Swamp Thing 3.21: The Other It

Well, everything has to start somewhere, even muck-encrusted melanges of plant matter and human remains. If Swamp Thing teaches us anything, it’s that surprising things can crawl out of the murk when you least expect them, made out of an awful admixture of the living and the dead.

Stories are like that, too. An interesting idea can ooze around in the half-remembered fictional consciousness for decades, until it finds itself bidden back to the surface, clothed in new material and walking the Earth once more.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Swamp Thing wasn’t the first shaggy swampman in American literature to lurch out of the mire and look around for playmates. He wasn’t the second, either; it turns out, if you pick up a couple of rocks and look under them, there was a whole subgenre of mud-soaked monsters that populated much of the 1970s from pretty much every comic publisher there was.

Swamp Thing, Man-Thing, the Heap, the Glob, the Bog Beast, the Heap (a different one), the Lurker in the Swamp… Corpse after corpse, popping up out of the sludge to make friends, take revenge and generally make the world a stranger and a soggier place.

But the genuine original was called “It” — but not the Stephen King one. This is the other one.

Like most of the useful science fiction ideas in the world, the man-monster of the swamp emerges from the science-fiction and fantasy pulp magazines from the first half of the 20th century. In those early days, nascent nerds didn’t have any space opera movies to obsess over, so they had to sit around and type their own, then mail them off to disreputable publishers and hope for a break.

Isaac Asimov started out in the pulps, and so did Ray Bradbury, and H.P. Lovecraft, and Arthur C. Clarke, and Frank Herbert, and Robert A. Heinlein, and basically everybody, because that was where science fiction happened to America, in these weird little monthly telephone directories filled with mostly bullshit and occasional flashes of absolute genius.

“It!” first appeared in August 1940, in a magazine called Unknown Fantasy Fiction, and it was written by Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote a bunch of weird novels and stories, and also the Star Trek episode about Spock’s Vulcan mating ritual. It’s a tale of an unnatural, unknowable creature who terrorizes a farm family without really understanding what it’s doing.

This is how it starts.

It walked in the woods.

It was never born. It existed. Under the pine needles the fires burn, deep and smokeless in the mold. In heat and in darkness and decay there is growth. There is life and there is growth. It grew, but it was not alive. It walked unbreathing through the woods, and thought and saw and was hideous and strong, and it was not born and it did not live. It grew and moved about without living.

It crawled out of the darkness and hot damp mold into the cool of a morning. It was huge. It was lumped and crusted with its own hateful substances, and pieces of it dropped off as it went its way, dropped off and lay writhing, and stilled, and sank putrescent into the forest loam.

It had no mercy, no laughter, no beauty. It had strength and great intelligence. And — perhaps it could not be destroyed. It crawled out of its mound in the wood and lay pulsing in the sunlight for a long moment. Patches of it shone wetly in the golden glow, parts of it were nubbled and flaked. And whose dead bones had given it the form of a man?

It’s lovely, a strange new monster that nobody had ever thought of before. Sturgeon imagined a thing and thought about how it would work, and then he unleashed it on the populace, to see what happens.

“It” is like an H.P. Lovecraft story, in that it involves people coming into contact with an inhuman intelligence that doesn’t understand or care about them. But Lovecraft stories were always told from the humans’ point of view; his cosmic beings had an intelligence that humans could never relate to. In contrast, Sturgeon presents a creature that operates logically, based on its own limited understanding of reality.

It clumps out of the woods with no emotions beyond curiosity, and its interaction with the world is a scientific investigation. It kills a rabbit and then the farm family’s dog, and pulls the animals apart to find out how they work.

What was happening? It was getting harder to see. Why? It threw its shapeless head from side to side. It was true — things were dim, and growing dimmer. Things were changing shape, taking on a new and darker color. What did the creatures it had crushed and torn apart see? How did they see?

The larger one, that one that had attacked, had used two organs in its head. That must have been it, because after the thing had torn off two of the dog’s legs it had struck at the hairy muzzle; and the dog, seeing the blow coming, had dropped folds of skin over the organs — closed its eyes. Ergo, the dog saw with its eyes. But then after the dog was dead, and its body still, repeated blows had had no effect on the eyes. They remained open and staring.

The logical conclusion was, then, that a being that had ceased to live and breathe and move about lost the use of its eyes. It must be that to lose sight was, conversely, to die. Dead things did not walk about. They lay down and did not move. Therefore the thing in the wood concluded that it must be dead, and so it lay down by the path, not far away from Kimbo’s scattered body, lay down and believed itself dead.

You see things from the humans’ perspective as well, as they investigate. The dog’s owner, Alton, goes looking for the person who dismembered his dog, and then he doesn’t come back from the woods. Alton’s brother and his little niece follow, looking for Alton. There is more death.

It’s a chilling and memorable story, and it’s no wonder that people were inspired by it to create more stories about a dead thing in a human shape, made out of mud and leaves and decay.

Comic books picked up the idea a couple years later, with a character called the Heap in 1942’s Air Fighter Comics. I’ll tell you more about him later, and how he stumbled and squashed his way to become an inspiration for a dozen other comic book swamp golems.

The weird thing that I’ll leave you with right now is that most of the soggy swamp characters to follow are actually the heroes of their stories. In “It”, Sturgeon created a remorseless, unnatural killer, and pretty much everyone else looked at that idea and said, “Reanimated corpse made out of wet filth? Must be a good guy.”

It’s really quite bizarre. It’s like if two-thirds of the zombie movies ever made were about well-meaning, misunderstood zombies who tried to help people. There are a few of those, like Warm Bodies, but that would be the rule, and not the humorous exception.

Swamp Thing is, for all intents and purposes, a story about a zombie, except that he’s green and he has a sweet smile on his face. The movie’s costume makes him seem like just another rubber-suited monster, but when Cable looks at Alec, she sees a big pile of leaves, vines and mud that sits up, and wants to be friends with her.

They call Swamp Thing a horror movie, but “It” shows us that in this film, the horror is way down in the mix. The creature itself is a shambling dead thing that should terrify you just by existing in the world, but in this movie, everybody treats him like he’s a really strong guy who happens to be green. It would roll over in its grave, but unfortunately, It doesn’t have one.

Next:
We seek justice at all costs in a new podcast episode!
Daredevil 18.1: Literally the Poor Man’s Batman


Footnotes:

You can find “It” in Selected Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, which is affordably priced for Kindle. I haven’t read any of his other stories yet, so I don’t know how good they are, but “It” is really quite chilling and well-done, with a killer ending.

If you want to read more about the surprisingly large number of comic book swamp creatures, including Swamp Thing, Man-Thing, and all the rest, TwoMorrows Publishing has a book called Swamp Men: Muck-Monsters and Their Makers which is incredibly comprehensive and well worth reading. I’m very grateful for it, and I’ll be using it again in some future posts.

The black and white illustration in this post is from the original Unknown publication. The color panels are from a Marvel adaptation of the story in Supernatural Thrillers #1 (Dec 1972).

Next:
We seek justice at all costs in a new podcast episode!
Daredevil 18.1: Literally the Poor Man’s Batman

Chapters

— Danny Horn

16 thoughts on “Swamp Thing 3.21: The Other It

  1. I love your history lesson posts, Danny. Out of the murk and mire of corny, pulpy old stories, crawl a few gems that walk upright until they spawn movies. And you’re there to point them out to us, those shocking, amazing few that survived Sturgeon’s Law.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. ‘“It” is like an H.P. Lovecraft story.’ The title reminds me of Lovecraft’s “He,” and the creature sounds like a scaled-up version of what Asenath Waite ends up as by the end of “The Thing on the Doorstep.”

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I love the idea of plants attaining sentient life/ability to move around. In a dark and twisted way it’s like a fairy tale where a simple peasant is granted a wish by a fairy godmother, but instead of glass slippers and marrying a prince, it’s a vine or some moss wanting to be able to walk wherever it wants and figure out how eyeballs work.

    I’m definitely going to pick up that book, it sounds fascinating.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’ve been reading old SF and hit this one just a month or so ago. I had always heard of It and It’s influence on Swamp Thing and Man-Thing, so I was happy to finally read It. It is a really good story. I highly recommend It.

    The grammar nerd in me also loves It because It allows you to use It’s as a possessive.

    I’ll also give a shout-out to TwoMorrows. I love their output. I haven’t read this one yet, but I’ve been thinking about picking it up. I’m glad Danny’s using it.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Another sci-fi master, Alfred Bester, also started writing in Thrilling Wonder Stories before writing for Superman and Green Lantern. He would later win the first Hugo Award for The Demolished Man.

    I always associated Swamp Thing with the old idea of the Green Man. It’s supposed to symbolize rebirth so it works with the Swamp Thing story.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. In the Babylon 5 series, Walter Koenig (Checkov from Star Trek) loves his work as ominous villian Alfred Bester.

      That must have been an in-joke tribute from series creator J. Michael Straczynski, a walking encylopedia of sci-fi nerd knowledge.

      Like

      1. There are telepathic police in The Demolished Man, so it makes sense that Koenig’s Psi Corps character was named after him.
        My favorite Bester reference is from The Simpsons. Martin Prince names Asimov, Bester and Clarke as the ABC of science fiction writers. When asked, “What about Bradbury?” he dismissively replies, “I’m aware of his work.”

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Also Bester created zombie villain Solomon Grundy in 1944. Grundy’s corpse is revived after being dumped in a swamp. Sturgeon’s It predates him.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Venturing into a slightly different “branch of the family tree”, The Thing From Another World was also a plant creature; and then there’s Invasion of The Body Snatchers with those creepy pod people.

    Like

  8. There’s an ep of Night Gallery with a sociopathic little girl befriending a shambling mound. Alas, like most eps of that show, it was done very poorly.

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  9. One of my favorite short story collections by any author is Sturgeon’s “E Pluribus Unicorn”, which incidentally contains a sci-fi story featuring a sensitive portrayal of a male homosexual relationship, which was unusual at the time (1953).

    Liked by 1 person

  10. For the historical record, let’s also remember the great grandaddy of swamp or lake-based monsters, the Loch Ness monster tales from Scotland. I have no doubt they served as an inspiration for many of the comic book swamp monsters that came about in the 20th century.

    Like

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