He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
The word “monster” comes from the Latin verb monstrare, the meaning of which, somewhat surprisingly, is “to show”. (It’s the same root that gives us the word “demonstrate”.) Unlike the ghost, the monster is defined by its physical aberration from the normal. The monster is perceivable to our senses, and identified by our fear and repulsion of it. Now, who are the folks that we fear or repel at the very sight of them? As you probably realize, we are beginning to step into deeply psychological, ideological, political territory here.
The monster and the monstrous have been explored in literature for a very long time, even before we came up with generic terms like science fiction or fantasy. As a child in Calcutta in the 1990s and early 2000s, I read a lot of what is generally classified as “literary fiction”, often nineteenth-century British classics available as cheap Wordsworth paperbacks. These were the earliest monsters I knew, and demanding them to show themselves was always unsettling – because they showed me more than I asked for. In revealing to me their monstrosity, they confronted me with the monsters within myself.
My favourite among these classics included Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Dracula by Bram Stoker. As a child these stories struck me with fear with their supernatural horror, but they also made me uncomfortable in ways I could not describe yet. Were these monsters truly the villains of these stories? And what about the merely monstrous, in stories that did not strictly contain a supernatural element – Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, or Fagin from Oliver Twist? Who were these people? Why were they so gleefully, lavishly bad to the poor nice characters? Why did they still feel so compelling – why did they make us want to cry when they died (they nearly always died!), even though they were clearly the antagonists in these stories?
I was thirteen when I read the The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I hated the novella, simply because I did not understand which character the author expected me to sympathize with – everyone felt repulsive! Dorian Gray also died by the end of that story, but he did not seem sufficiently “punished” for his crimes, and that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t know, at that time, that I was stepping into grey-er ideological territory. I had no idea about Wilde or his life, his criminal homosexuality in the late nineteenth century; apart from that, I hadn’t yet acknowledged – or even noticed – the genteel, invisible, middle-class homophobia that had been part of my upbringing. The book didn’t explicitly tell me to dislike Dorian Gray (good literature rarely ever tells you explicitly which characters to like or dislike); but thirteen-year-old me picked up cues from the narrative and decided he was the bad guy – and today, that tells you more about thirteen-year-old me than it tells you about that book.
That, you see, is the fun thing about monsters. They hold up to us a twisted mirror to ourselves. It’s easy to like the “nice” characters, but easy is also boring. It’s the monsters we choose to love (or hate!) that make us who we are. My stories in Other People aren’t autobiographical, but in a sense, they are the closest you will get to seeing me – fears, desires, deep-set psychological patterns that are in my head that maybe even I don’t know yet. Writing monsters is my exercise in understanding myself better. I hope reading monsters makes you more closely acquainted with yourself too.
Mimi Mondal’s Other People is exclusively available on the Juggernaut app here