An army brat and gypsy scholar, Elliott James is currently living in the blueridge mountains of southwest Virginia. An avid reader since the age of three (or that’s what his family swears anyhow), he has an abiding interest in mythology, martial arts, live music, hiking, and used bookstores. Irrationally convinced that cellphone technology was inserted into human culture by aliens who want to turn us into easily tracked herd beasts, Elliott has one anyhow but keeps it in a locked tinfoil covered box which he will sometimes sit and stare at mistrustfully for hours. Okay, that was a lie. Elliott lies a lot; in fact, he decided to become a writer so that he could get paid for it.
by Elliott James
In the course of my book, Charming, the main character, John Charming, meets a monster hunting team. This group primarily travels around in an exterminator’s van, and my protagonist makes one, just one, offhand crack about Scooby Doo and the gang’s mystery machine. What I find amusing and mortifying about that is that I gave advance copies and drafts of the book to several friends, and most of them — quite independently of each other — began referring to the team as “The Scoobies” or “The Scooby Gang” or “The Scooby Dooby Doos.”
Which I would love except that I was a huge Joss Whedon fan before The Avengers movie ever came out, and I know for a fact that the “Scoobies” is also the informal nickname of the supporting monster-hunting team on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Why does Scooby Doo strike such a resonant chord in popular culture? And what is the deal with monster hunting teams in general? Most of the urban fantasy books I have read don’t have formal teams, but they do gradually build a supporting cast of characters who rotate in and out of the novels informally.
From a psychological perspective this is certainly a good thing for the main characters. We like to romanticize individualism; from the archetypal cowboy loner to the self-satisfied French existentialist declaring all social ties arbitrary to the current fascination with zombie apocalypses, which isn’t really so much about zombies as it is a dream of being unfettered by any responsibility to anyone or anything but survival and oneself. Family? Dead. Job? Gone. Politics? Irrelevant. But the truth is, humans are social animals. We need contact with other people or we go insane.
Look at maximum security prisons. In a place full of violent criminals where rape and murder are dismayingly common, the worst thing you can do to a prisoner is put him in solitary confinement. I have a hard time accepting that emotionally. It seems to me that as long as I had access to books and a cot, I’d be fine, but it has been proven consistently and repeatedly that even the most hardened, anti-social criminals will start to break down under isolation. Anxiety, anger, hallucinations, depression, paranoia, suicidal tendencies, and crazy mood swings coupled with lowered impulse control begin to set in. Lock the same guy who said “Hell is other people” in a Walmart warehouse for a year and he’d be drawing smiley faces on volley balls before Christmas.
Okay, fine. It was Jean Paul Sartre.
And there’s certainly an element of that in my book. All of my short stories about John Charming go the Conan the Barbarian route; they are about a loner travelling around a dark magic filled world. In my novel, the effects of that isolation catch up with my protagonist. John Charming is a lot of fun to write, but he is a damaged and unreliable narrator. He is being hunted and honestly believes that his best hope for survival is to keep moving and not form any real relationships, but he finds himself circling around a woman and her team like a piece of driftwood in a whirlpool. He tells himself (and the reader) that he’s not going to do something that would involve getting closer to someone, and then he does it anyway. And to some extent it’s circumstance, but the truth is, it is blind survival instinct. John’s trying not to be selfish or foolish because he lost someone and blames himself, but he’s getting pulled kicking and screaming towards a realization that sometimes you have to give up the illusion of control and be both of those things if you want to grow.
Teams are also convenient from a writing standpoint. Most of the urban fantasy that I’m familiar with seems to be written in the first person, and having a team gives the author a quick and easy cop-out. Yes! Score! Or as the Brits say, result! You don’t know much about computers? No problem. Shovel the brunt over to some character who hand delivers the results of hacking without forcing the narrator to talk knowledgeably about it. Something has to be taken care of for plot purposes but you don’t want to deal with it? Smack some supporting characters on the back of the head and have them get rid of the bodies. And most importantly, supporting characters take some of the narrative weight off of the protagonist’s sagging shoulders.
- Daphne – the bank. What, didn’t you ever wonder who was paying for all that gas and all those Scooby snacks? Daphne is rich. Connect the dots, people. I’m not sure this parallel really holds up though. In most of the urban fantasies that I’ve read, a need for money is one of the things that drives both the plots and the protagonists. There is a rich character in my book, but he doesn’t finance the team.
- Freddy – the muscle. Okay, I admit this is a stretch. Just because Freddy is male and has an over-developed torso doesn’t really make him the muscle. I can’t recall Freddy ever actually slugging it out with anyone, and let’s be honest, has there ever been a tough guy with an ascot? Probably, but I can’t think of one at the moment. But let’s be generous and assume that Freddy was always just about to cut loose right before those barrels and spare tires wound up miraculously imprisoning the bad guys so tightly that they couldn’t move. The only alternative is to frankly discuss Freddy’s real function – freeloader or sex slave. But every monster hunting team needs at least one ass-kicking member, and most of them have two. And in most cases that I can think of, the first is the main character and the second is the romantic interest. Kate Daniels and Curran from Ilona Andrews’ books comes to mind.
- Thelma – the brains. Yep. Here we’re on firmer ground. Many urban fantasies have main characters who are investigators in some capacity or another, but every monster hunter needs a researcher sooner or later, whether it be a computer hacker or a reporter that no one takes seriously or a talking skull.
- Shaggy – well…hmmn. Exactly what function does Shaggy provide anyhow? I’m going to go with comic relief. Either that or drug dealer. I know I’m not the first person to notice that a lot of Scooby Doo could be explained away by some serious cases of the munchies and drug induced hallucinations. There are some urban fantasies where the main characters bolster their abilities with performance enhancing drugs. Is it really a coincidence that the most Shaggy-like characters that I can think of are the ones from John Dies at the End, and that those counter culture slackers use a substance they call soy sauce? I have a character who smokes pot, but I don’t think that’s really applicable here because that’s not his function. I extrapolated most of my supporting characters from bits and pieces of real people that I know or have known – I thought that might help make them seem more authentic. And this particular character was inspired by an army vet I met in Alabama who came back from Iraq with some kind of undiagnosable degenerative condition that they think was caused by chemical agents and a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s the connections that my character made as a supply sergeant in the army that make him useful to the team, and the PTSD that makes him interesting to me.
- And last there’s Scooby Doo himself – the tracker. In many paranormal books – including mine – this function is often fulfilled by a werewolf. In fact, it would probably make sense if Scooby literally was some kind of werewolf. Again, I’m sure I’m not the first person who’s asked this question, but what kind of internal logic rules when monsters aren’t real but talking dogs are? And why can’t there be weredogs? Either way, good old Scoob was arguably the most useful member of the team, even if they did have to bribe him to use his sniffer with “Scooby Snacks” (see previous paragraph on drug dealing).
- I’m not going to count Scrappy Doo. Sorry. I do have some standards.
So there you have it. The Bank, the Muscle, The Brain, The whatever-the-hell-Shaggy-is, and the Tracker. Not a very complete skill set, and only three of them crop up frequently in the urban fantasies that I’m familiar with. My own group also includes a priest, a psychic, a sniper team, a guy who’s really creative about acquiring and applying weapons, and a contact on the local police force. Of course, some of the characters in my group die, so I’ll have to replace them or rethink some things
And maybe I’ll actually get people to refer to my group as the Scream Team. That’s how John refers to them, and that’s even a chapter title. I tried to make that connection, I really tried.
And I would have made it too, if it hadn’t been for those darn kids.