My Father’s Monsters
1. Here’s how it started: my father, for reasons unknown to me at the time, would periodically come home, loudly insisting, Jeremiah, I saw a monster, and although he was never drunk, and it never seemed malicious—I never thought he was making fun of me—I never believed him, even at a young age, when he would crow about monsters that were very much in my orbit (he pivoted early on from Frankensteins or Mummies or Creatures from Various-Colored Lagoons and started conjuring up hair-raising encounters with beasts from Gremlins or An American Werewolf in London, stopping thankfully short of meeting Freddy Krueger or anything from Alien or The Thing).1
2. This continued unabated until it became a source of concern, and then, more powerfully, more keenly, embarrassment, as an assortment of friends would come by to pretend to do homework, only to find themselves in the inquisitorial hands of Alec Sutton, who would casually ask, as one would the weather, which frightful creation of George A. Romero or John Carpenter or Wes Craven or Roger Corman or Rick Baker or Stan Winston or Ray Harryhausen or Stephen King or H. P. Lovecraft or Horace Walpole (as if any of us had read Walpole!) or Clive Barker or Ray Bradbury (now he was reaching) or Edgar Allan Poe really gave my friend the heebie-jeebies, the screaming mimis, the willies, and whatever answer my father received from his poor subject would (almost) invariably produce a reaction somewhere along the lines of Well, funny you should say that, because the other night at a stop sign and off he would go, in an admittedly impressive display of extemporizing the chilling proximity in which he had found himself to something from an altogether more ghoulish version of our own world.2
3. Once I found my father casually flipping through an issue of Fangoria—on the cover was a Sasquatch, which I never found frightening and therefore never made it into my father’s bestiary—and this I took to be his admission that the jig was up, that he knew that I knew the monsters weren’t real; he didn’t try to hide the magazine, just continued flipping through pages of creature features while asking me in a disinterested tone how my day was going, and it’s not until writing this that I realized reading Fangoria and Eerie and For Monsters Only was his way of centering himself.3
4. One time, when I was nine or ten, my father roped his friend Lee in on the act, and Lee told me: “You know, Jem”—he was the only one who called me that, and I always hated it, but it wasn’t for many years that I realized I hated it because I am not and was not a character from Flannery O’Connor or Harper Lee—”all that stuff your dad says, well, it’s not bullshit”—and here my father winced, for he did not swear around me back then, but he did not interrupt—”it’s all true; why, once he and I were on our way to the b—to church”—I knew he was going to say “bar,” but he felt the need to cover himself after his bullshit gaffe, and my suspicions were confirmed when I saw his furtive glance at my father, as if for approval and permission, and in that glance I saw just how much my father meant to Lee Hayward—”and we saw an honest-to-goodness vampire, with the cape, the fangs, the amulet, the whole nine yards”—and here he just kind of trailed off, and while his effort was a weak one, I could see that it meant a lot to my father that Lee had made an effort at all, and I understood then, or at least I thought I understood, the strange nature of male friendship, which sometimes requires you to lie to your friend’s son.4
5. When I was in college, my father told me that he had seen the Headless Horseman—which I think was meant to appeal to my newfound sensibilities (I had recently declared myself a Classics major5), but instead of meeting him halfway and asking about the Jack-o’-lantern head, I tore into him, telling him that first of all, Irving wasn’t what anyone would exactly call a Classics author, I was reading shit like Virgil and Sophocles and Euripides and Chaucer, and I didn’t appreciate being made fun of . . . okay, yes, this was probably the meanest thing I ever said to Alec Sutton, but I never told him I didn’t believe him, that he never saw the Headless Horseman and I was sick of the bullshit with the monsters (my father and I swore around each other by now), so, mean though I was, I never, even then, broke his heart.
6. When Shea and I had kids—Murphy and Connor—they were a little more circumspect around Grampy Alec, not as believing of his tall tales, a trait for which I blame their mother, who was always analytical and practical in a way that, for some reason, deeply turned me on (in hindsight, Grampy Alec might have blown his cover early on when he insisted that he saw “a few Pokémons”6 by the corner store; the eye-rolls produced, in unison, by Murph and Con are still the greatest insults I’ve ever seen).
7. This put me in a bit of a bind: you don’t want your kids to think that their old man’s old man is a liar, but you also don’t want to lie to the kids, so you go along with it, much to your wife’s consternation (which later, to her credit, becomes bemusement), but everyone has fun with it, and no one gets too scared.7
8. I should clarify the word scared: my father’s intention was never to scare me (I never found any rubber snakes or spiders in my bed), and I never was scared (okay, maybe a few times when I was very young, but what child wouldn’t be frightened by the most trustworthy person in their life saying that he had just come from a meeting with the Swamp Thing?)—I think, ultimately, he was just trying to be my friend, to swap stories, to bullshit the way he must have done with Lee Hayward.8
9. Only once did an actual monster make an appearance, and here’s how it happened: my mother asked if I wanted to take a walk (Red Flag #1: my mother, although a fit woman, never spontaneously took walks) while my father was conspicuously absent (Red Flag #2: my father was never one to leave the house after he had returned to it), so out we went, down Larkspur Court, to the east, and out from the alleyway, why, look what it is, some Monster from Planet X, plainly a hazmat suit from a costume shop accompanied by a latex alien mask (most likely purchased from the selfsame costume shop [Red Flag #3: my father worked around the corner from Herb Crowne’s year-round costume shop]), replete with bulging, purple eyes and mottled gray skin.9
10. My mother mock-screamed and ran away at a pace quick enough for me to catch up to her, which I did as well, once I realized that it was what I was expected to do; I don’t remember my own reaction beyond that, but I really, really hope I played along.10
11. Later, my father’s monsters became upsettingly real, and they announced their presence with beeps and hoarse exhales and the rasp of my mother’s voice, like sandpaper grinding a pearl to dust.11
12. Monsters stopped seeking my father out after that.12
13. Kids are harder to scare these days, or maybe just harder to impress. Shea and I—she’s gotten in on the act too—have taken to watching DIY tutorials on YouTube, in an attempt to make our own prostheses, or makeup convincing enough to make Murph and Con think that one of us is the real deal.13 They’re too old to believe us, if they ever did, but that never stopped my father. He came to help us once and was almost immediately flummoxed. He dropped some mask-making impedimenta and looked at me, saying plainly, “Jesus, Jeremiah, I just told you stories.” He shook his head and laughed.
- The strange thing was, he wasn’t even a huge monster movie fan; he eschewed normal ‘dad’ taste, had no patience for Westerns or war movies, and oddly enough preferred staid dramas like Gentleman’s Agreement, and in the 1980s he acquired a low-grade obsession with My Dinner with Andre.
- My father didn’t do this more than once, and most of my friends found it either endearing or just the cost of hanging out with me, but poor Freddy Mackenzie told my father that the car in Christine had given him nightmares, and after hearing that my father had seen a ’58 Plymouth Fury driving by our school with no one behind the wheel, Freddy turned as white as if he’d been blood-let, and both Sutton men got a stern dressing-down from Freddy’s mother.
- I’d like to tell you that my father died and willed me a box of musty, dog-eared penny dreadfuls, but like I said, the man was never one for horror, and I’m fairly certain that most of those magazines wound up in the trash.
- One of the only truly nice things I ever did (everyone thinks of themselves as nice, I believe, but few people take the time to quantify it) was to visit Lee Hayward in the hospital after he had nearly blinded himself at work; he couldn’t see very well and was muted by painkillers and therefore couldn’t recognize my voice, so I told him, “It’s Jem Sutton.”
- I know, I know, shut up.
- The conversation afterwards, in which I explained the taxonomy of Pokémon to my father, is and was the most uncomfortable experience of my life, but I had to admire the nearly anthropological curiosity with which he approached the subject.
- Con was spared the sight of Pennywise the Clown, thanks to his mother’s intervention; she (correctly) pointed out that it would “scare the everloving shit out of him.”
- I should clarify further, because I feel like I’m digging myself a hole: these stories never made me distrust my father.
- My father never liked sci-fi, so I’m not sure why he went with this particular outfit as his first; there must have been a sale.
- My father would never break character and address it, nor would I bring it up, so all I have in this instance is hope that I made him happy.
- Rachel Holcomb Sutton died at the age of 51, and it hurts like a motherfucker to this day.
- Truthfully, I started to miss the monsters, and a few weeks after the funeral, I tried telling him I’d seen Pinhead in the frozen food aisle of Kroger’s, but he must have not have heard me because he said nothing.
- Shea and I never got great at fabricating masks, but I turned out to be something of a wunderkind with the makeup brush, and turned her into a pretty eerie facsimile of the Babadook.