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Friday, October 28, 2011

Review – American Monsters By Sezin Koehler

American MonstersTitle: American Monsters

Author: Sezin Koehler

Publisher: Ghostwood Books

Buy Link: Buy American Monsters Here!

Rating: You Could Read

Reviewed By: Janelle


An important work of post-modern feminist horror, American Monsters is a poignant, angry volume about predation, the corruption of the rave scene, and empowerment through trauma-related super-abilities.

The first section of American Monsters is The Succubi Sideshow. This is a series of darkly compelling vignettes introducing a wide range of characters. You’ll find no happy, well-balanced individuals in this disturbing gallery. These are the origins of the monstrous denizens of the book. There are good monsters, yes, but there are some very bad ones too.

In the second section, The Phantastic Carnival, the Monsters are brought together through the murderous designs of an ancient, soul-hungry goddess. What could be a better lure for a big haul of youthful life-force than a spectacular Halloween party in a peculiar hill-top mansion? This section is presented as a film script and, like the previous piece, is illustrated with gorgeous watercolour paintings from artist Rose Deniz.

Non-Fiction, the third and final section of American Monsters, is a collection of moving and insightful essays. This includes a series of authoritative feminist analyses of horror, ethnography and rave culture. The heart of this section however is The Night The Sky Opened Up, a heart-rending account of the night when the author’s best friend was executed in front of her by a crazed gang-member.

Packed with horror homages both oblique and obvious, American Monsters is a book for adventurous readers – ones who are not scared of non-traditional narratives, of evil smog-goddesses, or of women turning the tables.


To preface, I’d like to start this review with the Non-fiction section found at the end. Neither I, nor anyone I know, cannot properly understand what it is like to see someone murdered, certainly not someone close. Nor can I say how my perspective on life might be changed by such a traumatizing event. And I understand that this story is in its own way a form of therapy and a journey to healing.

That said, as a reviewer, I must judge a book on its own merits, not on sympathy for the author.

The essays found in the Non-fiction section are about feminism at its most extreme. It is the sort of bra-burning rhetoric that seeks not equal treatment for women, but to make women the dominate sex.

To quite the essay “We have met the Enemy and She is Woman ” directly: “Andrea Dworkin’s insightful Intercourse follows in this same vein of perceived cultural differences between men and women with regards to sexual intercourse. As a culmination of these few theories of the body, I would like to present Dworkin’s view that because of the unequal power relations between men and women, all sex that takes place in the society would be considered a rape of the woman...This book struck a particular chord with me... My experiences along with experiences of many other women, from raves and outside of them, are what make up most of American Monsters. As Dworkin writes “Sadism and death, under male supremacy, converge at the vagina: to open the woman up, go inside her, penis or knife. The poor little penis kills before it dies.”( p. 190). “Fucking,” as Dworkin puts it, erases the humanity of women, making them sexualized objects, readily available for exploitation. Men, the rapists, are considered individuals. Women, the violated and debased, remain voiceless and exist to be fucked.

Dominance and submission are also made evident through theories of the gaze. Dworkin explains that subsequent to the demeaning “fuck,” the woman’s body is fetishized by the male gaze which further allows him to possess and rape her body.”

The idea that woman cannot and should not enjoy sex is rather pervasive in our society, and, in fact, is considered a sin in many cultures. I would say this is a harsh on the subject of intercourse and is, at the heart of it, anti-feminist. It's saying that women are not allowed to enjoy sex, that all men are rapists, and if you do enjoy it, then clearly you've just been stockholmed.

At one point in her essay, the author talks about the Aliens movie series and its rape symbolism. This is true, such symbolism is there, and was in fact completely intended and done by design. It was not done to degrade women, it was done because rape is terrifying and horrible and invoking it as a backdrop helps sets the mood for such a film. As a side note, most of the people “raped” in that film were actually men.

She goes on to call Ripley a “phallic mother” because she uses a big gun yet nurtures those around her. Sadly, the author, and the researcher she leans on, have missed the point. Ripley is, by far, one of the best developed female characters in cinema. The fact that she is a woman does not keep her from fighting, and the fact that she is a fighter does not keep her from showing a gentler nature. Male characters are allowed such dichotomy, yet there is a strange brand of feminism that gets absolutely furious when it is shown in females. Pigeonholing women like this isn’t feminism. The author isn’t a feminist, she’s a misandrist.

This all leads into the next point: Women as horror victims. The author is right that there is some measure of misogyny in this. However, that is not all that is behind it. Biologically speaking, women are the weaker sex. We are built to nurture babies, men are built to protect. Making the victims female invokes not only a female reader’s feeling of helplessness, but also a male reader’s distress at being unable to protect. The author fails to acknowledge that the most likely survivor of a horror story is a female – who survives by turning the tables on her attacker – and that promiscuous men are just as likely to be victims.

The essays also expounds on the rave scene. As a girl who has lived in small town Texas all my life, I cannot really speak on what a rave is like in L.A. I do know drugs are prevalent. Specifically, the author focuses on Ecstasy and how its ability to induce euphoria and feelings of intimacy make it a date rape drug. While this is true, she fails to acknowledge that men at these parties are also taking these drugs. This lowers their own inhibitions and makes them want to express these feelings in a physical way. It is still rape, but it is not the all instances predation the essay presents.

During the course of one story, a character refers to a government institute as “speaking boy.” I was utterly mystified by this, as was my beta reader. It was not until I was most of the way into the second essay that I found out what this meant. The author feels that the basic rules of grammar need not apply because they were developed by men. To quote her directly: “Both the format of the stories as well as the lack of capitalization are examples of my resisting this “boy’s” voice.”

The fact of the matter is, regardless of their origin, the rules of English grammar are well established and accepted without question. Changing them, especially for reasons not explained to the reader, makes the story hard to follow because the lack of flow is jarring. In the same thread, you cannot change the rules of a sport halfway through the game just because you don’t like them.

Now, moving on to the stories. As horror stories they largely fail. While the opening volley is horrifying, the stories that follow are all the same. Boy rapes and/or tortures girl, followed by a story where the girl somehow kills/emasculates a boy. When you turn the volume up to eleven and leave it there, any impact is lost as it all becomes white noise.

Another problem that there are absolutely no sympathetic characters in any of these stories. The men are only motivated by violence and sex, they are deranged and psychotic , a veritable army of Jason Voorhees. Without exception every man in this book is a rapist, who seeks only to use, abuse, and toss a woman away like so much used gum.

The women for their part show no logical response to what is happening to them. One character is murdered and raped in a gas station bathroom. Upon finding herself a ghost, she does not mourn the lose of her life, the death of her future, or the pain caused her family. Nor does she wonder why she has not passed into the afterlife. Instead she jumps instantly to murderous rage and sets out on a quest for revenge. In another, four girls murder four men who are attacking them; and with blood still dripping from their hands they give what amounts to a shrug and a “well, that happened” and go on as if it were perfectly normal.

The summary proudly announces that there are no “happy, well-balanced individuals” in these stories. That does not mean a character should not be sympathetic. Golem, of Lord of the Rings fame, is not a happy, well-balanced individual. He is, however, an interesting and sympathetic character with many layers of motivation. He is both shallow and depraved, yet heroic in his fight to overcome the darkness that ultimately consumes him. A character must be sympathetic for a reader to care about them.

I think the great irony of this book is that in the author’s great railing against misogyny, she has inadvertently created a story that is nothing more than torture porn. This is a sub-set of the horror genre aimed at an audience – the majority of whom are male – who enjoy and even find sexual gratification is the humiliation, dehumanization, and abuse of others – mainly females. The Hostel series would fall under this heading.

Overall, this one does not rank very high on my list. The stories are gory and without purpose, and the essays are ham-handed and pretentious. On the other hand, how often do you find a book that contains both torture porn and essays on feminism?

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