The first rule of monsters is learning who is a monster.
I was a bookworm as a kid. Before starting kindergarten, I learned to read from a bookshelf of Little Golden Books, a book of Mother Goose, a collection of children’s Bible stories, and “Monster and Me”—a series of slim, white, hardbound books featuring a naked purple man called Monster, and his mentorship of a skinny brown boy called Boy. In my favorite story, the two are taking a walk (from the houses and trees, it looks like they live in California) when it begins to rain. Monster takes out an umbrella, turns it upside-down, and makes it grow to the size of a giant swimming pool. The umbrella-bowl fills with rain. Then the sun comes out, and dozens of kids show up to swim in this enormous, deep pool with Boy. There are no parents, and nothing bad ever happens in the “Monster” books. I would read them over and over, especially the one with the umbrella trick.
My favorite book as a child was not on my bookshelf: it was in the local public library. I checked out The Very Hungry Caterpillar so many times that the librarian suggested to my mother that she should buy me a copy. It was the first book I loved: the clever placement of holes, the delicious looking food, and how the caterpillar grows huge, then undergoes a mysterious transformation, fueled by all of that exotic fare.
When my little sister was old enough to ask me to read to her, her favorite book was The Monster at the End of This Book. It featured Grover, the Sesame Street Muppet, breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the reader. I would love this effect, later, when “Choose Your Own Adventure” books became popular. Like “Monster,” they were written in the second-person present tense. Grover is afraid of monsters, he explains, and spends most of the book trying to convince the reader not to turn the page. His plans to forestall the end grow more grandiose, but those powerful, wicked children we were, we just kept turning pages, delighting in Grover’s growing panic. Even my little sister had the power to make Grover beg her for mercy.
We knew something about monsters, and stories, that gave us an advantage over poor Grover. After destroying an entire brick wall that he builds to keep the monster at the end of the book at bay, Grover is crushed: not by the bricks so much as by his failure in avoiding his fate. We turn the final page, and find, muppet ex machina, that it is Grover himself who is the eponymous monster at the end of this book.
There are two kinds of monsters in stories. There are protective and friendly monsters, like the Monster who is Boy’s friend, and like most Muppets who call themselves monsters. And then there are real monsters: the things too scary for children’s movies, but which appear, anyway, in nightmares, or are known to exist, somewhere… A book like The Monster at the End of This Book was educational: it taught children to recognize that monsters walk among us and share the same fears and longings. Even you, gentle reader, could be a monster and not realize it. Better to let your nature be unfolded and to face it with equanimity.
After I outgrew picture books, I moved on to different genres of young adult fiction: the aforementioned “Choose Your Own Adventure” series, which prefigured RPGs. I was comforted by stories of neglected protagonists who get happy endings: Heidi, Oliver Twist, Black Beauty, My Side of the Mountain, The Outsiders. I went through a phase where all I read were books about teenage girls in dire circumstances: Go Ask Alice, Deenie, Karen, books about teen pregnancy, anorexia, poverty, incest. I wanted the extremities of experience, reports of life on the edges, to know how bad it could get. Like other teenagers, I was drawn to horror, fantasy, and science fiction. A young adult title that I read and reread was The Girl Who Could Fly, about a teenager who orders wings from the back of a comic book, drinks the accompanying magic potion, and finds herself with real, permanently affixed, rainbow-hued wings: able to fly, and at the same time, desperate to hide her new gift. At the climax, she panics at her transformation, and finds a way back to normalcy. I was disappointed by this ending, so although I loved the book enough to check it out of the library repeatedly, I would read the book, on subsequent occasions, only to a point at which she remains happy with her new life, and then lay the book aside and start another.
As a young adult in college, I read textbooks. An English major, I eventually only read what was assigned. I stopped reading much of anything when I started working as a technical writer, until one day when I was at home after my grandmother died. I’d been at her bedside when she passed, and we had been very close. After she died, I kept taking sick days from work and hiding in my apartment, chain smoking.
My roommate studied gender performance. His bookshelf was full of titles like Gender Trouble and Stone Butch Blues. Although I was keenly curious about some of these, I never borrowed one or even flipped through them. This day, I went to my roommate’s bookshelf, selected Leslie Feinberg’s novel and sat down and began to read. My life started to change that day.
When I read Stone Butch Blues, I reacted like other trans men I’ve talked to about this book, and also as I did when I read The Girl Who Could Fly. In Leslie Feinberg’s novel, a fictionalized memoir, the protagonist, Jess, medically transitions in order to pass as a man, then finds ze doesn’t identify comfortably within either the category of butch woman or of trans man. When Jess realizes that hir identity as a man is not clear or strong, I felt uncomfortable: let down because, like other trans men who found their way through Stone Butch Blues, I realized by the end of the book that this is not about someone exactly like myself.
Trans person as monster is a common trope, even when used sympathetically. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, one of my favorite films, is about a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, though when she sings and dances, she decides where to insert the laughs. Hedwig, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and The Monster at the End of This Book are all focused on the same conundrum as Mary Shelley was in the original Frankenstein: puzzling out who are the real monsters from who just looks like one, who the victims are, what is monstrous in human nature, and whether we are all, inescapably, monsters.
I want my monsters both lovable and courageous; I want them to forge on to the end, to self-awareness, able to see themselves for everything they are, inside and out. When the adventurer who orders a pair of wings and puts them on realizes she is changing, is afraid, and turns back to her prescribed and boring life, I am disappointed by her lack of character and vision.
The first Frankenstein’s monster is tragic; newer incarnations offer other possibilities. Dr. Frankenfurter’s initial inspiration spirals into madness and he goes home at the end of the film, thwarted. The hungry caterpillar is transformed—gorgeous—and young Frankenstein’s monster enjoys both a happy ending and a monster-sized member, while Hedwig’s triumph, like Jess’ and Grover’s, is a more measured one: she has an inch, no longer angry, and walks out of the last scene with nothing and no one else, free and alive and open to the possibilities.
—Photo credit: Jim Brayton/Flickr