The Cultural Gutter

geek chic with mad technique

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

The Love Song of the Black Lagoon

Carol Borden
Posted March 5, 2009

Lagoon 2 80.jpgWe have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By gillmen wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

–sorta T.S. Eliot

Do you hear that? Off in the distance? A song too beautiful to be real but somehow… familiar? The song twines over the water, through the cattails and the woods, into the window, eighth notes swirling all around. The creature in the lagoon is singing. He’s not dead after all and who are we to resist him and the “centuries of passion pent up in his savage heart?”

Lilli Carré’s The Lagoon (Fantagraphics, 2008) centers on that song and the nameless family who hear it. It’s hard to say what the creature’s motivation is. Revenge? Love? Loneliness? And it’s hard to say what’s going on with the family, but something’s ragged claws scuttle beneath the surface. Maybe it’s the creature. Maybe not. “What was it? Science didn’t know, but dedicated scientists were willing to risk their lives to find out!” a trailer for The Creature from the Black Lagoon exclaims. Though I was dedicated, I never found out the family’s secret, let alone their names.

Carré’s book reads like an epilogue to Universal’s 1950s horror trilogy: The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us. With its cinematic, swamp gothic feel, The Lagoon fits with the trilogy’s arc—the gillman provoked in his paradise, displayed in an aquarium and finally operated on by a mad scientist, burning away the outer scales and revealing “a structure of human skin” to make the gillman more human. Now the creature, if it is the same creature*, lives in a swamp near a development.

Lagoon250.jpgThe Lagoon inverts a couple of The Creature from the Black Lagoon‘s elements. In the film, an explorer drops her cigarette into the water, a Fall from Eden gesture that turns the gillman’s Amazonian paradise into a scientist’s ashtray. In The Lagoon, the creature returns the favor by flicking a still burning butt into a woodpile outside the family’s house. And the creature not only smokes, he has an affair with the woman, who might be one of those women in the movies whose “beauty [had been] a lure to even a Man-Beast from the dawn of time” and led him to be shot, exhibited and experimentally altered. This time, it’s not the Man-Beast who’s lured to his doom. Late at night, the creature sings and people stand in the water listening. Some of them drown.

Carré’s choice to organize a silent medium around sound is an interesting one. She could’ve made a short film. She’s made other ones. Glen Weldon writes
that horror comics by their very nature defy a central horror tenet,“The scariest stuff is the stuff you don’t see.” In The Lagoon, the most haunting and seductive song is the one we never hear. We see the song as a series of eighth notes winding through woods, whistled by grandpa or played on the piano by the daughter. But even in a film, the siren song we hear only represents the one that could drown us. Because she’s working in a silent medium, Carré’s never stuck with a siren song’s conventions, which are usually soprano and operatic if sword and sandals movies are anything to go by. A song that lures us to our doom might be an aria, but it could also be something unconventionally beautiful or yearning, something like Tom Waits’ falsetto in “Sea of Love.” In a comic, it can be anything.

After watching Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues, I can’t help but have a vague sense of the creature’s song as a scratchy old jazz record—an instrumental I can almost remember. Something half-heard. Seeing a song visually represented creates the sense of something on the verge of consciousness. And that sense of something half-remembered, half-conceived or half-understood is part of how I think the creature’s song draws people. The family’s humming, whistling, playing the piano, their attempts to recreate the song, maybe understand it, are part of the hook.

Horror like The Creature from the Black Lagoon isn’t just shock, gore and endangered virtue; it’s also about the unknown and the tragic, gradual realization of unbridgeable distance. The creature in The Lagoon is unknown and possibly unknowable to the people who exist beside it. Men listening in the weeds warn the woman’s husband, “Who knows if the creature intended to drown people or if it just wanted someone to sing to and didn’t know any better.”

In one of his philosophical fortune cookies, Wittgenstein says something like, “If a gillman could talk, we couldn’t understand him.” In The Lagoon, that’s the crux of the problem. So, sure, the song is a connection between the creature and the people, but his audience can’t be sure they understand him. The woman has a relationship with the creature, but doesn’t necessarily know how the
creature understands that relationship. There is attachment and a song. The creature sings and humans feel.

But we never know what song will do us in.

* If it’s not the same creature, the issues would probably be the same: scientific experiments, exhibitions and the inescapable beauty of human ladies, especially white ladies.

~~~

Carol Borden has heard the gillmen singing, each to each / But she does not think they will sing to her.

Comments

4 Responses to “The Love Song of the Black Lagoon”

  1. Mr.Dave
    March 5th, 2009 @ 6:22 pm

    Wow. This is a beautiful article. And I love the links – each one also a gem.
    I like the melancholic premise of this “sequel” to the Black Lagoon movies better than Paul Di Fillipo’s recent Black Lagoon novel, which I found actually had too much science and not enough mythic monster, leaving me rather cold.

  2. weed
    March 18th, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    Hi Carol,
    This is lovely.
    I appreciate the reference to the cigarette in the woodpile. That scene in the movie, where she flicks her butt into the lagoon and we see it fall above us from under the water, twists my gut. It gets me every time.
    sniff . . . why must affairs with monsters always be so melancholy?

  3. Ethan
    March 27th, 2009 @ 2:05 am

    I like how the gillmen are integrated into the T.S. Eliot poem. It’s not too much. BTW, the “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea” stanza is my favourite. Nice choice.

  4. Nefarious Dr O
    April 14th, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

    Jimi Hendrix called music the last true magic left in the world. Now I know why

Leave a Reply





  • Support The Gutter

  • The Book!

  • Of Note Elsewhere

    At Comics Alliance, Chris Sims interviews Ed Brubaker about his work on Batman, Gotham Central and Catwoman. “When I look back at [Catwoman], I’m so proud of the first 25 issues of that book, when I felt like everything was firing on all cylinders. I probably should’ve left when Cameron Stewart left instead of sticking around. That’s one of those things I look back at and think “Ah, I had a perfect run up until then!” (Incidentally, Comics Editor Carol’s first piece for the Gutter was about Brubaker’s first 25 issues of Catwoman).

    ~

    At Sequential Art, Greg Carpenter writes a lovely piece about Charles Schulz’ Peanuts. “After only two installments, Schulz had solidified the rules for his comic strip.  Random acts of cruelty would punctuate this irrational world, and Schulz’s trapped little adults would be forced to act out simulations of human behavior, using hollow gestures to try to create meaning in a universe where no other meaning was evident.  If Shakespeare’s Macbeth had been a cartoonist, the results of his daily grind, “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” might have looked somewhat similar—each character a “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” until he or she was heard from no more.”

    ~

    The Smithsonian Magazine has a gallery of US spy satellite launches. “Just as NASA creates specially designed patches for each mission into space, [National Reconnaissance Office] follows that tradition for its spy satellite launches. But while NASA patches tend to feature space ships and American flags, NRO prefers wizards, Vikings, teddy bears and the all-seeing eye. With these outlandish designs, a civilian would be justified in wondering if NRO is trolling.”

    ~

    At The Guardian, Keith Stuart and Steve Boxer look at the history of PlayStation.“Having been part of the late 80s rave and underground-clubbing scene, I recognised how it was influencing the youth market. In the early 90s, club culture started to become more mass market, but the impetus was still coming from the underground, from key individuals and tribes. What it showed me was that you had to identify and build relationships with those opinion-formers – the DJs, the music industry, the fashion industry, the underground media.” (via @timmaughan)

    ~

    Neill Cameron has re-imagined the characters of Parks & Recreation as members of Starfleet. (Via @neillcameron)

    ~

    Christopher Lee has released a promotional video for his latest album, Darkest Carols, Faithful Sing.  You should probably watch everything at Charlemagne Productions.

    ~

  • Spilling into Twitter

  • Obsessive?

    Then you might be interested in knowing you can subscribe to our RSS feed, find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter or Tumblr.

    -------

  • Weekly Notifications

  • What We’re Talking About

  • Thanks To

    No Media Kings hosts this site, and Wordpress autoconstructs it.

  • %d bloggers like this: