mirror monster

Photo credit: mek22

I think the most compelling monsters are simply human beings (or creatures with human traits, especially human emotions) who, due to one misfortune or another, or for no apparent reason at all, go just a little bit … wrong. Like when General Jack D. Ripper went “a little funny in the head … you know… just a little … funny,” and then he unilaterally sent all of the USA’s B-52s to attack Russia. And Major “King” Kong was living his life and being himself – like the other King Kong – and got caught up in events not of his making. Even the mad scientist with the alien hand, Dr. Strangelove né Merkwürdigliebe, is horrified at what ensues, although he does see some up sides.

To me, that’s a good monster story. I used to make myself read H.P. Lovecraft, based on his reputation as one of the great horror writers, but I never could get into his work. Who can relate to all those thousand-tentacled gods from Andromeda and many-adjectived, zero-personalitied mists from another dimension? Maybe Lovecraft could; I can’t.

In the overlapping worlds of fiction and non-fiction, all the best monsters are people (or people-like beasts) whose lives go horribly wrong. Frankenstein’s monster was getting along fine with the old man in the cabin, and then a mishap with some fire sent matters awry. Charles Manson would have been nothing more offensive than a pop star, if he could have sold his songs. Phil Spector … well, let’s be reasonable. Some people are monsters, through and through. But in general, there are points at which things could go either way.

Some monsters are made deliberately, some by accident. Some monsters make themselves, on purpose or inadvertently. Get bitten by a werewolf, become a werewolf. Get bitten by a vampire, become a vampire. Drink a potion, turn into Mr. Hyde. Get dosed by gamma rays and then get angry, et voilà, you’re the Incredible Hulk.

Sometimes it isn’t easy to tell who is the monster, and who is the victim. Sometimes it seems like we’re all monsters. Certainly we all have the potential. We see it in each other; monsters represent our fears about what our neighbors really are, underneath the veneer of civilization. And when we look in the mirror, we’re not sure what we see, not really. What’s inside us, out of sight? How did it get there? And what summons it into the open?

For example, what turns a teenage Eagle Scout – who never got in any trouble in his life – into an arsonist? And if he is a monster, how did he get that way? Did he maybe get some help from other monsters?

I went to a strange high school. At least it’s always seemed strange to me, although it was probably a pretty normal Midwestern working-class public school. School colors: blue and gold. Pretty normal colors. It was the quintessential coach-to-principal style of school – academic success wasn’t just deemphasized, it was openly scorned. One of my honors history teachers told the class one day that we all only got good grades because we couldn’t get dates, so we spent our free time studying when we should be socializing. To be a misfit there – and I was a misfit – was not pleasant. I recall one teacher saying, without irony, that bullying, rather than being a problem, was a good thing, because it promoted conformity, thereby strengthening society. I think that was more or less the prevailing view.

Bullying was certainly a way of life there. I was bullied, and I was a bully, too. There was always someone lower in the pecking order, and you kicked the shit downward. Nobody premeditated about it; it’s just what you did. You breathed, you ate and drank, you gave shit to anyone who had to take it. And you kept your head down in anticipation of the next-stronger guy doing the same thing to you.

There was this one guy – let’s call him “Steve,” since that was his name – who was at the absolute bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the totem pole. He was below the bottom of the hole in the ground that the totem pole was stuck into. I didn’t have too much to do with Steve in high school, but I’d known him since second or third grade, and everybody gave that dude a hard time. He was just … goofy. I don’t want to describe what made him goofy; you can use your imagination. Of course we were narrow-minded, immature, provincial little kids – but I think that Steve would be regarded as goofy in most circles, anywhere.

When I say Steve took shit from everyone, I don’t just mean the students. The faculty gave Steve shit – and not only the gym teachers, who of course dealt out shit on a wholesale basis, as a matter of professional habit.

I don’t want to reveal Steve’s last name (although it is a matter of public record), so I can’t relate exactly what one teacher used to call him, but the gist is that this teacher routinely compared Steve to a character from a well-known TV commercial for coffee, a middle-aged Swedish woman.

To cut to the chase, one night in December 1984, Steve sneaked into the school and set this particular teacher’s classroom on fire.

The old wooden-framed, bow-roofed structure – which dated, I think, back to 1921 – went up like flash paper.

Two fires were set in an audio-visual room at the high school the evening of Dec. 20, 1984. The first fire was quickly put out.

The second fire, which started about 11 p.m., roared out of control for hours and eventually brought 129 firefighters and 42 pieces of equipment to what prosecutor Randall Stewart called “the most costly fire in Lake County history.”

Chicago Tribune.

(For what it’s worth, I’ve never believed there were two fires. It seems more likely to me that the first fire was burning in the walls all along, but then I don’t really know.)

It was about as shocking as you’d figure, seeing the school on the news, burning. Not that I was especially heartbroken about it. That was my senior year, and I was looking forward to graduating in June and never looking back.

It was even more shocking when Steve was arrested a few days later. Everyone had been taking guesses about who could have done it – some people said they figured I did it, and they were only half-joking. At most.

When the news broke that Steve did it, you could feel the vibration of a collective, town-wide gasp. I don’t think anyone had pegged him as a person who was even capable of it. Steve was universally regarded as the wimpiest, squarest kid in the whole school, maybe in history. He never got in trouble. He never rebelled in any (recognizable) manner (other than, of course, refusing to look, talk, dress, or act like anybody else).

The Tribune described Steve as “a member of the school yearbook staff, the audio-visual club, school choir, the National Honor Society and an Eagle Scout candidate.”

“Wow, Eagle Scout,” I remember thinking. I didn’t know he’d gone that far. Nobody else in my age group even stayed in the Boy Scouts after the second year or so.

But it kind of figured. Scouting. The mention of Scouting made me remember an event from several years earlier – not that I’d ever forgotten it. This event had weighed on my conscience since it took place.

It was the first year of Cub Scouts, whatever they called that, whatever animal it was named after. It must have been, what, third grade? Second grade? Fourth grade? Somewhere in there – I just remember that it was my first year of Cub Scouts, nineteen seventy and something.

We were at our weekly meeting, at the house of this kid I’ll call “Mike,” since that was his name. Mike was a pretty tough kid – most kids were tough compared to me – a hockey player and a general ass-kicker – and he always seemed angry. He set the tone for the group.

So we were doing whatever we were doing while sitting around Mike’s Mom’s kitchen table – Mike’s Mom being the “Den Mother” – we must have just finished our arts and crafts project and were engaging in “snack time” – maybe some cookies. I definitely remember there was grape Kool-Aid.

What happened was that Steve spilled some grape Kool-Aid on me, on my Cub Scout uniform. Right on the back of my neck – on my yellow neckerchief. For some reason, that really incensed me. So I cussed Steve out a little bit. I didn’t expect to instigate a mob action.

The room turned on Steve, en masse. This was the room’s excuse to “get” Weird Steve, and get him good. Steve was no dummy – he jumped up and ran out the front door.

There was an absurd blue-and-gold, short-heighted chase scene … running, running … yelling, screaming. I was a little freaked out by the way things were happening, but at the same time I enjoyed the feeling of being part of the pack – being a solid member, in fact. I belonged and mattered.

We caught up with Steve about one suburban subdivision block away. A couple of the tough kids grabbed Steve by each arm and held him still. The mob was giving me – as the aggrieved party – the honor of dealing the first ten or twelve punches to our crying, defenseless captive.

I cracked my knuckles and got set to start whaling. And I looked at Steve and suddenly I didn’t want to do it. All the enthusiasm drained out of me. I had to punch him – there was a kitchen-full of snarling maniacs slavering to see a beat-down, dealt by me – so I did, but not hard. Probably hard enough to hurt, though. Maybe twice, maybe three times. Didn’t enjoy it at all.

Then a construction worker from a house being built across the street rescued me by rescuing Steve. I remember this guy, big guy with a mustache, stomping over and yelling, “Hey! Let him go! Knock it off!”

I felt like I was going to fall down, my knees were shaking so much, and my asshole was trying to forget how to be continent, but still, for some goddamn reason, I had to argue with the guy.

“Yeah, but! He! He spilled …” blah blah blah.

“You gotta big mouth! Shut up! You’re gonna get in big trouble someday with that mouth! Now get outta here!”

We all ran back to Mike’s house. Steve, too. I was overwhelmed with that “oh no, I’m in trouble” feeling, but nothing ever happened. Well, until Steve burned the school down.

Stronger Than Dirt Pete Moss is one of the many aliases used by a Tom Long of Chicago, Illinois (not to be confused with other Tom Longs of Chicago or elsewhere). Tom was active in xerox zine culture from the late ’80s through the early ’00s under the Colicky Baby Records and Tapes imprint, and several examples of Tom’s mail art periodicals are filed deeply and safely away at the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections Department in Iowa City and the Museum of Modern Art Library in New York City. Every so often he posts things at http://colicky.blogspot.com.

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