Among The Skinwalkers

Just as the late-Victorian epoch was the great age of table-tapping, ours is surely the great age of fantasy parahumans. Everyone from Marvel Comics who can possibly turned into a franchise has been, or soon will be; and then we have the tropes from a thoroughly invented Middle Ages. Such is the state particularly of American education that I have observed people thinking that knights-in-armour seriously fought dragons; and that the “Mid-Evil” period gets its name from the evil of its sorcerors, orcs and so forth.

It has been speculated that elves, fairies, hobbits and so forth are the folk memory of aboriginal peoples very nearly exterminated by new iron-wielding tribes. The survivors were consequently rather shy and perhaps even tricksy. Dwarves are probably in origin Germanic wood spirits and thus very distant cousins to the Greek dryads.

In contrast to these historic echoes, the vampire was created by Bram Stoker very nearly from whole cloth and it is painfully obvious how he could not be much older. Everything about him speaks of the nineteenth-century overclass, the bloodsuckers of the new industrial age, on their way to the opera. The vampire was given a further boost by the new nexus between sex, blood and death created by the AIDS epidemic, but I cannot help seeing him primarily in the original terms of class war.

The conceit of vampires and werewolves being natural enemies is an amusing one; the decadent European aristocracy is here opposed by the peasants and workers, with not only a deeper connection to the natural world but somewhat more fraternal group dynamics. Top-down yes, but also sideways in a manner that the vampires are not. We may, perhaps, read the conflict in terms of the well-bred young girl’s customary vacillation between the pomaded nobleman and the piece of rough trade. The latter is reminiscent of the Greek satyrs, who were obviously the country-dwellers with whom the kalokagathos did not trust his wife.

Why zombies became so popular I find it harder to say. The original Caribbean zombie, namely someone who works for nothing because he has been drugged into near-catatonia, has such an obvious relevance to shareholder value that one may expect the drug in question to be rediscovered any moment now. But this kind of enslaved fieldhand has so little to do with the Romero kind of zombie that we may ask what nerve is struck instead by carnivorous hordes who can convert by biting. Fear of proletarian revolution, perhaps? In common to all three fantasy tropes is, of course, the overcoming of death, though at a price. Well, that is old news.

After vampires, werewolves and zombies, what is left? My title references a Native American take on the same theme – namely things that look human but in fact are not. The body-snatching alien is surely a paleface imitation or parallel invention. And the whole idea is clearly a reflection of something very real, something that we used to call the high-functioning sociopath. Something that looks human but is Not Our Brother, something who can act any part he chooses, is a very good psychologist but who actually cares for us only as much as for the mud on his shoe – this is not a fantasy trope at all but a truth of sad experience.

Posted on November 12, 2009 at 11:06 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, A Theory Of Everybody

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