Guest Post, Annah Browning: The Coelacanths We Want to Believe

The Coelacanths We Want to Believe: Monster Lore and the Uncanny

 

Confession: I am obsessed with cryptid lore. What are cryptids, you ask? They are animals (or “beings,” depending on how mystical you want to get) whose existence has “yet to be proven” by science. More simply put, cryptids are creatures that do not exist: think Bigfoot, the Mothman, the Loch Ness Monster, etc.[1]

CoelacanthsThat is, they are creatures that don’t exist until someone drags a carcass in, or pulls them up from the bottom of the ocean—at least, that’s what a cryptozoologist (someone who studies cryptids) would have you believe. Their favorite example is the coelacanth, a fish from the Early Devonian period, around 400 million years ago. Long thought (extremely) extinct, the fish was found alive off the coast of Africa in 1937.

The coelacanth (pardon me, those who are devoted to it) is not a particularly impressive animal. It can grow up to 6.5 feet long and weight up to 200 pounds, but so can a tuna. (The ocean is full of mundane horrors, friends.) The coelacanth is about the shape and general coloring, I am sorry to say, of a muddy log. It is not a majestic creature. Yet, this is the animal that cryptid believers everywhere hang their hopes on. If this fish can survive unnoticed from the Devonian, then surely (here a believer’s eyes widen in the telling) it is possible that other animals—giant humanoid animals, plesiosaurs, etc.—could also live alongside us: unproven as of yet, but very much real.

There are many very good reasons why this is not so, including habitat sustainability, but I’m not going to go into them here. What I’m interested in as a writer is the why— why do people, in 2016, want so desperately to believe that fantastic creatures are real—that, just out of the corner of your eye, there is a giant hairy ape, an upright-walking wolf[2], or even a ghost, going about its business? What does consuming media of all kinds about these creatures get us, even when (I have to believe) most of us know in our heart of hearts that they don’t actually exist?

My point of view is that cryptids and their paranormal kindred are manifestations of our contemporary folklore, often to put a name and a poorly drawn police sketch on some faceless fear, you might say.[3] Cryptids and other paranormal entities—ghosts, demons, aliens, etc.—are our modern-day monsters, our metaphors and un-deciphered dreams, channeling not just our fears, but dearest wishes. There’s an element of not just revulsion, but desire,[4] in our quest for unseen monsters. This is why you have people filming themselves traipsing off into the underbrush in night vision goggles looking for Sasquatch or a ghost, eager to “make a discovery,” in their words—only to come bolting out terrified and laughing an hour later at the first snapped branch or white light in the bushes.

Sociologist Margee Kerr writes in Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, that many people have an innate desire to experience fear—thus the perennial popularity of haunted houses and horror entertainment of all kinds—and that these experiences can have a therapeutic value when we enter into them of our own free will. There’s a reason that people often leave haunted trails shrieking with laughter, or feeling a closer bond with the friends they attended the haunt with, Kerr argues. Maybe something similar happens to true paranormal and cryptid enthusiasts when they wander the woods or scour the internet for evidence of the existence of their monster of choice—they get to come close, to dance right up to the edge of a terrifying and exhilarating possibility, from the safe position of everyday reality.

These ideas surrounding belief, fear, and the weird pleasure of the unknown are fascinating to me as a poet interested in the Gothic and the uncanny.[5] Maybe an intimacy with the uncanny, with a feeling of discomfort as well as surprise and delight, is what I’m after in my own poems these days—and sometimes in life.

Fog at Browning HouseI was recently visiting my family in rural upstate South Carolina, where I grew up. It is very quiet out there. I was sitting on the porch late one evening, looking out at the fields lit by an unusually bright moon[6], fog settling around the barn and in the ditches, fireflies going off like tiny flashbulbs ever so often.

Then I hear a barking. It sounded off, or wrong somehow—hoarse, half-panicked, not quite dog, but not high and eerie like a coyote. It sounded close. I grabbed and flashlight and walked toward the barn, slowly, light off. I stood as still as I could in the deeper shadow of the building, out of the moonlight.  The barking stopped. I shone my light into the field, through the fog. There was nothing there but fog, rolling around me like cotton in a jewelry case, stalks of tall grass and apples trees poking out of it. Literal crickets. There was nothing out there, of course—well, something was. I was smiling. My smile was there now.


[1] Cryptids also include lesser-known creatures, such as Batsquatch, Sheepsquatch (which are exactly what they sound like), Ogo Pogo (a lake monster), and Momo, the “Missouri Monster.” Americans and Canadians seem to particularly enjoy vowel-heavy and rhyming monster names, apparently.

[2] Yes, this is a thing. See Linda Godfrey’s book Real Wolfmen: True Encounters in Modern America, for all about what she describes as the “upright canid ” phenomenon. Contrary to what you might think, she does not think that these creatures are necessarily werewolves. Some of them are possibly trans-dimensional Anubis-like figures that enjoy watching people while they sleep, she argues. Yes, really. You can’t make these things up.

[3] See historian W. Scott Poole’s study Monsters in America, outlining how monster literature and lore has channeled, reflected, and obfuscated America’s nuclear anxieties, racial injustices, and other societal issues.

[4] See Freud’s essay “The Uncanny.”

[5] I’ve been writing a lot of poems recently from the perspective of monstrous and marginal entities, trying to inhabit the minds of ghosts, witches, and monsters of all kinds. The speakers of the poems hover between worlds, as women have long been asked to do—the worlds of the visible and the invisible, the domestic and the supernatural, life and death, desire and pain.

[6] The moon was not full. Real life, apparently, will only get so close to clichés.

Guest Post, Elizabeth Frankie Rollins: I Lost a Manuscript

Elizabeth Frankie RollinsThe Lost Manuscript: A Particular Silence

This spring I lost a manuscript. A hundred and fifty pages of handwritten text that I’d been working on for a year.

We’d suffered an upheaval of the home, a bedbug infestation. To get rid of these fiends, you must evict yourself from the rooms they have taken. Defeated as soon as you begin, you must vacuum, wash, bag, roast, poison or discard your belongings. Once you have removed all evidence of yourself, the exterminator sprays down a poison that must remain on your floor for months. The bugs don’t die easy. The poison must be set down in layers. It was not these actions alone, but the required repetition of these actions, that unhinged me.

I like to write in the morning, sitting in bed. The book I’d been working on, months of research and piles of handwritten text, was kept in a binder. I always write everything by hand first, but this time I was trying an added experiment of not entering any of it into the computer. I wanted to see how organic the structure might be if I didn’t interrupt the writing for typing.

Obviously, I kept this binder by the bed.

I think I believed that my binder would be immune. A book being created feels pristine, supernatural, imperishable. But when I opened my binder after cleaning out the bedroom, the first pages were full of blood. My blood. Also, black specks of feces. Those bugs drank my blood and then shat it out in the pages of my book.

In the hysteria that ensued, I vacuumed the pages on the back stoop, thrust them under the doormat in a vortex of ripping pages, wind, weeping. After, I heaped them into doubled plastic bags. There, memory fails.

A day or so later, I realized that I didn’t remember what I’d done with the manuscript. I remarked to my husband that it was somewhere in the sea of black trash bags we had surrounding our house, filling our shed, in the Bluebeard’s chamber of our closed-off bedroom. We fondled bags. We opened them. We looked. It wasn’t there.

We had been throwing away bags of stuff marked “bedbugs” for days. I am known for my memory, which is sometimes obscenely accurate. But I couldn’t remember anything after I’d vacuumed and bagged the thing. And if I couldn’t remember, then it was entirely possible that I’d done the unthinkable, that I had thrown it away, that it was in the landfill, baking alongside diapers and banana peels.

I had spent months researching historical Tucson. Free weekends, winter break, I spent hours in historical museums, on historical websites, in libraries. I read books on WWI, on Tucson history from 1860-1920. I wrote pages capturing the mirroring sorrows of war, epidemic, broken landscapes. I birthed a Paul, an Aggi, a family.

I mentioned the lost manuscript to friends, but my telling was impassionate, distant. Oh well, I’d say, I have lots of other books to write. The friends looked at me strangely. It must be in the shed, they’d say. Aren’t you upset, they’d ask?  Are you okay? I shrugged. They told me of Maxine Hong Kinston’s fire, Hemingway’s stories lost on a train, Dylan Thomas’ misplaced manuscript (three times!), of Flaubert, burying his book in the face of oncoming war (never found). There’s internet sites listing lost manuscripts through the ages. None of this resonated with me. These lists of absences seemed strange. The truth was, the book was simply growing silent.

One day, my husband said something to me about the main character. “Paul, who?” I responded. He blanched and stared at me in genuine alarm.

As a practice, I often imagine the book I’m writing as I fall asleep, so that I can see the characters up close. When I tried this, on our squeaky airbeds in a room with blank walls and bugs in the outlets, it was as if I looked through the wrong end of a telescope. The figures were small, smaller, tiny. I couldn’t hear what they were saying or see them distinctly at all.

People asked: Would I rewrite? Would I write about the losing? Would I write something else? I gave vague answers. I decided I’d write it in some radical format: short, sharp bursts of text. I decided that I would never write it. I decided to write it without the research. In truth, the whole story had gone faint and muffled. There was nothing to be done about it. It was sinking away. But I didn’t want anyone to know that. It seemed like such a sad failure.

Bedbugs are a shadow plague, difficult to eradicate. They linger and drink and hide. Over a couple of months, our house was increasingly dissected and strewn. Our mattress and belongings roasted in the sun. We didn’t sleep well. We touched hands at night, across the poisoned floor, our hollow beds squealing. The loss of the book fell into the folds of the loss of our home, fell into the loss of our immunity.

When the bugs were finally gone, we moved our whole house around. The bedroom was a place where creatures had crawled across my face, thrust tubes into my skin, drank from my blood. There had been too many mornings where the lasting blooms of bites on my body pointed to our continued entrapment. I could not sleep there anymore. So we created a new house. Everything came off shelves, was cleaned, set up in new rooms.

In the great rearranging, I noticed that a shelf of older, handwritten manuscripts bulged noticeably. I pulled these binders out and found some thin poetry books jammed behind them. It was strange and nesty and behind all these books, there it was. Wrapped in plastic and fragile as an infant, the pages of my book. A ferocious sense of motherhood arose and I walked around the house, weeping and holding this baby to my heart.

Without meaning to, I buried it to protect it, as amulet, as saint, as bone. Unearthed to light, it came right back. Thoughts about the text streamed in as though there had been no hiatus, no terror, no muffling, no loss. The book re-entered my vocabulary.

I am altered, knowing that what is created, invented, and conceived in the mind can be silenced.

I get back to the writing nonetheless.

 

What he remembers jumbles, rolls, slides. He cannot keep it organized and understandable. He has returned, but some part of him is nowhere, is vanished, a hole. At the bar, they’d told him of their wheat-less, pork-less, beef-less, sweet-less days. He listened and nodded and had no reply. He wished he’d been there. He wished he’d stayed, folded bandages, melted tin, grown gardens. He would have himself, if he had stayed. Something to go on. What would make it different now? How would he fix things? The massive weight of all that Paul did not know rose before him. 

 Italicized text from the lost and found manuscript, titled, Are There Words for Everything?