3 May 2012


Asa Simon Mittman with Peter J Dendle (Eds.) The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous. Ashgate, 2012.

Theresa Bane. Encyclopedia of Demons in World Religions and Cultures McFarland, 2012.

The monstrous and demonic haunt our imaginations, both being symbols of the primordial chaos of the wilderness which threats to overwhelm the ordered society of habitat. The massive 500-plus page compilation edited by Mittman and Dendle tackles monsters from a wide variety of times and cultures, though it does not address in any great detail the monsters of the modern west, such as those tackled by cryptozoology and ufology.
These get some mention in the penultimate paper by Peter Dendle, who notes that the ‘monsters’ of cryptozoology are not perceived as the world threatening, disorder creating monstrosities of past times, but on the contrary are seen as signs of ecological salvation. On the other hand, like the monsters of old, they lurk on the edge of the know places, on the edge of the forest, as once they lived on the edges of the maps, such as the monstrous races of cyclops, men with faces in their chest, those with single giant legs envisaged in the classical, medieval and early modern world as inhabiting regions just that little bit beyond the edge of the known world, and which are discussed in several papers in this collection.

The scope of this collection is wide ranging. Persephone Braham shows how the Caribbean has been seen as an exotic home of the monstrous, from cannibal natives to the images of Voodoo (as contrasted with the actual religion of Vodou) and zombies, all of which project racist notions of the alien and savage other.

Henry J Drewel provides a fascinating account of the African water deity ‘Mami Wata’, and how her modern iconography has been influenced by an Indian calendar print of a European photograph of a female Indian snake charmer who was married to the adventurer Carl Hagenbeck, and who became a European stage sensation. The devotees of Mami Wata now draw on an eclectic range of native, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Western occult and New Age literary sources, something which helps challenge many notions of the ‘traditional. Mami Wata is now being literally demonised by new forces of Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. No doubt she will eventually end up in compilations such as Theresea Banes’.

Michael Dylan Foster traces the development of the monster in Japan from classical times to the modern day, noting especially one the major modern exponents of monster art Mizuki Shigeru, who drew on both traditional folklore and modern urban legend to create his figures. One of the latter group of monsters was ‘slit mouthed woman’, a seemingly attractive young woman, who wore a surgical mask (apparently not unusual in Japan even before the radiation crisis), which hid a mouth which was a slit from ear to ear. Mizuki’s model of this being, with its huge almond eyes and slit mouth bares an uncanny resemblance to the classic ufological ‘grey’.

The monstrous is tracked in these essays in all its forms, from the deformed or different persons to those of ambiguous gender, to the ‘other’ in all its forms, beasts of the imagination from Grendel out of Beowulf, the thing from the wilderness, outcast for ever from the warmth and light of the habitat of the hall, and thus seeking its destruction, through to Frankestein’s monster exiled into the wilderness by the disgust of its creator, to the various monsters of modern science fiction. The monstrous may lie in the past, in the chaos before ordered society, or in dreams of a posthuman future. It is tracked through classical literature, Islamic art (yes actual representational Islamic art) and through its cloudy geography.

Though on maps it is usually portrayed as existing in strange and foreign lands, once as alien and remote as any alien biosphere, the monstrous begins closer to home, as Jeremy Cohen argues in the final paper, under the bed, in the closet, outside the bedroom door, the edges of the small child’s small habitat.

This is a huge work, aimed at academics, and has a huge price, and like all such anthologies difficult to summarise and review. Not surely for the paws and pelts cryptozoolgist, but of value to anyone with a serious interest in the monsters of the human imagination.

If the Ashgate companion is difficult to review because there is too much in it to summarise, Bane's dictionary is difficult because the title says it all. It is an A-Z dictionary with short entries on just about every demon, devil, boggart and general nasty that the human imagination has constructed, and it is clearly enormously fertile in that regard all the way from Aamon (a fallen god indeed) to Zuphlas, a demon of forests.

Much of this stuff comes from western grimories, and one must suspect that a sort of grim humour was at work in the production of their often prodigious lists of demons and Hell's princes. I note with some amusement that among them is George Adamski’s Venusian, Orthon (an aerial devil who flew from country to country). An example of Adamski’s cynical humour perhaps?

All very scholarly, though I am note quite sure what the intended audience is, hopefully not anyone mad enough to try and raise things out their imagination. Perhaps it will be most useful for those looking for names for characters in computer games or for names for particularly transgressional heavy metal bands.

All of this just reinforces how pathetic much of this imaginary evil really is, the people who thought up this sort of stuff were simply not themselves bad enough to imagine the real thing. For surely the face of the nadir of absolute radical evil is not some snarling horned devil, or swearing grubby crucifix masturbating kind of wild child out of the Exorcist but the self-satisfied smirk of Anders Breivik. -- Peter Rogerson.

1 comment:

  1. '...on the edges of the maps.' What an evocative phrase and ripe with metaphorical potential. If you don't object, I'll file it away for another day.

    I think behavioural neuroscience has mortally wounded the physical existence of 'evil' with its fMRIs, dyes and hypotheses. No longer are people simply evil, they are a collection of misfiring receptors, abstract genes and receptacles of heredity.

    Some would argue the camp-guards and Breiviks of this world are more victims of circumstance than agents of evil. Who knows?

    I guess with the new 'monsters,' (black-eyed kids and Grey abductors)it's still our fellow humans that scare us the most. For example, on a walk through woods or cemeteries, which fear is more potent? Muggers and rapists or bigfoot and mythical monsters?