To the Flame by A. E. Ross

The cover of To the Flame by A. E. Ross, with a cracked charcoal-tinted glass effect covering an all-white moth with glowing yellow eyes. In the top left is the symbol for Ninestar Press, and the font for the title is in all caps with a glowing effect.

I’ll admit, if you told me back when I started this blog that I’d be talking about monsterfucking, I probably wouldn’t have believed you, but I just read To the Flame by A. E. Ross, and some things need to be said. This paranormal cryptid romance is about a college guy named Emerson (he/him) who has a crush on his dorm neighbor named Morrie (they/them). Everything seems to be going well the night they meet, until Morrie pulls away and starts acting distant. Of course, Emerson doesn’t know that Morrie is secretly a moth-person (of Mothman fame), and that they can see the many futures in which Emerson might die. I could very easily talk about how fitting it is that a trans person can see an anxiety-inducing number of possible death-routes, but I’d rather discuss the cathartic choice to have Morrie be a monster. 

In a world where trans people are described as unnatural or ugly or even villainous, trans readers can feel catharsis when a trans character is a monster for reasons outside of their gender. In media, in the news, and online, trans people (like many marginalized demographics) are othered and treated as something unnatural, all for being trans. When a trans character is an actual monster–not because they’re trans, but because monsters simply exist–the story paints a comforting contrast for trans readers. This split comes between the fiction, where true monsters are considered monsters, and our reality, where normal people are considered monsters. Trans readers get a chance to empathize with characters that look like them and are treated like they are, without the retraumatizing factor of transphobia being involved.

This is why it is so refreshing to read a character like Morrie, who at times can transform into something more insectoid than human and at other times can see all the ways a person is probably going to die, but ultimately is just a nonbinary college student who drinks a lot and has boy problems. It’s like a flip on the traditional struggle narrative, where instead of Morrie’s problems being about struggling with coming to terms with their trans identity, instead Morrie’s conflict comes from the fact that they’re a literal cryptid.

And to go a step beyond that: Emerson likes Morrie not in spite of their monstrosity but in some ways because of it. This is where monsterfucking comes in. At one point, when Morrie saves Emerson’s life in their mothperson form, Emerson’s “body tensed under the soft weight of it, strength undeniable despite its grotesque lankiness. This was an embrace, and a deeply intimate one at that.” (52? eBook pages are tough to figure out) A. E. Ross acknowledges the monstrosity of Morrie’s form, but maintains the sexual tension anyway. This is the essence of monsterfucking, the idea that even the strange or uncanny can be beautiful or pleasurable. And for a trans reader, whose body is already elided with “strange” by societally transphobic biases, it’s comforting to read about a character loving another whose body is even less “normal” from a cisgender perspective. It’s like saying, “if a genuine monster deserves love, then so do I”. That’s why this niche subgenre is so enjoyable to read.

The fact that Ross had the mothperson love interest be trans makes it even better, because of the many layers to Emerson’s attraction to Morrie. He’s attracted to them right off the bat, before any cryptid shenanigans start to reveal themselves. Morrie’s transness is no more or less important to Emerson than their taste in music, which is exactly as it should be. The stage Ross uses to engage with and subvert more traumatic things like being “abnormal” is not the realm of transness or gender, but in the supernatural. But rather than the supernatural plot just being a thinly veiled metaphor for transness, trans characters actually exist and act within the story.

Ultimately, To the Flame is an unusual, enjoyable novelette. It has some delightful little details like Morrie’s fixation with lamps and how a major event takes place on Halloween when everyone becomes monsters for a night. If I had to give any criticisms, it would be that there wasn’t any literal monsterfucking, though perhaps Morrie and Emerson explore that in their own personal epilogue. That said, if A. E. Ross releases another cryptid romance even without explicit monsterfucking, I’ll still read it! The premise is untraditional enough that reading it felt like a nice, fresh palate cleanser from my pile of literary fiction. I’ve already recommended this book to a handful of trans friends, although I’ll admit the premise alone may make it not for everyone. Ultimately, A. E. Ross’ To the Flame is a short, unusual, and mildly steamy read for someone with an open mind interested in switching things up a bit.

To the Flame by A. E. Ross

Publisher: Ninestar Press

eBook: $2.99

Page Count: 79 pages

ISBN: 978-1-951880-36-1

Content Warnings: Sex, death of a relative, impending death, alcohol

2 thoughts on “To the Flame by A. E. Ross”

  1. Thank you so much for this (and your blog in general)!

    This really made me revisit my first published piece tackling gender issues using a magical realism inspired approach. I didn’t have trans identities on my mind at all while writing; instead I’d intended a critique of toxic masculinity. I used a shapeshifting non-human “monster,” and the only possible explanation for my neglect is that I identify as FoC gender-fluid, and created it from within that mindset, trying to make gender irrelevant in some ways and presentation critical in others—which now, spelling it out, makes me smack my head even more about my lack of forethought! I sincerely am worried it could be seen as a negative.

    Thank you for inspiring me to revisit it while I work to build my collection, as it’s always tempting to print-and-forget (revision) when a piece has already been published.

    Thank you for educating me!

    HL

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    1. I’m glad this has helped!

      I actually have a lot of thoughts about monster stories at the moment because I’m working on a novel with that theme right now with a friend of mine! (That’s the reason I’m writing such a long response!)

      Monster narratives have historically been used in a number of different ways, not solely restricted to trans narratives, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you focused on toxic masculinity.

      Monstrosity can be imagined as a manifestation of “the Other” both positively and negatively. This is a positive in a lot of cathartic stories like To the Flame, but it also appears in a lot of problematic stories like how orcs are often coded Black and how goblins are often coded as Jewish. I learned a lot about this through how marginalized people approach horror versus how non-marginalized people approach the genre, especially considering the blatant ableism that appears with a lot of horror villains created by abled people. Another good resource on how the Other functions in harmful ways and how marginalized creators flip that script would be Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’ “Toward a Theory of the Dark Fantastic”, which is available for pdf online!

      However, depictions of monstrosity can take a different route. Rather than being a manifestation of the Other, they can be a manifestation of trauma, harm, cruelty, etc. Essentially: the monster as representation of something that should be changed. This is what it seems to be in your story about toxic masculinity, though I may be misunderstanding. A few of people (myself included) read the whale in Melville’s Moby Dick this way, as a representation of whiteness and racism. It can also be used in an indirect sort of way, as is the case of the monster in Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet, which simultaneously acts almost as a red-herring that forces people to reconsider what a monster really looks like and as a representation of the monstrous feelings in all of us that come out when we are harmed: a knee-jerk reaction to violently punish those who harm us.

      Ultimately, monster stories have a lot of nuance, which inevitably means they have a lot of risk for complications and “messiness”. This just means they take more time and consideration, but they can turn out to be great stories once that time and consideration is put in!

      I wish you well with your story, and I hope it becomes what you want it to be!

      -L. A. Lanquist

      Like

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