constructive deconstruction

very friendly monsters: emily devenport’s “postcards from monster island”

“I like this one specific thing an awful lot, I just can’t figure out why.”

A charming photograph of my partner’s brother’s fire pit. (Taken on one of the few mild evenings bestowed upon southern Ontario this August, 2016.)

Case in point: I enjoy a bonfire, but not hot weather. Why? Bonfires are cozy. Sometimes you cook food on them. Hot weather–and humidity–make me feel as though I’m walking through hot soup. Mystery solved.

Figuring out just what it is I like about certain stories or genres, or what I don’t like, takes a little more mental calisthenics. I’ll go through some warm-up moves first.

This Thing I Like: “Postcards from Monster Island,” by Emily Devenport

I first listened to this story when it aired on the Clarkesworld Magazine Podcast back in April of 2015.[1] That’s about a year and a half ago at this point, and out of all the stories that have aired since, this is the only one I revisit at least once every couple of months. “Postcards” keeps me company on my congested morning commute to my day-job, occasionally during my lunch break, and often during the quiet hour or so I have to myself before I go to sleep at night. It’s pairs excellently with my late evening cup-of-tea-and-cuddling-with-my-cat routine, and so I can reasonably extrapolate that it would pair well with people who have similar morning routines, too. (I don’t understand Morning People, but my partner assures me that they are not a myth and do actually exist.)

Read on with caution; there will be spoilers.

I’m as terrible at providing synopses of the things I like as I am at taking directions from backseat drivers (grrrrr), but I’ll still give it a shot: this short story presents a whimsical, optimistic, and insightful inversion of the usual “kaiju arrives in city, wreaks havoc and destruction, and must be destroyed in order for society as normal to reassert itself” storyline seen in other more mainstream kaiju films.[2][3] It challenges all of the default assumptions about what life in a kaiju story might look like:

Assumption #1: The kaiju are bad
Assumption #2: Attacking them is the right decision
Assumption #3: Life As Normal needs to be reasserted

Instead of bearing these assumptions out into reality, we instead are shown how each one is confronted by the narrative and proven to be false. And this is accomplished just so damn effortlessly. Here’s an excerpt of a conversation between the protagonist, Bernadette Herrmann, and her neighbor, Frida, about one of the ‘monsters’ in the city:

“‘So—did you see anyone down there?’

‘Nope. Something better.’ [Frida] pulled her iPad out of her backpack and called up a picture file. ‘I found another creature.’

The picture she showed me was murky. There was very little light in the tunnel, and the water level was high enough to hide a lot of stuff. But right in the middle of it all, a face grinned at me. ‘It looks like a friendly dog,’ I said. ‘A giant—happy—water dog.’

‘He acts like one, too,’ said Frida, calling up more pictures. ‘You can’t see from these pics, but he’s about the size of a school bus. It’s hard to tell how many legs he has, because the number seems to change—see?’ She selected a picture where he seemed to have five limbs, and then another where he might have only three, though in both of them he seemed to have a vaguely tail-shaped appendage. ‘I call him Mega Whatsis. Sometimes he seems to be solid, but other times he’s kind of gelatinous. Here’s a short video I took on my iPad.’

My stomach stirred uneasily at the thought of looking at something that was sometimes kind of gelatinous, but when I watched Mega Whatsis in the video, I saw a creature who moved confidently, even joyously, both in and out of the water. ‘Cool!'”

Excerpted from the story page at Clarkesworld Magazine.

Some crucial context for this scene: Bernadette has the flu. Frida has come to Bernadette’s apartment to deliver her some soup after walking Bernadette’s dog for her, because even in the midst of this very weird creature crisis, Frida is looking after–and out for–her sick neighbor. This act is not an anomaly for these characters; the story is peppered with little bits of thoughtful human and animal kindness, and each time I notice another one, I love “Postcards” just a little bit more than I did previously.

Moving on: I keep coming back to the word ‘whimsy’, wondering whether or not I should use a different descriptor instead, and I just can’t come up with a better one. There is something whimsical about the image of a school bus-sized dog monster named Mega Whatsis frolicking joyously in water water like it’s the most fun he’s had since he was a puppy monster. (I personally project an awful lot of enthusiastic wagging and thwacking-into-things onto his ‘vaguely tail-shaped appendage.’) I think there’s something whimsical, too, about people who look at monsters and think, “Cool,” instead of, “Destroy it.”

Different is not automatically synonymous with dangerous; strange is not automatically synonymous with scary.

Here’s another excerpt for you:

“Sometime later, I approached wakefulness like a swimmer floating toward a bright surface. I couldn’t quite open my eyes, but I felt one of the cats lying across my stomach. I petted it, enjoying the velvety feel of its fur and its plump, warm body. I heard purring, but didn’t feel it vibrating in the body I was stroking.

And the fur felt too short. Way too short. Almost like you would expect the fur of a seal to be. I opened my eyes and saw the fat thing stretched across me. It tapered to a narrow tip that was lazily curling to and fro like a cat’s tail. It widened as it crossed my body and continued off the bed, onto the floor, and out the window, most of which was blocked by its bulk.

It was a tentacle.

Two things occurred to me then. The first was that you don’t expect a tentacle to be warm and fuzzy. The second was that the Cloud Squid was probably going to drag me through the window and eat me.

I lay there frozen, waiting for the Squid to make her move. When she ate me, who would take care of Peachy? Who would take care of Sheba, and Buster, and Thugly, and Jingle Monster (four more pets than I had officially declared in my lease agreement)? Would she eat them too? Jingle was grooming the tentacle as if it were another cat. Peachy had rested her head on top of it, and she was snoring again.

I’m not sure how long I lay there arguing with myself. But it was the Cloud Squid who resolved the situation. She used the tip of her tentacle like a hand and gently moved Peachy’s head onto the bed. Then she patted each of the cats and the dog, and slipped away out the window.”

It’s so easy for me to sit with this particular excerpt from the story and just feel the different feelings it inspires. Each moment speaks to a different part of my lived experiences, and the things that bring me comfort, and my fears: I’ve experienced the feverishness that can make a person feel like they’re floating under water while sleeping; I know, too, what it’s like to feel the comforting warmth of a beloved pet nearby upon waking; I definitely don’t know what I’d think or feel if I woke up to discover a giant fuzzy tentacle hanging out in bed with me, but I can certainly aspire to the same level of chill aplomb that Bernadette demonstrates in that moment. But beyond all that, I can empathize with her immediate worry, not for herself, but for the safety of the animals she cares for.

There’s a bit of tension in this scene, but it isn’t heightened. No one–animals, human, and Cloud Squid included–is in any danger, and this brief, surreal encounter ends shortly after Bernadette wakes up. When the Cloud Squid leaves, she does so while treating Bernadette and her pets with tenderness, like it’s an integral part of her nature. It’s demonstrative of a pattern in this story regarding animals that absolutely enshrines it in my fictional hall of fame: the animals are characters almost to the same extent that Bernadette and Frida are characters. More than that, they are cherished companions whose needs are met and whose and personalities are surprisingly actualized, and who are not neglected in order to further the plot and character development of the humans in the story. In short, they are loved, they are cared for. They matter.[4]

I think that is, for me, this story’s central appealing quality, and what continuously draws me back to it time and time again:  “Postcards” consciously marries human kindness towards animals with kindness towards other people.

…And on that note, I’ve decided to end this blog post, though I know that I’ll come back to this subject (and possibly this story) again in the future.

Here’s what’s on the radio.

Listening to:

Notes and References:
[1] This podcast produced a lot of great stories in April ’15. I want to mention Berrien C. Henderson’s “Let Baser Things Devise” in particular, as it’s a story I’d like to come back to at a later date. It’s good, y’all. So good.
[2] Toho’s Godzilla franchise.
[3] Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Ron Perlman, et al.
[4] Writing this paragraph puts me in mind of the excellent book by Carl Safina that I am currently listening to via my Audible app, Beyond Words: What Animals Think And Feel. For a brief exploration of the themes explored in this book, consider watching Carl Safina’s TED Talk. I won’t say it has reshaped my world view regarding animals so much as it has helped solidify thoughts and feelings I’ve had for years now.

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