As some parents learned during the pandemic, kids can be little monsters. Yes, your kids, your kids are monsters. But you still love them. Though this begs the question: What if they were really monsters? How much of a monster would your kid have to be for you to stop loving them? This is the question that’s central to Gerardo Sámano Córdova’s new novel Monstrilio (hardcover, Kindle). In the following email interview, Córdova discusses what inspired and influenced this horror fable.
Let’s start with a plot summary: What is Monstrilio about, and when and where does it take place?
Monstrilio begins in upstate New York with the death of Santiago, an 11-year-old boy, and his mother, Magos, cutting a piece of his lung to keep for herself. Returning to Mexico City, her hometown, Magos takes this piece of lung and feeds it, creating a little monster: Monstrilio!
The novel runs across upstate New York, Mexico City, Brooklyn, and Berlin as the family raises Monstrilio through four parts narrated by Magos (the mother), Lena (her best friend), Joseph (the father), and finally M (the monster himself).
Where did you get the idea for the plot of Monstrilio? What inspired it?
I was interested in love and how far love could reach before it fractured. I thought: what if a family had to love a monster? That would be a demanding (and bonkers) test. But how to do it? Grief is a lot of love without anywhere to put it. So, what if this family had to deposit all this love into a monster? Enter Monstrilio.
Santiago was born with only one small lung, which is what kills him. Is there a significance to it being his lungs that were the problem, and what his mom uses to grow a new Santiago, as opposed to him having a bad heart or only one small kidney or some other failing organ?
I thought a heart would be too on the nose, too darling a metaphor (though a heart does make it in the form of a tale one of the characters, Jackie, tells Magos and the reason why Magos begins feeding the lung). A kidney would’ve been a good choice, too. But I had been reading about how some people survive with only one lung and the resilience of this organ inspired me. The one lung just picks up the slack and that is amazing.
Similarly, is there a reason you had Santiago be 11 when he died as opposed to 7 or 5, or, conversely, 16?
Wow! You’re making me think back. I remember going back and forth on Santiago’s dying age (crunching numbers on a spreadsheet timeline — I love spreadsheets). The main reason Santiago died at 11 was that I wanted an age that would naturally lead the “new Santiago,” a.k.a. Monstrilio, to reach a young adult age toward the end of the book. I had to math my way into this number. Plus, I wanted Santiago to have lived a life, grown into an early semblance of his personality, and see how that would relate (or not) to Monstrilio’s. As a bonus, I love the number 11 (I’m in awe of prime numbers in general).
Monstrilio sounds like a horror story, but also sounds like a fable, like a horror fable.
I like “horror fable.” Makes it sound like it’s somehow ancient, rooted, like a tale you must heed.
Though one caveat I would have with the word “fable” is that Monstrilio doesn’t have a moral teaching as its goal. In fact, I tried to stay away from a definite “lesson.” I believe readers will reach their own conclusions, and I wanted the novel’s own world to exist in complexity (as I believe art excels at) asking questions without easy answers (or no answers at all), no definite “good” or “bad.”
So, how scary is it?
How scary will depend on each reader’s sensibilities, I suspect, however, it’s not full-on horror. The horror comes from the fact that there’s a monster who does monstrous things. Also from the fact that bodies fascinate me, how we relate to them, and how bodies transform, hurt, love, find joy, pleasure, violence. Bodies are wonderful, fleshy things and can sometimes be truly terrifying. The novel is also freaky. There’s kink and sex and heaps of weirdness. I think the right amount of horror and freakiness comes from what the story needs to be, and also from how freaky and horrific my own very human interests and questions (and instincts) are. Freaks make life worth living.
Monstrilio is your first novel, but you’ve had stories published in Chicago Quarterly Review and other journals. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Monstrilio but not anything else you’ve written?
There are a bunch of authors that have had an influence on my writing but there aren’t any specific only to Monstrilio and not to my stories. Frankenstein was obviously an influence for Monstrilio, and writers like Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, Kelly Link, Carmen Maria Machado, Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, Shirley Jackson, Clarice Lispector, Bruno Schulz, James Tate, and so many others.
How about non-literary influences; do you think Monstrilio was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
For movies: The Babadook, The Fly, Let The Right One In, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hereditary, La mujer sin cabeza (everyone should see this film), and Raw.
For TV Shows: The Leftovers.
And for games: Limbo and Inmost; the mood and visuals in these two inspired the bejesus out of me.
Now, along with writing, you’re also an artist and a filmmaker. Why did you decide to tell Monstrilio as a work of prose as opposed to as a movie or a graphic novel?
Writing was my very first artistic practice, and I had never written a book before. After working in film, photography and visual art, I wanted to fully commit to developing my practice as a writer. Film is awesome, but also requires money and other people, and all that organization and fund seeking proved too much for my frail artistic sensibilities. In the future, though, I would love to attempt a graphic novel.
Monstrilio sounds like it’s a stand-alone story…
As of this moment, yes, it is a stand-alone story. I believe I’ve told Monstrilio’s story in the most complete way I possibly can. As much as I enjoyed living in Monstrilio’s world with this bizarre and enchanting little family, I have to move on.
Earlier I asked if Monstrilio had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Monstrilio would work as a movie, show, or game?
I think it could work as any of the three, but I believe it would work best as a limited series. I’d love to see that happen [wink, wink].
And if some TV producer responded to your winking and decided to adapt Monstrilio into a show, who would you want them to cast as Santiago, his mom, and the other main characters?
Santiago is dead from the get-go, so he’s not much in the book except in a few flashbacks. The main four — Magos, Lena, Joseph, and M — would be ideal as newcomer actors. Get fresh acting blood on the screen.
As for adjacent characters, also important, but not the main four, I would cast established actors, for their gravitas and pull. Lucía, I would cast the amazing Mexican actor Patricia Reyes Spíndola [The Queen Of The Night]. Jackie would be the Mexican icon Angélica Aragón [Sexo, pudor y lágrimas]. And Uncle Luke would be Ralph Fiennes [Harry Potter] or [Wonder Woman‘s] David Thewlis.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Monstrilio?
Monstrilio is not straight-up horror. It’s also not a straight-up family drama. It has thrills and chills, gore, and monstrousness. It has tenderness and queerness. It’s love for others and for oneself, regardless of how monstrous that may turn out to be. I think it’s best to come into it with as few expectations as possible.
Finally, if someone enjoys Monstrilio, what novel that combines elements of horror and fables would you recommend they check out?
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. It’s dark. It’s supernatural. It’s weird. It’s about family and keeping those you love close and (impossibly) away from danger. It’s also a damn great book.