MONSTERS AND INSPIRATION
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss looks back at you.” - Fredrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
When I was in the 5th grade I wrote a story for my school class about a Knight who goes into a dark Forrest to fight a demon. He narrates the story in the first person but at the end of the story he dies and it is revealed to the reader that the Knight was dead all along and that he is trapped in a nightmare watching himself fail to defeat the monster, and destined to repeat that failure over and over.
My teacher made me re-write it. She said it was ‘wrong’… When I asked how a story I made up could be ‘wrong’ she replied - “how can someone who is dead tell their own story?”
It was only in later life that I found myself bewildered at how a teacher, of all people, could be so detached from classical metaphoric mythology, or so ill-read in the classics of gothic literature..? Good thing my 10 year old ego was too big to let the first dumb critic deter me.
Yet the truth was that I was very much afraid of the demons I felt compelled to write about. The monsters of Greek myth, fused with a healthy dose of western-Catholic guilt, had formed themselves into very personal spectres that gave me shivers when I wrote them into being… And yet it was exactly that sensation that I lusted after every time I put pen to paper. Every writer should be afraid of their creations…
The Transgressions Cycle is 3-book series of supernatural horror. Each book is a self contained novel but the collection is linked tightly together by concept, imagery and shared themes of madness, mystery and redemption. People running from their sins, their personal demons and from themselves. Broken figures who must confront haunting spectres, monsters and manifestations of a dark past that compel them toward restoration. Characters caught in labyrinths of memory, shadow and regret manifesting as minotaurs to hunt them in the dark.
The above quote from Nietzsche sets out the heart of all three stories - and perhaps for me as a writer. I’ve printed it and stuck it to the wall of my office as a creative linchpin. The monsters come from within… the scariest demon is that which is personally tailored to You, that drives your own transgressions in hideous form and from which you cannot escape. Yet, like Pandora’s box, once all the chaos and evils are released, Hope still remains at the bottom of the container. This is horror but it is not nihilism.
The second book of the Transgressions Cycle is entitled ‘The Scrimshaw Marionette’ and it builds on metaphoric imagery that has long haunted me.
After the death of his wife by his own failing, William flees the hardship of depression-era Sydney with his young daughter, Rosa. Battling his addictions and his sanity, William travels far south and finds work on a remote island Whaling station. But when Rosa finds a small scrimshaw marionette doll under the wharf, a restless spirit awakens to puppeteer the living and drag them into the sea. Grappling with his sanity and reason, William must confront the truth of the past and put the restless marionette ghost to rest to save his daughter and himself.
This is a story that began with a photograph of a doll.
For me as a writer imagery is almost always the key origin point. I can’t write a story until I know how it ends and knowing how it ends means knowing what the last image is - what is the final thing the audience ‘sees’ (be it literally in cinematic form, or mentally in literary form).
The process of developing the story, breaking down its plot and characters into beat-sheets and outlines is a process for me of finding all the key images that build the story like storyboard cells.
The image that triggered The Scrimshaw Marionette was one shown to me by curator Penny Edwell of the Australian National Maritime Museum. I had been working with the ANMM on a immersive narrative exhibition experience when she showed me a very creepy object. A hand-made doll carved of whale bone ivory and made by a whaling sailor more than a century ago. The doll was simple but held such emotional weight - a hand-crafted gift, carved at sea by a sailor for his child. It was beautiful yet haunting. Its darkly uncanny face and rough features made it tortured in some strange way, the pain of the whale being slaughtered somehow imbued into the dolls limbs. And most of all, it was the physicality if it - delicate and brittle and yet carved from the bones of an ocean leviathan, a creature so massive is dwarfed the ships that hunted it.
So the writer in me began to think, asking the questions that build the causality of story. A doll must have an owner and such an owner would be a child… But a child who knows more than they should know and who can sense and see more than they should see. A child who has been broken and wronged. A changeling. The emotional weight of the whale bone somehow empowering the spirit of the little girl who treasures it as her only comfort in the darkness.
And from this comes the idea of a Marionette. It’s not just a type of puppet, it’s a wonderfully delicate and antiquated word, yet one that is loaded as metaphor for control and manipulation.
And finally there comes the Scrimshaw itself - an ancient craft of carving designs and images into ivory. Most Scrimshaw from whalers depicted images of whaling itself - the ships they sailed and the whales they fought. This was the cinema of the ocean hunt, vivid and alive on the bones of the slaughtered giants of the sea.
All this imagery of carved whale bone marionette dolls intertwined with the spirit of a changeling child generated a vision that scared me and gave me that shiver I was so eager to evoke - a doll possessed by a broken child that puppeteers the living by invisible strings and drags them into the sea…
So, I now had a demon monster but this doesn’t make for a story until there was someone to struggle against that monster. Such a demon could haunt anyone, but randomness is the least effective horror story technique. The big question to ask is “who should be the most afraid of the scrimshaw marionette…?” Who deserves to be haunted? Who has transgressed in such a way that the Marionette appears to be a personally tailored demon?
This is how I found my protagonist, William. Guilt-ridden, depressed, addicted. A broken man, but not one out of reach of redemption. A man who could and should be a loving father. But a man who might soon fail that test.
But characters do not live in a nowhere place, they demand to know what is the physical space of their story - the environment, the location, the topography, climate and architecture. And of course When? What time-frame provides the right collision of forces for the story, the right energy and tone?
For The Scrimshaw Marionette the object itself dictated the place as much as the concept of the monster. Hence the story is set on a remote southern whaling station, a craggy rock in the Tasman sea where the whalers hunt the migrating southern-right whales from shore in longboats.
The decidedly cinematic imagery of such places - the scale of the ocean beasts hauled to slaughter, the brutal weather that breeds hard men - was self evident. But for the full effect of haunted remoteness to impact on an audience they need to experience it as an outsider, a new arrival, a stranger in a strange land who is cast upon a place they do not, and cannot, comprehend.
So my protagonist William needed to be an outsider - a man who knows nothing of whaling and for whom such a place is an anathema to everything he knew before.
Of course, this presents a narrative problem-solving challenge with questions that need answering - What could compel a man to go to such a place? And Who is the opposite of a remote island whaler? Clearly a man born and bread in the crowded confines of a city is the antithesis to one living on a cold remote island. So, What would drive such a man to leave the city and go to such a place where he is so much a fish out of water? There are perhaps many answers but the one that gave me narrative momentum, was the Great Depression.
As economic collapse grinds the city to a pulp of poverty and despair, William is compelled to leave and find work wherever he can… A remote island whaling station where few wish to go provides the only answer for him and, perhaps his only chance of redemption.
Storytelling is, in many ways, problem solving. The cause and effect chain is crucial and it’s assembly is as much a construction of creative logic as it is of imagination. The story of The Scrimshaw Marionette was built from a photo of a doll, to the creation of a demon, to a character forced to go to the end of the earth where a collision with that demon is inevitable.
And as William gets lost in the nightmares of the labyrinthine whaling station, caught between past and present, he should beware that “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss looks back at you...."