As Romance Editor Chris Szego has often noted here at The Gutter, the theme of modern romance is that the hero can change. But what about sea mutants—can they change? In Jonathan Cases’s Dear Creature (Tor, 2011) a sea mutant falls in love with a human woman. It’s a beautifully-drawn and beautifully-written Shakespearean comedy with a monster or a Sixties monster beach movie in iambic pentameter with a sea mutant named Grue, a woman named Giulietta and a chorus of crabs urging Grue to consume people.
Grue is torn between his mutant sea creature urges to eat necking teenagers, whose hormones reach him even in abyssal depths, and a brave new world revealed to him through Shakespeare. He is affected by the hormonal scent, but Grue doesn’t really want to eat people anymore and he feels bad after he does. I assume it’s something like smelling barbecue—or maybe even better, Cinnabon’s siren song. He craves it, but feels bad afterwards. Instead, Grue is fascinated by the pages torn from Shakespeare’s works that he finds in bottles floating in the ocean. He seeks the source of the bottles, hoping they will save him from his “monster’s ways” (133) and finds Giulietta imprisoned in a land-locked ship. Grue determines to become Giulietta’s champion, win his “fair organism’s” love and live happily every after. But the errors can be so much worse in a comedy of errors involving sea mutants with a taste for teens.
The characters each speak in a distinct voice. Giulietta uses contemporary prose English. Grue speaks in blank verse, the language of Shakespeare. I’m not sure whether Grue learned to speak (and read) English from the messages in the bottles or if he discovered something in himself that can only be articulated through Shakespeare’s work. Either way, I have to say that Case’s iambic pentameter is impressive. It never thumps or gallops as the meter so often does at its worst. And his language itself is interesting and never cliché. Case doesn’t go for easy rhythms or words of only two syllables either. And rounding out the voices, Grue’s companions, a trio of tough-talking crabs, remind me of the tough-talking, wordplay-happy little critters in Walt Kelly’s Pogo. They serve as both Shakespearean clowns and as a kind of chorus, though their concerns don’t necessarily reflect the audience’s. I add that caveat because it is possible that you picked up Dear Creature hoping for a little more rampaging and might agree with one of the crabs when it asserts, “Dead cheerleaders nourish better than dead playwrits” (1).
Dear Creature marries horror and romance, and Case combines them well. Horror and romance are the most popular contemporary Western genres devoted to evoking and exploring emotions, and, in fact, they were often connected even before paranormal romance became all the rage. Stories that we would consider horror now, like Dracula, were generically “Gothic novels/romances” or “mysteries” in their film adaptation and they often explored sex and love. Bram Stoker, for example, was into the sexy vampire thing and revealed plenty of anxiety about women’s sexual appetites in particular. (If you don’t believe me, scroll down to “May 16”). In both of The Mummy films, Imhotep was all about eternal love, and how scary that might be.* Frankenstein ached with the rejection of both parent and mate. It’s easy to see The Wolf Man as reflecting fears about male sexuality and anxiety about the male body. And The Creature From The Black Lagoon‘s Gill-Man seems innocent, though somewhat confused, in his desire for a female scientist.** Love has always been a part of monster stories, though not every monster story is about love.
Grue carries on the Gill-Man’s tradition of mixing fish-people and humans, monsters and love. And though his expression is more sophisticated than the Gill-man’s, Grue does seem to believe rather simply in love itself and its power to save. He believes that if he finds and rescues Giulietta, he can show her his love and save himself. “I’ll lay me out, all parts, to Giulietta! Mayhap by this I shall be freed of mine propensities!” (127)
I should mention that I don’t believe a character who needs to be rescued is inherently “weak.” Giulietta is a strong, very present, well-defined character. (I wrote a little about “strong female characters” last month, if you are curious). Sometimes people do need to be rescued. Sometimes you can save someone else and sometimes we save each other. There are all kinds of heroes who save people in all kinds of ways. Of course, rescues don’t always go like we think they will. Initially, Grue believes he can burst in, announce himself Giulietta’s “champion” and save her from imprisonment. But his early attempts to rescue her kind of make things worse. He doesn’t managed to free her till he realizes, “What I have done, I must needs own: Else make bad faith to those ideals upheld in Shak’spur’s words.” (152). It’s not until Grue takes responsibility for his own change that he can rescue Giulietta. And in giving him Shakespeare and her love, Giulietta saves Grue and, indirectly, herself. It’s just not the kind of rescue we always celebrate. It is quieter and more subtle.
Incidentally, Dear Creature is well-infused with “Shak’spur” (and a hint of Walt Kelly in both word-play and art). The book opens with a quote from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors:
Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak
Lay open to my earthy-gross conceit
Smother’d in errors, feeble, shallow, weak
The folded meaning of your words’ deceit.
I’m no Shakespeare scholar, but I’m certain that readers way more familiar with his work than I am would find a lot of influence and resonance. I suspect there is many a palatable reference to savor. I do, however, recognize a Shakespearean comedy when I see one.
Though it has great potential to be a tragedy, Dear Creature is indeed a comedy. And while in this comedy of errors, the errors are mostly tragic and involve carnage, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that a Shakespearean comedy comes with happy ending. And so, in the spirit of Shak’spur and true love for monsters and organisms one and all, I will accept that, a few stray comestible teens aside, all’s well that ends well.
*Making The Mummy parallel to Lifetime made for tv movies in which a woman meets the perfect man only to discover that he’s obsessed with her and those sounds in the attic she thought were squirrels are actually him setting up a base from which to make her realize she loves him.
**It would be interesting to read Dear Creature with Lille Carré’s The Lagoon. I wrote about The Lagoon here.
Carol Borden admits that she would have a hard time resisting the temptation of the caramely vena cava of a marine science major. This piece was written as part of The Mysterious Order of The Skeleton Suit‘s current subaquaeously-themed month.