Duda, Heather L. The Monster Hunter in Modern Popular Culture.
If vampires should be read as a mirror, reflecting the attitudes and beliefs of the time and place from whence they came, then the heroes who seek to destroy them--"monster hunters"--should also be a topic of close study. Heather L. Duda's ambitious The Monster Hunter in Modern Popular Culture is an analytical survey of a wide variety of visual and literary texts to illustrate how the archetype has evolved over the last century. She begins by identifying herself as a long-time fan of horror fiction and film: "To me, a good scare [is] better than anything else" (1). As a young teenager, Duda remembers turning off the lights and watching the TV mini-series version of Stephen King's It (1990), "curled up in the recliner, unable to move for fear of clowns and the risk of missing an important moment" (1). As both scholar and fan of horror, Duda's standpoint from within the genre enables her to analyze not only the cultural and historical evolution of the monster and monster hunter, but also why these characters continue to fascinate and entertain the modern psyche--the pleasures of horror.
In chapter 1, "A History of the Monster Hunter," Duda begins her study with Bram Stoker's Dracula, "the ultimate monster," and Abraham Van Helsing, "the ultimate monster hunter." She notes that although Van Helsing represents "the best that Victorian masculinity has to offer," a hero in whom intellect and nerve are combined with compassion, he and his ilk have not received the attention they deserve from literary critics (8). Duda turns to feminist psychoanalytic criticism to explain why: Dracula, the monstrous other, allows his audience's repression to "run free via transference, thus purging [...] any guilt or frustration they may experience by keeping their repressions to themselves" (10). As the champion of Victorian culture and values, Van Helsing's purpose is to reinstate the status quo, ending the cathartic moment afforded by an exchange with the monster.
Although we might quibble that Harker and Holmwood are better representatives of Victorian masculinity and the status quo than Van Helsing, Duda's point is still perceptive. As the monster has evolved to reflect the repressions of a new era, so has the monster hunter: from saint to sinner, man to woman, and human to half-breed. Chapter 1 tracks the evolution of the monster and his doppelganger monster hunter, noting how new incarnations further blur the lines between good and evil within both monster and hero. Duda analyzes several texts to illustrate this evolution, moving quickly between novel, film, TV, and graphic novel without giving much attention to how different media might change the interpretation or the message: Dracula (1931), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Captain Kronos (1974), Interview with the Vampire (1976), Vampire Hunter D (1985), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume I (1999), Angel (1999-2004), and Van Helsing (2004).
Chapter 2, "Humanity and the Contemporary Vampire," delineates the necessary components needed for the transformation of the monster hunter from human to half-breed, using a detailed analysis of four characters as case studies: Nick from the 1992-96 Canadian television series, Forever Knight, Blade (pictured on the book's cover) from the Blade film trilogy, and both Angel and Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off series, Angel. In each case, the monster somehow acquires a soul and with it a conscience, which eventually leads to connection and acceptance within a community. These new monster hunters have walked on both sides of good and evil; experience has taught them that the world can never really be saved (and in the end, they may not be saved either), but we are drawn to them because they heroically keep the lurker at bay and humanity can continue just a little bit longer (66).
In chapter 3, "Vigilantism and the Graphic Novel's Monster Hunters," Duda turns to a different medium (the graphic novel) and a different genre (superheroes) to illustrate how the trajectory of the archetype has progressed "beyond the dichotomy of good and evil and into the domain of the monstrous monster hunter" (69). She begins the chapter with a brief history of the graphic novel and an argument for why these texts belong in her study. The jump from horror and vampires to superheroes and villains is still a bit strained, but Duda goes on to provide several areas of valence. The graphic novels analyzed in this chapter are all highly influential and popular texts: Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volumes 1 and 2. Each one seeks "to push consumers out of their comfort zone," just as horror and fantasy texts often do. And although in each narrative, some semblance of order is restored (due to the work of the heroes), "there exists the sense that law and order are not static boundaries" (69). Like the monster-hunter heroes discussed in chapter 2, Miller's and Moore's heroes are dark inside, fulfilling "Nietzsche's prophecy that one who looks too much into the abyss will become the abyss" (72). They resonate with today's post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, and post-9/11 readers who understand that modern monsters don't play by the old rules--so we need a new breed of hero who is willing to battle in the dark. Dangerous as well as heroic, these modern monster hunters mirror our hope in the face of the abyss.
Chapter 4, "The Advent of the Female Monster Hunter," asserts that the 1990s introduced female monster hunters with a vengeance, most notably Anita Blake (Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, a series of erotic fantasy novels) and Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series). Duda tracks their evolution not from Van Helsing but from Mina Harker, the "Final Girl" (Carol Clover's name for the survivor in slasher films), and Ellen Ripley (from the Alien film series). The male monster hunter is often driven by redemption and a need for atonement; he cannot be effective until he realizes that power comes from saving others rather than saving himself. Once again turning to feminist psychoanalytic criticism, Duda argues that the female monster hunter is often more effective than her male counterparts because she has always been the monstrous other. When she owns that her monstrosity gives her power, she is able to transcend traditional gender roles and become a powerful force.
Chapter 5, "Monster Hunters for the New Millennium" surveys several current monster hunters and considers the new faces they reflect in the mirror. Some of the characters discussed are more of a stretch than others to fit the archetype as Duda has defined it: Riddick (Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick), John Constantine (Constantine), Seth Bullock (Deadwood), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Tom Jackman (Jekyll), Severus Snape (Harry Potter series), and Selene (Underworld). Duda ties them all together by suggesting that the power of love is integral to each one--but love in the twenty-first century is "a psychopath; it can do great and powerful things but the flip side is that it can bring great and powerful suffering." Duda concludes that although love might not conquer evil in these narratives, it does provide enough motivation to "propel any monster, no matter how inhuman, out of the abyss and towards humanity" (165).
When I first leafed through the book, my first impression was that Duda attempts to discuss too many texts--and this impression was indeed correct. In some cases, she offers only a page or two of development before she moves on in her frantic pace to the next. The last chapter, especially, is too thin throughout and would have benefitted from cutting some examples and spending more time on the best ones (in particular, the characters from Deadwood and Harry Potter seemed out of place--and what about Hellboy?). Overall, Duda has done an admirable job of addressing the development of an archetype, and although sometimes more about coverage than analysis, she manages to create a fresh and insightful perspective on both monsters and heroes. The Monster Hunter in Modern Popular Culture is a good read for any student or scholar who is interested in learning more about the horror genre in popular culture and why it continues to captivate us.