Tuesday, September 22, 2015

'It' (1940) by Theodore Sturgeon

My review of Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation is still cooking, but in the meantime I just wanted to drop a note about this story by Sturgeon.  I'm doing some research on 'muck-monsters' for a forthcoming essay.  This is the line of horror fiction creatures that tend to semi-spontaneously arise from environs naturally composed of slime, goop, mold, debris, mud, loam and the like and in a pseudo-humanoid form, usually based on the human corpse such environs have absorbed and grotesquely reanimated.  The transformation takes place by many means, from scientific to supernatural to inexplicable.  Some of the heirs of this sub-genre are the famous Swamp Thing from DC comics and the slightly lesser known Man-Thing from Marvel comics.  But it all started with the story 'It' by Theodore Sturgeon. His seminal muck-monster is of the inexplicable variety and very effectively evoked.

The main reason I wanted to stop here and mention the story is that it is excellent.  I read it over a decade ago in an anthology and it was instantly a favourite.  But sometimes favourite stories lose some of their shine on a re-read, especially if many years lay between.  Sturgeon's story only shined greater.  I was pleasantly surprised at just how lovely the prose was, a wonderful evocation of a region and of the atmosphere of a particular kind of dreadful, cruel horror, all the more effective for its bucolic setting and likable, rustic characters.  If, like me, you've been wondering if it's as good as you remember, it is.  I highly recommend revisiting it.  It's a genuine modern classic of horror, much-anthologised (apparently some 60 times) for good reason.

(Spoiler in what follows.)

'It' has interesting potential intersections with my ecomonstrous readings of Cormac McCarthy and R. A. Lafferty.  The monster in this tale possibly evinces a meaningless cosmic horror, seemingly irrepressible, reminiscent of some of McCarthy's major themes.  Yet it is a persistent, bubbling brook that laughs the monster into nothing at the end of the story, reminiscent of Lafferty's 'cosmic laughter' theme.  Still, the family struck by this monstrosity is marked terribly and do not seem to wake from the nightmare, making the tale very downbeat overall.  It's a pretty bleak iteration of the environment 'speaking' to us, forcing us to reassess the place of the human in the non-human.  But there's some potential light folded into it too.

The ongoing industry of muck-monsters that eventually grew out of this fecund little masterpiece could be seen as the working out of the cosmic-personal themes Sturgeon's imagination initiated. The essay I'm working on explores Lafferty's take on muck-monstrosity and his repeated symbology of swamps, which I was surprised to find recurs fairly regularly in his work.

At any rate, Theodore Sturgeon's 'It' would very likely make it into my personal Top 100 list of classic horror stories.

(From the Marvel comics 1970s adaptation of Sturgeon's 'It')