25 September 2019


Jason Offutt. Chasing American Monsters. Llewellyn, 2019.

No-one reading this book should be expecting a critical scientific survey of cryptozoological phenomena in the USA. That’s not what it’s for, it’s a rollicking read of accounts of encounters with the weirder denizens, or in many cases, pseudo-denizen, of the 50 states.
Yes all of them. We can well imagine giant apemen lurking the dense woods of Washington or Oregon, maybe strange dog-men do haunt the open plains of Kansas, and who knows what terrors may lurk in the tangled swamps and bayous of the deep South?

But Rhode Island? For English readers, this state is a bit smaller than Somerset, and although Somerset does lay claim to the occasional out of place big-cat, tiny Rhode Island has its own Bigfoot roaming the state’s small wooded area, allegedly caught on camera from a moving vehicle. Slightly more plausibly Rhode Island’s other two monsters are marine-based, one of which was already dead when it was found.

The amusingly named ‘Block Ness Monster’, a strange fourteen foot long skeleton, was hauled on board a fishing boat off Block Island. Although some claimed it was the skeleton of a basking shark, it did not hang around long enough for a more formal identification, the specimen being mysteriously ‘kidnapped’ before it could be debunked. This had the fortuitous result, as Offutt remarks of preserving “the monster’s short legacy, which consisted of tourists, T-shirts and ‘Block Ness cocktails”.

Some of the monsters listed here have a rather more distinguished pedigree than the Rhode Island Nessie. The ‘Tommyknockers’ which were a feature of Cornwall’s tin mines for centuries seem to have been introduced into Pennsylvania’s coalfields by an influx of Cornish miners in the 1820s, and then followed the Cornishmen across the continent during the great Californian Goldrush.

The book is an entertaining mixture of what might be called ‘authentic’ monsters with a heritage of reports and records; what seem to be quite sincere, but one-off sightings; and some stuff which could best be described as at least ‘dubious’. I’m talking about the six-foot tall cockroach in a California motel which our hero ‘Peggy’ confronted and fought off. “I kicked it’s ankles out from under it with my tennis shoes [Cockroaches have ankles?] then I kicked its face”. She concludes with the claim “You wouldn’t believe how loud these giant upright walking cockroaches scream.”

I certainly wouldn’t.

It didn’t take a lot of imagination for Vermont locals to name one of their state’s monsters ‘The Awful’, but it has the benefit of directness. A flying creature with a twenty-foot wingspan, a long serpent-like tail and huge claws, it first appeared in the Green Mountain State in 1900, and made frequent visits until fading out in the 1920s but not before attracting the attention of H P Lovecraft who added it to his collection of New England horrors - “The Awful became ample sustenance for my imagination”.

Of course, all the usual suspects are here as well, Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, Mothman, but this is not intended as a serious cryptozoological tome, it’s a fun collection of outrageous stories with suitably grotesque illustrations by Ty Derk. It would make an excellent Halloween gift and possibly a useful guide to nominations for an official state monster! – John Rimmer.


Count Otto Black said...

You do know, don't you, that the "Vermont Awful" has a history dating all the way back to the dim and distant bygone era of 2006? That was when it was mentioned in a Vermont local newspaper called the County Courier by one H. P. Albarelli Jr., who recounted the full story in two articles he wrote for the paper, including the H. P. Lovecraft quote, which nobody has yet managed to find anywhere in the published writings of HPL, which also fail to make any mention of his 1925 trip to Vermont.

This and other nagging discrepancies were going to be cleared up in a third article which mysteriously never appeared. Perhaps Mr. Abarelli was carried off by the Awful? If so, it also seems to have swiped the relevant letter from HPL's archives, along with every other record of its existence written by anyone prior to 2006 and not called H. P. Abarelli Jr., including all the sources Mr. Abarelli quotes in his articles, sadly without providing references.

But of course you Magonians have some prior experience with unidentified flying cryptids whose elaborate backstory proves to be mysteriously untraceable. Remember the Brentford Griffin? Oddly enough, the Vermont Awful is explicitly described as resembling a griffin. Curiouser and curiouser...

Now, a sceptic would conclude that Mr. Abarelli was following in the far-fetched footsteps of a certain Mr. Rankin, or in layman's terms, making it all up. But I'm sure you Magonians would prefer the equally logical and much more satisfying theory that the Brentford Griffin's failure to manifest itself in Brentford recently is clearly due to its having grown too large for the tiny islet of Brentford Ait on which it used to nest and returned to its native Vermont, where its parents or grandparents caused so much fuss and bother a century ago.

If everyone chips in a few quid, perhaps we could crowdfund Andrew Collins to go to Vermont in search of material for "The Brentford Griffin Flaps Again"? Ever since the Black Alchemist died he hasn't had any remotely interesting monsters to pit his wits against , and these days he's running a bit short of countries where they'll still let him poke around real archaeological sites pretending to be a real archaeologist, so I'm sure he'd jump at the chance to revisit an old friend from those balmy days of yore when he was still blesssed with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of callow youth, and hair.

Magonia said...

You may well think that, I could not possibly comment.