NR: Monsters of L. A.

Over on the Case Notes blog at the start of the month I reviewed Calling the Spirits by Lisa Morton, so to complement that review here’s a discussion of one of her fiction collections.

Monsters of L. A. is a book in which, to quote from the author’s Introduction, the stories all ‘represent an icon of the motion pictures, and they all throw a klieg light on some contemporary part of L.A’. In many ways the city itself is every bit as much a monster as those from which the stories take their titles, or at least the catalyst for much that is seen as monstrous. And while each story stands alone there are connections to be found that enrich the reading experience.

In the opening story “Frankenstein” is the nickname of a Vietnam vet whose body has been operated on repeatedly and given artificial limbs to the point that he feels like he is a patchwork creature. And as with Shelley’s original, there is a confrontation with his creator who, at least in his own mind, thought that his actions were justified. The story stands as a savage indictment of the way a nation chews up its military men and then abandons them when their usefulness as cannon fodder is over. In “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” a dedicated scientist is trying to perfect a drug that will enable people to change gender, but when she experiments on herself she finds that the transformation brings with it side effects. It’s a gripping variation on the theme of the road to hell being paved with good intentions, as Jekyll’s plans all go awry, but with a final twist to the tale that enables her to reify everything that has happened, though having said that I’m not quite sure of the logistics of that twist.

“The Phantom” is a singer who has fallen on hard times thanks to drug addiction, in this story gifted a vision of what might have been. The subtext of the story has to do with how it can all go terribly wrong, even for those of us who seem to have the world at their feet in one moment. “The Hunchback” is the story of gay teenager Jordi, offering us an ode to wasted lives and the endless possibilities sacrificed on an altar of unreasoning hatred. “Dracula” has found new life as a movie star, but it’s a precarious existence. The story shows how the Hollywood machine chews up people and spits them out, even those who feel they are untouchable, and that whatever our accomplishments there’s the danger of no longer being relevant. Morton bungs in a nice touch about sparkly vampires as well.

Former girlfriend of Frankenstein and now a drugged up hooker, “The Bride” gets the chance to wreak a little revenge on the man whose callous nature ruined her ex, in a story that is one of the least here, but also pleasing for the just desserts that are doled out. “The Mummy” has a rich woman desperate to preserve her good looks undertake the ultimate in body wraps, only to fall prey to ancient Egyptians. It’s a neat story that deftly dissects and satirises the obsession with youth that so preoccupies certain women. Conversely “The Invisible Woman” finds that she simply isn’t noticed because she is so ordinary, and this revelation frees her to commit crimes for which she will never be brought to justice. There are echoes here of the Ellison (Ralph, not Harlan) novel of racial abuse, but contrarily for the heroine of this story the unawareness of society proves an advantage.

“The Mad Scientist” injects nanobots into his dead wife to restore her to life, the story the least of what Monsters has to offer, but setting the stage for the final piece in the book. “The Werewolf” is a famous rock star whose musical ability seems tied in to the fact that he turns into a monster every time there’s a full moon, and is told from the viewpoint of a roadie who has finally got tired of covering up for his employer. The story can be taken simply at face value or as a meditation on how much we are prepared to overlook for greatness, how much shit should talented individuals be allowed to get away with and to what degree is such behaviour an essential part of their makeup. And Morton provides an end twist that is particularly appropriate to the sequel prone horror industry. A group of paranormal explorers with a TV show (think Ghost Adventures or Most Haunted) visit “The Haunted House”, but find themselves victims of the building’s ‘niceness’ in a novel variation on the theme. The satire of the exploiters adds another string to the proceedings.

In “Cat People” an academic writing a book about folklore finds that there is rather more to the legend of a catlike creature stalking the Hollywood hills than she had anticipated, and the discovery brings with it a kind of validation of her own life choices. There’s something eerie about this piece, a feel of the numinous and how that can enhance our ordinary, everyday lives. “The Creature” explodes out of the La Brea tar pits and kills several people before it is dealt with, including Billy’s mother, the rest of the story looking at his unhappy life thereafter. As with so many of these stories, this one raises questions about who are the monsters, with Billy every bit as inhuman as the creature, and the mystery of its ultimate fate adding yet another frisson to the score. “The Alien” is a strange plant, though the title is a double entendre referencing also the illegal immigrants who take care of the plant. There’s a healthy dose of paranoia to this story, with the relationship between husband and wife, Howard and Donna, acting as the pivot.

In an ironic twist the “Kaiju (Giant Monster)” causes hardly any damage as it stomps through downtown, but a man trying to be a hero is responsible for all sorts of mayhem. The subtext here is perhaps to leave things to the proper authorities, those trained to cope with disaster. “The Devil” is a ‘sell your soul’ variation, with Old Scratch as the host on a fairground ride, the story building gradually as Jared risks it all to win the beautiful Maria. It’s a clever piece, with a lot of invention along the way before it reaches the deliciously tongue in cheek end twist. In “The Slasher” a man discovers a serial killer living inside a crack in a wall and finds they have so much in common, but not quite that much. It’s a gratifyingly weird concoction, rambling in the narration, but ultimately arriving at the desired destination.

It’s Halloween and Melanie’s fear of clowns goes into overdrive, leading her to the place where clowns are born and a confrontation with “The Killer Clown”. There’s something gleefully surreal about this excursion into the more absurd areas of the horror genre, with lurid imagery and a gripping story that captures the feel of the season being celebrated. “The Urban Legend” is the longest piece in the book, with the discovery of a secret tunnel leading an academic on to the discovery of the truth behind a legend of lizard people. Long and convoluted, with a carefully constructed back story, emotive atmosphere and excellent characterisation, in many ways this reminded me of Carpenter’s They Live. It can rightfully take its place as one of the highlights of this collection. The differences between L. A.’s haves and have nots is emphasised in “The Zombie”, as the rich capture the living dead to do menial jobs for them. It’s an emotive story, one that asks further questions about how humanity is identified and if there are bigger monsters beyond those we celebrate in our horror stories.

Finally we have an afterword “About the Stories” in which Morton gives the background details to each one, and reveals that they contain much of truth about her life in tinsel town, giving the work another dimension. It’s a fascinating codicil to a collection of stories that, first and foremost, entertain the reader with their wit and invention, but also have something to say about the nature of our world and the Hollywood filter through which so much of it is presented.

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