Thursday, November 9, 2017

Making Us Monsters, by Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly

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(Historical Uncanny Horror) Fifteen years after his lover died in World War I, Siegfried starts receiving letters from him, dated just before his death. (10,902 words; Time: 36m)

Rating: ★★★★☆ Complex and Thought-Provoking. Rewards Rereading.

"," by and (edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas), appeared in issue 19, published on .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Background: Wilfred Owen was a real poet (arguably the most significant poet of Word War I) who really died as described in the story. His famous poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est” is still read by millions of high-school kids every year. He is 25 at the time of this story.

Siegfried Sassoon, seven years older, was his mentor and one-time lover. They really did meet at the Craiglockhart mental hospital when Owen was 24 and Sassoon was 31. Sassoon is not quite 46 at the start of the the story. He married a woman just a few months past the end of it, and they later had a child.

Stephen Tennant  is the “Steenie” with whom Sassoon is obsessed. He's 26 as the story opens.

The character of the sinister Dr. Watts, who finds a way to extract from Owen the essence of a warrior with which to infuse new recruits, is an invention of the story.

Uncanny published an interview with the authors.

Pro: The story is about how these magical letters cause Siegfried Sassoon to look at himself and change himself for the better. As it opens, Sassoon is essentially stalking “Steenie,” who broke up with him some months earlier, but whom he can’t let go. Somehow the letters from the long-dead Owen, delivered by some divine providence, change him for the better, and he continues with his life, a new man.

The specific effect of the letters is that he concludes he really is the “monster” Owen describes him as being, but the implication is that he has learned and will be different henceforth. But is he really a monster?

It’s difficult to overstate just how much society despised gay men in those days—and how much they despised themselves. I say “gay,” but that’s an anachronism. Sassoon calls himself a “sodomite” and an “invert,” both expressions of self-hate. Owen seems to blame Sassoon for having made him what he is—a common misconception a the time being that homosexuality was something you were inducted into, not something you were born into—and Sassoon is clearly consumed by guilt for what he thinks he did to Owen, not just sexually but also urging him to return to the front.

So it’s easy to see how he and Owen might have conceived of themselves as monsters, even though we wouldn’t see it that way today. But there’s a bit more to it than that: Owen accuses Sassoon of having taught him to be brutal (or at least brusque) during sex, arguing that real men need to be able to tell themselves they were forced. That’s monstrous even by today’s standards. More subtly, he’s taught Owen to be a sort of intellectual snob, something the younger man resents and yet forgives him for.

So is Sassoon really reformed? He tells us that he learned the value of tenderness from Steenie, and that’s something all by itself. And from Owen’s letters, he’s learned that he, Sassoon, will never be one of those great men “who stand against ugliness and tyranny with noble words and deeds.” If not reformed, he’s at least humbled, and he seems to be at peace.

Wilfred Owen’s arc seems to be about understanding himself before he dies. In the course of just a few days he has become “someone else altogether,” both giving up his attachment to Sassoon and forgiving him at the same time. Owen seems more comfortable with his homosexuality than Sassoon was, and that seems to be reflected both in how he lived his life and the writings he left behind.

It’s interesting how his relationship with Efraim mirrors his relationship with Sassoon. They’re seven years apart. Efraim worships him. Efraim is also “inverted and Jewish” and Owen uses him roughly.

The character of Watts seems to symbolize people who would use poetry to inflame the passions of young men to fight in wars, even when the poetry is manifestly anti-war. The physical draining of Owen in the story reaches forward not just to 1933 but even to our own day, when we too hear people calling for war and glory.

Con: Obviously the biggest objection, from a modern perspective, is that the story seems to be saying that this was the miracle that let Sassoon quit being a gay monster and go off to live a happy heterosexual life. Considering that one of the co-authors is himself gay, it’s unlikely that he intended that interpretation, but the fact that it’s possible to read it that way is a flaw. There's certainly no hint that Sassoon might be bisexual anywhere in the story. (In its defense, the story itself never implies Sassoon became heterosexual either.)

A separate one is that, even though I’m gay too, the story doesn’t engage my emotions very much. I don’t feel sad for any of the characters nor happy for Sassoon at the end.

The elevated writing style, although typical of the era, gets tedious after a while.

On a minor note, there’s probably something more to the big fuss over clichĂ©’s that I’m not seeing, but even on a second read I’m not sure what it is, beyond the obvious that it was a form of bullying. Perhaps someone will offer another analysis in the comments.

Other Reviews: Search Web, Browse Review Sites (Issue 19)
Sam J. Miller Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline
Lara Elena Donnelly Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

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