It’s taking me a while to get through Monsters & Mormons, not because it’s not super enjoyable (because it is!), but because it’s a pretty long book (which, to me, is no flaw. The upcoming Saints on Stage: An Anthology For Mormon Drama which I edited for Zarahemla Books is a behemoth as well). Also when I finish a short story, I feel a temporary sense of completeness, so the book doesn’t always draw me back like a novel does because I’m not left “hanging” so to speak. So I’ve decided to break up my review of Monsters and Mormons over a few different reviews so I can write while the stories are still somewhat fresh in my mind. It will also allow me to address the short stories more individually instead of as a blurred whole.
First, my overall impression of Monsters & Mormons: it’s a winner. A big winner. As some one who has lived in imaginative waters since he was a child and hasn’t been afraid to invite his religion to play in those waters with him, I totally dig projects like this. Now, I’ve never been much of a horror fan, especially when it leads to copious amounts of blood and gore. I mean, like, yuck. Not my thing. However, I do love ghost stories and supernatural monsters (I keep wanting to read some H.P. Lovecraft), and, if it doesn’t lead to too much gruesomeness, I can definitely enjoy stories like this. This is definitely not something I would suggest to some of my less adventurous or conservative thinking family and friends, but it’s something I would suggest to the imaginative Mormon who doesn’t mind mixing fantasy and religion (and I know a number of non-Mormons who would get a kick out of it!) . So let’s get to the individual stories in the first part of the collection:
Introductory Material: Bringing in Terryl Givens (one of my favorite Mormon writers and thinkers) to write the Preface definitely leant a sheen of credibility to the project, not that I think it needed it (I mean, really, the title alone kind of sells the thing to its target audience!). Nevertheless, bringing Terryl Givens onto anything perks my interest. Then Theric Jepson’s tongue in cheek, folk-lore-like introduction was a unique and fun way to introduce the material. And let’s not forget that wonderfully pulp fiction cover! Two sister missionaries fighting off an H.P. Lovecraft monster with butcher knives? Unforgettable. Also, the artwork throughout the collection is interesting and appropriately moody.
Other Duties, by Nathan Shumate:
Now I don’t think this story was the strongest choice to start off the collection. It’s got a good concept that has an interesting tie to the Gadianton Robbers in the Book of Mormon, as well as an interesting tongue in cheek, matter of fact approach to Church “duties” that become rather supernatural. I liked how Shumate brought in the sense of community into this supernatural world where a bishop or an elder’s quorum president can be called upon to dispatch monsters. However, none of the characters ever popped off the page for me (and strong characters are key for me, even in short stories), and the tale became too bloody for me by the end (again, note my queasiness for gore). Thus this story was a bit out of my realm of appreciation.
The Living Wife, by Emily Milner:
This pioneer ghost story is one of the strongest stories in the collection so far in my reading. Excellently drawn characters, emotional resonance, and a unique take on the idea of Mormon polygamy (at least from an eternal perspective) and its messy dynamics. I was drawn into the story very quickly and it never let me go. And I’m also a sucker for a good ghost story, even (sometimes especially) when the ghost story is less about the scares and more about an emotional, spiritual or philosophical principle. The writing in Milner’s story is just rock solid, whether you’re a fan of genre fiction or not. It’s definitely one of my favorite stories in the volume so far.
Baptisms for the Dead, by C. Douglas Birkhead:
I have a confession to make… I’m a bigot. I have a deep antipathy for zombies. It’s not just because they’ve currently taken over pop culture (really, please, NO MORE ZOMBIE STORIES!). It’s just that I’ve just always hated zombies. They’re icky and I think they’re terribly uninteresting antagonists. There’s only so much characterization you can get from a character who moans and grunts all the time. So any zombie story has already got it’s work cut out for it in trying to gain my appreciation. Not even the brilliant Joss Whedon could win me over in this regard (I was foolish enough to try out the over hyped Cabin in the Woods on the sole premise that Joss Whedon was involved… big mistake. I hated it). Fortunately, Birkhead’s story about two missionaries who are still trying to press on in the work after the zombie apocalypse benefits from some good (if a little broad) characterization of its somewhat tongue in cheek, somewhat serious missionary companionship (this is the only way to have an interesting zombie story… have strong protagonists who carry the story despite the flawed inclusion of zombies). But it still ended up being one of the least interesting stories in the anthology for me. But, then again, I’m a bigot who has an unreasonable hatred for those poor, misunderstood zombies (they’re just hungry after all).
Pirate Gold for Brother Brigham, by Lee Allred:
The Mormon cultural humor in this story is purposefully broad, much like The Farley Family one man plays by my friend James Arrington (who gets a mention in the story!). Although I normally have a greater appreciation for a more subtle comedy, there are quirky, broad sorts of comedy that can really attract me (like Arrington’s one man Farley shows, which I can’t stop laughing during), and on that level Allred had me going along with him during this fun, popcorn story about a ghost ship on the Great Salt Lake. I enjoyed it very much.
First Estate, by Katherine Woodbury:
This sci-fi re-telling of the story of Ruth had a lot going for it. Strong world building, complex character dynamics, an interesting alien society and culture, as well as skilled and lyrical prose. This was a very strongly written piece with philosophical and emotional resonance.
Fangs of the Dragon, David J. West:
It’s no surprise that the larger than life Porter Rockwell figures in a couple of the stories in this collection, as the supernatural tales about the protective powers of his hair, etc. fit so naturally in this sort of story. West’s story is a superbly wrought piece of historical-dark-fantasy mash up which gets double appreciation from me since I have such an avid interest in Mormon History. West knows his Church History (as well as his Native American History apparently), and references to Godbeites, Danites, etc. had me tickled pink. West’s alternate Mormon world of the realistically supernatural Utah Territory is not self aware or satirical, though, but rather was taken seriously and artfully, which I very much appreciated. These were fully three dimensional characters, and Porter Rockwell especially was a compelling and fitting protagonist to go up against the threatening monsters and shamans. I really cared about these characters and what happened to them, and even the antagonists were fully motivated and had compelling reasons to be doing what they were. Along with “The Living Wife,” this is my favorite story in the collection so far.
Two Poems by Will Bishop:
These two poems give a Mormon spin on vampires and werewolves from a surprisingly personal and vivid point of view. The language is compelling, the imagery evocative and the philosophical underpinnings compelling.
Charity Never Faileth, by Jaletta Clegg:
Much like Lee Allred’s story in this volume, this story takes a broadly satirical, good natured swipe at Mormon culture, this time from the Relief’s Society perspective. The idea of a jello salad taking the form of a classic “blob” monster is pretty inspired. The humor, though broad, is legitimately hysterical at points. This is in large part because the story doesn’t rely (solely) on sight gags and cultural quirks, but also has some really fun character based humor. The elderly and resourceful Edith Merkel is an especially delightful and memorable character. Broad humor like this is very difficult to do right, and Clegg definitely does it right.
And that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far. So overall, I think everyone involved in the project, especially editors William Morris and Theric Jepson, as well as the publishers behind Peculiar Pages, ought to be very pleased with what they’ve helped craft here. So far it’s not only fun and frothy (in the most positive sense of that word), but also punctuated by some stories that are legitimately thoughtful, compelling and even moving. This is an adventure I’m definitely enjoying.