June 26, 2016: “Monstress” by Lysley Tenorio

Happy Sunday, Story366! Right about now, the Season 6 finale of Game of Thrones is airing, ending new episodes of the show for at least ten months, though I wonder, since the show is already a year ahead of George R. R. Martin’s books, if they might pull a Sopranos and take longer off between seasons, even two years, giving Martin a chance to catch up. Probably not, though, as HBO seems to want this juggernaut to keep its steam. Still, I’ll be watching later, and then after I watch, I’ll go back to waiting, waiting to find out what happens next, waiting for almost a year.

Last year after the finale—the season ended in early May last year, if I’m not mistaken—I set myself on a path that I still haven’t returned from. As soon as that episode ended, Jon Snow lying in the snow, stabbed to death by his brothers in the Night’s Watch, I simply could not wait another ten months. I hit the YouTube and started to watch review/preview/theory videos, along with the complete history of Westeros, several animated clips which appeared as bonus material on a blu-ray season disk set. I watched those history videos about four times each, learning the show’s/world’s entire background (neatly told by the real actors, in character), and I got all the tinfoil-hat theories of what was going to happen in the next season, the next book. Some were right on (and obvious), while others were a lot of fun, but turned out to be not at all true. For the first time in my life, I subscribed to channels, mainly Emergency Awesome, which handily also covers superhero shows and movies (high five, Charlie!); I also enjoy Alt Shift X and Ozzy Man Reviews. I also rewatched the entire show on YouTube, character by character, arc by arc, because, hey, it’s fun and easy to watch, say, all the Tyrion scenes in a row, five seasons’ worth.

What I’m trying to say is, all this has ruined me. Every since that finale ended last year, watching GoT and GoT-related video has more or less been my hobby. I’ve watched very little other TV (half a season of Walking Dead, a season of Archer, and maybe the first episode or two of Agent Carter, Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt, and Wet, Hot, American Summer). Would I rather watch a new episode of a show I enjoy, or watch a crazy theory video about GoT that I’ve seen a few times before? Sadly, the latter.

One of the factors as to why I’d started Story366 was because I wasn’t reading enough, and one of the contributing factors to not reading was this GoT YouTube obsession. I can’t say that I’ve curbed my watching much—especially not in-season—but I have read a whole lot more stories.

Today, coinciding with the Season 6 finale, I read from Lysley Tenorio’s excellent, excellent book Monstress, out from Ecco. I read the first couple of stories, “Monstress” and “Brothers,” and absolutely loved them both. I’m going to write about the title story, but “Brothers” is a gem, too. It’s the story of a guy who has to bury his estranged brother, Eric, who had been banished from their Filipino Catholic family by their mother because he came out as both gay and a drag queen. The story focuses on the few days after Eric’s death, when the world of Eric’s conservative family and his life at the club, along with all his fellow dragsters, collide. It’s what I call a good brother-bad brother story, though in this case, that’s misleading: I don’t mean to call Eric bad because of who he is, not at all—it’s just what I’ve called this character dynamic up to this point, harkening back to classical examples like Cane and Abel and Loki and Thor. The best other modern example I have is Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” with the narrator serving as the brother who’s loyal to the family, walking the straight line, but ultimately proving to be boring and regretful, while Sonny is the heroin addict who broke his family’s hearts, but is also the genius jazz pianist who lived a full and exciting life. That’s the exact dynamic going on in Tenario’s story, and like “Monstress,” I’m going to be giving it to my students to read.

“Monstress” isn’t a story I can categorize so easily, and I can’t think of another story like it (my old colleague Wendell Mayo’s “B. Horror” features a similar setting, though). “Monstress” starts in 1966 when our protagonist, Reva Gogo, and her boyfriend, Checkers, are being fired by their film production company. Checkers writes and directs B-level horror movies in the Philippines, Reva serving as the star; interestingly, Reva, though gorgeous, doesn’t play the damsel in distress, but the monsters themselves.  Still, their studio, Cocoloco Pictures, is tired of them losing money. Their last feature, Squid Children, played once on one screen, a midnight horror fest that shows films on a white bed sheet. Checkers and Reva are done making movies, it seems, their dreams of Hollywood never coming true.

Fast forward to 1970 and Reva is working as a secretary to a failing dentist and Checkers is drinking himself to death. Lo and behold, Hollywood comes knocking, in the form of Gaz Gazman, who thinks Checkers is a genius and wants to splice his monsters into an American horror film. Better yet, he’s willing to pay. Checkers is hesitant, but when Gaz agrees to fly them to Hollywood so they can watch the process, wait to give full approval, Reva talks him into it. It’s a trip to American, plus they need the money, $2500, which in their situation, in 1970, is a windfall.

The team arrives in Hollywood, and very soon, it’s apparent that Gaz is simply the American version of Checkers. His movies are just as corny and his budget may actually be smaller. His set is his mother’s dilapidated Victorian (which Checkers salivates over), and his actors seem as hackneyed as Reva. After some delays and some minor disasters, they are ready to start shooting, with one last-second revision: Reva has to be the star, this time as that damsel, when the scheduled star quits.

So far, so good, right? Aside from the fact that the film has zero chance of going anywhere, of making any money, the story seems to be conflict-free and only growing more so as it progresses. There’s  one snag, though: Checkers doesn’t like Gaz’s American style. Gaz, as small-time as he is, knows what’s sells, and that’s romance tied to the action and horror, which Checkers finds unbelievable and despicable. Reva, however, likes it, sees how it’s more audience-friendly, and decides to stay in America to finish the picture, even when Checkers goes back home, disgusted.

That’s most of what happens, but there’s more plot right after, plus a nice little epilogue, which I won’t spoil here. I really love the ending, though, as much as I love the whole story and what I’ve read of Tenorio’s book. In “Monstress,” he seems to be touching on a lot of themes, including feminism, artistry, and loyalty. Checkers is a true artist and visionary, but it costs him his career and his love. Reva is pragmatic and it pays off for her. Who do we root for, though, if that’s the case? Maybe Checkers is Hitchcock and just never got his break. Maybe Reva is a careerist ass. Maybe they’re just destined to go in different directions. There’s so much going on in this story, on top of the fact that it’s about these fucking awesome B movies that feature squid monsters and pygmy revolts and werewolf girls and two-headed vampires. What great imagery, creativity, and execution. I said, “Wow.” when I read the last word.

Put Monstress right up there with some of the great discoveries I’ve made so far in Story366, the first half winding down this week. It’s no wonder that Tenorio earned all kind of honors, including fellowships from the NEA, Yaddo, McDowell, the University of Wisconsin, and the Stegner Foundation. Lysley Tenorio is one of my new favorite story writers and I can’t wait to read more, to see what he does next.