By Vivian Asimos
Limpár, Ildikó (2021) The truths of monsters: coming of age with fantastic media. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.
Positioned in the intersections of Monster Studies, literature studies and psychology rests The Truths of Monsters – a textual analysis of the role of monsters within young adult fantasy and science fiction novels, and some television shows. Limpár explores what monsters say about and to their typically adolescent audience, arguing that there are two ways monstrosity primarily finds a foothold in this genre. The first is the way monstrosity represents the wider culture that young adults are beginning to find themselves in and understand through the process of growing up – the monster stands in for the adult lives around the child. Monstrosity also reflects the anxiety of the unknown in the process of leaving childhood behind.
Limpár focuses on English-language young adult fiction due to its relative lack of attention in academic studies of monstrosity, especially in comparison to children’s and adult media. The author draws from a variety of recent adolescent media (almost all from the 2010s), primarily focusing on books, such as Coraline by Neil Gaiman, but also exploring television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Westworld. One exception, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, was kept in due to its influence and prominence in popular culture even after its initial television run (from 1997-2003). Limpár skillfully synthesizes the primary plot points of these stories, so that unfamiliar readers don’t feel lost while fans don’t feel overly burdened reading the plot layouts.
The book is organized into sections with chapters on significant themes in young adult monstrous fiction: monsters in family narratives, psychic experiences and trauma coping mechanisms, and dystopian settings. Each section’s theme is presented in a slightly different way from chapter to chapter as a way of uniting various stories within the theme. For example, one chapter contrasts Bella in Twilight choosing a new family over her given family, with Buffy, who was able to develop a chosen family without sacrificing her given family. The result is to understand family as both given and chosen. These two stories approach the theme of monsters and family narratives differently, and by uniting them under this one theme the reader can more easily see the variety of approaches and full levels of nuance in the thematic elements of monsters in YA fantasy coming of age stories.
Monsters and Anthropology
When the field of “monster studies” was only just beginning, it was given a name and a cohesive foundation through Jeffrey Cohen’s book Monster Theory (1996). Cohen was one of the first to define a monster in terms of cultural or social analysis, as a creature or individual, in its body or actions, which encompasses or bridges two typically separated social categories. This categorical bridging also demonstrates how a monster is liminal.
Liminality is the characteristic of being in an ambiguous position between two more stable states. First described by Arnold Van Gennep (1960), and then later picked up by Victor Turner (1967), liminality was established to describe when participants are in the middle of a ritual – when they are no longer in that pre-ritual status but not quite yet complete. An example of this is in higher education. Technically, the end of a student’s time would be at the completion and handing in of that last assignment, but they aren’t finished as a student until they receive the diploma. This state of limbo between the end of one stage before the beginning of the next is the state of liminality.
Liminality is seen a lot in different folklore and mythological narratives. Lleu, a hero of Welsh mythology, could not be killed indoors nor outdoors, and not at night nor during the day. His death had to be staged in liminal places – resulting in a death taking place at dusk, with one foot in a cauldron and one on a goat. Liminality is also used to describe the anthropological process when conducting ethnography – the anthropologist is no longer in their home culture but is not fully an incorporated part of the host culture.
Liminality is a central theme in this book, as both young adults and monsters are liminal. As Limpár points out, “adolescents occupy a liminal space between childhood and adulthood, experiencing … a fluid state in which they are drawn back to childhood while already halfway into adulthood” (3). Monsters are often associated with liminality due to their body being within two forms – such as how a Griffin is both “eagle” and “lion” at the same time. The monster can also embody multiple categories in its definitional self, such as how a vampire is between life and death – embodying both categories at the same time, but not fully either.
Limpár sees the liminality of monsters as echoing the liminality of adolescents, so the younger audience who clings to these monsters are coming of age with their own monsters, and the monsters themselves are also coming of age, in a way, with them.
Using themes like liminality helps to center Limpár’s text within the broader field of Monster Studies. Monster studies as a discipline unites individuals from a variety of fields, including literature studies, media studies, and psychology. The primary academic grounding for The Truths of Monsters is literary studies, but the author constantly refers to film studies and psychological understandings of monsters. Limpár also refers to Cohen’s original work at times, but often in passing, while reflecting on the role, or roles, the monsters are fulfilling according to Cohen’s theories. In this way, the author builds upon Cohen, but doesn’t alter his ideas or argue against them. Cohen, and therefore the foundations of monster studies, provides more of a background than a fixture. The primary interest point for Limpár’s work is drawing monster studies into the overlooked genre of young adult fantasy. There is a lot of echoing of the same themes we’ve seen from many monsters, including Cohen’s original understanding of monsters as cultural hybrids, and monsters as the defying a society’s definitions of “normality”, for example. However, the context of the monsters as an element of growing up presents their audiences with instruction – in a sense – on what it’s like to live in the adult world.
One discipline which avoided monster studies until fairly recently was anthropology. While anthropologists sometimes dealt with monsters in their specific field sites, they did not often engage with analysis outside of other anthropological or social scientific approaches, typically neglecting fields such as literary studies. In fact, as Yasmine Musharbash and Geir Henning Presterudstuen point out, often anthropologists will avoid the use of the word “monster” entirely, choosing to focus instead on more geographically focused phrases for their other-than-human interactions, such as “malicious spirit” or “witchcraft” (2020). Monster studies, which are based on literature or film, also do not often engage with anthropological studies of monsters. A strong attempt to change this were two more recent publications edited by Musharbash and Presterudstuen: Monster Anthropology in Australasia and Beyond (2014) and Monster Anthropology (2020). These books demonstrate how anthropology could reach beyond its disciplinary background, and therefore enrich its own intersections with monsters by understanding other approaches. Their proposition is that monsters embody many of the themes anthropologists always look at, such as social changes and processes, rites of passage, and cultural boundaries, and we can grow our understanding of these concepts by looking at them comparatively while also focusing on a singular phenomenon: monsters (Musharbash and Presterustuen 2020).
Perhaps due to the disciplinary separation between anthropology and literary studies, The Truths of Monsters isn’t strongly situated in anthropological approaches. It offers a deep-reading of the various texts it explores, but is not necessarily focused on how these interpretations are felt by any specific community or individual’s reading or understanding of the texts. But anthropologists can learn to look outside their own disciplinary boundaries to enrich their approach. Textual analysis of contemporary young adult fantasy can help anthropologists understand what kind of popular culture a community is engaging with. These pop culture narratives are both influenced by and influencing their audiences – so anyone doing research on contemporary audiences, particularly with young adults, can use these narratives to better understand their community’s worldview(s). If we, as anthropologists, are to consider how individuals understand their world, or their place within the world, or how the social processes develop, then analyzing the people’s popular culture provides us important insight to these aspects.
Limpár’s analysis regarding the role of monsters in young adult fantasy can help to elucidate new and multi-complicated ways of understanding monsters in contemporary Western audiences, which can be useful for anthropologists to consider in their own endeavors, especially those studying contemporary Western communities.
The Truths of Monsters
One of the greatest “truths” of monsters offered by Limpár is their multifaceted nature; monsters cannot be defined by simply one metaphor, or one way of understanding. Their hybrid bodies can shift to fit into new cultural moments and a new audience’s needs and social reflections.
For example, one theme Limpár finds in her readings is the exoticism of the Other. In Edward Said’s work Orientalism, he examines how Western cultures have typically exoticized the “East.” This exoticization is tied to imperialism and colonialism, seeing the East as “mystic”, “mysterious” but ultimately wild and needing to be tamed (Said 1978). Orientalist stereotypes of the “East” and more importantly “Eastern people” position them as primitive, despotic, inferior, violent and irrational. These stereotypes led to the belief that the more “enlightened” West must to take political and social control of the East in order for more “progressive” views to take hold (Said 1978). Where Said demonstrates how a history of colonialism leads to Orientalism, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Race and History argues that race itself is a social “myth”. He saw racial diversity as inherently a part of cultural diversity, and in fact directly influenced by cultural diversity (Lévi-Strauss 1952). He saw cultural and genetic diversity as directly comparable phenomenon, which echo similar patterns and are also both subject to history and its processes.
Limpár applies the concept of the Other to Twilight, arguing that Jacob, a werewolf and Native American, provides a foil to Bella’s love-interest in the white vampiric Edward, but that Jacob’s position as the exoticized Other, while “pleasing to the western eyes,” was never a proper substitute for “the white power that Edward’s beauty promises for Bella” (32).
Another theme Limpár explores is the role of queerness and gendered identities and their relationship to monstrosity. For example, vampires have a rich history of analysis and meanings in both literature, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Western folklore (Dundes 1998) and even specific anthropological studies (Musharbash 2014). These initial readings, particularly the monstrous aspect of the living dead who feasts on human blood, are still present. However, Limpár’s readings also imbue the vampire with new anxieties and meanings that are present in contemporary English-speaking cultures. Anxieties of growing up are also tied to anxieties of sexual and gendered identities. The analysis of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children, for example, explores the queer experience of growing up. In fact, Limpár describes McGuire’s work as showing how “adolescents are often left alone to cope with what proves unbearable for them” (11). In this case, we see the adolescent protagonists struggle through the gender roles forced upon them, rather then their ability to live their true gender identities. In this series, protagonists Jack and Jill are twin sisters who have been forced to live different gender roles then the ones they would have lived on their own – one more feminine than the other. The tomboy, Jill, becomes drawn to the vampire since the vampire allows them to live more feminine, which they always wished they could have been (146).
Limpár also reads Man Made Boy by Jon Skovron as dealing with queerness, though the work never directly refers to sexual orientation. Rather, the queerness is quietly implied, and it’s pairing with visible forms of monstrosity helps to demonstrate two ways of being othered: Otherness as visible (monstrosity) as compared to Otherness which is left invisible (queerness). Man Made Boy is another telling of Frankenstein, where a constructed boy believes himself a monster due to his body. He joins a “freak-show” and through his experiences there learns how the conception of “normal” is socially constructed, rather than natural, scenes which also work to deconstruct the monstrosity typically associated with queerness outside of the world of the book. Queerness has historically been conflated with monstrosity due to the breaking of traditional social categories. In fact, many queer communities find connections to monstrous figures (see Brammer 2017), seeing themselves and their treatment from wider society in the monster. For example, transgender theorist Susan Stryker writes of Frankenstein’s monster: “Like the monster, I am too often perceived as less than fully human due to the means of my embodiment,” and direct their rage “against the condition in which I must struggle to exist” (1994). Queerness is often misunderstood as abnormalities, where heterosexuality (and allosexuality and being cis-gendered) is “natural”, and therefore other forms of sexuality are an aberration of this “naturalness”. When in fact, “natural” and “normal” are culturally constructed – an understanding that removes monstrosity from queerness and situates queer people as natural part of the normal human experience.
The primary theme throughout Limpár’s text is how the true monsters are not necessarily the ones who appear monstrous. This particular approach harkens back to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein – the monstrous body is portrayed as sympathetic, while the scientist Victor Frankenstein, in a human body, is the true monster. The author’s reading of The Athena Club Series shows how monstrous the outward patriarchal and racist society of London is, as opposed to the protagonists who have the monstrous bodies. The books in the series all focus on female characters, who are all required to push past their own personal limitations while simultaneously being challenged by 19th century London’s conception of monstrosity. This monstrosity is not only the characters like Justine, Frankenstein’s monstress, and Catherine Moreau, the Puma Woman from The Island of Doctor Moreau, but the characters’ deviance from the normative conceptions of (wo)manhood and family. Another example comes from Sarah Maria Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts, in which a young girl, Nell, uncovers the “monstrous” morality of her parents. Nell’s heart condition, or really a lack of biological heart, is the direct result of her mother’s attempt to achieve a posthuman existence. The resultant understanding of her parents’ work causes her to better understand her own cyborgian body as less monstrous in comparison, and to ultimately separate from her parents.
Limpár’s chosen readings have complicated notions of monstrosity by depicting different forms of monstrosity (like the visible vs invisible) or presenting the monstrous as inherently sympathetic (like the vampires in Buffy). They also work to instruct audiences on how best to conduct themselves around difference. These stories not only help those who might, due to the wider society’s construction of otherness, view themselves as socially monstrous, but also help everyone understand that difference and “monstrosity” is socially constructed – and therefore can be socially de-constructed. While Shelley’s Frankenstein laid the groundwork for this by painting the scientist as monstrous, rather than the construct he created, these stories importantly present these understandings to young audiences. For example, wider social views of different bodies, such as the queer body or the disabled body, can be de-constructed so that these bodies are understood to be equally “normal”. This also demonstrates a need for the rejection of the typical structures of difference, otherness and monstrosity.
The monsters, and un-monstrous monsters, in these fiction narratives demonstrate to their young adult audience that they should question the dominant power structures and authority when it comes to morality. Systems of power, and typical relations of authority – such as parents (in the case of Sarah Maria Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts) or governments (in the case of The Hunger Games trilogy) are presented as the true monsters. Nell’s parents are the monsters, rather than Nell herself, in Spare and Found Parts. From an anthropological viewpoint, we can see how these various themes in young adult literature are reflected in the social justice movements of young people, who are increasingly taking part in political and environmental protests. Young people engage in social justice movements because these are direct and real anxieties they are facing as they grow into adulthood, and they have grown up with literature and popular culture which has taught them to see the true monsters – not in the racial other, but in the systems of power which are in need of abject change. Any study or thought about contemporary societies, social processes, or social groups in anthropology would do well to learn from where the understandings of this world come from for those changing the social landscape. While Limpár does not go this far, as their focus remains on the literature itself, they help to point to some of the important themes which are leading young people as they grow.
The Truths of Monsters is a wonderful exploration of young adult monster fiction narratives that demonstrates the usefulness, interest and possibilities of monsters. It reminds us what a monster truly is, outside initial appearances. Most importantly, Limpár reminds us what human values we need to save the world from the social monsters: respect, responsibility, compassion and hope.
Vivian Asimos is a freelance academic. She received her PhD in anthropology of religion from Durham University in 2019, and now writes and shares research outside the Ivory Tower, primarily through her website Incidental Mythology. Her interests are in the intersections of narrative and meaning in popular culture, seeing our contemporary popular culture as our contemporary mythology. She has published two books, Digital Mythology and the Internet’s Monster (2021) and Digital Monsters (2020). She currently lives in the UK, surrounded by far too many houseplants.
If you’d like to write a book review for us, please visit our Call for Reviewers and the books available for review.
Brammer, John Paul (2017). “How Did a Bunch of Mythical Monsters Become Queer Icons?” Buzzfeed News. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/jpbrammer/how-did-a-bunch-of-mythical-monsters-become-queer-icons
Cohen, Jeffrey J. (1996) “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey J. Cohen. University of Minnesota Press, pg. 1-20.
Dundes, Alan, ed. (1998), The Vampire: A Casebook. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Levi-Strauss, Claude (1952) Race and History. UNESCO.
Musharbash, Yasmine (2014), ‘Monstrous Transformations: A Case Study from Central Australia’, in Monster Anthropology in Australasia and Beyond, ed. by Yasmine Musharbash and Geir Henning Presterudstuen. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 39–55.
Musharbash, Yasmine, and Geir Henning Presterudstuen, eds. (2014) Monster Anthropology in Australasia and Beyond. Palgrave Macmillan.
Musharbash, Yasmine, and Geir Henning Presterudstuen, eds. (2020) Monster Anthropology: ethnographic explorations of transforming social worlds through monsters. Routledge.
Said, Edward (1978) Orientalism. Pantheon Books.
Stryker, Susan (1994) “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing transgender rage.” GLQ: A journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1(3): 237-254.
Turner, Victor (1967) The Forest of Symbols: aspects of Ndembu ritual. Cornell University Press.
Van Gennep, Arnold (1960) The Rites of Passage, translated by Monka B Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffe. University of Chicago Press.