[31 August 2011]
The monster is a monster because its too much, too big, has too many eyes. It breaks all boundaries and comes after you. It hides in caves hoarding piles of treasure. It swims in the deep, dark waters of the unconscious.
What does such a monster mean? As much as the monster frightens us, we also want to conceptualize it so it wont remain so terrifying. We want to get our minds around its many meanings, perhaps in hopes that it wont get its hands (or claws?) around our necks.
Maybe that’s why there has always been a desire, going back to scholarship in the medieval period, to systematize the monster, the marvel, and the just plain weird. And it didn’t end in the Middle Ages. The desire to catalog wonders continues apace. A glance at my own shelves finds that they are bulging with cryptopedias and monsterpedias, ecologies of the unknown. These range from Jonathan Maberry’s detailed and witty Cryptopedia to more ponderous tomes that read like collections of badly done Wikipedia entries, assembled quickly and just as quickly finding their way to the bargain section of chain bookstores.
Breverton’s Phantasmagoria is entering an already crowded market but its style, but it’s look and breadth still give it a place on your monster shelves, anyway. Breverton’s book is part medieval bestiary, part early American almanac, part victorian compendium. Although it presents itself as a kind of Baedekers of monsters, it also takes you to strange places, introduces you to bizarre historical characters, and even passes along a few of the stories an adept zoologist might use to wake up her drowsy undergraduates.
Divided into eight sections, the book covers everything from “Weird People” to “Flying Monsters” to “ Tales of Secret Treasures”. Employing typical encyclopedia entry style, the book also contains numerous line drawings that give the text a sort of an antique feel. It’s the ultimate “pick up and learn something new and strange” book, with the basic facts on vampires but also some behind the scenes anecdotes about how Michelangelo crafted “The David” in Renaissance Florence.
So it’s a lot of fun and certainly introduces you to a boatload of bizzariana. This is not to say its especially helpful beyond providing a general introduction to any of the topics it describes, though.
All of the strengths and limitations of the author’s approach and style can be seen in the brief entry on werewolves. It goes a bit beyond the simple recitation of all the available folklore that any monster fan knows about the shapeshifter. It places these beliefs in some historical context by describing how the legend of the werewolf came to be considered evidence of a satanic pact in the early modern period (although it suggests that this was a medieval phenomenon, which is not exactly acurate). The entry then completely ignores the important loup-garou trials in France, part of the general witchcraft panic that rattled Europe in the 16th century. It then fails to say anything at all about what an important figure in popular culture the werewolf has become.
So it’s not without its limitations. But it’s also not without its pleasures. Perhaps the most enjoyable and surprising part of the book deals with cryptozoology and well, simply zoology. This section includes discussion of everything from the Yeti to the Coelacanth, the so-called “living fossil fish”. The author often did a fair job of working in the stranger bypaths of natural history into his discussion while also, unfortunately, probably leaving many a reader confused about whether or not the Megaladon still exists and whether the manticore once lived on the earth like the wooly mammoth.
While prone to leaving many readers believing, and reciting, tales of the irrational, I still enjoyed this approach to monsters and marvels and mysterious places. The mash-up between natural history, history and the legendary gives it the feeling of one of those old collections of wonder tales, or maybe even reading Herodotus and Livy (both of whom get called in as expert witnesses now and again). This is an old, musty attic of a book, lots of secret treasure chests to open, old letters and diaries to rifle through. It mixes freely the trustworthy and untrustworthy. It’s a book that reminds you that the world is a strange place.
The major failing of this book, and indeed of most similar guides, is the complete lack of sources. Phantasmagoria contains a single reference page that literally features only seven sources. Four of these are books by Breverton himself plus about the same number of websites. This is unfortunate since so many readers will get caught up in the story of the 18th century occult master Count Cagliostro, or why Pliny and Isidore of Seville thought panthers were the sworn enemy of dragons or why the Venetian cartographer Albertinus De Virga had a shockingly accurate map of the African continent in the early 15th century. They’ll want to know where to go next.
Oh well, let the reader roll up her sleeves and do a bit of research on her own. Phantasmagoria delivers on its promises, indeed, it provides the reader with so many cerebral delights on every page that its going to satisfy many cravings for the weird.
Indeed, until Leonard Nimoy’s ‘70s series In Search Of… gets a much deserved release on DVD, this and similar guides will have to tide you over. I’d say more about the book, but I want to learn more about the Bean family, a clan of cannibals that terrorized Scotland in the 1400s, or perhaps why one Roman author believed that there was a bull in North Africa that infected its enemies with its foul breathe. Honestly, I can’t get enough of this stuff.