Fitting In

Fitting In

A review of Lisi Harrison’s Monster High (Hachette Book Group, 2011)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Lisi Harrison’s Monster High is a series adapted from the doll brand by Mattel of the same name. Her novel adaptation, aimed at a teen rather than pre-teen audience as the dolls would suggest illustrates the adaptability of narratives around dolls and toys. Although Mattel is an American company, Harrison is Canadian. Harrison’s narrative takes a very different approach and storyline than Mattel’s other Monster High narratives such as the webbisodes and films of the same name. Yet, Harrison still explores some of the issues that are central to the rest of Mattel’s Monster High brand.

Rather than setting her story in a high school just for monsters as the Mattel brand does, Harrison sets her story in a high school predominantly filled with non-monster students. Monsters are a minority in this school and in the town surrounding it and have to pass as human to avoid discovery and discrimination by the much larger non-monster population. Harrison’s narrative follows Frankie Stein, the child of other Frankensteinian creations as she navigates a society with the optimism of someone who was only created 16 days before the novel begins. Frankie believes that humans are far more accepting and open than she discovers they actually are and when she attempts to go out in public without the makeup that makes her look human, she is met with discrimination for her green skin, stitches, and neck bolts.

Harrison provides a second narrator for her story, Melody, a girl whose parents reinforce certain notions of beauty through their role as plastic surgeons. In fact, Melody reluctantly had a nose job after her parents told her (falsely) that it would help her breathe better. Melody is worried that any friends she finds only like her because she now upholds the normative standards of beauty instead of looking different than the norm. She is drawn in to the world of monsters when her boyfriend turns out to be far different than what she expected.

Harrison uses the two characters, Frankie and Melody – the girl who is told to fit in because she is a monster and the girl who is worried that she only fits in because she is ‘normal’ – to explore difference in an environment that is the epitome of enforced normalcy – the high school. High schools are spaces where people are policed for any difference from norms and where most kids just want to fit in, and Harrison’s Monster High exaggerates that enforced fitting in by adding the ultimate outsiders – Monsters.

Harrison explores ideas of internalized isms by having Frankie constantly hide her heritage and bodily difference and instead to conform and try to blend in to her society. They force her to wear conservative clothing that allows her to blend into the background, to become unnoticed and become essentially invisible (though not as invisible as the school’s literal invisible boy Billy).

Despite her attempts to conform, the school and surrounding town of Salem still has an intense fear of outsiders and even has school drills for “what to do in case there is a monster sighting” with its own special alarm system.

Harrison’s Monster High is a tale of conformity, challenging expectations, and finding one’s place with friends who support diversity

To find out more about Lisi Harrison, visit https://lisiharrison.com

To discover more about Monster High, go to https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/lisi-harrison/monster-high/9780316176217/

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Truths in Fiction

Truths in FictionA review of Kate Story’s “Where Will The Seas Roll Up Their Thunder” in Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories edited by Kelsi Morris and Kaitlin Tremblay (Exile, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In “Where Will the Seas Roll Up Their Thunder”, Kate Story speaks through a voice that is underused in fiction in generally, and especially in monster stories – the voice of an older woman who lives in a long term care home. This woman is having a conversation with a student about a topic that is generally unrepresented in fiction featuring older adults – the future. Story still explores ideas of the past and nostalgia, which are firmly connected to the representation of older adults, but she connects these not to the woman’s age, but to her status as a Newfoundlander, interested in Newfoundland history.

Story captures the rambling quality of a good storyteller, willing to make connections between seemingly disparate ideas and willing to go into tangents and rants. She captures the magic of storytelling and links it to exploring the truth behind narratives. She interacts with key features of narrative like the feeling of being chosen (a theme that is over-represented in fantasy narratives) and the problematic quality of this theme and how it stems from a life that seeks significance when being underrepresented as a woman in canonical stories. Her unnamed older woman wants to have made an impact on the world around her, a significant change and not to be easily erased. She interacts with notions of truth and fiction and the assumption that older adults are indulging in fantasy if they mention the strange and unnatural rather than representing truths. Her narrator has access to truths that others ignore. She points out the interweaving of landscape and story by presenting her narrator uncovering truths located beneath the surface of the Newfoundland landscape and things hidden in plain sight.

Story blends science and fantasy in her narrative, giving a new origin story for the tales of dragons and connecting past and future in a cycle of death and rebirth. 

Story connects the skepticism of the student researcher to the possibility of truth in a narrative inside of what seems to be a folkloric story. She highlights the multiplicity of truths and points out that “truth” itself is a story, always subject to revisions and changes.

To discover more about Kate Story’s work, visit http://www.katestory.com

To discover more about Those Who Make Us, visit http://www.exileeditions.com/shop/those-who-make-us-the-exile-book-of-anthology-series-number-thirteen/

Here Be Monsters

Here Be MonstersA review of Michal Wojcik’s “A New Bestiary” in Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories edited by Kelsi Morris and Kaitlin Tremblay (Exile, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Michal Wojcik’s “A New Bestiary” is a posthuman tale about body modification. In this near future fiction piece, Mojcik presents a world where people are remaking themselves into monsters as a way to claim a new, non-human identity for themselves. Ranging from Centaurs to Satyrs to Merpeople to Cyclopes, these monsters are not merely evincing biological change, they are building new, resistant identities. 

However, these identities surpass medical modification and the changing of the biological start to change the world, shifting the world to a new space of monsters, a new cartography and vision for the functioning of the world. Islands begin to appear in the ocean that hadn’t existed before and the world seems to be altering itself to medieval settings in a form of vast restoration. Bodies are no longer scarred through their transformations and medical modifications, but are reborn as monsters. The medical is undone and replaced by the miraculous.

Wojcik offers a transhuman tale that questions the idea of the simple boundaries of human existence, inviting the reader to imagine the role of the monster as the ultimate outsider to challenge the simple boundaries policing human definition.

Wojcik’s narrator, Melanie, originally biologically modifies herself as a way of speaking back against resistant classifications and to gain confidence. She embraces a chimera image of assembled animal and insect parts, not wanting to limit herself to existing monster imagery, but instead to construct a new identity. But her identity isn’t just a challenge for others, it is an internalized question, an invitation for her to redefine herself and her place in a world that values normalcy even when there are possibilities for transhuman bodies. 

Wojcik’s “A New Bestiary” collides against normativity in our world, inviting us to reimagine our world and rankle at our restrictions. This is a story of home that asks how we define “home” and “belonging”. 

To discover more about Those Who Make Us, visit https://thosewhomakeus.wordpress.com

Slavic Myths and Human Monsters

A review of David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother (ChiZine, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother brings together snippets of strange lives into a tale that hints at connections between these individual stories and provides shadows of a larger narrative tying them together. Each of Demchuk’s tales ties in with a snapshot shown at the beginning of the story and diverts into the mythical, magical, mysterious, and monstrous. These images of the normal are interrupted by tales that Other them, transforming them into something complex and uncertain. The unexpected is a stream that runs through Demchuk’s narratives, complicating them to illustrate the way that stories always hold complex truths that are always part fiction.

The Bone Mother features fairy tales turned dark and infused with the mechanical, featuring an ever present factory standing as a symbol of industry intersecting with myth to create a landscape of smoke and shadow. Demchuk tells tales that connect the mythic to industry, proving that the mechanical can’t fully succeed in chasing the creatures of the human imagination back into the dark, and may, in fact, give them a space to thrive. The Bone Mother brings together Rusalka, ghosts, golem, mirror monsters, Baba Yaga figures, and other manifestations of Slavic myth and makes these figures into family secrets, hidden differences that dwell in the blood rather than the imagination. He ties these fairy tale figures in with circus freaks and those who defy social and biological norms, bringing out the diversity of the human form. The most dangerous quality of this mythical world is normalcy, which tries to turn everyone into simple, uncomplicated forms, denying diversity. All of these figures who could be called monsters only serve to show a mirror to humanity, illustrating that we are the monsters for trying to enforce conformity. 

To find out more about The Bone Mother, visit ChiZine Publications at http://chizinepub.com/the-bone-mother/
To discover more about David Demchuk, visit http://daviddemchuk.com/ .

Who Are You? 

A review of Jerome Stueart’s The Angels of Our Better Beasts (ChiZine, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Jerome Stueart’s The Angels of Our Better Beasts is a struggle between the multiple aspects of human identity. It’s cover evokes the Governor General award winning Marian Engle’s Bear, a tale about the encounter between human civilization and the wild, and Stueart’s collection is also one about the clashing of different definitions of what it means to be human, including a relationship between a woman and a bear. These are tales that question what it means to be human.

Stueart’s own struggles for self discovery are laced through these tales, rich with questions about religion, queer identity, the search for home, and the desire to find a place in a world that likes to ignore those it oppresses. These are tales about the quest for that ineffable thing that we call “home”, a place of belonging, comfort, and acceptance that is hard to find, and this search drives these stories out into the depths of space, into realms of fantasy, and into the dark depths at the root of the human heart. These are tales of wandering and wanting, questing tales that have uncertain endings, telling readers that stories shouldn’t have easy endings, but should be things open to interpretation, to speculation, and to wonder. 

These tales explore the slipperiness of identity, the fluidity of the human experience and the changes we human beings undergo regularly in our quest to find ourselves. Stueart tells us that our quest to find ourselves will never be complete because what we ARE is always changing, always slipping away and becoming something else. His tales are stories of complexity and uncertainty, things that define the human experience far more than an easy question of “who are you?”. 

Stueart weaves stories ABOUT stories and about art into his narratives because these are the best methods of asking deeper questions. He explores the power of the artistic to push the imagination and open up new questions. Populated with vampires, werewolves, gryphons, gods, and cryptozoological inquiry, these tales are ultimately about the nature of humanity and the way that we all contain little drips of monstrous ichor within us… and maybe those monstrous drops are kinder than our human nature.

To find out more about Jerome Stueart’s work, visit https://jeromestueart.com

To find out more about The Angels of Our Better Beasts and other ChiZine publications, visit http://chizinepub.com

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 26: A Discussion with Dan Vena About Apocalyptic Fiction

In this episode, Queen’s University PhD student and cultural theorist Dan Vena joins me in the studio to talk about Canadian apocalyptic fiction. In our discussion, we explore notions of the monstrous, the superheroic, mutations, pandemic narratives, and the power of apocalyptic narratives to discuss issues in the present such as environmental concerns, the experiences of LGBTQ2 people, critical capitalism, and power structures.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

 

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Hunger

A review of Tyler Keevil’s “The Herd” in Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction (Exile Editions, 2013).

Cover Photo of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction

Cover Photo of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction

By Derek Newman-Stille

Tyler Keevil’s “The Herd” reverses the hunter/hunted dynamic in zombie fiction. Zombies, often characterised by their herd mentality in fiction are treated like a herd of prey and hunted by a man who has acquired a taste for human flesh.  Keevil mixes the mythology of the Wendigo with that of the zombie, creating a monster who craves human flesh and even inhuman flesh.

Cast from his tribe when starvation forces him to eat human flesh, the hunter finds a place of belonging in the north, characterised by its long periods of hunger and the cold, unmarked landscape that creates a place of moral ambiguity for him. The spread of zombiism makes this northern landscape an ideal place for inhuman acts of violence.

Many zombie tales feature the zombie as fodder for human aggression – a human body that can be killed without any moral consequence and Keevil plays with this genre trope and presents the human (or perceived human) hunter as a monster, a predator with an insatiable hunger much like that of his prey. This equivocation of human (wendigo) and zombie brings the reader into a place of instability between the category of the monster and the human (a category that is often presented in the zombie genre as something that is firm and only passes one way – from human to zombie through infection).

By making the zombie the object of hunger, the food that fuels the desire for consumption instead of the consuming figure, Keevil situates hunger as a human characteristic.

You can explore more about Tyler Keevil’s work at http://www.tylerkeevil.com/

To check out Dead North, visit http://www.amazon.ca/Dead-North-Canadian-Fiction-Anthology/dp/1550963554