3 October 2016


Christopher Dell. Monsters: A Bestiary of the Bizarre. Thames and Hudson, 2016.

This is a typical Thames and Hudson production, a lovingly assembled collection of images with a minimum of discussion, which would probably be superfluous. The illustrations are all more than a century old, so there are no depictions of modern monsters such as Bigfoot, Chupacabra and Mothman.
Alongside familiar monsters such as demons, dragons, werewolves, zombies, ghouls, harpies, and the once-popular men with heads in their chests (now out of favour, probably because they are not easy to depict on screen), there are such rarities as the Tripodern that frightened early settlers in North America, and the Tarasque, a six-legged dragon with tortoise-like features, an effigy of which is paraded at an annual procession in Tarascon, southern France, to commemorate its defeat by St Martha.

All books of this kind have a tendency to reproduce the same images, which gets a bit tiresome. Right back in 1980 it occurred to me that there might be a market for a coffee-table book on the occult which did not include a reproduction of the title page to Matthew Hopkins’ Discovery of Witches. Dell’s book is largely free from these visual clichés, though there is an engraving from Molitor’s Tractatus von den bösen Weiben, die man nennet die Hexen, ‘Treatise on those evil women, that men call witches’, better known by its Latin title De Laniis, when almost everyone has seen those, though I do not suppose that anyone has read the book itself for centuries.

"I do not suppose anyone has read the book for centuries"

There is no commentary on individual images, though their sources are carefully referenced. That on page 75 is ‘A page from a witch’s spellbook, from Wittenberg, Germany, pen and watercolour, late 18th century, Wellcome Library, London.” This has two panels, both showing a magician with a wand in his left hand, with monsters he has summoned up, a serpent about to bite its tail in the first, and an unidentifiable horned quadruped in the second. People might like to know that the enigmatic script at the top of each is the writing called Passing the River, and reads ‘Michael’ ‘Jehovah’, then ‘Ratziel’ ‘Shaddai’ (another divine name, usually translated ‘Almighty’), these presumably here being the words of power used by the magician to summon the monsters. Perhaps working this out has been left as an exercise for the reader.

Monsters tend to inhabit realms just beyond what is known, medieval mapmakers illustrating them in distant places. Even in the seventeenth century, Athanasius Kircher ‘gave credence to reports of dragons in the Swiss Alps’ though he was ‘more doubtful about giants in the south of Italy’. But nowadays most of the planet is explored, leaving little room for monsters. ‘Perhaps it is for this reason that the popular imagination has turned to the ‘final frontier’ outer space. From the earliest science fiction of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells – and even more rapidly during the 20th century – we have in a sense been transported back to the concept of ‘monstrous races’: the idea that just beyond our reach lies something truly spectacular.’ It is curious, though, that whilst monsters are the defining feature of Doctor Who, for instance, they are seldom met with in allegedly true stories about UFOs. -- Gareth J. Medway.

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