K Paoletter October: Monster's Ball

October 31, 2017

THE K PAOLETTER

Henry Van der Wyde's portrait of the actor Richard Mansfield (1887)

M

onsters are meant to scare. That’s obvious, even if the actual mechanics of fright aren’t. Wandering the hastily-assembled aisles of whatever seasonal Halloween superstore has set up shop in a vacant strip mall near you, the few truly frightening costumes (distinct from the ones that are gross, sexy, or Pikachu) lean on the concept of body horror. Masks of fake flesh contort human features into a suggestion of torturous pain and creeping danger. They frighten because they occupy the “uncanny valley,” that nowhere place between the alien and the familiar. The problem with these masks is that they become less scary the more you look at them: a visage that might make you jump when it first emerges out of the darkness, once scrutinized, has a certain floppiness to it; the blood streaming from the eyes is sticky and reflective, the stitches fastening the lips together have been painted on with a makeup brush. Once the initial jump-scare has been achieved, what is left? For a writer, the problem is even more magnified. Once a monster is described, how long can it continue to horrify?

Robert Louis Stevenson, in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, deftly side-steps this diminishing-returns problem by invoking every novelist’s most important ally: the reader’s imagination. When Mr Utterson (the lawyer who plays detective in the book) first hears about a man bowling over a young girl in the street, he asks for a physical description. “There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable,” the man who first observed Hyde tells Utterson, “He gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way.”

Even once Utterson has come face-to-face with Hyde, the particulars of his monstrous appearance remain vague. Hyde has “the face of a man who was without the bowels of mercy.” The look of him “went somehow strongly against the watcher’s inclination.” There is “something troglodytic” about him, something “ghastly,” a “haunting sense of unexpressed deformity.” The concrete descriptions that come are far less dramatic: he is a “little man,” “pale and dwarfish” and wearing “a displeasing smile.” All of this adds up to a portrait that is distinctly human, but which nonetheless maintains an aura of the obscene.

Compare to the myriad ways that Hyde has been portrayed in movies. Spencer Tracy’s 1941 version has a face riddled with wrinkles, a shock of black hair, and distressingly large teeth that chatter with mania. The 1990 transformation of Michael Caine is illustrated by fleshy lumps traveling under his skin, granting him superlative strength while at the same time twisting him into a sickly homunculus. And then there’s the CGI version voiced by the British comedian Robbie Coltrane in 2004’s Van Helsing: a wise-cracking ogre who towers over even the Australian Adonis Hugh Jackman and puts cigars out on his tongue.

All three versions are more typically monstrous then what Stevenson offers. Their bodies are distorted as effectively as the technology of the time allowed, the physicality of each evoking fear even before they have begun wreaking havok. Stevenson, of course, works far more subtly. The clearest side-by-side comparison he offers between Jekyll and Hyde is through the hand, how Jekyll’s, “professional in shape and size; it was large, firm, white and comely,” transitions into a fist “lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a smart growth of hair.” Hyde is a very different type of man than Jekyll, but he is still a man. What makes him a monster is his temper, his cruelty, the joy he takes in beating a man to death in the street. And what is scariest is not Hyde, but the pleasure Jekyll takes in becoming him. “I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked” he writes to Utterson, “and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.”

The Jekyll/Hyde dynamic endures in pop culture because it speaks to the idea that, as Jekyll himself puts it, “man is not truly one, but truly two.” It is the story of something hideous lurking behind the eyes of every person you pass on the street, and it finds its expression in the inexplicable murders and atrocities that have the power to make the rest of the world stop. The terror of Hyde, scarier than any mask smeared with red corn syrup, is there we each harbor a latent evil that, once leant expression, becomes uncontainable.


  • A few capsule reviews of novels from the past month: the first installment of Argentine novelist Ricardo Piglia’s auto-fictive memoir, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi (“essential reading for writers”); Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s unfinished final novel, Dandelions (“a gentle study of madness”); and Hermione Hoby’s debut, Neon in Daylight (a programmatic arrival-in-New York narrative, but sharply written nonetheless).

  • Botnik is a community of programmers and humorists that applies machine learning to create memes and riffs on cultural touchstones, and I’ve become far too invested in their work. What they make is always charmingly goofy (like today’s postcard that reads: “Halloween is a holiday for St. Costume, lasting 8 hours and endangering the island”), but it occassional rises to a level of surreal derangement that’s incredibly engrossing. Take this script their algorithm produced after being fed episodes of the medical comedy Scrubs. “Sometimes you have to break a patient to help yourself” J.D. says. The patient replies, “Does that chart tell you that my mom hated the ocean doctor?”


Thanks for reading and subscribing. You can find me on twitter @KPaoletta, or lurking behind a row of jack-o’-lanterns dressed as a henchman from a David Lynch movie.

Your pal,
Kyle