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The Island and the Monster – Tim Clare

We’re thrilled to welcome poet and author Tim Clare to the Gollancz blog. His debut novel, THE HONOURS, has just been published by Canongate and is well worth picking up. Over to Tim…

I remember when, at the age of 13, I first destroyed the world.

We were on a family holiday in Swansea. I had got hold of a friend’s Gameboy and, over several hunched, hermetic days I played through Link’s Awakening.

In the game you’re Link, perpetual hero of the Zelda series, who wakes up after a shipwreck on mysterious Koholint Island. You quickly discover that the island is overrun by a cabal of monsters called ‘Nightmares’. Kill all the Nightmares, and you will receive the eight Instruments of the Sirens necessary to wake the Wind Fish, a creature slumbering inside a giant egg at the top of a mountain. If you wake Wind Fish, you will escape from the island.

Part way through your quest, you sit gazing out to sea with one of the island’s residents, Marin. She asks if you think there is anything out there, beyond the horizon. It’s a lovely cinematic moment, perfect for a gawky, angsty teenager on a seaside holiday.

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But as you press on through the game, there’s a twist. Link’s Awakening is 22 years old so I think the statute of limitations has passed on spoilers, but if you can’t handle the truth, look away now.

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On a dusty stone plaque inside a shrine, Link finds this message:

TO THE FINDER… THE ISLE OF KOHOLINT, IS BUT AN ILLUSION… HUMAN, MONSTER, SEA, SKY… A SCENE ON THE LID OF A SLEEPER’S EYE… AWAKE THE DREAMER, AND KOHOLINT WILL VANISH MUCH LIKE A BUBBLE ON A NEEDLE… CAST-AWAY, YOU SHOULD KNOW THE TRUTH!

The wise owl who has been guiding you through the game up to this point is all like: ‘Pfft. I mean I guess?’ He says the only way you’ll know for sure is to keep going.

So you do. The warnings from the Nightmares you fight get more and more desperate, insisting you that if you wake the Wind Fish you’ll destroy the island and everyone on it. But they would say that, wouldn’t they? They’re Nightmares.

You can’t be wrong. You’re Link.

Eventually you fight the last boss, a blob of morphing shadow that takes the forms of Big Bads from previous Zelda games until finally, you destroy it. Dying, it cries out: ‘Our… world…’

Then the victory music plays. You’ve won.

I remember the shaky elation I felt, after days of battery juggling and shunning my family, as I stared at the fading olive-green dot matrix screen, waiting for the game’s ending to play out. Link climbs a staircase into the stars, plays the eight Instruments of the Sirens, and awakens the Wind Fish.

And, just as the Nightmares warned, the island of Koholint is destroyed.

That’s it.

You watch, screen by screen, as the island and all the characters you’ve come to love are erased, including Marin.

The real gutpunch for me – and, I suspect, for most players – was: I didn’t know if I’d done the right thing. I mean sure, Link gets off the island, but at the expense of killing everyone on it.

Maybe they weren’t real people, you tell yourself. But Marin seemed pretty real. Didn’t she?

The more I thought about it, the more I felt a troubling intimation that – to the residents of Koholint – I was the monster.

The word ‘monster’ comes from the Latin monstrum meaning a portent or warning. It’s the root of ‘demonstrate’, which can mean to teach by example, or to rise up in opposition.

Monsters are here to teach us something.

I remember the Christmas when my Dad asked my grandmother why she had done nothing to stop the Holocaust.

The question was classic Dad – genuine, utterly without malice, and spectacularly awkward.

My grandmother grew up in Nazi Germany. She had been in the Hitler Youth. Surely she had known what was going on, said my Dad. Why did no one do something?

From her rocking chair in the corner, she told us about how she passed Auschwitz station on a school trip, about how she asked why the station platform was covered in empty prams. She told us that the policeman at the end of her road served in the camp, that when he returned his hair had turned white, that he locked himself in the attic for a week then shot himself.

She said that everyone heard rumours, ‘but we didn’t ask many questions. Bombs were falling out of the sky. We thought we knew who our enemies were.’

Etymology can be revealing but it’s important to acknowledge how we use a word now. These days, nobody uses ‘monster’ to mean sign or warning. A monster is something abhorrent, a beast, the opposite of a human.

This hideousness may be conveyed externally, or it may be hidden beneath a superficially attractive exterior. What’s important is that the monster represents a threat. There are no harmless monsters.

I would suggest our modern understanding of a monster is, in essence, ‘that which can be killed without remorse’: the zombie, the vampire, the orc, the xenomorph, the Nazi.

In monster narratives, the monster is rarely the monster.

By which I mean: in modern zombie films, for instance, the zombies are rarely evil per se. They’re more like an unnatural disaster, or a Biblical plague. The baddy – the ‘true’ monster, if you like – is almost always one, or some, of the human survivors. They act out of greed or jealousy or fearful self-interest or sadistic glee or hubristic folly. They set up petty fiefdoms, refuse to go back for survivors, hoard resources, settle scores or otherwise act the less-than-noble dick. They try to turn the monsters’ presence to their personal advantage.

They’re Dennis Nedry in Jurassic Park, deactivating the electric fence so they can steal dinosaur embryos. They’re Carter Burke in Aliens, sending Newt’s parents to investigate the infested ship without warning them of the danger (and thus dooming the entire colony), then deliberately locking Ripley and Newt in the med-bay with a facehugger. They’re Saruman in Lord of the Rings, throwing his lot in with Sauron and the mostly subvocal forces of evil.

Insatiable time-vortex TV Tropes calls these characters ‘Hate Sinks’. Genetically-engineered dinosaurs and zombies and predatory xenomorphs and grunting orcs are hard to get invested in. As creatures ostensibly incapable of moral choice, they cannot be said to be truly evil, and so – though they provide immediate peril in the same way as a burning building or a cloud of wasps – we don’t really care if they live or die.

Human baddies, capable of moral choice, reveal themselves as secret or internal beasts, crypto-monsters, if you like. Through their actions, they renounce their humanity. Their inevitable death, therefore, is presented as karmic. When they die, we’re supposed to feel satisfaction, pleasure.

‘Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt down and kill!’ said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter. ‘You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you?’

Lord Of The Flies, William Golding

In the original Frankenstein, the monster is erudite and solicitous of companionship. Only when people react with horror and disgust to his inhuman appearance do misery, shame and loneliness turn him against his creator.

‘I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on,’ he says, like a big teenager.

Dr Frankenstein’s monster becomes a fan of Milton’s Paradise Lost, a work notable for casting Satan as a sympathetic underdog.

‘I ought to be thy Adam,’ he says, ‘but I am rather the fallen angel.’ A statement which rather betrays an ignorance of how, canonically, things went down for Adam.

Treated like a monster, he begins to act in accordance with his role.

Even in stories where monsters exist, the line we’re fed is that the real monsters lie in the hearts of humankind. In our folly, our cruelty, our greed.

Most fiction huddling under the Grimdark umbrella pushes a single ideology: ‘People, given the opportunity, will mostly be arseholes to each other’. It’s presented as a mature, unflinching, anti-authoritarian position – a realistic, humble assessment of the human condition and a grave acknowledgement of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. We’re told we’re being disabused of dangerous, prideful fantasies of glory and romanticised tropes about progress, heroism and civilisation that lure young soldiers to their deaths and see countries despoiled in the name of nationalism.

The problem is, this belief system – and it is a belief system – isn’t that exciting, new or revolutionary. It’s Original Sin, the old Catholic guilt, the position of the Chinese Legalists. Human beings are inherently evil, it says. Our true nature is selfish.

Historically, the assertion that ‘people are bad and can’t be trusted’ has been used to justify oppression and hideous atrocities in the name of the restraining influence of Civilisation. On an individual level it’s used to rationalise corruption – everybody’s on the take, after all – political apathy – power corrupts, so change is futile, reform impossible – and emotional numbness – give your heart to a person or a cause and you become, at best, a sucker, at worst, a willing agent of the Evil Empire.

Perversely, it’s a very comforting, conservative ideology. We’re all screwed, it says. Be smart. Hunker down. We live in a fallen world full of fallen people, where compassion is almost always a mask and in any case doomed to failure.

The patient is terminal so you might as well jack off and eat ice cream.

The term ‘scapegoat’ is the English translation of the Hebrew word azazel. A goat would be ceremonially cast out into the wilderness as part of the Day of Atonement, symbolically carrying all of humanity’s sins.

Scapegoats were an early kind of Hate Sink.

One of the oldest monsters is the serpent in the Garden of Eden. It is he, ‘more subtil than any beast of the field’, who convinces Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

I know you more or less know the story, but let’s remind ourselves:

God warns Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit ‘for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’. But the serpent says ‘ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.’

And when she and Adam eat the fruit, sure enough, the Bible tells us that ‘the eyes of them both were opened’ and they gain knowledge of good and evil. And they don’t die ‘the day’ they eat it. (indeed most traditions have Adam and Eve living almost 1000 years)

Their subsequent suffering does not come from the fruit itself – it is inflicted as punishment by God, for their disobedience.

So more than a few sharp-eyed readers down the years have said – hang on. We’re like a page into the Bible here and already, at literally the first opportunity, God lies to humankind while Satan tells the truth. And then God angrily punishes humans for lacking ethical judgement – the very same ability He had denied them until they disobeyed Him by seizing the power of ethical judgement.

It’s like leaving a sheep in a laboratory and telling it not to drink the Super Brain Serum you’ve left on your desk while you pop out to the garage for a pasty. ‘It’s like, really poisonous,’ you lie, pulling a face. ‘Bleugh. Don’t touch.’ And then you come back and the sheep’s sitting in a wingback leather chair reading Ulysses and you’re like: ‘I told you not to drink that!’ And it’s all: ‘Did you? I guess I failed to understand the complex scientific and ethical ramifications of my actions, because I’m a sheep.’ And you lose your rag and banish it to live outdoors and then years later its super-intelligent ancestors build a giant tower and you bulldoze that too and all the while you’re leaning out the driver’s window yelling: ‘Know that this is your fault! You are the baddies!’

In Aliens, Ellen Ripley comes to understand the Alien Queen as a mother protecting her children. The Queen displays intelligence, strength and maternal self-sacrifice.

The film’s real monster is Burke, an avaricious, venal, duplicitous cosmopolitan financier. He foments conflict to line his pockets. He attempts to sacrifice the blond-haired, blue-eyed little girl, Newt, for his shadowy paymasters. It is not, ultimately, the marines’ incompetence, but Burke’s pursuit of his amoral profit-oriented agenda, that leads to disaster.

In the face of all the death and terror and suffering, Burke offers meaning. The Alien Queen is easy to fear, but too primal, too machine-like, to truly hate.

Burke gives that hate a focus. He takes the chaos of war and gives it reason. He’s the ideal Hate Sink.

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In Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrator, Offred, remembers watching a documentary where they interviewed the mistress of an SS officer, and how the mistress defended him.

‘He was not a monster, she said. People say he was a monster, but he was not one… She did not believe he was a monster. He was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled, offkey, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation.’

If it is an available temptation, then it also seems to be the most easily resisted. Offred is pushing a familiar line: the idea that, as soon as one admits nuance into an historical account, one becomes an apologist.

I don’t accept that it’s easy to invent a humanity for someone. I don’t accept that it’s possible. Humanity isn’t something one gets to bestow or withdraw based upon behaviour. It’s inherent to every human being. There’s no moral hazard in allowing that a person who committed selfish, cruel or obscenely violent acts might also have been capable of kindness, humour or remorse.

Hatred is always the easy option. It feels great.

It lets us off the hook.

‘The Jew is said to be gifted. His only gift is that of juggling with other people’s property and swindling each and everyone… the Jew begins by declaring that the picture is valueless, he buys it for a song and sells it at a profit of 5000 per cent.’

– Adolf Hitler, 1941

‘You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.’

– Ellen Ripley, Aliens

My grandmother also told us how, growing up in Hitler’s Germany, her teachers would mimic her disability, pretending to limp on crutches, asking the class ‘Who’s this?’ and encouraging them to laugh. She told me how the nuns abandoned the hospital she was in at the end of the war, how she had to walk across the country alone, on crutches. How an American soldier had offered her a lift then tried to take advantage of her until she brained him with her crutch. How a Soviet soldier had taken pity on her and hustled her across the border, weeping.

My novel, The Honours, is about a gun-obsessed 13-year-old called Delphine who thinks she knows who her enemies are. The year is 1935, and the political movements of all stripes are competing to offer the best, most terrifying monsters.

When Delphine finds herself marooned with her family in a remote country house, she becomes convinced that the elite society based there has been infiltrated by Bolshevik spies plotting the downfall of Britain. Arming herself with homemade grenades and a sawn-off, she sets about confronting her fears head-on.

Of course, things turn out not to be that simple. Still – I can sympathise. If only all of our struggles could be dealt with by shooting them in the face. What fierce joy it would be to drop the hammer. What an available temptation.

A lot has been said about the importance of ‘punching up’, whether in comedy, satire or protest. We’re told we must always make sure we attack those stronger than us.

The problem is, fearful people convince themselves they’re punching up, no matter what the target. Fear makes us poor judges of threat.

I speak with a certain amount of authority: I have a panic disorder and once ran screaming from a jar of capers. (it had fallen over)

Often, when I’m feeling anxious, I want to try to blame something, or someone. I want to give my feelings of terror and persecution meaning. I want a punchable foe.

It’s satisfying to imagine those we disagree with or feel oppressed by as being in some way Other or subhuman, whether they be bankers, the bigoted, politicians, religious zealots or Smug People On The Internet. Compassion is hard and can feel like a betrayal of one’s beliefs.

Moral certainty mixed with fear is a hypnotic cocktail. Watching monsters or crypto-monsters meet karmic deaths feels good – it feels right. It restores our belief in a just universe.

I don’t think that compassion means accepting cruel, inequitable or thoughtless behaviour from others. But it denies us the satisfaction of cannon fodder, of killing off comic groteqsues, of the fictive equivalent of ritual sacrifice. It encourages to us to recognise in others, and ourselves, an immutable humanity.

It makes it harder to believe in monsters.

Apparently, when Paul Reiser’s parents watched his character, Burke, get killed in Aliens, they cheered.

 

Tim Clare’s debut novel, The Honours, is out now.