Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Helgadóttir (ed.), Pacific Monsters (2017)

Margrét Helgadóttir (ed.), Pacific Monsters. Fox Spirit Books, 2017. Pp. 182. ISBN 978-1-91046-212-6. £10.00/$15.00.

Reviewed by Cait Coker

Pacific Monsters is the fourth volume in Fox Spirit Books’ Books of Monsters series; previous volumes include African Monsters (2015) and Asian Monsters (2016), and projected volumes will include American Monsters and Eurasian Monsters. The goal of these books (all edited by the capable and prolific Margrét Helgadóttir, sometimes with Jo Thomas as co-editor) is to effectively decolonize the monstrous of the popular imagination and pop culture from the familiar parade of western-inspired demons, werewolves, vampires, and zombies. Instead, Helgadóttir’s anthologies showcase fiction across the spectrum of speculative fiction genres that feature creatures drawn from the localized myth and folklore of other cultures, almost all of which are written by writers and artists from, or with strong connections to, those countries. Each volume is a softcover coffee table book, oversized and illustrated in black and white; several of the entries include stories told through comics rather than prose. Ultimately this series is a needed intervention into Anglo-American-centric monster stories, and Pacific Monsters particularly stands out as it encompasses nations and populations that are too often neglected altogether.

The book includes fourteen works that span across the nations of Australia and New Zealand, the Pacific Islands which include Hawaii and Guam, and Antarctica. In her introduction, Helgadóttir notes the paucity of writers and stories from the latter locations, and as such the bulk of the material is made up of writers from Australia and New Zealand; nonetheless, what the islanders may lack in representation they make up for in vivid presence. Helgadóttir also observes that the themes in each collection vary because of the regional emphasis or preoccupation with various issues. With African Monsters the stories and monsters were connected with magic, with themes of immigration and of coming home. With Pacific Monsters, the preoccupation is with solitude which can be healing or harmful, with the liminal states of water and land, body and mind. There is a palpable sense in each story of being at the end of what is known, and the danger that can come from going where humans were not meant to be.

Each of the stories was striking, but I’ll only discuss a few of the stand-outs as representative. They aren’t organized by geography or nationality; one can turn a page and travel from New Zealand to Hawaii, or from Australia to the Antarctic. This was at times a little confusing for me as a reader as I wasn’t always able to mentally “reset” to a new context, but it does have the effect of demonstrating that the varying nations and writers have more in common culturally than one might think at first blush. They also share an emphasis on healing: in one way or another making peace with one’s self and the land in a way that is ecological as well as spiritual.

‘From the Womb of the Land, Our Bones Entwined’ by AJ Fitzwater comes the closest to science fiction of the collection, which is otherwise largely a mix of fantasy and horror. It features a heroine who ends up bridging the divide between her native spiritual heritage with the earth and her scientific study of earthquakes to tap into magic and prevent a destructive event. It reminded me of non-dystopic version of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy in so many good ways. Another story, ‘Grind’ by Michael Grey, utilizes the dichotomy between the mystic and the scientific to tell a nineteenth century story about Australian whalers who are caught in the ice of the Antarctic as they are hunted by eldritch and human horrors. Grey plays on the familiar tropes of men going mad at the end of civilization, and he touches on Moby Dick to emphasize the story as a moral fable, albeit in a different direction than Melville. (He also makes queerness a particular point in the story, one that plays with certain subtexts of the more familiar whaling story as well.) Both stories are about the crux of what is knowable in science and in spirit, and how it is up to the protagonists—and ultimately, ourselves—to make sense of it.

Two stories are told as graphic narratives with artwork supplied by Dave Johnson. ‘Dinornis’ by Octavia Gade takes place in New Zealand, making use of the moa—a giant, flightless bird from our real world—as a symbol for death and grief. Though extinct, there are persistent rumors of surviving specimens in the backcountry. Gade’s unnamed heroine finds an abused moa that she has to put out of its misery, and contrasts it with the memory of watching her grandmother dying in the hospital in great pain until she uses a pillow to end her pain as well; it is perhaps one of the darkest stories in the collection, as hope and healing seem just out of reach. In contrast, Michael Lujan Bevacqua’s ‘Isindålu The Soldier’ is about the restoration of hope amid PTSD. The story is told through the point of view of Jose Taitåno, a military veteran who has returned home to Guam and is trying to readjust to civilian life. Guam is an American colony with over a quarter of its land given over to American military bases, and many of its residents are members of the military who have to struggle with the knowledge that mainland Americans don’t see them as real citizens even with their service. Bevacqua tells his story in English with translations of dialogue alongside the Chamorro tongue, as Jose’s days blend with nightmarish nights in which he dreams of a demonic figure and a taotaomo’na. A taotaomo’na is ancestral spirit that can punish or protect, and Jose fears that it has come for the former rather than the latter. Johnson’s artwork reinforces the magical realism of the story itself, blending the real and the imaginary until they are one and the same.

Finally, my favorite story in the collection is ‘Mudgerwokee’ by Kirstie Olley. It revolves around teenage Audrey’s move from Sydney to rural Australia for unspecified reasons. She quickly makes friends with a local group of other teenagers, and they go on a trip into the bush country on a “monster hunt” for the mudgerwokee, a dangerous creature that can grant wishes in exchange for a sacrifice. Anyone who has ever watched a horror movie can take a guess as to how this plays out in the end. Olley, however, plays with overused tropes, allowing her heroine to escape with her life at a price, but with the life that “she” always wanted…

When I reviewed the previous volume African Monsters, I said that it was something of an exploratory volume: readers will get the most out of it if they go in wanting something different, rather than just a preconceived idea of genre or of monsters themselves. The same holds true for Pacific Monsters; it is a wide-ranging, eclectic collection, and one that I highly recommend for anyone wanting to explore unfamiliar mythic terrain.

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