Edited by ANDREA SPOFFORD | BARRY KITTERMAN | AMY WRIGHT
Meditations on Monsters
When I was six, I visited Thailand and made my cousin Ant draw me monsters. He was a far superior artist, and all he wanted to do was to please his American cousin. He sketched pages and pages of monsters, filling my notebook with Frankenstein and Dracula, werewolves and mummies.
After a few days of constant drawing, he said in Thai, “Would you like me to draw Buddha? I’m good at drawing Buddha.”
I shook my head. Buddha didn’t howl at the moon. Buddha didn’t drink blood. Buddha was not constructed of decaying body parts. Buddha was boring.
“You know these things don’t exist,” he said. He was three years older, skinny like the bamboo stalks outside, had dimples so deep they could swallow fingers.
“But they do,” I said. “In America, they are everywhere.”
I knew a woman once who was afraid of everything. She hid when the doorbell rang. She never spoke a word to strangers and refused to meet their eyes. She did not venture out into the world, except to go to work. “There are too many monsters out there,” she said. And so she raised her son in the same way. To fear the unknown. To be wary of anyone in America, because America was a place where bad things happened. America kidnapped children. America beat elderly men. America murdered unsuspecting women. This woman, despite her fear, watched the news daily with puckered lips and a shaking head. She relished the news, which fed her fear. When her son asked her why she surrounded herself with all the wrongs of the world, she said, “It’s better to see. Better to know what hunts you.”
The first monster I met was Dave Colewell, aka Dak, aka Southside Terror. Dak was a few years older than me, and he had the habit of roaming the Chicago streets in his dirty jeans and jean jacket. He wasn’t big, but beefy, hands like sledgehammers, face riddled with acne. He picked at his face, so there were large scabs and bloody raw spots on his cheeks and chin, like someone who had leprosy. Schoolyard rumors circulated about him: Dak threw third graders into car windows for fun; Dak mauled someone’s face until it was minced meat; Dak set a cat on fire.
Of course I feared Dak. Of course seeing him coming down the street that afternoon as I was walking back from school put dread in my steps. The city block seemed infinite and dark and unnaturally silent. I kept my head down. Stared hard at the tufted grass poking out of the cracks of the sidewalk. I thought if I kept my head down, my shoulders hunched, I could disappear. I could be like the cars parked in driveways, the trimmed bushes, the mailboxes. I could be a thing. But I wasn’t a thing because I breathed and my breath was loud, and my heart thumped fast, and I sweated despite the cool autumn day.
Dak’s footsteps got louder and louder on the blacktop, the scrape of his gym shoes, the slight drag of his untied laces.
I told myself not to look up.
I kept walking.
I turned my eyes toward Dak. I think I might have been tearing up.
“Yo, you know what time it is?”
Time for me to get my ass kicked. Time for me to be thrown into a car window, this car window, an Oldsmobile station wagon with wood siding. Time for me to be part of this growing legend of Dak, part of a story that started with, “Dude, once Dak took this Asian kid.…”
“Yo,” Dak said.
I looked at my watch. I told him the time, my voice a hushed squeal.
“Thanks, kid.” He kept walking.
Why tell this story if I wasn’t going to be pummeled? Why bring you to the brink of danger and not deliver?
Because monsters, real monsters, aren’t monsters all the time.
Because monsters, real monsters, are more complicated than we give them credit for. And monsters, real monsters like Dak, come from hard families. They are beaten down by their fathers. They live in small mobile homes with rusted out holes on the side covered in plastic. They are stripped of all that is beautiful in the world.
Because monsters, real monsters, sometimes just want to know the time.
What do we really fear?
I’ve been thinking about this. I’ve been trying to understand our—my—obsessions with monsters. My childhood friend said watching a horror movie, reading a horror novel, allows us to forget the real world and our real problems. My childhood friend dropped out of high school, got kicked out of his house, became an alcoholic, and was a father at the age of sixteen.
For me, an immigrant’s son, there was little difference between monsters and me. I was Frankenstein. I was a vampire. I was Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees. I was a howling werewolf. Strip these monsters of their monster monikers, and what are they?
Frankenstein: a child confused about his existence.
Vampires: a group of emo kids fretting about mortality.
Freddy and Jason: guys with the inability to let go of the wrongs done to them in their lives.
Werewolves: people who lack control over uncontrollable anger.
Every monster, you see, is constructed of very human characteristics. The creation of a monster is bringing to the front the vulnerabilities and darknesses of being human.
A friend of mine can’t forgive himself for his past sins. He possesses red hair like a banshee and a voice that vibrates walls. The color black was his everyday uniform. “I was a monster,” he says.
“Looks don’t count,” I say.
“Ha ha,” he says. “But seriously, I did really bad things.”
“We all do.”
“Not like this.”
It’s hard for me to think of my friend in any other way than who he is now—this soft-spoken intellectual with a penchant for horror novels. He’s a gentle soul. He would stop his life to come to your aid.
I don’t ask him what’s he done. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know because I fear what I might hear. I don’t want to know because to give voice to our sin is to look it in the eye, is to give it shape and power over us.
“We’re all monsters,” I say.
We are. Jekyll and Hyde. To be human is to be capable of unmentionable things. To be human is to possess both good and evil.
In southern Thailand, terrorist insurgent groups are beheading monks, burning temples, raping children. What really, I ask you, should we fear?
My mother, when she lived in Chicago, never used the dryer. The rumble of one made her think of dead heads tumbling round and round, eyes bloodshot and popped open, canines bared. She said she imagined opening the dryer lid and heads flying out dizzily, bumping ears, foreheads, and noses against the walls like lottery balls. Instead, she hung our laundry outside, the warm Chicago breeze billowing the sheets, my T-shirts swaying like spastic ghosts.
When I first traveled to Thailand at three, I noticed mini houses everywhere—in the yards of bigger homes, on busy streets in front of gas stations, at temples. Some of the houses were as intricate as the temples—the outer walls inlaid with jewels, gold shimmering in the Southeast Asian sun.
My aunt Jeeb had one on her property in Bangkok, and I imagined the house occupied by people as big as my Lego men, living secret lives no one knew about. The house stood in the front garden, surrounded by wild vines that laced themselves through the front fence, under a tree with leaves in the shape of half-inch canoes. Each morning, before the sun rose, my aunt and I lit incense and prayed in front of the house.
One morning, I asked her about the meaning of the houses.
“San Phra Phum,” she said, spirit homes. My aunt was a schoolteacher and she spoke like one. She explained that spirit houses were part of a tradition from a time long ago, part of an animistic belief, that predated Buddhism. I never knew something existed before Buddha. I was still under the impression that Buddha was like God, and that there was no world before he came into existence. The houses, she continued, were for the ghosts that lived on this land. We paid our respect to them every day, so those ghosts would protect us from wandering evil spirits or the occasional bad luck that might befall the property like torrential rain that caused floods or the ill-willed thief.
“What do they look like?” I asked. “The spirits?”
She smiled. She looked like a younger version of my mother, but slighter, her hair beginning to gray at her temples. “Invisible,” she said.
I remember peering into the house, through the windows, the front door. I squinted to focus. And perhaps it was the trick of the light or the whirling wisps of incense, but there was a shadow, I thought, that glided against a wall and disappeared out the miniature window.
In a time of war, it is easy to label our adversaries as "monsters." It is to strip them of every virtuous quality. It is to strip them of complexity. Nietzsche said, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back at you.”
My mother and I huddled around the TV to watch Thai soap operas. Thai soap operas were typically thirteen episodes long, and during the summer months, when I did not have to go to elementary school, we halted our lives to exist only in the world of our small-screened television set. My mother watched these soaps because they kept her connected to her birthplace. It was the reason she read Thai novels and magazines, why she only purchased Thai ingredients at the Thai grocery store. I watched them because it was time with her, a woman who never kept still. I watched because sometimes I got to see a monster swallow a man's head in the cheapest and cheesiest way possible.
Thai soap operas were still soap operas. Filled with love and betrayal, melodrama and tears. Lot and lots of tears. The twist to many of these soaps? The monster on the loose. So, while mourning a broken heart, you had to escape the clutches of a mutated beast. The soap operas were formulaic—most soap operas are—but, on an intellectual level, the monster represented a fear of the unknown. Beginning episodes kept the monster a secret. The flick of its tail. The darting dark shadow in the tropical jungle. But fear slowly subsided, because the narrative about lost love, about a grandmother dying from a weak heart, about a skinny boy being bullied at school, took over. Soon, we forgot the monster and focused on the humans, who—in many, many ways—posed a far greater threat than any fanged beast. Near the end, the monster would morph into a tragic hero. We’d learn that humans created it. Mistreated it. Had taken what it valued most: its child. So yes, we wished death on the humans, cheered the monster after every murder. It became the vehicle of our vengeance. It served the purpose of our anger. The monster became our will to act out against all that wronged us. My mother would utter, "good, good," when a bad character died. I’d clap my hands.
In the end, however, like most Thai soap operas, the monster died, and then I would huddle my head into my mother, sobbing, and she would soothe my back and tell me it was not real. It was all made up.
What lurks in the night is not some other. It is not some mythological best. Not some furry animal. What lurks in the night is us.
So it wasn’t a surprise then that I constructed a spirit house made out of Legos. It was a hodge-podge of colors, made out of a hodge-podge of Legos sets, built in a hodge-podge of architectual styles. And I placed it out on the back steps of our suburban home, where my mother placed her shot glass of coffee for the spirits of the house. Now, the spirits had a place to sleep, a place to call home. Now, when the monsters came to hit our mailbox off the post, my father wouldn’t have to rush out to chase them off. When they egged our station wagon, when they called us “chinks,” when they slanted their eyes, when they whipped apples against the white siding of the house, the spririts in my Lego home would chase them away, come rescue us from all the ugly in the world.
When I left Thailand that year, my notebook was filled with drawings of monsters. My cousin, however, snuck one last drawing in. It was Buddha. He glowed. His elegant hands on his lap, his pursed lips, his slim torso. Ant drew him perfectly, even the wrinkles of Buddha’s robe, even the tiny bubbles around Buddha’s head, even his elegantly curved lips. I loved my cousin’s drawing, but during the nineteen-hour plane ride back to the states, I unconciously drew fangs on Buddha and stitches on his forhead and bolts on his neck. Oh, how I imagined Buddha howling at the moon, how he could enter rooms in mist and shake us awake, how he dwelled under the bed waiting to pull us under
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