Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Book Review: On Monsters - An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears by Stephen T. Asma

What do you think of when you hear the word “monster”? Do you think of what could be lurking in the shadows or do you think of the latest murderer to pop up on the news? Are our fears governed by the unknown or the ever-present threat that a monster could be living next door? Where do our fears of monsters even come from?

Stephen T. Asma’s masterful and whimsical tome, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, seeks to answer these questions by giving a comprehensive account of all kinds of monsters and their changing roles in society. Asma takes on through different eras to show us how monsters were perceived and how humans tried to explain and rationalize them. He covers five different parts with his book, starting with ancient monsters (griffins, Cyclops, gorgons, etc.) to Biblical monsters (Behemoth, Gog and Magog, demons, etc.) to scientific monsters (where seemingly supernatural or abnormal “monsters” were explained and rationalized by science) to the more modern “inner” monsters and examining their psychological aspects to the final part of the book which examines monsters today and tomorrow (terrorists, technology, etc.).

Asma’s expansive book seeks to examine monsters from the past and present and exactly pin point how and why each era’s monsters so terrified its denizens. The book explores how monsters were handled and how some became incorporated into scientific rationality while some defied (and continue to defy) logic.

On Monsters is an amazingly insightful, educational and even humorous book and begins with detailing some of the oldest recorded writings on monsters. Asma presents all the facts, then postulates on whether ancient monsters were actually real or just embellished accounts of extraordinary animals. He continues to do this across each era he examines, presenting more and more monsters that have been written about through the centuries. On Monsters would be a fascinating read if it were merely a catalog of monsters, but Asma goes much, much further than cryptozoology and examines the philosophies of many different cultures when dealing with “monsters”. For example, Asma delves into the philosophies of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Darwin, Freud and many, many more to try and discern their views on the monstrous and how monsters fit into their world views.

Asma accompanies his cultural and philosophical studies of monsters with his many detailed drawings along with reprinted photographs and pictures from other texts. These add to an overall comprehension of the monsters and each era’s apprehension about them. It’s so great to be able to see interpretations as to how certain by-gone monsters looked (griffins, Cyclops, manticores, Behemoth, the dog-headed version of St. Christopher, sea monsters, etc.) as well as more misunderstood “monsters”, including people with medical conditions that were put into side shows (Fedor Jeftichew – the “dog-faced boy” and William Henry Johnson – “Zip the Pinhead”) and medical anomalies like the so-called “headless children”. Asma’s own drawings are extremely detailed and really look like sketches one might find in old scientific texts on supposed “monsters”.

On Monsters is an insightful and wondrous book packed to the gills with the history of monsters and how views on monsters have changed across time. Yet, each era will have its own examples of monsters and the monstrous can never be fully eradicated. Asma shows us that if we learn to live with our “monsters” our lives might be all the better for it.

Order it on Amazon!

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