This is a story about monsters.
I met one on a hot summer day on the subway to Coney Island. While listening to an audiobook, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (HarperCollins, 2013), read by its author Neil Gaiman, he gave a name to someone I already knew well: “The thing that called itself Ursula Monkton hung in the air, about twenty feet above me, and lightnings crawled and flickered in the air behind her.”
Although a work of fantasy fiction, the overall feeling of Gaiman’s Ocean is disturbingly real and somber. The darkness of its details is filled with terror, bitterness, and despair. Ocean’s world is scrupulously placed on the border between a child’s nightmare and the reality of a dysfunctional family. The story begins with a man on his way to a funeral, recalling the memory of an opal miner who once appeared in his suburban hometown of Sussex, England, when he was a seven-year-old boy. Introduced to the narrator by his mother as their new lodger, the mysterious opal miner soon steals the family car and takes his own life in its backseat. In so doing, he unintentionally grants a monster a means of access to the physical world.
The boy’s neighbor, Lettie Hempstock, an old, powerful being assuming the guise of an 11-year-old girl, lives with her mother and grandmother at the end of their lane; it is she who discovers the connection between the opal miner’s death and this unnatural being. Together, Lettie and the boy embark on a quest through an unearthly grove, to a place out of this temporal world, somewhere only just beyond reach, in order to destroy this scary and alien creature. Gaiman handles this otherworld delicately, intertwining the real and the unreal, the normal and the peculiar—a mysterious place of uncanny familiarity. In this grim, disheartening dreamscape, the creature turns into a worm and, as many bad things do in both the real world and fairytales alike, finds itself a way out. It creeps into the boy’s body through his foot and finds a name and an identity in his “real life.” The next day, a woman called Ursula Monkton comes to live and work in the boy’s house as the new nanny.
She quickly estranges the boy from his loving family by befriending his sister and seducing his father. The real horror is not in the monster who looks human, but in the certain way it makes the boy feel: the helplessness of being alone in knowing the truth about Ursula Monkton, and his inability to convince his family members of her flesh-and-bone danger. Gaiman weaves the desperation and alienation of a fearful child into the limitations of the imagination of an adult, where adulthood’s foolish confidence in understanding how the world functions, as it usually does, wins over a child’s. The boy’s disappointment in the adult world merges with self-doubt and loneliness.
He eventually receives the help he needs from Lettie’s family, the Hempstocks, who are able to see Ursula Monkton as he does. These three women speak the first language ever spoken: “[I]t was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie,” writes Gaiman. “It is the most basic building brick of everything.” Theirs is an ancient power, like that of the first words, and within this maternal, brilliant, radiating power, the Hempstocks are caring and kind. As the story climaxes, their presence becomes even more complicated and strong in that nearby, almost metaphorical non-reality. Lettie Hempstock saves the boy through self-sacrifice, and the reality of these events from a far-beyond childhood turns into memory, forgotten again soon after they are remembered.
It has been more than a year since I have found myself ensnared by a monster. Something happened that has bound my hands and my brain; I found myself in a mire, sinking. At first I thought it was a temporary entrapment, a break from how I typically function that would soon pass, or that it was the fatigue that comes with doing what I did. Or maybe I was just changing into something else, though I was not sure whether I might be evolving or declining. But it wasn’t that, and I knew it. I just couldn’t write anymore. The monster was sitting on my chest, suffocating and demeaning my sense of being. I was very scared.
I started writing for the first time years later, finding another channel for what was inside me to come out. I wrote with a sense of newfound hope, about artworks and painters, whales and lions and deserts—and I thought this time it would never end. Like when I was painting, I had my thrilling moments and inspirations. I followed their lead all the way from Istanbul to New York, a whole ocean away. I almost forgot about the monster lurking unseen in the shadows of my mind. I could breathe again.
And then all of a sudden, it stopped. It was a different setting, but it was happening again, this time with writing. The same monster returned from the darkness, almighty and dismaying, like a clichéd comeback in a movie.
On January 20, 1915, Franz Kafka wrote in his journal: “The end of writing. When will it take me up again?” In the past year, I have cleaned my house numerous times, binge-watched dozens of true crime documentaries and cooking shows, lost my sleep, or else slept eighteen hours a day. Kafka continued around two weeks later, on February 7: “Complete standstill. Unending torments.” None of his words was even a slight exaggeration, I thought.
To try and free myself of the monster, I started to make promises. I pitched art reviews, made deadlines, went to see exhibitions not even to enjoy them, really, but to write about them. I took silly notes in planners and journals, made voice recordings, and tried handwriting, all in an effort to force my words to flow once again. Those notes turned into half-written drafts, and my work turned into a meticulous skincare routine I essentially called “procrastination.” I broke all my promises.
And then one day, on that crowded train to Coney Island, I finally recognized the monstrous creature in the voice of Gaiman, reading his Ocean. Through his voice, it infiltrated my ears and materialized before my eyes. I saw it. It stared back at me with its scathing eyes and a ruthless gaze. It was a woman with “shortish honey-blond hair, huge grey-blue eyes, and pale lipstick,” and wore grey and pink stripes. It called itself Ursula Monkton.
Gaiman uses the phrase “the thing that called itself Ursula Monkton” repeatedly in his book, and while listening to his voice on that long train ride I realized that I recognized “the thing.” At first it was hard to distinguish Ursula Monkton as my monster, my own creative block, but as the book progressed, I became more and more certain that this creature has been with me throughout my life, ever since I first started to create. It is the one that has sunk me in that mire and tied my hands, has caused me to give up a thousand times, and the one whose fearsomeness only I know and see. As it stared at me with its grey, cruel eyes from across the subway crowd, I felt the worm inside the heel of my foot, like a needle reaching through my heart. Ursula Monkton was within me, and it was here to stay.
Ursula Monkton’s will stretches beyond absolute evil. Its intentions, although incomprehensible to me in their alien nature, are there, in their essence, to help me. There is no way to survive but to accept its help. It fills me with self-doubt and a paralyzing sense of loneliness, as it does to the boy in the book, and the kind of torture it puts me through is not romantic like I felt as a teenager. But it’s here nonetheless, and I have to believe that someday I will understand how it helps me. A piece of Ursula Monkton will one day become a true part of me—just as the wormhole piercing my heart will be its way out.
At the end of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the narrator walks out of the Hempstock farm without remembering Ursula Monkton or Lettie’s sacrifice to save him, not anymore. His world seems normal again. It is for readers, then, to choose their own truth and decide whether they believe that the ocean in their backyard is a reality that contains all the knowledge in the world, or if it is merely a duck pond. Can they remember, like the narrator once did, the words of the first language? Can they remember their power? Will I remember mine?
The thing that calls itself Ursula Monkton is scary, and dark, and threatening. And yet I choose to believe in the lost, powerful languages and everlasting full moons, and never to forget the monster that hides in the dark corners of my self-doubting, self-punishing image. Every day with Ursula Monkton is another blank Word document, another promise that is broken, and another deadline passed without notice. It had another name, maybe another face; maybe it made another writer, painter, creator to become paralyzed with fear, to lose sleep, to quit. It disguises itself as bad decisions, poor time management, and many other poisonous ways of self-destruction. But then Kafka learned how to live with his own monster, and so did Neil Gaiman. And so will I. “Remember,” I say to myself in an ancient tongue. Because now I know: Some monsters are real.