After finishing Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, which originally appeared in 1982 and was re-issued this past November by New Directions, you may wonder how the marvelous secret of this novel was kept from you for so long. At 111 pages, shorn of extensive subplots, and paced for an evening’s read, Mrs. Caliban tells the droll story of love between an amphibious monster named Larry and a depressed housewife named Dorothy. It inspects what the love of a monster might mean when it doesn’t involve kidnapping, as it usually does in stories of uncanny “romance.” These tales are often anxious about a woman’s sexual allure, or feature a stiff measure of racist dread—think of King Kong or The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Think also of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where Frankenstein’s “monster of my creation” establishes the universal rule that any abominable creature of tremendous bad fortune must be in want of a wife. Larry and Dorothy’s tryst, by contrast, eschews possession and is almost anxiety-free.
And, after 35 years of near-obscurity, Mrs. Caliban’s time has come. Pop culture at large has caught up with Ingalls. Guillermo del Toro’s latest fable, The Shape of Water, appeared in theaters last December. Both film and novel chronicle the trials of an aquatic monster subjected to study in a government laboratory. In Del Toro’s film, a mute woman comes to the amphibious man’s aid, and what follows has the cadence of a wish fulfillment. In Ingalls’s novel, on a high wire above B-movie horror and second-wave feminism, “Aquarius the Monsterman” escapes his captors and walks through the kitchen door of Dorothy’s house. There’s little wishing, really. Dorothy is in the midst of improvising dinner for her husband, Fred, who has refused to say what he wanted to eat. Larry, with his incongruous frog’s head, stares her down and growls.
Dorothy has already heard about the “Monsterman” on the radio. Ingalls suggests she has been having aural hallucinations, hearing ads aimed just at her. One announces, “Don’t worry, Dorothy, you’ll have another baby all right.” She and Fred lost one child to a “drug sensitivity” during an appendectomy, and a second child was stillborn. Frozen out by her philandering husband, who no longer kisses her goodbye and seems less brutal than adrift, Dorothy lives in a world “too unhappy” for divorce. Or so she tells her friend Estelle. When she had been considering separation, Ingalls writes, “there were times when Dorothy would lean her head against the wall and seem to herself to be no longer living because no longer a part of any world in which love was possible.” This predicament—dead in a world of impossible love—resembles, in fact, the dilemma of Frankenstein’s monster. Living in a world that will never love him, he demands a companion from his creator. That’s what being a monster is sometimes: abandoned with the injuries of a painful isolation.
But Dorothy’s pain is different. She lives in a house she later implies is a “prison.” Though initially flummoxed by “shock and terror” at the appearance of Larry, she reaches—it may be a mistake, Ingalls doesn’t say—for a stalk of celery rather than a nearby knife. Brandishing it, she watches while Larry takes the gesture as an offer of food. She may have meant it that way. A world too unhappy for separation might not have the strongest borders to keep others out. When Larry eats the celery, he thanks Dorothy and asks for help. “They will kill me,” he says. “I have suffered so much already.” Dorothy thinks, “You need help and so do I.” That Larry killed his captors and fled is a fact neither forgotten nor brooded over in Mrs. Caliban. Dorothy considers Larry’s polite manners to be “scars” of the torture that made him behave while held in the lab, where he was tested and sexually assaulted. In her lonely mind, it’s no stretch to regard civility as self-defense.
Larry is Fred’s superior from the outset. For one thing, Larry actually tells Dorothy what he would like to eat. The irony of Dorothy’s imprisoning marriage is that Fred treats her as if she were his warden and him the prisoner. So, when Larry makes a specific request, Dorothy happily prepares vegetables. He also proves to have a strong affection for avocadoes, which Dorothy acquires for him by the bagful. After his first meal, Dorothy stashes Larry in the guest room where Fred never goes, full as it is of things that once belonged to their dead son. Larry fits right where the breaches are.
The next morning, because Larry is “so different,” Dorothy doesn’t mind him seeing her in her bathrobe, an item of clothing Larry loves. He thinks it’s a “garment of celebration.” Yet Dorothy misunderstands when he expresses the desire to help her clean the house. Freed from the lab, he enjoys the idea of being able to do whatever he wants and helping her clean is like permission. When they end up back in the guest room, Larry starts to take off Dorothy’s robe and nightgown, too. It’s a strange scene, and Ingalls only just dispels its creepiness, which feels appropriate for alien intercourse. Though Dorothy says she’s frightened and Larry asks what she wants, she wonders what it even means to feel “embarrassment” in the situation of sex with a six-foot-seven-inch aquatic monster-man. The upshot is: no shame. They spend the rest of the day having sex all over the house.
One of Ingalls’s key moves is simply to imagine casual sex with a monster-man. It doesn’t represent a journey beyond Dorothy’s inhibitions. When Larry asks her if they’re having too much sex, she answers:
It’s just the right amount for me. It’s perfect. People here are all different about it: some people like a lot, some only like a little, some change according to who they’re with or what age they are or whether they’re in a good mood, or even if the weather changes.
Ingalls doesn’t stop there, either. She spends the rest of the novel thinking over the boundaries of Dorothy’s desire.
Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, Larry never understands a woman’s company as the cure for pain. But, of course, his situation is entirely different. He has a species, something Frankenstein’s monster can only, tragically, fantasize about. Larry’s exile is his alone, and there’s a limit to how much he can share it. Dorothy never expects him to anyway. Though she believes the two of them are “so alike I’m not sure if we should really be called separate species,” she wants to help Larry return to his home in the Gulf of Mexico. If their romance is indeed a figment of Dorothy’s imagination (the novel leaves open the possibility), then what she fantasizes is not torrid and tragic but gracious and warm. The fantasy is not the fish-human hybrid, but the idea that your ideal sex partner would simply open the door and walk into your house.
Larry may not see it this way, though. After Estelle tells Dorothy that desire is all about wanting things you don’t need—an excess or indulgence—Larry claims the opposite:
When we [fish-men] want something, it’s true. We don’t want something we can’t have and not like the thing we get instead. The thing you want is the thing you have, isn’t it?
Dorothy argues with him. What we have depends on the prison we’re in, especially, she thinks, for women and monsters. To Dorothy, what Larry describes sounds surprisingly like male prerogative among humans, except that it dismisses the fantasy of wanting what you don’t have. Larry even explains that fish-women among his people are “jealous” and “wanting” in a way that fish-men, in their aloofness, are not. That’s just the way it is, he says. When he claims that only humans are all “different” from each other, Dorothy insists that,
if that were really true, men would be more different from other men than women from other women, because men’s jobs are very varied, while most women do the same things. But it isn’t true—women differ from each other just as much as men do. Do you think we could trust some other people to help us… if they were other housewives like me?
Human beings may not be so reliably different as Larry supposes, and those differences don’t guarantee any particular virtue. Perhaps fish-people are not all the same, either. Dorothy suspects that Larry hasn’t seen beyond the neat divisions of the mating habits he describes. Anyone can avail themselves of such easy thinking, and even a monster can have questionable opinions. Despite the love between them, Dorothy doesn’t regard Larry as a saint, god, or savior.
A good novel can’t be spoiled. Only a plot can. But readers should experience the perfect melodrama of Mrs. Caliban for themselves. I won’t give away its juicy conflicts. Taking its title from the half-fish monster of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ingalls’s novel calls to mind another Shakespearean coinage, the “marriage of true minds” that alters not when it “alteration finds.” Larry and Dorothy are undeniably in love. Where other monsters bring destruction, Larry arrives in a life already destroyed. Where other human beings might see something grotesque, Dorothy sees herself: lovable, compassionate, and, take note, dangerous.