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Friday, April 23, 2021

In ‘Love and Monsters,’ a Perverted Sexuality Grows in a Modern Landscape

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Sherry Liberman’s 1994 debut was The Sky and the Moon. Made in a voice that emerges as something between the poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the self-described “cursed, vampireed, inhuman boy” of Shaker Loops, it was written during a period when Liberman was already a well-established editor at Bloomsbury. It contained two familiar teenage coming-of-age tropes: the doctor waking up to a life in a cult, and the haunting choice that the boy’s mother makes about which son to believe. “Who is Sarah?” the doctor asks, at the start of one of those questions. The answer seems to be that she is a ghost, or a devil’s monster — that mysterious entity that preyed on Sarah’s ancestors for hundreds of years.

Liberman married the dreams of Sarah, one of the loveliest of all pendant myths, with a proto-postmodern dystopia seen through the skewed lens of teens into the future. She was inspired by the work of Bram Stoker and “the wonderful scene up there in Spain, where hundreds of mummies … walked around in their complete white clothing,” she said recently in an interview. (To The London Evening Standard in 2013: “I fell for the 17th-century psychos and the clairvoyants … and obviously an obsession with the vampire obsessed me.”) But what really moves “Love and Monsters” is a vision of an Earth that turned into “the worst kind of real-estate agent,” according to Liberman’s narrator, Alec. Byron (aka Monster) — the horny, preening, hornless vampire — appears out of nowhere to take over Alec’s childhood mansion, the Beacon, where the land has been bought by a real estate mogul. The Beacon is thus transformed into a real-estate office: there are windows that look out onto acres of lakes and forests; a giant water tank that contains the aforementioned, real-estate-agency-esque watermaze, one that seems to sometimes backfire by opening itself up into an ocean. The attic that Alec and his friends used to escape into when we first meet the tale, the one adorned with candles and eyes, has been converted into an insane asylum where the notion of time grows to seem deceptively perfect.

“Love and Monsters” has a scene that lingers in my mind, set in the world of the Beacon. Alec, on a leisurely stroll with his parents, notices a song. Alec begins to sing the song, but his father stops him, concerned. (“What is this song about?” he asks, with wonder in his voice.) Alec, watching an accident scene at the window with his father, a specialist in the psychology of nostalgia, suddenly bursts into a rap song called “Amazing Aloha,” doing the rhyming line, “It may have been rainy, but it won’t rain on me/ it was August when I visited my aunt again/ I hope the knife is out, so you’ll know why/ I’m heading toward that neighbor garden,” before the next scene.

The rap itself is in the shadow of Alec’s character: rational and mature, and altogether terrifying. Its lyrics appear in a sequence where “Love and Monsters” takes a series of images of Alec’s life: his summer in Hawaii, having his T-shirt ruined by Hula Dolls, and dreaming that the gorgeous, dead daughter of a dentist is “someday remembering my back, because I have some X rays left.” Alec goes on to tell a tale of another native island of the United States — at night, there is such wonderful darkness, there was once a world of “and and and out and out” — and everything “was as it is now, and everything ain’t as it was then.” The song comes to an end in a similar way.

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