Thought-Provoking Lockdown Reads: ‘The Science Of Monsters’
This fascinating book is the kind I would usually prejudge and overlook; it would appear to be a patch-together job on a spurious and rather vague subject, but turns out to be surprisingly thoughtful. Kaplan is London-based science journalist looking at the monsters of legend with a serious eye. I was prepared for a rehash of origin stories for vampires and werewolves (only coupled together because of old 1930s Universal movies), but Kaplan begins with a research study that explains why feeling frightened is linked to a craving for spicy food, and continues to take a lateral approach through his other-worldly subjects, aligning them to human traits and emotions, and finding out how monsters came to be.
We create our own fears, of course, as author Maura McHugh and I discovered when our Campaign for Real Fear uncovered the modern-day monsters feared by a new generation, not the mythical tormentors of Roman and Greek myths or the lumbering beasts of the early 20th century which represented war and chaos, but the pernicious modern-day fears of being judged or rendered voiceless. The monsters now are internalised and slippery, hard to define.
Kaplan argues that the Chimera of Homer’s Iliad represents mankind’s struggle to envision the world. Finding that fossils with beaks and bony frills bore no resemblance to animals in the wild, they extrapolated blended beings from them as imagination met science.
The monsters are therefore divided into groups; those which were already here, those created by us, those born of religion belief, those drawn from the elements, those from beyond our ability to understand or even imagine. I particularly like the connection Kaplan draws between the concept of dragons, the pyramids and the dispelling of methane in ancient times. Inevitably the deep-rooted fear of women arises in the beliefs of men, who created sirens, witches, succubi, harpies and the ultimate fearsome female, the Medusa (for the best filmic depiction of mythical females watch Las Brujas de Zuggaramurdi). There’s a look at early descriptions of vampires in fiction, which mirror the condition of corpses. The dead were not always fully buried and often dug up, and a closer connection existed between the living and the dead.
As the lockdown has brought us images of wild boar, locust swarms and mutant pigs running loose in the streets, we fear the rewilding of the world and the loss of our hard-won civilisation. Gene-editing threatens of bring a tsunami of trophic cascades to those who fear that the borders of science are not being patrolled, and the ancient fear of artificial life re-emerges. Kaplan’s book of essays packs a lot into its brief length, but there’s a hefty source material list included for further exploration.