It is often asserted that Mary Shelley gave life to modern speculative fiction with her masterpiece Frankenstein. If this is so, it can be further argued that grimdark swirls deep in the DNA of all modern speculative fiction.
And we love it. Time and again we fling ourselves into the pit with Frankenstein’s monster, with Glokta and his knives, with monsters and mad scientists and imperfectly understood alien technology. We glut ourselves on horror and despair.
Why should this be so? Why, in a musty old bookstore filled with tales of derring-do True Kings and Good Witches, would we ever reach for stories that make us wince or weep? Why reach for the bitter cup instead of sweet?
It’s almost as if we know that both cups have been poisoned, that the sweet wine is a lie.
Blake Snyder, known for his ‘Save the Cat’ beat sheet template for storytelling, describes a subgenre that he names ‘Monster in the House’. In this story genre our hero is trapped in an inescapable venue (the house) and menaced by an implacable danger (the monster). In order to survive, the hero must: a) defeat the monster; and b) escape the house. Unfortunately, neither of these is possible until the hero has been wrecked and remade in a new, darker image of themselves.
Worse, the monster only exists at all because the hero has created it. Victor Frankenstein, in his hubris, challenged the throne of God in his attempts to bring forth life from cold clay. Glokta chooses to inflict upon others the same horror that unmade him. We choose to watch as tragically fallible human beings raise the dead, commit all manner of atrocities, plunge worlds into war, and suffer for it.
We suffer along with them, and find ourselves entertained.
Why? Why do this to ourselves? Why, when the torturer pulls a hot poker from the fire, do we not set aside that book in favor of bright elves and sweet Hobbitses? Why, when the brat king shoots a whore full of bolts, do we not hit the remote and watch Willow for the umpteenth time?
Why do we decide, time and again, to trap ourselves in the house with these monsters?
Perhaps, as it has been opined, we wish to expose our limbic systems to fear, horror, and grief so that we may build grit and resilience by surviving these harrowing experiences. Perhaps we wish to distract ourselves from a sometimes terrible and terrifying reality.
After all, what is end stage capitalism and climate change when compared to a planet-devouring protomolecule?
I suspect the reason is deeper.
It can be argued that humans suffer mental anguish when our actions are not in harmony with our ideals. And we, perverse creatures that we are, consistently elect sin over sainthood. We tyrannize and destroy our neighbors, our planet, ourselves. We rape, plunder, and pillage our way to a throne, crown ourselves in stolen gold, and then eat, drink and whore ourselves into an early grave. We drink stolen water from plastic bottles which choke the life from our oceans, drive ridiculous vehicles that steal the oxygen from our own lungs. Every generation sews together bits and pieces of the Nazi dream and tries to breathe new life into a dead nightmare.
We could embrace life, love, and light. We could bottle the light of the stars, plant trees of silver and gold, unfurl our wings and soar into a land of peace and prosperity.
But we won’t. We will always create the monster and then lock ourselves in the house with it. Because, as Agent Kay tells us, “People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”
Mary Shelley knew it, too.
Out loud, we tell ourselves that we want True Kings and Bold Heroes and Virtuous Rulers, but down deep in the muck of our DNA, we know that we neither deserve nor truly desire that glittering castle in the sky.
So lock yourself within the house of pain and bring forth the monster from your tortured, dissonant, too-human soul.
It’s not your fault, poor creature—you were made this way.