Monsters of L.A.
Bad Moon Books
Trade Paper, 320 pages, $20.00
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
Lisa Morton and Randy Newman love L.A. Yet both display critical sentiments pertaining to the area. Newman’s satiric song “I Love L.A.” is well known for its ambivalence concerning the city, and environs. Morton’s collection, Monsters of L.A., exhibits an affectionate angst: The author meditates on urban and suburban landmarks, and applies iconic “monsters” to define the multi-cultural vibe, as well as the imperfections, of the community at large. Flaws are great creative fodder in fiction, and Monsters of L.A. certainly capitalizes on that notion; focusing on unique places and displaced individuals to create an atmosphere of subliminal horror. Lisa Morton selects sites and edifices that reflect a macabre metropolitan mindset; pop-culture imagery converges with very familiar genre characters. What she achieves in Monsters of L.A. is a harmonious blending of place and personages. It’s a hand-in-glove fit of habitat and habitant.
Consider for example, Dracula as a present day film actor. Ego-oriented and temperamental, The Count enjoys the perks of his reputation, but still feels the pangs of power lost: “Hollywood had provided a luxurious sanctuary, and he liked being a movie star, but…he often wished for the old days when those who’d angered him found themselves impaled on a twelve-foot stake in his courtyard.”
While termed a “company town,” Los Angeles isn’t all about the film industry. It is, however, a lot about the showbiz mentality. Even amusement parks strive for affective special effects. In the tale which focuses on the Devil as its dark fantasy figure, an initially innocuous ride turns into a variation of The Devil Rides Out: “The car continued past various ghoulish tableaux: a sewing room, where clothes mended themselves; a greenhouse, with dog-sized insects scuttling past giant carnivorous plants; a kitchen, with human bones bubbling in a stew pot and a platter of fingers set neatly on a table. The worst, though, was the attic, where ancient strange boxes juddered and tittered.”
And what is show business without a clown act? Or more precisely, what would horror be without The Killer Clown subgenre? It would be laughably lacking, but writer Morton puts her best oversized foot forward in regarding a funny phobia. A young woman, who has been traumatized in childhood by an uncle with a clown fetish, grows up abhorring Halloween. On October 31st, circumstances land her at a liquor store with a circus name/logo. Needless to say, confrontations occur: “Behind the glass were no bottles now, but dozens of clown faces, outlined in the darkness, peering out at her. There were all kinds of clown faces – some with color only around their mouths, some with full masks, some with faces that looked half eaten away by malicious glee, teeth filed to tiny points…”
Morton also does a deft take on Cat People: A researcher in regional folklore follows links to a supernatural feral feline; Japanese myth merges with Hispanic culture on Southern California turf. The graduate student pursuing the leads is searching for something to justify her academic expectations since, professionally and personally, she is at a low ebb. When it seems that the pursuit is yet another hollow conjecture, a sad surmise surfaces: “What had once been a symbol of the way L.A. melded varying cultures had now become emblematic of the city’s ability to shatter illusion.”
Ultimately, the 20 stories contained in Monsters of L.A. reveal the region’s diversity and divergences. The environment is inviting and imperfect; externally hospitable yet potentially hostile. Lisa Morton shrewdly reminds that where there is sun, there is likely to be smog. And lurking behind the swaying palms, there may very well be monsters.