11 December 2011


W. Scott Poole. Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. Baylor University Press, 2011.

Brad Steiger. The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopaedia of Shape-Shifting Beings. Visible Ink (2nd Ed.) 2011.

'Monstrous' may be the gigantic, the different or the plain just strange, but whichever they represent the other, the things that are not like us. Historian W. Scott Poole traces the American obsession with the monsters and the monstrous other from colonial times to the contemporary obsession with zombies and vampires.
From these earliest times the stories of monsters emphasise the otherness of the new continent and among that perceived as monstrous were the monstrous humans, the First Americans and the African Americans. For much of America’s history, Poole argues, many of America’s monsters have been projections of white America’s racial fears. For example he notes the essential racist idea of ‘African ape’ King Kong threatening the virginal white woman, and the similarities between the cinematic portrayal of mobs ranging after Frankenstein’s monster and the real life lynch mobs of the period.

He provides numerous examples of demonization, sometimes literally so, of the racial other in 17th to early 20th century discourse. Featuring quite significantly of this motif in the realm of fiction was the writing of the notoriously racist horror story writer H. P. Lovecraft. Sometimes this monsterization of the racial other reached truly grotesque proportions, as when the African Ota Benga was put on display in a cage in the Bronx Zoo, alongside an orang-utan.

There are, of course, other monsters. Some, like the great sea serpent or the bones of mastodons, may be held perhaps to represent the scale and grandeur of the landscape, as well as the sense of the wildness beneath the calm surface of the world.

As the 20th century unfolded, a further range of fears became expressed by monsters: atomic fears, the sense of a dark underside to suburbia, urban America’s fears of its rural hinterland, the rise of feminism, reproduction, doubts about science and America’s cultural wars. Poole traces these themes through a detailed examination of horror literature, film and television. This is clearly the area of Poole’s expertise and this book can be recommended to students and the generally interested in literature and film.

A caveat has to be entered, which is that this material has a far wider appeal than to a specifically US audience, and therefore must address wider concerns, or be capable of being read in a variety of ways. For example in Britain much of the image of the monster has to do with class rather than race. One can look at the 19th and early 20th century fears of the Mob, and current concerns about the ‘underclass’ who are seen as feral creatures of an urban wilderness.

Poole’s coverage of folk belief is much less assured than that of the crafted narrative. The coverage of the UFO and alien abduction lore is particularly poor, which is a pity as much of this lore would greatly illustrate Poole’s theses. For example many of the abduction stories contain motifs that question the role of women, address fears about reproduction, and those of David Jacobs for example, contain many of the motifs of racial fears (the racial other passing as white, fears of miscegenation, racial sexual threats to women, dangerous hybrids (half-breeds), and the sense that no walls are strong enough to protect from the depredations of the racial other that prowls by night. -- Peter Rogerson

I have always associated Brad Steiger with eminently readable potboilers on topics such as UFOs, crypto-beasts, ancient astronauts and the like, so it is a bit of a surprise to see him editing a bulky encyclopedia. Although not as weighty as the two massive volumes on vampires which I reviewed a while ago, this is still a substantial 360 pages. 

The entries vary in length from short essays on broad topics such as lycanthropy as a medical condition, the incubus, and the appearance of werewolf-type figures in a range of folk traditions and mythologies.

A large part of the book is taken up with descriptions of reports of werewolves within historic times, and there is obviously a considerable overlap with cryptozoology in many of these cases. Cases such as the Monster of the Gebaudon contains elements which combine the characteristics of a ‘paws and pelt’ feral beast with those of a more ambiguous type of entity. Creatures such as the chupacabras also fit into this borderland between folklore, mythology and cryptozoology, along with tales of wolf-reared children and feral humans.

Most cultures seem to have legends and folktales of human/wolf hybrids, although these are usually creatures of terror, some seem to be symbolic of wisdom, which can be accessed through shamanic rituals and the use of psychoactive substances. Many of these beliefs seem to date back to a time when early man and wolf-packs were competing for food and territory. In his introduction Steiger notes suggestions that at times the relationship between man and wolf may have been symbiotic, with early humans learning how to hunt in organized groups and overcoming larger and more powerful prey by following the techniques of wolf-packs. A powerful shaman would be able to take on the strength, skills and power of the wolf.

Not all of these legends are confined to the remote parts of the world. Theo Paijman’s contribution records man-beasts, shape-shifters and other demonic creatures appearing well into the 20th century from The Netherlands, many coming from Friesland, perhaps the nearest that country gets to a remote and liminal area.

Many of the entries deal with film and literary interpretations of the werewolf legend, and I am not sufficiently aware of this field to comment on it. Other entries look at violent predatory criminals, such as Harry Gordon, ‘the werewolf of San Francisco’ who terrorized the city in the late 1930s, and Thierry Paulin, ‘The Terror of Montmartre’, although I think including Jack the Ripper in this is pretty marginal.

In the review above, Peter Rogerson suggests that our fears of monsters are representative of our fears of the unknown ‘other’ – those separated from us by race, class, culture or physical or mental characteristics. I think largely this is true, but I suspect that the werewolf represents the fear of ourselves, of our inner monsters, the wolf, the pack hunter, the irrational violent core that we fear may lie within us. In the entry in this encyclopedia on ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ the writer describes the work as “revealing the potential power of the beast within the human psyche…” This is the real nature of the werewolf.

The encyclopedia is a fascinating collection of articles, but I cannot help feeling that it would be better arranged in a less rigid format, and would have been better presented as a series of linked sections - the werewolf in film, in folklore, in literature, the psychology of lycanthropy, the criminal as werewolf, the supernatural werewolf, etc. The book has an very good index so would still be easy to use as a reference work.  -- John Rimmer.

No comments: