Monday, June 4, 2012

Sharma Shields on The Little Disturbances of Monsters

In the third in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Sharma Shields, author of Favorite Monster (Autumn House Press) discusses her dark subject matter.

In my graduate school workshops, inserting Polyphemus into a literary story would likely—and astutely —have been decried as a gimmick. And I admit it: monsters are gimmicky. No doubt the monsters in my collection sprang from supremely dorky childhood interests—D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, for example, and epic computer games like King’s Quest—but, origin-stories aside, I most likely employed them because they offered a tired narrative a bit of fun.

Some of my monsters are quite literal: a Cyclops working in a Seattle PR firm (“The McGugle Account”); a snake-haired playmate that turns a little boy to stone (“Brains and Beauty”). Most of the true monsters in the collection, however, are figurative: a teenage girl who would do anything for her new friend (“Sunshine and the Predator”); a mercilessly controlling wife (“The Chirp of the Cricket”). My collection is filled with regrets and misapprehensions and terrible, terrible mistakes. In many ways, these stories reflect my own desire to mature and forget and forgive. I am not one of those people who bellow absolute confidence, declaring she has no regrets in life. I believe almost anyone with a conscience carries within them one or two major regrets (and several more tiny ones) – the horrible way we treated a friend in seventh grade, perhaps, or that one awful act we committed when feeling insecure. Reading back on Favorite Monster, I can see my own fears and regrets surfacing, leviathans carefully obscured with a heavy fog of make-believe.

Amusingly, despite my dark subject matter, I have always found incredible joy while writing. There’s something about the complete dissolution of my conscious world that I find mysterious, thrilling, and yes, disturbing.
Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son

I don’t think these joys and disturbances are mutually exclusive. I’m reminded of the three trips I’ve taken to the Museo del Prado in Madrid – all at very different times in my life (two of them with my Aunt Eusebia, who was born and raised in Spain, and once with my friend Sarah, who I met while studying abroad). I always visited and revisited El Prado, in particular to admire the paintings of Francisco de Goya. Wandering through the museum’s front rooms, I would marvel at his light and airy paintings of the aristocracy, some of them filled with a summery innocence, a joining of hands in a pastel meadow, for example, expertly rendered…but how much more I loved The Black Paintings in the museum’s dim basement—paintings of violence and despair, of monsters and witches, of demonic goats, of a drowning dog. I descend my own staircase, I think, when I explore the multifarious rooms of my own museum of creation, from well-lit, pleasant front rooms to spine-tingling, shadowy basements. And unearthing any of it is both joyous and frightening. Perhaps joyous because it is frightening.

Two awesome examples of this combination of joy and fright are Etgar Keret’s Suddenly, a Knock on the Door and J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand. These story collections are funny and dark, terrifying and amusing. And, as disturbing as these stories can be, you always get the sense from them that their authors enjoy writing. That joy is fantastically contagious.

Like any other person who attends a horror movie, shrieking with lusty agony at the final bloody scenes, or who buys a Stephen King novel, hoping it’s as freaky and demented as his last, I enjoy being a little scared. Writing allows us myriad emotions: joy, terror, frustration, satisfaction, whathaveyou. Just so long as it’s not boredom. Good grief, anything but that.