Monstrous Bloodsuckers: A Shared topos for Gothic and Sci-fi

Posted by Andrew Sneddon on September 02, 2009 in Blog tagged with

The most recent issue, number 32, of the trade paper for H.G. Wells geeks, The Wellsian, has a fascinating article on monstrosity by Genie Babb titled ‘Inventing the Bug-Eyed Monster: Devil-Fish and Giant Squid in H.G. Wells’s Early Fiction’. The article traces Wells’ use of a pre-existing discourse of monstrosity, beginning with Victor Hugo, which ultimately culminates in the birth of the relatively new genre of science fiction (though Wells himself insisted on the term scientific romance which is interesting in all sorts of ways when you think about it). I would recommend anyone interested in this to look to the Babb article because I’ll be paraphrasing the arguments contained therein and adding a few thoughts of my own.

Readers unfamiliar with Wells’ early fiction will perhaps be most aware of the novel The War of the Worlds (1898). This comprises his most filmed work, including the most recent, and unspeakably bad, Spielberg / Cruise turkey released in 2005. It is also, of course, justly famous for the excellent concept album made by Jeff Wayne (and narrated by Richard Burton) in 1978, and for the notorious 1938 radio broadcast narrated by Orson Welles which provoked mass hysteria with its phoney news bulletins of martian invasion. In the fevered imaginations of a listening public being primed for war in Europe and closer to home with Japan, the ‘drama’ seemed too horrifying, too real.

All of this is really just a somewhat laboured lead-in to my take on Babb’s central thesis that Wells had that knack (and popular or pulp writers arguably do this better than the literary types) of being able to put his storyteller’s finger right on the pulse of public anxiety and interest. Just as Orson Welles was able to remake Wells’ late-Victorian fiction into something that spoke to and of the 1930s with such power, so too was Wells himself skilfully manipulating contemporary discourse.

That may not be initially apparent from a description of his martians: 

A big greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps, of a bear, was rising slowly […]. As it bulged up and caught the light, it glistened like wet leather.

Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. […] There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered […]. A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air. […] The peculiar v-shaped mouth […], the absence of brow ridges, […] the Gorgon groups of tentacles, […] – above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes – were at once vital , immense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. (WotW, 21-2) 

So, what does this have to do with contemporary anxiety or taste? And more to the point where does Victor Hugo fit in? The short answer, and this is a huge compression of Babb’s argument, is that Wells is tapping into a pre-existing discourse for which the term ‘cephalomania’ is coined. That is, a public taste for, and fascination or obsession with, squid, octopi and other cephalopods of their ilk. Looked at again, Wells’s description of the unimaginable – the morphology of a being that is truly alien – depends heavily upon an entirely earthly squid or octopus-like visage. The 1870s saw the world of popular, mass entertainment and scholarly, scientific endeavour merging in ways that had hitherto been impossible before. The wide dissemination of information relating to ‘sea monsters’ and other natural terrors ran hand in hand with a public interest in natural history arising at least in part from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species published in 1859. Technological innovations, such as plate glass and the ability to supply salinated water on an industrial scale, lead to the rise of a new entertainment phenomenon – the aquarium – where sea creatures could be stored alive as living data and displayed as spectacles for a paying public.

Thirty-two years earlier than Wells wrote, Victor Hugo penned Les Travaillers de la Mer (trans. as The Toilers of the Sea for its English-speaking readership) featuring a sea monster that stands comparison with Wells’s alien: 

It is with the sucking apparatus that it attacks. The victim is oppressed by a vacuum drawing at numberless points […]. The muscles swell, the fibres of the body are contorted, the skin cracks under the loathsome oppression, the blood spurts out and mingles horribly with the lymph of the monster., which clings to its victim by innumerable hideous mouths. [The] devil-fish, horrible, sucks your life-blood away. He draws you to him, and into himself; while bound down, glued to the ground, powerless, you feel yourself gradually emptied into this horrible pouch, which is the monster himself. (TotS, 293)

Readers familiar with Wells’ War of the Worlds will remember that the martians feed by sucking blood from living humans in similar manner, and just as in the Hugo version the process is terrifyingly painful, and inhuman in its brutality. Such was the widespread acceptance of Hugo’s nightmare vision that scientists were compelled to issue public denunciations and articles reassuring readers that Hugo was using artistic licence to a considerable degree.

What interests me about this story is Hugo’s own assertion that such octopoid monsters ‘are hideous surprises. […] We deny the possibility of the vampire, and the cephaloptera appears. Their swarming is a certainty which disconcerts our confidence.’ (TotS, 290). Hugo’s blood-sucking monster predates Stoker’s Dracula by thirty-five years, which in turns predates Wells’ War of the Worlds by only one year.

Hugo and Wells share the post-Darwinian inclination to see nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’. It is the real violence of the natural world, and the acceptance that brutality and cruelty are part of the natural order of things, that proves the non-existence of benevolent God.  It is the fear that humans were at one time simply one prey animal amongst many, and in other circumstances will be again, that generates much of the narrative tension and power in both tales.

Which brings us back to Dracula again. Is there a connection between early science fiction and late Victorian Gothic that merits sustained attention? Can people like me who are primarily interested in early twentieth-century genre fiction ‘get’ something useful from revisiting Gothic and going ‘back to black’ (to shamelessly paraphrase Amy Winehouse or AC/DC as you prefer)? Is there an exchange between Gothic and other genre fiction of the period we, or perhaps I, don’t understand? At what point do Gothic and sci-fi truly diverge if, as has been suggested by others, Alien is Gothic, and Frankenstein is sci-fi? Is the only distinction between these two modes of writing simply that one is natural terror and one is supernatural? There is much more that could be said; one area Babb doesn’t touch on is the oft-stated ‘horror’ Wells sees in female sexuality and (in)human reproduction. If we were inclined to do so, it isn’t hard to make a link between Wells’ monsters and those of H.R. Giger’s nightmares for starters.


Tiny URL for this post: