Sunday, May 24, 2009

Vampires of Lake Wobegon

No, Garrison Keiller is not venturing into the urban fantasy genre. While I think it would be hysterical if he did, I understand his particular brand of often laconic humor might not carry over well into the realm of vampires and werewolves and fairies. ... Or then again it might. What prompted this post and title though, was a skit on "A Prairie Home Companion" last weekend where in one of the skits he played the author of a series of vampire novels. His books were apparently the kind with much soul-searching and lots of emotion (and tree vampires dragging off young unsuspecting writers), the kind that had entranced the local librarian who often seems to suffer from delusions of grand romance.

It's a recurring skit, the librarian. (For those who don't listen.)

What got me thinking though was how we seem to have de-fanged many of our monsters. I know this has been remarked on elsewhere by others with far more letters and publications after their names than I have, but around about the time psychology started making a major comeback in the public perception, we began to seek reasons and explanations for our monsters. They all have back-stories now, some childhood trauma or longing for understanding that makes them tragic figures. They are almost never *just* monsters.

In some ways, of course, this makes them far more interesting. Having a back story gives the creator/audience something to explore, creates characters with nuance and subtlety, and in some ways allows us to relate to them. Which is not always a bad thing, if by relating we start to understand that there but for the grace of god (or fate, or circumstances, or whatever moves your particular heaven) go we. That a shove here, a push there in a different direction and many of us have the capacity to be monsters ourselves. As writers we're told to do this, that even if we don't put it down on the page, we ought to know our character's history so we can better understand their actions, and therefore write them more convincingly.

Understanding, though, is not the same as sympathy, or worse yet the idea that all monsters are sympathetic on some level. Because they aren't, and this is one of the pitfalls I have found in our romanticizing of our monsters. It tends to make us overlook the presence of true evil, of that monster without a backstory, the monster that just *is.*

I am a fan of modern psychology, and acknowledge that in many instances a large percentage of the criminal element is, in fact, "made" - that is, a product of environment and circumstances as much as any inborn tendency. But not all. Sometimes, the monsters just come into being as they are, no shaping, no environment, just something in them that makes them monsters.

Our figurative monsters - the vampires, the werewolves - have always been extensions of ourselves, the creative manifestation of our fears of our darker impulses. It concerns me that in attempting to relate to the manifestations, we are losing their other purpose: to remind us that evil is real, is lurking out there in the shadows.

And that if we aren't careful, it will get us.

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