Shadows under Bridges
by James Bennett
What draws us to the darkness? To the shadows under bridges? The place beyond the circle of the streetlight? What makes us examine the doings of evil, to explain or justify with some cause of pain or just the inevitable, relentless urge of nature? Do we seek redemption where there is none? Some kind of hope in hatred? To accept a monster as a creature beyond help, incapable of conscience or remorse, is surely to speak to our deepest fears. All our compassion added up to naught. If we cannot reach, cannot reason with the darkness, then what good is our light?
To understand a monster is to understand the self. At least several noted philosophers say so. Perhaps that’s why humans shy away from the unknown and the unknowable – from that which we do not want to know. If we look at the source of the word monster – a combination of the 12th Century Middle English monstre and the Latin monstrum, meaning ‘portent, unnatural event’, we can easily see the red flags of language flying around the smouldering cavern mouth, flames warning us away. Are monsters simply a way for us humans to externalise the parts of ourselves that we don’t like to look at? The abyss inside? The grotesque, the villain, the killer…? If we can remove these elements and mould them in different clay, an other that we chase into the briars of our imagination, then in some way, we stand a chance of thinking ourselves safe.
But we are not safe. There is plenty to fear. The monsters are among us. We are the monsters.
This thinking certainly informed the series I’m working on and the idea has bled into my short stories, an increasing number of which serve as an extension of a theme, feeding into the whole. Spin offs, in a way, a chance to look at the subject through a host of eyes – the lexicon of fabulous beasts being, of course, longer than Finn MacCool’s arm, a theme larger than the boulders thrown to raise the Giant’s Causeway. But I don’t think the sentiment came as much to the fore as it did when I came to write Broken Bridges.
Here I was dealing with a troll, the notorious under bridge dweller and man-eater of countless frightening tales, a shaggy-haired, sharp-toothed, bull-shouldered stench of a thing with little to recommend it but dread. From Hans Christian Andersen to The Hobbit, storytellers have depicted the troll as a mean, hungry, stupid creature – not an outright evil one exactly, but a brute nonetheless, driven by appetite rather than ambition. Certainly in childhood memory, from the Norwegian tale Three Billy Goats Gruff to the offhand, lumbering cruelty of Tom, Bert and William in the woods of the Trollshaws, writers have primarily treated the big, dumb, hairy creatures with darkly comic disdain – the troll as the bully or dunce of the fairy tale world. On screen, depictions of the troll range from a ravenous threat, to the clod-footed and misunderstood (the excellent Troll Hunter) to the nimble, hunchbacked dwarf of the nursery rhyme and horror movie (Troll, Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye). One has to dig back into Nordic myth to discover that this wasn’t always the case. No one ever claimed that the jötnar were particularly pleasant, you understand, but in their huddled tribes, dwelling in mountain ranges far away from humans, you get the distinct impression of nature beings, primal, solid, elemental creatures who might easily have found themselves adrift in a rapidly encroaching modern world…
Broken Bridges trudged out of its cave with this idea. The more I read about the creatures, the more I felt sorry for them. Can one truly escape one’s nature? From our earliest beginnings, our parents and teachers show us how to fight the monsters. To denounce, repress and exile the other inside. Perhaps until we learn to understand, to extend our compassion and light into the shadows under the bridge, we will always be trembling in the cold. Running away. Forever scared of the dark.
I sat down to write a monster story, what in all honesty was originally a tale of savage claws, of distant roars heard in the forest and blood left splattered on tree trunks. Instead, I wrote a kind of mirror. I hope that Broken Bridges makes you spare a thought for monsters and gives you pause to reflect. Failing that, I hope it scares the hell out of you.
West Wales November 2014