on 19 February 2012
Okay, firstly I'm going to come out and admit that I know the author, and though we've never met in person, we've conversed on a number of occasions and gotten to know each other somewhat. I admit this because I don't want what I have to say about Sezin's work to be construed as some hidden agenda. I believe that my reviews of films, books and TV shows on various websites require me to be as open and honest about what I critique, even when it's from my friends.
AMERICAN MONSTERS is many things: open, honest, intelligent, original, harrowing, intriguing. It is *not* shallow, light reading. But it *is* a compelling and thought-provoking work on feminism and the horror genre.
Sezin has divided her work into two parts, of differing formats but still connected once seen as a whole, though you can read each of them, separately and gain something different from them. The first part is fiction, and is headed by The Succubi Sideshow, a dark collection of vignettes introducing a wide, wild range of different but still related characters, people with monstrous natures both within and without, who are both offenders and victims, and the vignettes explore equally monstrous themes such as violence, rape, exploitation, suicide, loneliness. There are unflinching scenes, but nothing is done with exploitation or titillation in mind. Sezin depicts these terrible things for what they are.
The Monsters presented here are assembled together in The Phantastic Carnival, which is presented in a movie script format, which on reading it would make for a heady and satisfying movie experience (I should also make note of the wonderful, stylistic watercolour illustrations throughout, provided by artist Rose Deniz).
Possibly the most difficult part to read was in the second part, The Night the Sky Opened Up, but only because it was so difficult to read the account of events which truly happened to someone I know. It's an open, honest, distressing autobiographical account of the worst day in Sezin's life, when in Los Angeles she bore witness to the murder of her best, dearest friend Wendy, to whom this book is dedicated. It was an event which pushed Sezin into a brutal time, full of trauma, depression and distress, but which also spawned her into writing the fictional parts of this book. Her account is rich in detail and minutiae, harrowing and compelling, giving us a glimpse not only into real-life horror, but also the psyche of a fascinating, erudite individual and how this shaped her life and thinking.
The essays which follow are an intelligent, fascinating read, discussing and analyzing a wide variety of topics: The Compiler: On Truth and Synchronicity, for instance, touches on the rave culture, the portrayal of vampires, the unique perspective afforded "Third Culture Kids" like Sezin (and myself) in anthropological discussions, and the dichotomy between male and female psychologies when interpreting horror film and fiction. And What Horror Means - An Essay focuses on women/mothers as the Monster in works such as Stephen King, in particular The Shining, and this one I found a particular eye-opener, allowing me to look on a story I thought I knew with new eyes.
There's also an Afterword, written more than ten years following the events, and I am grateful for this section, for it was an uplifting coda to the life of a woman who had gone through Hell, had been changed by it, but not destroyed. She has led a fascinating life, and I want more people to know her through this.
on 20 July 2012
American Monsters is an unconventional work, part novel, part screenplay, part memoir, part academic thesis, whereby author Sezin Koehler explores the dark and female-phobic worlds of rave culture, horror fiction and academia.
The novel/screenplay is the story of a group of magical female characters who each discover hidden powers with which they destroy the men who abuse them and encounter each other at a rave held at the mansion of a hotel magnate in LA. They are lured into situations where they are forced by monstrous men to defend themselves with magical and physiological weapons worthy of Angela Carter, Kathy Acker or William Burroughs. It's a feminist revenge narrative in the form of Urban Fantasy replete with spirits, dark energies and creatively gruesome acts of violence. The memoir is the terrible and moving story of the murder of the author's friend Wendy by a girl who robbed her and her companions at gun-point one awful night in 2000. It tells of the author's trauma in the wake of the event and how she tried to heal herself and how the story of American Monsters was shaped by this life-changing experience. It's a tough read but it illuminates the fiction in an utterly compelling manner. The illumination is further brightened by the academic section of the book, which treats of the problems Koehler encountered as a 'third culture kid' who became embroiled in the LA rave scene and then became a participant-observer in that very scene when she studied anthropology. She gradually saw through the hippyish veneer of peace, love and co-operation to the ugly misogynistic truth underlying the ideology of the 24-hour-party-people generation in woman-hating America. Addressing the question of whether it is possible to create a feminist anthropology when the discipline is based on patriarchal and colonialist assumptions disguised in the language of apolitical scientific objectivity and postmodernist value-equivalence, Koehler concludes that there may be a way forward if feminist social science insists on its political programme in opposition to the effacement of ethics by the knowledge structures of the academic paradigm.
These themes, particularly the problem of the masculine gaze and the neurosis of male castration anxiety symbolised by the vagina dentata meme (dealt with in the section on misogyny in American horror narratives, focussing on Stephen King) are expressed within the fiction in a vivid ultraviolent mode that entertains and horrifies with equal power. Theoretically sharp, emotionally draining and highly readable, American Monsters will shock you and make you think.