During the Triassic period, the parts of Pangaea which now constitute Britain drifted from the equator to more or less its current location. But with the break-up of the prehistoric supercontinent, ‘Britain’, which had spent much of the Permian underwater, dropped below sea-level once more. And although that is where it spent most of the Jurassic and Cretaceous, there were periods when the land was above sea-level, some of which lasted for as many as twenty million years.
And during those dry years, dinosaurs walked the land. Not just any dinosaurs – but, as recent fossil evidence reveals, robot dinosaurs!
The second episode broadcast was actually producer/story-editor Irene Shubik’s preferred series opener, but she was overruled by Sydney Newman, the Head of Drama. Presumably, Shubik encountered Alan E. Nourse’s story, first published as ‘Counterfeit’ in Thrilling Wonder Stories (August 1952), when Brian Aldiss included it in the More Penguin Science Fiction Stories (1963) anthology. Only Nourse’s third story (he debuted in 1951), it is a rather clunky knock-off of John W. Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There?’ (1938),1 without any of the humour or incipient paranoia of Philip K. Dick’s similar-ish ‘Beyond Lies the Wub’, published in Planet Stories (July 1952).2
Nourse is one of those generally competent writers with whose work, some of which is available for free on Project Gutenberg, I am not overly familiar. I remember in my early teens encountering ‘Brightside Crossing’ (1956) in at least one general anthology of stories for schools, and my PhD reading did include his The Bladerunner (1974) and its adaptation by William S. Burroughs as Blade Runner (A Movie) (1979), neither of which have any connection to Ridley Scott’s film other than he acknowledged them both in the credits for the use of their title.
The expedition to Ganymede, the first to explore a moon of Jupiter, has been a bust. As Captain Jaffe moans to Doctor Crawford:
Nothing. A big black heap of boulders. No atmosphere. No life forms. No valuable minerals. Nothing. For three months we explore, take pictures, write reports, and it all adds up to a big fat zero. (15)
But something is afoot. Crawford’s routine medical examination of the crew reveals that one of the eighty men on board has no blood sugar, and a follow up test shows he has one hundred and thirty-five milligrams of creatinine per hundred ccs of blood (ten would mean massive kidney failure, and twenty-five would mean the subject was dying of uremia). It is a nice and relatively underplayed point – this is not an anomaly, it is literally impossible for a human with these characteristics to live. Crawford ran the tests again, and found the subject now had normal human blood. While the doctor is explaining this to Jaffe, navigator Donnie Shaver keels over and dies. Jaffe assumes that whatever the test results meant, the matter is resolved, but Crawford is quick to correct him – the results were those of another crewman, Roger Westcott, and since there is no way Shaver could have been exposed to contamination on Ganymede, this must mean that was is loose on the ship is not a disease but a shapeshifting alien.
So let’s also suppose that these life forms had no particular rigid anatomy … Perhaps they were just some sort of jelly-like protoplasm, capable of changing to fit whatever conditions they might meet. Perhaps they could copy anything they wanted to copy, and sat watching us right under our noses, looking like rocks, looking like sand, like ammonia snow – maybe even looking like men. … Maybe one of them killed Roger Westcott, out there in the rocks somewhere, and came aboard this ship, looking like him, copying his appearance, copying his reactions … Maybe he couldn’t know, at first, just how the blood chemistry of a human being was supposed to balance. Maybe it took time for him to change and copy, so he came aboard with a nice, convincing outer shell all completed but with the inside still mixed up and uncertain … It could be a flawless copy. It would look like the man, act as he would, react just as he would react, down to the last cell. The creature would be that man except for a fragment of alien mind persisting, thinking, holding fast to an alien identity, moving with alien motives. (17-18)
Crawford’s breakneck page and a half of hypothesising – in which he also suggests this alien killed Shaver as a distraction, a way of tricking them into wasting the journey back to Earth searching for a non-existent extraterrestrial disease – is a strangely liminal, and very science-fictional, piece of text. Building such an edifice on a single piece of ambiguous evidence is hugely implausible, and yet for the experienced sf reader rendered plausible, or at least undisbeliavable, by three things: the fact that that those test results are impossible, combined with the pleasures of the extrapolative process and the memory of/resonance with Campbell’s story. In any case, Captain Jaffe is convinced:
A creature like that would have to be evil, wouldn’t it? To do something like this, treacherous, and sly, and evil. (18)
His leap into morality – and his blindness to terrestrial colonial endeavours in the face of a potential alien invasion of Earth – is stunning in its typicality. (The obvious reworking of Campbell reminded me of Ivan Yefremov’s ‘Cor Serpentis’ (1958), which reworks Murray Leinster’s ‘First Contact’ (1945), but sadly, unlike Yefremov’s spaceship crew, at no point do Nourse’s characters get a copy of the earlier story from the ship’s library and subject it to much-needed ideology critique.)3
Crawford comes up with a plan to confirm his (frankly wild) speculations before they reach Earth. He does not explain it, but it involves semi-framing Westcott for stealing the money the crew collected for Shaver’s widow, creating an atmosphere of escalating tension for the remainder of the journey home.
And it is just as well he does not explain it until near the end of the story.
Because it is really really silly.
Even more silly than the moment when the alien-Westcott, tricked into a pressure chamber by being ordered to clean it, sets about
scrubbing down the metal deck with a brush and soapy water. (29)
Surely that there is his not-human tell. Swabbing the decks. Why draw out all the air to kill him? Why not just make him walk the space-plank? (This is the kind of rapidly produced commercial sf that has no room for cultural speculation, so social structures merely imitate existing ones and sometimes unthinking cliché just plain takes over.)
Extrapolating from the alien’s earlier physiological error, Crawford concludes that although it
copied Westcott’s neural circuits … and [thus] assumed the proper conscious reactions to whatever situations arose [,] he couldn’t possibly follow unconscious human reactions and get them right. … There was one thing the alien missed that no human nervous system would have missed. The monster tripped himself up because he didn’t know enough about the function of the model he was copying. The counterfeit man didn’t have one thing that every other man on the whole ship had before this thievery business had run its course. … He didn’t have indigestion. (31)
Fortunately, Nourse has already set a secondary plot in motion.
Crawford suspects there is more than one alien on board, something Nourse has already confirmed for the reader, so before anyone can question the doctor’s decision to kill a man because he doesn’t have wind, he is busy disabling the shuttles and zooming off to Earth to ensure the ship and its crew are placed in quarantine.
There are two or three ways the story can go from here. Either Crawford is the alien and does not realise it, which is what PKD would have likely done, or when he heads back on board the deserted ship to collect his notes he will run into the alien and either kill it or be replaced by it.
Nourse opts for the latter, and I suspect this is one of the things that attracted Shubik to the story, because although Nourse kind of fluffs it, Crawford turning around and finding himself face-to-face with himself is a promisingly visual moment.
Sadly, the adaptation kind of fluffs it, too. The build up – canted Dutch angles, a roaming alien eye point-of-view shot that recalls the 2D version of the 3D alien povs in Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space (1953) – is one of several visually and aurally striking sequences in the episode. But Crawford’s (Alexander Davion) hysterical screaming is prolonged and overdone. And the waters are a little muddied by the make-up effects on his charred corpse after he is shot, which too closely resemble the first stage of the make-up effects when Westcott (baby David Hemmings!) dies – effects that remain pretty effective, as his skin cakes and crumbles and his dessicated corpse melts and oozes.
The adaptation by Philip Broadley – who among other original scripts and adaptations, wrote episodes of Danger Man, The Champions, Department S and Jason King, so I am predisposed to liking his work – makes some very sensible decisions. It retains but downplays the guff about the alien’s inevitable evilness. It drops some useful hints about Crawford’s plan involving the unconscious mind and an increasing human need to dream when under stress. It has Westcott checking electronic equipment rather than scrubbing the floor. And it avoids any mention of indigestion – though this also presents a genuine problem, in that it remains a little unclear how Crawford’s strategy of tension actually reveals anything.
A nice early touch is to have Shaver’s (Peter Fraser) collapse preceded by him uttering lyrical and oddly broken memories of the greenness of Earth. Language collapses, he says something about the ‘egg of orang’ just before his words become disconnected, nonsensical. Is he possessed by an alien, too? Nourse himself is unclear on this point, as is Broadley’s script. But it is a well-written, disorientating, creepy moment.
The acting throughout is also pretty good – less theatrical and portentous, more naturalistic, than in ‘No Place Like Home’, with overlapping dialogue4 suitable to a self-consciously modern ‘quality’ television drama with an extremely mobile camera and a dynamic use of close-ups. This sense of modernity is emphasised in a couple of wordless montage sequences, combining superimposed images and a camera that roams the ship’s deserted bridge, accompanied by a strident score that combines percussive noises and strings with electronic sounds, as alien-Westcott lies in his bunk, unsleeping, compulsively squeezes a stress ball/rag until a strange goo leaks out of his hand. It helps that, even when young and pretty, David Hemmings never looked convincingly human.
In part, the mobility of the camera is related to the design of the spaceship’s bridge – a large open space dotted with equipment and consoles, but also clearly a studio space, if not on the scale of the one in Mario Bava’s Terrore nello spazio/Planet of the Vampires (1965).4 There are some nice bits of futuristic design, too. It is intriguing to see a representation of an expedition disavowing its own colonialism crewed entirely by white men with brushed forward blond hair, as if they have sprung fully formed from the loins of Midwich or UFO’s Commander Straker (Ed Bishop). Their uniforms look like some kind of space pyjamas, fastening down one side of the chest, with a Nehru-ish collars on each of which there is a two or three digit number – presumably indicating rank. Palm plates open silent sliding doors – no Star Trek whoosh, here. Oversize playing cards no longer have any images on them; the nine of hearts, for example, is just a paperbacks-ized card with 9H written on it in an old-fashioned futuristic font.
Overall, I think Shubik was right. This would have been a much better series opener than ‘No Place Like Home’. Sure, Nourse would not have been the draw Wyndham was, but ‘The Counterfeit Man’ actually often feels like cutting edge television drama. Less stagey. Pacier.
And the adaptation genuinely transforms – and improves upon – the original story. Though I wish it would have changed some character names. When I read the story I was
distracted by what I assume was an instance of Nourse reaching for character names and, consciously or not, coming up with traces of Hollywood character actors when it came to the captain and the doctor
Other things to watch out for — Alexander Davion’s tendency, when shot from a low angle, to look like James Mason
— Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell as Captain Jaffe. He seems to have been in an episode of everything ever made, so it took me a while to work out that it was not Breaker Morant (1980) I most recognised him from but Neighbours, Home and Away, A Country Practice, The Flying Doctors and Prisoner Cell Block H (of which he also directed some episodes).
— The rubber outfitted security guards right at the end, one of whom is Derek Martin – Alex from Eldorado and EastEnders’ Charlie Slater.
Already adapted as The Thing (from another world) (1951), it had at that point, as far as I can tell, only been reprinted in J. Francis McComas and Raymond Healy’s Adventures in Time and Space (1946), so Shubik may well have been unfamiliar with it. On the other hand, she was evacuated to Canada in 1939, and later, after gaining an MA at University College London, settled for a while in the US, living first with a brother in Princeton, and then with another brother in Chicago, so she might have encountered the Campbell story in the US but settled for the variant at hand. It would probably have been cheaper and easier to get the rights, too. But this is all speculation.
Dick’s story was not reprinted until his The Preserving Machine (1969).
4 There is, however, a mismatch between this space and the design of the spaceship. The opening effects shot shows the craft to be a donut-ring design, with a giant central array, but it is the array, not the torus, that revolves. The implication is that the bridge is in the torus since the starry backdrop visible through its windows – a blackened studio wall with some lights on it representing stars – remains motionless. But where, then, does its artificial gravity come from? And why does the array revolve if not to produce artificial gravity?
Alan E. Nourse, ‘The Counterfeit Man’, in The Counterfeit Man. London: Corgi, 1965. Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI 2014.
Zombie narratives try to make us side with the worst of us against the most of us. (Accumulation by) dispossession shall be the whole of the law.
Zombies are the twenty-first century’s bomb-throwing anarchists, its beardy dirigibilists raining incendiary terror from the air. Destroy destroy destroy so a new world will rise from the ashes. But, as always, the destruction is welcomed by the architects of perpetual immiseration. Ultimately, the zombies work for them.
Zombies who struggle to retain or regain their humanity lack ambition. When zoe is all you are, why settle for the same old bios?
Zombies are metaphors, and zombie metaphors hang around long after they should have been shot in the head. Beat ’em or burn ’em, they go up pretty easy.
This is the promised follow-up to my recent post on the Hellboy movies; there is one more after this.
Complex images of emergent intersubjectivity such as those I identified in ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’ can also be found in Pacific Rim (del Toro 2012).
In 2013, creatures from another dimension open a portal in the gap between tectonic plates in the Pacific, and from this Breach giant monsters – kaiju – emerge. Humanity responds by building giant mecha – piloted robots known as Jaegers – with which to fight them.
Piloting a Jaeger requires a direct link between the human brain and the mecha body, but a single human mind cannot cope with the neural load. So pairs of ‘drift-compatible’ humans undergo a technologically-enabled mind-meld with each other in order to control the machine. This is initiated by a process known as a ‘neural handshake’, but obviously reaches far deeper than such a formal-sounding gesture implies.
Each pilot shares the memories of the other, their feelings and thoughts, without, it appears, exception. It is extremely intimate. It can be profoundly traumatic.
The process leaves us with a single consciousness, albeit one that is comprised of two parts, both of which seem to retain some level of distinction from the other even though they become as one. And it leaves us with two separate bodies over which each of them seems to retain individual control, and a third body, that of the Jaeger, which they jointly control.
While the compatibility of the pilots tends to rely on some kind of family or intimate relationship – brothers, father and son, lovers – sadly we are given no insight into how this works with the Wei Tang triplets (the pilots of the three-armed Jaeger Crimson Typhoon) played by the Luu brothers, themselves identical triplets. If identical twins represent an uncanny doubling of the selfsame (Shildrick 56), the further ‘excess’ of identical triplets surely extends this, undermining even further any sense of the security of selfhood by implying not just doubling but seriality.
Furthermore, when they pilot Crimson Typhoon, they become conjoined, concorporeal, even though they can in some ways be told apart.
The kaiju also trouble the notion of a singular identity. To begin with, each creature is so massive that it requires two brains: the main brain in the head and, located somewhere towards the other end of its spine, a secondary brain. The arse brain. This hierarchisation of corporeal control echoes, perhaps unintentionally, that of the pilots of the Jaeger Gipsy Danger: Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), the experienced white male brought out of retirement for one last mission; and the novice, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a small Asian woman at whom – despite their mind-meld – Raleigh still feels the need to shout orders. (Though if there is an arsebrain among the Jaeger pilots, he is well in the running.)
When Dr Geiszler (Charlie Day) mind-melds with a fragment of a kaiju brain, he discovers some other things about them.
First, they have been here before. In a throwaway line, it is revealed that the dinosaurs were kaiju from this other dimension. But they could not survive in a terrestrial environment until the Anthropocene era rendered the world habitable for them. Of course, this is nonsense. Dinosaurs existed quite happily for about 165 million years and were the dominant vertebrates for 135 million of them; humans have only been around for about 200,000 years, about one 825th as long. But this absurdity at least suggests the extent of the ongoing devastation for which we humans are responsible, the mass extinction event and global climatological transformations over which we blithely preside.1
Second, although each kaiju is physically unique – each one looks like it is from a separate species – they all have identical DNA. So what appears to us as speciation is actually individuation within a single species.2
Third, they are all actually clones of each other. The film implies that they are a particular kind of soldier species created and deployed by some other, as yet unrevealed, monsters intent on colonising the Earth.
Fourth, despite all this variety or instability of form, the kaiju share a hive-mind, which implies that despite their many bodies they are effectively a single individual.
Sadly, Pacific Rim does not explore these potentially troubling seams of gold but, as one might expect of a film with a budget of $190 million, buries them in rubble. They are worth excavating, however, and transvaluating, turning into something positive.
For example, they speak to the politics of the contemporary moment which needs urgently to move beyond neoliberalism’s competitive individualism as the model of how humans are and how we interact, that treats ‘all creative agency and potential rationality as properties of individuals rather than of groups’ (Gilbert viii), that everywhere undermines democracy by treating collectives as irrational mobs or dupes under the sway of demagogues, that treats the social realm as a space of antagonism rather than an intersubjective field from which we all arise and through which we all mutually form each other.3
The habitation of monsters is utopia.
Those who tell us how horrible utopia would be, and all that we would have to give up, ignore that the majority world lack so much that utopia, even if it is a place of monsters, is better than what we have.4
And if we do indeed turn to such monsters as these – human, alien, animal, machine – as figures of utopia, we again find that Derrida has done some of the groundwork for us.
the future is necessarily monstrous: the figure of the future, that is, that which can only be surprising, that for which are not prepared … is heralded by species of monsters. A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be a predictable, calculable, and programmable tomorrow. All experience open to the future is prepared or prepares itself to welcome the monstrous arrivant, … to accord hospitality to that which is absolutely foreign or strange. (386-7)5
With this in mind, I will conclude with a monster not of del Toro’s making.
In H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), the deranged vivisectionist is on one occasion diverted from his attempts to surgically uplift beasts to human status, to move them from zöe to bios, by trying to create life itself, a pure beast – what appears to be the quintessence of zöe:
[a] writhing Footless Thing … a limbless thing, with a horrible face, that writhed along the ground… immensely strong, and in infuriating pain. (77)
This creature suggests that the monstrous other is always also the utopian trace, the barely glimpsed signifier of a radically alternative space and time struggling to emerge into the text.
It is a place where such a creature could be at home, and so could we.
Notes 1 The original context for which this paper was written was a symposium on disability and sf, a context not present in these blog extracts. However, I did argue at this point that this history of the kaiju offers us a way to think about the Jaegers. They function as prosthetic ‘cures’ for the ways in which the kaiju presence relativises human ‘ability’ by abruptly rendering our world rather less habitable. This indicates the extent to which ‘ability’ and ‘disability’ can be understood as being constructed by the environments – here primarily physical, but also clearly social, cultural, political, economic – in which we attempt to live. Rather than let this note get any longer, I will post a final few comments on del Toro and disability in a couple of days. 2 This could be read as implying that each kaiju represents a stage within a life cycle which includes multiple, radical morphological changes, and that we are seeing a single species at different stages of its development. Though the film does not seem to mean this. 3 One might point to political philosophies building on the work of Alfred North Whitehead, Deleuze and Guattari, such as the vital materialism of Jane Bennett (see Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010)) or William Connolly (A World of Becoming (2011)). 4 Or perhaps the habitation of monsters is merely the threshold of utopia, something through which we must pass in order to achieve full-on communism. Not merely the full-communism for which so many of my friends on the left call, often ironically, but a communism that is full-on: radically decentred and radically democratic, as green as it is red, as queer as it is feminist, as beyond racism as it is beyond ableism; just and libidinal and joyous. 5 Observing how culture tends to work, he notes that it will also be domesticated, but at least sees that as a negotiated process, in which it learns our habits and we learn new habits.
References Jeremy Gilbert, Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism. London: Pluto, 2013.
Jacques Derrida, Points…Interviews, 1976-1994. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. London: Sage, 2002.
This and its associated posts are extracted from a paper, ‘Disability, Monsters, Utopia: Some Lessons from Guillermo del Toro’, delivered at Disability Studies/Science Fiction, Universität zu Köln, 28–29 November 2014. Thanks to Olga Tarapata and Hanjo Berressem for the invitation to participate, to Ria Cheyne and Margrit Shildrick for their supportive comments, and to the captive audience of grad students for asking so many questions.
Some version of it might appear in a book on monsters I am thinking about writing (cos, you know, they love to fund research leave for stuff like that).
Until now, I have never read a Stephen King novel.
In my early teens, I just could not get into Christine (1983) or Carrie (1974) or, indeed, The Shining. Each time I gave up a few chapters in, and just figured he was not for me. Sure, I’ve read Danse Macabre (1981), his history of horror fiction, a couple of times, and have always cherished its description of Harold Robbins (he can’t tell the difference between a well-structured sentence and a shit-and-anchovy pizza). And I did read The Talisman (1984), King’s fat fantasy novel collaboration with Peter Straub, when it first came out – and since I enjoyed it, I attributed that to Straub (although not enough to actually read any of his solo novels).1 I even bought a copy of Dreamcatcher (2001) a couple of years ago, just to see if it is as hilariously inept as the William Goldman/Lawrence Kasdan film version, but gave it to a friend in the hope she would do the research for me. (She didn’t.)
But I am teaching the US cut of Kubrick’s movie this semester, so I figured alongside also watching Mick Garris’s 1997 King-scripted Shining miniseries and the Room 237 documentary, I should really give the novel another ago.
And you know what?
It’s all right.
It isn’t scary or suspenseful in any way, which might be because I already know the story. The prose only rises above workmanlike for literally – and I do not mean figuratively – a couple of nicely-crafted short sentences (which I failed to mark in the text so I can’t tell you what they were and may never find them again). But it is interesting in the way it is such a seventies novel.
First, and least significantly, the cook, Dick Hallorann, often talks and thinks as if blaxploitation movies were King’s only source for imagining an African-American man – a quality Kubrick suppressed by
casting Scatman Crothers in the role, but which returns in the paintings decorating Hallorann’s Florida apartment.
Second, The Shining has something of Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s post-counterculture misogynistic whininess that pins the dissatisfactions of lower middle class white masculinity on women.2 Terri Garr’s performance in the margins of Spielberg’s movie can, if observed, prompt at least some sympathy for her character. But just as Spielberg is uninterested in Ronnie Neary, so King, despite giving Wendy Torrance some backstory, some viewpoint chapters and some noteworthy nipples, really could care less. Like Spielberg always, King here is obsessed with paternity and patrilineality, even using the word ‘patricide’ in the novel’s climax to describe Danny’s role in the destruction of the Overlook/Jack.
Third, and most intriguingly, The Shining anticipates neoliberalism’s particular intensification of demands on workers. Much as the novel is about the past – the ghosts of the Overlook hotel; the effect Jack and Wendy’s neglectful, manipulative and/or violent parents had on them; Jack’s alcoholism; Jack’s violence – haunting the present, it now also has an air of being haunted by the future. When one socio-economic structure subsumes another, it does not replace it completely but carries forward, mutatis mutandis, that which it needs, that which it can make use of, that which does not contradict its operation and expansion. Which is why early capitalism had its feudal robber barons, and why this social relation and the sociopaths it rewards are ever increasingly evident in the aftermath of 2008.
In the later stages of the novel, the Overlook is revealed as a kind of raging Old Testament god, cruelly demanding that Jack sacrifice his son. His reward will be acceptance into a great chain of being, presided over by this dark ancient power and populated by mobsters, killers, CEOs and other criminals. However, the contract underpinning his adoption by the hotel is repeatedly expressed in terms of climbing the corporate ladder, of Jack having to prove that he is management material. From caretaker to manager – the American Dream! – through subservience and self-abasement misdescribed as personal merit.3
But what is the nature of Jack’s actual job? It is not the mountain-top location that makes his employment so precarious. Unearned, it is within the gift of his millionaire ex-drinking-buddy, Al Shockley, who inherited his wealth; and, as Jack learns, if he steps out of line, Al will fire him without hesitation. It is a job that completely obliterates any line between work and not-work, between workplace and home. It relocates and dislocates his entire family, but will last only a few months, and if he is fired, they will all be homeless. It requires his constant presence, often in stand-by mode. It colonises his consciousness and creative human capacities, and subordinates him entirely to the extraction of his labour-power.
Jonathan Crary entitled his 2014 book on the ruinous human effects of contemporary capitalism and its attention economy 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep; I guess I will now have to read King’s 2013 sequel to The Shining to see whether it is just a coincidence that he called it Doctor Sleep.
PS Even after reading The Shining, I have still read more Guy N. Smith novels and seen more Lawnmower Man movies than I have read King novels.
1 I got bogged down in the early pages of Koko (1988) years ago, and still have an unread Shadowland (1980) in a box somewhere. But I did once stay in a hotel room next to Peter Straub at a conference in Florida, and was (admittedly unintentionally) a considerate neighbour, which surely must count for something. 2 You will be glad to hear this kind of silly whinging and contrafactual scapegoating is a thing of the past. Oh. No, wait. See this. And this excellent response. 3 As satirised in Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), and straightfacedly reiterated every day by all that bullshit about this being a meritocracy.
The 28 year old Professor Trevor ‘Broom’ Bruttenholm (Kevin Trainor), paranormal advisor to the US President, is on a classified mission to an island off the Scottish coast. There, in a derelict Abbey built on the intersection of leylines – ‘boundaries between this world and the others’ – Nazis are opening a portal to another dimension. They are assisted by Grigori Efimovich Rasputin, occult adviser to the Romanovs who somehow survived that night in 1916 when he was ‘poisoned, shot, stabbed, clubbed, castrated and drowned’. Their shared goal (although Rasputin clearly has a different agenda) is to free from their crystal prison the ‘monstrous entities’ known as the ‘Ogdru Jahad – the Seven Gods of Chaos’, who are destined to ‘reclaim the Earth … and burn the heavens’.
Hellboy (del Toro 2004) then gives us a brief glimpse of this infernal otherwhere and, within it, of a monstrous eye becoming aware of the portal, of the Earth. Then the Americans attack, and Rasputin is dragged into the portal by energies beyond his control. Broom manages to close it, but not before something comes through.
There then follows a peculiar sequence which reworks an old gag I first saw on 27 December 1973 at the end of ‘The Baby Arrives’, an episode of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em; others may recognise it from the 1995 Simpsons episode, ‘And Maggie Makes Three’. It goes something like this: A proud father holds up his newborn infant, glimpses beneath the blanket in which it is wrapped, and proudly boasts that this well-endowed child is indeed his son. ‘No,’ the doctor steps in to explain, ‘it’s a girl – that’s the umbilical cord’.
The US soldiers comb the ruins. Broom and his escort, Cpl. Matlin (Jim Howick), find themselves in a damp, dark crypt. It is decorated with ancient relief sculptures that depict entities – they look as much like monkeys as demons – fanning the flames beneath a hellish cauldron. There is a scuttling noise. Something is in there with them. Matlin glimpses it in the beam of his torch and fires wildly. Broom tells him to lower the torch. The light is scaring it.
It is something small and strange. Like a red ape.
More soldiers rush into the crypt.
It has a big stone in its hand, says Matlin.
No, Broom corrects him, that is its hand.
Look at the size of that whammer!, exclaims Sgt Whitman (Angus MacInnes). (The shape of the creature’s giant hand recalls that of the massive device Rasputin wore on his forearm to open the portal, though no-one notices or comments on this.)
The soldiers raise their weapons, but Broom intercedes. With a couple of Babe Ruth candy bars, he lures the creature down into a blanket, into his arms. He turns to the soldiers, like a new father.
It’s a boy, he explains.
It’s just a baby boy, says Matlin.
Some time later that morning, once the sun is up, the soldiers stand in a group around the creature so Matlin can take their photograph. Broom’s voiceover – spoken by John Hurt, who plays the older Broom through the rest of the film – says: An unready father for an unwanted child. The boys gave him a name that very night – in retrospect, perhaps not the most fortunate. But nevertheless a name we all came to use. We called him Hellboy. The picture is taken. The image freezes, turns to black and white, and blows away into the movie’s title sequence.
No intersex or other sex here, just plain old biological dimorphism and the hysterical overdetermination of masculine identity. A masculine identity confirmed not so much by those phallic appendages – the horns, the stone fist – but by an urgent insistence on placing this creature in a patriarchal order as, effectively, Broom’s son in an effort to overcome the unease that might arise from its vivid alterity. Like rights legislation and other measures around disability, this naming and adoption seems ‘designed to minimize or cover over’ corporeal differences and their effects instead of fully acknowledging them (Shildrick 53).
Margrit Shildrick, glossing Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (87), writes:
the initial response to the unknown stranger may be no less than murderous; we would kill what seems to threaten us. Such a reaction chimes with the encounter with the monstrous, but the point Levinas wants to make is that the threat is apparent only, the violence is all mine. Though the other infinitely exceeds my power, it arises not through the exercise of force, but by the overflowing of every idea I can have of him. (91)
Broom’s persuasive defence of the monstrous infant is a remarkable sleight of hand, situated as it is between the massively overdetermined evil of comic book Nazi occultists and a white – and whitewashed – US military.1
In biopolitical terms, Broom’s apparent refusal of violence towards this other draws the monster from the realm of zöe (the mere biological life shared by humans and other species) into the realm of bios (the life of the citizen, of those judged to be properly human). It is precisely the opposite of the gesture which climaxes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves 2014), in which Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes, reaffirms the importance of ape society’s foundational rule, ‘ape not kill ape’, before telling the rebellious ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell), ‘you are not ape’. This declaration of a state of exception ‘justifies’ Caesar’s decision to execute Koba, letting him fall to his death, without jeopardising his own position within the lawful community of apes.
Broom’s generous hospitality towards the red demon monkey infant exceeds that extended to many of Jim Crow America’s own citizens of colour, and to others whose embodiment ‘failed’ tests of normativity. But although his welcome and saving of the stranger seems like a refusal of the violence within himself, it is ultimately only an apparent refusal. This other is too capacious and heterogenous, too large, too excessive for the ideas with which Broom would constrain it; and yet, that is what Broom does. It is a boy, he declares, transforming it into his son, asserting and assuring masculine and patrilineal privilege. The poor thing is no sooner in the human world than it is interpellated, has a subject position foisted upon it.
This is, in part, what Donna Haraway means when she writes that
Organisms emerge from a discursive process. (298)
Later in the same essay, she teases human beings for using
names to point to themselves and other[s] (313)
and for so
easily … mistak[ing] the names for the things. … But the things … do not pre-exist as … fully pre-packaged … referents for the names. … Boundaries take provisional, never-finished shape in articulatory practices. (313)
Jacques Derrida describes this process in a similar way. He describes the monster as
a composite figure of heterogeneous organisms that are grafted onto each other. This graft, this hybridization, this composition that puts heterogeneous bodies together may be called a monster. (385)
And the monster cannot help but make
one aware of what normality is
and of the history and contingency of that normality:
But a monster is not just that, it is not just this chimerical figure in some way that grafts one animal onto another, one living being onto another. A monster is always alive … The monster is also that which appears for the first time and, consequently, is not yet recognized. A monster is a species for which we do not yet have a name, which does not mean that the species is abnormal, namely the composition or hybridization of already known species. Simply, it shows itself … But as soon as one perceives a monster in a monster, one begins to domesticate it, one begins … to compare it to the norm, to analyze it, consequently to master whatever could be terrifying in this figure of the monster. (386)
We can see another version of this naming/interpellating scene in Hellboy II: The Golden Army (del Toro 2008).
After a running battle in the troll market hidden away beneath New York, Hellboy stops to pet an infant held at its troll mother’s breast, patting it and saying, ‘Nice baby’. The baby turns to him and responds, ‘I’m not a baby, I’m a tumour’.
It is a curious moment, as this being evades the identity imposed on it not just by Hellboy but also by our perceptions, only to speak another identity – a pathologising one from medical discourse, which it also clearly exceeds: tumours are not sentient, do not speak.
A more unnerving version of this process can be observed in the Pale Man from El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). This creature has no eyes in his head; instead, they are located in the palms of his hands. Yet at key moment he raises his hands to his face so as to position his eyes where they would be, approximately, if he were a human. This uncanny semblance of humanity signifies the sheer potency of normativity, how it domesticates and distorts the other.
Donna Haraway points out that
the world has always been in the middle of things, in unruly and practical conversation, full of action and structured by a startling array of actants and of networking and unequal collectives (304).
So we should not assume that the imposition of identity is a singular or ever-complete occurrence; it is an always-ongoing negotiation between multiple agents on a never-level playing field.
We see the open-ended negotiation of identity as the Hellboy movies unfold.
Hellboy, coming from Hell, is fireproof. One of the other agents in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), is a pyrokinetic – able to generate fire, and shape and control it, except when emotion (the silly woman!) causes her to lose control. Then, fires rage.
These complementary abilities make their heterosexual union seem natural, normal, preordained. Which, as much as Hellboy’s tendency to be a jackass, might be the reason Liz resists being in a relationship with him.
Liz is visually coded as a lesbian (although the only other person we see her consider dating is a man), and depicted as a self-harming neurotic suffering from depression. Until, that is, she fulfils her destiny, and is fully domesticated as the mother of Hellboy’s child – just as Hellboy himself is recovering from the death of Broom, his surrogate father, and taking on the mantle of paternity implied by Broom’s initial recognition of the red monkey demon as ‘a boy’.
Actually, though, Liz is pregnant with twins. Which returns us to that troubling, but potentially utopian, excessiveness of the other, which throughout western history has been strongly associated with women’s bodies. For the twins to survive the womb, and for Liz to survive the pregnancy, they must presumably share a complementarity – akin to that between Liz and Hellboy – so that none of them destroys the others. They are (or, perhaps, it is) a becoming, chaotically organised around multiplicity. This emergent cluster of bodies, and at some stage subjects, mutually developing in relation to each other exceeds the rigidly demarcated monadic subject – as with any pregnancy.2
When the twins – whether male, female, one of each or two of something else, or just one being distributed across two or maybe even more bodies – are born, how will they (or it) emerge into the world?
How will these new others be greeted?
And will their inherited powers and complementarity be such that the only partners they can find who are capable of surviving sex with them are – as with Hellboy and Liz – each other?
If they do take male and female form, how will the heteronormative sense of being a preordained couple because of their complementarity work if, in their case, it breaks incest taboos (just as Hellboy and Liz break taboos about interspecies sex)?
As long as Hellboy 3 remains a vague plan, these problems and possibilities remain open-ended – like the world, in the middle of things.
Notes 1 President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 desegregating the US military was not issued until 26 July 1948, and other major civil rights legislation overturning Jim Crow in the US is still a decade or more in the future of when the film is set. 2 Remember the troll baby who is really a tumour? Jackie Stacey, among others, has noted that the cancer cell, like the fetus, is ‘produced by the body’, is ‘Neither self nor other’ but ‘both the same as and different from its host’ (77).
References Jacques Derrida, Points…Interviews, 1976-1994. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Donna Haraway ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’. In Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler, eds, Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992. 295–337.
Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Pittsburgh” Duquesne University Press, 1969.
Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. London: Sage, 2002.
Jackie Stacey, Teratologies: A Cultural Study of Cancer. London: Routledge, 1997.
This post is extracted from a paper, ‘Disability, Monsters, Utopia: Some Lessons from Guillermo del Toro’, delivered at Disability Studies/Science Fiction, Universität zu Köln, 28–29 November 2014. Thanks to Olga Tarapata and Hanjo Berressem for the invitation to participate, to Ria Cheyne and Margrit Shildrick for their supportive comments, and to the captive audience of grad students for asking so many smart and useful questions.
Some version of it might appear in a book on monsters I am thinking about writing (cos, you know, they love to fund research leave for stuff like that).
I will post another extract – about Pacific Rim – when I have time to write it up a bit.
He was called George, and there was something about him.
Something that made people want to hug and pet and squeeze him and repeatedly say his name. It was a burden, a cross to bear, and he hated it, often with a melodramatic flourish, but just as often he would use it to get what he wanted.
And to get close enough to kill.
In 1969, dodging the draft, he crossed the border to Canada and in Vancouver signed on to a tramp freighter bound, ironically enough, for Asia. To the chagrin of his crewmates and through gritted teeth he quickly became the skipper’s favourite. The combination of leisure and boredom nearly did for him. In Calcutta, he jumped ship. Fleeing the investigation into his nautical benefactor’s death, and posing as a photographer, he joined an ill-fated expedition into Tibet.