I was offered a copy of this short story anthology to review for another website, and I must say I was sold just on the title. The -punk suffix is fairly ubiquitous now: since cyberpunk, we’ve had steampunk, clockpunk, dieselpunk, biopunk, golempunk, the list goes on. ‘Monkpunk’ as a concept seemed to promise something new, but yet also something I’d seen before in the many diverging medieval representations of monks, in the contemporary texts inspired by them (like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, to give an obvious example), but also in texts inspired by Buddhist monasticism and Eastern spirituality.
The introduction to the collection, which was written by D. Harlan Wilson, addresses this converging newness and oldness, while also raising another important paradox in the name. In exploring the histories of the terms ‘punk’ and ‘-punk’, Wilson points out that they have consistently been associated with the transgressive, but also with specifically externalized transgression. This is a distinct contrast with the internalized world of the ‘monk’. He writes:
‘The ascetic life of a monk might qualify as transgressive and brutal in itself, if only in its deviation from social norms, its wilful introversion, its maintenance of certain ideological values, and its repudiation of basic Darwinian instincts. In the broader spectrum, however, monks mind their own business, whereas punks, by force or will or submission, make other people’s business their own.’ (p. 1)This juxtaposition fascinates me, as does the notion of the ‘wilful introversion’ of the monk as a transgressive act, and, again, it reminded me of a number of medieval narratives and images of monks. Wilson’s introduction went on to promise great things of the Monk Punk collection: it is, he states, ‘the latest, newest trajectory in the evolving foray of Beat literature. It harnesses the energy and the logos of its forerunners. And it carves out a singular line of flight.’ (p. 3) These are big claims for a small press short story collection! However, I was more than happy to jump in and see whether it lived up to them.
Before I turn to the stories themselves, a final word on Wilson’s introduction. I loved the way the line between passionate reader and academic critic was blurred in this piece, particularly in the way Wilson presented his introduction almost as a manifesto. At times, though, some balance was lost, and some parts tended towards being a little too pretentious and overblown for my tastes (I don’t think a sentence is really improved by the phrase ‘sans the drumming of Nietzschean hammers’, for instance). The style and tone is not for everyone, and is quite unusual in a collection of this sort, but my overall impression was that it worked as both as an introduction to a book, and an introduction to a concept.
There are 23 stories in Monk Punk, mostly by emerging writers (some are first publications). Story settings range from the UK to the Himalayas, from Asia to Outer Space. The stories take place in a variety of time periods, from the Middle Ages to the distant future.
Highlights of the collection for me were R.B. Payne’s ‘The Key to Happiness’ (though this was more to do with the recasting of an old monster in a new guise, rather than the presentation of the monk), Mark Iles’s ‘The Cult of Adam’ (a brilliant premise, though let down a little by some rather clunky exposition) and George Ivanoff’s short but memorable ‘The Last Monk’ (a rather haunting story of someone who survives the apocalypse).
Unfortunately, while I enjoyed these stories and they were, to an extent, fresh and original, the collection itself is a bit of a let-down. It certainly didn’t live up to the high promises of D. Harlan Wilson’s introduction.
Broadly speaking, the collection is divided on Eastern/Western lines. On the one hand, we have Buddhist(-esque) monks, who usually live alone in contemplative spiritualism, but who display deadly martial arts skills when called upon. On the other, we have Christian(-esque) monks, who form cultish, cloistered brotherhoods, prone to ritualistic behaviour, conspiracy and (on occasion) sacrifice. The problem with Monk Punk in general is that it rarely moves beyond this, and the stories begin to feel a little same-y. I had some trouble differentiating the solitary-Eastern-monk-with-badass-fighting-skills stories (of which there are six), as they trod very similar ground. Similarly, the cultish Western monks – who variously worship fish deities, refuse to let recruits leave their circle, sacrifice children, carry out violent initiation ceremonies and conjure/fight demons – are repetitive.
In the latter case, I had a couple of other problems too. I’ll admit one of these is down to my own personal taste – the (apparently unending) influence of H.P. Lovecraft is fairly obvious throughout this collection, particularly in the recurrence of water gods and fish-worshippers. I’m afraid I’m in the minority of people who don’t think fish-people and squid gods are particularly frightening or creepy, and so I tend to find the Lovecraftian deep a little silly. More significantly, however, I also found that some of the ‘Western’ stories lacked the background knowledge needed to convince me of their setting. Some small slips were made in a couple of the stories – a bible verse is misattributed, for instance – but bigger issues can also be found. For example, a small group of twelfth-century monks renounce Christ and worship a water deity: this is described as ‘heresy’ and results in ‘one of the biggest religious trials in history’. As a medievalist, this seemed a little unbelievable to me – there is no way this tiny group of blaspheming (not heretical) men would have overshadowed the politically and culturally threatening crowds of Templars and Cathars that were tried in this period.
Technical details aside, some of the stories attempted something beyond the Eastern/Western binary, with differing degrees of success. The more sci-fi inspired stories tended to take ‘monkpunk’ to other planets, with alien cults, gods and monsters appearing in a number of the stories. Elsewhere, Gayle Arrowood’s ‘Capital Sins in a Dominican Monastery’ offered a more comedic take on monastic life, which was a refreshing change of pace. Sean Monaghan’s ‘Suitcase Nuke’ was a hard-boiled tale of secret agents and terrorists (though the monastery setting seemed something of an afterthought, and Monaghan’s tale was the only one in the book that probably would have worked just fine without the monks). Unfortunately, the only story that attempted to focus on a religion other than Buddhism or Christianity – ‘Nasrudin: Desert Sufi’ by Barry Rosenberg, which tells the story of a colonial explorer who meets a Sufi guru – was marred by racist and misogynist caricature, which made it rather unpalatable.
‘Monkpunk’ as a concept still holds my attention. I will continue to list Eco’s Name of the Rose amongst my favourite books. And there are some stories in the Monk Punk collection that have done justice to the fascinating theme. Overall, though, the collection lacked the originality and energy promised by both the title and the introduction. The jury is still out on whether or not ‘monk’ really can be a ‘-punk’, I’m afraid.