copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Everything has a past, but not everything has a history. To have a history, something must have occurred within the scope of people’s self-conscious awareness of themselves and their world and must have been of sufficient interest for the historians among them to record and interpret these events.
Strangely enough, UFO’s and extraterrestrial creatures, often called aliens, have a history. In fiction (mostly science fiction, but some horror fiction as well), aliens have made appearances, usually as the enemy of humanity (but sometimes as its friend and would-be guru) as early as the seventeenth century. The idea that the moon might be inhabited was introduced in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) when an angel implies that the lunar satellite may be inhabited by lunatics similar to Adam and Eve, and Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle made a case for alien civilizations in his Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1686). Aliens appear in H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) as villains who meet their match in their encounter with Earth’s lowly bacteria. The recent discovery of rather large quantities of water on Mars makes the idea of life’s reality or possibility on other planets more feasible to many scientists than it seemed before this discovery.
Like Wells and other nineteenth-century novelists, many contemporary writers have featured aliens as characters in their novels. Stephen King (Dreamcatcher, The Tommyknockers) and Dean Koontz (The Taking) are examples. However, Hollywood loves aliens even more than novelists, and many films, both of the science fiction and the horror variety, have featured extraterrestrials.
This post is concerned not so much with the appearance of extraterrestrials in science fiction and horror stories but with the means by which such creatures seek to accomplish their goals or missions.
Form is limited by what nature exhibits. Therefore, as one might suspect, most aliens are either bipedal or humanoid in form, if not function, because it is difficult to imagine a creature that is otherwise, unless a writer takes (as some have done) one of our four-legged animal friends, one of our six-legged insect friends, or one of our eight-legged arachnid friends as his or her model. A few writers have looked to supernatural entities for their inspiration. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s allasomorph, in its true form, for instance, resembles nothing so much as it does a ghost. Although no such inspiration has been confirmed, it seems that George Lucas’ muse for his many extraterrestrial creatures could have been the demons with which Hieronymus Bosch populated the canvases of his Garden of Earthly Delights triptych.
One of the more interesting aliens is The Blob, a gelatinous mass similar to an ameba that has been magnified several millions of times. Although a giant jelly-like mass may seem silly, it seems less so if one imagines what it would be like to be engulfed by such a blob. One would no doubt twist and thrash about, kicking (if not screaming), panicked and terrified, as he or she began to suffocate within the gelatinous mass. If mere suffocation is not enough to frighten and annoy the victim, one is not to worry: the creature also digests its prey, dissolving him or her into a nutritious protein stew. Meanwhile, the terrified face of the struggling victim is visible through the blob’s membranous, gelatinous form.
King’s Dreamcatcher aliens resemble legless red weasels. Spawned by the ingestion of an infectious mold called a byrus, the aliens, known as byrum, incubate within their hosts’ abdomens and exit through their rectums. The byrum is linked telepathically with the byrus, with which the alien creatures maintain a symbiotic relationship that is hazardous to human health. King said that his aliens symbolize cancer, which is the title that he’d originally given his work in progress before deciding upon Dreamcatchers instead.
The aliens of King’s Tommyknockers are more human in their appearance, although with a bit of crab and dog thrown in, for good measure. Unusually tall, they have claws instead of feet and canine countenances. Gray of skin, they are milky-eyed and have apparently foregone sex and gender in favor of sexless androgyny. They have also given up spoken and written language, it seems, preferring to communicate telepathically. (In King’s novels, the ability to use telepathy is one of the necessary attributes, it seems, for aliens.) In other ways, however, the aliens are severely limited, if not actually mentally handicapped. Unable to reproduce sexually, the aliens resort to transforming humans into semblances of themselves in an apparent attempt (King is never too clear on this point) at colonizing the Earth. Many critics see these aliens as representing the effects of substance abuse, from which King was allegedly suffering at the time that he wrote this novel.
Koontz’s aliens are so much like spaceships that the human characters mistake the extraterrestrials for such. (In fact, though, the creatures aren’t aliens at all, as it turns out; they’re fallen angels, led by Satan). When they pass overhead, one feels as if he or she is mentally radiated, as it were, and known, completely and instantly. To facilitate their conquest of the Earth, an advance team of the extraterrestrials is undertaking a reverse-terraforming of the planet to create an atmosphere that is hazardous to humans but agreeable to the extraterrestrials. It is only toward the end of the novel that the protagonist learns that the aliens are actually an army of demons who have come to destroy the planet. In this novel, Koontz inverts the old idea that the demons of myth and legend were inspired by aliens who visited the Earth in days long past, making the belief in aliens a consequence of the actual existence of demons. This plot ploy allows Koontz’s novel an unusual theological significance that King matches in his own demon-haunted novel Desperation.
Form is one of the limits that nature imposes upon writers who want to write about alien creatures, for people, writers included, are limited by nature as to what they can know and, consequently, about what they can write. Nature, although varied, is finite, and, sooner or later, minerals, plants, insects, and animals are going to run out of characteristics and abilities that can be imposed, in more or less disguised fashion, upon supposedly extraterrestrial creatures. This is a given.
Therefore, writers are well advised, if they want their monster to be an alien, to take a leaf from King and Koontz and give them a non-human (and possibly an inhuman) means of carrying out their (more or less human) motives for visiting Earth to begin with and for whatever mission or endeavor they undertake after they get here. Despite some problems with his plots, King’s Dreamcatcher and Tommyknockers do impart more-or-less alien means of accomplishing his extraterrestrials’ more-or-less human purposes, although he uses a biological concept (symbiosis), a paranormal cliché (telepathy), and a centuries-old political purpose (colonization) to do so: his aliens are here to invade the Earth (Dreamcatcher) and to colonize our planet (The Tommyknockers); the way they go about doing so--spreading a disease in which they are symbiots and transforming humans into themselves with a gas--are more-or- less alien methods. Koontz’s motive for his aliens’ presence is even more intriguing: they are merely wearing disguises; the aliens are actually demons who wear their extraterrestrial appearances as fleshly costumes. Affecting a disguise isn’t all that unusual, especially for humans, but the means by which the demons in his novel accomplish their purpose--taking upon themselves an extraterrestrial likeness--is beyond the scope of anything that human beings can accomplish--at least this side of hell.
If a writer can’t get past the restrictions of form in creating aliens, he or she should at least try to imagine a way to bypass function, giving his or her aliens a non-human method by which to accomplish their purposes. As in so many other matters relating to horror fiction, King and Koontz have shown the way by which writers can do so.