26 November 2010



Loren Coleman and Bruce G Hallenbeck. Monsters of New Jersey. Stackpole Books, 2010.

Gary Cunningham and Ronan Coghlan. The Mystery Animals of Ireland CFZ Press, 2010.

Glen Vaudrey. Mysteries Animals of the British Isles: The Western Isles. CFZ Press, 2009.

Melvyn Willin. Monsters Caught on Film: Amazing Evidence of Lake Monsters, Bigfoot and other Strange Beasts. David and Charles, 2010.

Studies of cryptozoological animals often concentrate on a few alleged examples, often from remote, little explored parts of the world, where it might be reasonably assumed that animals unknown to science exist. However as this crop of local studies shows such creatures are also reported from the backyard of the urban world.
New Jersey is often seen as a sort of backyard-cum-holiday resort for New Yorkers, yet it has almost as many cryptids as the Pacific North West. There are hairy humanoids with luminous red eyes, sea serpents, lake monsters, little lizard men, to say nothing of giant wooden birds. Above all it has the Jersey Devil, now established as the state's mascot. There is a sizeable chapter and a long appendix on the Devil, which nowadays seems to refer to anything vaguely eerie half seen or imagined in the twilight. Back at the beginning of the 20th century there was a huge wave of sightings. As typical descriptions ran something like "it was about 3 feet and a half tall, with a head like a collie dog and a face like a horse, it had a long neck, wings about two feet long, and its back legs were like those of a crane, and it had horses hooves...." it seems unlikely that it will be exhibited in the New Jersey State Zoo anytime soon.

New Jersey is however part of a huge continental land mass, and its just possible to imagine that strange beasts have migrated there across the continent, Ireland and the Western Isles are, well, islands, and ones which have been inhabited by humans for a very long time, not the sort of places surely that true paws and pelts animals can hide.

As Cunningham and Coghlan show, Ireland does have a tradition of mystery animals, in the form of lake monsters, a good number of examples being related in their book. Many of these are taken from the files of the late Lionel Leslie (brother of the ghost story writer Sir Shane Leslie and uncle of the UFO writer Desmond Leslie). Now many of these lakes are not exactly vast like Loch Ness, and some are little more than large ponds, which makes the idea of large unknown animals native to them rather unlikely. The authors suggest therefore that these are migratory creatures, come out of the sea to drink fresh water and are related to primitive proto-whales.

There are other mystery animals reported from Ireland, including the obligatory wild cats and big cats, along with possible giant otters and dwarf wolves, The latter, said to have inhabited the island of Achill, but as they do not appear in any contemporaneous source, one must suspect they inhabit the imagination of one of Karl Shuker's (who first recorded them) correspondents.

Other creatures belong more solidly in the realm of folklore; examples being werewolves, mermaids, the hairy gruagach etc. Much of the Mystery Animals of the Western Isles is taken up with like folkloric creatures, though even there the occasional lake monster and less occasional sea serpent crop up. Some of these folkloric creatures seem to hover at the edges of history, such as the mermaid allegedly found on a beach in Benbecula in the 1830s, or the phantom dogs reported by A. A. Macgregor. Others, such as the Hebrides werewolf came from the imagination of writers, in this case the notorious Elliot O'Donnell, and other writers such as Trevor Whittaker were to add their own glosses to the tale.

Looking through these and similar books, it seems that almost any patch of ground can have its mystery animals, so it is not surprising that authors who do not want to think that many of these animals live only in the human imagination turn to paranormal theories.

If cryptids are real paws and pelts animals then we ought to have good evidence for their existence. If not the actual remains, then good photographs. Melvyn Willin's book produces a wide range of photographs of a variety of beasts. Some are doubtless genuine, mostly those of rare but catalogued and recognised animals such as giant sturgeons, Cornish sharks, jellyfish, the giant peccary and the solenadon etc. These provide good clear pictures.

The images of cryptids fall into two categories: those that give some detail but are suspected fakes, and those which are very indistinct. The former include the famous "surgeons" photograph of the Loch Ness Monster and the well known Patterson Bigfoot film. There quite a lot of other, less well known, photographs here, but most are indistinct, have a dubious to non-existant provenance, or just smell of the fake. Sometimes all three. One picture of a big cat might actually be a pig, others may be just domestic pussies where scale is lacking.

In addition to cryptids there are also photographs of alleged aliens, such as the Ikley 'green man'. The witnesses' ex-wife says it was a model made out of chicken wire. Another photograph shows what purports to be a tiny alien walking behind a mounted policeman in a park in Chile, a child caught in a trick of perspective or a small model? To cap all there is an alleged photograph of Gef the talking mongoose from the Isle of Man. Whatever was photographed it wasn't a mongoose, talking or otherwise.

Willin himself seems less than convinced by most of these photographs. There significance must be surely as cultural icons rather than evidence for anything. -- Peter Rogerson

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