To begin with, what is a monster? Says my Webster’s Collegiate:
1 a: an animal or plant of abnormal form or structure b: one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character 2: a threatening force
3 a: an animal of strange or terrifying shape b: one unusually large for its kind
All these varieties of “monster” will prove relevant.
To be a monster, then, a thing must be unusual, threatening, or frightening. But are there monsters in New York City, if one goes by this definition? One immediately thinks of the 1933 film King Kong, where a giant ape atop the Empire State Building fights off attacking airplanes, but that, of course, is fiction. As for real monsters, monsters that one can see and be terrified of, the answers is no. Coyotes prowl the New York alleyways, poking into garbage, and raccoons range Central Park at night, but while both can prove troublesome if interfered with, they hardly qualify as monsters. When it comes to pit bulls, it’s another matter. Screams the online headline of the New York Daily News of December 15, 2015:
Brooklyn pit bulls attack passerby for second time, leave dog badly wounded (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS)
The victim in this case was “a small, orange mutt named Cash Money,” whose eye and face were severely injured. According to the pitt bull’s owner, the mutt invited trouble by sticking his nose in the owner’s fence.
But that headline is topped by another online Daily News headline, dated September 14, 2015:
Man viciously attacked by pit bulls in Bronx; owner arrested (graphic videos)
In this case a 62-year-old man was mauled and nearly killed when attacked by two pit bulls that broke free of their harnesses, inflicting injuries so grave that the priest of a nearby church – prematurely, as it turned out -- gave the victim last rites.
Even allowing for tabloid exaggeration, and acknowledging the existence of organizations determined to defend the species as for the most part harmless and much maligned, pit bulls – at least some members of the species – would seem to qualify as monsters. Certainly they come closer than the mythical alligators said to roam the sewers of New York, or the black bears foraging for garbage in the wooded outlands of New Jersey.
I personally have never encountered a pit bull and aim to keep it that way, but my awareness of monsters goes back to my childhood in the Midwest. In my early grade school days I often visited my friend Allen next door with whom I shared an interest in history and prehistoric creatures, but whenever I entered their back yard I was met by Blackie, their chow, who whose frantic barking unnerved me. “He won’t hurt you,” Allen and his mother repeatedly assured me, but the barking put me off. My first monster, at least in the eyes of my very young, untutored self. An ominous beginning. When, some years later, Blackie went the way of all canine flesh and was not replaced by another chow, I was secretly but vastly relieved.
In time Allen and I went through the, for boys, near-inevitable phase of obsession with prehistoric monsters, devouring information and illustrations – the more graphic the better – of towering tyrannosaurus rex confronting a spike-backed stegosaur, prowling long-fanged saber-toothed tigers, icthyosaurs raging in primeval seas with flights of vicious pterodactyls overhead, and lumbering, long-tusked mastodons fatally trapped in pits of tar. These were long-vanished creatures and therefore no threat to my evolving psyche. At a safe remove I reveled in their untrammeled ferocity.
But monsters, even when remote, could still inject me with fear. Returning from his annual fishing vacation in Land-o-Lakes, Wisconsin, my father told me and my brother stories of the Great North Woods. The most vivid one involved a trapper who one fierce winter went mysteriously missing. The following spring, when the snow melted and people could range the woods more freely, his ravaged corpse was found. Attacked by a pack of ravenous wolves, he had stood them off with his back to a tree and shot several who were then devoured by their fellow predators. Hopelessly trapped, he saved the last shot for himself, following which his body was likewise devoured by the pack. Little but bones remained.
This was frightening enough, but the story that really got to me was one on the radio that told of a massive, half-human monster in the wilds of Alaska who loomed out of nowhere to strangle isolated victims, ripping their teeth out of their mouth. Probably fictional, the story instilled in me an icy terror that I can recall today. Police in a low-flying plane spotted the murderer and followed him for hours, amazed at his ability to run overland for such a period without tiring. Finally they were able to land, confront him, and with a barrage of bullets bring his deadly career to an end.
My preoccupation with monsters suffered a long hiatus as I negotiated the glories and perils of adolescence and then began graduate studies followed by a bout with teaching. When I encountered in modern translation the Old English epic Beowolf, Grendel and his avenging mother were authentic monsters, but when I transitioned to French literature, monsters in the narrow sense seemed to be in short supply. (Had I spent more time in medieval French literature, I’m sure there would have been dragons galore.) But when I indulged for a few months in the Technicolor hallucinations of peyote, I experienced one, and only one, frightening fantasy, and that involved a monster. Eyes shut, I saw slowly coalescing in front of me a massive, hairy creature, half human, half animal, that I identified as the missing link. His look was savage, and as it began to fix on me, my mind in slow motion registered that this was ominous and therefore should be stopped. Immediately I opened my eyes, and the monster disappeared, never to return. He – or should I say “it”? – was a reincarnation of that fictional radio monster roaming the wilds of Alaska.
Soon afterward I exchanged the academic scene in New York for the chaotic delights of Beatnik bohemia in San Francisco. During this brief but colorful interlude in my career (if “career” is the word to use), I read up on the Wild, Wild West, and in magazines on the outdoors at the library I perused numerous reports of encounters with grizzlies in the Rockies, reinforced by a stuffed replica in the local museum that towered over me with bared fangs and six-inch claws: not a creature I would care to encounter face to face.
Some years after that, back in New York I read an account in the paper of a grizzly attacking a young woman asleep in her sleeping bag at night. Her friends escaped by climbing up trees, but the zipper of her bag had jammed, leaving her at the mercy of the grizzly. “Oh my God,” she screamed, “it’s tearing off my arm!” Leaving her mutilated body, the bear then wandered off into the woods. She died the most horrible of deaths, and a few days later a grizzly was shot and killed in the area; examination revealed bits of human flesh on its claws.
One final note on grizzlies revealed: you can’t outrun them; if you try, you are doomed. The best escape is to climb a tree and cling to it for your life, in case the grizzly tries to shake you down. If there’s no tree handy, they say you should freeze, make a low growling sound, then quietly back off and depart, though not in a run, since that would mark you as prey and trigger a predatory response in the grizzly. So that’s the solution; good luck.
This account of monsters has taken us far afield from New York, where the only monsters I know of are scary radio reports, allegedly authentic, of Big Foot in distant parts of the nation. Those accounts, fiercely convincing, get to me, but I take comfort in the knowledge that, with the exception of the occasional pit bull, within the five boroughs and adjacent regions, only raccoons and coyotes are a-prowl. So of course I’ve never been attacked, have I? Wrong! I’ve been attacked twice.
Once, while following a trail through woods in a wilderness area upstate, I heard a shrill kak kak kak and saw a large bird flying back and forth over my head. At first I shrugged this off, being eager to keeping moving, but then I realized that the bird, with a wing span of at least three feet, was screaming at me and, at a safe remove, buzzing me. It came just close enough that I picked up a fallen branch and waved it vigorously every time the bird came close. Only when I had gone on quite a distance on the trail did the kak kak kaks and the sweeping flights low over my head stop. Who was the attacker? At the time I didn’t know, but obviously it was a predator, and a large one at that. Later a little research discovered a likely suspect: the Northern Goshawk, notorious for fiercely defending its territory; habitually it nests in tall trees from ten to fifty feet above the ground. The bird wasn’t so much attacking me as scaring me off, in which it succeeded.
The second incident was indeed an attack, and it took place in my beloved Central Park, where I was walking one morning in the North End near the Pool at 103rd Street. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I saw a large dog rushing toward me, barely six feet away. I thought it wanted to be friendly, but then I found it leaping up on me, front paws on my chest, and tearing at my jacket. Caught off balance, I fell to the ground, but the owner must have called the dog off, for at this point it abandoned its prey and rushed back to its master, a woman reclining on the ground some distance away, leash in hand. Getting back on my feet, I saw that my thick jacket had been torn; only its thickness had protected me from injury. I should have confronted the owner and told her that her dear little mutt had viciously, and without provocation, attacked me, but by now I wanted to keep a good distance between me and my attacker, so instead I sauntered off.
So ends this account of monsters and me. If we humans are obsessed with monsters – and we are, as witnessed by endless tales of them in all the literatures of the world – it’s that we in some sense need them. We like to be scared, to experience the thrill of the monstrous, and we value them as an enemy to overcome. After all, to be a hero you must slay a monster, and if you do, rich rewards are yours: an endangered and grateful virgin, or a fantastic treasure. And if, like Wagner’s Siegfried, you are lucky, you may get both … for a while.
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The book: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received two awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction, and first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards. (For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.) As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: Once again, it's wide open, but something will come to mind.
© 2016 Clifford Browder