James Morrow published his first novel, The Wine of Violence, in 1981. His efforts since then include The Continent of Lies (1984), This Is the Way the World Ends (1986), Only Begotten Daughter (1990), City of Truth (1991), Bible Stories for Adults (1996), and The Cat’s Pajamas & Other Stories (2004). He is best known for the Godhead Trilogy — comprising Towing Jehovah (1994), Blameless in Abaddon (1996), and The Eternal Footman (1999) — as well as The Last Witchfinder (2007), a postmodern historical epic about the coming of the scientific worldview, The Philosopher’s Apprentice (2008), about a young ethicist hired to implant a conscience in an adolescent amnesia victim, and The SFWA European Hall of Fame, an anthology he co-edited with his wife Kathryn. Now he has a short novel coming out, titled Shambling Towards Hiroshima.
SF Signal had the opportunity to talk to James about monster movies, nuclear weapons, and the ethics of fictional annihilation…
SF Signal: To start off, Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a novella about, amongst other things, monster movies, B-rate actors, WWII, the A-Bombs, and art. I’d like to start with a bit of a tangent: imagining the creative process behind Shambling and also at least The Last Witchfinder, I picture you doing rather a lot of research. What sort of research do you do for your novels, and was the research for Shambling particularly fun?
James Morrow: You’re right, Karen — a writer can’t make a James Morrow omelet without googling a few eggs. Three different worlds come together in Shambling Towards Hiroshima: the military situation following V-E Day, the culture of 1940’s B-movies, and the universe of kaiju eiga — Japanese monster films.
To learn about the A-bomb and the end of the Pacific War, I relied mostly on Internet articles, plus Tsuyoshi Haseagawa’s recent tome, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan. Dense and depressing stuff, but the project demanded that I slog it out.
Researching the Hollywood lore was a lot more fun. I turned to several friends who’d gone out west years ago to become moviemakers and film historians. I’m pretty sure that, thanks to the inside dope they offered me, my novella gives readers a generally accurate view of the goings-on at Monogram Studios during its glory days — what the assistant director worried about, where the cast ate lunch, how the carpenter’s strike affected the industry, that sort of thing.
As for the kaiju eiga stuff, well, as you might imagine, Shambling provided me with a great excuse to shut off my mind, lay in some beer, and watch a dozen or so Godzilla movies.
SFS: An impression that I got from Thorley (the actor in the monster suit) and the creative team working out at China Lake in the book is that they viewed the “monster-based” destruction as having a completely different aesthetic, perhaps even a more humanized aesthetic, than a “bomb-based” holocaust would. Does that jibe with your view of the kaiju eiga as they arose in the 1950s, or is that simply a function of the characters and their worldview? There’s also a significant contrast between the Frankenstein-style monster movies that Thorley was working in the 30s and 40, versus those kaiju movies in the 50s and 60s. It’s something I hadn’t really thought about before reading this. Was that something that you wanted to draw attention to?
JM: When Thorley first sees the China Lake behemoths, he is truly horrified by their apparent destructive power: “There was nothing good about Dr. Groelish’s monsters. These abominations should never have been born — born, synthesized, stitched together, alchemically confected, necromantically conjured, however they’d come into the world.”
And yet I have to agree with you, Karen. There is something darkly glamorous about these bipedal mutant iguanas. They have an appeal, an élan, of a sort denied to non-biological weapons.
That said, I’ve never been able to work up the sort of affection for Godzilla that I have for the great Universal Studios monsters: Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s creature. And I think the makers of the original Godzilla film, Gojira of 1954, would actually want it that way. Ishiro Honda’s Gojira is manifestly a parable on the atomic bombing of Japan. The scenes depicting the aftermath of the monster’s rampage through Tokyo include shots that deliberately echo documentary footage showing the effects of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I keep thinking of Susan Sontag’s classic essay about 1950’s science-fiction movies, “The Imagination of Disaster.” She argues that these mass spectacles of death and annihilation are “in complicity with the abhorrent.” By all means, let us continue to love our kaiju movies. But let’s remain mindful of the real human cost of wanton destruction.
SFS: I’m thinking of all the sf/f works that almost casually kill off the human race, going back to The Last Man by Mary Shelley (1826), The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel (1901), I Am Legend (1954), and any number of others. Given Sontag’s article and your own thoughts on the matter, to what extent are these sorts of stories desensitizing to mass destruction and possibly exploitive, versus being a legitimate avenue to examine human nature? It’s certainly a very different dynamic than the more personal horror represented by Frankenstein’s monster.
JM: I tend to be skeptical of the argument that mass media desensitize us to the real meaning of wanton destruction — though I realize that’s not exactly what you’re saying, and I certainly agree with you that monster movies may exploit the dark side of human nature, the fascist voyeur in all of us.
For my money, a deterministic theory of television or Hollywood movies threatens to distract us from a much larger problem: the kind of murder legitimatized, sanctioned, and encouraged by our worst political and religious institutions. Consider the case of ex-President George W. Bush, a man who, in the memorable phrase of psychiatrist Justin A. Frank, loves violence. (“Feels good,” Bush remarked as the planes took off to kill people in Iraq.) I sincerely doubt that Bush’s sickness can be traced to his having consumed one too many Rambo fantasies. I would instead point to a fatal combination of ideological savagery and apocalyptic theology. However, given the automatic deference that “faith” receives in our culture, we can’t have that discussion, and so we must content ourselves with railing against action films and antisocial video games.
That said, it certainly behooves us to consider the discontinuity between our affection for Godzilla and the raw horror of his modus operandi. As you point out, the King of the Monsters is a killing machine, murderous in a way that the Frankenstein monster could never imagine being. I thought the recent SF movie Cloverfield, sensationalistic though it was, did a good job of demonstrating that, were a demonic beast actually to attack New York City, the experience would be closer to the cataclysm of Hiroshima than to the glorious escapist thrills of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
SFS: It seems that in popular culture, awareness and concern over nuclear proliferation and/or nuclear annihilation has waned with the ending of the Cold War. Shambling Towards Hiroshima obviously tackles those issues head-on. Do you feel these issues need to move back towards the center of the public discourse?
JM: I’ve been impressed with the way that, on the whole, postwar Japanese society faced up to the horrors of its militarist past, framing the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings not as war crimes committed by a heartless enemy but as a universal human tragedy that must never happen again. You especially see this ethos at work in the original Godzilla move — Gojira of 1954, as opposed to the 1956 re-edit featuring Raymond Burr. In its own naïve way, Ishiro Honda’s modest black-and-white monster movie was one of the most powerful antiwar films of that decade.
I would contrast the sensibility behind Gojira with the cavalier attitude toward thermonuclear arsenals that obtained during the 1980’s among Ronald Reagan’s acolytes, who fondly hoped to rehabilitate these obscene devices and cast them as just another variety of battlefield weapon — hence the Reagan Administration’s obsession with the neutron bomb and the co-called Strategic Defense Initiative. George W. Bush revived this mentality, putting SDI back on the table and thumbing its nose at existing ABM treaties.
There’s no easy solution to the problem of Iran and North Korea’s hunger to acquire thermonuclear arsenals and concomitant delivery systems. But I suspect the answer — if any — lies in tough-minded sanctions and negotiations. I would not put my money on Republican fantasies of zapping incoming missiles with Star Wars lasers.