Mermaids have been a source of intrigue and nautical diversion long before Disney gave one of them red hair and a musical score in the late ‘80s. Sometimes demure and lovelorn, sometimes all gnashing teeth and ill intent, they reliably offer other-worldly fascination. In Bennett Madison’s September Girls, they’re a means to an end of 17-year-old Sam’s virginity.
“I’ve always wanted to write a mermaid thing forever because they fit in very well with my general interests and my sensibilities,” Madison says. “I like the idea that on one hand they are trapped, and on the other hand they can be very aggressive at the same time. So it’s this question of who has the power in the situation.” A lot of mermaid stories are like that, he says. “They’re trying to get out of their predicament and doing that by always trying to lure men to jump into the sea after them. And I like the questions that that raises—and I think they have good style, generally,” he adds, laughing.
With tube tops and cheap, disposable flats (there’s that whole painful, bleeding feet part of the mermaid-to-human curse) the style of Madison’s mermaids is questionable. Their beauty isn’t.
So overwhelming is their allure that it renders Sam uncomfortable, but his discomfort also comes from the fact that a bevy of hot girls are giving him the eye. After all, his pure, virgin magic alone can break the curse that keeps them chained to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. “He [Sam] wants to get laid in some abstract sense, right?” says Madison. “But he kind of doesn’t, too, because it’s scary. It was important for me to say that just because you’re a horny teenaged boy doesn’t mean that sex is not also scary and there’s not all this pressure.”
Men are usually described as the aggressors, while women are described as waving their fans in front of their faces. “And that’s not actually the way that it works in real life, I don’t think, especially for teenagers,” Madison adds.
Through one lens this is a lustful teenager’s passage into manhood, through another it’s a timeless tale’s contemporary re-imagining. Or is it commentary on the potential thrill and realistic banality of sex? “I’m more interested in raising questions than answering questions,” Madison says, “so I’m pretty comfortable with the fact that it can be read several different ways.”
Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn, New York. He is admittedly addicted to horror films and French macarons.