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REVIEW: Monstrous Creatures: Explorations of Fantasy Through Essays, Articles and Reviews, by Jeff VanderMeer

REVIEW SUMMARY: A robust, intelligent collection of inquiries into the workings and effects of fantastic literature.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A selection of reflections, interrogations, and dialogues about the state and nature of fantastic literature from the perspective of one of fantastika’s most discerning writer/editors. The collection puts forth not just VanderMeer’s thoughts on making art, genre, and literature, but elaborates his idea of “the monstrous” and how it informs a variety of works and trends.

PROS:Evocative, provocative writing; a wealth of insight into how fantastic literature works and how its producers think; excellent critical thinking; contains plenty of ideas and writers to explore on your own and enrich your own consideration and enjoyment of fantastika.
CONS: a bit uneven due to the format; a bit too sly in places.
BOTTOM LINE: a stimulating collection of cogitations on the interaction between our imaginations and fantastic literature.

Jeff VanderMeer is one of the most well-regarded, prolific editors in the field of fantastic literature today, as well as a writer and an enthusiastic explorer of the fringes and deep corners of the vast world of the written word. Monstrous Creatures is a collection of his thoughts and observations on that world from someone who not only loves the fantastic, but loves the human imagination. At the start of this book he writes about his appreciation of the monstrous and his particular idea of what “the monstrous” entails, but this book is not just about this idea. I found what I feel is the core of VanderMeer’s thinking towards the end of this book, in a piece entitled “Fantasy and the Imagination:”

“The imagination is a form of love: playful, generous, and transformative. All of the best fiction hums and purrs and sighs with it, and in this way (as well) fiction mirrors life.”

This is a book about love and how it can change our apprehension of the world, increasing and complicating our understanding of it and allowing us to embrace it more vigorously and subtly.

As I sat thinking about this book after reading it, I realized that VanderMeer’s conception of the monstrous illustrated this thought. For VanderMeer, the monstrous is a vast playground full of marvels and incongruities that can change how we look at the world around us, and even how we situate ourselves in it. It can be startling, subversive, and strikingly poignant. It can be auspiciously uncovered in much of fantastic literature as well, which this collection demonstrates aptly.

The book is divided into four sections: critical essays, appreciations, reviews, and personal reflections. Between the sections are conversations with two writers (China Mieville and Margo Lanagan) and one capybara owner. Those choices give you some sense of the whimsy that suffuses this book, but also demonstrate the range of VanderMeer’s explorations. He looks at everything, in some measure, through this lens of the monstrous, which is inextricable from his love of the fantastic and the strange.

In the first section he discusses conceptions of the fantastic, from the evolution of “The Third Bear” to the apocryphal but enduring idea of the Romantic Underground. Whether he is discussing politics, genre, or received ideas, his observations are consistently contingent and subversive. Few writers can fuse style and purpose the way that VanderMeer can, but his writing is rarely either dogmatic or redundant. His intentions are consistent, but this does not lead to a monotonous rehashing of each topic. What makes this book consistently absorbing is that VanderMeer applies his studied gaze to each topic not by overlaying his ideas onto the subject, but by engaging in dialogue with it. His piece “The Language of Defeat” exemplifies this:

“. . . when enough people keep saying something, the weight of those words becomes a kind of perceptional or operational reality, and not only do we lose opportunities to build something unique and fresh, but we also make the world a duller, less interesting place.” [emphasis his]

VanderMeer does not want literature or its practitioners to repeat what has gone before, but to converse with the past and the world around us and see what is still unearthed or unsaid, what connections are yet to be made and what twists and reconfigurations are possible.

This idea is the foundation of his next section, a compendium of appreciations of other authors’ works. Here his dialogical tendencies come more strongly to the fore as he talks about the work of a variety of artists, from Catherynne Valente to J. G. Ballard, from Rikki Ducornet to Maurice Richardson. His appreciation is nuanced; it comes from his own perspective but is not just from his perspective. He allows the works and authors to infiltrate his imagination and saturate his response. His discussions strive to exemplify, rather than condense, the effects of these works on his imagination. In his conclusion to a long communion with the Factory novels of Derek Raymond, he writes:

“This is how the dead live, and this is how Raymond – through a fierce, sad love – animates words on a page so that they bring us out and into the world, no matter how merciless or ultimately unknowable.”

By the end of each of his appreciations, you not only experience the seminal centrality of an author’s work, but have been given a standpoint from which you yourself can more deeply encounter and appreciate the work. VanderMeer gives you access to each new world, an opening that the reader can utilize to conduct their own journey into it.

VanderMeer pulls back a bit from this depth in his reviews, but his perspicacity remains and informs his evaluations of each subject. This step back arises from the need to be more critical of each work, but VanderMeer abandons neither his love nor his deep engagement with these pieces. Even when pointing out flaws and problems in a novel, he does not engage in snark or dismissal. Some of his points are blunt, others are qualified, but they echo the central thematic of this book quite well. VanderMeer elucidates what is monstrous and imaginative about each work, “the intersection of the beautiful with the strange, the dangerous with the sublime,” and faults them when this intersection is cluttered, obscured, or does not take you in an interesting new direction.

The last section seems a bit of a catch-all, with stories from his own life, but also a few odd bits such as his introduction to the Best American Fantasy, Volume 1. At first it seems that he is wrapping the book up with these personal stories, capping a long, intricate journey through imagined worlds. But as I read these pieces I realized that they provided a linkage to the actual world, not just of the author but of the reader. These pieces are an invitation to continue the explorations ourselves, to see how VanderMeer’s ideas, as well our own, now stimulated and perhaps brought into question, apply not just to words on the page, but how we think of our lives and the world around us. VanderMeer challenges us throughout with both his subjects and his analyses of them to value our imaginations, to refute convention and welcome fantasticality, to make our own idea of the monstrous and see how changing that perception can transform how we look at everything.

It is the most incisive collection of reflections and criticisms that I have read in years.

4 Comments on REVIEW: Monstrous Creatures: Explorations of Fantasy Through Essays, Articles and Reviews, by Jeff VanderMeer

  1. I wonder if Mr. VanderMeer will find as much to critique in a 5-star review as he does in 2- and 3- star reviews. πŸ˜‰

  2. Jeff VanderMeer // March 22, 2011 at 3:08 pm //

    I surely will.

    Stevens is probably being too kind about the personal essays, which may have been a miscalculation on my part–stretching the theme too much. But even if he had analyzed this book and had found it wanting, the review would have integrity and focus because it engages with the text on the page, it is thorough, and it includes analysis.

    When we put out a Jewish humor book and the review says it’s the perfect stocking stuffer for x-mas…no, not as impressed. πŸ™‚


  3. Well, you’ll admit that “Kosher Guide” had a little less text to engage with than most… πŸ˜‰

    I can’t take back my summary of “A little stocking stuffer for fantasy fans.” [The book is physically small, for those that don’t know.] However, if you’d prefer that people resist buying this as a gift for non-Jewish holidays, I could edit the review to add that as a footnote! πŸ™‚

  4. Don’t see any mention of “x-mas”…just “stocking stuffer”. Given the possible non-Christian origin of the tradition, sounds like it is perfect for holidays of all kind.

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