My short story Playing Dead will be one of fourteen featured in the upcoming anthology Monsters Exist published by the Deadman’s Tome. As the title would suggest, the theme is monster, cryptid, and other legendary creature horror. The release date is July 1 and it can be preordered now (See Amazon link below).
As a writer who leans toward the weird, two of my favorite “go-to” horror spaces are Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and Francisco Goya’s black period paint-scapes. As the submission call for Monsters Exist asked for some presence of a monster, of course, Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Children” sprung to mind. It’s not too difficult to see the direct influence in my story that I built around it.
Where a Wonka-esque twilight carnival serves as the story’s physical setting, the Goya painting contributes to its plot and theme. As background, Goya’s “Saturn” is based on Peter Ruben’s painting “Saturn Devouring His Son” (1636). Ruben’s Saturn (the Greek Titan Cronus, the god of time) is represented as a powerful, muscular old man who is focused on the victim he is devouring. Ruben’s style is evocative of Michelangelo, exuberant, detailed, and grandiose. Goya’s Saturn by contrast is a fuzzy nightmare of some wild hominid who crouches awkwardly as if his legs are too thin to properly support his malnourished frame. However, it is the eyes that mark the biggest difference between the two paintings. In Goya’s dark shadowy background, the only white is found in Saturn’s eyes, to which the viewer is immediately drawn. The fact that the sclera (the white part of the eyeball) can be seen above, below, and to the side of the iris (called sanpaku eyes) is a subliminal suggestion of madness and penchant for impulsive violence. Ever wonder why Charlie Manson’s gaze is so fundamentally unnerving? You may not have been able specifically name it, but it is the sanpaku condition that triggers our evolutionary intuitional sense of danger. Also, Goya’s Saturn is not looking at his victim, or off in a random direction, but seemingly staring right off the page at us. One of Saturn’s brows is even tilted upward as if asking us the question, “Who am I, and why am I doing this?”, or even more sinisterly implicating us as co-conspirators in his crime against humanity!
Surely, too, Goya could have depicted the victim in grand distress as Rubens did. However, there is no arterial spray, no limbs splayed akimbo suggesting of any struggle or tragedy. No, Saturn’s unfortunate quarry is secondary in the picture, barely important, and maybe even complicit in the act. Is she, in fact, lazily offering her left arm to be eaten? And yes, I identify her as a she despite the work’s title as in a dissertation on the painting I once read stated the gender could be determined from (and I am not making this up) the rounded buttocks. So, there you go…
The monster lore I ended up choosing for Playing Dead is one of the devil-monkey of New Hampshire, a local legend of an aggressive, but stealthy primate running around the woods. Of course I added a few cosmic elements to make it close enough to the bushy haired creature in Goya’s painting. While my story references the depicted Goyal scene, it also grapples with the existential struggles against Time (Cronus). What do we do with the limited days we have? Are we living for ourselves or someone else? Are we too agreeable with our ultimate fate: is there any point in building some elaborate sand castle knowing the tide will come it and wash it all away?
Monsters are everywhere in this sense, the external representations of things we internally fear. So does Monsters Exist contain fourteen stories of various Bogeymen, Bugbears, and Strawmen. I like the symmetry of fourteen, as well. Goya’s Saturn was one of fourteen works he painted directly onto the plaster walls of his famed villa, “The House of the Deaf Man”. Please consider picking up a copy of our own virtual ‘kindle’ house and its fourteen nightmarish lessons painted within.
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