The monster’s lair is the antithesis of home sweet home. It is the home turned inside out and upside down. For most people, be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. A refuge from the callous indifference of others, from petty tyrants with petty agendas, from malicious coworkers who will do anything to get ahead (as they conceive the climbing of corporate and social ladders to represent), and a place where one can, without apology or pretense, be one’s true self, unmasked and undressed, home has long been the closest thing to paradise left on earth. The monster’s lair destroys all that is home, concerting it into a hell on earth wherein monsters, not loved ones, dwell.
As is often the case with horror fiction, Beowulf, which, in many ways, is the prototypical horror story, provides a superb example of the monster’s lair as the antithesis of home sweet home. A foil, as it were, to the Danish warriors’ mead hall, Heorot, Grendel’s lair is remote. It is isolated. It occupies land that is inhospitable and undesirable. The Danes’ hall, on the other hand, is central to the community, a place of camaraderie, a place where each warrior is respected and accepted by his peers.
Grendel, a descendant of the exiled, murderous Cain, lives apart from human society. A monster who is sometimes described as a demon and sometimes as a troll, he is fierce, fearsome, fearless, and ferocious. He is quick and powerful, and he is motivated by his envy of the fellowship of the Danes, from which he and his kith and kin have been excluded. Ostracism and banishment have taken their toll upon his soul, and he seeks to avenge his having been denied even the possibility of society and friendship by taking from the Danes that which they (and God) have denied to him.
The Danes, on the other hand, live in a society that is based upon courage, strength, fellowship, kinship, and a sharing of the spoils of war taken in victorious battle. Headed by a king, the Danish society operates by sharing the wealth captured from defeated tribes; in return for a share of the spoils of war, the Danish warriors, or thanes, are loyal to their liege. Therefore, their society is as much based upon sharing wealth as it is upon the attributes of the warrior, a warriors’ code, and the bonds of family relationships and friendships. The sharing of the wealth allows all fighting men a stake in the fortunes and the affairs of their state and, as such, is a symbol of respect and honor extended by the king to his followers who make it possible for his kingdom to exist and for him to acquire booty through battle against neighboring, hostile tribes.
The characters’ beliefs and behaviors reflect their treatment by others. Grendel, who is ostracized, becomes vengeful and murderous; the Danes, who enjoy fellowship among themselves, are loyal and sociable and supportive--at least to one another. Exile is the basis of Grendel’s anti-social destructiveness; family and friendship are the bases of the Danes’ sociability, constructiveness, and culture.
The poem describes both Grendel’s lair and Heorot; the descriptions themselves demonstrate the vast differences in monstrous Grendel’s stark, barren haunt and the bright, warm hall of mead in which the Danes enjoy friendship and fellowship.
Grendel’s abode is described in the following lines of the poem, when Beowulf, having killed Grendel earlier, now enters the monster’s lair to fight his vanquished foe’s mother:
The lair is also described in a prose version of the poem:
. . . They dwell apart
among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags
and treacherous keshes, where cold streams
pour down the mountain and disappear
under mist and moorland.
A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
will turn to face them with firm-set horns
and die in the wood rather than dive
beneath its surface. That is no good place.
When wind blows up and stormy weather
makes clouds scud and the skies weep,
out of its depths a dirty surge
Is pitched towards the heavens. . . .
[Beowulf] . . . discovered the dismal wood.
mountain trees growing out at an
angle above gray stones: the bloodshot water
surged underneath. . . .
. . . The water was infested
with all kinds of reptiles. There were writhing sea-dragons
and monsters slouching on slopes by the cliff,
serpents and wild things such as those that often
surface at dawn to roam the sail-road
and doom the voyage. Down they plunged,
lashing in anger at the loud call
of the battle-bugle. An arrow from the bow
of the great Geat-chief got one of them
as he surged to the surface. . . .
. . . [Beowulf] dived into the heaving
depths of the lake. It was the best part of a day
before he could see the solid bottom.
. . . A bewildering horde
came at him from the depths, droves of sea-beasts
who attacked with tusks and tore at his chain-mail
in a ghastly onslaught. The gallant man
could see he had entered some hellish turn-hole
and yet the water there did not work against him
because the hall-roofing held off
the force of the current. . . .
They occupy a secret land, wolf-haunted slopes, windswept crags, dangerous swamp tracks where the mountain stream passes downwards under the darkness of the crags, water under the earth. It is not far from here, measured in miles, that the lake stands; over it hang frost-covered groves, trees held fast by their roots overshadow the water. There each night may be seen a fearful wonder--fire on the flood. No one alive among the children of men is wise enough to know the bottom. Although the trong-antlered stag, roaming the heath, may seek out the forest when driven from the field, hard pressed by hounds, he will sooner yield up life and spirit than hide his head there. That is not a pleasant place! From it a surging wave rises up black to the clouds when the wind stirs up hostile storms, till the air grows dim, the skies
weep. . . .
Then the son of princes advanced over the steep rocky slopes by a narrow path, a constructed route where only one could pass at a time, an unfamiliar way, precipitous crags, many a lair of water-monsters. . . . Suddenly he found mountain trees leaning over a grey rock, a cheerless wood; below lay the water, gory and turbid.
Terrible in itself, Grendel’s lair is made all the more appalling by its sharp contrast with the comfortable, well-lighted splendor of the Danes’ mead hall, Heorot, from whose walls the monster, his mother, and their kin are banned:
The troop all sat down; they saw then upon the water many of the serpent race, strange sea-dragons exploring the deep, also water-monsters lying on the slopes of the crags, such as those that in the morning-time often attend a miserable journey on the sail-way, serpents and wild beasts. They fell away, fierce and swollen with rage; they understood the clear sound, the war-horn ringing. With an arrow from his bow the prince of the Geats parted one of them from life, from its battle with the waves, when a hard warshaft stuck in its vitals; it was slower swimming on the water when death carried it off.
. . . The water’s surge received the warrior. It was part of a day before he could catch sight of the level bottom.
. . . A vast host of weird creatures harried him in the deep; many a sea-beast tore at his battle-shirt; monsters pursued him. Then the hero realized he was in some sort of enemy hall, where no water could harm him at all, nor could the flood’s sudden grip touch him because of the vaulted hall. . . .
So times were pleasant for the people there. . . .Again, the same scene is described in the prose version of the poem:
[King Hrothgar] handed down orders
for men to work on a great mead-hall
meant to be a wonder of the world forever;
it would be his throne-room
and there he would dispense
his God-given goods to young and old--
but not the common land or people’s lives.
Far and wide through the world, I have heard,
orders for work to adorn that wallstead
were sent to many peoples. And soon it stood there
finished and ready, in full view,
the hall of halls, Heorot was the name
he had settled on it, whose utterance was law.
Nor did he renege, but doled out rings
and torques at the table.
The hall towered.
its gables wide and high. . . .
[King Hrothgar] would instruct men to build a greater mead-hall than the children of men had ever heard of, and therein he would distribute to young and old everything which God had given him--except the public land and the lives of men. I have heard then how orders for the work were given to many peoples throughout this world to adorn the nation’s palace. So in time--rapidly as men reckon it--it came about that it was fully completed, the greatest of hall buildings. He who ruled widely with his words gave it the name Heorot. He did not neglect his vow; he distributed rings, treasures at the banquet. The hall rose up high, lofty and wide-gabled. . . .If we are most at home in our homes, our homes reflect most completely and honestly who we are. However, a home is not built entirely by the homesteader. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, it takes a community to build a home. The motive for Grendel’s attack upon Heorot is clearly given in the poem:
--or, as the prose version phrases the same passage:
Then, a powerful demon,
a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance.
It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall,
the harp being struck
and the clear song of the poet
telling with mastery
of man’s beginnings,
and how the Almighty had made the earth. . . .
Nor was that the first time
he [Grendel] had scouted the grounds of Hrothgar’s dwelling--
although never in this life, before or since,
did he find harder fortune or hall-defenders.
Spurned and joyless, he journeyed on ahead
And arrived at the bawn. . . .
Exiled Grendel feels “spurned and joyless”; he envies the Danes their free and easy camaraderie. In addition, the poem suggests that it is God’s having exiled Cain, the ancestor of Grendel’s monstrous and demonic race, that has created them, perhaps as unwilling servants of the divine will:
Then the powerful demon, he who abode in darkness, found it hard to endure this time of torment, when everyday he heard loud rejoicing in the hall. . . .
Then out of the wasteland came Grendel, advancing beneath the misty slopes; he carried the wrath of God. . . . That was not the first time he had sought out the home of Hrothgar. Never in all the days of his life, before nor since, did he have worse luck in meeting thanes in hall. . . .
The creature, bereft of joy, came on, making his way into the
hall. . . .
--or, as the prose version phrases the same passage:
He [Grendel] had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward.
Unhappy creature, he lived for a time in the home of the monster race after God had condemned them as kin of Cain. . . . Providence drove him [Cain] away far away from mankind for that crime [the murder of his brother Abel]. Thence [i. e., from the exiled Cain] were born all evil broods: ogres and elves and goblins--likewise the giants who for a long time strove against God; he paid them their reward for that.Jumping from the medieval world of Beowulf to that of the early twentieth-century world of Ed Gein, we see that the same principles apply, despite the passing of centuries and the crossing of hundreds of miles. Although Gein lived in Plainfield, Wisconsin, rather than in Denmark, centuries later than Grendel is alleged to have lived, Gein is as much a product and a reflection of his small town community’s indifference to him as Grendel is of the Danes’ disregard for Grendel. Their homes reflect their respective ostracism, as do their crimes against the very humanity that spurns them.
His house was as jumbled, cluttered, disorganized, and full of bizarre artifacts as his mind was full of muddled, confused, and insane thoughts and impulses. The disarray is so extreme as to be all but indescribable. Piled with magazines, boxes, crates, papers, litter, newspapers, garbage, and other materials, the house was also the repository of much grimmer and more gruesome artifacts: soup bowls carved from human skulls; chairs upholstered in human flesh; lampshades fashioned of human skin and (in, one case, at least) equipped with a pull-chain to which a pair of human lips were attached; boxes of noses and labia; women’s faces, stuffed and mounted, hung upon the wall as decorations, a “mammary vest,” complete with female breasts; human organs inside the kitchen’s refrigerator; and the decapitated head of Bernice Worden, whom Gein had murdered.
Gein murdered women. He robbed graves. He cut skin from the faces of the dead and, stuffing them with paper, hung them upon his walls, as decorations. He kept a collection of noses and a collection preserved labia. He dressed in his victims’ clothing--and in their faces, worn as masks, and in a costume of “mammary vest,” gloves, and leggings, all obtained from women’s corpses. He most likely cooked and ate some of his murdered victims’ organs. He would have had sex with the cadavers, he admitted, were it not for the repulsiveness of their stench. He did all these despicable acts and more, and, yet, so little did they know the fiend in their midst, that Gein’s neighbors and acquaintances regarded him as nothing more than an eccentric, perhaps slightly mentally handicapped loner who was, they said, a good laborer and handyman. One neighbor even entrusted her children to Ed to baby sit. Such disregard is not only monstrous in itself, but, it seems, it also succeeded in helping to create a monster. Had the community truly made an effort to befriend Gein, it may have been that he would never have felt the need to find a replacement for his domineering, fanatical mother, Augusta, after her passing. Gein had no friends, though, and even the few acquaintances he made had no genuine interest in him as a human being.
The same ostracism and disregard of the community for one of its own is evident in Stephen King’s Carrie (and most of his other works); in many of Dean Koontz’s novels, particularly with regard to his female protagonists; and in the novels of many other contemporary authors. In fact, as we have pointed out in previous posts, individual, social, and even cosmic indifference is a major theme in the contemporary horror fiction. Like the headlines of newspapers around the world, a callous disregard for others who are different, powerless, difficult, or even insane produces monsters at least as much as does the sleep of reason.
Disenfranchisement, whether on an individual or a social or a national basis, breeds monsters. The beast may live in his lair, but, more often than not, it was his community, his society, or his nation who both built his hellish abode and made the bed in which he lies, plotting his revenge. A home away from home is no home at all, and such a home--or monster’s lair--may be the place in which one hangs not his hat, but another’s head.