22 June 2013


Matt Kaplan. The Science of Monsters. Constable, 2012.

Books on monsters seem to be like the proverbial buses these days, coming in packs. In this book science writer and explorer Matt Kaplan gives a tour of a variety of monsters from the Minotaur to King Kong, from dragons to werewolves, from ghosts to aliens, from Leviathan to the Terminator.
The monsters come in various categories from huge versions of ordinary animals such as the Nemian lion to King Kong; the chimeras in which all sorts of animals get mixed up together; the beasts from the earth and the beasts of the waters; dragons; supernatural spooky beasts; undead beasts and things that bite; the monsters humans make including Frankenstein’s monster and HAL the mad computer; resurrected beasts such as dinosaurs; and the nasty or not so nasty aliens.

This is not some great sophisticated psycho-social study, and some of the explanations seem rather literalistic; I suspect that for example there is more to belief in chimeras than finding bones of lots of animals all mixed up together in ancient tar lakes, or to dragons than burning methane deposits. While these natural things may have had some input into the myths, other cultural forces are at play here, chimeras are monstrous because they mix up categories, and they are profoundly unnatural. The Leviathan is far more than a whale or a crocodile; it is symbol of total cosmic disorder.

Kaplan is perhaps on stronger ground with the linking of vampirism with outbreaks of rabies, on the other hand in the chapter on zombies he quotes the views of Wade Davis, on the use poisons to render people comatose and then resurrect them, though these have been subjected to fierce criticism. He is surely right though in arguing that extra-terrestrial life is not going to resemble earth life much at all.

Many of the traditional monsters represented ancient and fearful predators, which are terrible not only of themselves, but as manifestations of the implacable forces of wild nature. Today however our monsters are often portrayed as the result of human folly, greed and wickedness. Of course most of the monsters and their monstrous deeds seen on our TV screens are entirely human. -- Peter Rogerson.

1 comment:

Ross said...

Yes, "monsters" such as these are a charming diversion from the truly monstrous atrocities of homo politicus.