Creatures…Great and Small
MEG 4: Hell’s Aquarium
Gere Donovan Press, 23 August 2013
Samhain Publications, 1 October 2013
Trade paperback, Kindle
By Michael R. Collings
I was thirteen when I received my first—and most enduring—instruction in the importance of controlling physical scale to create effective horror.
On January 27, 1961, with my family, I watched a first-run episode midway through the second season of The Twilight Zone. The setting was a dilapidated farmhouse apparently miles from anywhere; the main character, a permanently disheveled-looking old woman who, we only realized after the show was over, did not have a single line of intelligible dialogue. She hears a crash and, upon investigating, encounters a tiny metallic-clothed figure…which systematically terrorizes her. Alone, frightened, unable to depend upon anyone else for help, she fights back with what few tools and implements she can find, including a knife. In the final moments, she manages to destroy a flying saucer that has landed on her roof and—presumably—the invaders within. Only in the last seconds does the viewer see what is written on the ship, facing the camera and away from the old woman: “U.S. Air Force Space Probe No. 1.”
In that instant, Agnes Moorhead, in one her finest roles, ceases to be an empathetic character threatened by the unknown and becomes the unknown—gargantuan, inarticulate, violent.
In horror, creatures usually come in one of two sizes: Giant Economy Size or Miniscule Insidious Size. To be sure, many may fit neatly in between, those being essentially human-sized and often even moderately hominoid in appearance—Bigfoot may be slightly larger than we are, but on the relative Chain of Size, he is a close cousin.
But as a rule, the creatures that one should at all costs avoid tend to extremes.
In Steve Alten’s novel MEG 4: Hell’s Aquarium, during a moment of extreme danger, a character discovers a key principle in dealing with prehistoric creatures surviving in an isolated seabed—and with monsters (i.e., anything huge) in general: “Among the big predators, size—or perceived size—is everything.” And, a few pages later, the text confirms: “Bigger always wins.”
In this, the fourth in a series about the introduction of various specimens of the long-thought-extinct gigantic shark, Carcharodon megalodon, into the modern world, characters must deal with omnivores the size of double-decker buses. In doing so, they inadvertently confirm a number of issues relating to Creatures Great.
First, the Megs and their fellow survivors live in what is essentially a “Lost World,” a setting which—thanks to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel (1912) and King Kong (1933)—has become a staple. Readers feel comfortable with the nearby and the understandable. To find the truly horrific, the truly terrifying, one must travel to distant reaches, inaccessible and inhospitable and often either uniquely cold or uniquely hot. Alten chooses the former and locates his creatures in the frigid depths of the sea. According to Bergmann’s Rule, one character states, “body size is larger in colder regions than in more temperate ones…. When it comes to survival, size matters most.”
The setting, and the fact that this is one of a number of sequels, leads to a second issue. If volume one posits giant sharks, by the fourth volume something even larger is required. Sharks-versus-human interactions are necessarily limited, and once they have been fully explored, readers demand more…more action, for thrills, more sheer size.
MEG 4 accommodates, bringing onto the stage not one but two apex species, pliosaurs (in particular an enormous Liopleurodon) and mosasaurs. Suspense requires that human actions become singularly inept in order to orchestrate multiple scenes with megalodons devouring humans, megalodons devouring mosasaurs, and pliosaurs devouring megalodons. To do so also requires more immensities: the largest tanker ship on earth, the largest aquarium pool on earth, etc. Bigger always wins, true; but bigger always generates bigger.
Which leads to another issue. When the monsters become too large, almost too enormous to contemplate, the human actors that should at some point hold center stage become diminished. The balance between the two—creatures and humans—can be met by creating characters so complex, so fascinating, that they hold their own on their own merits. Think only of Captain Ahab and his nemesis, Moby Dick, for example. It is difficult to say which of the two is the more intriguing, the more threatening, in his own way the more horrific. When the right balance is reached, the story is enhanced for it.
Unfortunately, however, horror writers dealing in gigantics often resort to rhetoric and image, rather than in-depth characterization, to create balance. And that results in florid, hyperbolic writing that distracts rather than enhances.
At a climactic moment in MEG 4, a character—a former Bond-girl and sister to Natalie Wood—heroically jumps from a ship to save her grandson from a Meg’s jaws. It a twist of fate, the Meg swallows her instead, whole and living, and traps her inside its mouth. For a moment Wood struggles, thinking that she is underwater and that the sandpapery surface on which she stands is the back of another Meg. She kicks and is first jammed against the roof of the shark’s mouth, then:
…the Meg’s tongue heaves Lana sideways in the muted blackness—
—the unseen daggers puncturing her flesh! Her cries are stifled by an ungodly embrace that crushes her existence into pulp and releases her soul to a heavenly light, even as Belle’s tongue guides her physical remains into hell.
Leaving aside the impossibility of something crushing an existence into pulp and the illogical and inapt introduction of Heaven and a presumed and stereotypic afterlife into the story, this and the passages surrounding it demonstrate the struggle Alten has in making his humans—and their deaths—as interesting as his monsters.
And, as with many sequels to gigantic-monster tales—archetypally, perhaps, the unending procession of Godzilla films—the writer must now up the ante. We start with the greatest shark ever known. Now we must continue to finder bigger and more dangerous and more horrifying monsters for it to battle. And then something even larger and more gruesome yet.
But creators of monsters need to be wary. It doesn’t take too long for the monstrous to degenerate into the comedic.
A number of years ago, I purchased a DVD, primarily because it was so inexpensive (for that, read cheap) that I couldn’t resist it. The film was the 1977 release, Kingdom of the Spiders, starring a young but nevertheless post-Star Trek William Shatner battling an invasion of tarantulas. There were no particularly noteworthy special effects; just normal-sized spiders making their ways through small passages and startling characters. And nothing much happened…except that there were gradually more and more spiders, and the sanguine hopes of the townspeople that it would all be over soon grew flimsier and flimsier until…well, until a pull-away long-shot final scene showed first a window, then a house, then the nearby tree, then…then the entire town shrouded in a gigantic web. End of hope for those characters, and perhaps for humanity.
That film came to mind as I read John Everson’s Violet Eyes (2013).
It introduced itself as horror quite bluntly…and, as it turned out, for all the wrong reasons. Intentionally and effectively.
A quartet of college students decide to spend the last weekend of Spring Break on a tropical island. For anyone who has read any horror at all, warning bells should have begun sounding.
They take a small boat to the island, so no one will know where they are—more warning bells.
They go to a deserted island, which one boy knows about only because he used it as a drop-off/pick-up point for drugs before he got out of trafficking and went back to school—even more warning bells.
The four look forward to uninterrupted days of drinking and beach sex—warning bells now clamoring for attention.
To escalate the sexual element of their time on the island, one of the girls has made Blue Lagoon costumes, designed to come off—and stay off—almost as soon as they are put on—warning bells now at a cacophonic, cataclysmic level!
There is simply no way that these four will survive. As in Stephen King’s seminal story, “The Raft,” evil must be present and horror will assert itself.
Except that all of the warning bells are in essence diversionary. Yes, three of the four die on the island, and the fourth does not survive to the end of the story, but not for the reasons that the opening chapter intimates.
In fact, the true horror introduces itself in the first sentence: “Things had pretty much gone south with their vacation for good a couple hours ago when Jess had been making out on the beach with Mark, and had managed at just the wrong moment to slip her hand into a human skill just below the surface of the sand” (13). Then, four sentences further on, the linchpin: “A few minutes later…the swarm of biting flies had come.”
Nothing particularly unusual, perhaps. Flies do show up at times on tropical beaches, especially where there is decaying flesh nearby. But these are not typical flies. And the violet-eyed spiders that follow are nowhere near typical, either; but by the time we discover just how atypical they are, the sole survivor has returned to the mainland, to his normal life, and brought with him something…new.
Creatures Small make up a good deal of contemporary horror, from microscopic man-made entities in books such as Michael Crichton’s Prey (2002); to the visible, rapidly growing, and equally engineered beasties in Nick Cutter’s The Troop (2014); to the naturally occurring, often mutated, but also microscopic entities that have, ever since their introduction as a variation on the deus ex machina in H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, hovered just out of sight to save humanity from the alien menace…or to destroy it by causing the zombie apocalypse.
Such minuscules cannot be seen, and hence, in a very reason sense, cannot be guarded against. Time after time, horror has begun when someone—say, a low-level worker in a high-security testing center—realizes that somehow the place has become contaminated, escapes lock-down at the last possible second and, for the best of all possible reasons, usually having to do with rescuing family, tries to outrun the disease that the center has been brewing—the Super-flu, for example, in King’s The Stand. To a certain degree, as long as the story concentrates on the small thing, the germ, it retains an element of the science-fictional while still suggesting the horrific. With the intrusion of a larger form of evil—the Walking Dude—the horror becomes overt. Still, it all begins with the minuscule.
There are good reasons for focusing on the small. In Violet Eyes, everyone in the small town near the Florida Everglades understands intuitively that something is desperately wrong. The survivor, Billy, arrived at the mainland carrying his best friend’s body. Immediately thereafter, the authorities first examine, then utterly sterilize the island (thus letting readers know for certain that whatever the flies and spiders are, they are certainly not dead). In the meantime, various characters note the unusual prevalence of flies and spiders; first pets and later humans begin disappearing; webs form in crevices and corners; and gradually houses become enshrouded in webs…and the horror is made manifest.
Because the cause is small and—except for their violet markings—appear normal, attempts to defeat it are delayed until it is too late. Perhaps one weakness in Violet Eyes, is the simple fact that a major character can disappear for pages, his house can become covered with webs, and no one seems to notice or care. Eventually, however, it becomes clear to the survivors that something horrendous has happened, and the novel’s remaining characters, especially a divorced woman and her son, must flee not only the spiders and flies but the government forced that have assembled to quarantine and destroy the town.
And because the cause is small—the creatures are small—readers are invited to empathize almost as much over her difficulties with her brutal ex-husband and her new-found boyfriend as with her initial encounters with the insects. Then, inevitably, the two strands of the narrative contract until all that remains is sheer survival.
But, again, the cause is small, at times almost invisible. Perhaps it is already too late.
All creatures—Great and Small—are fundamental in horror. Each extreme offers strengths and each suffers from weaknesses. The choice of creature, especially in terms of size, determines how a novel needs to be structured; how its setting can be made most relevant; how its characters may and may not interact with the encroaching horror; and how difficult it will be for the author to control the relationship between gigantics and humans or between miniscules and humans. When any of these elements are weakly handled, the novel may suffers. When handled well, the novel succeeds.
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