From Dead Gods to Guys in Lizard Costumes: Six Questions for James Morrow
James Morrow is an accomplished novelist and short story writer, whose work combines a savage and sage wit with complex ideas and human concerns. From his highly regarded Godhead Trilogy to his recently acclaimed The Philosopher’s Apprentice, no subject matter is either too heady or humble for Morrow’s fecund imagination. His most recent outing is the novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima, and here Morrow explores the dark heart of the twentieth century with an alternate history of the coming of the atomic age. Instead of the Enola Gay dropping Fat Man and Little Boy on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Morrow presents a gonzo alternative weapons programme, the Knickerbocker Project, whereby the U.S. has created fire-breathing monsters to end the war in the East. However, faced with the moral dilemma of whether or not to unleash the behemoths on civilian populations, the government hires horror movie B-actor Syms Thorley to don a monster suit and wage war on a miniature city, Shirazuka, in a vivid demonstration that they hope will force Japan to surrender. A clear, funny, and darkly satirical look at both the history of the atomic bomb and the Japanese monster movies that came in its wake, Morrow’s Shambling Towards Hiroshima provides cinematic satire that is funny, unnerving, and compelling.
What is the Origin Story for Shambling Towards Hiroshima? What inspired you to postulate this dual alternate history of both the Manhattan Project and the birth of monster movies at the dawn of the atomic age?
It all goes back to Roland Emmerich’s feeble and uninspired remake of the archetypal Japanese monster movie. I came out of the 1998 Godzilla saying to myself, “A crummy picture, to be sure—and yet the basic myth still resonates. One of these days, I’m going to do something with it.”
My initial outline for a Godzilla novel, which I wrote under the Yeats-inspired title What Rough Beast, had the monster traveling to Washington D.C. in 1995 to inspect the controversial Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute, his intention being to incinerate the city unless the curators prove willing to acknowledge certain uncomfortable political, military, and human truths about Hiroshima. I’d just finished reading Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell’s Hiroshima in America, an impassioned revisionist critique of Truman’s decision to wage nuclear war on Japan, and I was brimming with indignation over what might be called A-Bomb Denial Syndrome.
After noodling with What Rough Beast for several months, I decided that using the historical facts of the Smithsonian exhibition in such a bald and moralistic way would entail too few novelistic virtues and too many finger-wagging harangues. When Jacob Weisman invited me to contribute a short book to the Tachyon Publications list, I rethought the whole Godzilla thing from top to bottom, eventually hitting on the idea of a secret biological-weapons program overseen by the Navy in tandem with the Army’s Manhattan Project.
But the real breakthrough came when I recalled a passage from Hiroshima in America revealing that Truman’s Assistant Secretary of War, James McCloy, had argued for a quasi-public demonstration of the atomic bomb, whereby a Japanese delegation would get to see the new weapon’s awesome power and then presumably make the case to Emperor Hirohito that surrender was the best option. I decided that, once the Navy’s biological weapons program proved a success, bringing forth a generation of fearsome bipedal mutant iguanas, a renegade admiral and a top Knickerbocker Project scientist would start having qualms about the behemoths, subsequently convincing Harry Truman to reveal them to the enemy. Naturally this exhibition would take the form of a rubber-suited Hollywood actor stomping on a miniature Japanese city. And so Shambling Towards Hiroshima became the story of Syms Thorley, Monogram Studios horror legend, and how he conceivably might end the Pacific War by giving the performance of his life.
The novel maintains a theme or common subject matter visible in many short stories and some of your novels. In the play “Come Back, Dr. Sarcophagus” and the short story “Apologue” you use the medium of all those creature feature presentations on broadcast television as both the backdrop and the thematic core for very human stories, in a similar fashion to the monster movies riffed on in Shambling Towards Hiroshima. What is it about these genre tropes/themes that you find engaging?
I suppose there’s nothing quite so boring as somebody else’s nostalgia. That said, I’ve been an incurable aficionado of vintage horror films ever since, at the age of eleven, I purchased the first issue of the late Forest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland way back in 1958. As Saint Thomas Aquinas remarked, speaking of religious belief, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessarily. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” The same principle applies to classic monster movies starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr.
My one-act play “Come Back, Dr. Sarcophagus,” recently collected in The Cat’s Pajamas, represented my first attempt to turn my undying affection for these films into an entertainment. It’s all about a TV horror host who, faced with the specter of cancellation, manages to convince his superiors that monster movies deal substantively and affirmingly with basic ethical issues—which, in their own loopy way, they do. Last year I saw a lovingly mounted production of “Dr. Sarcophagus” at the Confluence science fiction celebration. Those Pittsburgh fans were probably the ideal troupe for performing my play, being already sympathetic to my brief on behalf of the philosophical and moral import of the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Frankenstein monster.
My fondness for TV horror hosts is also on display in American Scary, a recent documentary about the phenomenon, from Vampira to Zacherley to Chilly Billy Cardille to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. In this astute little tribute, you’ll see me offering up sound bites alongside Forry Ackerman, Neil Gaiman, Leonard Maltin, Bob Burns, Donald Glut, and other horror geeks.
You did a lot of research to give the book’s roots in B-cinema and the Manhattan Project verity. How did your research inform your telling of the story? Did anything emerge from the research that changed the way you were going to write the novel?
Shambling Towards Hiroshima includes a framing story in which Syms Thorley, now approaching age seventy, attends a 1984 Baltimore monster-movie festival, right before the re-election of the quintessential Cold Warrior, Ronald Reagan. It turns out that Syms is a fixture on the horror-convention circuit, and he keeps trying to use this forum to get his fans thinking about Harry Truman’s decision to drop the bomb. So I found myself doing a lot of research into this crucial moment in world history, so Syms’s rants would seem well informed. Of course, the convention attendees aren’t really interested. They only want to hear about Syms’s portrayals of Corpuscula the Alchemical Creature, Kha-Ton-Ra the Living Mummy, and, in the twilight of his career, the Japanese monster Gorgantis, King of the Lizards.
I ended up concluding that, when we argue about whether Truman should have ordered the Hiroshima raid, we are perhaps addressing the wrong issue. Rather, I think we should be asking three other questions.
First, given the fear and remorse that the obliteration of Hiroshima had almost certainly instilled in Emperor Hirohito, was it necessary to hit Nagasaki immediately afterwards? Some historians are troubled that General Leslie Groves systematically arranged for the second atomic attack to occur before Tokyo could formulate a coherent response to the first one.
Second, how essential was it to define the “unconditional surrender” of Japan in the most draconian terms imaginable? From the enemy perspective, the Potsdam Proclamation clearly allowed for Emperor Hirohito to be arrested, tried, and executed as a war criminal, an intolerable thought for the Japanese—and surely one reason for Tokyo’s maddeningly equivocal reaction to the ultimatum. And yet, ironically, after Hirohito finally demanded that his generals capitulate, there was evidently no sentiment among the Allies to apprehend him. Indeed, McArthur allowed the Emperor to remain the titular head of his nation, a gesture that proved essential for shutting down the tattered but fanatical remnants of Japan’s once mighty military machine.
Third, how necessary was it, both to immediate American interests and to the welfare of humankind in general, that the Pacific War end with minimal assistance from Joseph Stalin? Let’s not forget that, the day before the Nagasaki attack, the Soviet Government officially declared war on Japan. It seems reasonable to conclude that, even without the atomic-bomb factor, the Japanese would have ultimately surrendered in consequence of massive Soviet involvement—a situation that Truman could not countenance, given his understandable desire to curtail Stalin’s postwar influence in the Far East.
Richard Rhodes, who won the Pulitzer for history of the atomic bomb project, once said he thought that the story of the atomic age was Dante’s Inferno for the modern era. The atomic age and nuclear affairs has certainly permeated much of your work (I especially love “Martyrs of the Upshot Knothole,” a story of nuclear fallout and John Wayne films), though it seems to have gone somewhat passé in the post Cold War era. While this may seem self-evident, why do you find these issues so compelling?
It’s true that the specter of nuclear Armageddon is no longer at the forefront of public consciousness—though it’s worth remembering that George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraq adventure was sold to us as a stopgap measure against “weapons of mass destruction,” a rubric that presumably includes hydrogen bombs.
For better or worse, nuclear weapons raise bedrock moral and philosophical issues in a way that makes other technologies seem almost inconsequential by comparison. Consider the very term “weapons of mass destruction.” As I argued in my first piece of anti-nuclear fiction, This Is the Way the World Ends, these devices are not “weapons” as all, but Satanic instruments of indiscriminate murder. But George Bush couldn’t call them that, because to do so would be to question the legitimacy of our own obscenely proliferous arsenals.
At the moment, of course, everyone is concerned about the possibility of Iran and North Korea getting the bomb, along with concomitant delivery systems. There’s no easy solution to this threat, but I suspect the answer—if any—lies in tough-minded sanctions and negotiations. I would not put my money on Republican Party fantasies of zapping incoming missiles with Star Wars lasers: the famous Strategic Defense Initiative, so beloved by the cult of Ronald Reagan.
Shambling Towards Hiroshima seems the perfect length for its story, a short novel or long novella (and, by the by, I miss the era of the good, short novel). Why did you choose this length? What advantages does it provide you?
For many years my heart has been in the medium of the full-length novel, the more epic the better, hence the sweep of This Is the Way the World Ends, Only Begotten Daughter, Towing Jehovah, Blameless in Abaddon, and The Last Witchfinder. And yet I’d have to say that, having completed Shambling Towards Hiroshima, I’m impressed with how much of my philosophical and political agenda I managed to cram into those 170 pages. Shambling contains many more ideas, characters, scenes, gags, and conceits than I would have thought possible on such a modest scale.
Although I always thought of Shambling Towards Hiroshima as a novella, I would have certainly added more scenes if the story seemed to demand them, and Jacob Weisman would have been happy to publish a longer book. But the thing happened to come in at about 39,000 words. Whoever thought up the 40,000 legal limit for a novella must have known what he or she was doing. I don’t think Shambling would be nearly so effective at novel length. Another three or four thousand words, and my outlandish premise would surely have overstayed its welcome.
At the moment I’m in the middle of composing a fat historical novel about the coming of the Darwinian worldview. Something tells me that this may be my last attempt to tell a story on so large a scale. In the future, you should look for a flurry of shorter works by James Morrow.
I keep reminding myself that my two favorite philosophical SF novels, The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are not novels at all, but novellas. If the form was good enough for H.G. Wells, it’s good enough for me.
If you had to put money down on a fight between Godzilla and your mutant iguanas, who would win and why?
Godzilla would win. After all, the great Japanese lizard is real, whereas the Knickerbocker Project iguanas are mere products of my imagination.