Toby Parker Rees
Why the Long Face? A Necessary Monster
Horse-headed man walks into a bar. Barman says nothing, but a reedy sort of gurgle comes out of him like he’s being cleaned. It’s an unpleasant noise and it spooks the horse-headed man, whose horse brain sends a message of panic to his man-limbs. He (the horse-headed man) races around the bar clattering glassware and trampling patrons, until eventually a police sniper is able to shoot him to death. By this time dozens have perished, however—barman included.
When Court 13 needed to create some Aurochs for Beasts of the Southern Wild, they decorated pot-bellied piglets with the skins of river rats. That’s how you make a monster. If imagination is the artful recombination of things we’ve experienced (and it is), then imaginary animals are just collaged crossbreeds. They are piglets and rat skins, humans and horse heads.
Every culture needs monsters. We have a fondness for the deeply interfused because life is a general tangle. Hybrid forms express this neatly—they’re not natural, but they’re applicable. Aldous Huxley, in his essay “Tragedy and the Whole Truth,” praises writers like Homer and Fielding because “among the things they don’t shirk are the irrelevancies which, in actual life, always temper the situations and characters that writers of tragedy insist on keeping chemically pure.” Monsters embody the impurity of real life in an unrealistic way—which makes them simultaneously fascinating and palatable.
Monsters tell us more than beasts in the same way mongrels tend to be cleverer than purebreds. Satyrs are half goat—and because goats are unruly and their genitals are unusually prominent, satyrs mostly represent unchecked sexuality; the male equivalent of a nymphomaniac is a satyromaniac. The constituent parts, man and goat, are the recipe for a useful symbol. The word ‘monster’ comes from the Latin monstrum: omen. They’re there to tell us something.
Some tell us more than others. In his Book of Imaginary Beings Jorge Luis Borges points out that although there are infinite possible “combinations of fishes, birds, and reptiles, limited only by our own boredom or disgust…the zoology of dreams is far poorer than the zoology of the Maker.” Mythology tends to be thrifty; we make the monsters we need, no more. Our culture doesn’t include a rat-faced pigeon (Robin Thicke excepted) but like almost everywhere else we have a dragon. Their image, Borges says, “has something that appeals to the human imagination…it is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one.” Satyrs are necessary monsters too. They give us something we want, or need. They remind us there’s a goat in our groins. So what about the horse head?
There are horse heads before Tom de Freston—Philippine trickster-demon Tikbalang, for example, and Chinese mythology’s Horse-Face, a guardian of the Underworld. But they’ve never had the mass appeal of dragons. Looking around the Internet yields little beyond a Yahoo! Answers post from five years ago, titled “What mythical creature has a man’s body and a horse’s head?” teetiger asks:
When I was a tiny child I would see this creature in my dreams. It never spoke. It just stood beside my bed or at the foot of the stairs. Anyone know the significance of this? It’s not a Centaur. That’s a horse’s body with the head and chest of a man. It’s not a Minotaur because that has the head of a bull.
Unfortunately no one on Yahoo! Answers has been able to offer a satisfactory Yahoo! Answer, so poor teetiger may never find peace. No one knows the name for a horse-headed man, because it’s not a monster we’ve needed so far. Look at de Freston’s paintings, however, and you see what a horse head can offer.
The Roman poet Lucretius reasons that if centaurs were real the horse bottom would mature and die fifty years before the human top. Obviously monsters are a fair way outside the laws of nature, but it’s an interesting idea—imagine the situation reversed for the horse head. At the age of three the horse brain is as developed as it will ever be, keening for mares and coursing with energy, but its body is that of a mewling brat. Can the shoulders of a toddler even support the fully-grown head of a horse? Would horse head’s early years have been spent in grim stillness, waiting for the moment, aged seven or eight, when his body was finally strong enough to bear its swollen burden? The horse brain wants to run, but the human legs will never be fast enough.
Those of our generation lucky enough to be born in countries without smartphone factories will not die because we broke our backs in feudal fields. Most of us will die because we sat at desks all day and everything went thin and soupy. We are horse heads now, not centaurs. The horse head has a body that can’t live up to its impulses; a body that can’t do what it wants. Worse, it has a head that can’t process the problem, so it suffers in the mute confusion we see in images of maltreated pets or fast-food cows. This is the monster we need, and Tom de Freston shows us how to use it.
Beneath a Penrose orb a flurry of smudged flesh writhes to fill the darkness around it, and fails. By the end of the first page everything is flattened and dried into still life. The roses function like a sitcom mother-in-law, sucking hope and joy from the genitals above them. The horse head sees it, too, and on the next page the movement becomes more frantic; the forms mash into a mandala beast with at least two backs, and the impasto piles higher.
It still won’t work. The third page gives us a sort of Joseph Wright kitchen sink drama; grubby chiaroscuro panic, tense, and clenched. Everyone still bulges with cremnitz white and strip-club pink but no one blurs together anymore. The last page pans out, flattening everything into a bleak Bayeux of desperate gratification that’s somewhere between The Garden of Earthly Delights and New Year’s Eve. Texture and feeling are flayed away until it’s only teeming irrelevancies and gaping skylines. This is the horse head’s narrative.
We can have sex, and we can defecate to our bowels’ general content. We can look at sunflowers via Van Gogh, we can congregate for public scourging and we can touch each other with infinite intentions and effects. We can do whatever we want, more and more, but we don’t really know what we’re doing. We’re too weak to rut like animals and too meat-headed to live like gods. So we live like horse heads, and we make the best of it.