Do you enjoy weeping? Well then, I highly recommend you read “Making Us Monsters”. Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly have written a correspondence across the ages between wartime poets, and lovers, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. If you’re not crying yet there’s a good chance you will be by the end of the story.
The science fiction element in this story is quite subtle. In 1932, Sassoon suddenly begins to receive letters from beyond the grave. Front line missives from Wilfred Owen are delivered by post or appear mysteriously among other correspondence, in pockets, or among the pages of books. These letters, delivered by an unknown hand after all these years, is all the sci-fi the story includes, but such a small otherworldly touch yields a deep, examination of two men, their relationship, and war.
Sassoon documents these finds in his diary, and is soon speaking directly to ‘Will’ in his entries. It is clear that Owen thinks Siegfried has forgotten him, as he receives no reply in 1918. Siegfried fears what each letter will bring but also longs for each new word from his former lover.
The idea of letters supernaturally appearing from beyond the grave alludes to the growing interest in spiritualism that followed WWI, as people sought solace, understanding, and connection in the face of such large scale tragedy. And there is so much to dig into in this story. The distanced correspondence sharply dissects Sassoon, a man often torn between hatred of the destruction war brings, and a belief that war somehow uplifts and unites men to make the feeling beyond soldiers finer than anything else. And the writing style does a fabulous job of emulating the way the poets wrote about war – often full of tragedy, emotion, and lush, dark imagery that seduces the reader into seeing war through the prism of gothic romance before it rams home the utter, brutal hell of battle.
Sassoon’s relationship with Owen – as mentor, lover, and stirring influence – is laid bare, and is heartbreaking. Was I wrong to hope that the science fictional aspect of this story might lead to a happier conclusion? A letter that allows Sassoon to find some peace? An entirely out of this world reunion with Will? Sadly, it was not to be. Instead I was left sad, although in other ways quite satisfied, by “Making Us Monsters”. The horrors of war, especially the way the men in charge aim to create soldiers who suit their bloody purposes, are brought to the fore. And I found this story a fascinating take on the First World War, and on these two men in particular. If you enjoyed Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy about the war poets make this your next read.