The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do. (A Monster Calls)
Perhaps, like me, you also had terrible nightmares as a child.
Nightmares like the neighbor’s Golden Retriever driving a red lawnmower, chasing me across our front yard. I’m trying to run away, but can barely move, struggle to put one heavy foot in front of the other…
Nightmares of lime green alligators waiting with sharp white teeth at the bottom of my bed. Nightmares that I never remembered but that sent me barreling up the basement stairs, sure that someone was ready to grab me from behind.
But it was my Midnight Monsters that kept me far away from the Horror section at the library. I’ve never read Steven King and watched “Rear Window” through small gaps in my fingers while blocking my ears. And why in the world I ever saw “The Shining”….
Halloween alas, has never been my favorite holiday.
Perhaps it’s my vivid imagination that could conjure up Monsters down every dark stairwell and hiding beneath my every bed. Or perhaps, the Monsters have been so powerful in my life and imagination because it’s taken me so long time to turn and face them – to ask what it is they want of me.
The Monster smashed his way into Conor’s room one night. It was just after he’d turned 13, at the time when his Mom was in the midst of her treatments for some unnamed and terrible disease.
Conor.…Conor….Somone outside his window was calling his name.
It wasn’t his usual nightmare – the one with the abyss, her hands slipping from his grasp, the horrible scream. No, this was different. This time he was sure he was awake and he could see it clearly – the yew tree on the back hill was morphing into a giant monster that was now stepping closer and ever closer to his bedroom window. It wasn’t the monster he’d been expecting. This monster insisted that he’d come walking because Conor had called him….
Perhaps it’s someone like Tyler Caskey, pastor of a small church in rural Maine, that’s the man that Conor grows into. Now he’s old enough to not turn his fingers so quickly into fists, doesn’t bring to fruition his most terrible thoughts. He’s too old now to even call them Monsters anymore.
And yet it is a Monster that shows up late one Saturday night in his dark study. A Monster that inhabits him as he hammers out his sermon of rage against the people in his congregation that have been twisting lies into gossip. Tyler’s Monster, like Conor’s, has come calling late this night to lead him to where he never wanted or planned to go – to his true sermon, to offer the only word he finally has to share the next morning with his congregation.
Conor is the main character in Patrick Ness’s young adult novel, A Monster Calls, and Tyler the main character in Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Abide with Me. They’re two of the best books I’ve read recently about the Monster that lies hidden in us all in unnamed grief and repressed anger.
I now understand a bit more that northern European white males like Conor, Tyler and myself, are pursued by some particularly vile monsters that our ancestors have not known well how to meet. Alas, our ancestors have carried out some particularly monstrous acts of violence born of repressed grief and rage, the fears that we have not been given tools to voice. Other cultures than the one I have been born into, have met and named these matters better – as Monsters who are real and that need to be named and unmasked.
Last week I met a real life Monster Tamer. Robbie Paul is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe and retired faculty member at Washington State University. Paul’s life work and vocation has been to help find ways to meet the Monsters that dwell in our past histories – to help members of her community and family turn and listen to the voices of their ancestors.
As she explained to us, historically unresolved grief gets imprinted in our DNA, hides in a conspiracy of silence that keeps us stuck – what can’t be talked about can’t be put to rest. In order for the Monster hiding in the silenced pain and abuse in our past histories not to come to life and lash out in self-abuse and violence in many forms against ourselves and others, we need to lie on the ground and listen to the ancestors. We need to call forth the truth that has been hidden in our pasts and bring it to word in our mouths. We need to do the rituals, transform the stories. We need to bring our children and grandchildren to the broken, haunted places, tell them the stories, begin to meet and heal the wounds. Robbie Paul knows our lives and the lives of our children depend on it.
On the way home from the lecture last Wednesday night in the pouring rain, Andrea told us over and over again the instructions she has driven into her son’s memory – what he is to say, if and when the police pull him over. She recites the words over and over to us like an incantation, like a shield she prays will keep him safe when she knows all too well that she cannot. She admits she prayed desperately when he was ten that her beautiful Black boy would never grow any bigger, never develop muscles and beard, never grow up, so that the Monsters could never find him.
The Monsters are real. The monsters out there and within us all. Oh, we post-modern and ever so rational people know better than to call them Monsters anymore. We contain them and domesticize them, hide them behind fancy words like racisim, sexism – fear and hatred of “The Other” in whatever guise they are found. We conceal them in our psychological jargon about unresolved grief, and unexpressed rage that lurk in the far corners of our silences and fears.
Call them what you will, they are Monsters nonetheless. Perhaps we’d all be better off if we named then as such – monsters that need to be called out, turned and met, faced and known. Monsters that will come again to lash and hurt, tear and rend us apart until we pay attention, until we put our ears to the ground and begin to listen to what they are trying to get us to hear and say.
Perhaps outside your window, tonight, you may hear your name being called.
Perhaps, it’s time, long past time, for all of us to pull back the covers and climb out of bed and go out and meet the Monsters. Perhaps, they are not what we expected them to be. Perhaps they really have come not to harm but to heal – to break forth in us that which we all most fear to know and name – the truth.
As for me, while I’m not rushing out to read Mary Higgins Clarke, I’m actually looking forward to seeing “A Monster Calls” when it shows up at the movie theatre in mid-December.
Perhaps, now, at last, I’m a bit more ready to meet the Monsters, to turn and see at last what they’re trying to say all along.