The Monstrous Cycle introduction – LIT871 Thesis Writing

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Reflection: The Monstrous Cycle introduction – LIT871 Thesis Writing

I wrote a thesis! There’s a lot I could say (and I have thousands of words of examiner comments I could draw on), but the bottom line is I wrote a thesis! It was one of my life’s milestones. With the intention to move on to a PhD, I mined Australian and international gothic research to develop an entire new narrative model for how monstrous characters are transformed, and the journey they take (“The Monstrous Cycle”) from death, to monstrosity, and back to a semblance of enhanced humanity after they confront and overcome their master. This model was based heavily on the work of Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Vogler’s Writer’s Journey. My primary texts were Australian horror novels with characters who had been transformed into monsters, and I applied my Monstrous Cycle model to those characters and analysed each step in their journeys.

I was praised for my “extraordinary amount of research for this project”, but that extensive breadth of research almost brought me undone. In hindsight, my idea and model were too broad for a Master’s thesis and were more suited to a PhD-length thesis. As such, I jammed in too many threads of research, such as a comparative study of the monstrous versus the superhuman, to the detriment of focusing more on core arguments such as the universality of the model. I will expand on this research in my future academic career.

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Introduction – The Monstrous Cycle: Transformation and Monstrosity in Twenty-first Century Australian Horror.

By Shane Cummings

Monsters have haunted our imaginations since the dawn of time. They are the predators that dwell outside society, and their presence challenges our ontological perceptions of ourselves and our world. Monsters are universal, and as Gilmore (2003) states, “a deep and abiding fascination with monsters is pan-cultural” (135). The monster narrative has a powerful effect on the human imagination for two primal reasons: predation and death, and our fear of both. Monsters represent the divide between natural and the unnatural, or as Boon (2007) expands, “the divide between the human and the monstrous is inextricably bound to mortality—life and death, being and non-being, presence and absence” (34). For this reason, this thesis examines monsters capable of transforming humans into their own kind, referred to as “transformed monstrous characters”. Loss of self through death or a death-like metamorphosis into the abject other of the monster is the anxiety depicted in countless folkloric legends, in Gothic fiction, and more recently, in horror fiction. The threat of this unwilling transformation, this death or loss of identity, provides the terrifying thrill that entices readers into horror fiction, and by following the plight of a transformed monstrous character, the reader is confronted with ontological questions about their own existence.

This examination of transformed monstrous characters is set against a new theoretical model developed in this thesis termed the Monstrous Cycle. The Monstrous Cycle charts three possible narrative journeys of the transformed monstrous character in a cycle that loosely aligns with Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, as outlined in his influential work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). The model is also informed by modern interpretations of the Monomyth, notably Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (2007). By aligning the Monstrous Cycle with a hybrid Monomyth, this thesis describes the universality of the transformed monstrous character within horror fiction. It demonstrates that forced monstrosity is a nuanced journey akin to that travelled by the generic hero of the Monomyth. Indeed, most of the transformed monstrous characters in the primary texts are protagonists, transformed into monsters and fighting their way back towards their lost humanity. The journey of the monster is no less compelling than that of the hero, and often, they are one in the same, which is why the Monstrous Cycle is similar to the Monomyth.

The first journey along the Monstrous Cycle for a transformed monstrous character (represented by the red line in the Monstrous Cycle diagram) begins and ends with the First Threshold: Death. Here, a human character encounters the master, a figure that looms across the entire cycle, the principal agent who transforms the human character into a monster. The master is analogous to the mentor in Campbell’s and Vogler’s journeys, although the master plays a much darker dual role of guidance and enslavement. The second journey, for those that survive the transformation and successfully cross the First Threshold of the Monstrous Cycle (represented by the brown line in the Monstrous Cycle diagram), is for those transformed monstrous characters that become feral but lack the strength of will to reassert some or all of their original human personality. They falter at the Second Threshold, Identity, and either die or remain a feral slave to the master. The third and final journey, often undertaken by protagonists who have been monstrously transformed, crosses the Third Threshold, Abhumanity, a form of supernatural balance that enables the transformed character to overcome the master’s influence and reintegrate into, or at least co-exist with, human society. This journey is represented by the green line in the Monstrous Cycle diagram. The concept of abhumanity is explained in the Third Threshold chapter. This thesis argues that, with few exceptions, all sentient monster characters transformed by a master in horror fiction will adhere to the Monstrous Cycle model.

Following the literature review (chapter 1), where significant works of horror fiction, Gothic fiction, monsters in fiction, and their relation to Australian postcolonial horror are outlined, each character journey and the corresponding Threshold of the Monstrous Cycle are examined. Chapter 2 details the refused journey and the Transformation Threshold. It also outlines the Gothic tropes common to all monstrous transformations, including isolation, darkness, and transgression, as well as hybridity, liminality, and abjection. Chapter 3 explores the subsumed journey and the Identity Threshold. In this chapter, free will and monstrous power are detailed, and the differences between monsters and superhumans in their use of power are identified. Chapter 4 investigates the Third and final Threshold, Abhumanity. The chapter defines abhumanity and analyses the yearning for the transformed monstrous character to return to human society and the dual role played by the master as mentor and antagonist. The conclusion summarises the arguments in this thesis, acknowledges its limitations, and recommends areas of potential future research.

A corpus of twenty-first century Australian horror novels that feature transformed monstrous characters has been selected. These texts are Kenneth Cook’s Fear is the Rider (2016), Jason Nahrung’s Vampires in the Sunburnt Country duology, Blood and Dust (2015) and The Big Smoke (2016), Will Elliott’s The Pilo Family Circus (2006), and Martin Livings’ Carnies (2006). Australian horror is a small field but it occasionally produces internationally-acclaimed work that warrants examination. The corpus includes only texts that have been finalists or winners of major fiction awards for their genre. Given the small field and the lack of authentic indigenous monstrosity within it, the corpus includes Cleverman (season 1, 2016), a six-part Aboriginal dystopian TV series. Cleverman is a notable additional primary source as the series features monsters and monstrous concepts from Dreaming mythology and superhuman characters. A distinction between superhuman and monstrous or abhuman characters is made in the chapters on the Second and Third Thresholds of the Monstrous Cycle.

Case studies of transformed monstrous characters drawn from these contemporary Australian texts are used to demonstrate the universality of the journeys experienced by transformed monstrous characters and to examine the evolution of Gothic monster tropes in the twenty-first century horror genre. Monstrous transformations in these works result in one of three outcomes for the transformed characters: death; subsumption and loss of identity, resulting in permanent enslavement to their master; or embracing their supernatural power, leading to independence from their master and a physical or moral return to humanity (abhumanity, an enhanced status quo, similar to the end of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey).

Australian horror, Gothic’s successor

The choice of the horror and dystopian genres for this thesis is important for ontological reasons. Wilkins (2012) describes “criticism of genre fiction usually revolves around taxonomy: identifying elements that are commonly used and suggesting that they are deployed cynically to fulfil the requirements of genre, rather than to achieve new self-expression” (38). But the kind of genre criticism Wilkins points out fails to address the importance of the universality of genre. This universality drives Campbell’s Monomyth and its successors, such as Vogler’s Writers Journey, and in turn, drives the Monstrous Cycle model.  Wisker (2005) states that horror is ubiquitous, that it is “in everyday reality, but it is also a genre, a construction, and a representation of what terrifies and disgusts, what we fear and secretly desire” (5). She declares that the “characteristics of the monstrous, vile, violent, dehumanising elements that the genre itself uses, manages, dramatizes, and represents in order both to entertain and to comment” (5). In this way, according to Wisker, the elements of horror fiction “have meanings, their roots in popular conscious and popular unconscious, their representation in popular fiction forms” (5). In other words, the root of horror is universal and horror itself is a meaningful method of interrogating the ontological.

The line between the fantastic and horrific in fiction is easily blurred, and the genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction are often grouped together as speculative fiction. Chappell (2007) states that, in comparison to the subject matter differences between fantasy and science fiction, “the distinction between the fantasy and horror genres predominantly relates to the construction of implied reader positions.” (5). Paraphrasing the work of Fonseca and Pulliam (1999), Chappell suggests a summary of the horror genre as fiction intended to scare the reader is too simplistic but likely the best distinction to from the fantasy genre. This definition of horror, based on the reader’s reaction of fear and the author’s intent to scare, is how the primary corpus has been selected. This is contrasted to the plethora of paranormal romance and fantasy works that feature transformed monstrous characters. Monsters, at their core, have always existed as abject, other, and terrifying. Carroll (1990) furthers this distinction between genres by stating “what appears to demarcate the horror story from mere stories with monsters, such as myths, is the attitude of characters in the story to the monsters they encounter.” (16). In the horror genre, Carroll asserts that “humans regard the monsters they meet as abnormal, as disturbances of the natural order. In fairy tales, on the other hand, monsters are part of the everyday furniture of the universe.” (16).

In many ways, Australia is the ideal setting for monsters. Gelder and Jacobs (1998) describe Australia as “duplicitous” for western society as it is both a demonstrably European society and yet “fantastic and otherworldly” (27).  These elements, familiar yet unfamiliar to Australia’s majority population of European-descent, are quintessentially Sigmund Freud’s (1919) Uncanny. The uncanny is one of the foundations of the Gothic genre, and the breeding ground of our modern conception of monsters. Another cornerstone of Gothic fiction is Edmund Burke’s Sublime (1756), the dual emotional quality of fear and attraction. The final major Gothic concept is Todorov’s Fantastic (1973), which is the confused feeling when one is caught between the seemingly supernatural but mundane and the genuinely supernatural. One can only imagine the thoughts racing through the minds of those early European convicts as they stared into the alien darkness of the untamed Australian bush. The first few generations of settlers would have been in the thrall of Australia’s uncanny, sublime, and fantastic, struggling with the hope and dread the land held for their futures. In their imaginations, monsters would have taken root: Aboriginal myths of bunyips haunting the waterways, or their own imported superstitions of feral men or vengeful spirits and unclean corpses rising from their graves, enraged at the injustices they bore in life.

Turcotte (2009) lists numerous esteemed authors from outside the horror genre, such as Kate Grenville, Elizabeth Jolley, and Frank Moorhouse, who found Australian Gothic conventions useful as a literary strategy. He opines that postcolonial Gothic “allows serious matters to be raised in a space supposedly immune to or innocent of scandal or unwanted secrets” (357). Nearly 70% of Australia’s population cling to the coastal cities, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistic (2006). The rest is a sparsely populated fringe. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have the opposite problem: that which they knew has been transformed by European settlement. They live on the fringe and are no longer masters of their domain. For all parties, Australia is a compromised land no one truly owns. Here, unwanted secrets and grudges can fester into monsters. Australia truly is the embodiment of the uncanny and the sublime.

Monsters and the Monomyth

The word “monster” derives from the Latin “monstrere”, which means to show or reveal. Marie Helene-Huet (2000) asserts that monsters are doubly deceptive in that they appear, as Aristotle (1963) describes, with a “false resemblance” to another species (IV 419). In this way, “monsters blur the differences between genres and disrupt the strict order of Nature” (86). Characters that have been transformed through supernatural means, such as werewolves or vampires, typically have the ability to transform back into human form (fully or partially). This hybridity or liminality makes their menace all the more terrifying. They are natural transgressions, ontological question marks. This is important from a narrative perspective, as Saler and Ziegler (2005) argue a concept that is within “intuitive ontological expectations” is plausible, and consequently, easily forgettable, which is detrimental to good storytelling. The violation of such expectations, however, such as having an encounter with a sentient humanoid monster, is counter-intuitive. This results in a concept or character that is gains the attention and stays memorable (225). The monster causes the reader an ontological introspection. In this way, the monster lives up to its original etymology. It reveals something about the reader.

Many monster stories typically feature a three-stage, repetitive cycle, which Saler and Ziegler (2005) describe as the monster-slaying tale. The first stage has the monster appearing, causing concern in the locals. The second stage begins when the monster attacks and kills humans, with some failed attempts by the victims to fend the creature off. The third stage introduces a culture hero who triumphs over the monster through strength and wit (220-2210). Saler and Ziegler’s culture hero is a representation of the protagonist, a character superior to those around him or her, and typical of the hero of Campbell’s Monomyth. However, this differs from the Monstrous Cycle, where the protagonist is often a transformed monstrous character. Thus transformed, the culture hero protagonist cannot slay himself or herself. Instead, the monster-slaying battle in the Monstrous Cycle is two-fold: an inner battle to defeat the monster within, and if that battle is won, then a battle for independence from their master.

In this way, transformed monstrous characters cannot conform to the tropes of the monster-slaying narrative. Typically, they are protagonists and their antagonists are their masters and other monsters. At their level of power, monsters can only be threatened by an opponent on a similar power scale: another monster or a superhuman. This pattern is borne out by examples from the primary corpus, such as Paul and David Hampden, brothers who later become werewolf rivals (Carnies 2006), or Kevin Matheson and his rivalry with his vampire master, Taipan, and the strigoi (blood witch), Mira (Vampires in the Sunburnt Country 2015). The monster-slaying tale is the Hero’s Journey. As transformed monstrous characters do not follow the same narrative arc, a new model, the Monstrous Cycle, is necessary to chart the narrative journeys of such characters. Using the Monstrous Cycle model and case studies from the primary texts, this thesis will examine the three thresholds of the cycle, Transformation, Identity, and Abhumanity. Three possible narrative arcs for transformed monstrous characters are mapped to each of these thresholds, and consequently, the universality of the journeys experienced by these monstrous characters will be established.

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