As an artist and writer whose work focuses on monsters, I identify closely with the plight of monsters as misunderstood and frightening beings. I often try to portray monsters in a positive light in my work, and consider myself a “Monster Rights Advocate.”
As opposed to the spirit animals many call upon to explain and embody different traits in their lives, I find myself drawn more to “spirit monsters” who help me understand myself as being a bit different. I also happen to be a total nerd, so it’s really no surprise that I’m a big fan of the work of H.P. Lovecraft.
Lovecraft’s work laid the foundation for the genre of cosmic horror and the creatures he created continue to horrify. His influence can even be seen in horror and science fiction to this day. The first of his works that I read was At the Mountains of Madness, and if you haven’t read it, I definitely suggest that you do. It’s a classic tale of an Antarctic expedition that discovers more than they bargained for when they uncover the remains of an ancient and alien civilization. Recently I’ve been inspired by the monster of this story and found it a perfect embodiment of the way I developed my identity through difficult circumstances.
If you don’t know the full story of At the Mountains of Madness, consider this your warning that spoilers lie ahead. The nature of what truly lies below is a major plot point, and if you plan to read the story, I’d recommend you do so before continuing.
It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.
—H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness
The expedition uncovers a still living creature deep beneath the ice, a monster known as the Shoggoth. The Shoggoths were created by a strange elder race as a versatile slave, able to form and reform itself to suit any task. It was itself formless, merely a mass of organic matter made to suit the whims of the Old Ones.
I too felt as though I was born formless, reaching tendrils of matter out to try and operate the world around me in any useful and meaningful way. However, the Shoggoth is also described as “faintly self-luminous,” and I think this perfectly describes my early inner life. I did not have a form as such, but there was, at least, a small sense of who I could become. A faint inner light that would guide me in the years to come.
I was born into a world that was not made for me, but rather called me to be made for it. While I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 25, I was born with autism. This made things difficult for me in a small rural town without any notion of mental health care. I could not go to movies as a child because it was dark and loud, and even restaurants were frequently inaccessible to me because of the assault to my atypical senses.
My parents were, at the time, part of a strict and legalistic church community which held great sway in my household of what was appropriate. I frequently held out a half-formed limb from my amorphous mass to have it slapped back and deemed unfit for use.
How could I interact with my environment with the eyes and ears I had grown but no limbs to interact? My hands were too blunt for play and pushed back. My mouth was too quick, too loud, and no good. Often I did not know why the forms I took were unacceptable. I only knew the sting of my fresh and tender flesh being whipped back towards its brooding core.
As I grew up, there were parts of me that were forced into shapes by the world around me. It was as if tight binding cloth shaped me from the outside into something vaguely humanoid. I was something that obeyed, didn’t interrupt, kept its limbs to itself, and never dared to stray too far outside the approved box.
It often seemed like people around me didn’t have so much trouble learning what direction to grow in. They just knew how to become a human being. They knew when to say hello and goodbye, how to jump rope, ride bikes, what to talk about, and what to wear. They were growing out of seeds with a more detailed plan imprinted in their DNA. They could water themselves and grow into a tree. What would I grow into? I wasn’t sure.
However, out of the agoraphobic and homeschooled world I had inhabited, I did find at least a few places that my faint inner light called me to. I often found characters I would borrow “parts” from. In my cartoons, movies, and video games, I could find things that resonated with that then-pale glow. I knew I wanted to be funny. I loved making people laugh. I started absorbing “funny” characters and personas that felt like they could be a part of me. I felt adventurous, rebellious, fiery, and rough around the edges.
Sometimes, it would be as complete as dressing like a character from a television show for months or years. Other times, it would be as simple as taking on the comedic styling or speech patterns of someone in a film. Of course, It didn’t always work, or “stick.” I quickly learned by attempting to don an ill-fitting persona that dry wit was not my forte. In fact, it only made my mother think I was becoming a mouthy teen, when I had actually simply surmised from television that it was something I could play for a few laughs.
Formless protoplasm able to mock and reflect all forms and organs and processes – viscous agglutinations of bubbling cells – rubbery fifteen-foot spheroids infinitely plastic and ductile – slaves of suggestion, builders of cities – more and more sullen, more and more intelligent, more and more amphibious, more and more imitative! Great God! What madness made even those blasphemous Old Ones willing to use and carve such things?
—H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness
I was finally able to start forming myself the right limbs out of my core first by mimicry, but then by refinement. I found ways to reach out into my world that felt right. It was like having a sense of what my face looked like without having seen a mirror, and then making a picture of it by piecing together images from a magazine.
Eventually the parts weren’t recognizable as “stolen” because they became enmeshed in something greater than the sum of its parts. The old personas are finally just footnotes of inspiration for who I have become. I feel that for the most part I have a unique idea of the person I am, and can live without feeling like a rubbing of an old design.
This adopting of different forms or personas as a means of self-expression is something I’ve found not uncommon within the community of others on the spectrum. It can be very hard for us to find the right voice in the world around us. We don’t form our social “parts” as easily and organically as neurotypical people. It’s often messy, measured, frustrating, risky, and bizarre all at once. I often had to study the social pieces I needed very carefully before I could form those functions myself.
I remember telling a friend in college about my “friendship theory.” It was a collection of calculations and observations I had made to be able to interact with my peers and make meaningful relationships. She looked at me with the kind of pity I had grown to be accustomed to and uncomfortable with. The advice she gave me was of the variety I had often received. It was something along the lines of “Just be yourself!” I nodded as I hid my tears as best I could, which wasn’t very well.
I quickly amended my formula to include a line on not sharing it with other people.
While it has always been given to me with the best intentions, I always found the neurotypical brand of “be yourself” ideology very confusing. “How?!?” I would think to myself. Maybe a person who grew organically like a tree could follow that advice.
They could let nature take its course and grow beautiful green foliage. But that simply wasn’t me. I was born having to make deliberate choices about how I would grow if I wanted to reach out a meager tendril, let alone a sturdy branch. I was born a Shoggoth. Formless, searching, luminous.
I am happy to have been able to shape myself. I am happy to have followed that light and let it shine brighter and brighter. When I look into that light, I know I’d rather be covered in my strange, glowing green eyes that see stars for miles instead of sitting and letting leaves cover my view of the sky. I’d rather have many arms to lift up people like me who are still finding their shapes – slime and all – than have grown a big trunk straight up, nice and easy.
If that makes me a monster, then I’m happy to be one.
Ra Butler is a visual artist, writer, monster rights activist, and monster. Ra is the founder of the Monster Heart Mission, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting self-acceptance and advocacy of marginalized groups through monster imagery and creativity. A fiery and funny extrovert, Ra found that through going first and speaking up, plenty of other monsters often echoed out from the shadows, inspired by not being alone.
Special interests: horror and monsters, middle eastern mythology, ancient Egypt, ferrets, criminal psychology, and fire.
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