I’m not sure where I first came across On Monsters but I knew as soon as I had read the synopsis that I really wanted to get my hands on this and pestered the Book God on more than one occasion to get it for me, and bless him he came through at Christmas.

The book is a cultural history of monsters from the ancient world through the medieval period, dealing with the scientific view, the monsters of our innermost thoughts and ending with what we might think future monsters will look like.

It’s a scholarly work but very readable, though one to be savoured as there is so much to take in on each page. It has a number of fascinating illustrations, many of them drawings made by the author, of legendary monsters and medical samples and some examples of modern art which is really out there, where artists have modified their bodies (temporarily or otherwise) to create their art, or swallowed cameras to make sculpture out of the inside of their bodies. All this is about difference, which lets face it underpins a lot of our view of what a “monster” is – something other, strange, and therefore strange and frightening.

This is book full of the sort of facts that have you reading bits of the book out loud to anyone within earshot (well it does if you are me); some of these are totally fascinating, for example:

  • in the 1920s, paleontologists working in China were told of dragon bones scattered on the ground, which when investigated turned out to be the remains of late Cretaceous period dinosaurs; when they looked at the skeletons of the parrot-beaked Protoceratops it was clear how similar they were to descriptions of griffins;
  • many legends involving St Christopher state that he was a Cynocephalus, ie a dog-headed man and may images show him as such.

The existence of monsters could be a real issue for the medieval church, especially where witches and demons were involved; it was very easy to slip into heresy by claiming that they created monsters. Much better to make the argument that demons couldn’t create a new form of life but could alter the essence of something that already existed; monsters were therefore the production of chemistry rather than creation.

Over time as science took sway (and quite rightly so) our view of monsters changed as we came to understand how aberrations and anomalies can come about within different species. And once psychology gets involved then we start to see certain monsters as projections of our frustrations (a favourite theory of Freud, of course).

Asma is particularly interesting when looking at the cultural impact of monsters. He sets Frankenstein within the context of a period where monsters were seen not to be real but “terrible confusions”, though the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on France and elsewhere contributed to a Counter-Enlightenment position where there could be “too much reason”.

One of my favourite references is to the original version of The Thing (1951) where a dispassionate scientist, Dr Carrington, waxes lyrical about the beauty and  superiority of the alien being ( a position often taken by scientists in film and literature – we just don’t understand how magnificent these creatures are, you see); often the outcome is as Asma says “the alien responds to the admiration, of course, by bludgeoning the good doctor.” He also talks about one of my favourites, Blade Runner, and how we define what it means to be a “person”.

The main thing to take away from this wonderfully well written study is that monsters in one form of another are an archetype in every culture’s artwork, and will always be with us, whether a legendary beast, a serial killer or technology gone mad. Excellent stuff, highly recommended.

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