by Heather Shayne Blakeslee
“Long ago, we interpreted mysterious sea creatures as monsters. We also invented werewolves and vampires, and burned tens of thousands of so-called witches, who were real people. We still include within the ‘monster’ category the humans whom we deem especially badly behaved. Some we send off to prison, and others we wonder whether to send out into the wilderness as cultural scapegoats. (Cancel culture is here, and it has come for your record collection—it has come for your memories.)
None of us are really innocent; all of our modern systems make us complicit in all manner of harm. Our personal habits contribute, for instance, to drought and rising seas—all the better to hide those mysterious sea creatures, perhaps. We worry about the uptick in “monster” storms, yet still fly far away to vacation, crank the AC, and eat deli meat sandwiches as it suits us.
And then there are the monsters under our beds, ready to strike when the lights go out and we’re left alone with our thoughts—these are the creatures that haunt us best and longest.
What about a baby girl who has been born with a knotted stomach, just like her mother before her? This is the simple premise of Sarah Rose Etter’s new novel, The Book of X, which follows her adolescence and young adulthood. Had her birth taken place in medieval times, she might have been seen as a portent, or a sign from God that the people of the village had strayed from a moral or virtuous path.
In these cases, which used to be called ‘monstrous births,’ the parents and child (or children, in the case of conjoined twins) were considered blameless, according to Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston in Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750. These unfortunate souls “were seen only as vessels and messengers of a divine cadence.”
What constituted the morals and virtues that had been contravened was largely decided by the accident of the time and place of the birth, as well as the political expediencies of the day. As the times change, we change, and our monsters change with us. They are songs of ourselves, and of a decidedly earthly rhythm.“
For full text and images, consider reading RQ in print, on a Sunday afternoon, sun streaming through your window, coffee in hand, and nary a phone alert within sight or in earshot… just fine words, fine design, and the opportunity to make a stitch in time //. Print is dead. Long live print. //