IF Comp ’16: The Queen’s Menagerie

queensmenagerieThe Queen’s Menagerie (Chandler Groover, Texture) is a shortish piece about feeding monsters. It’s highly Gothic; the closest comparison I can think of is Mervyn Peake, although the thematics are very much in the same general territory as With Those We Love Alive.

Menagerie is an exactly-used word, here. Museums used to be private collections of wonders kept by the wealthy for personal pleasure and to show off one’s cultured wealth to acquaintances; in the same way, before zoos open to the public were a thing, particularly affluent nobility kept menageries. Menageries were prestige projects with a side of worldly erudition: in an era where most people didn’t ever travel very far, but there was a huge amount of interest in far-off places, you could be all, guys, this is my pangolin. Like early zoos – and plenty of modern zoos, to be honest – these were generally places where animals lived in horrible conditions, cared for by people who didn’t understand them very well, until they died. Captive breeding was vanishingly rare, and conservation wasn’t something anybody vaguely thought about.

The premise of The Queen’s Menagerie is that, but for mythological monsters. Like WTWLA, you play a specialist involved with prestige items for an awesome and distant Queen. The menagerie is a dungeon, divided into increasingly-unsettling horrors. To the Queen, this is an act of political showmanship to impress dignitaries, a display of the reach and grandeur of her power. Patronage is involved too – her right-hand man collects a lot of the monsters. Even early on, the monsters are unsettling: one is a ‘pygmy cannibal’, and it’s carefully left unclear whether this represents a fantastic being or a person. On the deeper, less-frequented levels, there are things that require human blood – yours. At the very bottom is a dragon, which must, in a climactic reveal, be fed on kidnapped maidens. You don’t exactly look them in the eye or talk to them, but they have names. That’s all you’re told about them, really, which is chillingly effective.

(The ravening monster at the bottom of a many-layered dungeon is, canonically, Satan. I kind of doubt that the three potential victims are an intentional ref to the three-mawed Satan of Dante, but as overreading goes I’m partial to it. Similarly, the shape of the menagerie – a multi-layered underground structure, full of progressively nastier things as it goes deeper, culminating with a big boss at the bottom – is a standard D&D trope, but it doesn’t feel as though Menagerie is drawing on that either.)

This is a work that pays careful attention to language, and employs it with confidence. Making Gothic work without seeming overblown and ridiculous to a modern ear is pretty tough, but this manages it. There are sections that are more striking, and some which underperform a little – the opening lines are definitely not its strongest – but this whole thing could really easily have seemed ridiculous, and it never really even comes close. It’s economical Impressive stuff.

The lavish description of the dragon, for instance, does a pretty damn good job of making it seem like a vast, horrifying and awe-inspiring thing. (I got a vaguely Norse-poetry feel out of it, but I dunno if that has any firm basis.) It’s told in the third person, and this has the slightly unsettling effect of being talked past, as though the narrator is addressing someone else, looking above and slightly to the left, not really caring if you overhear or not, while you scurry around doing stuff. Occasionally the protagonist is addressed more directly, and it feels like a cue, an aside.

So, OK, the monsters are organised by what they eat. It is in the nature of sea-creatures to eat fish, and fairies can only live on human blood, and dragons on maidens. (This is a story that’s almost body-horrorish about the act of eating, where eating is always this horrific, violent, power-laden act.) And the zoo-keeper, too, is named and hence defined by what he eats, the scraps from the queen’s table. It’s obvious to say that he is a monster also, or that the queen is a monster. It’s not quite a banality-of-evil piece: the keeper’s job is hard. It’s emphasised that most people don’t have the stomach for this kind of work, that this is a job with a pretty limited lifespan, that a concerted effort of not thinking about it is required in order to keep going. But the keeper is devoted. Scraps from the queen’s table are a big deal.

I don’t know if this is a piece with a particular thesis; if so, it’s not as straightforward to read as WTWLA. It feels more like a depravity-of-human-nature, glimpse-of-hell piece than a metaphor for a particular thing. If this turns out to be a companion piece to Mirror and Queen, as seems possible, there might be a clearer reading. But Groover is pretty keen on horror for its own sake, so I don’t know if there has to be a deeper significance.

Tangent, only slightly related to the actual work: I’m still ambivalent about the usefulness of Texture as a platform. The act of dragging words onto other words does feel more deliberate and considered than clicking links. That matters. The specific actions you’re doing in Menagerie, giving food to animals, feel appropriate to click-and-drag. It demonstrates that you can make Texture very pretty. And yet (and this is probably unfair) this all feels kind of marginal: in spite of liking the game a lot, I didn’t come out of it with a sense of ‘yeah, now I get what the point of Texture is and I’m excited about all the cool things people might do with it.’

This is scoring in the upper range – probably around an 8, but that may be revised a little as I digest.

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