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From zombie parades to Stranger Things: why is our culture obsessed with monsters?

“A monster is a fear assuming a form” is a pretty neat definition with which to embark on a whizzy cultural history of fiends and ghouls in the contemporary imagination.

There’s something kind of hot about monsters. They’re so dumb and hungry, with their big hairy mitts and gleaming fangs, leaving a trail of gore in their wake. And they’re soulful, too: Cocteau’s melancholy Bête, a tear spangling his fur; Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s lonesome Creature, mumbling, “Alone: bad. Friend, good!” Monsters plunder unconscious terrors about dangerous homes and unsettling bodies; hardly any wonder we’re all fixated on what Charlie Fox calls “monstrous entertainments”, from zombie parades to Stranger Things to the 2015 exhibition of Alexander McQueen’s spectral waifs and hybrids at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

“A monster is a fear assuming a form” is a pretty neat definition with which to embark on a whizzy cultural history of fiends and ghouls in the contemporary imagination. The beast, the freak, the oddity has provided many artists with inspirational material, from Diane Arbus to John Carpenter and David Lynch, but isn’t the artist also a type of monster: a vampire or del­inquent, like Arthur Rimbaud loaded on absinthe, stabbing Verlaine in a lesbian bar? The monster’s stock-in-trade of transformation, catharsis, revenge, is, as Fox notes, “something like art’s task”.

Or what about the fabulous appetites of Rainer Fassbinder? The German film-­maker overdosed in the summer of 1982 on cocaine and sleeping pills, the last perilous fix in a life consecrated to ­pharmaceutical and erotic excess, matched only by his knockout propensity for movie-making (40 icy, voluptuous, wounding films in 18 years, exquisitely reanimating the tired corpse of heist, sci-fi romp, melodrama). Drugs bolstered his manic production schedule (Germany in Autumn went from conception to completion in ten days). Born in 1945, Fassbinder was a member of an uneasy generation whose punkish exploits were a way of exorcising or savaging a monstrous past.

This Young Monster is a hybrid animal in its own right, suturing biographical essays with stranger things: a “dumb fan letter” to the Beast, a meandering confession from Alice, bombed out after her many years in Wonderland, and a deliriously stagey conversation between two knowing ghouls, one-upping each other with cultural reference points and corny jokes (“putting the fact back into ‘putrefaction’”).

There’s not enough of this sort of playfulness and frank enthusiasm in art criticism. Fox is endearingly terrified of sounding earnest, dude, affecting a mumbling slacker’s voice instead, like his touchstone, River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho. As he observes, “Wonder and fascination are forms of tribute, too, which don’t preclude or mark the absence of deeper feeling.”

Get deeper with the monster and you inevitably uncover cultural unrest. Fox connects the bloom of late-1980s and early-1990s vampire movies with the Aids panic and a ratcheting heroin epidemic, linking the explosion of horror in mainstream millennial entertainment with the lingering ­aftermath of the Iraq War, “a manifestation of mourning displaced on to our dreams . . . a decade of brutal memorial censoring causes corpses to appear everywhere”.

It wouldn’t be much of a monster project if it didn’t leave the reader feeling at least a little queasy. An essay on the photographer Diane Arbus revels in the transgressive pleasure of looking at deformed bodies. Fox mimics her estranging, horribly fascinated gaze, enjoying the spectacle of deaf-mutes, giants and bearded women. Cele­brating “the horrors and thrills of looking a monster”, he skates perilously close to freak-show aesthetics.

Like Arbus, he shifts tack at the last minute, giving an extraordinary account of her final project, Untitled: a sequence of photographs taken at two mental institutions between 1969 and 1971, the year she killed herself by cutting her wrists in a bathtub. These bewitched, sun-dazzled images capture the sheer psychological strangeness of being embodied, whatever body you happen to be in. “The big conundrum of being here,” Fox writes, “is not so much what the self is supposed to be but how to interpret the luscious material supplied by the earth.”

There’s something to be said for refusing sentimentality when it comes to the short and riotous life of Leigh Bowery, who ricocheted through 1980s London clubland like a comet, scattering sequins and firing glitter from his rectum, before dying of Aids at 33. Fox is not up for hagiography, quipping slickly: “You could write ‘et in Arcadia ego’ in Liquid Gold and cum, that would be a  smart tribute.” Cute, but there’s a very good historical reason why it wasn’t, if you’re old enough to remember the ­monster-making that Aids occasioned, or the effort it took to undo the malignant belief in the triviality of gay lives.

And yet as Alex in A Clockwork Orange reminds us, youth always has a monstrous aspect: sweet children transformed overnight into hoodlums and deviants, not to mention the body-horror aspect of hormonal change. Sprouting hair and pustules, made feral by desire, the adolescent is a nightmare in his own right, as Larry Clark’s grimy waster movie Kids made clear way back in 1995.

Speaking of the 1990s, how’s this for an origin myth: Fox traces his own ghoulish affinities back to his mother having haemorrhaged, while he was in the womb, just as the killer of Laura Palmer was revealed on that night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

The monster takes on a rather different cast in the current political climate, with its witch-hunting executive orders and demonising rhetoric. But Fox hadn’t foreseen “this other kind of hideousness or horror”. “My monsters,” he writes, “like some radical opposition force, are embodiments of everything such toxic ideologies wish to exclude: they embody otherness and make it into art, ripping any conventional idea of beauty to shreds and replacing it with something weird and troubling of their own invention – that’s heroic.”

“This Young Monster” by Charlie Fox is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (200pp, £12.99)

Olivia Laing’s latest book is “The Lonely City” (Canongate)

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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