterrent because they believed that the labregos would carry them to hell.

References

[01] https://theportugueseportal.com/2019/06/12/the-speculative-genres-of-fantasy-horror-and-science-fiction-part-1

[02] https://archive-ouverte.unige.ch/unige:77582

[03] http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/bodyhorrors/2013/07/11/the-bestial-virus-rabies/#.XRFQnHt7nOQ

[04] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21504857.2017.1355833

[05] www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/monster

[06] Danse Macabre (1981), by Stephen King.

[07] https://estudogeral.sib.uc.pt/handle/10316/15005

[08] The Writer’s Journey (1992), by Christopher Vogler.

[09] The Marriage Of Cadmus And Harmony (1988), by Roberto Calasso.

[10] The Writer’s Journey (1992), by Christopher Vogler.

[11] www.imdb.com/title/tt0082478

[12] Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-First Century Crisis (2017), by John Vervaeke, Christopher Mastropietro, and Filip Miscevic.

[13] www.wook.pt/livro/bestiario-tradicional-portugues-nuno-matos-valente/18979212

[14] https://dicionario.priberam.org/labrego

[15] www.lendarium.org/narrative/lenda-dos-labregos

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